Saturday, May 29, 2010

"Funkytown" by Lipps, Inc. (1980)

“Funkytown” proves something very rarely considered but widely accepted: that a strong composition absolutely transcends genre and era. “Funkytown” is one of those very rare things in music: a universal. What I mean by that is that, technically, it's a late-era disco/pop cross-over, and technically it is from that grey area between the 70s and the 80s (chronologically, I mean: though sonically that's appropriate too), having been released in January 0f 1980. But none of that matters: I have a feeling that if you played it in the roughest C&W honky-tonk bar, somehow it would be accepted and loved. Why? Well, one thing about the song is how completely unassuming it is: not a drop of attitude or bad vibes. It's just a simple, breezy pop song with no agenda whatsoever. So no reason to dislike it, right? More importantly though: it's just a well-crafted song, packed with incident. It has that timeless keyboard riff, it has those guitars in the chorus. It had a chorus, and verses, and linking bits, and it progresses from one part to another with an indisputable logic. It was catchy and it was fun. It wasn't wildly funky, but it had a touch of the funk – enough to justify the title anyway. Still, it made people feel funky while listening to it, and it's one of those songs that lets people dance as badly, and un-self-consciously, as they want: without delving too heavily into cliché, it does take people to... well, to a place where music is fun and you can enjoy it without pretense.

It fit, decades later, into the sountrack of a cartoon, Shrek 2, with absolutely no difficulty whatsoever. With nothing changed or updated, it was suddenly a 21st century kids' song. And why not? All things to all people, there is nothing “Funkytown” can't be, no shape of a hole this square peg won't fit effortlessly into.

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

"Crazy in Love" by Beyoncé feat. Jay-Z (2003)

Jay-Z and Beyoncé actually made two back-to-back wonderful songs at the time: I have a soft spot for “'03 Bonnie and Clyde”, but the sad fact is that it consists of a 2Pac song whose lyrics the duo clearly didn't understand and a Prince song whose lyrics they clearly didn't understand. It's like they Googled 'girlfriend' and made a track out of the songs that showed up. But it's a hip-hop song built around an acoustic guitar riff, and how cool is that?

No acoustic guitars in this song, mind you: none of that soft-focus hippie stuff at all. If pop is meant to be bold and brassy, than this is a pop masterpiece. Scientists need to be studying this song, in order to discover the effortless way that the energy Beyoncé and the production team bring to it gets transferred, across radio waves and speaker wires, to the listener. As methods of energy distribution go, it's way more effective than a world of pipelines or power cables. I think this song could wake people from comas and put wheelchair-bound grandmas on the dancefloor. Not only is it infectious, but it's actually generous with its energy and sunny positivity, as if Beyoncé were strutting down the street in the middle of a parade, throwing armfuls of energy at the passers-by. There is no darkness here, no moodiness or aggression: it's just a celebration of love, of happiness and of positivity.

And it does so with one of the weirdest backing tracks I could imagine: an over-the-top horn sample looped into infinity, a cowbell-heavy rhythm loop that sounds like it's come from some island dance party. I think one of the main ways that the music – or at least the pop music – of the past decade will be remembered is through its willingness to create songs, and insanely catchy songs, out of the weirdest combinations of musical detritus. It's music designed for people who load their iPods with all manner of different kinds of songs and then listen to them on 'shuffle' mode. This is what pop music is today: an iPod on shuffle mode, condensed into a single song. Which is what makes it so great, and why for me the first decade of the 21st century is one in which the songs that were the most popular very frequently also happened to be the ones that were the best.

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Saturday, May 15, 2010

"Thank You for Talking to Me, Africa" by Sly and the Family Stone (1971)

What is funk? I think it's one of those things that aren't really easily defined, but when you encounter it, you know it. Obviously, James Brown holds the patent. Even if funk wasn't entirely a one-man creation, certainly he's the touchstone from which all funk derives. His journey from soul man to funk viruoso in the late sixties and early seventies is an inspiring and awesome one.

But I think you could argue that it's not actually the most illustrative journey into funk. For that, one needs to turn to Sylvester Stewart. Stewart, who rechristened himself Sly Stone, was a music insider in San Francisco, working behind the scenes, before launching his own career. It's interesting to think that such a charismatic frontman originally kept himself out of the limelight. It's seen as revelatory that his band, the Family Stone, was mixed-race. I'm not so sure that it is, really. After all, you can't hear skin colour on a CD, and I don't even know – or care to know – whether it was the drummer or the keyboardist who was white. You know, whatever. What does matter, at least for the early years of the Family Stone, was the way their music arguably fused what was popular in 'white music' and what was popular in 'black music' – in the 60s, they weren't very distinct things either, with all kinds of cross-pollination, but Sly and the Family Stone played just as readily on 'R&B' stations as on 'rock' stations.

More importantly, they were jubilant. Ecstatic. Happy, carefree music: righteous, yes, but righteous in an idealistic way. Positivity, in music and in message.

Things got a bit different with 'Thank You (Falletinme be Mice Elf Agin)', the unfortunately retardedly-titled song that forms the linchpin between 'early' Sly and 'late' Sly. It's somehow upbeat and downbeat at the same time. It's somewhere between the sunny-optimism of the hippie-era sixties and the more strident realism of the more radical early seventies. And, just as importantly, it's still sixties pop, but it's becomeing a deeper and deeper funk: just listen to that bass. That's funk. That's where James Brown lives.


After that single, Sly and the Family Stone apparently fell intol a drug-induced haze that made it tough as nails to actually get an album released. It took a few years – which was a few lifetimes back then – for them to produce There's a Riot Goin' On, with its iconic, red-white-and-black American flag cover. The fifty stars have been replaced by suns, but there's nothing sunny here. This is deep, dark stuff. To say it's drug-induced is missing the point: of course it's drug-induced. So was everything they did in the sixties. Just different drugs. Or, perhaps, different reactions.

This album takes funk into, arguably, a deeper and darker place than James Brown ever went. And the highlight, the centrepiece, is a rerecorded version of that very single. This time, it's seven minutes long, slow, narcotic, messy, but undeniably funky as hell. Whatever Sly and the Family Stone were on, it wasn't peace-and-love pills. But that doesn't make this music depressing: it's not. What it is is intoxicating, addictive... the bass played by Larry Graham is so effortlessly funky that it's stunning. He's not doing much here, but whatever 'funk' is, he's exuding it with every slap of a bass string. Everything else is merely wrapped around that amazing bass, and it's all as sloppy as possible: it's still a communal sing-along, but no one is listening to each other really. The guitars are not exactly chicken-sctratch, but they are abrasive: not musical at all, really. And all over the place...

How does this song work? With its messy and depressing constituent parts that barely cohere, how can the result be so affirming, so exciting and so thrilling? Well, whatever funk is, I suppose it is at its core truly a mystery. Or a form of magic, maybe.

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Saturday, May 8, 2010

"Präludium" by Jay (1997)

You know, it may be true that there are a certain number of songs whose praise is universal enough to be considered 'objectively' great songs. I'll never go wrong, or find people who disagree with me, if I fill his blog with the likes of 'Strawberry Fields Forever' or 'That's All Right Mama'. And they have their place here too, but ultimately this is my list, and the only criterion that matters is whether or not I like it. So that can lead to songs as obscure as this one.

I don't really know anything about this. It comes from a Def Jam release, so it's not exactly an obscure indie thing. The album also includes LL Cool J and Warren G on it, so again... seemingly high profile. But try finding anyone who's ever heard of it.

It's called The Rapsody Overture, and the terrible pun of the title comes from the fact that it's a various artists record of hip-hop / classical crossover stuff. Potentially horrible stuff, and a good amount of the songs on it are pretty bad. This one, however, is something the others aren't. Or rather, it isn't something the others are: overblown and ostentatious. Most of the other rappers on the collection seem to have felt that 'opera', or 'classical music' more generally, meant an exotic and wailing variation on the 'female voice to sing the chorus' cliché, with cheesy synthesised approximations of the musical score as background music. And then business as usual rapping over the top.

It's by Jay, and I have no idea who that is... it's not Jay-Z, who got his start at tround this time, but I have no information at all on him, and he's afforded two tracks back-to-back on this collection. Anyway, Jay takes Bach's Präludium #1 in C major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, the piece that would later become Ave Maria, as his starting point. It's not a symphonic piece, and it's not an opera piece. It's a two-minute long composition for piano (there also feature strings, probably synthesised, that may or may not appear in Bach's original; anyway they're understated). Beautiful, yes, but more importantly: simple. Understated, in fact. Jay takes this two-minute piano piece and, amazingly, resists the urge to pile stuff on top. A simple beat, slow, and his rapping. The track peters out as Bach does, and that in itself is remarkable: who's ever heard of a two-minute rap song?

Jay finds a kind of pathos in Bach's piece. He tells it as a story of two childhood friends who have fallen on wrong sides of gang warfare, and the narrator is tipping off his former friend, as a final favour, that he's 'getting touched'. Bach gives this tale a mournful, wistful finality. There's no anger, no resentment, no aggression. Not even regret: just a quiet, resigned tip-off and goodbye, in the same breath. Bach's piece has a beautiful ending, and Jay's song ends the same way, with a simple melodic turn and a satisfying resolution of the song's principal chord: a tiny ray of sunshine, perhaps, but a bittersweet one. The illusion of happiness, or peace, perhaps. Truth be told, there's none here. The best possible solution is that the childhood friend disappears, never to be seen again.

Gang culture is so mythologised partly because it is brutal barbarism dressed up in the must cultured of clothing. There's a reason gang life associates itself with the arts, with high culture, and there's a reason we find ourselves attracted to the accompanying dichotomy. In avoiding histrionics and going for simple, naked grace, Jay alone on this Def Jam vanity project understands.

A note: I found, a few weeks ago, much to my pleasure, that someone had uploaded this song onto YouTube. It racked up barely more than 1000 views. Now, YouTube is swimming with copyright violations. Huge uploads with millions of views use popular mainstream songs without permission, and get away with it. Here, this barely-viewed upload of an obscure song that is almost certainly out of print anyway... It's the one that gets yanked for copyright issues. Sigh. I have no idea why. But as I've already composed this entry, it'll go ahead. In its place, I present "Ach So Fromm", the other Jay contribution to the soundtrack. And my disappointment at UMG's pointless behaviour.

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Saturday, May 1, 2010

"Everyday" by Buddy Holly (1957)

There is a list waiting to be made of history's best-ever b-sides. While 95% of all singles have filler on the b-side, there is the odd case where a great a-side is accompanied by a great b-side, or where the b-side is actually better than the a-side. Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue" is justifiably famous and iconic, being a simple enough vehicle for Holly's hiccupping overlaid with some of the most amazingly propulsive percussion on a rock-and-roll song and a creative guitar solo. But flip it over, and you get this.

What is this? Well, it's a lullaby, a fragment of a dream. Such a simple and elegant song that it feels like it would shatter to a million pieces if you dropped it. Wistful and filled with memories of a time long gone, but in this case not an artificial-sepia forced recollection of sock hops and ice cream parlours but something more genuine: a simpler time, the innocence of childhood. Or maybe that's just my memories of the movie Stand by Me talking.

There's an acoustic guitar and an upright bass here. But what really matters are the other two musical ingredients: that heavenly celesta, that confidently carries the entire song, building its etherealness on, contradictorily, a steady foundation. It's not the most versatile of instruments, but here it gives the song all the qualities I cherish it for: its dream-state, its gentleness. The 'percussion' is apparently Buddy Holly's drummer slapping his legs. Not artful, certainly, but it suits the song just fine: a heartbeat, a pulse. It keeps the rhythm and does nothing else.

Buddy Holly's lyrics are certainly not very profound. Simple love stuff, witnh a reference to a roller coaster. But his vocal performance is beautiful, entirely fitting the mood, hiccups and all, and carrying a melody that makes perfect sense, flowing with a very particular logic that still doesn't diminish the album's dream-state. A tiny little moment of peace and quiet, one to cherish in the privacy of your own solitude.

(Note: it does bug me that the title of this song proves people have been confusing 'everyday' and 'every day' for half a century now...)

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