Music

Music Review: Trust – “Capitol”

“Capitol” by Trust

Jonathan May

Space plays a significant role in this dream-pop, synth-heavy song, presented by Canadian duo Trust from their sophomore album Joyland. We ebb into the main architecture of the song slowly; in the beginning, I had a very hard time understanding what phrase the singer repeated, but I don’t care. When we get around to part where the words become clearer is probably where they matter most: “Will I die? Will I die? Will I die?” sung out hauntingly over sequences of endless starry space. This refrain, coupled with the gorgeous counterpoint of synthesizer and ambient noise, produces a haunting and important moment not often heard in “new-wave” bands’ attempts to kill their creative fathers. Flow is important within this song, and its many transitions indicate a willingness to be ambitious and show maturity. The video definitely adds a layer of visual appeal as well, with a striking young woman actualizing somehow through communion with forms of herself, although the whole thing reminded me a bit of the film Cocoon. The singer, who also films well, darts frantically around his space microphone and space backdrop, almost afraid to deliver his utterances to the electronic tribe. I find the added visual element overall quite potent. Though we’re given some expected ideas regarding “mystical actualization” (triangles, space, emanating light), we’re brought back to reality in the end, wherein the young woman finally seems to have found an object worthy of her unending attention and gaze. It would help if one enjoyed this particular genre of work, yet I would like to imagine that even a casual listener would find something mysterious and lovely about the song to call her own.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com

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Song of the Summer? “Beware the Dog” by The Griswolds

“Beware the Dog” by The Griswolds

Jonathan May

Fresh, and I mean fresh, from Australia comes this fun and bold summer hit! Thank God! I was afraid the perfect track would elude me, but here, at summer’s end, we arrive at the perfect song of the summer. From their debut album Be Impressive, “Beware the Dog” examines how a person in a relationship can turn crazy in front of your eyes. Lyrically this is accomplished by a juxtaposition of harsh lyrics (“but now you’re fucking crazy, crazy, crazy”) with (self-admitted) Vampire Weekendish-sounding beats—all rhythm, percussion, and energy! The video dramatically turns kitsch into perfect counterpoint; with the introduction of a horror/werewolf motif, we’re given balance to the otherwise upbeat positivity the music would imply. This song is all about contrast: hard and soft, beachy yet realistic, rock but by way of pop. These elements all combine into an undeniable toe-tapping, ass-shaking, certifiable hit in my book. What gets me most about this song is its undeniable sense of fun. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, because it’s all about the consequences of change in a relationship. You can tell the writers of the song wanted something fun to give relief to some very Harry Nilsson feelings. Like Nilsson, the song takes what ostensibly was private (or created to appear so) and gives it away to the world, as if to say, “Who cares? Let’s have some laughs!” While this song certainly hits many of the points on this particular critic’s checklist, its broad appeal lies in the screamability of its refrain at parties and on the road, its percussive consistency, and its use of the word “fuck” as a winking eye or cheeky grin. With the warm sunny days coming to an end for the year, I’m relieved to declare “Beware the Dog” to be my 2014 song of the summer.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com

Song of the Summer? “I’m Not the Only One” by Sam Smith feat. A$AP Rocky

“I’m Not the Only One” by Sam Smith feat. A$AP Rocky

Jonathan May

I’ve avoided writing about Sam Smith for a while now, even in my review of “Latch” by Disclosure. I’ve avoided the topic because I was waiting for a song like this to come along and show off his ability to mix with so many disparate musical genres and figures, blending it all into a mélange of subtle vocal perfection. This love-song-gone-wrong starts off with A$AP Rocky laying down the first verse over some very church sounding piano, which certainly isn’t a complaint, given the beauty and ascendancy to which the song rises. And then Sam Smith enters, his voice ebbing out over the piano and background rhythms and holding; his is an instrument of true staying power. His melismatic ability is evident here without sounding produced, and it’s quite lovely to hear him achieve the vision he set out to with those notes. The song is a sad acknowledgment of love gone away or wrong; the heart commits sometimes to another, as is often the case. I’m reading Madame Bovary for the first time, and this song hearkens to me the idea of her poor, sad husband. This is a quiet, but strong, anthem for people who have been given love and then its cold shoulder. I was surprised by the softness of A$AP Rocky here, which I attribute to Smith’s musical sensibilities overall. His masculinity sounds refined in this track, and Smith, by virtue of including him, also gives himself a bit more of that roguish edge in lovely, sustained lines. This is a song that reminds me of morning, of getting up and facing truths; best heard with some coffee, probably.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com

Song of the Summer? Nicki Minaj – “Anaconda”

“Anaconda” by Nicki Minaj

Jonathan May

As so succinctly summarized by Ms. Minaj at the end of “Anaconda”—“I got a big fat ass.” Indeed, without her ass as an answer to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s ubiquitous hit, the song would be nothing more than an ode to asses. But Nicki Minaj here sets out to reinvent the ass, so to speak. We come to her on her terms, willingly complicit in the gaze she’s created. I am by no means claiming this song as a feminist manifesto of any sorts, but rather a clumsy cut up of what has preceded it. Using every available cliché at its aid, the song makes no apology for its origins or its subject matter. Though I rarely hear the song on the radio, since it appeared on YouTube last week, it’s acquired over 100 million hits. This speaks more than anything to the fact that the song fails to stand alone as an aural hit; it needs the video to actualize as the message she intends. Without her colorful, expected visual motifs of fruit and fetishistic outfits, the song (as music) is literally all over the place. There’s lots of direct quotation from “Baby Got Back,” mismatched verse structures, talking, braggadocia in various forms. But what is said, beyond the mere fatness of her ass? Call me a curmudgeon, but shouldn’t there somehow be more to a “hit” than this? I can barely listen to the vaguely wandering five minutes without looking to the progress bar at the bottom of the screen every twenty seconds or so. There are so many things this song could have been, but there’s no point in eulogizing over modal realities. “Anaconda” insults its audience by being so lazy; the song, even possibly meant as an ironic statement on plasticity in pop, definitely doesn’t stand up to attempts to parse its coarseness. Put it back in the oven; remove in another ten years.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com

Song of the Summer? Rae Sremmurd – “No Flex Zone”

“No Flex Zone” by Rae Sremmurd

Jonathan May

One of the summer’s more fun rap constructions appeared this June with a video released earlier this month. Sung by two brothers who hail from Tupelo and live in Atlanta, this song has all of the bravado and gloating of boastful youth coupled with imaginative visual rendering and a simple beat that won’t leave your head; even the duo’s name reconfigured (Ear Drummers) lets you know they’re down with wordplay, though they work within an inherited narrative structured well before their spin on the scene. The song centers on everything young rappers consistently brag about—drugs, sex, a party lifestyle, smoking weed—but manages to be insouciant in its naïveté, like a bumptious puppy parading around its new bone. I would compare this, easily, to anything Miley Cyrus has done recently, in terms of overall concern and mood. The childish background melody reminds me of a music-box, while the vocal overlays scratch into it, adding some needed tension; the duo was not afraid to leave their voices scratchy and pubescent, possibly to further add a level of realism to their enterprise. Visually, the video does a great job of turning rap clichés on their heads, the main example being the literal laser-like “No Flex” zone that floats, a la Tron, around them as they sing and drive. Also, small touches like the gold vampire grill were a nice touch. Overall, the song carries with it all the joys of privileged youth, and who wants to rain on such a weird and fanciful, but somehow unique parade? Certainly not me. I’ll be turning up the dial as this summer approaches its end.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com

Song of the Summer? Meghan Trainor – “All About That Bass”

“All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor

Jonathan May

Attempts at social consciousness aside, “All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor ultimately fails as a continuation of the female, vocal-centered pop tradition. Its cardinal sin is that of being boring in a genre that demands newness within strict boundaries and digestible parameters. What the listener instead is subjected to over the course of the unending three minutes and ten seconds is nothing more than a grotesque and laden pastiche of female pop vocalists from the 1950s and 60s. Go ahead and call me Killjoy; upon first listen, the song has everything you might want from it, given the first verse and lead-in to the chorus: punchy vocals, a “message” of sorts, nods to 50s and 60s swing pop, and a classic, predictable beat structure. But every subsequent listen goaded me further into believing that the song, lyrically, merely trades one set of priorities and objectifications for another, still reveling in a world of the vain concern for one’s looks as the metaphor by which to find/reclaim self-assurance and gratification. As always, the woman is posited only in relationship to how she’s perceived by others, specifically men; her body is always on display and needs to be explained to the outside world. The video only further entrenches us in a plastic, heteronormative world, with modest knee-length, go-go style dresses in all manner of pastels, pink walls, sweater vests, and girls playing with dolls. If the video subjugated these clichés instead of merely presenting them for their cartoonish visual aesthetics, perhaps it might imbue the song with some ironic winking eye. Instead paraded before us is a facile Old Navy commercial “celebrating” curvature. By all means, I don’t believe all songs must be completely self-aware, but for a song to take such a bold claim and hard line through its lyrics means that it wants to be taken, perhaps, for more than just another pop construction. In a larger sense, the song could easily, by removing just a few lines, parody the church of the body which we all attend or at least not be Janus-faced in its own logic about women. Though it’s catchy the first time or two, this track is certainly not the summer jam for which I, or anyone else, is looking; one would think a celebration song would somehow feel more fun for everyone.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com

Song of the Summer? Jamie xx’s “All Under One Roof Raving”

“All Under One Roof Raving” by Jamie xx

Jonathan May

This summer has chosen dance as its musical medium, given the ubiquity of dance tracks and structures. I was fortunate enough to see The xx play at the New Daisy Theater in downtown Memphis earlier this year, and man, what a rush of beauty and polyphony! Of the two bandmates, Jamie xx works more independently than his cohort. Spinning at clubs and events all over the world appears to imbue his solo music with worldly energy, perhaps drawing from travels during their tour. Whatever the case, this track (put out June 2014) captures not only the evolution of The xx’s sound toward the steel drum and fluid dance movements, but also manages to incorporate samples in a natural and progressive manner. The song is essentially a love paean to the UK’s multistoried dance history and club scene; Jamie keeps it his own by leaving moments of “silence” throughout, allowing the ever-present steel drum to serve as the cool, collected backdrop to the additional layered beats and sound bites. “We were under one roof raving, laughing and joking” stands out as the eponymous line and also serves to bring a gestalt to the theme of the song: that music can make a community. Certainly the song evokes a Caribbean beach of the mind, underscoring the UK’s continual evolution in music as influenced by its broad Commonwealth reach, and by doing so, it allows us to appreciate the larger issues of transcendence the song itself describes. By pulling audio clips from club/scene kids and others, we get two kinds of primary exuberance: that of the firsthand account, and that of own our enjoyment (positing of course you enjoy quieter dance music with steel drums). This is definitely a track I’d like to hear quietly on the beach at night, with cold tequila in a glass.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com

Song of the Summer? Caribou’s “Can’t Do Without You”

“Can’t Do Without You” by Caribou 

Jonathan May

My quest for the perfect summer song has taken me through many genres. This track, by Canadian recording artist Caribou (the moniker of Dan Snaith), probably best fits in the dance genre, although it’s much quieter than any traditional dance floor track. The full album Our Love will be out this October; the artist released this song online in June of this year.

I was initially taken aback by the song’s simplicity. Though it adds layers and volume as it progresses, the track centers on the simple lyrics “I can’t do without you,” which captures a quiet emotional center around which the song revolves. The powerful statement “I can’t do without you” obviously holds two meanings: one, that the speaker can’t survive without the addressee, and two, that the speaker can’t perform in any sense of the infinitive without the addressee.

The song’s musicality is ultimately a result of the piling on of various layered dance elements, but the slow build with which they’re constructed really captures a summertime mood. What begins as a quiet emotional statement takes on synthesized development and percussive strength as it swells; ultimately the song’s various elements accrete into something that verges on the electronic-epiphanic before fading into silence. I appreciate the song’s singular focus and its formulaic progression because they give familiarity to a feeling that can often be ambiguous. Whether the listener empathizes or not, the song still makes a beautiful statement, perfect for a summer afternoon with someone dear.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com

Song of the Summer? Disclosure – Latch

Jonathan May

Disclosure – “Latch”
PMR Records

On my quest for the perfect summer song, I seem to have stumbled back in time, or so my radio would have me believe. Though the song came out from British dance-pop band Disclosure in 2012, it didn’t really quite make the charts on our side of the pond until it was used in So You Think You Can Dance during a routine, after which point it sky-rocketed into hourly rotation on the pop stations. The song itself is incredibly simple, built on a tale of enrapture within desire. The accompanying video reinforces the lyrical motifs by drawing pairs of lovers into constructed tableaux of lights, water, and ample second-base. We’re given two straight and one lesbian pairs, which added at least some shade of variety. However, the variety ends there.

The song has all the potential for a summer hit. It’s dance-y, easy to sing the chorus, and has a hip, sexy video. So why am I on the fence? We’re given nothing outside a world of pure desire. I understand the song has a particular focus (most do), but the exact representation of the subject matter displayed so matter-of-factly within the video eliminated the possibility of any tension. It’s definitely more of a radio song than an “experience” in any way, which is 100% fine with me. I expect little of pop music these days, and this song certainly holds more aural pull than most. The chorus (“Now I’ve got you in my space/I won’t let go of you/Got you shackled in my embrace/I’m latching on to you”) at least has some erotic edge even. Given the general ennui assigned BDSM these days (due to 50 Shades and the like), it’s nice that at least musically we are given something restrained (no pun intended) and simple that’s not vulgar. While this doesn’t reinvent the love song, the song deserves some volume this summer on a slinky night.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com

Song of the Summer? Tove Lo’s Stay High (Habits Remix)

Tove_Lo_Habits

Jonathan May

Tove Lo – “Stay High (Habits Remix)”
Universal

In my quest to find the ultimate 2014 summer song, I’d finally hit rock bottom, breaking down and asking my high school students for the answers. They found this curious displacement of roles hilarious, further cementing that though I’m “the cool teacher,” this doesn’t save me from being hopelessly out of touch. Their pitiable glances produced a somber list of just three songs. I’d already reviewed “Fancy” by Iggy Azalea. And after rejecting the horror that is the band 5 Seconds of Summer, I launched into the final song on the list: “Stay High” by Tove Lo. I was touched the tragic fragility of the song and video, and I believe they work seamlessly as expressions of one another, twined around the main idea: that people escape, through almost any means necessary, the pain of a broken heart. The video chooses mainly alcohol as the visual metaphor to approximate the lyrical content; of course, any substance could have stood in here. The camera follows, closely and in front, the gorgeous young Swede as a stand-in for any loveburnt soul; combined with lyrics like “can’t go home alone again/need someone to numb the pain” and “try all the time/to keep you off my mind,” an obsessive quality takes hold. The video makes use of time distortion to accentuate the endless feeling that being heartbroken gives, the cycles of destructive routine that appear to give order. While the lyrics aren’t terribly complex, they achieve the stark beauty of truth, and that is their strength. The sonic makeup of the song isn’t incredibly varied either, yet its insistence on returning to the same loops and beats hearkens to the thematic idea that we circle obsessively around our own idea of love. And sometimes it becomes impossible to escape. While this song isn’t one to jam at the poolside, its hypnotic qualities lend it that summer-night dance feel, something to slink to as the humid night draws dark over the moon.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com