The Riff - August 2007

Top Ten Stuff 'n' Things - 8/13/07

| Tue Aug. 14, 2007 12:07 AM EDT

This week, lilting Europop seems to be the theme, sort of. Northern climes represented include the lovely Sweden and the dashing Denmark! But there's other stuff here too: mopey indie rock, ribald hip-hop, and zoomy techno. Come to think of it you can probably just read last week's.

mojo-photo-guzman.JPG10. Isabel Guzman – "When You Were My Friend"
(listen on her MySpace page)
The first of two Swedish women with snazzy hairdos on the Top Ten this week, Guzman is the up-and-comer, and her voice has a deep, almost guttural quality; mostly, though, this song is about the flawless dance-pop production. Like the best of Madonna, it manages to grab all the latest, coolest effects from electronic music and put them to good use.

mojo-cover-brunettes.JPG9. The Brunettes – "Small Town Crew" (from Structure & Cosmetics on Sub Pop) (mp3 via the Sub Pop site)
This New Zealand duo have been described as "twee," but it seems to apply only in the best possible sense: delicate, sparkling acoustic pop, with the barest waftings of melancholy. But then the lyrics take a darker twist ("if only I could have you here/I'd love to smack you around the room") and the instrumentation fills out, giving the song a cinematic feel.

mojo-cover-juniorsenior.JPG8. Junior Senior – "Can I Get Get Get" (from Hey Hey My My Yo Yo, out 8/14 on EMI)
(mp3 via You Ain't No Picasso)
While the exuberance of 2003's "Don't Stop" may have settled down a bit, the infectious Jackson 5-style grooves are still in effect. The rhymes are a little silly… and I just had the realization that Junior Senior might be the Flight of the Conchords of Denmark, which actually makes me like them a little more.

mojo-cover-newyoungponyclub.JPG7. New Young Pony Club – "The Get Go" (from Fantastic Playroom on Modular)
(grab an mp3 at Cause=Time)
I have to admit, I wrote this London combo off after getting sick of their omnipresent first single, "Ice Cream" (seen any Intel commercials lately?) but it turns out they have a lot more to offer, and a much deeper understanding of post-punk possibilities. This song features a Joy Division-reminscent bassline, but a more mellow, straightforward dance beat—unlike fellow Brits Klaxons or Bloc Party, NYPC aren't afraid to groove.

mojo-photo-50cent.jpg6. 50 Cent w/ Justin Timberlake – "AYO Technology" (from Curtis, out 9/11 on Interscope) (buy it at iTunes)
So much trouble! First there's all the delays with the album release date, and 50's, um, anger management issues . This single was originally so explicit that the label refused to release it, and it's still pretty, um, ribald, but whatever: Timbaland outdoes himself on production once again. While a syrupy-slow beat counts time, what sounds like an old Nintendo jacked up on too much juice goes mental with blippy hyperspeed arpeggios. Have I asked for Timbo to get a MacArthur genius grant yet? Well, I assume he doesn't need it.

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Baghdad Beautifies Its Blast Walls

| Mon Aug. 13, 2007 10:38 PM EDT
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Dozens of Iraqi artists have been painting murals along miles of concrete blast walls throughout Baghdad. The artwork is an attempt to beautify 12-foot high structures designed to protect buildings from truck bombs and insurgent attacks. The walls have also been the source of intense debate because they divide the city into Sunni and Shiite areas.

Parts of the walls are now adorned with artistic renderings of kings, queens, warriors, ancient writings, and other references to ancient Mesopotamian civilization.

Financed by the American military, Iraq's Ministry of Works and Social Affairs, and aid organizations, artists are making about $15 a day for their work. They named themselves "Jamaat al-Jidaar," which means "The Wall Group."

Avenues for creative expression are difficult to come by for Iraqi artists. Some have resorted to painting renditions of wedding and baby photos of American troops, or have simply fled the country. For the artists still there, the blast walls are a chance at steady income and the opportunity to create art on structures that, once demolished, will be cause for celebration.

New Jose Gonzalez Video Inspired By Jim Woodring

| Mon Aug. 13, 2007 7:18 PM EDT

I posted a link to a new Jose González track last Monday at the top of my Top Ten, and now a video is making the internet rounds for another new song, "Down the Line."

The video, directed by Andreas Nillson, is apparently part of this "sins" theme González has described as providing fodder for the upcoming album, In Our Nature, and Nillson's video makes the connection sort of explicit. In it, a pig-man creation does a lot of (mostly) humdrum things; I guess we're all pigs, is the point? The porcine fellow was, it turns out, inspired by Manhog, a far more compelling comic creation of Seattle artist Jim Woodring.

mojo-photo-manhog.JPGWoodring's work hurts my head, but I can't look away. While Manhog's unlucky adventures in his surreal world are noteworthy, he's not even the most affecting aspect of these stories, of which the word "comics" seems unworthy. Souls become visible, toaster-shaped pets save your life, and the universe is a terrifying, beautiful riot of life and color, all seen through the innocent eyes of Frank, a Sylvester-like cat seemingly brought in from some other comic strip. The wordless panels are often funny, but more often deeply disturbing, so I hesitate to recommend them without a caveat—maybe have a close friend nearby the first time you open one of his books?

Check out Woodring's blog here, and don't say I didn't warn you.

Public Enemy Want You to Sell Their New Album

| Mon Aug. 13, 2007 3:25 PM EDT

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Seminal hip-hop group Public Enemy will make their new, unfortunately-titled album, How You Sell Soul To A Soulless People Who Have Sold Their Soul, available, um, for sale, on personal home pages and profiles, as well as independent online stores. No word on whether those sites will themselves be soulless. CMJ reports the band will utilize online "music broker" Musicane, which apparently lets fans participate in distributing digital material, receiving a commission for their trouble. A quick perusal of the Musicane website shows material by Jason Mraz and Henry Rollins; the latter, for instance, offers a six-part spoken word album, "Eric the Pilot," for $4.99, and the opportunity to "resell this product and make 10%."

Public Enemy's new album has received mixed reviews at best; remember, all their ground-breaking work came between 1987 and 1991, a brief but overwhelmingly intense blast of brilliance and creativity that seemed both inextricably linked to its historical moment and too good to last. By their 1994 album, Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age, they'd already ceased to be relevant, musically or politically. But how hilarious was the Comedy Central roast of Flavor Flav this weekend? I love roasts.

First Listen: Pinback - Autumn of the Seraphs

| Fri Aug. 10, 2007 8:23 PM EDT

mojo-cover-pinback.jpgAnticipation is high for the first new material from San Diego's Pinback since 2004's Summer In Abadon made them critical darlings. That album's single, "Fortress," combined delicately strummed guitar and barely-enunciated lyrics with an insistent drum machine to create an unlikely radio hit, such as it was. Their new album moves forward a season but retains the quiet intensity: "Good to Sea" uses the same casio drum machine beat as "Fortress," adding a simple keyboard melody, and the song's melancholy sneaks up on you, until they sing, quietly, "Oh no/I've hit rock bottom."

Pinback were known for slightly denser work on their first two albums, 1999's Pinback and 2001's Blue Screen Life, but got a little more polished and streamlined on Abadon. On Seraphs, they seem to slightly relax the insistence on catchiness that made Abadon a surprise hit, allowing more complex arrangements to sneak into tracks like "Blue Harvest:" syncopated drumming, surprising chord changes, layered vocals. But don't get me wrong: it's still catchy.

Even when Pinback speed it up, as on album opener "From Nothing to Nowhere," they're still reserved; this restraint is one of Pinback's greatest assets. Maybe it has something to do with multi-instrumentalist Rob Crow getting out his volume-knob jollies in joke-metal side project Goblin C***? Unlike, er, G.C., Seraphs wouldn't scare anybody at your nice dinner party, but I think it'll also reward closer attention.

Autumn of the Seraphs is out 9/11 on Touch & Go. Grab an mp3 from the Pinback website:

- Pinback – "From Nothing to Nowhere"

Universal Leads the Charge Against iTunes

| Fri Aug. 10, 2007 3:39 PM EDT

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One month ago, Universal Music made headlines when the company refused to renew a long-term contract with Apple's iTunes, instead deciding to sell its music there (by artists including U2, 50 Cent and Black Eyed Peas) on an "at-will" basis. Part of the disagreement was Apple's desire to shift away from D.R.M.-encoded music on its "iTunes Plus" service; Universal had insisted on retaining the copy-protection standard. Now the company will pull an about-face, offering D.R.M.-free music—just not with iTunes. Take that, Mr. Jobs. The New York Times says Universal will work with digital services offered by RealNetworks, Amazon and Wal-Mart, plus artists' websites.

EMI is the only major label to offer higher bit-rate, D.R.M.-free music on iTunes, with songs costing $1.29 each instead of 99 cents.

Universal's decision to screw around with its artists' music, forcing consumers to jump through even more hoops and search through various digital stores just to actually spend money on their favorite songs, is expected to solve music-piracy problems immediately, since there's no way a simple file-sharing program could compete with the fun of that.

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Fascinating Friday Music News

| Fri Aug. 10, 2007 12:57 PM EDT

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  • The Cure's 14th studio album (a double disc of 33 songs) delayed again after band leader Robert Smith admits he's having trouble "writing lyrics." How about something about grey cats, spiders, hanging gardens? The album is now set to come out in May of 2008, fully two years after its initial release date. (Contact Music)

  • Amy Winehouse enters hospital for "exhaustion"; reports suggest she suffered a drug overdose, but is still saying "no" to rehab. (NME)
  • Winning the UK Observer's "Best Cover Versions Ever" poll: Kate Bush? (Observer Music Monthly)
  • The Beastie Boys played Brooklyn last night... for the first time ever? Finally, they can, er, catch up on their sleep. (Brooklyn Vegan)
  • Daft Punk: Behind the Pyramid

    | Thu Aug. 9, 2007 7:47 PM EDT

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    Opening DJ Busy P has been keeping a blog at The Fader as he accompanies Daft Punk on tour, giving us the inside scoop on what it's like for hipster Frenchmen to roam across America. Today he posted this revealing behind-the-scenes shot of the light-up pyramid in which the dynamic duo perform, something that I sure haven't seen anywhere before. First of all, jeez, it looks so solid from the front! Secondly, I see monitors and a couple machines of some sort, so at least we know they're not totally faking it.

    New Music: Birds & Batteries

    | Thu Aug. 9, 2007 6:26 PM EDT

    mojo-cover-birdsandbatteries.JPGWho knows where the name came from, but Birds & Batteries is an oddly appropriate moniker for a band whose synthy soundscapes seem to float effortlessly in the air. Okay, the world is full of breathy electro these days, but San Francisco's B&B approach their keyboards from an unexpected, epic country-rock direction, something they lay out right away by opening their new album, I'll Never Sleep Again, with an elegiac cover of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold."

    The band seem to have started out as a one-man project, as band leader Mike Sempert apparently recorded demos for the first album on his own, then brought in musicians to fill out a live band. While the idea of experimental electronica enhanced by heart-rending pedal steel guitar may seem incongruous, the sound is wholly unified. The band definitely owe a debt to Minnesotans Low, whose recent Drums and Guns brought loops and drum machines into the mix, but Birds & Batteries eschew the traumatized depths the Duluth trio aim for, instead aiming for uptempo grooves like the horn-led, Stereolab-reminiscent "Turnstyles."

    Birds & Batteries have multiple shows scheduled over the next month on the West Coast. Grab three mp3s of tracks from I'll Never Sleep Again via their website:
    - Birds & Batteries – "Ocarina"
    - Birds & Batteries – "Star Clusters"
    - Birds & Batteries – "Turnstyles"

    Chart Beat: Billboard Top Ten Albums

    | Thu Aug. 9, 2007 5:11 PM EDT

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    Do you ever glance at the Top Ten and go, "what the hell is all that crap?" Not my Top Ten, that's the reaction you're supposed to have to that one. The actual Top Ten. Well, me too. Together we can figure it out.

    1. Common - Finding Forever
    Hey, good for Common: his first #1. The rapper's last album, the slightly superior Be, sold more its first week (185,000 to Forever's 150,000), but only hit #2. One side benefit of the music sales slowdown: it's easier to climb the charts!

    2. Korn - Untitled
    Who's even in Korn any more? One guy found Jesus and left, the drummer's "taking a break." Are they still spelling their name with a backwards "R"? Because that's awesome.

    3. Various Artists - Now 25
    This comp features "Buy U a Drank," "Thnks Fr Th Mmrs," and "U + Ur Hand." Whs byng ths sht?

    4. Soundtrack - Hairspray
    People say it's good (it's still #3 at the box office), but whatever. If nobody stands in a playpen filled with fish and shouts "Who wants to die for art," I'm not interested.

    5. Miley Cyrus - Hannah Montana 2
    I had to look this up: it's a Disney Channel show about a teenage girl who has a "secret life" as a famous pop star. You know, when I was 13, I was listening to Laurie Anderson. Kids these days…

    6. Sean Kingston - S/T
    Here's something. Kingston's 17 years old, his single "Beautiful Girls" is the syrupy, quasi-reggae one that samples "Stand By Me," and it's currently our #1 song, possibly helped out by Billboard's recent addition of streaming statistics to the chart methodology.

    7. Kidz Bop Kids - Kidz Bop 12
    This edition of the sing-along series includes screamy versions of "Umbrella" and "The Sweet Escape," but nothing as awesome as their version of Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out" from #8.

    8. T.I. - T.I. vs. T.I.P.
    The fair-to-middling "concept album" (it's a battle between two parts of himself, see) from the Southern rapper slips from #5 this week. I put "You Know What It Is" in a Riff Top Ten in July, and I stand by that, but the rest of the album's kind of dull.

    9. Fergie - The Duchess
    While I'll admit to kind of enjoying the retro-freestyle beats of "Fergalicious," nothing else about this deserves any attention whatsoever.

    10. Linkin Park - Minutes to Midnight
    Did anybody else find "What I've Done" a really incongruous track to accompany the "Transformers" commercials? Like, the only way the lyrics make sense conceptually is if you think of Megatron singing it, filled with regret about the destruction he has wrought. And I don't think that's what they had in mind.