Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Notes from last night's big show, Power 105.1 Powerhouse. (Thanks for the hookup, Clear Channel!)

- The whole point of this Jay-Z/Lil Wayne co-headlining show, I thought, was that Jay and Wayne were supposed to appear onstage together and do a couple of songs. It didn't happen that way. Wayne had no-showed in Boston the night before, and I guess Jay was still salty about it. Their sets never overlapped, and Jay never even mentioned Wayne.

- Wayne still did "Mr. Carter." Opened with it, even. Everyone seemed really excited until Jay didn't show.

- I'd like to thank New Jersey Transit for canceling the buses they used to run between Port Authority and the Meadowlands. You guys are right: You were making it way too easy to get between the city and Jersey. Way better to wait out on a freezing-ass train platform for half an hour instead and then take that to another bus. It makes the whole thing mean that much more when you have to work for it. Also: Thanks for making me miss D-Block and most of Ne-Yo. That was awesome.

- Ne-Yo can dance! I don't know why that guy always brings backup dancers with him. They just kinda clutter up the stage, and he doesn't need them. "Closer" sounded amazing.

- Wayne basically sucked. And it's not even that he's a bad performer, though he was really obviously high and he slurred the hell out of a lot of his lines. He's got charisma, and it's a whole lot of fun to watch him careen all haphazardly around the stage. But he's a huge star now, and he's not ready to be one, at least not onstage. He's going on this big tour now apparently, but he doesn't have the focus to do the kind of greatest-hits show that Jay does or the conceptual rigor to pull off something like Kanye's Glow in the Dark tour. He's probably just going to seriously halfass it.

- For some reason Wayne thought it would be a good idea to bring a live band. It wasn't. Jay can do that stuff, especially now that he's been touring with one band for long enough and they've got it down to a science. Wayne can't. For one thing, his songs mostly aren't all lushly orchestrated the way Jay's are. For another, that whole setup just encourages all his worst impulses, like spending a good third of his set displaying his eighth-grade-level guitar skills.

- And even if Wayne was going to bring a band, why did he bring this band? These fuckbags ruined a whole lot of songs just by soloing all over them for no reason. "A Milli" sounded awesome until the guitarist started soloing and Wayne started (seriously) singing N.E.R.D. songs. Why would you solo over "A Milli"? What the fuck are you hoping to accomplish there?

- Wayne's big surprise guests: Bobby Valentino and Birdman. Oh, and Mac Maine, who ran out on "Got Money" so everyone thought he was T-Pain for a second. Doesn't Wayne have any friends in New York? Did he accidentally delete Juelz's number or something?

- The whole anything-can-happen looseness of Wayne's Summer Jam set is just gone. Last night it felt really conscripted, like he'd rehearsed the set just enough that it wouldn't have any surprises but not enough that he'd actually be good at it. It still had its moments ("I'm Me," "Money on My Mind"), and I'll always enjoy watching Wayne strut offstage to "I Will Always Love You," but this was not a good set.

- Jay, by contrast, just ruled. I wasn't even really all that amped to see him, since I've seen him a ton of times and he was just on autopilot last time, but holy shit he monstered it last night. Maybe he had something to prove.

- Jay and his band have that set down perfectly now. Even the songs that you wouldn't think a live band could pull off ("Jigga What Jigga Who," "Blue Magic") sounded incredible, and there are no gaps between songs now. He just goes. It's all planned out perfectly, and it's really something to behold. I'm guessing that's why Jay didn't bring out any guests beyond Beyonce, who did the dance from the "Single Ladies" video for a minute and then disappeared. I think Jay's just got his show's flow down so completely that he didn't want anyone else interrupting it.

- Opening with "U Don't Know": a good look.

- Why doesn't Jay do "Lucifer" at every show? I'd never seen him do it before last night, but people love that song, and it was a total highlight.

- Is it OK that I was happy to see DJ AM even though I think he's basically the cheesiest dude in the world? That guy almost burned alive a month ago, and now he's onstage with Jay-Z looking so happy he could explode. This makes me happy. (Also, AM was in Crazy Town, and "Butterfly" is a good song. [It's a good song, assholes.] So he's got that going for him.)

- Lots and lots of Obama talk. Jay did this thing where he stopped "Blue Magic" on the "Fuck Bush" part, then did a verse from "Minority Report" a cappella, then endorsed Obama. And I'd seen him do the same thing at the last show, but I still got chills all over again. Plus this time he went straight from that into "P.S.A.," which, I mean, come on.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Renaissance isn't top-ten material or anything; it's mostly just a pretty solid exercise in diffuse stoner-rap formalism. But this morning it made for a pretty great soundtrack for an absolutely miserable rainy commute. Q-Tip's obviously not the rapper he once was, but these days he's working with this enormously likable halting, awkward flow. Even when he's talking all this vague stuff about universal understanding or whatever, the sort of hippie-talk I usually don't like, his delivery is very seriously old-school, like Busy Bee old-school, something I was thinking even before he gets to the obligatory old-rappers roll-call on "Life is Better." And the beats are all either Dilla or sound a whole lot like him: little bits of old melodies shining through murk, everything loping sideways instead of punching straight ahead. This album has atmosphere, and it's got personality, and those two things alone are enough to recommend it.

I've also got nice things to say about Landing Gear, which isn't an upper-tier Devin album by any means, but which is still getting shit on for being a total low-budget move, which it is. But I like those slow-crawl low-budget beats, especially when they've got this kind of space and melody working for them. And Devin comes off a whole lot more human and fallible here than he did on Waitin' to Inhale, which I didn't like that much mostly because the supermack fuck-bitches songs outnumbered the woe-is-me self-deprecating ones by a little too much. Devin's weed carriers are mostly pretty good, too, and the one song he almost completely turns over to some random R&B singer is better than it has any right to be. Until that whole fourth-quarter rap-album leak deluge kicks in (any day now), I'll take these two modest, small-scale affairs.

Still trying to find a copy of Z-Ro's Crack without internet-stealing it. NY-area Circuit Citys used to be so much more dependable.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Notes from Saturday night's big Diesel 30th-anniversary circus party thing:

-Here's a riddle I thought up.
Q: If this is supposed to be some kind of fashion industry party, why does everyone look so fucking stupid?
A: You just answered your own question.
Zing! Yeah, I took it there.

-Someone told me this party cost Diesel five million dollars. I wonder if they're going to wish they had that five million back this time next year. Or this morning. With the stock market mess, the extravagant silliness of this thing had serious Nero-fiddling overtones.

-The one moment it really became evident just how much money went into this thing: In the sort of entrance room to the tent, there were these two shirtless Cirque du Soleil-looking strongman guys doing strongman stuff, like one dude would balance the other on the back of his neck and shit like that. And they kept doing this stuff for hours, with nobody watching. When I walked through that foyer, there were a bunch of people standing around talking on their cellphones, but nobody was actually looking at these two dudes. I know freaky strongman acrobats don't work for cheap, either.

-There were all these rumors circulating beforehand that Britney Spears and/or Prince would be doing the surprise-performance thing. Neither one happened. Instead we got T.I. And, I mean, that's great, but I was sort of disappointed that Prince never showed. You know you're spoiled when one of your favorite rappers shows up out of nowhere and you're mad he's not Prince.

-At this point in my life, I'd rather pay six bucks plus tip for a beer than spend 45 minutes trying to elbow my way up to the bar for a free drink. I guess I'm getting old.

-So M.I.A. is pregnant! That was sort of weird to see. She was wearing hideous clashing maternity sweatpants and doing weird pregnant-chick bellydances and stuff. By the looks of things, I'd guess she's a good five months in, too. Given that I'm now seeing firsthand what pregnancy does to a person, I have to salute her for stepping onstage at all. That can't be easy.

-I forget the name of the opening band they got, supposedly the winners of some unknown-band contest, but they sucked real bad. Like the Dave Matthews Band trying to be Grizzly Bear. Except British. And they said "We don't usually do this" before covering "Are You That Somebody." This is not something they should ever do.

-Hot Chip, usually amazing live, was actually sort of boring, but maybe that's because they only got like three songs. Then they turned into Chaka Khan's backing band for two songs. This was fun. And for Chaka Khan's third song, a couple of them stayed onstage pretending to play instruments. I'm not sure why.

-When Chaka Khan performs live, she doesn't actually sing her choruses. Her backup singers do the choruses while she emits these terrifyingly impressive screams overtop. This was a pretty amazing thing to see.

-Five million dollars does not, it would seem, buy you a particularly impressive sound system.

-T.I.'s five-song set was pretty great. I liked how he brought Maino out to wave to the crowd but then didn't let him do his one song. Tip also brought out M.I.A. for "Swagger Like Us," and even though all she could really do was stutter along with the sample, it was still a big headfuck to see these two onstage together.

-Another headfuck: for some reason, T.I. did "Live Your Life" with Franz Ferdinand doing the Rihanna part. This made absolutely no sense whatsoever, and Tip barely seemed to notice the band. I can't believe I'm even typing this equation, but at least in this situation, Rihanna > Alex Kapranos.

-Franz was the only band of the night who got to do more than a couple of songs. They had like a 45-minute set, and it basically ruled. I'd forgotten how much I liked that band. The new stuff they played was muscular skritchety dance-funk stuff, and it sounded really good. And I'm glad I finally got to see them do "Take Me Out" in person; that song still gets people amped.

-N.E.R.D. can go away now, please.

-The trapeze acrobat types who did tricks above the crowd made me nervous. If any of them had fallen, which looked entirely possible, they would've taken out a couple of people on the ground. But I guess that makes it more impressive? I'm glad I didn't get hit by a falling acrobat, anyway.

Friday, October 10, 2008

So it's been like a week and a half since I posted here, huh? I'm guessing things are going to be pretty dead around here for a while. I can finally talk about this in public now: Bridget, my wife, is pregnant. I am going to be a dad. She's a couple months in, due next May, and we're all kinds of amped about it. But this means I'm not really doing anything except working, cooking dinner sometimes, and watching old action movies on my laptop after she's fallen asleep. (Rolling Thunder: amazing. Branded to Kill: dogshit.) I could blog about that stuff, I guess, but I'm guessing nobody would actually want to read about it. So stay tuned for six months from now when this thing becomes baby picture central.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Quarterly Report - Singles

New rule: if I've seen it on at least a couple of mp3 blogs, it's fair game.

1. Pink: "So What." What a weird career this chick has had: great liquid Destiny's Child synth&B into confessional sub-Indigo Girls dogshit into Try This, the amazing third album that nobody bought, the one where she wrote half the songs with Tim Armstrong and came closer to nailing an honest-to-God punk/teenpop fusion than anyone since. And then she jumbled all three phases together on an uninspired fourth album, but she scored on a fluke single about jerking off, the only reason she still has a career. And now this: every strain of that weirdo showoff personality smashed into a delirious Max Martin banger of a breakup track, one she now has the swagger to pull off. I always liked Pink's voice; she outsang Christina Aguilera on that Moulin Rouge song by not oversinging every note, just straight-up wailing it instead. And "So What" is a near-perfect distillation of everything I've ever liked about her: goofy self-deprecating fart-jokes, borderline embarrassing self-disclosure, cartoony cheap-seats shamelessness, huge stomping beats, bloopy synths, gratuitous references to more-famous blond chicks, an anthemic widescreen chorus, and a general willingness and ability to turn what I can only imagine is genuine personal misery into something fun. Heroic. And the video is on some golden-age-of-MTV shit, so bonus points there.

2. The Gaslight Anthem: "The 59 Sound." Pretty much everything I said about the album yesterday holds for the song: strained-roar vocals, chunky guitars, all that good shit. But then there's the added caveat that this is the saddest song I've heard in a good long while. It's about a friend dying, about hoping he got to hear his favorite song one last time on the way out. The "ain't supposed to die on a Saturday night" coda just kills me. I'm sentimental like that.

3. Sugarland: "Already Gone." Speaking of sentimental, this is some top-shelf Nashville country power-ballad mush right here: Jennifer Nettles realizing she's made all the same mistakes her mom made, feeling powerless to stop any of them, knowing you've got one foot out the door all the time. It's formulaic as hell, of course, and in this case that's a strength: the big elegiac build, the swollen lighters-up chorus, the bit at the end where Nettles howls the chorus while the dorky mandolin guy brings the first verse back. It's the details in songs like this that always get me, and one line in one of the quiet bits just fucks me right up: "Pictures, dishes and socks / It's our whole life, down to one box." I'm noticing a pattern here: I get older, and my resistance to unabashed corn like this erodes further and further. Just a beautiful song.

4. Keri Hilson: "Turnin' Me On [feat. Lil Wayne]." Polow's beat is eerie and minimal and repetitive, all menacing empty space like the Pack's "Vans" or something. Except he keeps adding these little pieces throughout, like a barely-there synth-twinkle on the second verse or a tuba-fart thing right before the second chorus. A beat like this works just perfectly for Hilson, whose voice sounds best when it just hangs weightless. She's not a robo-diva type like Ciara or something, but she's got this really subtle snap to her voice, and a beat like this just lets her hooks sink in. Another big plus: Wayne's awake for his guest-verse, not exactly something we can count on these days. "Someone better play the fence, someone better tell em bout me / Baby I'm the shit and that's the only thing you smell around me." Lil Wayne smells like shit. Good to know. If Keri Hilson is not one of the biggest stars in the world by one year from today, the major-label system is officially irreparably broken.

5. Ciara: "High Price [feat. Ludacris]." Another rapper-assisted R&B-chick song that should be huge if her label isn't asleep at the switch. I guess Ciara doesn't want to be a robo-diva anymore, huh? This isn't one of those slow-crawl bangers like "Oh" or something. The beat is all smeared digital rumble, but Ciara goes all over-the-top operatic, singing total brag-rap lyrics in this absurdly theatrical alto. Also she says she looks softer than a McDonald's burger bun, and those things really aren't all that soft. Just a really weird and unexpected move, and it works for reasons that I can't begin to comprehend.

6-10: Kanye West: "Love Lockdown"; Capone-N-Noreaga: "Follow the Dollar"; Asher Roth: "I Love College"; Taylor Swift: "Love Story"; TV on the Radio: "Golden Age"