Category: Critic's notebook

Critic's Notebook: LMFAO's brand of party rock uniquely American

Think what you will about Redfoo and SkyBlu's absurd and catchy anthems as LMFAO, but there's no denying the potent blend of regional dance music running through the duo's sound.

American electro hop duo LMFAO: Skyler Gordy, left, and Stefan Gordy.

Last week LMFAO had the No. 1 song in America. Again.

This time it was for the L.A. rap/dance/pop duo's ode to self-infatuation, "Sexy and I Know It" — an infectiously simple dance-floor ditty with a relentless rhythm and a video that has been viewed more than 188 million times on YouTube. Last year's ubiquitous hit, "Party Rock Anthem," currently at No. 6, is a truth-in-advertising title if there ever was one (347 million views).

Created by an uncle-nephew team who rose in Los Angeles' club scene in the mid '00s and made a splash with their in-your-face debut album, "Party Rock," in 2009, "Sexy and I Know It," from the 2011 conciliatory follow-up, "Sorry for Party Rocking," has worked its way into America's subconscious through repetition and sticky, simple chords. It's a song that — even heard faintly while passing Forever 21 at the mall — can ruin an entire weekend by looping in your head.

It's getting harder and harder to ignore LMFAO and less certain that it'll ever go away. For the last three years the group, which consists of Redfoo (Stefan Kendal Gordy, 36) and SkyBlu (Skyler Austin Gordy, 25), has surpassed even the most snobbish haters' worst fears. After rising through the pop music ranks with a combination of iTunes sales, club dates, funny videos and, most important, key placement in reality shows including "Jersey Shore," "Real World: Cancun" (they were a featured story line) and the early Kardashian hit "Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami," 2011 was their breakout year, and 2012 looks to push them even further. Last week they were the second most subscribed YouTube music channel in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Tunisia, Ireland, Russia and Poland and in the top 20 across a spectrum of cultures who you would hope would know better.

America's most broadly influential cultural export, music, has in the opening stages of the decade infected the world with the LMFAO virus, one whose lyrical thrust is joy through hedonism — ridiculous celebratory anthems and occasionally funny male fantasies of sexual magnetism earned through a combination of, in the words of its 2009 anthem "Shots": "Jägerbombs, lemon drops, buttery nipples, Jello shots," and good old-fashioned gin.

Few will mistake Redfoo and SkyBlu for Leiber and Stoller. But within the group's sound lies an interesting sonic history, even if it's often eclipsed by the stupidity, and regardless of whether they prove every last non-party-rockin' critic right and vanish tomorrow, a document of their existence seems warranted. They are, after all, the son (Redfoo) and grandson (SkyBlu) of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy Jr., are Grammy nominees, have a combined YouTube viewing tally of almost 800 million, and have another single rising on the charts. 

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Critic’s Notebook: Rock Hall honors the yin and yang of Los Angeles rock

They seem to be opposites, but strip away the hair metal and the funk, and Guns N’ Roses and the Red Hot Chili Peppers are similar. Both evoke a sense of Southern California in the ’80s and an Angeleno sensibility that millions of fans the world over find appealing.

Axl Rose

If Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction announcements mean anything in the scheme of things, other than a ceremonial recognition of excellence, it’s that the hall has shed a certain East Coast bias. Two of the most prominent Los Angeles rock bands of the last three decades, Guns N’ Roses and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, are being welcomed into the hallowed halls as part of the Class of 2012, and that in itself should make the city’s music tourism industry happy.

The two bands, which came up during the early and mid-’80s on opposite sides of Los Angeles, both literally and metaphorically, represent a kind of yin and yang of the city’s rock scene at the time, when the only thing that metalheads and punk rockers could agree on was Motörhead. The classic Guns N’ Roses lineup did its first gig on the west side, at the Troubadour, on June 6, 1985, and was fusing the first generation metal of Thin Lizzy and Black Sabbath with the poppier, more hummable glam rock melodies of early Aerosmith and KISS. Within a few years, Axl Rose, Slash and company were kings of the Sunset Strip, lending much needed credibility to a uniquely Angeleno take on glam rock that became known as hair metal.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ early gigs were two miles east of the Strip in Hollywood, where small spaces such as Club Lingerie supported a different kind of outcast — punks and post-punks who were co-opting the energy, power and deep groove of funk music. Bands such as Minutemen and Fishbone were honoring bass and drums along with the guitar and throat, but none captured that potential like the Peppers. The band’s bassist, Flea, had gigged with first wave L.A. punk band Fear, had come up in the same scene that spawned the Germs, X and Black Flag. (Oh, wait — Black Flag, which released its first album in 1981 on the legendary indie label SST, isn’t in the hall? The band wasn’t even nominated? That’s weird. Not the Germs or X either?! Hmm.)

But dig beneath the surface and the differences between the bands get eclipsed by the similarities.

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Critic’s Notebook: With Spotify, the future of music is here

Unlimited access to a huge chunk of the world’s recorded music library (15 million songs and counting) — shareable and searchable — has become reality.

IT’S HERE: Spotify has finally arrived in the U.S.

On a recent afternoon while driving down Beverly Boulevard, I had 15 million songs sitting in the little tray between the driver and passenger seat. If they were on LP or compact disc, the entire assortment — available via the Spotify application I’d installed on my phone earlier in the day — would fill dozens of tractor trailers and weigh thousands of tons. Sitting next to my morning coffee, the collection jiggled as I hit a bump, but the music coming out of my stereo didn’t skip a beat.

Assuming an average of four minutes per song, I figure that’s roughly 114 years of continuous music at my fingertips. It includes music as diverse as baroque composer H.I. Biber, pop star Justin Bieber, Emmett Miller, Ma Rainey, Eminem, Sun Ra, and Tyler, the Creator. It’s more than anyone could possibly want or need to listen to, but that’s not the point. It’s that it’s all there, a millisecond away. 

This year might not be remembered for a revolution in pop music — so far the most sonically surprising thing on the charts has been Chris Brown’s “Look at Me Now.” But we’re currently in the middle of something big, a fundamental shift in the ways in which we experience and interact with recorded music. A notion barely fathomable a decade ago — unlimited access to a huge chunk of the world’s recorded music library — has become reality. With this innovation, not only is the entire experience of hearing and learning about music changing, but the ways in which we share our passion is, as well. And if history is any indication, the way in which artists make music will evolve along with it.

With the arrival of Swedish-born, London-based cloud service Spotify on American shores July 14, along with the progress of Google Music, and the impending launch of Apple’s iCloud music service, this year will be remembered as the year in which keeping our own copies of music, be it physically on CDs and LPs, or digitally as MP3s on our hard drives, became a decision, not a necessity, for both casual fans and music obsessives.

No longer do we need to worry about where to store it, nor try to recover it from a fried hard drive, nor even keep it separate from the collections of our friends. We have been nearing this milestone for a while; with a little work, you can listen to virtually any song for free by cobbling together the search results of YouTube, Rhapsody, Mediashare links and Google search results. But Spotify is on everyone’s lips, and for good reason. 

What, exactly, is Spotify? It’s an application that offers users access to high quality streams of music from throughout history, one whose catalog includes the holdings of the world’s four largest record companies and an equally monolithic consortium of independent labels. It’s currently available by invitation as an application you can download to your computer, smartphone, or Web-connected home audio system. Once installed, any of these 15 million songs are available for free with a double-click.Don’t feel like enduring advertisements? Pay $4.99 a month and they’re gone, or pay $9.99 a month for premium, which also offers better sound quality.

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Critic's Notebook: A midyear look at some of the best music of 2011 (so far)

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It doesn’t make sense in 2011 to try and count the number of CDs released because doing so is only one measure of the volume. Toss in mixtapes, thumb drives, vinyl, Bandcamp pages, Twitter links to Mediasphere downloads, streams, rips, .zips and 12-inches, and the bounty is so rich that the notion of an annual year-end round-up seems a woefully inadequate tool.

As a way of attempting to appreciate where we’ve been this year at midpoint, what follows is a personal list of essential recordings released so far in 2011, one that no doubt contains a glaring oversight or two and is limited mostly to officially sanctioned, record label affiliated recordings.

Jessica Lea Mayfield, “Tell Me”

The British-born Adele may be getting all the attention for her merging of soul, rock, r&b and country, but another young singer, Jessica Lea Mayfield, has released an equally assured Muscle Shoals-inspired soul album.

Mayfield , who grew up onstage as part of a traveling family bluegrass group, fell in with with Black Keys singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach when both were living in Akron, Ohio, and the two began collaborating. Auerbach produced “Tell Me,” Mayfield’s major label debut for Nonesuch, with a wood-paneled warmth that suggests Dusty Springfield’s “Dusty in Memphis” with a little bit of Nashville twang mixed in. Mayfield’s ability to capture private vignettes and draw them with unguarded honesty makes “Tell Me” essential listening. It’s rough and honest, strong but also delicate and vulnerable

King Creosote and Jon Hopkins, “Diamond Mine”

Here is a quiet 32-minute, seven-song cycle composed by Scottish songwriter Kenny Anderson – stage name King Creosote -- and arranged by British electronic composer Jon Hopkins. Creosote has been releasing music in Scotland, 40-odd albums worth, to little American interest for more than a decade, and has a voice that deserves a wider audience, even if this isn’t happy-go-lucky music.

On the gorgeous “Your Own Spell,” Creosote sings in a delicate tenor as Hopkins’ slow, heavy arrangement moves like a storm cloud through the words: “Arriving late to church, your dress is soaked, don’t you look miserable,” less Morrissey than pastoral Paul McCartney. Hopkins, best known for his work with Brian Eno on last year’s “Small Craft on a Milk Sea,” treats Anderson’s graceful voice with affection and admiration, and the result is an impressionistic song cycle about months at sea, silver sideburns, and dry white roses.

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Critic's Notebook: Adele’s quiet power amid the pop girl riot

With a hit album and single, she shows how a strong voice can top glitz any time.

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Imagine the pop music marketplace in summer 2011 as an extravagant, glitzy party, a bacchanal in a Vegas ballroom. Mirror balls spin as the sonic bombast pushes into the sparkling throng, lasers cutting the space with red, dancers laughing and screaming, reckless joy and cocktails flying.

The women are dressed in their richest peacock best. There's Lady Gaga in a deconstructed Christian Lacroix gown, Rihanna's in a corner wearing S&M leather, Katy Perry with her skirt so short that it could be a belt, Beyoncé's beauty shining and Ke$ha in a leopard print something-or-other.

Into this chaos glides Adele Laurie Blue Adkins, alone, with a show-stopping grace and penetrating green eyes, full-figured and fearless, in an elegant evening gown and a string of pearls, unconcerned with eclipsing the princesses and queens. So self-assured as to silence the room, all heads turning, her presence negating the rhinestones and ridiculousness. Whispers.

That's one way to understand British singer Adele's breathtaking arrival into America's consciousness over the last three years. Another way is to play her “Rolling in the Deep” — No.1 on the singles chart for the fifth straight week — very loud and listen to a pearl of a pop song that combines essential ingredients of the Western popular music canon. So much funky, dynamic unity drives “Rolling in the Deep” that after it's over you want to hear it again because it'll be a different kind of great next time around.

The song's a humming machine of R&B: the strummed acoustic guitar opening, that thumping rock 'n' roll rhythm, the claps, the choir doing call-and-response in the background, the teeny curlicue of guitar that sneaks in from time to time, the bass occupying the “deep” of the title, the counterpoint piano punctuating as if from a Memphis church, snare drum, not sounding chaotic like so much of Gaga's “Born This Way” but offered with an effortless confidence. (Another metaphor: If pop music is an automobile, Lady Gaga fancies herself a souped-up Ed “Big Daddy” Roth two-seater muscle car, and Adele is a black Cadillac sedan, so comfortable on the inside.)

That's no small feat coming from a young British singer, born in North London to a teenage mother in 1988 and discovered on MySpace in 2007. Along with the dear (chemically) departed Amy Winehouse, Joss Stone (currently working with Mick Jagger), and Welsh singer Duffy and her curiously strong pipes, Adele is part of a small group of female British singers who over the past half-decade have drawn from vocalists as diverse as Mary J. Blige, Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin and Ann Peebles to create new soul music. 

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Critic's Notebook: Rock Hall's dark horses

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The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions are all about musical history, but the producers of March's fete at the Waldorf Astoria might want to consider playing a current hit to greet the latest batch of inductees. “Raise your glass if you are wrong in all the right ways — all my underdogs,” Pink sings in the titular chorus of her No.1 song.

The rabble-rousing diva had no way of knowing that her trash anthem would apply so perfectly to those being honored by the Cleveland-based canonizing institution. But the strongest quality shared by 2011's chosen ones is that they're five dark horses, forming a winners' circle that looks different than any the Rock Hall has ever had.

That's not to say that Neil Diamond isn't a towering figure in genre-spanning postwar pop or that Darlene Love doesn't possess one of the signature voices of the girl-group era or that Tom Waits hasn't produced one of the most enduring recorded legacies of the rock era. I would never underestimate Alice Cooper's influence on several generations of theatrical rockers or marginalize New Orleans piano man Dr. John, who has turned on millions to the magic of the Crescent City under that name and as “Mac” Rebennack.

Add to this group one more significant performer, Leon Russell, whose reception of the Musical Excellence Award completes the comeback he's made with the graceful assistance of Elton John, and you have a selection that will mostly please pop aficionados but may also puzzle many. (Two worthy inductees in the nonperformer category were also announced: Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman and Specialty Records head honcho Art Rupe.)

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Critic's Notebook: 'Glee' is at a crossroads

With the Fox hit reaching a high-water mark in scope and popularity, the producers face tough choices in moving the show beyond the novelty stage in its second season.

GLEE_CHEESUS

If a musical is ever made about Ryan Murphy and his amazing Technicolor cast creating "Glee," the big climax at the end of the first act should correspond to this particular moment in time.

The show has reached a peak, in terms of popularity and artistic ambition. In the last two weeks it's tackled two of the most controversial subjects of our time: religion and Britney Spears. The ratings are through the roof, the iTunes downloads just keep coming, and celebrities such as Amy Adams, Javier Bardem and future guest star Gwyneth Paltrow have all publicly expressed their enthusiasm for "Glee."

GLEE_BACKLOT_GALLERY_SLUG Like Rachel Berry (played by actress Lea Michele), the show's would-be Streisand who, musically at any rate, is the central character in this ensemble show, "Glee" is also wildly ambitious and earnest about what the lively arts can accomplish. If Murphy and his team had done nothing more than create a viable television series employing the structure of musical theater, that would have been enough; it's never really happened before in prime time. ("Cop Rock," no; and "The Singing Detective" hailed from the tony BBC.)

But "Glee" has gone further, using the softening agents of song and schticky humor to take a strongly left-leaning stance on issues including teen pregnancy, abstinence, gay visibility and the rights of the disabled. Grabbing huge audiences with these plotlines — not to mention its fundamental role as a cheerleader (pun intended!) for arts in the schools — it's a potent pop-cultural force in opposition to the rightward push of that other pop phenomenon of the moment, the Tea Party movement.

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Jazz war, anyone? Jason Marsalis vs. 'Jazz Nerds International'

Marsalis600

Have you, as a listener, been suffering under the influence of Jazz Nerds International?

Jazz critic and blogger for the Ottawa Citizen Peter Hum wrote a terrific post Thursday on the latest installment in what's become known as "the jazz wars," a long-running culture clash pitting the music's traditionalists -- personified by nearly any member of the gifted Marsalis family -- versus what could be considered jazz's new guard.

A little background: This new guard encompasses some of the most acclaimed, adventurous artists in jazz today -- Christian Scott, the Bad Plus, Vijay Iyer and the Claudia Quintet, just to name a few who have been featured in this space -- as well as anyone who followed in the footsteps of late-period John Coltrane and "Bitches Brew"-era Miles Davis. A hardcore traditionalist would argue that these musicians, though talented, may be playing interesting music but it's certainly not jazz.

Recently examined in the documentary "Icons Among Us," there's a lot of remarkable stuff going on in modern jazz that incorporates influences from across the musical spectrum, stretching into odd time signatures and generally treating jazz as the boundlessly creative, free-thinking genre it is. While on the opposite side, the traditionalists argue that truest form of jazz involves all-acoustic instruments, a swinging rhythm section and, if possible, some really sharp suits.

In the video posted on Hum's blog (and after the jump), drummer Jason Marsalis offers an amusing warning against "Jazz Nerds International," his term for young musicians who have a "selfish" view of jazz, eschewing the standards of the genre in favor of "abstract solos" and odd-metered straight rhythms. The end result, in Marsalis' view, is music that alienates its audience and exists only for the appreciation of fellow musicians.
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Paul McCartney is a major boomer bridge for Coachella

Macca500

With Sir Paul, the older generation of rock casts a giant shadow over the Gen X version. But we hope the new generation will soon find its place in the desert sun too.

If you need proof that the generational divide that has defined American pop since the rock era is vanishing along with the rock era itself, look no further than the top of the bill for this year's Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival: Paul McCartney headlines the main stage Friday. (The other listed name likely to cause maximum excitement belongs to Leonard Cohen, the 74-year-old Zen grandpa of the singer-songwriter clan.)

For most of its first decade, Coachella celebrated the indie-to-alternative sounds and styles that came after punk slapped down classic rock and gave the new kids their chance to lead. Sunday night's headliner, the Cure, is a nostalgia act for the alt-rock generation, while Saturday's mainstage closers, the Killers, is its idea of a classic rock band.

In the past, the top of the bill has been dominated by artists who, while not completely rejecting the influence of their elders, signaled the rise of a new generation, with new social and political concerns and an affinity for hip-hop and electronic music. Last year's appearance by Pink Floyd honcho Roger Waters began to alter that script.

Coachella founder Paul Tollett wanted to open younger ears to the music of an elder he appreciates, but he also must have known that Waters' success would help convince his peers that this was a safe event for them to play. Featuring legacy artists also helps break down the old idea of rock as youth music and makes it an inter-generational affair.

Baby boomer favorites rake in major profits on the touring circuit. That's one reason why Tollett booked the Eagles to co-headline Stagecoach, the "country Coachella," last year. While middle-aged rock fans are suffering the blows of the economic crash along with everyone else, they're more likely than most to save up for a big entertainment splurge featuring an old favorite. And they might be more familiar with layaway plans, like the one the fest just introduced.

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Kanye West examines real vs. fake, puppet vs. human on '808s and Heartbreak'

Kanyealbum Of all the stories Donda West read to her little son at bedtime, "Pinocchio" must have been a favorite. The tale of the puppet who longed to be human obviously resonates with Kanye West. On "Pinocchio Story," the bonus live track that turns out to be the key to his audaciously introspective fourth album, he freestyles about the character, repeatedly singing, "I want to be a real boy."

"808s and Heartbreak," out Monday on Roc-A-Fella Records but now streaming on MySpace, is a meditation on realness as it's been defined by materialism and machismo in the hip-hop world, and by love and sorrow in the larger one. Wrought in hushed mechanical beats, computer-altered vocals and samples so subtle they're barely noticeable, it's West's foray into confessional music.

But this star's constant craving to be original leads him away from the rawness that characterizes such revelations. On an album that he has said is "about emotional nakedness," West finds his beating, bleeding heart in inanimate objects -- the Roland TR-808 drum machine that revolutionized electronic music of the 1980s and the Antares Auto-Tune pitch correction software that's such a prevalent tool in today's pop sound.

This is high concept stuff and likely off-putting to the casual listener. Though several tracks -- the oddly peppy "Paranoid" and "Robocop," about a monstrous ex -- are danceable, "808s and Heartbreak" heavily endorses the rave scene's concept of "chill." Its mood comes closest to the vaporous electronica of obscure artists like the Junior Boys and M83.

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