Thursday, January 31, 2008

The top 10 albums of 2007: No. 5

Lily Allen
Alright, Still

479,895 MySpace fans can't be wrong.

(OK, they could be, but they're not.)

Alright, Still is a creative, good-humored debut with a summery splash, and Lily Allen comes across as a firecracker, a brat and a well-meaning sister. But she's a lovable protagonist
to root for in any form.

In "Knock 'Em Out," she's a social commentator. She jokes about a common plight for ladies in pubs and clubs: unwanted advances from guys who just can't take a hint. As a breezy piano run intermixes with sax honks and busy electro beats, Allen explains the song's premise in a monologue, almost as if "Knock 'Em Out" were a blurb in a women's magazine. Switching her point of view, she creates a scenario and jumps in and out of the scene, adding asides and the peeved woman's inner thoughts. She starts to rattle off sample excuses but cracks up at "my house is on fire."

"Knock 'Em Out" wins points for pulling off exposition and snap shifts in perspective, but it's also comedic. I mean, what can you do when the pest won't go away? The fact that the consideration of knocking someone out even enters her mind is hilarious, because it's totally not based in reality. And the consideration of walking away is the second thing to come to her!

Allen's other song set in a club, "Friday Night," is equally impressive. The backbeat of "Friday Night" sounds like what you'd hear outside a club: that heavy, lub-dub bass thump. In this one, Allen goes out for a night on the town, and nothing goes as planned. The wait's long. She gets hassled by a girl on the guest list. She gets hassled by security.

"Look me
up and down
I don't
make a sound"

Allen's backing vocals correspond to the action described in the song, climbing and descending. You can just picture her standing there: lips tightly pursed, eyes locked forward, seething somewhere deep inside.

So, naturally, when she gets into the club, it's not a fun, carefree experience. One thing after another gets under her skin, and when some girls try to push by her, she pushes back, ready to rumble. In "Knock 'Em Out," the mention of violence was outlandish and played for laughs; here it hints at her volatile emotional state.

That could be due to the suite of songs on Alright, Still referencing a breakup that unleashed a whorl of feelings. Anger is a big one.

"Not Big" disses Mr. Ex, impugning his manhood and chalking up his shortcomings. Though glockenspiel and Allen's sing-song chorus imply only that mischief is afoot, "Not Big" aims to hurt, particularly when she threatens, "Let's see how you feel in a couple of weeks / when I work my way through your mates." Similarly, the reggae-inflected "Smile" harbors a vindictive kernel under its sunny exterior.

"Littlest Things," though, takes Allen back to the good times, long before the breakup. Alas, the memories bring with them a fresh zing of heartache, the wistful strings fleshing that out. "Sometimes I find myself sittin' back and reminiscin'," she confesses, "especially when I have to watch other people kissin'."


Monday, January 28, 2008

The top 10 albums of 2007: No. 6


"You think it's tough now? Come to Africa." The words of M.I.A. tourmate Afrikan Boy burn a hole through our middling concerns.

A little overweight?

Africa has famine.

Looming recession?

Africa has widespread poverty.

Mortgage market mess?

Africa has slums, million-person slums.

The war in Iraq?

Africa has lots of wars. Take your pick.

"You can't touch me, like leprosy."

Africa has leprosy.

The guest rap on "Hussel" is a fragment of what's going on on Kala, M.I.A.'s second album. Kala takes the Earth and covers it in highlighter. India, Sri Lanka, Ghana, Burma, Angola, Somalia and Mozambique get shout-outs. M.I.A. recorded songs on four continents, and she draws from hip-hop, rock 'n' roll, Bollywood, the Middle East and aboriginal music. In this way, the album is a celebration of culture, a bridge to the unfamiliar. Through Kala, a hip-hop fan might discover world music, and an M.I.A. fan might discover the Pixies, whose "Where Is My Mind?" lyrics she adapts in "20 Dollar."

Organic and synthetic collide. Shouts and didgeridoo meet synths and samplers. "Bird Flu" explodes in a clatter of percussion, clucking and children's voices. Auwwwk!! Auwwwk!! The chickens are everywhere as people hassle M.I.A. about her credentials.

Met with so much chaos and hardship, "Jimmy" is joyous escapism, pairing waltzing strings with a percolating disco beat and Hindi-inspired singing. A woman pines for the desirable Jimmy Aaja, though her whimpers at the end indicate that her love will go unrequited.

Like "Jimmy," "The Turn" also could be considered escapist, but it wields a different kind of dissociative power. It brings on vertigo with woozy synths, scattershot hand drums and a disembodied rap posse.

The world of Kala is the Third World, the First World and the world of M.I.A. The three interweave, as does the theme of money. In perhaps all worlds, money is a thing to covet and to loathe, to kill for and to die for. "20 Dollar" tells us that $20 is the going rate for AK-47s in Africa. In "Hussel," the character does terrible things to get money, which she then sends to her far-away family. "I hate money 'cause it makes me numb," she says.

Guns, the unofficial fundraisers, burst out of the lyrics and into the music. Cocking adds tension to the chant "Hands up, guns out!" in "World Town," about destitute people pushed to the brink. "Paper Planes" takes the technique further, filling the choruses with gunshots.

But "Paper Planes," patterned after the ruthlessness of gangsta rap, says something deeper. In the context of Kala, it subverts the braggadocio of thug life to show that, no matter the country, it's still bullets and blood, just different faces falling lifeless to the ground.

There's no glamour in the slaughter. It's not about power; it's about powerlessness.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The top 10 albums of 2007: No. 7

Rilo Kiley
Under the Blacklight

In Under the Blacklight, Rilo Kiley is Fleetwood Mac. Jenny Lewis is Stevie Nicks. Blake Sennett is Lindsey Buckingham. California is California, as sunny and as seedy as it was in the '70s.

With romantic friction and a power struggle at play, Lewis and Sennett pull Rilo Kiley away from their plainer, somewhat rangy beginnings and toward the streamlined, studio-polished pop-rock that their parents might have listened to. "Dreamworld," in particular, would sound right at home sandwiched between Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt. The Lewis-Sennett vocal interplay, along with the steady beat and easy wash of electric guitar, recalls Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams." (Perhaps the title itself is an homage.)

Lewis, consciously or unconsciously, has picked up Nicks' vocal characteristics. That's apparent on "Close Call," in which her post-chorus flourishes fall somewhere between a coo and a yodel. The stylistic fusion adds impact and catchiness to Rilo Kiley's sound.

Like any number of classic California albums, Under the Blacklight has enough shine to give you a tan. "Silver Lining" finds its chirpy guitar in another '70s touchstone, George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord." The island-flavored "Dejalo" breaks out the steel drums. "Breakin' Up" and "Give a Little Love" skip along to synth and chime.

And when the sun goes down, the action's just getting started. Lewis' vocals squirm as the rhythm section thrusts on "The Moneymaker," about people selling their bodies for cash. A little later, the title track guides us through the valley (probably the San Fernando Valley), where the moon and the night sky make that black light at the club look like nothin'. "15" and its swell of horns bring a teen girl into the picture. She's a knockout. And a man "deep like a graveyard" who gets tangled up with her finds out that she's only ... well, you know. Then again, he might have had an inkling of her age, as Lewis characterizes him as "a spider on the web."

For casual listeners nodding along to the music, learning of tension between Lewis and Sennett might come as a surprise. But there are plenty of hints of strife in the lyrics, as there were in some Fleetwood Mac recordings. Nicks and Buckingham quit the band twice and returned twice, along with making solo albums and handling other business during full-band hiatuses.

Like Nicks and Buckingham, Lewis and Sennett have spent time apart, working on albums where they call the shots (and maybe try to outdo each other). Lewis collaborated with the Watson Twins on Rabbit Fur Coat, released in 2006. Sennett led The Elected in the creation of 2004's Me First and 2006's Sun, Sun, Sun.

So although the implications are twofold when Lewis sings, "Are we breakin' up?", the question shouldn't be that scary. Because even if Rilo Kiley do break up, chances are they'll get back together.

Assuming, of course, that they're still Fleetwood Mac.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The top 10 albums of 2007: No. 8

Friend and Foe

Friend and Foe is not an album that benefits from first impressions. It introduces itself as a challenging, if not outright difficult, listen. The principal vocalist favors a squawking falsetto. The instrumentation jumps around so quickly and frequently that it can feel arbitrary.

Then its framework and loops start to become familiar. The melodies take root in the brain. The falsetto ingratiates itself. Before long, it seems that they were always this way, that there was never a time when everything didn't fit just so.

Much like its busy cover, the songs on Friend and Foe are complicated creations that need time to digest and process. All three members of the Portland-based band sing, arrange and write songs. Justin Harris plays bass, saxophones and guitar; Brent Knopf handles keyboards and guitar; Danny Seim mans the drums. Yet it's not the number of elements that gives Friend and Foe its bustle; it's how those elements are arranged.

"The Pelican," for example, begins with two piano tones: one low, one high. Harris comes in with his falsetto: "Take it! When I'm not looking!" A guitar goes live after the first verse, its sharp twang resounding as Seim's sticks scrabble across his kit. The guitar breaks free of the melee for a moment, then it supports a stack of backing vocals as they aim for the sky. As Harris returns, abetted by the backing vocals and a different guitar part, Seim makes sure all four of his limbs are in motion.

Such rapid-fire substitutions and the way they are truncated but repeated bring to mind the chopping and splicing of tape loops, which might be why Menomena have had their creative methodology misunderstood on occasion. In brainstorming sessions, they employ a computer program called the Digital Looping Recorder, or Deeler. It's basically a glorified sampler, but the words "computer program" and "looping" gave birth to a mistaken impression that Deeler takes care of the arrangements. The band does that.

The visual component is a different story. For it, Menomena turned to the ink of graphic novelist Craig Thompson, who then drew a world swarming with activity and embedded with key phrases from the songs. The pandemonium of his scenes goes hand in hand with Friend and Foe's tumultuous abundance. You get jingle bells. You get saxophone. You get bombast.

You also get plenty of quirkiness, including cow samples on "Running." The ditty certainly evokes all things bovine, with a galumphing bass line and lyrics like "It's safe to say / if we don't find food soon / we won't make it through winter."

The whistling that opens "Boyscout'n" replaces that cow image with a scout march: a bunch of pure-hearted little souls who've never felt the sting of rejection or betrayal --- which, incidentally, are all over Friend and Foe. Fair-weather friends ("Weird"), lies ("Ghostship"), fatigue ("Muscle'n Flo") and more struggles

add a grim shade of reality to the album's whimsy.

Just don't expect to take it all in at once.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The top 10 albums of 2007: No. 9

Amy Winehouse
Back to Black

They say art imitates life, but in Amy Winehouse's case, it could be the other way around. The besieged heroine of Back to Black has become her public face.

"They tried to make me go to rehab"

In August, Winehouse did a stint in rehab and postponed a tour of the U.S. and Canada.

"I told ya I was troubled"

In late August, Britain's Daily Mail published photos of her and husband Blake Fielder-Civil bruised and bleeding. Winehouse blamed herself for their scrap and said he had saved her life. She also made it a point to defend Fielder-Civil in a series of text messages with celebrity blogger Perez Hilton. In one that the newspaper obtained, Winehouse was quoted as saying, "I was cutting myself after he found me in our room about to do drugs with a call girl."

"I cheated myself
Like I knew I would"

Winehouse started November off with a disastrous performance of "Back To Black" at MTV's Europe Music Awards in Munich, Germany, preceded by a baffling acceptance speech.

Later that month, she bombed in Birmingham and in London. In the former show, she stumbled around and cursed and threatened audience members booing her. A music critic from the Birmingham Mail wrote that he saw "a supremely talented artist reduced to tears, stumbling around the stage and, unforgivably, swearing at the audience." In the latter show, at the capital's Hammersmith Apollo, NME reported that she took the stage 45 minutes late, appeared trashed, frequently left the stage and ditched the show in the middle of the encore. Many concertgoers booed, walked out or demanded their money back.

"You love blow, and I love puff"

Citing cocaine use (along with crack and heroin), Giles Fielder-Civil, Blake's old man, called out Winehouse and his son in late August, telling BBC radio, "Clearly, they are addicts."

In mid-October, Winehouse, Blake Fielder-Civil and a third person were arrested in Norway after a tip to police that they were toting marijuana. They each paid a fine of $715 and were released. Now Winehouse is appealing the fine.

"If my man was fighting
Some unholy war
I would be behind him"

In November, a London judge ordered Blake Fielder-Civil held in jail on charges of witness tampering in his forthcoming trial. He's accused of assaulting a bar owner in June, then trying to pay the man to keep quiet about it. With him in jail, Winehouse canceled all live and promotional appearances for the year.

In mid-December, Winehouse joined him in police custody, allowing herself to be placed under arrest on suspicion of attempting to interfere in his case. She soon was free on bail, with a hearing scheduled for March.

In my review of Back to Black, I likened the album to a Greek tragedy, with Amy Winehouse in the lead role. But that would be mere art.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The top 10 albums of 2007: No. 10

Bat for Lashes
Fur and Gold

The magical and the mystical inhabit Fur and Gold, the full-length debut of Bat for Lashes and, more importantly, of Natasha Khan, a Brighton-based British singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist with bewitching power.

Though technically a band, Bat for Lashes come across as a loose collective, primarily an outlet for Khan's fertile imagination and impressive talents. Khan wrote the songs on Fur and Gold, performed lead vocals on every track, played most of the music and contributed album artwork. In interviews and photo shoots, she's the voice and face of Bat for Lashes.

In those photos, she's inevitably painted or dusted or glittered up to look like a pixie, which is probably the first image of her that pops into people's heads when they hear Fur and Gold and enter its realm of beasts and folklore.

With harpsichord galloping away, "Horse and I" ushers us into the first of many nocturnal pursuits. "There is no turning back," Khan sings, and sure enough, we've plunged headlong through the looking glass, the throbbing bass of "Trophy" a seductive, encroaching darkness. Is that you over there, Moby?! No, those haunting backing vocals belong to Texas native Josh T. Pearson, whose guitar twinges and shivers intermittently.

Nestled in this night is the tremendous "What's a Girl to Do?," which features a spoken-word introduction a la The Angels' "My Boyfriend's Back." The spaciousness of the live drums takes the track out under the stars, where Khan laments a dying love, likening her heart to a bat that wants to fly away. The keyboard and sampler provide a modern, bobbing groove, while Khan's vocal performance provides a retro feel, drawing from '60s girl groups. The combination is otherworldly. Moreover, it works thematically in altering the perception of time, as any emotional watershed can do.

But more surprises await. About two-thirds of the way through the sparse, piano-driven ballads "Sad Eyes" and "Bat's Mouth," Khan's slow, doleful melodies climax out of nowhere, breaking the verse-chorus-verse structure to soar like a phoenix. She also covers Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire," the spinnerets of a zither helping to soften it from a lustful declaration to a longing, pliant, feminine expression.

For the most part, Fur and Gold chronicles characters: sometimes human, sometimes animal. "Trophy" mentions queens and court jesters. "Seal's Jubilee," a placid tune with echoes and vibraphone, paints an ocean scene thriving with birds, sharks, a whale, a dog, trees, swans and, of course, seals. Then "teachers and travelers" arrive and lay waste to the land. Khan's choice of words are chilling: "And black snow came and black snow stayed."

"Sarah," no less dark, reflects on the life of an atheist who met an untimely end. And despite the fact she had been "going nowhere," the narrator confesses, "You know sometimes, I want to love like you / Sarah / so I know how it feels not to feel."

You'd think "The Wizard" would be self-explanatory, but the allusions to sex and possession --- what with the blood-drinking and the pledges of subservience and the "hands that drink my body" --- muddy the waters. I mean, is this a song about a wizard or an orgasm?

'Cause either way, it rules.