New Amerykah Part Two
(Return of the Ankh)
According to Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) was a left brain record, dealing primarily with themes affecting society at large, such as drug addiction, racism and urban decay, while New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh), her newest release, represents the right side of her brain, the loving, emotional side.
That split extends deeper than lyrical content. The production on Part One was all digital slickness, cold and calculating. Part Two is all analog warmth, blanketed with funky bass lines, angelic harps and the crackle and pop of sampled vinyl. Even the theremins add to the sense of intimacy, here sounding like bubbles of soothing noise.
The video for Window Seat sees Badu stripping off her clothes piece by piece while walking in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas, site of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, before herself being gunned down by an unknown assassin. It is a visual representation of the record’s greatest strength and the reason why it succeeds: Badu’s swagger. Throughout Part Two, her voice oozes confidence, even as she bares all to the listener with lines such as, “I’m a recovering undercover over-lover/Recovering from a love I can’t get over.”
The Dallas police took notice of Badu’s stunt, with kids among the witnesses, and she has been charged with disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor that carries a fine of up to US$500. But after listening to the record, you get the feeling that this was all a part of the plan and that somewhere, she is smirking.
Beach House’s music is often described as “dream pop,” a genre that began in the 1980s as an intermingling of ambient post-rock sound textures and bittersweet pop-hooks, but any genre label falls short of fully capturing the forces at work on the band’s third album Teen Dream.
It’s easy to get lost in the meandering chord progression of the opening track Zebra, which trots along for a full two minutes with only a metronomic kick-drum and shaker before the snap of the drum machine’s snare propels it into a second round of verse and chorus, this time digging its heels in, with vocalist Victoria Legrand proclaiming, “Anywhere you run, you run before us” atop triumphant, crashing cymbals.
Nine more songs follow, each gushing emotion without ever sounding affected. Crystalline chord arpeggios and soaring synths drive 10 Mile Stereo to a stunning climax on what is Legrand’s most impressive vocal performance, stretching all the right notes as she announces with absolute certainty that “The heart is a stone and this is a stone that we throw.” Yet just as a teenager’s poetry can only take wings in the heart of its acne’d author, the lyrics here are often impenetrable on paper. “Seven figures leap the hungry maws/The beast he comes to you” she croons atop a bed of eerie watery guitar on Norway.
Considering the emotional breadth of the record, which runs the gamut from detuned psychedelia to unbridled pop (sometimes within the space of a single track), the elements of each song remain remarkably consistent: reverb-drenched vocals, relatively clean guitars, haunting synths and simple drum machine beats. Whereas many other bands have to rely on studio innovation to sound fresh, the magic of Teen Dream, what imbues it with such a grandiose feel, is the songwriting itself. Even though it’s only April, Teen Dream is without a doubt one of this year’s gems.
The Moving Dawn Orchestra
On its Web site (www.movingdawnorchestra.com), Guy Andrews’ new project The Moving Dawn Orchestra describes its sound as “contemporary classical and electro-acoustic folk music” — a mouthful to be sure, but the music is not half as convoluted as the description suggests. The Moving Dawn Orchestra’s sound is created by laying down acoustic instruments such as strings, guitars and pianos alongside synthesized and digitally manipulated sounds. As the songs work their way through different musical motifs, they often build and release tension by adding or removing layers of sound. Although this may sound far out, the music isn’t particularly experimental and for the most part the sounds are carefully crafted and arranged to be beautiful, not difficult.
The Dials EP, The Moving Dawn Orchestra’s first release, consists of a suite of four songs, each running around eight minutes and representing one of the four seasons. The EP explores themes of warmth and cold, comfort and isolation. Spring: Hymn/Hymn opens with a sad slow descending piano melody that calls to mind winter’s chill, accompanied by pleasantly chiming bells anticipating spring’s arrival. Fittingly, Summer: Keep Still gives us the warmest moment on the record: a folky guitar picking out a happy melody accompanied by breathy vocals pleading, “Please don’t stop this summer to be.” In Autumn: Between Hands, the promise of summer’s sunny days fades into a melancholy autumn’s falling leaves and encroaching cold. And as you would expect, the album’s most desolate and dissonant moments are brought to the fore during Winter: Silhouettes. The suite ends here with inky black harmonic drones.
Though the concept may seem gimmicky, the EP actually works well and warrants a listen from anyone with an interest in contemporary classical music.
The buzz surrounding Bonobo’s 2000 debut record Animal Magic had Simon Green pegged as one of the rising stars of trip-hop and earned him a spot on the respected Ninja Tune label’s roster. Black Sands is his third LP for the label, and a worthy effort from a man who’s been perfecting his craft for over a decade now.
The album begins with a prelude: a Chinese bowed instrument playing a somber melody that leads seamlessly into the rich atmospherics, synthesized bass stabs and compressed beat of the next track, Kiara. It’s an elegant beginning, and sets the tone for a record that is nothing if not tasteful. Lush beats, smooth production and diverse instrumentation create a sound that is appealing across the board. The most instantly likeable track on the album may be El Toro, whose energetic breakbeats, regal strings and brass accents call to mind DJ Shadow’s early work. The three tracks on which Andreya Triana is a guest vocalist are some of the album’s best, adding some soul to the chilled-out ambiance Bonobo creates. Of particular note is the song Eyes Down, which buries Triana’s subtle, sexy vocals between robotic synths and a warbling drum ’n’ bass style bassline.
Bonobo has often been criticized for sounding too generic as a result of failing to take risks with his music, and this album will do little to silence criticism of that nature. But although it may not rewrite the book on trip-hop, it’s a solid release from top to bottom.
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