Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Album Briefs: Kanye West, The Rolling Stones, Sleepingdog

Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
[Roc-a-Fella, Def Jam 2010]


There's no telling where the melodramatic saga of Kanye West will go from here, but My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, his magnum opus, is the culmination of all the hubris, all the contradictions of image, all the public meltdowns, and all the inner demons and paranoia made public from life under a magnifying glass.  As someone who was not particularly enthralled by West's antics or music until buzz tracks for Twisted Fantasy started dropping, this album has floored me in its excitement, honesty and boundary-bending ambition.  "Power" indulges West's self-glorifying tendencies to startling impact, "Devil in a New Dress" gorgeously samples Smokey Robinson's "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?", and centerpiece "Runaway" closes on several minutes of auto-tuned, destroyed vocals that is riveting in its opaqueness.  West raps with a confidence reflected in his music and the guest appearances shine brightly, especially Nicki Minaj's scorched-earth verse on "Monster", John Legend's graceful piano and singing on "Blame Game", and the numerous contributions of Bon Iver's (?!) Justin Vernon, which includes the generous donation of his song "Woods" for West's re-imagining in "Lost in the World".  You could say Dark Fantasy is a game-changer in hip hop, and it should be, but perhaps it's not.  Instead maybe it's just a stand-alone masterwork from an artist in a league all his own.

The Rolling Stones: Some Girls
[Atlantic 1978]


I'm far from a Rolling Stones aficionado or completist, but all I can say is that recently I've fallen in love with Some Girls, after sitting on it for several uneventful years.  When I'm in the mood for a real man's album, I'll turn to the testosterone-fueled swagger of songs like "Miss You", "Some Girls" and "Respectable".  Aside from being a really tight set of catchy classic rock, they include some of the Stones' funniest songs, namely "Far Away Eyes" in which Mick Jagger does his best redneck, and the title track, where Jagger recounts the peculiar generosity of his assembly line of lovers (Most rock 'n roll line: "Some girls give me children I never asked 'em for").  Some Girls is basically the sound of classic rock superstars being exactly who they are and singing about what they know.  Rock n' Roll excess and daily debauchery was the Rolling Stones experience, and in this line of work they were more than comfortable.

"Beast of Burden":

Sleepingdog: Polar Life
[Gizeh 2008]


The quality standards for music strictly designed as serene or calming seems to be lacking.  How hard is it to mess up the sound of soothing?  Go out to the forest with a tape recorder and you're likely to come back with the easing ambient of birds chirping, the wind rustling, and the rest of the natural world doing its thing.  Polar Life was an underground favorite in 2008 for its supposedly beautiful minimalism.  But in the serene, I see the sterile.  Each track is designed to be sharply sparse, with little more than piano, humble strings, and whispery female vocals.  But the few elements that are there are so thin and chilly they don't provide a welcoming appeal.  Chantal Acda's clean singing isn't pushed to any limits, but rather stays in a barely expressive whisper.  Calm becomes tedium on most of Polar Life, with an exception being "The Sun Sinks in the Sea" in which the music accomplishes tension in its negative space.  Without the intrigue though, you're left with music so quiet and slow it's really only meant for an unadventurous Sunday morning headphone listen.

"The Sun Sinks in the Sea":

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