Five tracks I've been digging this week!
Mighty Sparrow, “Doh Touch Me President”
Slinger Francisco AKA Mighty Sparrow has been one of the greatest songwriters on the planet for the last sixty years and still gets no respect outside of his native Trinidad. His music often addresses typical calypsonian concerns like sex, romance, drinking, and partying, but he has also been able to make fun, peppy dance songs about a variety of heavy sociopolitical events from apartheid (“Isolate South Africa”), to the Iranian Revolution (“Ayatollah”), to the imperial exploitation of the Caribbean (“English Diplomacy,” “Our Model Nation,” and many others). This particular track, from his 1998 album Doh Stop De Carnival retells the story of the sex scandal that plagued Bill Clinton's second term as US President in surprising detail. It seems ridiculous at first to hear references to Ken Starr and “Travelgate”over a sun-kissed soca groove, but Sparrow's talent for writing catchy call-and-response hooks, and lyrics that skewer human folly win out. The contrast between the farcical bedroom intrigue of the scandal, and the serious implications it had for the strength and credibility of the American empire were perfect material for a calypso song, but it took a genius like Sparrow to realize it.
Blood Orange, “Gold Teeth”
I'm a huge fan of smooth, atmospheric 80s pop, and of hardcore Memphis murder rap, but I never expected anybody would be able to combine those two strands of music, despite their shared affinity for slick digital synth sounds. I was wrong: on this track from his new album Angel's Pulse, Devonte Hynes recruits Memphis veterans Project Pat and Gangsta Boo to spit their trademark brand of gleeful misanthropy over a lush backdrop of reverbed pianos and deep, aquatic synth-pads reminiscent of Sade's “Bullet Proof Soul” or Double's “The Captain of Her Heart,” and it works perfectly. Pat and Boo seem to be having a blast; their plainspoken verses careen over Hynes' lacrimose, immaculately appointed sonic environment like wine spilling on fresh white linen. Tinashe's vocals are beautiful, but they don't shock and delight me as much as the two rappers' contributions because they fit in almost too well with the hi-tech blissed-out instrumental. Altogether astonishing, like breaking into a skyscraper executive suite to smoke blunts and have races with shiny chrome office furniture.
Rick Ross, “Turnpike Ike”
Ross has been a joke, an outsized parody of gangsta excess, for so many years that it's easy to forget there was a time when he actually convinced people to take him seriously. Around the time “B.M.F.” came out in 2011, there were some rap music commentators who seriously believed he could start a violent beef with Young Jeezy through the sheer force of his personality and ability to select a hot beat. After his past as a corrections officer was revealed, however, he stopped pretending to be a real criminal, and started instead spinning South Beach tall tales full of cigarette boats, bikini-clad models, exotic handguns and piles of cocaine that could give Tony Montana heart palpitations. Although much of his music since his 2010-2013 dominion over the streets ended has reflected this turn toward the fantastical, he seems to be outright acknowledging and accepting it on this track, from his newest project Port of Miami 2. His verses are great, a Miami Vice yarn of international drug trafficking and outrageous spending to rival the finest of his past work. It's supported by a bouncy bassline and strings sampled from The O'Jays' “Help (Somebody Please)” and some goofy sound effects, which are dropped in at appropriate points in the lyrics (for example, a pickup at the airport is accompanied by the sound of screeching tires and a plane landing). There's also a great exchange between Ross and a female admirer in-between the first and second verse that really drives home his satirical intent, but describing it would ruin the joke. Nice to see a former superstar caper into elder-statesmanhood with wit and grace.
Carl Stone, “Banteay Srey”
A piece like this provokes a kind of meditative trance in the listener. If you're not on its wavelength, its slow pace and repetition can become annoying, but if you are it's like taking a step into a private universe of infinite calm. The detuned vocal sample at its center is like someone calling out deep in a forest, guiding you toward a quiet clearing or a breathtaking mountain overlook. As the track continues, simple synth chords surround that haunting voice, like the rays of the sun slowly filling an empty room. It also reminds me of the Forest Temple from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, that sense of an ancient place long deserted but still carrying the power of its bygone inhabitants. The synths add color to Stone's soundscape, but the focus stays on that voice, the ghost of a forgotten past, calling out to the listener and reminding them of their temporality and ultimate insignificance in the face of the immense, complex world they inhabit.
Red House Painters, “Katy Song”
I wish Mark Kozelek still made songs like this. His most recent output as Sun Kil Moon consists mostly of long, eccentric monologues about the minutiae of his life over perfunctory musical accompaniment, occasionally interspersed with an offbeat cover song (for example, he recently recorded a dessicated folk-rock version of Godflesh's “Like Rats”), but back in the 90s, as the leading member of Red House Painters, he wrote one great melody after another. This song, from the second Red House Painters album Rollercoaster, is probably his masterpiece. The first half could plausibly be described as The Smiths dunked in a glass of water. The guitarist twirls around the sturdy rhythm section like Johnny Marr, but everything seems to be blurred at the edges, like reading an old diary and seeing places where the ink bled through the page and obscured the words. Kozelek sings in a smooth, affectless tenor which perfectly suits the lonesome, wandering melody. As it passes the five minute mark, however the guitarist steps on the distortion pedal and transforms it into a cathartic shoegaze rave-up. Kozelek's vocals become another layer of the vaporous drone, as he is drawn more and more into a supermassive black hole of utter abjection. Red House Painters were eventually lumped into the “slowcore” subgenre with a few other idiosyncratic acts like Low and Codeine which shared their glum outlook and artistic philosophy, but not their sound. The epic of self pity which Kozelek composed here really stands on its own in rock music, and in his own body of work.