Monday, February 23, 2009

Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Hell yeah!

It was only a week ago that Yeah Yeah Yeahs fans were buzzing over “Zero,” the first single from the act's highly anticipated, exclamation-point-enhanced new album, It’s Blitz!

Loaded with swirling, colorful synthesizers that could have been lifted from a Little Boots song, “Zero” plays like the perfect soundtrack to a raucous, beer-fueled dance party, ultimately driven by a propulsive beat and singer Karen O’s signature yowl. And then bright and early this morning, the full-length album made its way onto the Internets, revealing a revitalized band -- one bouncing back from its contentious and far more eclectic sophomore effort, Show Your Bones.

With It’s Blitz! not due to hit retailers until April 14 (!), the rumors of guitarist Nick Zinner all but abandoning his six-string for keyboards seem to have been greatly exaggerated. While analog synth sounds are everywhere, Zinner’s dexterous ax-slinging appears to be in ample evidence here.

But more than anything, the YYY’s new LP finds the trio taking their sound directly to the heart -- and the heart of the dance floor. A mission statement: “Dance 'til you’re dead / Off with your head!” Karen O howls on “Heads Will Roll,” another floor-mover that shares plenty of DNA (and melody) with New Order’s classic “Blue Monday.”

Dreamy romanticism marks numbers like the bouncy “Soft Shock” and “Hysteric,” but it’s with the sweet electro-ballad “Skeletons” that the band finally produces a worthy heir to their breakout single “Maps.” Yet fans of the caustic riot-blues that marked most of the YYY’s debut, Fever to Tell, will be as disappointed with It’s Blitz! as they were with "Show Your Bones," as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are obviously not interested in revisiting their own past.

Instead, they’re making like Blondie, and seeing just how far they can stretch the boundaries of their sound without snapping.

(Originally published in the LA Times)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Best of the '80s: Dif Juz, "No Motion"

When people talk about music in the '80s, they usually reference popular but fleeting stuff from bands like A-Ha.

But underneath the surface churned all sorts of amazing music that never really saw the light of day outside of specialty radio shows way down at the end of the dial that would come on late at night, a few import magazines and of course, the one or two indie record stores that existed in most major cities.

Dif Juz is one such band. As part of the 4AD roster alongside the likes of Bauhaus and Cocteau Twins, their dreamy, atmospheric instrumentals were stunningly gorgeous.

The band's biggest moment was having their song "No Motion" appear on the 4AD compilation album Lonely is an Eyesore. This chiming slice of sonic heaven is a timeless wonder. Enjoy.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Ludacris: Don't sweat the technique

Lil’ Wayne, Jay-Z, T.I. and Kanye West. These are the usual suspects mentioned when the conversation moves towards your big-money rappers. Why Ludacris is consistently overlooked in that conversation is a mystery and just plain wrong.

While the wildly successful Atlanta rapper/actor has sold millions of records and starred in Oscar-nominated movies (Crash), he rarely if ever shows up in tabloids or paparazzi shots. And on the same day that Kanye West’s much-ballyhooed 808s & Heartbreak had the masses scratching their heads to Tears For Fears samples, Ludacris dropped the much sturdier Theater of the Mind.

Loaded with club bangers (“One More Drank”) and radio hits (“What Them Girls Like”), it’s the class of big-money commercial rap albums (debuting to sales of over 213,000 copies) that are fewer and further between. Theater of the Mind culminates with an incendiary four-track suite of songs (including an amazing beat from DJ Premier, “MVP”) where Ludacris trades verses with Nas, Jay-Z, Lil’ Wayne and Common, and should all but insure it a Best Rap Album Grammy nomination in 2010.

Speaking from his home base of Atlanta the day after the 2009 Grammys, Ludacris seems unconcerned about the lack of scandalous headlines in his life. He does, however, have a new album that’s already done and can recommend a great Singaporean restaurant.

So what did you think of the Grammys this year?

I watched it as a fan, and found it pretty boring. There were a couple of exceptions. I was really glad to see Lil’ Wayne perform with Allen Toussaint in honor of New Orleans. I loved that.

Considering the November 2008 release date, do you expect to see Theater of the Mind in the running for Best Rap Album next year?
Ah, I’ll have another album out in time for that one! I’m on the move. The next album is called Battle of the Sexes and should be out around August of this year.

That’s the one with Shawnna, the female rapper signed to your Disturbing Tha Peace label, correct?
It’s my album, but yeah, it features Shawnna representing for the ladies. My whole point is to do things in hip-hop that have never been done before and to fill a gap. There’s never been an album with a male and female MC touching on different relationship issues. It’s 80% done already.

What inspires you after having already achieved so much success in rapping as well as acting?
I’m driven by the desire to touch on things that have yet to be done. I want to be a pioneer in the game. Theater of the Mind is more of a hip-hop oriented album. I didn’t feel like hip-hop was being represented enough in today’s music, and that’s where that came from. I want to inject that same energy into Battle of the Sexes. There are no female MCs representing right now.

I know you’re already onto the next album, but Theater of the Mind is a really great album that’s been completely underrated
Some of the best albums are, man! I’m happy with the feedback I’ve gotten from it. It puts me in the position to keep moving forward. I feel like I’ve done my duty.

There’s no reason you couldn’t have two albums competing for the same award
Yeah, that would be dope!

A lot was made about collaboration between yourself and Good Charlotte. Whatever came of that?
I’m still working with them. What we came up with just didn’t fit the theme of Theater of the Mind. But that doesn’t mean we won’t be coming with something soon. So far, it sounds like the perfect gel of alternative rock and rap.

Are you any closer to a duet with Eminem you’ve spoken about in the past?
I had a chance to speak with Em recently. He let me know that he’s hard at work on his new album, and that once he gets that handled we’ll definitely be getting together in the future. That’s something I’m really looking forward to.

You’ve had more success at acting than most rappers. Why do you think that is?
I love what I do. I love rapping and acting, and I’ve been blessed.

Who are some of the producers on Battle of the Sexes?
In the same way you say that Theater of the Mind is underrated, let’s just say that a lot of underrated producers are working on this next one! Guys you might not expect.

With all of the economic strife and the inauguration of a new President, how are things at home in Atlanta?

Man, we’re pulling through. We’re going to sustain either way. Of course it is hard for a lot of people, but in the end we’re going to be OK. I still have my restaurant Straits open, and the food is good enough to keep it going, and I’m proud about that.

Strait serves Singaporean cuisine. How did you get into that?
It’s no different that my music. I like to do things that are different and unique. I wanted to introduce something hot and exotic to that part of Atlanta. I can bring people in for the first time, but the food has to bring them back. Thanks to my chef and partner Chris Yeo, the food does bring them back. I knew the restaurant business would be hard, but we’re making it happen.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Little Boots makes bold strides

With the cacophony of central London roaring behind her, Victoria Hesketh -- the burgeoning 25-year-old electro-pop sensation known as Little Boots -- is insisting she’s more than just another blog-driven flash in the pan.

“My new songs are even more commercial,” she says of her forthcoming debut album, which does not yet have a release date. Of course, her previous material isn't exactly old.

Hesketh rode to Internet prominence late last year with “Stuck on Repeat,” a throbbing dance-floor anthem that alternates massive synth melodies with ominous sleigh bells. Through it all, Hesketh’s clear, higher-register bell-like voice stands front and center.

And yet, she says "Stuck on Repeat" isn't an indication of where she's heading.

“My music is brighter and more colorful than that," she says via cellphone. "To me, ‘Stuck on Repeat’ is kind of disco-y and dark. The other songs are more varied. There are slow songs, some weird ones, it’s a real mix. I really hate two-dimensional albums ... I want to be more like early Madonna albums, where she would do all sorts of different things, but her voice is what tied it all together.”

Hesketh is currently spending a lot of time in Los Angeles, putting the finishing touches on the album with producer Greg Kurstin of L.A. band the Bird and the Bee. “He’s just so talented and really gets me," she says. "He’s got such a broad range of experience. He and I co-wrote and produced all of the tracks. But I also did some things with a new guy called Kid Gloves, and Joe Goddard from Hot Chip.”

Hesketh’s Little Boots moniker is taken from English translation of the Latin “Caligula,” the notorious third Roman emperor who inspired the infamous 1979 movie of the same name. She's been a mini YouTube sensation, where she posted videos of herself performing original songs as well as covers, such as Haddaway’s “What Is Love” and, more well-known, Hot Chip’s “Ready for the Floor.” The latter is striking in its simplicity, as she's accompanied only by a Yamaha Tenori-On, a hand-held music sequencer that lights up in time with the music it produces.

“I just borrowed it from a friend, and picked up it pretty quickly,” she says of the device, “because quite honestly, I’m really quite nerdy. I love getting new things to sit and geek out on until I totally understand it. But they are a bit tricky at first. I use one in concert. It’s a great visual aid with all of the lights, so much better than just another laptop. We’re working with Yamaha to create a special one to take out to festivals and things.

“So often people think it’s all just robots and machines, and that’s not the case," Hesketh continues, the sounds of the city still churning in the background. "To me, it should be just as exciting as seeing a great guitar player. That’s what I’m trying to do, anyway.”

(Originally published in the L.A. Times.)

Monday, February 02, 2009

I went to Prince's house

Yes, it's true. I was in the man's house. It was one of the greatest musical experiences of my life. My official recount of the evening can be found here on the L.A. Times website.

Something that was omitted from the piece was a mention of his current harmonica player, Frederic Yonnet. The guy is simply amazing. I haven't heard someone blow a harp this well since the glory days of Magic Dick and the J. Geils Band. When Prince and the band tore through a version of the Rolling Stones classic "Miss You," he positively ignited the room with his immense talent.

I had a chance to chat with Mr. Yonnet at the event, and he was as kind and humble as they come. A true gentleman and class act.

I love the above video. The intro from Dave Chappelle is hilarious, and spot-on. Like Chappelle, I didn't know I liked harmonica music before this guy (Magic Dick not withstanding). Frederic Yonnet is the truth.