Friday, 14 March 2014

February 2014 - Popular Music

Tori Amos - Abnormally Attracted to Sin
Beyonce - Beyonce
Janelle Monae - Metropolis Suites I to V

Okay, well that settles it. I am indeed going to talk about Janelle Monae. An amazing vocalist. An absolute ball of energy (who I think I'd quite like to see perform live). And I think she must have a positively encyclopaedic knowledge of music from the last several decades.

The reason I say that is because she slips in and out of musical genres constantly in these suites/albums, sometimes in the same song. The nearly 9-minute epic 'BebopbyeYa' sounds like jazz, then it's Latin, then it's classical. She does Stevie Wonder funk, she does disco, she does Prince (with Prince), she does folk, she does power ballads, she does psychedelia. It doesn't end up sounding like pastiche, either. The results are consistently convincing. The only track that I don't find convincing is 'Make the Bus', the only track that Monae wasn't involved in writing and where she's turned, for some inexplicable reason, into a guest star on her own album.

One of the exciting things is that it's clear Monae isn't stumbling onto these sounds without intent. The liner notes of The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady have references to what each song is 'inspired by'. While many of these references are obscure or cryptic, careful listening makes them many of them decodable... and you can hear the references. After you know that 'Tightrope' is inspired by (among other things) James Brown's cape, listening to the song makes that James Brown DNA so obvious, you wonder why you didn't explicitly notice it before.

What we have here is a musical omnivore, with the capacity to understand what she's hearing well enough to then use it for her own ends. Those ends seem to consist of creating a dense web of interconnecting ideas, with lyrics that create an allegory about forbidden love between a human and a robot. Sometimes it sounds like it's referencing same-sex relationships. Other times it's about African-American empowerment.

But first and foremost it's a wild musical ride with a great singer, backed up it must be said by an equally great guitarist in Kellindo Parker. I'm generally a piano-biased person and no great fan of guitar solos, but time and again this guy creates something really outstanding when he's called upon.

I'm not going to declare that Janelle Monae has now leapt into my pantheon of truly great artists. What I am going to say is that she is incredibly dynamic and interesting, and that I sincerely hope she has a very long career and continues to generate music that pushes my musical boundaries. Because I'm certainly eager to hear what comes next - starting with 2 more 'suites' to accompany the 5 that I have selected the above videos to represent.

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