Saturday, May 29, 2010

Standing out from the Crowd

Monáe, The ArchAndroid, Bad Boy/Wondaland

"Critics are loath to admit it, but every once in a while
we come across an album of such thuddingly obvious
quality that writing a straight-up review seems boring."
-- Seth Colter Walls,

There's so much to say about this voraciously talented St. Louis-
to-Atlanta transplant that it's hard to know where to start. Like
Patti Smith, she recalls more male musicians than female, but
never sounds like a man in drag (and nor does Smith).

Granted, her power suit and pompadour suggest androgyny, so
this shouldn't come as a completely surprise, but I'm still amaz-
ed she can take on so many different styles, from funk to fusion,
with so much grace. The ArchAndroid isn't retro or even ret-
ro-futurist—Metropolis-inspired cover art aside—but she does
cover similar territory to Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind and Fire,
and P-Funk (see Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome).

Monáe brings more contemporary artists to mind, too, but with-
out imitating or offering homages to anyone in particular. I'm
thinking specifically of genre-benders like Prince, PM Dawn,
Gnarls Barkley, and Outkast, whose Big Boi duets on "Tight-
rope" (I've also come across references to James Brown, but
this seems to have more to do with her nimble dancing).

Before I'd even heard a lick of her music, I was struck by her style,
but skeptical of her art, because I'd heard she was working on a
concept album
it revolves around a droid doppelgänger in 27-
a risky proposition for any artist, especially for a debut disc.

Then I heard the swaggering "Tightrope" (via the video in which
she and Big Boi "tip" all over a One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest-
style facility) and caught her at this year's Pop Conference, where
she participated in a round table with Nile Rodgers and Joe Hen-
ry (Vogue also profiled the petite musician in their "body" issue).

My admiration for her eloquence, upbeat attitude, flexible voice,
and gravity-defying moves grew. As did my curiosity. Finally her
record hit the streets in May, and for once only the dreaded pas-
sive tense will do: the wait was worth it. The hype was justified.

The ArchAndroid is one of those rare records I can listen to
anytime, and it always sounds just right. And so I have. Weeks
of listening only confirm what I thought the first time around:
it's the best album of the year: rich and full in the headphones
with beats made for dancing and lyrics made for dreaming,
like "Take me back to Wondaland." It's
an instant classic.

Falling Still, May All Magic Guide
and Change You
, Peace, Man

"Most times, we all just look at each other,
and no one really says anything at all."

-- Brett Hamilton (bass, vocals)

This LA-by-way-of-Akron trio recognizes a number of inspira-
tions inside the cover of their CD, including Big Sur, Ziggy Star-
dust, Newcastle Brown Ale, Stella Artois, Trader Joe's, and Las
Vegas. For my money, the list offers more interest than their
debut, which rocks with nods to grunge and alt-country, but
needs that something extra to stand out from the crowd.

Joey Maltese, Night of the Muse, Diamond Sutra Records [7/20/10]

As a singer, former Toyz front man Joey Maltese strains to
keep up with the Mick Ronson-inspired playing that powers his
third solo effort. Consequently, guitar trumps voice, which does-
n't mean that Night of the Muse would work better as an in-
strumental recording, just that the New York musician's
wavery, yet determined pipes won't be to all tastes.

Sparkydog & Friends, People of the World, self-released

As a taster for their upcoming album, singer/songwriters R.
Azriel and Graham conjure up '80s modern rock through two
tracks that bathe jangly guitar in layers of atmospheric key-
boards, suggesting a cross between the Chills and R.E.M.

Click here for "Radiowaves."

Endnote: For more information about Falling Still, please click here; for Joey Maltese, here; for Janelle Monáe
, here; and for Sparkydog & Friends, here or here. Image from Buzznet.

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