Who remembers this song? You may have slow danced to it at your prom, if you were still in high school in the late 80’s, or you may have seen the dance floor grind to a halt when someone requested it at 80’s Nite. Either way, it’s kind of the nadir of 80’s one hit wonders. When In Rome were barely a band back when they were a band, and now the most interesting thing about them is that all three former members are embroiled in lawsuits and counter- lawsuits over who has legal ownership of their name. Because if you had a hit record for a few weeks in 1987, you need every recourse to continue making money from it decades later. In short, it’s a terrible song from a terrible band and you’d never imagine that it could be anything but a terrible footnote in the history of terrible music. Enter Sturgill Simpson. Who is this man with a golden voice who takes a nugget of pure dreck and finds the heartfelt ballad inside? Simpson named his breakout album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, and that itself is a good introduction to the artist. The idea is that the country music is neither dead nor hostage to flag-waving imbeciles; in the hands of a master, it’s alive and as relevant as anything else out there and it can support whatever ideas you want it to, be it the joy of psychedelic drugs or the joy of mining good songs out of bad production.
My favorite track from my favorite St. Vincent album. Also, if you recall, this was one of my favorite albums of 2014. I actually haven’t thought about St. Vincent in a while; she’s been off the radar for some time. No can blame her for wanting to keep a low profile, since her last album was such a hit and launched her out of her comfortable space as an acclaimed-but-obscure artist into actual fame, she’s had to experience some of the nastier things success has to offer i.e. paparazzi, speculation about her love life, etc. It’s been long enough, I think, and she’s had her fun doing rock star things like dating supermodels. St. Vincent is an important artist and she needs to reemerge soon. I heard that she’s at work directing a horror movie right now, which is exciting, but not music. Maybe she’ll write music for the movie? That would be a great project.
This sounds piped in straight from the 1960’s. Partly for the West Coast psychedelic production, but mostly for the retrograde sentiment. It’s been at least four decades since “You’re pretty when you cry” was a legit thing that could be said to someone (one hopes.) And it’s certainly been at least that long since that kind of sentiment was a legit thing you could write an un-ironic song about. The 60’s were all awash with doe-eyed girls singing songs written by men about how their entire lives and identities were built around their men. Funny how, once those girls started writing their own songs, those sentiments faded out real fast. Almost no one writes or sings torch songs anymore, which we may take as a sign of some kind of social progress. For those of us who secretly enjoy crying into our pillow and contemplating soft-grunge suicide when we don’t get all of the male attentions, there’s Lana Del Rey.
I present you with the humble folk singer, Robert Plant. If that’s not what you know him for, think again. If there’s one thing his recent career developments have shown, is that Plant rather does fancy himself a folk singer, and perhaps always has. Even when the singer can’t resist unleashing those signature wails, it’s still a folk song. Another lifelong signature (and a controversial one) is the habit of giving himself writing credit for rearrangements of songs whose roots aren’t lost to time enough to qualify as ‘traditional’. This a rearrangement of a Leadbelly song, and it true Robert Plant fashion, the lyrics remain while the shape has been shifted into something quite new. It’s American blues taken through space-time to meet English folk tradition, plus some global stuff thrown in. Of course, Anglicizing American blues music beyond all recognition is what pays Plant’s castle mortgage. So all this getting ‘rootsier’ with age isn’t exactly a new development; it’s an inevitable development.
If I wanted to simplify my musical choices into if-then bytes, I would say that you’d then like Glass Animals if you like Alt-J. Because cryptic, whispery, psychedelic tunes with atmosphere over hooks. But, you know, that’s a simplistic way of explaining things. Let’s just say, here’s another corner of in the psychedelic side of electronic indie music. Glass Animals’ first album Zaba was a triumph of sustained atmosphere. Not really the kind of record where individual songs fly out at you, but the kind that you kind of get into the flow of. This song was a single, and it does stand on its own quite well. I also really love the beautiful claymation video.
In the face of hundred million dollar offers to ride the nostalgia bus, Robert Plant turns his nose up and says that he’s just not that bored. Sick burn, Robert! While some people *cough* Jimmy Page *cough* *cough* want to spend their time digging through their own archives, remastering the hits, dusting off old demos, and just generally living in the past, Plant is busy trotting the musical globe with a new set of friends. Maybe Plant’s contentious relationship with his old partner and their legacy isn’t very graceful and smells like the bickering of an old divorced couple, but his ongoing creative vitality makes up for it. Sure, it’s detrimental to the kids not to have both fathers hand-in-hand like they used to be. But I’d rather hear new music than forgotten outtakes from Led Zeppelin III, and Plant has been on a Renaissance tear lately. First he did the big bluegrass excursion with Alison Krauss, then he gathered the band he calls The Sensational Space Shifters for a record that pours together all of the folk music of the world. It’s quite satisfying to see him evolve his sound and build on his interests without falling back the damn tropes he helped create. He still likes magic and mythology, and he’s still interested in the heroic possibilities of British folk music, and if he’s less bombastic about those things, all the better for it. And he still has the looks and bearing of a horse lord, albeit now one who has retired with honors from the Rohirrim.
Here, a lesson in zef aesthetics. For Die Antwoord music is only part of the story; their personas and visual style make them a complete package. There’s some debate as to how real those personas really are. It’s a bigger issue back home in South Africa, where some critics have accused Yo-Landi and Ninja of being middle class poseurs, much like white performers in America often get called out for trying to act like they from the hood. But for us viewing audiences here in the States, a lot of the context gets lost, and we don’t really care if their zef is the most authentic zef, because it’s the only zef we know. You don’t need an in-depth cultural history to enjoy what’s clearly an image that’s heavily dramatized for the stage. Die Antwoord’s visual cues are uniquely theirs, from their love of rats and freeky people to their clever takedowns of American hip hop culture. If you didn’t get it already, the sleek pimpy fellow getting his throat ripped out at the beginning of the video is a doppelganger of the aggressively mediocre and wildly popular Miami rapper Armando Perez aka Pitbull. Die Antwoord have consistently set themselves against what they call “one big inbred fuck-fest” of a music scene, meaning the endlessly generic, overhyped, overproduced products of the mainstream pop machine. Rap music used to be an outsider culture, but it has been cannibalized by the music industry and turned into another bland mass market product ruled by stereotype and cliche. The same has happened to rave culture and electronic music. Die Antwoord are a rap-rave outfit, drawing inspiration from – and satirizing – both cultures. One of the most enjoyable things about their inventive videos is seeing them send up, invert, and overturn the tired tropes of the standard music video.