The Pet Shop Boys are asking some of our favorite existential questions. Have we become a society of sad robots yet? Are we just drones or digital sheep now? And where are the literal robot workers we’ve been promised to ease our labors? Pop culture has been asking those question for, oh, since the Industrial Revolution, at least. And although we ask these questions anew with each new wave of technology, we’ve somehow still remained our same bloodthirsty, irrational animal selves. Robots are no cure for human nature. The fact that we get all existential about the technologies that make our lives easier is proof that we’re helplessly bound to our emotions. We project them compulsively onto everything around us. We’re no more isolated or desensitized than any other generation in any other eon.
Kelela or Kehlani? Tinashe! Tinashe is the alt-R&B diva of my heart. Too bad she’s still not getting the widespread love and acclaim she deserves. I hear she’s playing another South by Southwest showcase this year, which may or may not give her profile a boost. That’s how I discovered her in 2014 and I’ve been a fan ever since. She sings and dances like a big-league pro. She has the looks. She seems like a nice and smart person. She really just needs that one big hit.
The Joy Formidable released their third album in 2016, to very little fanfare. Which is unfortunate, because they deserve fanfare. At a time when guitar rock has somehow become under-represented, we need bands that understand both loudness and melodicism. The Joy Formidable are outstandingly good at balancing heavy feedback with pretty vocals, which is very nearly a lost art. Ritzy Bryan may not be the It-Girl she deserves to be, but she’s the guitar hero we need her to be.
We’re gonna roll through the next few days examining the redemptive power of rock music, in all of its various forms and permutations. That’s necessarily going to focus on the big players for the most part, but we’ll hear some less well-known artists. Like Wild Belle, who aren’t really a rock band – but you don’t have to be in a rock band to be a rock star. Wild Belle are so not-well-known their second album doesn’t have its own Wikipedia page, which implies that there’s literally nothing to say about it except to acknowledge that it exists. I can say that it’s a good record and you should buy it. Wild Belle are different from most of the other sibling duos in that they really like roots reggae; their sound is half island, half Laurel Canyon. It’s still, on some level, lifestyle music, which, it seems, is what most light indie pop is geared to be. As in, you can hear these songs being unobtrusively pleasant as you shop, and they evoke hashtag-ready imagery of girls with long blonde hair and fringe suede boots. There’s nothing wrong with pleasant music evoking pleasant images, and I certainly am not shading Natalie Bergman for her fair hair. The way those things have been monetized via social media is also not inherently wrong, despite the misgivings of people raised on traditional media. In fact, young stars like Bergman have means to control and market their image in a way that a comparably appealing young star in the 60’s never dreamed of. That’s progress, of a sort, though we haven’t made heads or tails of it yet. The nature of stardom is different today. Maybe stars can’t be larger than life anymore, but in exchange, they can be constantly in your life, like a friend who never stops forwarding you Groupon offers.
(Concert Photo by K. Nordstrom // Instagram: @kellenyousoftly)
Now that it’s almost time to pick the best-of of the year, let’s revisit one of last year’s best. Paul Simon’s Stranger to Stranger has been on my playlist since it came out in the summer of 2016, and it still makes me think “Wow, how does this guy manage to be better than ever?” In fact, I haven’t listened to this much Paul Simon since my days of identifying way too much with I Am a Rock back in high school. Now I hope that I have so much creativity and vitality when I’m freaking 76 years old. Maybe the best years are still ahead, for all of us.
You’ll be hard pressed to find any trace of Nick Cave’s signature wit and mordant humor on Skeleton Tree. The album was recorded in the fallout of family tragedy, and necessarily, the music is stripped down to a funereal bleakness hitherto undelved. The business of show business, however, must go on, and the wheels of the machine that sells records must keep turning. There’s something particularly grotesque, a testament about our time and celebrity culture, in watching a man whose child has just died make the rounds of late night talk show stages to promote a set of songs about deepest tragedy. Nick Cave is, of course, uniquely qualified to face being in this position; the tragic and the grotesque have always been his stomping grounds. He has to, on some level, appreciate the irony. Hence, I suppose, the garish carnival backdrop of his Late Show performance, a gallows joke nonpareil. There’s that sense of humor after all.
I don’t usually know very much about what’s going on in the R&B corner of things. It’s, um, it’s a neighborhood I don’t go to very often, so to speak. But sometimes there’s an artist who has the potential to blow up beyond the boundaries of what genre they’re booked into. I recommend keeping an eye on the progress of Tinashe. She’s nominally an R&B artist, but it’s like alternative R&B. Alternative R&B is an umbrella genre that covers a pretty far-flung range of artists from The Weeknd to Rhye to Solange to Banks, all of whom share an interest in sexy grooves and moody atmospheres but also draw from just about everywhere else as well. Tinashe draws from contemporary R&B and soul, from hip hop and from pop, from dance music. She’s a well rounded artist in that way. What matters is she’s got a great voice, a sexy smoky voice that puts her in the school of Sade, and her records (two albums and counting) are commercial without being generic. (She’s been described as a more pop oriented FKA Twigs.) The trend right now is female pop singers who are always trying to hit the top of their range; there’s not much room for quiet. But we could use a quiet pop star who prefers to whisper rather than to shout. Tinashe could be, with the right hit, a huge, huge star. Or she could go on to build an edgier career, if she follows her more eccentric side.