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AwardsWatch Weekly Music Roundup: Week of December 16, 2013

Bewitched by Beyoncé
Bewitched by Beyoncé

What Michael Ward is listening to this week…

Beyoncé

beyonce_bForget some of the overstatement surrounding the release of Beyoncé’s self-titled album earlier this week. It’s doing big business, for sure. But the release strategy certainly isn’t unheard of (it wasn’t even the first “visual album” dropped with no promotion this year). And Beyoncé certainly isn’t heralding the return of the album as a format. The narrative of the death of the album—even in the sphere of popular music where the single reigns—is at best an exaggeration and at worst an outright erroneous fabrication. Several pop artists (yes, Beyoncé herself included) have continued to release collections of songs that hang together and play off of and enhance one another. While the use of medium and the release strategy of Beyoncé are remarkable, what’s really worth talking about here is much simpler: it’s the quality of the output. None of the videos reinvent the wheel, but any single one of them would stack up against the best pop music videos released this year. And the collection of songs itself is really stellar. From the sex-drenched disco-funk of “Blow” and the sleaze-thump of “Partition” to the softer, more traditional ballads like “Pretty Hurts” and “Heaven“, these songs hit their marks.

The true marvel and joy of listening to this album is that you can hear the confidence. This must be akin to something like when Fellini showed up to Cannes with La Dolce Vita: it’s one of those moments where you can genuinely tell you’re watching an artist follow their muse while in total control of their creative talents—it’s the joy of watching an artist at their apex. While her Pop Titan contemporaries (Gaga and Timberlake, the other truly rewarding mainstreamers) have struggled this year (Timberlake’s Volume 2 squandered his good will and was the aural equivalent of someone long overstaying their welcome, while Gaga delivered a mediocre album and feels like she’s still coming into her own and experiencing a bit of a professional hiccup), Beyoncé has delivered, and in a sparkling, surprising way. To hear an album where it’s so clear the artist is conveying precisely what they want is a dynamic and thrilling experience—a true privilege.

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What George Portades is listening to this week…

Trina Braxton, “Game Time”

tinabraxton_gtAfter releasing a great party song last year (“Party or Go Home”), Trina Braxton releases another uptempo in lieu of her upcoming EP tentatively titled On My Own. While sisters Toni and Tamar have cornered the UAC and Urban markets respectively, it’s nice to see Trina going the more dance/Pop-oriented route. “Game Time” is another fun track like her debut single, featuring solid vocals backed by a thumping instrumental. Additionally, the lyrics convey the spark and playfulness of Trina, and have a very anthem-like feel to them. While I’m curious as to how a solo ballad would sound from her (since she’s showed she can handle them back when she released The Braxtons album “So Many Ways” in the late 90s), I’m glad she’s released two great party songs to date. Here’s hoping for much success on her solo career, and hopefully a ballad to showcase her versatility next.

DJ Joker & the New Era, “Do Something”

djroker_neweraComing off a solid hip-hop compilation, this song reminds me of the old school summer jams by the likes of Warren G, Bone Thugs N Harmony and Yo-Yo. Featuring some smoothly expressed verses by rappers One Hunned, Young Shack & D Burn$, the song carries a very positive message while not sounding too informative. In other words, they manage to maintain the fun/joy in the song as well. Additionally, the song showcases some melodic vocals by Lady Jemini which work really well with the song’s rappers and production. If you’re looking for an overlooked gem in an upcoming hip-hop label, you should give this song a listen. The compilation’s other standouts (IMO) include the old school R&B-sounding “Going Through Something,” the uptempo “Spend the Night” and one of the most solid R&B tracks in a few years, “Way That I Feel.”

Mario featuring Nicki Minaj, “Somebody Else”

marionickiminaj_seHe’s had a couple of big hits to his name (including the Grammy-nominated “Let Me Love You” as well as “Just a Friend 2002” and “Break Up”), as well as some acting roles and an impressive stint on “Dancing with the Stars.” However, I feel that he’s become one of R&B’s most underrated male vocalists as of late. That could be due to some label issues and trying to find a footing to reintroduce himself in the R&B world full of other male R&B singers who have hit it big since his time away (Trey Songz, Chris Brown, Ne-Yo). “Somebody Else” is such a great single featuring a kicking instrumental as well as a (well-put) subdued verse by Nicki Minaj. It also allows Mario’s vocals to shine in the track, and it combines all together with enough freshness to retain a positive feeling after many repeats. I believe this has been the longest break in between albums for him (4-5 years now since “D.N.A.”), and I really hope the public (well, mainstream radio) to open to welcoming him back.

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What  Shahab Yunus is listening to this week…

Julia With Blue Jeans On by Moonface

moonface_jwbjoIt  is just an acoustic piano and Spencer Krug’s distinct crisp vocals. Vocals which are powerful and maintain an amazingly consistent quivering, vibrating cadence which makes it seems that tears are not far away. Those tears can be of frustration and regret brought upon by self-reflection. A relationship that has  already clearly ended, pieces have been gathered, denials have been turned to bitter acceptance and it is time to move on. Yeah, easier said than done!

It’s a one man effort of Canadian Krug who has been making music for over a decade under various art-rock/experimental outfits. Here Krug comes of as a more traditional (not dated), classical and emotionally assertive Elliot Smith. A record which is virile but sensitive, forceful but introspective, heavy but minimalistic. Internal but lamenting to one’s own self (makes Kirin J. Callinan’s Embracism look amateur.) This time the lyrics are simple and even the metaphors which do reach out to Biblical references (“November 2011”, “Everyone is Noah, Everyone is the Ark”) are straightforward and poignant. Profundity in simplicity is on display throughout e.g. in the title track ‘Obliterating everything I’ve ever written down/Was there any other way/That you could have been found?/Julia with blue jeans on’. But the best moments are in the 8 minute, Satie-inspired epic “Dreamy Summer” with its delicate yet determined piano virtuosity which feels like raindrops trying to extinguish a fire somewhere. The ending of this track is an example of self-control which could easily have ended up a showy, flowery piece. This is true for the whole record, which exception of couple of points (“First Violin”), never recedes to balladry or off-putting piano flourishes.

Picks: “Barbarian, “Dreamy Summer,  “Love the House You’re In

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Albums by Piñataland

 It’s a rare band which is a must for American History nerds.They write and perform about several aspects of the history of this country and their themes and topics are little known, obscure individuals and events, stuff found on the margins, issues plaguing the wretched and the miserable, mostly forgotten. The immediate and universal comparisons have been with The Decemberists but Piñataland might resemble in their rancoteurship and folk thematics with them, they are much more organic and eccentric as they venture into chamber pop, country, Tex-Mex (think Calexico)  and electronica. The production is lean and the dominant genre folk, is more of a gypsy style. The lyrics are dense, almost historical fiction poetry. They cover real-life individuals to nameless group of revolutionaries, immigrants, people welcoming the Railroad, planning a mail-order bride, circus-show freaks,  East Coast drifters and artisans.  Their fears, hopes, and hardships.

Piñataland was created by David Wechsler and Doug Stone but includes a rotating roster of instrumentalists and singers (the striking among them being Robin Aigner with her no-nonsense, tale-telling delivery.) They have 3 albums out and the latest from 2011, Hymns for the Dreadful Night is the most melodious and consistent, while the early two, Songs for the Forgotten Future Vol. 1 & 2 focus more on storytelling aspect and are musically diverse. The variety in musical genres makes sense as thematically it is not any single aspect of American history that is addressed but rather a large spectrum. Arranged and performed in an apparently simplistic way but it is quite clever underneath with the rich poetry adding a new dimension of contemplation, respect and empathy. Each album should be experienced as a whole in one sitting like a show, filled with fascinating  characters and incident that makes you want to know more about them.

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