Major Lazer: Guns Don’t Kill People… Lazers Do (pt. 1)

majorlazer

Dear Matthew:

As alluded to previously, I’ve been wanting to give you this album for a while now, and your last assignment was chosen at least in part as a setup for it. This week, you’ll be listening to Major Lazer‘s debut album, Guns Don’t Kill People… Lazers Do.

Major Lazer is a laser-armed Jamaican commando from the future who rides around on a rocket skateboard fighting the undead. Behind the scenes, though, it’s a musical project originally started by Diplo and Switch — two producers who you may recall having produced most of your last assignment, M.I.A.’s Kala. Major Lazer is their take on the music of Jamaica — mostly dancehall and reggae, with a bit of good old-fashioned pop and electronic bullshit thrown in for good measure. They work extensively with Jamaican artists and Guns Don’t Kill People was recorded at Tuff Gong, a legendary recording studio in Kingston that’s been used by Bob Marley, among many others. Major Lazer is sparse and futuristic and wonky and disorienting in all the best ways.

…or at least, that’s what Major Lazer used to be. A short time after the release of Guns Don’t Kill People, Switch left the band due to ‘creative differences’, and while he did work on a few songs on the band’s second album, Major Lazer is now essentially just a Diplo solo project. It’s been kind of heartbreaking to watch such a unique and interesting band go from the astonishing nugget of weirdness and awesomeness that is Guns Don’t Kill People to what it is now — especially since it’s made them a huge international success. Their third album came out a few weeks ago, and while it’s got some decent tunes, it mostly just makes me sad. It’s full of trap and bass drops and white people, and the production is very noisy and in-your-face, but not in a good way. It’s not an album, it’s just a bunch of tracks meant for DJs to play in clubs. Sigh.

They used to be so much better, man. You know, before they sold out. *takes drag on clove cigarette*

But I digress. Seeing what happens to a band when you take half of it away is interesting from an academic standpoint, if nothing else. Diplo (who produced your standout Kala track ‘Paper Planes’) is very much a DJ at heart. He’s a straightforward guy who makes straightforward music. His reputation as an oddball producer is really only because he’s ahead of the curve in knowing who to work with and what sounds are on the bleeding edge of what’s ‘in’. (There’s a discussion about white appropriation of black culture to be had somewhere in regard to this album, and Diplo is probably at the centre of it.)

Switch, on the other hand, is much more of a producer. (He produced — well, he produced most of the rest of Kala, actually. And a lot of Matangi, which is why I love it so much.) In comparing old Major Lazer to new Major Lazer, he is very obviously the source of the weirdness and sparseness of the first album. He brings a level of restraint to to the studio that Diplo just can’t muster. I think that’s why the first album works so well — Switch is able to rein in Diplo’s madness and bring a level of focus to the project that it now seems to utterly lack. Switch is the reason Guns is a cohesive album rather than just a bunch of songs like the newer albums. (This is probably also why he works so well with M.I.A.)

Anyway, this is turning into more of rant about why I don’t like a band’s new music than actually saying anything useful about the record at hand, so I should probably wrap it up and hand it over to you. I’m not sure how familiar you are with Jamaican music, but if not, it’s time for a crash course in patois. This album is all over the place, but if you liked Kala, there’s definitely something here for you somewhere. It’s controlled chaos. It’s lightning in a jar. It’s Major Lazer. Booyaka.

— Matt

PS: There’s also a Major Lazer cartoon. It’s essentially a sendup of bad 80s action cartoons like G.I. Joe, and it’s about as insane as you’d expect. Also, J.K. Simmons plays the president of future Jamaica. Yeah.

PPS: Bonus M.I.A.-featuring B-side.

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Bryce Dessner & Sō Percussion: Music for Wood and Strings (pt. 2)

Dessner

Dear Matthew:

You’re right — this is pretty good.

I have to admit, though, that it wasn’t quite what I expected from a group that describes themselves as a percussion ensemble. I mean, I get that a dulcimer or dulcimer-like instrument is technically percussion in that you play it by hitting it, but there aren’t really any drums to speak of on this record. Which was a bit disappointing, because I love me some drums.

I don’t really know or care that much about the National. I think I listened to their album Boxer in undergrad once when it was the hot new thing that all of my indie rock friends were into, but I don’t remember it doing much for me. So, I can’t really say if this is ‘in keeping’ with Dessner’s earlier work or anything. But what makes good indie rock and good minimalist percussion ensemble music seem to be pretty different worlds. I guess I could give the National another go? I mean, a lot of people like them, so they have to have some redeeming qualities, presumably.

I do definitely see the minimalism you’re talking about. This isn’t a concerto or a suite or anything — this is definitely one 35-minute-long song. It’s always fun to hear a leitmotif come around again, to hear a familiar sound being recontextualized again and again. (In fact, a lot of the reasons I enjoyed this pieces are reasons why I like Bleep to Bleep so much. I’m not sure how you’ll feel about me saying that.) And whatever mode the piece uses (you’ll have to tell me this part, it’s been literally more than a decade since I did any music theory) is very dynamic and epic-sounding.

Aurally, this piece reminds me a lot of an Icelandic band called múm, if you’re familiar with them at all. I can’t really say why, because now that I listen to them side by side they’re actually quite different. But they have similar characters, if that makes sense? I don’t know. They’re both the kind of music I like putting on at three in morning when I’m up late working on something in my dimly lit room and the rest of the world is asleep.

The main other type of music I go for in that situation? Post-rock. Are you into post-rock at all? Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, that sort of thing? In fact, I put it to you that Music for Wood and Strings is, itself, a post-rock song. I put it to you that this is the kind of music Mogwai would make if you gave them Dessner’s chord sticks. I think I know what your next assignment is.

Well, your next next assignment. Confession: while I do definitely love M.I.A. and did want to assign her, Kala also doubles as a setup for your next assignment. I hope you’re ready for some soothing island rhythms…

— Matt

Bryce Dessner & Sō Percussion: Music for Wood and Strings (pt. 1)

Dessner

Dear Matt,

Let’s have a change of pace. This week, you’ll be listening to something brand new.

Bryce Dessner is the guitarist from The National (the band, not the newscast), a group that I think you and I have about equal experience with — that is, not much. However, Dessner has been on my radar for a while in his other capacity as a composer. He’s written music for the Kronos Quartet, Bang on a Can, and even the LA Phil. Nothing I’d heard of his really hit home — until this past May.

Music for Wood and Strings is a 35-minute composition for the New York percussion quartet Sō Percussion. Sō is a group with a similar spirit to our old friends Brooklyn Rider. They fall broadly under that nebulous umbrella of ‘art music’ — they’re a bunch of Yale grads — but they’ve got a sense of adventure and a penchant for working with composers on developing new repertoire. (I’m especially fond of their recording with Canadian composer Nicole Lizée.)

This collaboration with Dessner has the added dimension of being written for entirely new instruments. Dessner and the instrument maker Aaron Sanchez (from the DIY pop duo Buke and Gase) designed a contraption that they’ve creatively named the ‘chord stick.’ It’s kind of like an amplified hammered dulcimer that you’re meant to approach much more as a percussionist would than a guitarist. Sō strikes their four chord sticks with everything from drum brushes to the pink erasers at the ends of lead pencils.

I’m not going to say a whole lot more, because I’m still processing this music myself. I have to say, though: a few listens in, I’m totally sold. This is the best new music I’ve heard all year. You’ll recognize a distinct influence from minimalism, but composers of Dessner’s relatively recent vintage tend to use the innovations of people like Steve Reich and Michael Nyman as one ingredient in a more complex stew.

I think you’re going to like this. I’ve already recommended it to a few people, and I’ve only had positive responses. I wonder how your first impression will compare to mine?

— Matthew

M.I.A.: Kala (pt. 2)

Kala

Dear Matt:

This tweet notwithstanding, I can detect no connection between M.I.A. and Kate Bush. But hey, one’s ears are one’s own. Moving on.

I have never been much for subtlety. You will have gathered that by now. That tendency extends from my taste in rock to my preference of Beethoven string quartets. (Opus 132, please. Keep your 127.) So, M.I.A’s aesthetic is well within the ballpark of ‘stuff I tend to like.’ (Subtle as a landmine, indeed.) Kala’s great.

But, let me be totally honest: after a couple of listens, ‘Paper Planes’ still eclipses everything else on the album. You may find that disappointing, the same way I do when someone informs me that their favourite Jethro Tull song is ‘Aqualung,’ or their favourite Peter Gabriel song is ‘Sledgehammer.’

Why should that be disappointing, though? Once in a while, the slightly-left-of-centre (though not necessarily obscure) artists that thinky music people* listen to make a song that allows the rest of the world to get in on the joy. Isn’t that worth celebrating? Of course it is. That, for me, was a key takeaway of the most tiring ideological debate in pop culture over the last decade.

But, to write that just now, I had to subdue a tremendous amount of pathological geekiness and symphony-goer snobbery. Because, the fact is, the music that speaks most deeply to me speaks to a relatively small number of people. I’m under no illusions that there’s any superiority in that. But, some part of me can’t help thinking that when an artist does manage to conjure the secret sauce for a ‘Paper Planes’ or a ‘Sledgehammer,’ they sacrifice something that makes the bulk of their music so meaningful to the true believers.

And it’s entirely possible that I’m not equipped to be a true believer in this case. You entreated me in your assignment to engage with M.I.A.’s mashup aesthetic, and consider her as one of the first breakout artists of the digital age. And while I love mashups in concept, I suspect that some of the effect was lost on me in this case, since Kala appears to mostly reference stuff I’ve never heard of. The only references I caught were the Clash and the Pixies — the first only because you told me, and the second only because of Fight Club.

But, I’ve just realized that I’m doing that thing again where I make it seem like I enjoyed an album less than I did. I really enjoyed Kala, and I’ll definitely be checking out more M.I.A. One of the structural weaknesses in this project is that it can only ever be about first impressions. Ten listens from now, ‘Paper Planes’ might be my least favourite track on the album.

— Matthew

*These people are the worst. (Mea culpa.)

M.I.A.: Kala (pt. 1)

Kala

Dear Matthew:

If you’ll recall, I once posited on this blog that Kate Bush was the Seinfeld of female art-pop stars. (New readers: in context, this is more flattering than it sounds. I promise.) When I talked about the modern female art-pop stars she influenced, I mentioned Björk and Fever Ray, but mostly I was thinking of M.I.A. This week, you’ll be listening to her album Kala.

Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam — get it? M.I.A.? — is a British-born Tamil who grew up in Sri Lanka during the outbreak of civil war, something that has underscored much of her artistic career. She makes a chaotic sort of electro rap pop type of music that is often highly political in nature. She also draws on many other genres from around the world, from dancehall to baile funk to Bollywood film scores. A trained visual artist, she’s also known for the striking visual elements of her music, including videos, fashion and art. Combine all of these traits, and you have someone almost destined to get huge if she happened to be around at the advent of the digital music revolution. And hey, guess what?

Her first album, Arular (named for her father, a prominent member of a militant group called EROS), caught the ears of all the hip music bloggers when it came out in 2005, right around when music bloggers were starting to become a thing. But it wasn’t until Kala (named for her mother) that she really blew up, and blow up she did — you are hopefully at least passingly familiar with the Clash-sampling mega-hit ‘Paper Planes‘. Kala is also when she first teamed up with producer Switch, and also features further collaborations with Diplo, who was still relatively unknown at the time (and also her boyfriend). In contrast to the comparatively stark beats of her bedroom-produced debut, it’s a lush, worldly collage of sounds — owing to the fact that it was literally recorded around the world. It’s a bombastic, idiosyncratic, in-your-face record, and it solidified her place in the pantheon of internet pop stars. It was probably about as successful as you could ever ask a ‘difficult sophomore album’ to be.

I’ll be honest: Kala is not my favourite M.I.A. album*. But this assignment isn’t about listening to her ‘best’ album — this is about the context. I want to hear your thoughts on one of the first big albums of the digital era, an album that arguably couldn’t have been made in any other era. I want you to really dig into Kala‘s mashup aesthetic. I want you to see how many musical allusions, references and samples you can identify in its sonic collage, and to know how you feel about them. And, of course, I want to know if my Kate Bush analogy is grounded in any sort of reality.

M.I.A. isn’t for everyone. She’s about as subtle as a landmine, and her politics certainly rub a lot of people the wrong way. But her music is like nothing else out there, and that’s more than most can say. Even if you don’t love it, I hope you at least find it interesting.

— Matt

* For the longest time that was Arular, but it’s been recently supplanted by the extremely good Matangi. I’ve warmed up a lot to /\/\ /\ Y /\ over the years, too. In fact, now that I think about it, Kala might actually be my least favourite M.I.A. album. But again! Not the point.

Jethro Tull: Thick as a Brick (pt. 2)

TAAB

Dear Matthew:

A mutual friend of ours, Syrup Trap editor Nick Zarzycki, once made an observation that has really stuck with me: he argued that the best comedic films, at least in terms of laughs per minute and broad popular acclaim, are almost always parodies.

I think he’s probably on to something. If you take a look around the internet for what people think are the best comedies of all time, Airplane!, Life of Brian, Blazing Saddles and their ilk are usually in the mix, and pretty near the top, too. And when I think of it, a lot of my more modern favourites are very much in the same mold — Hot Rod and They Came Together and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang are some that spring immediately to mind, and there are definitely others.

If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Genre spoofs work well because the audience knows the material — you don’t have to do a lot of world-building or characterization, because you’ve already got a whole box of tropes and archetypes to work with. Since they’re spoofs of whole genres, they tend to age reasonably well, unlike spoofs of specific films — compare the staying power of the aforementioned Blazing Saddles with that of, say, Spaceballs.

The other thing about movies like this is that they tend to rate very highly with self-proclaimed ‘comedy aficionados’*. I think this is because, unlike a wholly original film, the story doesn’t really matter; in a genre parody, the plot is basically just a vehicle for jokes. In a way, the genre parody allows for filmic comedy in its purest form, because you aren’t writing anything that isn’t either the setup for, or the punchline to, a joke. You don’t have to sell the audience on a complicated story or complex characters — it’s just all jokes all the time.

I think a similar effect is probably why Thick as a Brick works so well. But the thing about TAAB is that it’s almost too good of a parody. Let me explain what I mean.

To reference Mel Brooks for the third and hopefully last time this article, TAAB suffers from a sort of reverse Springtime for Hitler effect. It’s intended to be a spoof of all of the most ridiculous aspects of prog, but in doing so, it embodies them so well that I, an admitted prog neophyte, would be hard-pressed to pick this out as a parody on first listen if I didn’t already know. It would be very easy for the less studious listener to mistake it for a completely serious endeavour — and indeed, some background reading on the album suggests that many did and still do.

The extremely dangerous internet time-sink TV Tropes refers to this effect as Poe’s Law. The law, roughly stated, is that parodies of extreme ideas/things are often mistaken as being sincere, and that sincere expressions of extreme ideas/things are often mistaken as parody — and paradoxically, the more extreme the idea/thing is, the more likely the confusion. This is why you get people who think that Stephen Colbert is actually a hardcore right-wing pundit, why people still think that Jonathan Swift actually condoned eating the Irish, why the Yes Men are able to get away with as much as they do, and one of the many reasons why LiarTownUSA is possibly the best thing to happen to Tumblr.

So, while I certainly got a kick out of the record, I expect my experience was similar to that of yours with Mr. Oizo — which is to say that I get it, but without a more deepseated love for the material being satirized, I don’t know that I’ll ever truly appreciate it on the level that you do. In my defence, it’s a pretty tall order to appreciate TAAB on the level that you do, but I’m still sorry to let you down.

But for what it’s worth, I did very much enjoy this pondering of the nature of parody that TAAB inspired. That, and the album sleeve is outstanding.

— Matt

* These people are the worst.

Jethro Tull: Thick as a Brick (pt. 1)

TAAB

Dear Matt,

So far in this project, I’ve endeavoured not to advocate too hard for the albums I’ve assigned you, to give you a bit more room to say your piece. I have mostly failed. This time, though, I’m throwing that whole notion to the wind because there’s no point in even trying.

There was a time in my life when I tried to purge myself of favourites. I’d say I had no favourite movie, no favourite book, no favourite composer, no favourite album. The idea was to embrace the vast and untameable diversity of stuff out there and not reduce it to a select few exemplary works. Or some bullshit like that.

Needless to say, it didn’t take. I was lying to myself the whole time: I have a favourite everything. My favourite movie is Brazil. My favourite book is At Swim-Two-Birds. My favourite composer is Mahler. And, beyond a doubt, my favourite album is Jethro Tull‘s Thick as a Brick.

People are often taken aback when I tell them that, because Tull is widely seen as a bit of a novelty act: that rock band with a flute player. But Ian Anderson’s flute playing doesn’t actually have that much to do with why I love Jethro Tull. Anderson isn’t just the guy who invented rock flute playing. He also has one of the most boundless and versatile imaginations in rock. The rest of the band is fantastic too, but they’re utterly dominated by Anderson — in a way that King Crimson, for instance, has never quite been dominated by Robert Fripp.

That’ll have to do as a primer on what Jethro Tull is, because Thick as a Brick itself requires quite a lot of explanation. The famous backstory goes like this: Tull’s major commercial breakthrough came in 1971 with ‘Aqualung,’ the title song from their fourth album. The album itself got a lot of attention, and some critics called it a concept album, because it had a couple of major lyrical themes running through it.

This was news to Anderson, who saw Aqualung as ‘just a bunch of songs.’ Moreover, concept albums were the province of prog rock, which Anderson regarded with a certain amount of suspicion. He saw Jethro Tull as an unusually adventurous blues-rock band — as different as you can get from the psychedelia-tinged pastoralism of Genesis, Yes, and early King Crimson.

So, when it came time to record the followup to Aqualung, Anderson decided to announce that difference in a characteristically outlandish way. He would produce ‘the mother of all concept albums’: a sprawling parody that would take all of the trends in progressive rock — longer and longer songs, circuitous and cod-philosophical lyrics, elaborate packaging — far beyond their logical conclusions.

The resulting album came with a satirical newspaper that took longer to produce than the actual music. It possessed a sly backstory wherein the album’s lyrics were written by a precocious (and fictional) eight-year-old named Gerald Bostock. And the record itself consisted of only one song, which spanned the entire length of the album. The fact that the technology of the time functionally prohibited this (you have to flip the record over mid-song) only adds to the absurdity of the premise.

It even manages to shoehorn a bit of elitism into the equation. The first line drips with open disdain for the listener: ‘Really don’t mind if you sit this one out.’ It would be offensive if it were serious.

But, the whole affair has ‘satire’ written all over it. Anderson has always claimed that he was basically taking the piss with this album, and that presumably spared him a great deal of vitriol when the early punks came along five years later. You seldom hear Jethro Tull cited as one of the key offenders in discussions of 70s bombast. They were just having a laugh, after all.

But here’s where that narrative falters: Thick as a Brick is the best progressive rock album ever made. It is bursting with energy, it is structurally ingenious (with almost all of the section transitions being based on the opening riff), and the lyrics are just as trenchant in their critique of England’s class system as they are in their parody of Pete Sinfield. And it’s fun. It’s just fun.

I mean, that word ‘best’ is subjective, clearly. But, among prog fans, rock fans, critics and everybody else, the idea that Thick as a Brick is in the top tier of prog masterpieces is completely uncontroversial. This, in spite of the fact that it’s ostensibly a piss-take.

And that is why you are listening to this album at this point in our correspondence. When you described Mr. Oizo as “taking the piss out of [dance music] and its fans — while still producing outstanding examples of it,” my mind immediately jumped to Thick as a Brick.

Your experiences with Van Der Graaf Generator, Magma and King Crimson should be enough to demonstrate what prog is like in sincerity mode. So, what do you think? How much irony is there in Thick as a Brick? And do these trifling matters of authorial intent make any difference at all?

And, most importantly, do you like it?

— Matthew

P.S. I once proved that Ian Anderson is a good singer, using math. You know, just in case you’re not sure how far my loyalties extend.