Skip to content

The Month in Music Playlist for May 2013 – “(Re)definition”

June 13, 2013

I wrote most of a version of this post at the beginning of the month. It had an apology for being a few days late, a twenty five song playlist, and too, too much writing that said very little. Part of my vision for this series was to catalog the music I enjoyed and engaged with over the previous month, but that post ended up being a list of things I did in May. It wasn’t interesting to me, which meant it wouldn’t be interesting to you.

So I scrapped it, cut the playlist to eleven songs, and went back at it. The one thing I’ll keep from the original post is this clarifying remark about the playlists: I’m going to update the same playlist each month, so if you subscribe to it in Spotify, the playlist will update itself when I update it. If you subscribed because you liked the original playlist (or a subsequent one, I suppose), let me know and I’ll share that one with you.

1. “RE:Definition” – Black Star

I had a conversation with a colleague the other day as we walked out to the parking lot about teaching writing. She remarked that, largely for time reasons, it’s difficult to teach our students the full drafting-revising loop that good writing entails. Personally (I won’t bore you with a ton of pedagogy), I know that I put so much emphasis on the “front end” of the writing process – specifically brainstorming, organizing ideas, and writing the damn thing – that little time exists for enough of that loop. I couldn’t help but think about the posts sitting in my drafts folder (as of now, this is one of three drafts I’ve written in the past two weeks alone, and the second on this idea). As much as good writing is process and effort, it also relies on having the eye or instinct for knowing when to start over or rewrite something.

This got me thinking about revision and, eventually, redefining. I looked through the playlist I made at the beginning of June and, in the spirit of both that conversation and my own drafting loop, decided to focus on the spirit of revision and redefinition, starting with one of my favorite flips. On Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star, the “Definition” hook becomes the anchor for a slower, more anxious track (Kweli’s opening line promising to turn “your play into a tragedy” sets that tone right away), and I’ve always found it more fascinating than its bouncier predecessor.

2. “Freddie’s Dead” – Curtis Mayfield

The most noteworthy entry from the previous diary post focused on seeing D’Angelo the day after Memorial Day. Over the ninety minute set, D’Angelo and his band played old songs and new songs and sounded incredible. It took their tease of Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead” to give the performance context, though. Voodoo has grooves, but its tracks (“Chicken Grease” was cut from the original playlist) are lighter and often laid back. Live, these songs took on weight and sharper edges like in “Freddie’s Dead.” D’Angelo sounded just as good as he did a decade ago, but his performance also commanded the audience’s attention, both in his vocal prowess and his stage presence. At times, he channeled James Brown (another good touchstone for how sharp his band sounded). This new record can’t come out quick enough.

3. “Lose Yourself to Dance” – Daft Punk f/ Pharrell
4. “Take a Picture” – Carly Rae Jepsen
5. “Wildest Moments” – Jessie Ware

I liked Random Access Memories, but I’m still a little miffed at the strain in the interviews and press materials preceding the record that Daft Punk’s was bringing back “real music” because they were using more live instrumentation. I’ve successfully swallowed most of my anger for this marketing (which boiled down to resenting the idea that music needed rescuing or reviving, particularly from a group that has made its name by stripping all traces of humanity from their personas), so instead I’ll focus on an example where life springs forth from one of their songs (which many of the album’s sub-par tracks could use.) Pharrell’s lead vocals on “Lose Yourself to Dance” make the comparison to “Get Lucky” inevitable, but I find the more methodical groove almost as compelling as the lead single’s infectious guitar riff. Perhaps it comes from a decade-plus of guest spots, but I like Pharrell’s imperfect voice and don’t mind him stretching his upper register here, especially when he’s talking about the physical exertion of dancing. Compared with the magnetic poetry nonsense in most of “Get Lucky,” the focus on the physical joy of dancing is a welcome subject.

This focus on dancing is where I’m on board with Random Access Memories‘s call to “give life back to music,” in that it’s music that celebrates life. The YouTube video combining the song with footage from old episodes of Soul Train crystalized this for me (and, to a lesser degree, the person who couldn’t let a good thing be and forced the same thing with “Get Lucky” epitomizes my hype-fueled distaste). It’s a similar pleasure I find in (relatively) new singles from Carly Rae Jepsen and Jessie Ware. Both “Take a Picture” and “Wildest Moments” not only capture these human moments, but also pair the lyrics with music that evokes the same feeling. The same way I can picture letting loose to “Lose Yourself to Dance,” “Take a Picture” bubbles with joy the same way a night out with friends feels, and “Wildest Moments” tugs equally at heartbreak, yearning, and regret the same way a messy relationship’s fraying end touches different parts of our hearts.

6. “Oblivion” – Grimes

The other thing I can’t help resent about the Daft Punk hype machine is the insinuation that synthesizers can’t produce “real” music. Sure, the robots haven’t abandoned synthesized sounds altogether, but it’s hard to ignore the pronouncements of authenticity coupled with their move toward live instrumentation. This interpretation leaves out the cavalcade of studio pros brought in to play these live instruments selected the way the duo may have laboriously worked through synthesizer sounds.

Around the same time, perhaps for similar reasons, I found myself drawn in to “Oblivion” almost a year after first hearing it. She makes brutally human music with synthesizers, and on “Oblivion” the synths provide the unsettling melody for a song about fearing street violence. Even if the sounds often sound distinctly un-human, it’s a disturbingly powerful song about the darker side of human existence. It’s hard to imagine Grimes achieving such a powerful piece of art with the “traditional” instrumentation that those flying the flag of authenticity prefer.

7. “Power Lines” – Telekinesis
8. “Diane Young” – Vampire Weekend

Both “Power Lines” and “Diane Young” fit into this idea of “redefinition” by adding new wrinkles to the band’s sounds. “Power Lines” uses the quiet start / loud ending trick well, and while it lyrically and melodically would fit with the last Telekinesis record’s break-up pop, the craftsmanship is more precise and mature; I can’t imagine Michael Benjamin Learner employing that dynamics trick on the last record.

If “Power Lines” feels more precise than its predecessors, “Diane Young” caught my attention for being more adventurous than expected. Vampire Weekend have played with strange sounds before (“Giving Up the Gun” immediately comes to mind, but there are probably better examples, too), but I don’t remember the band as joyously unhinged as they sound here. I’ve only spent a little time with their new album, and every time I hear this song I know that I want to devote more time to the album as a whole.

9. “Erica’s Word” – The Loud Family

After Scott Miller’s passing a few weeks back, Ted Leo tweeted that he’d been playing Game Theory’s “Erica’s Word” at solo shows. Spotify only had this version from The Loud Family, one of Miller’s other projects, and it makes sense for Ted Leo’s repertoire (in addition to the show of respect for his death.) I hope Ted Leo comes back around the North East soon so I can hear it in person!

10. “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe (Remix)” – Kendrick Lamar f/ Jay-Z

The original post had a few songs with Kendrick Lamar guest verses and would have commented on his frequent appearances being a victory lap for his very successful 2012. Then, I realized that his two new verses on the “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” remix did precisely that by celebrating and contemplating good kid, m.A.A.d. city‘s success. I respect that rather than just get Jay-Z to drop a verse, Kendrick added two new verses himself. (Quick side note on Jay’s verse – after being unmoved by his verse on “Suit and Tie,” I was happy to hear him spit some good lines again on this track. Someone with a better knowlege of his appearances could explore the idea of Jay playing up or down to his company over the last few years.) The second verse, especially the riff on “sixteen” near the middle, feels particularly urgent in a way that many of Kendrick’s recent guest verses (I’m thinking specifically of his verse on Miguel’s “How Many Drinks” remix, which somehow feels like less than the sum of its parts) lack. It might not match up with the best moments on the album, but I respect the victory lap nonetheless.

11. “Mr. November” – The National

The National headlined the second night of the inaugural Boston Calling festival (in the spirit of this post, the second day improved greatly on the first, both in the weather being only “cold” rather than “absolutely miserable” and also in its organization, specifically with entry), and sure enough the band played “Mr. November,” the one time set-closing staple, second to last before High Violet’s “Terrible Love.” Where the band still tears through the song with the same urgency (and Matt Berninger still ends up in the audience nearly as often), the ensuing song can’t help but feel anti-climactic. Especially in the context of the new album’s very good, but stylistically similar material, “Mr. November” feels like the emotional climax appropriate for the end of the band’s set (or at least at the end of the set before the encore).

In keeping with the theme of the rest of this playlist, I’ll return “Mr. November” to its rightful place at the end of a set.

More next month in a couple weeks!

One Comment
  1. rescueafamily permalink

    hey thanks for the insightful take on Daft Punk and Grimes in this post.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: