26 February 2011

2010: Erykah Badu, Fang Island

Erykah Badu
New Amerykah Part Two (Return Of The Ankh)

Released March 30, 2010 (Universal Motown)

Short Notes: Erkyah Badu’s somewhat surprising career as a major label artist with a big avant-garde soul sound rolls on, with another effective album.

Lin: B

Confession: I don't care all that much for the Motown sound, even the classic stuff that is admittedly awesome. My taste in soul tends towards the Muscle Shoals, Stax/Volt end. I'm ultimately not sure why, as on paper Motown ought to hit my own desires better than it does. Unlike some of these other albums that I readily admit I probably just don't get (e.g. Ariel Pink), New Amerykah Part Two simply lacks a place in my life. That is, I can't relate to it. I'd like to, because it's a fairly strong album front-to-back and better than the first New Amerykah. My favorite track here is the opener "20 Feet Tall," which starts with some low end noises that morphs into a simple four chord progression from an electric piano. Over this, Badu's voice rises and falls, the repetition of the chords and words creating a non-threatening tension broken by a chorus of children's cheers before segueing into the next track. Overall, the 'B' rating is probably a step too low, but I just can't see myself coming back to it all that often. There's a good chance it'll be my loss.

Brandon: B+

In looking for a touchstone for this album, the “Motown” label on the record is a bit misleading. That is, unless when you think “Motown,” you think late-70s Stevie Wonder crossed with Prince. In fact, the artist Badu most often reminds me of is Prince, especially the late 1980s Prince of Lovesexy or Graffiti Bridge. Obviously, her work is also concretely grounded in the soul canon (the intro to “Agitation” is, I think, explicitly biting Stevie Wonder), but the psychedelic undertones to her version of soul aren’t too far under the surface. This record is never boring, with plenty of variety (like Lin, I enjoy the opener “20 Feet Tall,” as well as the groovy “Gone Baby, Don’t Be Long”). But it’s also lacking in genuine standouts--it’s good, but not spectacular.

Fang Island
Fang Island

Released February 23, 2010 (Sargent House)

Short Notes: Jangly, synthy guitar pop for the kids.

Brandon: B-

I can’t help but suspect that I’d like this record better in June than in late February. This is clearly a bright, polished, shiny, anthemic slice of pure pop, and that sort of thing always goes down a little summer with the wind in my hair and the sun in my eyes, so to speak. In principle, I should like this record a lot more than Lin, but I’m having a hard time getting excited, too. The songcraft is interesting, but given that most of the songs are quasi-instrumentals (a few repeated lines interspersed), I need a bit more in the way of hooks and supreme catchiness to find this engaging. I also really tire of the “African music via the hipsters” trope that this band rides (although I like Vampire Weekend a lot more than Lin)--it sounds like “Graceland” on coke, and I don’t like “Graceland.” By the way, Paul Simon’s guitar player on that record was a Cameroonian dude, but the music on that record is, well, neutered-sounding, so even that can’t put me over on it. Fang Island shouldn't be punished for the sins of Simon, but what I hear are anthems without choruses, and let’s face it: who wants that?

Lin: C+

This reminds me of bands like Vampire Weekend, a sort of vaguely schizophrenic, anthemic, African-music-by-way-of-The-Lion-King based indie pop/rock. So, you should know already if this is something up your alley. Me? Not a whole lot to say. I do like it more than the saccharine sounds of the aforementioned band, but there's not a whole lot I find appealing or noteworthy. The best track here is probably the six minute long "Davey Crockett," which plays more like a frantic blues song, approaching something like the transitions on Titus Andronicus’s The Monitor record.

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