Song of the Day: “Rising Down” – The Roots

Rising Down is probably The Roots’ most intense album. It’s an album filled with dense layers, dark beats and plenty of thoughtful lyrics about the state of the world circa 2008. The title track kicks things off appropriately with a sparse but heavy (in emotion, not power) beat by Questlove, some icy guitar lines from “Captain” Kirk Douglas and hypnotic voice in the background repeating the words, “hello hello”.

Douglas’ guitar tone is the key to the song’s music, providing an ominous backdrop. There’s a sense of danger and a coming storm in the way he plays that becomes even more urgent when Questlovle’s snare breaks through at every beat. Over this tightly wound tension, MCs Black Thought, Mos Def, Styles Peach give their own unique take on the breakdown of society. Dice Raw gives a hook that is filled with doom: You don’t see that somethings wrong. Earth’s spinnin outta control. Everything’s for sale even the souls. Someone get God on the phone.

For Black Thought a huge problem is environmental.  “Between the greenhouse gases and earth spinnin off its axis,” He observes. “Mother Nature doin back flips. The natural disasters. It’s like 80 degrees in Alaska.” Mos Def refers to “conflict diamonds” and taxation in his verse, as a way of suggesting that people are being robbed of their humanity in one ways than one.  Styles P has probably my favorite line in the entire song: Does a computer chip have an astrology. And when it fuck up could it give you an apology?

“Rising Down” sets the tone for the rest of the album, and one for me, it’s one of The Roots defining moments, of which there are quite a few.

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New Music: “Sapiosexual” – Blak Emoji

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Blak Emoji is the latest project from New York musician and pILLOW tHEORY frontman Kelsey Warren. For the studio incarnation, Warren plays all instruments himself, but will include a full band for live shows. “Sapiosexual”, the first released song from Blak Emoji is a bit of a departure from Warren’s day job with its industrial undertones. Make no mistake though, as grinding as “Sapiosexual” is, it still flat out rocks. Loud guitar riff bursts over the electronic rhythms, giving Warren plenty of room to sing some playful lyrics that prove he’s just as interested in his partner’s brain just as much as physical attraction. “I love your brain as much as I love your ass,” He declares.

Blak Emoji’s premiere show will take place tonight at Piano’s in New York City. For more info on Blak Emoji check them out here and listen to “Sapiosexual” below.

 

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Song of the Day: “Ball and Chain” – Social Distortion

In high school, I had a clock radio that I used to listen to while doing my homework. I could only pick up a few stations, but one of them was DC’s premiere Alternative Station, WHFS. Though I’ve heard from various people that HFS was past its prime in the late ’90s, it was still the definitive place to listen to cool and interesting rock.

I formulated a lot of my favorites artists based on what was being played on that station. The ’90s were a good time for rock radio: most of the bands that were being played were stylistically different in subtle ways, yet were still able to fall under the umbrella of “alternative”.

One song that definitely stood out above the rest was Social Distortion’s “Ball and Chain”. The first time I heard it, it felt oddly familiar. It still seems like it has existed forever. There’s a thread in the song that runs deep: the narrator feels like an outlaw who’s seen too much and doesn’t know how to get out of the mess he’s made.  But that’s ok, because admitting he’s at the brink is the first step to moving on.

I didn’t have to live a life similar to the one in “Ball and Chain” to relate to it as a young adult. I could feel the pain and anguish in Mike Ness’ lyrics. There was an honesty to the song that made it stand out among the rest. Other artists on WHFS were also letting their hearts bleed on record, but much of that distress was masked in distorted guitars.

It’s no secret that Mike Ness is a huge Johnny Cash fan. “Ball and Chain” is probably the most obvious song with Cash’s influence. Lyrically, it’s not hard to imagine the Man in Black himself singing the song. And underneath the electric guitars, “Ball and Chain” is really just a country song at heart.

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Prince: Long Live the Purple One

 

It’s easy to be cynical about an extremely popular and over played song. The consensus being that you’ve heard it so many times; you’ve been robbed of its original power and meaning. But the mark of a truly great song, transcends that cynicism.

“Purple Rain” is such a song. On the surface, you might think, “yeah ok, I’ve heard that song a ton of times. I don’t need to hear it again.” But those angelic opening chords can change even the iciest of hearts. Even before Prince sings the famous opening lyrics, you know the song is going to bring an emotional wallop. Somehow, Prince is able to create a universal feeling of forgiveness, sadness empathy by stringing together two words that don’t have anything in common originally. But now, we all know what those two words mean and where they can take us. Great music is able to do that.

And Prince’s catalogue contains tons and tons of great music. Purple Rain might be his culturally defining album, but 1999, Sign O’ The Times, Dirty Mind, Controversy are all straight up masterpieces. Even some of his weirder albums are worth pursuing. In the last decade, albums like Musicology and 3121 proved that the past was behind him. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, because apparently, he tucked hundreds of unreleased songs in his infamous vault.

Prince is probably one of the last great musicians who was universally loved and revered by nearly everyone. Even those who aren’t huge Prince fans have at least two of three songs of his that they absolutely adore. His ability to play R&B, Funk, Rock among others, meant that he could have the widest audience possible. And by doing that, he was also exposing his own audience to other genres that they might have otherwise overlooked.

For myself, listening to 1999 and Dirty Mind were a gateway for Funk, Disco and even Dance music. Those genres seemed to make a lot more sense to me after hearing it through Prince’s lens on such songs as “Lady Cab Driver”, “D.M.S.R.” and “Uptown” to name a few. “D.M.S.R.”  reminded me about the carnal and physical power that music can have with just four words: dance, music, sex and romance.

Dirty Mind might be my favorite Prince album, simply because it sounds so completely different to what was being made at the time. New Wave and Punk were completely against Dance Music and this dude had the audacity to combine all of those into one giant statement, while also singing the most lewd lyrics you’ll ever hear put to wax.  Dirty Mind’s mix of New Wave, Disco, Rock and Roll and Soul is so effortless and stunning. The Beatles, The Clash and The Rolling Stones may have tried out several genres throughout their careers, but they limited those experimentations to specific songs. I can’t think of another artist who weaved so many genres into one singular song and made those sounds into his own.

But when I really think of Prince, one of the things that comes to mind first, is unity through music. This was a guy who would have music parties at his mansion all the time, simply because he wanted to play music for people. Reports of his philanthropy are now making the rounds on the internet. He used his music and influence to better the world. He played in my hometown of Baltimore last May, not long after the unrest, to unite and show support for a healing city. It’s pretty clear to me, that he didn’t just talk the talk.

My wife and I chose “Let’s Go Crazy” as the closing song for our wedding because we didn’t want to end the night on a slow note. I always knew it was a good idea, but even I was surprised at how big the reaction was from everyone on the dance floor. Everyone, young and old, knew that song and sang along to the famous intro and screamed the chorus in unison. It’s one of my favorite moments from the wedding, seeing everyone together like that.  That was three years before Prince’s death. I can’t think of a better tribute to a man whose music touched so many.

 

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Song of the Day: “Stand!” – Sly & The Family Stone

 

It all begins with a snare crack and roll. Right from the beginning, you know it’s a call to arms. But Sly Stone quickly turns the idea on its head right away, by proclaiming in the very line, “in the end you’ll still be you.” Usually, this type of declaration would be made at the end of the song; especially a song that lists all the types of things you should do be a socially consciousness and upstanding part of society. By beginning the song with the concept of still being one’s self through personal and political change, the message is clearer and more direct for the listener. It doesn’t necessarily make it easier to accomplish these things though.

Despite being over 45 years old, “Stand!” still seems particularly relevant and potent in today’s society. Like the late ’60s, society is changing at a rapid pace, and while much progress has been made, there’s still a lot of work to be done. The song is a good reminder to “Stand! for the things you know are right.” There’s also an acknowledgement that not everyone will come along for the ride, because, “they will try to make you crawl, and they know what you’re saying makes sense and all.” “Stand!” ends up a high note by suggesting that you are free, “well at least if you know you want to be.”

And that should be the end of the song. Any other songwriter might have concluded on that note. Really, how do you follow a philosophical statement like that? And just like the beginning of the song, Sly bucks conventional wisdom and completely turns the song inside out. What was a funky R&B tune, is suddenly transformed into straight up Gospel. With that musical interlude, Sly is suggesting that there is much here that just us and there’s a bigger picture than what we know.

Check out “Stand!” below.

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Song of the Day: “Lips Like Sugar” – Echo & The Bunnymen

Some artists and songs seem permanently stuck in their original era, never able to become completely timeless. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing: there’s a whole market for nostalgia. Sirius XM has a plethora of channels devoted to this very concept from ’60s on 6 to the aptly titled new-wave station, 1st Wave.

Echo & the Bunnymen are definitely one of those bands from the ’80s that never really achieved any recognition or exposure (at least on this side of the pond) past 1989. Some of their contemporaries fared better. The Cure had a lasting impact due to a devoted following and enduring classic singles, and a few artists even had hits covering their songs. And we also all know how U2 ended up.

Listening to “Lips Like Sugar” today, I’m a little bummed that the song hasn’t achieved the level of other ’80s rock classics. Who doesn’t want to belt out, “lips like sugaaaaaah!  sugar kissin’!” at the tops of their lungs? I may have to try this song out  next time I do karaoke. The opening riff is fat and monstrous, carrying the weight of the entire song with it.

Coldplay and Smashing Pumpkins have covered “Lips Like Sugar”, but the most interesting version is by Seal who recorded it with reggae singer Mikey Dread for the move 50 First Dates.

Check out “Lips Like Sugar” below.

 

 

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Song of the Day: “Disco Inferno” – The Tramps

Like a lot of people who were born in the ’80s, I was led to believe that Disco was terrible and the worst form of popular music. I vividly remember one of my older brothers telling me at a young age, “God, I hope you don’t grow up to like Disco.” Keep in mind, this must have been sometime in the mid to late ’80s – a period in which the Disco movement had been dead for several years.

Anyone who knows me, knows that Ghostbusters is probably my favorite movie of all time. As a kid, I had every scene and line memorized. At six years old, I wanted to change my name to Ray, after Dan Ackroyd’s character, my favorite Ghostbuster. (It wasn’t until later, that I realized that Bill Murray was the funniest. Oh childhood.)  Anything remotely Ghostbusters related, I devoured.

During the scene in which Louis throws a party for his clients, The Tramps’ “Disco Infero” was playing in the background. I had no idea what the song was – or that it was in fact a Disco classic – but I loved it anyway. Simply because it was in the movie.

As I grew older, this nostalgia and an ironic sentiment allowed me to enjoy “Disco Inferno” without actually admitting that I liked a Disco song. Its association with a childhood memory and “so-bad-it’s good” mentality superseded any actual merit the song itself had.

I’m not sure exactly when, but sometime a few years ago, I was listening to “Disco Inferno” and thought to myself that it was a legitimately good song. It’s certainly not a masterpiece, by any means, but it is a good song. The chorus of “burn, baby, burn” is super catchy, the rhythm section is extra funky and let’s not forget the classic keyboard riff. (Which by the way, Disco is just a variation of R&B and funk, with more emphasis on the dancing beat.)

Just make sure the next time you crank up “Disco Inferno”, it’s not the 12″ version, which is a ridiculous 11 minutes long. Even I have my standards.

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Song of the Day: “Let My Love Open the Door” – Pete Townshend

The Netflix romantic-comedy series Love ended an episode with Pete Townshend’s version of The English Beat’s new-wave classic “Save It For Later”.  It was somehow fitting that a show that turns the table on what a romantic comedy show could be would use a Pete Townshend song, but not the obligatory “Let My Love Open the Door”.

In the mid-2000’s the song seemed to appear in just about every mainstream fucking romantic comedy that Hollywood would churn out. A couple would separate, and then realizing that they were in fact truly destined for each other, would embrace or kiss passionately as those familiar synthesizers chimed in the background. The whole sentiment is about as cheesy as Queso dip eaten on Super Bowl Sunday.

Townshend himself has claimed that song is “just a ditty” and within the context of Empty Glass on which it appears, the song certainly sounds and feels more lightweight than its counterparts. Released in 1980, Empty Glass found Townshend struggling with middle-age, alcohol and drug abuse, his own sexuality as well as a crumbling marriage. Naturally, all these issues found their way onto the album. As such, Empty Glass is sometimes referred to as Townshend’s “second breakdown album”: the first being 1975’s The Who By Numbers.

All of which makes “Let My Love Open the Door” seem like an anomaly. But this being Pete Townshend, things are quite so simple. The sole devotion as love number on Empty Glass isn’t “Let My Love Open” but rather the gut-wrenching “A Little Is Enough”.  Closer inspection of the lyrics reveal that it isn’t Townshend’s own perspective, but rather God. Or, according to Townshend: “Jesus sings.” “Love can cure your problems,” Townshend sings. “You’re so lucky I’m around.”

In that context, “Let My Love Open the Door” does in fact fit in with the rest of Empty Glass. For a man on the midst of a mental breakdown, “Let My Love Open the Door” offers a bit of respite from the darkness. On the title track, he declares he asks why he was born and then declares that life is useless. There’s no way “Let My Love Open the Door” could work without it being sung from another perspective. If only a little bit of love could hold him back from the brink, he’d obviously have nothing left to give. “Release yourself from your misery,” Townshend intones: clearly, he’s talking to himself.

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Song of the Day: “Deep Red Bells” – Neko Case

About 10 years ago when I first discovered Neko Case and Blacklisted, I was obsessed with this song. I used to play it constantly in the early morning hours on my way to a dead end job. Somehow, Case’s soaring vocals – which seemed to come somewhere unexplainable; maybe the center of the earth? – made me feel better about my own situation in a way that’s hard to pinpoint. I’ve been lucky enough to see her three times (twice with the New Pornographers and once solo) and live her vocals are even more magnificent.

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Song of the Day: “Personality Crisis” – New York Dolls

“Personality Crisis” sets the tone for the rest of the New York Dolls’ eponymous first album: crunching guitars, outrageous vocals and pure sleaze. Allmusic describes the song “as a turbo-charged Phil Spector a sound that both the Ramones and Bruce Springsteen would emulate within a few years.”

But more than anything else, “Personality Crisis” would help bring back some of the more fun aspects of rock and roll that seemed to have been forgotten in the early ’70s as many artists grew to be more and more pretentious. “Personality Crisis” is the kind of song that demands you to crank up the stereo and for three glorious minutes bask in the power that only good rock and roll can provide.

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