Good MusicNote 8.20 demons IMAGINE DRAGONS

We get it… dangerous imagery sells records.

single: “Demons”

artist: Imagine Dragons

Fast on the heels of the poisonously catchy “Radioactive,” the mythically fiery Dragons now bring us the evil follow-up “Demons.”

There’s nothing particularly foreboding about the Dragons or their songs, but they are taking the appropriate cues from heavy metal and breading their innocuous songs with panko death crumbs. (Yeah, I made that up.)

The sound is a more mainstream rock, less electronic iteration of the sound most of us were introduced to on “Radioactive.” In terms of melody and arrangement, it resembles nothing more than Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” The verses begin with only keyboard accompaniment, then explode into a fully orchestrated chorus. The cadence of the chorus might actually cause Madge to consider a call to her attorneys.

Then maybe they would have a reason to sing about demons…

Good MusicNote 7.19 sail AWOLNATION

Drift is more like it…

single: Sail

artist: AWOLNATION

I’m tired of telling these convoluted chart stories. “Sail” was a smash alternative rock hit two years ago, dropped out of sight and re-emerged this summer after being used in various media. ‘Nuff said.

You may very well have heard this triple-platinum single at some point over the past two years, but in case you haven’t: imagine Kurt Cobain‘s unbridled rawness channeled through Rod Stewart‘s orderly rasp, laid over an electro-industrial-blues stomp that Trent Reznor might generate under a light sedative.

That’s Aaron Bruno‘s vocal performance and the perfectly complemented instrumental track that make this song primal and accessible at the same time. The anguished suicide-esque rumination of the lyrics complete the mood–not cheery, but musically satisfying.

Good MusicNote 7.18 gone KANYE WEST FEAT. CAM’RON & CONSEQUENCE

And back again, unexpectedly.

single: “Gone”

artist: Kanye West featuring Cam’ron & Consequence

The story of this hit single makes “The Fox” seem positively old-school.

While the viral video origins of “The Fox,” much like “Harlem Shake” and “Gangnam Style” before it, were pretty straightforward and at least bore some linearity between the release of the single and its subsequent viral-ity, “Gone” is an eight-year-old track from Kanye’s second album and was never intended to be a single, much less a top 20 pop hit.

“Gone” was used in a viral video as a kiss-off to an employer from a disgruntled employee who apparently never heard “Take This Job and Shove It.” Once the video went viral, the  song became a hit. No agency on Kanye’s part whatsoever. Completely random.

The song itself is widely regarded as one of the unheralded highlights of Late Registration, one of Kanye’s best-received projects. The track bears a strong structural similarity to the much-better-known “Gold Digger,” complete with a looped old-school soul sound byte (an authentic one from Otis Redding, not the fake one voiced by Jamie Foxx). Given Kanye’s strong use of motifs within his projects, this isn’t surprising. The verses are highly narrative and sing-songy, with strings providing punctuation in a clever and engaging call-and-response structure (again, like “Gold Digger”).

It’s a standout track, but it feels hopelessly retro. Kanye has hashed through about six different musical styles since 2005, so it comes across as clean, but not fresh.

Good MusicNote 6.11 23 MIKE WILL MADE-IT FEAT. MILEY CYRUS, WIZ KHALIFA & JUICY J

I think that’s how many times Miley sticks her tongue out in the video.

single: “23”

artist: Mike WILL Made-It featuring Miley Cyrus, Wiz Khalifa & Juicy J

Mike WILL Made-It (hereinafter “Mike”) is the It producer of the moment, following in the footsteps of Dallas Austin, Jermaine Dupri, Rodney Jerkins, and the like. Smartly, he has capitalized on the buzz by releasing his own single, complete with immaculate, crisp hip-hop flourishes.

Much like DJ Khaled, he has maximized his own lack of innate star power by enlisting members of the current A-List in hip-hop: Wiz Khalifa and Juicy J.

The wildcard (with emphasis on “wild”) is Miley Cyrus, who was added to the single late. Mike is the production wizard behind Miley’s breakout coming-out jam “We Can’t Stop.” After recording Miley’s song, she offered to record a verse for MIke’s song.

And wonder of wonders, it works. Miley is not a rapper or a rap hook singer by nature, but what she is… is talented. She bites off exactly as much as she can chew, channelling Trina and Ke$ha to lay down a simple but effective verse, then deliver a killer hook with aplomb, without reaching to sound “hood.”

Miley, Wiz, and J are rapping about some standard-issue recreational nonsense, with a general Michael Jordan motif (Jordans sneakers and his jersey number, the inspiration for the song title). It’s cool nonsense, delivered just as crisply as Mike’s arrangement.

But that’s really the point of this record: Mike’s in charge, and his production skills are on full display.

And so are his music connections.

 

Good MusicNote 6.19 mirrors JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE

A reflection of earlier successful singles.

single: “Mirrors”

artist: Justin Timberlake

As this rather ancient chart-dweller (the single, not JT) enjoys a resurgence in position, likely due to the buzz surrounding part two of The 20/20 Experience, I relish the opportunity to catch a quick review on the way down the charts.

“Mirrors” is yet another installment in JT’s Dead-Serious-Mid-Tempo-Well-Written-Reflective-Heartache series. His first record had “Cry Me a River;” the second had “What Goes Around Comes Around.” And now there’s “Mirrors.” Apparently, JT and Timberland keep a track template handy to recreate the magic every five years.

Although I like the gotcha! element of uncovering this trend, I have no complaints. “Mirrors” is every bit a goose-bump song as the first two. Justin handles melancholy in an inimitably commercial fashion, managing to draw emotion from the listener without making him depressed. Timberland’s familiar underbrush of polyrhythms mimics the complex series of thoughts and feelings JT describes.

(Disclaimer: I realize that “Mirrors” is ultimately a happy song, but the rumination involved in getting there is bittersweet at best; ergo, it’s still a heartache record in my eyes.)

The overall effect is a gem of a record. Insanely catchy without being gratuitous. Well-written without being self-conscious.

And entirely fresh in spite of being hopelessly derivative of his past work.

Gotcha, JT.

Good MusicNote 5.13 the fox YLVIS

…I think it says, “Cha-ching!”

single: “The Fox

artist: Ylvis

“The Fox” sounds like what would happen if Bjork sold out and got a lobotomy. It’s a wondrously wide-eyed, full-blown EDM version of the See ‘N Say, except there’s a wildcard animal in the henhouse: “What does the fox say?”

What follows that hook… is hilarity: a wide array of guesses about what noise we could assign to the fox, each more absurd than the one before, all set to propulsive dance breakdown synths.

Ylvis is a Norwegian comedy duo, heretofore unknown to Americans, who were innocently shopping around for a silly song for their TV show. In an absolute coup, they enlisted fellow countrymen, production team Stargate (as in Rihanna, Beyonce, and Ne-Yo–yes, THAT Stargate) to produce the parody ditty.

The result: a comedy record cloaked in such a convincingly deadpan earnestness and pristine production values that it actually is more musically satisfying than the “real” songs it’s parodying. Remember how Weird Al Yankovic’s backing tracks always sounded like a cheap karaoke version of the original? None of that here.

“The Fox” is a testament to a remarkable development in music: the democratization of the pop charts, now that YouTube tallies are included in the Billboard Hot 100.

It’s also a tribute to the power of music. Although the parody here is dead-on, it teeters on the verge of imploding; half of me was doubled over in laughter, yet the other half was becoming quite absorbed in Ylvis’s quest for the fox’s voice, sheerly on the strength of the excellent arrangement.

 

Good MusicNote 5.12 work bitch BRITNEY SPEARS

…Britney said to her producers.

single: “Work Bitch”

artist: Britney Spears

It is perhaps the biggest testament to the clout Britney Spears holds that she can continue to release such production-reliant singles and not need to give the producers a featured artist (or heck, LEAD artist) credit. In the pre-EDM days, when singles like “Toxic” were heady, forward-thinking pop records, it was practically unheard of to give a producer/DJ any billing. So call her a slave 4 tradition.

I may have to snatch the “levels of meaning” prize from Miley (see review 4.1) now that “Work Bitch” has landed. Except most of the levels of meaning here are ironic.

Britney spends the entirety of this song dangling the material carrots of cars, attractiveness, and high-end beverages before her listeners, then informing them that if they want these things, they should, you guessed it, “work, bitch.”

First, by means of damage control, let me say that I admire Britney for turning her life around and re-emerging as a successful artist who smartly plays to her own strengths. I have consistently rooted for her continued success. I also do not mean to say that she hasn’t worked hard.

Now for the damage.

Britney speaks most of the vocals while the production does most of the work. And–she co-wrote the song, but it could easily be argued that she’s about 20 years too late on the concept, behind RuPaul’s “Supermodel.”

A pop diva following the lead of a drag queen (or any number of drag queens) in the content and execution of a high-profile lead single is a bizarre reversal of the usual artistic sequence. And it doesn’t lend itself to the concept of hard work paying off.

But as any good diva knows, “work” means more than sweat of the brow. It means using what you have to your best advantage. And Britney can certainly give advice on that.