My name is Jonah Bromwich and I live in New York City and write about music, books, comic books, random pop culture, and sometimes, the world. I started this blog about a week before I graduated college in 2011. As of now it's for any thoughts that I feel are worthy of blogdom. I will try not to write about things I know nothing about.
For the most part, when I listen to music, I listen to full albums. I like the idea of the full album functioning like a novel with certain chapters, or alternately, as a short story collection, in which themes, concepts, and even characters are revisited within a collection of tracks. (I am not pretentious.) However, there is one time that I give in to the shuffle era and listen to pure singles. Usually, it’s right before I go to sleep. That’s why I’ll be starting this post series; some posts long, some posts short, but all dedicated to songs that I heard last night that I feel are worthy of attention.
John Legend looks like a nice man. He’s got that short curly hair and he dresses pretty vanilla. He’s generally pretty harmless-seeming. My dad likes him.
These facts make people forget that John Legend’s debut album was filled with awesomely cruel songs, none more so than the epic “Number One,” which I was very excited to hear when it popped up on shuffle last night.
The thing about “Number One” is that it doesn’t sound mean at all. It’s ostensibly an apology song, and the music is as uplifting as a Kanye West production can get, with a cheerful church choir moving in during the chorus and horns to spare. But don’t get it twisted; this song is just as gross, as low-down, as all-men-are-pigs as anything that R. Kelly has ever released. It’s just that this track is dressed up in its Sunday best.
Consider the first (amazing, hilarious) line. It’s “You can’t say I don’t love you, just because I cheat on you.” That’s the premise that Legend starts with here. And it only gets better. First off, Legend works very hard to keep you from knowing that he’s cheating and wants kudos for it. He also knows that he said all this the last time you caught him, but this really is the last time, he swears. In the second verse, you can hear the frustration in his voice—when his girl innocently asks “Who is she? What’s her name?” he grumpily declare-sings “You don’t need to know about everything!”
And then of course, there’s a vintage Kanye verse, the only purpose of which is to get off a silly couple of lines in which he and his penis have an antagonistic relationship. It’s goofy and fun and lighthearted—a happy reminder that, even before he got all heavy, Kanye was always completely absurd.
What makes the song really work though (aside from its classic vibe and strong vocal performance) is its knowing quality. Legend is in on the joke here and it’s clear that he’s poking gentle fun at the actual apology song (an R&B staple) and the kind of women who are taken in by a melodramatic, over-the-top show of regret. Of course, even knowing this, the chorus with its familial sound effects and sample from The Staple Singers sounds mighty attractive. After all, the implication is, if you accept Legend’s cad back into your heart, you get to hang out in the kind of community that listens to this amazing soulful music all the time—and that might be worth sticking around for.
Clearly, i haven’t been blogging much lately. This is not due to laziness! What happened was, I moved from Wisconsin back to Washington DC to live with my parents, then Christmas, then I got a job in New York and moved up here and then I started my job. But now I have an apartment am settled and focused and so I will resume writing very soon, which I know is an urgent thing that serves as a kind of balm for those lonely souls who just need some more reviews written about semi-obscure rappers to make all their pain go away. Anyway, I have a Rick Ross review running over at Passion soon and there will be new things to read over here very soon as well. Like a lot of rappers have said, but the one that comes to mind is Jay-Z, it feels so GOOD to be BACK!
If this had been the album cover, the record would have made a lot more year-end lists.
I’m not sure why this record hasn’t been taken more seriously. Maybe it’s the cover. Maybe it’s the expletive in Exquire’s name (but without that it’s nothing). Maybe it’s the disgusting skit that occurs halfway through the album. But I don’t think those are good excuses because a lot of really classic rap albums have really bawdy skits on them and you don’t have to look at the album cover if you don’t want to and if you’re a big rap fan, you should be pretty used to cursing. Also, a band called Fucked Up did really well this year.
On Lost In Translation, Exquire shows that rap in 2011 can easily be tough, gritty and gangsterish without actually ripping off gangster rap tropes or crafting elaborate thug personas. Exquire’s just a fed-up, slighty nerdy kid, and that sentiment expresses itself in varied ways through the course of the album. It starts off bawdy, angry, and nihilistic. We get introduced to Exquire as a “broke degenerate, alcoholic, pill-poppin’ addict” and the first half of the album has fun with this persona, particularly on the barn-burner “Huzzah!” The rapping is clean and while not technically masterful certainly nothing to laugh about. Exquire has several different flows, he knows how to ride a beat and he’s working with great Def Jux material. He has a nice gift for stretching syllables, growling on his “r’s” and generally making his lyrics sound as catchy as possible. Songs like “Huzzah!” and “Triple F” are really fun sure, but they’re also serious songs that explore the roots of debauchery as much as they celebrate it.
Elsewhere, Exquire shows that getting drunk and stoned aren’t the only means of escape; there are far more juvenile ways of distracting yourself from your situation. On “Fire Marshall Bill” he claims to be “driving in the Millenium Falcon” with two vixens whereas on “Maltese Falcon” he conconcts an absurd story that draws on pulpy detective fiction, John Woo movies and reality television.
On the second half of the album he drops any kind of façade whatsoever and we start getting a picture of how difficult his life really is. “Weight of Water” is reflective and sincere, as Exquire complains about a rough period, in which he’s having trouble writing and the only reason this song exists is that it was “inspired by his pain.” But the song isn’t just a boring whine-fest. It’s got a narrative arc, as Exquire contemplates leaving rap because he’s getting nowhere, kvetches for a while, and then eventually decides that dedication to the music is worth the possible failure.
That reflection is sincere, but it doesn’t prevent Exquire from despairing again on “Nothing Even Matters” and “Lou Ferigno’s Mad,” just two of the tracks on which he threatens suicide. And even on “I Should Be Sleeping,” a nostalgic reflection on childhood and how the things his mother told him still apply is tinged with melancholy, a beautiful beat lending depth to quotidian travails.
And then the record ends, on a high note with four excellent songs. “Galactus Redux,” “Build-a-Bitch,” “No Time,” and the excellent “Huzzah! Remix.” All of these tracks are long, with great beats and clearly defined concepts and Exquire spits his heart out on them as if he thinks this may be the last thing you’ll ever hear from him. And while all the depression and despair on the album might worry new fans, we at least know that this guy is capable of big things, expressing despair and euphoria and drunken fun with incredible depth and personality all over the course of one mixtape. We think that the idea of “realness” was killed off by Rick Ross but Exquire shows that being real means being honest as hell, even if that honesty takes you to some of the darkest, most disgusting places imaginable.
You see what I mean about this unassuming guy? Well, you will shortly.
There’s all kinds of ways to think about what it means to be cool but looking at John Maus’s credentials before I listened to his album, I didn’t realize that I would ultimately think this guy was really cool. He seemed (and seems ) like a nerd. Which is what I am, so no judgment. But his music is really, really cool.
What makes We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves such a cool album?
It could be Maus’s voice. It’s really deep, and intense, like someone whose come back from the grave but still has all his faculties. His voice is spooky, both in detatchment on the haunting “Cop Killer” and with enthusiasm on “Quantum Leap.” It’s acerbically robotic on the hilarious “Matter Of Fact” and expansive on “We Can Break Through This.’ It’s both recognizable and (in tone) chameleonic. I guess it is definitely Maus’s voice that makes this record cool.
It could be the lyrics. I’ve talked about the difference between fictional art and factual art before when I talked about David Bowie way back when, but just to review what David Mazuchelli taught me “fictional art…creates an illusion…as in a figurative painting that asks you to see arrangements of pigment as an apple or a mountain or a saint” while factual art “makes an honest transparent statement about itself…as in an abstract painting whose content is its form: paint on canvas.” Maus’s songs, like Bowies, are so goofy, and so clearly songs written by someone who has studied songcraft that they’re easier to enjoy as factual art; you can’t get lost in them because they’re so self-conscious but you can admire them as studies in songwriting. That’s more or less the exact same thing I said about Bowie, but it’s true of both artists. Songs like “Cop Killer” aren’t about actually going out and killing cops. They’re about creating an moody environment on which it sounds like a song about killing cops could exist. “Hey Moon’s” lyrics sound like they were crafted around the music, rather than vice versa. And that kind of knowingness betrays an intelligence that I find incredibly cool, especially since it takes a little bit of uncovering to see how smart the songs are. I suppose it has to be Maus’s lyrics that make this record cool. Also, listen to “Matter of Fact” if you want to hear some great, great songwriting.
And of course it could be and is, the music. Synths abound on “Streetlights” creating a dazzling contrast with Maus’s voice. “Quantum Leap” is just killer pop, a pulsing earworm with verses as infectious as the chorus. “The Crucifix” sounds like something Harold Faltermeyer foolishly discarded sometime in the eighties. And “Believer” is just transcendent, creating the same kind of epic atmosphere that’s being (rightfully) lauded in M83 songs. So yeah, it’s the music, and the lyrics, and John Maus’s voice, and the fact that I’m sure there are a million brilliant academic principles behind each and every one of these songs and I don’t have to give a damn, because We Must Be The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves is some of the coolest sounding music that came out this year.
Find a normal review over at Passion. Here are a bunch of sentences that kind of function as a loose review.
“Oh, a singer-songwriter. That kind of sounds boring but Jeff says he likes it so I’ll check it out.”
“The first song, “The Liars Club” which doesn’t appear to be part of the EP Manimals, starts with Spanish guitar. I was just hanging out with a girl who made fun of Spanish guitar. I am now predisposed to like this even less.”
“Ok, the Spanish guitar isn’t actually so bad. But there’s nothing about this song that really grabs me. Some of the lyrics are kind of strange, but at the end of the day, maybe a little too melodramatic. Jeff was wrong. I am the true master of music criticism.”
“Ooo, I kind of like the Spanish guitar on this second song. I am such a pushover.”
“Wait a second, I like these lyrics too. At first sounds like a gay pickup artist but there’s something a little ominous about the tone of his voice. Why would he pick up more than one guy to take home? Why is the night gonna end up horribly for someone?”
“Is that a cello? That sounds amazing. I am really starting to like this.”
“OK, these lyrics are excellent. And he’s from Milwaukee! And my God, this is frankly getting really scary in an awesome way. ”
“It kind of sounds like early Bret Easton Ellis and James Ellroy collaborated on those lyrics, what was that song called anyway?”
“Oh.” (“Dahmer Does Hollywood) “Well, the Milwaukee thing makes sense now.”
“I hope everything else on here sounds like that.”
“This next one is called “Perfect Wife” so maybe it won’t be quite as creepy. And it’s jangly.”
“No, it’s creepy. Like, right away. This guy is really good at this shtick.”
“I haven’t heard hooks about murder and torture this catchy since Biggie.”
“Should I be offended by this?”
“That was really well-written.”
“This next song, “Infamous Butcher” reminds me more of Guillermo Del Toro. It’s like a stylized horror picture. Very good.”
“I’ve just realized that I have absolutely no musical touchstones for this. Something new in music! Take that Simon Reynolds!”
“But there are probably are touchstones for it, and I just don’t know about them. Damn you Simon Reynolds!”
“Oh, I hope this last song “Husband” doesn’t retreat from what he’s been doing. It sounds like another typical bare bones folk song.”
“No, it doesn’t. It’s creepy. And I love the way that drum comes in.”
“Ok, I really liked that. I’m going to have to hold back from just raving about it. The first song wasn’t that great. The first song wasn’t that great. The first song wasn’t that…”