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The Monthly music wrap: November 2018

By Luke Goodsell
A festive EP from Tyler, the Creator; new releases from Anderson .Paak, Mariah Carey and cupcakKe; and David Byrne live

November was all about breaking up, moving on and self-empowerment: three of the month’s brightest and best pop singles – Little Mix’s “Joan of Arc”, Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Party for One” and Ariana Grande’s ubiquitous smash “thank u, next” – celebrated the power of newfound solitude, dancing with themselves into an irrepressible dawn. Or maybe they’re bracing for the encroaching festive season, with its glut of forced revelry, annual life stocktaking and attendant loneliness – not to mention all the repackaged greatest hits and Christmas cash-ins.

Odd Future troublemaker Tyler, the Creator isn’t the first artist one might associate with yuletide synergy, but then Dr Seuss’s Grinch isn’t exactly the season’s staunchest advocate, either. Tyler contributes two new tracks to the latest animated film version of Theodor Geisel’s Christmas fable. An off-kilter, slightly menacing version of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”, in which composer Danny Elfman supplies background chants and bells, will satisfy anyone who yearned for a duet between Tyler and Jack Skellington, and “I Am the Grinch”, where the green guy gets branded as “problematic” – just as Dr Seuss no doubt always dreamed. The festive spirit must’ve stuck, as Tyler has also released a six-track EP, Music Inspired by Illumination & Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch, its corporate deference cheekily offset by an extremely high-looking Grinch on the cover art, red-and-yellow eyes bugging out. It’s an eclectic holiday confection, featuring chimes and synthetic strings, gunshot drumbeats, and Santigold’s pitched-up vocals on “Lights On”, which conjure the ghosts of Phil Spector’s Christmas album. Not that the old Tyler isn’t there. “Never had a Santa Claus”, he mumbles on “Big Bag”, an apparent ode to the most time-honoured festive tradition: shoplifting.

Fellow West Coast hip-hop artist Anderson .Paak returns for a more on-brand collection with Oxnard, which completes his SoCal coastal trilogy begun with 2014’s Venice and carried through 2016’s Malibu. As befits a record named for his hometown, Oxnard finds .Paak nostalgic for the music that shaped him, often evoking the low-riding, throwback grooves of g-funk that were made famous by his executive producer, Dr. Dre. The Compton impresario shows up on “Who R U” and “Mansa Musa”, whose rat-a-tat rhythms wouldn’t be out of place on The Chronic, while his most famous prodigy, Snoop Dogg, guests on the laid-back funk of “Anywhere”.

A quintessential California record, Oxnard records the topography of the region’s great equaliser, the freeway, where an infinite horizon can turn into a claustrophobic nightmare in the space of a breakdown. .Paak and airy guest vocalist Kadhja Bonet ride toward some mythic highway on “The Chase”, with its liberating ’70s flutes, strings, and wah-wah guitars; an amorous passenger on the I-9 services the narrator of “Headlow”; and .Paak and Kendrick Lamar make a dash down the 110 on the single “Tints”, a paranoid party anthem where the TMZ-dodging fun betrays a darker reality. “Paparazzi wanna shoot ya, shoot ya,” .Paak sings. “Niggas dyin’ for less, I hear.”

No stranger to the celebrity glare, Mariah Carey slinks back into her permanently reserved spotlight with Caution, her 15th studio album and first in four long years (though her reign as a shady reaction GIF remains largely unchallenged). This tart, economical record (a cassette-side-sized 38 minutes) crystallises Ms Carey at her current best, its mid-tempo R&B and casually killer hooks the work of an artist with nothing to prove – after all, “thank u, next” is just living in the world that Mariah built.

“Take your things and be on your merry way,” Carey dispatches a deadbeat ex over the bleeping synths of “GTFO”, a collaboration with Drake producer Nineteen85 that embodies the acronym you think it does. Meanwhile, she invokes the diva paradox on both the title track (“proceed with caution, but don’t make me wait,” a potential lover gets warned) and the Ty Dolla $ign-starring “The Distance”, in which the singer literally cheerleads for the drama of a tempestuous relationship. Even better is the Lil’ Kim-sampling, Notorious B.I.G.-resurrecting “A No No”, a lesson in shutting down unwanted attention,which culminates in Mariah’s sassy, hilarious multilingual disses. (“Parlez-vous français? I said ‘No’.”)

But it’s the surprising sense of reverie that makes the album resonate. On the languid, slow funk groove of “Giving Me Life”, Carey casts back for her teenage years, complete with an Eddie Murphy sample and a guest verse from Slick Rick, crafting a rich sense of time and place – gold fronts and Clark Wallabees included – while Dev Hynes, aka Blood Orange, supplies the ’80s R&B soul. There’s even a sense of weary reflection on the closing piano ballad, the stirringly bittersweet “Portrait”. “How do I disappear?”, Carey wonders. “Haunted by those severed ties.” The tenor vividly calls to mind Stevie Wonder’s 1973 track “Visions”, with its dreams of escape to an imagined reality of the mind.

Less pensive, but with a shared appreciation of Lil’ Kim, is the 21-year-old Chicago rapper cupcakKe, whose new Eden is her second album this year, following January’s boisterous Ephorize and its comically phallus-obsessed single, “Duck Duck Goose”. It was a tough act to follow, but cupcakKe flips the gender focus on the equally memorable “Garfield”, with its chanted refrain that summons the titular pussy from internet punchline to metaphor for plus-size fantasy. cupcakKe is a fast, dexterous and funny rapper, whether executing shade on trap-based opener “PetSmart” (“I spent 13K on some Gucci/He spent 13 dollars on your coochie”) or dressing down dudes on first single “Quiz” (“How the fuck your inches longer than your money?”), which swings on a hook that sounds like Glitched On Classics. Though drenched in brazen sexuality, the record never lets its audience forget who’s in control. “They ask, ‘Is it Cupcake or CupcakKe?’,” she relays in the Latin-flavoured “Prenup”. “I said, ‘However the money pronounced.’”

“Watch out!” David Byrne would say. “You might get what you’re after!” The former Talking Heads leader and forever art pop star brought that very sentiment to his recent tour of Australia, where his old band’s classics blended seamlessly into the new stage show conceived around Byrne’s 2018 record, American Utopia. Dressed in a grey suit and leading a multi-instrumentalist band across a minimally (and brilliantly) designed stage, it was impossible not to see the parallels between Byrne’s current performance and Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense (1984), which captured Talking Heads in their artistic prime so memorably. (Invigorating renditions of “I Zimbra”, “Once in a Lifetime” and “Burning Down the House”, sounding as buoyant as ever, certainly helped.) There’s always been something of the benevolent cult leader to Byrne’s presence, and even if his alien observations have been eroded by a somewhat awkward age-of-Trump political awakening for the NPR crowd, he remains a clear-eyed chronicler of modern life in all its absurd contradictions.

One of the great cases in point: True Stories, the 1986 film Byrne directed, which finally gets a full, expanded soundtrack release this month. Combining Talking Heads songs with many previously unavailable tracks from the film, the soundtrack, like the show, finds Byrne presiding over a wide catalogue of musical styles, from the lite funk of his own “Freeway Son” to the music hall country of Terry Allen’s “Cocktail Desperado” and Esteban “Steve” Jordan’s Latino folk “Soy de Tejas”. Just as Byrne’s space cowboy in the film surveys a fictional Texan town with curiosity instead of condescension, so this collection of songs beam in from some idealised America, that great, all-purpose mall where everything and nothing is possible.

Also of note this month: Grimes returns with “We Appreciate Power”, the metal-flavoured first single from her forthcoming fifth album and what sounds like the official welcome to our new AI overlords. Brooklyn-based dance music dynamo Yaeji unleashes a remix EP of her recent single “One More”, ahead of her sold-out Sydney and Melbourne dates next week. Marianne Faithfull’s 21st album, Negative Capability, is a rich rumination on time from the rock‘n’roll survivor, including her third, and possibly most heartbreaking, studio take on “As Tears Go By”. And Washington-born, Cologne-based electronic producer Swan Meat’s new album Tame, which is anything but, morphs from brittle industrial beats to Aphex Twin melodies to fairground synthesisers at a static-drenched musical.

Luke Goodsell

Luke Goodsell is a critic and editor who has contributed to the ABC, SBS and the Melbourne International Film Festival.

@timebombtown

Anderson .Paak. Source

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