Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Playlist of the Week: Classy Brass

Like many middle class white kids from protestant liberal blue state artsy families, I was subjected to music lessons from an early age. I started on piano, but when the teaching continuity was broken by a move to another town when I was nine that came to naught; next, having the choice of any symphonic instrument to learn at my new school where no one knew me but everyone knew everyone else, I eclectically chose the trombone, which I played ever so dorkily until taking up the violin in sixth grade, becoming moderately skilled at that instrument until the lack of ensemble options at my high school led me to abandon it for good old-fashioned voice. Since I abhor little more than I do "practicing," that suited me just fine, so I don't miss the days of being an instrumentalist.

My upbringing did, however, endow in me a particular appreciation for the unique qualities embodied in an actual instrument, as opposed to the digital sonic creations of a gifted electronic musician. The latter, of course, has become a staple in modern mainstream pop music, making a loud cacophanous debut in the 80s before mellowing nearly to stasis in the 90s, then undergoing hyperbolic renaissance with the teen pop era of the early 2000s before revisiting its house/techno roots (which is where European pop has lived happily for decades now) in the past few years.

This does not, however, mean that the instrument is dead or unwelcome in current pop music, and to say so would be to wallow in indie rock-superiority complex shortsightedness. The instrument, by which I mean the unadulterated sound of the original unplugged tangible instrument, has instead taken on a certain significance that the cleverest of artists and producers have utilized often to great benefit. They're sort of like a swear word (or at least how swear words ought to be used): not part of the normal vocabulary, but rather only thrown in occasionally for emphasis or to drive home an especially important point. You might argue that such use actually increases the importance of the instrument, since whenever it is used it earns notice.

In pop music, this can manifest in several ways. The instrumental moment sometimes finds place and meaning in one or several brief appearances within a track in which by all generic standards they wouldn't be expected. A keenly engineered string loop, for instance (albeit synthetically produced, but the effect remains) can take a track by a supposed throwaway teen pop star into the top five of indie champion Pitchfork's year-end singles countdown; an unexpected trumpet blast in the waning seconds of a down-tempo electronic RnB seduction song can turn a sleazy throwaway bonus track into...well, at least a sleazy bonus track from worth making a music video is deemed a worthwhile endeavor.

In other instances the instrument's effect actually propels or at least saturates an entire track; thereby it is the track itself that makes whatever statement is meant through the use of the atypical instrumentation. (I'm not talking something easy here like guitar or piano, by the way.) The entire ska movement of the mid-nineties centered around the alien sound of a trumpet section as part of its standard sound, while a track wishing to evoke the good ol' days of brass bands and Great Depressions will indubitably reek of brass. Likewise, when Fiona Apple wants to make it clear she may be back but she doesn't give a damn, she can neatly say so by hauling in a wind orchestra to accompany her long-awaited comeback single.

As a trombonist it quickly became clear to me I had not selected the sexiest of instruments, and it was not until I had the great opportunity to soak in a good deal of high-level professional live jazz in college and afterwards that I began to begrudgingly accept my former galumphing musical appliance as anything but the orchestral equivalent of pit stains. About the same time I enjoyed a rousing reminder of the power of a great brass section to really liven things up, and if it worked so well for jazz and big band, after all, then why not upbeat pop? So I gathered a number of fine examples of this inspired incorporation of brass into pop music; some of them will seem obvious, while others you might not have noticed, or at least thought much about, the influence of brass within. With that, how about a fanfare? Enjoy this week's playlist!

1. "Tightrope" Janelle Monáe ft. Big Boi (Tightrope, Bad Boy/Wonderland, 2010)

Neo-soul rising star Janelle is far and away the most exciting new artist to me on the scene right now. Forget Justin Bieber and his multi-million dollar last grasps at pre-pubescent soprano clarity; Monáe's as-yet-untitled (and unannounced) full-length debut is the one I'm anticipating on the edge of my seat. With recent single "Tightrope" Monáe strays slightly from the uniquely high concept first project - a futuristic set of EPs as the so-called Metropolis Suite, the first of which landed in 2007 and included the fascinating single "Many Moons" - to deliver simply a scrumptious, fully realized dose of soul throwback with the perfect modern (and futuristic) twist. With the sheer number of innovative ideas clearly stuffed inside the 24 year old's head, if Monáe and Lady Gaga ever got their heads together I truly believe the universe might well explode.

2. "You Can Do It" No Doubt (Tragic Kingdom, Interscope, 1995)

Taking a trip back to the mid-nineties when No Doubt's third (yes, third) album Tragic Kingdom finally vindicated the Orange County ska-rock band's numerous prior tribulations by becoming a blockbuster phenomenon (single "Don't Speak" topped the Billboard Hot 100 Airplay for a near-record sixteen weeks), it might be odd to remember the group's ska background given its cunning metamorphosis to secure Rock Steady, their fifth and at present latest studio album (a sixth is scheduled to drop later this year), within the new pop directions of the early 2000s.

3. "Smooth" Santana feat. Rob Thomas (Supernatural, Arista, 1999)

Speaking of big ol' hits, Santana's 1999 album Supernatural was a somewhat unlikely megahit as well, tapping deftly into the pop sound of the mid-nineties (including perhaps the last non-ironic ska remnants) and utilizing a few of the time's big (but, wisely, not big enough to eclipse the man behind the guitar) names on vocals while remaining in the end unmistakeably a product of the great Carlos Santana. This was my favorite of the several tracks that burned up the airwaves that year.

4. "Crazy in Love" Beyoncé feat. Jay-Z (Dangerously in Love, Columbia, 2003)

Oh, 2003; what a phenomenal year that was for pop music. Nothing was tired, and everything that mattered seemed new, exciting, daring, and (shocker of shockers) GOOD! Leading the cavalry of the new decade of pop was former frontwoman for soon-to-be defunct girl group Destiny's Child, now going by the singular moniker of Beyoncé, and who could forget the fanfare with which she crashed onto the scene? The blaring, twirling, pounding, stomping horns signaling Queen B's arrival were just one of the many things that made her debut single "Crazy in Love" a bonafide smash with critics and the public alike.

5. "London Bridge" Fergie (The Dutchess, will.i.am music group/A&M, 2006)
A few years later, horns made another comeback, although in the case of Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie's solo debut single they as often as not tended to seem to contribute to some form of madness. It would become clear later that Fergie's girl-rap stomper was actually a harbinger (or perhaps just well-timed example) of a brief girl rap craze that found its way into the albums of nearly every solo female pop singer who released an album between 2006 and 2008 (e.g. Gwen Stefani's "Wind It Up" and "Hollaback Girl," Beyoncé's "Ring the Alarm," Janet Jackson's "Son of a Gun," and Robyn's delightfully satirical "Konichiwa Bitches"), but at the time, it just sounded like a lot of sirens and what a college marching band's horn section might sound like on the way home from a homecoming party. (By the way, has anyone ever figured out for what exactly "London Bridge" is supposed to be a metaphor?)

6. "Ain't No Other Man" Christina Aguilera (Back to Basics, RCA, 2006)

Aguilera, who had earned chart and sales success but critical lambasting for sexually charged sophomore album Stripped in 2002, made a ballsy move by making her third album a two-disc mixture of big band and jazz throwback and modern pop, and an even ballsier one in releasing "Ain't No Other Man" as the lead single. Metrically, instrumentally (trumpets?), even lyrically (wait, she's singing about a guy she likes and it's not a ballad?), the single didn't come close to fitting the pop singles mold. Yet "Ain't No Other Man" exemplified the best moments on Back to Basics, where the throwbacks and the modern stuff actually met within the same song, somehow creating a track that sounded essentially timeless. Plus it's a hell of a lot of fun.

7. "Rehab" Amy Winehouse (Back to Black, Universal, 2006)

Meanwhile, back in merrie olde England, producing wizard Mark Ronson took a substance-abusing, marble-mouthed 21-year-old chavette and, as if by magic, unleashed the smoldering musical genius underneath, at least long enough to record the brilliant sophomore album Back to Black and stumble through a few promotional performances (although if you want to see what I think might be the only time Amy Winehouse has been sober on camera, check out a clip of her first US television appearance, singing "Rehab" on David Letterman) before the demons within took hold once more. I can only hope and pray that eventually she will come back from black and drop a few more on us in time.

8. "Video Phone (Extended Remix)" Beyoncé feat. Lady Gaga (I Am...Sasha Fierce, Music World Music/Columbia, 2008)

People complained that the extended remix to this minor song, the closing track on Beyoncé's disappointing I Am...Sasha Fierce, was full of pointlessness, including the appearance of Lady Gaga for a couple additional verses and some more undulating diva skin in the funny-hot video (although it seemed abundantly clear to me that the tit for tat, so to speak, on two tracks about telephonic accessories was a deliberate bit of promotional cross-pollination). But these people are the same people who always seem to forget what makes contemporary pop music contemporary pop music: excess! pastiche! electronics! sampling! genre-crossing! It's all here in this almost uncomfortably sexy track, wherein the unexpected and triumphant horn blasts mentioned previously combine with a whole mess of ingredients to this bit of cheesy dessert.

9. "Going Back to Cali" LL Cool J (Walking With a Panther, Island Def Jam, 1989)
Lest we start thinking this occasional brass invasion only shows up in sung pop, I hereby offer you...well, trumpets and rap! It's like chicken and waffles!

10. "The Way You Move" Outkast (Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, Arista, 2003)

More trumpets and rap! Outkast really changed the game for rap music in 2003 with the smash hit double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, which spawned greats like "The Way You Move," "Ms. Jackson" and "Hey Ya!" And there were trumpets!

11. "The Jump Off" Lil Kim (La Bella Mafia, Queen Bee/Atlantic, 2003)

Yet again! I'm telling you, chicken and waffles! Lil Kim's fantastic 80s throwback "The Jump Off" was as brassy as the Queen Bee herself (whoops, sorry Kim...seems Beyonce stole your self-bestowed title while you were in the big house!).

12. "4 Minutes" Madonna feat. Justin Timberlake (Hard Candy, Warner Brothers, 2008)

Of course, nothing can really fully be a pop music trend, even an occasional one, until it's been done by the Queen of Pop (back down Beyoncé and Ms. Spears - rocking crotch shots at fifty years old deserves a few more years to reign). And since this is such a good one, there were several examples I could have used for this purpose, but the 2008 Timbaland sound is perhaps the only one on this list that might possibly have featured an unsexy trombone in some way, so I feel I owe it to the brass section geek to give it a little lip service.

13. "I'm Horny" Mousse T. (Horny '98, Peppermint Jam, 1998)

Not only does the song actually fit the theme, but it's just too perfect not to use to close out the playlist. Because really, after reading all of that ... aren't you?

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