Saturday, June 26, 2010

Estelle's New Singles Make for an Unlikely Pair

Track Review: "Freak" and "Fall in Love"

You remember Estelle, of course. She's the perky, pleasant Brit whose 2008 single "American Boy" became a breakout summer hit, but in the generally pleasant, "oh I love this song!" kind of way rather than the steamrolling, incessant, "I'm so sick of this f*(%@g song" kind of way (that particular job was being filled that summer by Katy Perry. How times have changed). "American Boy" really was a top notch pop single, too: effervescent and sexy without being forcefully so, set to a groovy dance beat that was versatile enough to seem equally at home in a dance club dj set as on the soundtrack at a swanky bar, and most of all carried by compelling performances by the singer and her collaborator, Kanye West, in easily his best feature performance: rather than just dropping in a few lines of rap in between the second verse/chorus and the final chorus as is typically customary, West shows up at the start and sticks around until the end, almost as in a duet but still letting Estelle own the song as the lead, and it's hard to imagine the track without both of the talented rapper/singers.

Friday, June 25, 2010

First Look: Kelly Rowland ft. David Guetta - "Commander"

Kelly Rowland. Butt of Glee jokes, second fiddle to a more famous cousin, victim to some really awful production teams in the past during her rocky solo career. But the other child of Destiny seems to have found her comfortable niche as muse of the great French producer/DJ David Guetta: she contributed vocals to "When Love Takes Over" on Guetta's recent album One Love, and has now delivered her first solid dance solo single with "Commander." While I found the former a bit shouty and, as the American Idol judges like to say, "pitchy," with "Commander" Rowland stays more within her low range and the results are far less grating. I also approve of any video that brings back military dance a la Madonna's "Vogue."

What do you think about "Commander?" Is Kelly Rowland a welcome addition to dance music and would you have guessed that would turn out to be her calling?

Monday, June 21, 2010

TiK ToK TreK

Now that The Simpsons has made Ke$ha's hit debut single acceptable fodder for adoption into pop culture jokery, one self-effacing editing whiz/Trekkie has created a Star Trek clip show to the tune of "TiK ToK" that is so full of win I had to share it with you. I encourage the funemployed and/or cinema production majors out there to explore this and similar concepts further for all our enjoyments!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

First Look: Richgirl - "He Ain't Wit Me Now (Tho)"

By Vertigo Shtick Contributor Kurt Bitter

I miss girl groups. And boy bands, too. Why are they called girl groups and boy bands when the boys never play instruments? Anywho, I miss girl groups more than I miss boy bands because girl groups are more vivacious and have more personality than their male counterparts. That is a fact. When was the last time you saw a feisty boy band? For that matter, when was the last time you saw a boy band with any sort of personality at all? Boy bands have to be cute in order to be successful, but that’s about it. Girl groups, on the other hand, have to be more than cute. They need to be some combination of sassy, edgy, independent, playful, and sexy. But not too much of each. Think of a girl group with three Beyoncés. Scary.

If I was in Richgirl

I would now like to introduce you all to Richgirl, the second 21st-century girl group that I’ve liked (the first would be The Saturdays -- check them out.). I am absolutely obsessed with their first single, “He Ain’t Wit Me Now (Tho),” and for quite valid reasons I would like to believe. Remember those essential adjectives I just listed? The four members of Richgirl take turns administering each of them throughout the song in perfect doses. Right when one girl gets too heated, another steps in to cool things off. And then a third starts to sex things up to show the guy what he’s missing out on. Lyrically the song takes us through a break-up that’s happened millions of times before, but the way the story is told makes it feel new and infinitely more human.

In my opinion the song’s production is genius. Every producer knows that it’s his job to create music that complements the vocals, but I’ve never heard a song accomplish this as well as this one. We start off with someone banging some chords on the piano. A girl steps in commanding Rich (Harrison, the song’s producer) to “play the keys,” and then “play the strings.” And so Rich does. The lyrics begin just as the strings abruptly subside, leaving only those jarring piano chords: “First things first, lemme tell ya how I feel” OH SHIT. Girlfriend’s about to TELL IT. And she does. The first half of the first verse is sung aggressively, intensely, and with attitude. At a break between lines the piano drops and a heavy bass note kicks in, emphasizing the repeated “he ain’t with me now tho”s sung throughout the song. When the lyrics resume the piano is gone entirely, and the same saucy girl is accompanied by a funky new hip-hop beat. “Cuz I can be prim and proper standin’ by, and play my position, but tonight I need to shine.” Mmm PREACH!

With the pre-chorus comes another girl with yet another musical theme. The mood has changed; we’re no longer hearing about why the relationship didn’t work, but rather, what the girl thinks she deserves in her next relationship. With this more pensive mood we receive a relaxed R&B-style tune. However, right when things start to get comfortable the high-energy chorus kicks in, which seems to be a combination of all the previous melodical themes. The rest of the song continues in this manner.

We need more songs produced like this. Far too often I hear pop songs sung entirely to the same music, except for maybe a break in the bridge. This would make sense if the emotional level of the song is always constant, but whenever is that the case? You might not like “He Ain’t Wit Me Now (Tho).” I can imagine that its abrupt changes in pace might be too jarring for some, especially for those who, say, just woke up from a nap. Or maybe the song is too R&B-hip hop-ish for your taste. But even so, I hope that you’ll appreciate the outstanding way in which its production complements its vocals. Here’s to hoping that RichGirl gets their break on the US radio and we’re able to hear what else they’ve got up their sleeves.

\"He Ain\'t Wit Me Now (Tho)\" - Richgirl

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Five Nitpicky Things That Are Entirely Inconsequential and Keeping Me Awake

I am tremendously exhausted and yet have been unable to sleep all night. So I thought I'd come on here and get a few nagging (and entirely inconsequential) music chips off my shoulders. I'm not going to defend them as mature or justified, by the way, if that tells you anything. What are some of your little nitpicky things? I know everyone has them, so share in the comments! Here are five for the moment from me.

1. There's a nice sentiment being shared in JoJo's charming "Baby It's You" as it has been in many songs before and many yet to come: whatever earthly possessions her man may or may not have do not in any way affect her affections, being as they are based merely on the man himself. Aww, sweet, right? But listen a bit closely and you'll notice that the man in question apparently DOES have all the fancy swag, including a fly car that poor Timbaland could have used to take Keri Hilson on a date: "It's not for what you got/I know you got a lot." The sentiment is still sweet, but isn't it a bit convenient to decide you don't care if your man has tons of bling or not...when he does?

2. Along those lines, I admit I rather adore Jordin Sparks' early single "One Step At a Time," a feel-good empowerment anthem about being patient and sticking to working for your dreams even though it can seem like you've been doing so forever and have a long way yet to go. "You know you can, if you get the chance/In your face see the door keep slamming"... yep, this sounds about right to the young unknown writer. It's a great message...if only it weren't being delivered by a girl who was homeschooled while she modeled and sang gigs before winning Season 6 of American Idol at age 17 and kicking out her first album, which includes the single, a few months later. I don't begrudge the girl her overnight success - I just wish this lovable song could be delivered without the massive side of Patronizing.

OMG finally! I almost turned 18 without knowing overnight success!

3. "Beautiful." It's a great song, and it saved her career, and meant a lot to a great many people who needed it (myself included, at the time), but I am still skeptical that Christina Aguilera has (or had, at the time) really ever been given any reason to doubt her beauty.

 I am so terribly unpretty...alas...

4. Was Pink being sloppy, or conflating old and new material, or making a point when she followed the powerful "Sober," one of the best singles of her career, with the raucus ode to drunken debauchery "Bad Influence" four tracks later on her album Funhouse? Basically it comes out thus:

Oh, oh, night is calling
And it whispers to me softly, "come and play!"
Oh, oh, I am falling,
And if I let myself go,
I'm the only one to blame.
La la moralizing la la no booze la la sober etc.


All right sir,
Sure, I'll have another one.
It's early!
Three olives. Shake it up.
I like it dirty.
Tequila for my friend:
It makes her flirty.
(Trust me.)

Sure, the latter track follows just after the pop rocker gleefully incinerates the home she shared until recently with a now very much EX-lover in the title track, and who wouldn't want to knock back a few after that? But seriously. Balls or bungling? (Since it wasn't a single but I love it so, here's "Bad Influence" for your enjoyment.)

\"Bad Influence\" - Pink

 Actually, I really just wanted to boink myself on camera.

5. Although she is the only one who I let get away with it without the usual negative impact on my general respect and enjoyment, couldn't Lady Gaga have written "Baby we could write a bad romance" instead of the obvious grammatical malfeasance that is the actual line - a sin simultaneously less and more egregious by her almost certain knowledge of her affront to the correct use of language? Of course "you and I" wouldn't have sounded as musical...but Gaga, I figured that grammatically correct, lyrically flowing and rhythmically equivalent alternative out within minutes of setting out to do so...did you not? Or did you actively choose to join Fergie in the grammarians' Lyrical Hall of Shame? (You grammarians know what I'm talking about there, I'm sure of it. For those who don't, take a refresher listen, with particular attention to the chorus.)

Now perhaps I can finally get a little sleep. Maybe I'll use that blanket that belonged to that freakish child with the split personality.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Taio Cruz and Ke$ha Take Some "Dirty Picture"s (Single Review)

Taio Cruz and Ke$ha may not initially seem to have a ton in common - he's a dude, she's a chick, he's black, she's white, he's British, she's American, he's a producer, singer/songwriter and sometimes rapper who largely wrote and produced his recent hit album, she's a singer/songwriter, rapper and sometimes producer who largely wrote and co-produced her recent...hit.... album.... Hmm, perhaps this unlikely pair isn't such an odd couple after all: indeed, they make up two of the seven lead artists to have a single hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2010 (although Ke$ha's nine week reign with "TiK ToK" slightly outperformed Cruz's one-week stay at the peak for "Break Your Heart").

The First Coming of Robyn: Looking Back

The reasons Robyn appeals so greatly to even the most elitist anti-pop music critical community (e.g. Pitchfork, Rolling Stone) as well as to the more in-tune major pop music devotees (e.g. PopJustice, Idolator, and this humble upstart) center of course on her consistent, unique and inventive qualities and talent as an artist, but also on the indisputably rocky road she has followed (often not by choice) in terms of the business side of the music industry (which makes her artistic and commercial success that much more impressive, as if it needed the help). The length of her busy and occasionally tumultuous career, along with the broad stylistic array of material she has produced, can easily make Robyn seem as though she must be older than her mere thirty years - a convenient kind of misconception of which she has wisely taken advantage throughout her fourteen years as a professional pop musician.

Robyn first signed with RCA Records in 1995, at sixteen years old, and her first singles "You've Got That Somethin'" and "Do You Really Want Me (Show Respect)" came out later that year. The former made the top 25 on the Swedish charts, but the latter proved to be Robyn's breakout success - the first of a number of breakout successes over the next year and a half in various countries, and with various breakout singles, too - peaking at the number 2 spot. From these successes followed a full-length debut album, Robyn is Here, released in Sweden in October of 1996.

The third single released in Sweden was the only track of the thirteen on the album to be cowritten and produced by Swedish producer Max Martin, who was at the time relatively unknown, and had been working on the debut of a new American boy band called the Backstreet Boys, but the album hadn't yet been released in the US despite strong success in Europe. Martin worked with Robyn, who has writing credits on every track of her debut album, on the single that would launch her into the top ten in Sweden, the US and Australia, "Do You Know (What It Takes)." When a U.S. launch was planned, one track was added to the otherwise merely shuffled track list, also co-written and produced by Martin. In hindsight it is little surprise that this second collaboration, "Show Me Love," which was released as the second U.S. single, matched its predecessor's chart peak at number 7 around the time the Backstreet Boys' third single "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)" - a Martin production - was peaking at number 4 in the US and charting for 22 weeks.

Note the sexified cover art - the late 90s were all about mild pedophilia (girls)

After these successes, "Do You Really Want Me" was released internationally as well, but it was ineligible to chart on the singles charts in the US under eligibility rules (since abandoned); it did, however, hit the top forty on the Airplay charts (which surprised me to learn, because frankly I don't remember ever hearing it - and I listened to a lot of KIIS FM back then). Robyn was also tapped to go on tour opening for - can you guess? - the Backstreet Boys. However, in the very early days of the tour, the singer withdrew from the tour and was diagnosed with "exhaustion," (often understood or used as an entertainment industry code for complications for a little too much partying, which is not to imply such a thing in this case) at which point she retreated to Sweden...and disappeared from the US pop consciousness forever.

\"Do You Really Want Me (Show Respect)\" Robyn

You think I'm exaggerating? There's more to Robyn's industry bio leading up to 2010, and it has led to a rather exciting point for the Swedish virtuoso, but for today, I've gathered a few more tracks from Robyn Is Here to show how much talent and natural knack for pop recording the inexperienced teenage Robyn had to begin with - it's considerable. While I don't as much care for "Do You Really Want Me," I do happen to be very fond of several other tracks on the debut, particularly the opener "Bumpy Ride" (which is less useful as an example as it has many of the same traits that make "Do You Know (What It Takes)" easily the best cut of the bunch, and probably of her early career overall) and the groovy pop-RnB infusion "Don't Want You Back," which sounds positively like throwback hip-hop/R&B to today's ears, which have forgotten that that is how a good deal of pop was sounding at the time, and continued to sound in between the brash dance maelstroms and synthesized power ballads of the standard teen pop album.

\"Don\'t Want You Back\" Robyn

And, of course, everyone pretty much loved "Show Me Love" (I much preferred "Do You Know," and still do, but then I generally favor uptempo songs over ballads or midtempo lovey-dovey songs), the music video for which is below. Stop by over the coming week for more of Robyn's story and the music that has won so many over and yet not nearly enough. Welcome back to 1997!

All tracks in this post from:
Robyn Is Here
(RCA, 1996/1997)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

"All The Lovers" Video Features Little Clothing, Less Feeling

The buzz-inspiring music video for Kylie Minogue's new song "All The Lovers," the lead single from her upcoming eleventh studio album Aphrodite, premiered earlier this week, finally placating excited fans and those intrigued by the enticing yet vague still shots released several weeks ago showing the Australian singer embroiled above and within a seeming heap of amorous-looking everymen and -women in white (and often rather bad) underwear.

The funny thing is, within the first five seconds of the finished video it becomes clear that these promo shots were not teases so much as summaries: the general premise of that which many of the more satisfied critics have been calling a "concept video" involves a noticeably clothed Minogue (who just turned 42 this week) singing magnanimously atop a literal pile of writhing, smooching plebians clad in white skivvies. Oh, and there's a white horsie, and a white elephant balloon, and a white dove. And once in a while the folks in the Orgy Pile wave one arm up and over their heads to the other side, and then back again in unison with the music. The choreography is truly peerless.

As you may remember I was rather cool on the song itself at first listen, warming up slightly to it when I decided it was, for once, about a relationship slightly more complicated than the sexual ones about which Minogue has made a lucrative (and, I should note, first-rate) career singing. I appreciated her willingness to explore new themes and show musical growth alongside inevitable advances in age and of course admiring the fully deft handling in production on display; "All The Lovers" is a model example of the best results from a current trend toward midtempo dance tracks by solo female artists.

As for the video, I found it even less compelling than I initially found the track on its own, to the extent that I am happy to allow the humorists over at the British pop music site Popjustice (one of the only other online entities that largely embraces many of my same ideas about the critical merits and potential of mainstream pop music) to speak for me with their chuckle-inducing video walkthrough. I will say that my general antipathy (I wouldn't call it "disappointment" as Popjustice does, only because I was expecting very little, given my cool response to the song itself) stems from the fact that the video seems to me to negate the qualities I ended up discovering in the track - in other words, the video for a song I finally came to admire for its thoughtful and emotionally open approach to passion beyond sex is nevertheless all Trust me, this is not something I typically hold against any video, song, or anything else for that matter; in this case it is the disconnect I see between song and video (concept is great unless it's not the right concept) as well as the disconnect I felt between the usually dynamically engaging singer and the others in the video around her as well as the viewer of said video. When I'm watching an incredibly sexy Aussie knockout lying in a den of nearly nude young lovers of both sexes, I feel like my main thoughts ought to be alog other lines than "Wow, I wonder if she feels as claustrophobic as I do just watching."

I could be wrong. Thoughts?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Robyn Is Coming: Part 1

There have been several periods in the past thirty or so that modern pop music as we know it today has been around that saw an apex of talent, popularity, quality, freshness, and momentum. Among these high points in pop music history began around late 1996 and early 1997, ending a five or six year spell of stagnation - in the wake of controversy surrounding Madonna's sexually exploratory, envelope-pushing musical and literary output at the turn of the 1990s - something of a pop music dark ages.

Then suddenly from out of the swamps of repetitive minor ballads from a young Mariah Carey and an increasingly erratic Whitney Houston, a new generation of pop music emerged, bringing with it an infectious and sorely needed energy that revived and revitalized pop music in ways not seen since the early- to mid-80s ascent of the likes of Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. Best of all, the renaissance seemingly offered something for everyone: Alanis Morissette, Jewel and Savage Garden conquered the moody adolescents and their parents' dollars by the barrel, while No Doubt and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones ska'd their way onto the scene and kept many a trumpeter employed; meanwhile, British import girl group the Spice Girls charged in from across the pond to tick the dance-pop metronome up a few notches, laying the path soon followed by the Backstreet Boys, together being the first acts of what would become the hugely lucrative subgenre of bubblegum/teen pop. Heck, even Mariah Carey lightened up a bit, scoring a top single on the Hot 100 with "Honey" in the fall of 1997.

Amid this surge of new or reinvigorated talent, a charming midtempo track by a new, unknown teenaged Swedish singer known mononymously as Robyn made its steady ascent up the U.S. singles chart to its eventual peak comfortably within the top ten. "Do You Know (What It Takes)" was the kind of perfectly recurring but not over-saturated hit that hardly exists anymore in these days where a handful of tracks get played to death by a monopolistic Top 40 radio empire (*cough*  ClearChannel *cough*): when it came on the radio, as it did quite often, it was unsurprising but always welcome, time since its last rotation seemed much longer than it really had been. Unless we'd sought out the video (rather minor even by '90s standards) most listeners had no visual image of this imported (but not imported-sounding) teenage chanteuse; only the sweetness, smoothness and skill of her voice and the eager naivete of the subject of which she sang. Or in my case, the happenstance of sharing a name (and spelling) with a dearly beloved godsister.

For whatever reason, Robyn made a good first impression nearly fourteen years ago, so much so that when late in 2009 a horrified friend and fellow pop music apologist alerted me to the fact that this Swedish gem had in fact continued working after seemingly disappearing as suddenly as she'd arrived, I was particularly pleased. And that was before I discovered that Robyn hadn't just been working: she'd become an artist comfortably living on the edge of genius; or, as she has proclaimed (to no argument I know of), "the killingest pop star on the planet."

Robyn's sixth studio album, Body Talk, Pt 1, drops June 15 - which happens to be the 26th birthday of your friendly blogger. It is to be the first of three albums due out within the next year, following up at long last the 2005/2007 self-titled album AllMusic called "the pop tour de force that Robyn has always had in her," and combined with the European and U.S. tour scheduled this summer and fall with R&B champion Kelis, it even has potential to awaken an unsuspecting and unprepared American musical consciousness to this thrillingly superb pop icon for the first time in thirteen long years. But never fear: Vertigo Shtick is here to help as well as to honor. That is why for the next two weeks before Body Talk, Pt 1 arrives to blow your minds, Vertigo Shtick will be your Guide to Robyn, providing the newcomer and the long time fan alike with a thorough course in the star and her work, and strive to answer the unimaginable question of why you should care. 

So stay tuned; there's plenty of Robyn on its way to go around. I'll open this two-week smorgasbord with the hit that won me over to the Robyn side thirteen years ago and still adore as much as I did when I first heard it. Plus, of course, one can only hope that someone like Robyn will "always be around."

"Do You Know (What It Takes)"
(BMG, 1996)

\"Do You Know (What It Takes)\" - Robyn

Destiny's Child Gets an A Capella Makeover

All right folks, it's June, the best month of the year! I have one heck of a month in the works for you, too, so make sure your bookmark is set properly and keep stopping by regularly to catch all the excitement as it unfolds. But rather than pounce in without looking and charge on through gracelessly, I thought I'd start off with a song for the day that provides a fun change of pace while remaining entirely relevant.

As loath as I am to admit it, I found myself this Saturday sitting in an auditorium on the campus of that other school across town, also known as ucla (Bruins are either too good for or unable to recognize capital letters), where my brother was singing in his final concert with the co-ed acappella choir The Scattertones. For those who don't know, acappella choirs are popular, typically student-run groups of singers primarily at colleges and universities nationwide who perform re-imagined, ingeniously arranged, and completely instrument-free renditions of songs either popular in themselves or originally performed by popular artists. The annual division championships of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCAs) routinely sell out theaters and concert halls in a way probably rivaled only by Yo-Yo Ma or a former President, and these musical institutions of the college experience almost always manage at least to bring excitement and joy to all within earshot.

UCLA Random Voices 2009-10
Opening for the Scattertones was another group of song-happy Bruins, the all-female Random Voices. Since my aforementioned brother just happens to be going steady with one of the outgoing members of this girl group, I had already had the pleasure of hearing the recent studio cut of Random Voices' second and final song of the brief opening set, which they had performed for the university's big "Spring Sing" competition earlier this term.

Any fan of the pioneering R&B girl group Destiny's Child would get an easy kick out of a well-arranged and well-performed acappella medley of several of the group's early hits, including "Say My Name," "Bills, Bills, Bills," "Jumpin' Jumpin'," and "Survivor" (whut?). But even the neutral onlooker would have a hard time not bouncing to the effervescent beat of the solid arrangement, from its love affair with the alto line, team efforts from all parts on backup and accompaniment duty (most impressive on "Survivor"), and some seamless and clever segues between songs (I especially admire the sliding chords that guide "Bills, Bills, Bills" into "Jumpin' Jumpin'")?

 NOT the UCLA Random Voices

In a group with, at my estimate, but one black member (the soloist on "Say My Name," natch), you have to admire the tenacity of these mostly white and Asian gals as they convincingly tap into their ghetto sides for this enjoyable acappella romp (bolstered in its studio recording by some healthy but not obviously false bass line assistance). Whut?

"Keep On Survivin' (Destiny's Child Medley)"
UCLA Random Voices
UCLA Spring Sing 2010

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