Thursday, March 8, 2012

AF Month-in Review: FEBRUARY

At Audiofemme, we don't exactly try to break music news; we're more about pontificating on the news after it has broken.  In honor of that, here's our first monthly recap! It's true that we're a week into March, but this is a look back at some things that happened in February - and without mincing words, exactly what we think about it all.  This installment features MIA, Whitney Houston, why the Grammys are irrelevant, and the best show we'll (possibly) ever see.

AF: After flipping the bird during a Superbowl halftime show performance, the name Maya Arulpragasam was on everyone's lips once again (or anyway, her initial-based moniker, MIA was). But MIA didn't need to extend her middle finger to get our attention, since she already had it with the video for “Bad Girls” released just a few days prior. The song is from the Vicki Leekx mixtape, self-released at the beginning of 2011. Not only is the single far better than pretty much anything from 2010's mostly excruciating /\/\/\Y/\, but the video adds a new level of intensity to an already fierce jam.

MIA reunited with director Romain Garvas, who also had a hand the controversial video/short film for “Born Free”. Looking back on “Born Free” it's hard to say if our distaste stemmed from lukewarm feelings for the track, or if we just thought the video was dumb. AudioFemme has always appreciated the political content in MIA's work. It never feels like a gimmick, mostly because it extends through every expression of her being, from her music to her fashion sense to her live shows and album artwork, not to mention her background and the causes she supports. “Born Free” was sort of an exception to that. While we suppose that someone should call attention to the horrors of genocide, must it be done by depicting a bunch of ginger refugees shuttled to their torture on a crowded deathbus? Are white kids really so blissfully unaware of racial and cultural profiling that they need MIA to clobber them over the head with gory imagery of freckled, pale bodies exploding over land mines? Sadly, the answer is yes, but it felt a bit heavy-handed and obvious.

The video for “Bad Girls” is essentially doing the same thing but in a much more successful manner. It takes a very real topic – oppression of women in the Middle East - and turns their liberation into a orgiastic free-for-all. While it was filmed in Morocco, the desert scenes and clay buildings remain just ambiguous enough to encompass areas of the world where MIA would have been arrested for such openness. Musically speaking, “Born Free” had a much more aggressive sound than “Bad Girls” and in turn, the video was hard to watch. “Bad Girls” delivers its heat as a club-ready scorcher, and so there is a party-at-the-end-of-the-world sort of language to the video. At first glance the future appears strangely dystopian, aimless. Then those first beats drop, MIA gyrates onto the scene wearing iridescent lame, and snarls “Live fast/Die young/Bad girls do it well” and the realization hits: we are actually seeing a utopia where Middle Eastern women are allowed to drive stunt cars, dance provocatively and wear whatever the fuck crazy clothes they feel like wearing.

All aspects of MIA's signature in-your-face attitude are in full effect here - her pouty expressions, provocative gestures, and creative wardrobe. Her bravado is most apparent when she nonchalantly files her nails atop a stunt car driving on two wheels, but every second is infused with the palpable excitement of the most explosive action sequence in any summer blockbuster. At the exact moment MIA asks “Who's gonna stop me if I'm coming through?” she's backed by motorcade of glow-in-the-dark cars and a horde of flamboyantly shrouded back-up dancers on the march, a procession placing her in the position of liberator and leader.

In no time, the video had amassed 25,000 comments so MIA proceeded to respond to those comments in a follow-up video. Unfortunately, the questions were no more insightful than YouTube comments ever seem to be. We learned that see-through cars are expensive to ship, that hopefully MIA's new album will see release during a season where people will be wearing fewer clothes, and MIA promised to go out for drinks with some lucky Brooklynite next time she's in New York. Dude better watch out, I heard that babe likes truffle fries.

Lindsey: Speaking of living fast and dying (relatively) young, the world lost one of its most beloved and talented performers on the 11th with the passing of Whitney Houston.

I was at work when news of Whitney's death was tweeted to my roommate, who was at the time sitting at a corner booth enjoying our delicious pork tostadas and coconut margaritas, and I'll probably always remember that setting. Just like I'll always remember being on the JFK AirTrain when some dude with phone in hand announced to the entire car “HEY EVERYBODY, MICHAEL JACKSON JUST DIED!

A strange thing happens when incredibly well-known pop singers die. On the one hand, there's an element of shock, and then there's the mental preparation one must begin in anticipation of hearing that artist's songs in every public place for the next three months, the fans coming out of the woodwork to testify their love and heartbreak, the tackiness of televised funerals. But in those initial moments, my first thought was to tune Spotify to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” and pump up the volume, which is just what I did. In the next few hours we played most of Whitney's back-catalogue, wondering how such a talented, wholesome lady could be so completely derailed by a total asshole and his suitcase full of blow.

After such a time, I began to tire of the schmaltzy sentiment running through most of Whitney's oeuvre, but I did tear up to “I Will Always Love You.” My parents listened exclusively to country music while I was growing up, and when The Bodyguard came out I was in fourth grade and already well familiar with Dolly Parton's original recording. I remember being furious that Whitney had taken all the credit for it – I even had unschooled friends who insisted it was Whitney-penned material. I might have won the bet, but I still looked like a bumpkin.

On the night of her death I found myself at a dance party and when the DJ played “I Wanna Dance” everyone lost their shit. It was a cheap move (albeit one I'd pulled just hours earlier) but that's the charm of Whitney – even when you know the purpose of the music is to appeal to your sappy, overemotional core, it still gets to you, and for that reason alone the imprint she's left on American culture will endure.

Lindsey: Following news of Whitney's death, the 54th Grammy Awards aired on CBS. Admittedly, the Grammys do not interest me in the least, for all the reasons you've probably heard before... that they represent the lowest common denominator of fandom... that they celebrate mediocrity in pop music while ignoring more innovative works easily found just beyond the mainstream... that they haplessly compare apples to oranges in categories that barely apply to the artists nominated... that they are incredibly boring. What I usually say instead of all that is “It's just not my thing” and it isn't – which doesn't make me better or worse than anyone else, even if those preceding sentences make me sound like an incorrigible snob.

In fact, the Grammys often serve to shame me for just how little attention I pay to Top Forty recordings. Someone I was talking to in a bar that Sunday made mention of Kanye West's “All The Lights” and I had to admit I'd never heard it, not even once. Part of it is my general annoyance with Kanye West's personality and poor lyric-writing, though I think he's a stellar producer, but I was still a tad embarrassed.

So with my tail between my legs, I watched maybe two minutes of Nicki Minaj's “Roman Holiday” performance, but all I could say was “UGH, why is everyone obsessed with this trainwreck? I feel like I'm having a nightmare except I'm awake. I'm going to go read in my room.”

And my takeaway was this: at least now the Grammys are recognizing electronic forms of music, even if it is shitty dubstep. And giving awards to chubby girls based on actual talent rather than looks. And giving Dave Grohl a platform to become an internet meme, just like he's always wanted. And finally, we've all been introduced to the genius of Justin Vernon, whom the Grammys discovered.

AF: On the 13th Tibet House hosted its annual benefit concert at Carnegie Hall, curated by Philip Glass.  By far, this concert was the best thing we’ve attended all month, and (given the majority of shows we catch that take place in venues that frequently smell of vomit) probably the most highbrow outing we’ll go on for a long, long time.  The original bill listed Glass, video artist and digital pioneer Laurie Anderson, and minimalist prodigy James Blake, with other performers to be announced. In the following days, Lou Reed was added to the bill. Even then, we knew we were in for a once-in-a-lifetime live music experience.

To get a sense of how UN-willing we were to miss it, picture this: Annie hobbling around with a freshly broken toe (her big toe, no less) having not slept in over 24 hours (and yes, the two are interrelated), completely wacked out on painkillers. Plus, our seats were located in the second balcony. Still, hell would have indeed had to have been frozen over for us not to attend this spectacle.

We made our way to the mezzanine and settled into our fancy velvet theater chairs just as the lights dimmed.  We began to flip through the program wide-eyed with our hearts racing. Page after page of revealed some of our favorite musicians to be unexpected additions to the benefit, including Antony (sans Johnsons), Stephin Merritt, Das Racist, Rahzel, and Patti Smith's Band.

While such an talented line-up might sound intimidating or pretentious, the evening was anything but, its short sets peppered with a lively sense of humor.  While there were a few contemplative moments – the evening began with throat-singing Tibetan monks in radiant yellow robes, and about halfway through the set Tibetan singer Dechen Shak-Dagsay asked the audience to meditate on freedom for Tibet – by and large the night felt like a celebration, and it was never a somber one.

Laurie Anderson set the mood for the evening, performing right after the monks. Over ethereal synths, she recounted a story about a two-week “silent” canoe trip she took down a tributary of the Colorado River, during which she quickly discovered it was not the “meditation retreat” she had signed up for, but rather an opportunity for narcissists to gather and validate one another’s “life stories”.  She garnered more than a few laughs over tales of running into a group for incest survivors who turned the now collective campfire into a platform for oversharing, passing a wooden spoon to take turns speaking into “as if it were a microphone”.

She picked up a violin and was joined on stage by Antony, wearing what can best be described as a muumuu.  His otherworldly voice echoed against the ornate vaulted ceilings. The amazing acoustics of Carnegie made this feel both intimate and immense at the same time.  While the songs had us in tears by the end, shocked that something so beautiful could come out of the mouth of a human, the droll lyrics of Anderson's “The Dream Before” were delivered with Antony's trademark whimsy and sass.

Stephin Merritt longed to have an orchestra behind him while singing “This Little Ukelele” and pretended to be surprised by the string quartet that actually occupied that space.  They joined him in a soaring rendition of “The Book of Love”. But the most uproarious portion of the evening were Das Racist's dual appearances. Heems and Kool A.D. had all the earmarks of dressing it up for Carnegie Hall in their dashing suits, but their lively performance of “Michael Jackson” saw them flirting with the aforementioned string quartet, somersaulting at the stage's edge, and parading around with the American flag that had been innocently fluttering to stage left. Dap wore a traditional Indian dress that somehow made his pelvic thrusting more pronounced and therefore more comical. While the audience was actually comprised of many young folks who likely knew what to expect from the tongue-in-cheek rappers, one has to wonder what older fans of Glass's minimal works had to say about their outrageous contribution to the evening.

All of the hilarity was anchored by stellar performances from stalwart musicians. Lenny Kaye lead Patti Smith's band in a tribute to seminal garage rock comp Nuggets. Rahzel, formerly of The Roots, incorporated robotic dancing and beat-boxing skills into his memorable offering. And Glass's own arrangement of “Pendulum for Violin & Piano” with violin virtuoso Tim Fain was astounding. Even from from the distant balcony in which we sat, you could see his fingers flying, leaving the audience stunned by his show or skill.

Lou Reed finished out the night (we imagine he probably demanded that he get to go last) seeming beleaguered (as always) and taking himself way too seriously (as always), performing a song bemoaning the fact that he’s exceptionally old and looks like it.  It wasn’t all that funny.   But despite the few awkward moments it was difficult not to feel as though we were truly seeing something special when he was joined onstage by the other performers for closing number “I'm Beginning to See the Light”. Philip Glass had turned 75 a few weeks prior, so the house was invited to sing “Happy Birthday” to the genius who had put it all together, a small token of appreciation for all the beauty and delight we'd just witnessed.

Even with all the tremendous talent present that night, it was James Blake that had us swooning, holding a collective breath for fear that if our muscles so much as twitched the whole thing might possibly vanish into thin air like a mirage.  A drummer and guitarist provided sparse backup while the gangly Blake crammed himself behind a keyboard tiny by comparison to his long frame. He played both parts of “Lidnesfarne” before moving into “The Wilhelm Scream” which built to a gorgeous wave of heartbreaking distortion that all but blotted out James's wistful moaning of the lines “I don't know about my dreams / I don't know about my dreaming anymore / All I know is that I'm falling, falling, falling...”  In trying to explain his allure we had to settle on his unfathomable level of maturity for such a young musician as well as his outright innovation; almost no one is doing or can do what it is he does, and the sentiment behind it resonates deeply, on an almost subconscious level. To hear him live was absolutely mesmerizing; his playing electrified the space between himself and the audience. He bashfully offers his being and invites the listener to merge with it, and in so doing we were transformed, our hearts heavier but our heads lighter.  You can check out a clip Annie recorded below; we apologize for its brevity, but the Tibet House Benefit was simply too amazing to experience on a viewfinder.  It was practically too big to wrap our minds around the fact that we were even present for such a wondrous event, laughing one second and crying the next.  Here’s to many more years of Philip Glass curating delightful showcases like this one.

Looking forward to March, AudioFemme will be at SXSW! It's Annie's second year in attendance and Lindsey's first, so we like to argue about who is more excited. The next few weeks are going to be a flurry of RSVPing and making long itineraries that we probably won't stick to. Check our Twitter feed or like us on Facebook as we'll be updating there when we're particularly excited about some showcase or other.  And if you'll be in Austin, feel free to track us down and say hello!

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