Rag’n’Bone Man – Wolves

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It seems fans of Soul music have annoying purists. I know, it sounds weird. Soul music at its best is so warm and welcoming. Whether you’re bumping the aimless, hook-free stuff of Marvine Gaye or Stevie’s more melodic works, Soul is never high brow, never patronizing the listener. In complete opposition to the rock of the 70’s, Soul music is just an ordinary man with a prettier voice. Clearly, in listening to it nothing should matter much besides having good melodies, a good voice and an all-around charm.

This is too much to ask apparently, so we’re back to questions of ‘authenticity’ and ‘real Soul’. Since Rag’n’Bone Man – the most Bluesy name you can come up with since Seasick Steve – doesn’t have a Funk track going on for 10 minutes and endless falsetto without a tune, this is ‘bland Soul’. Come to think of it, Marvin Gaye was just showing off his vocal acrobatics over lightweight Funk. If that is ‘real Soul’, I’ll take Rag’n’Bone’s version any day. He has better hooks and his music is something more besides beating you over the head with how wonderful the world is because you’re a singer with a pretty voice.

Speaking of beautiful voice, writing off Rag’n’Bone as generic is odd. The last time such a gloomy, pessimistic artist hit the chart was, well, the Weeknd or Melanie Martinez. His music is actually not that close to Charlie Puth. He’s not a revivalist, churning out the old love songs with some horns and a more coherent song structure. His roots go way back, to the earliest of Folk music back when all there was to sing about was death.

This album is such a gloomy, death-obsessed thing. Rag’n’Bone sounds either at a funeral, on the verge of dying, after killing someone or before killing someone. Of course his low voice is the main attraction but it’s also how he uses it. His style of singing is the opposite of vocal acrobatics. That’s why comparing him to Soul singers is a bit odd, since he rarely takes those flights Marvin Gaye is famous for. Althoug falsetto occasionally leaks, it’s never dominant. What is dominant is how low his voice is, so low it might as well be buried.

The best expression of that is in the title track where he truly sounds dangerous. On the verses he’s frantic and almost loses the melody, but on the chorus the voice is so low you can imagine him trying really, really hard to contain himself form whatever danger is inside of him. It’s obviously about something inside of him that’s he’s scared of. The da-da-da voices in the backgrounds aren’t helpful. They are the voices in your head encouraging you to hurt or to cause mayhem. To think such a song will top the charts is uncanny. Such a song is too gloomy, too dangerous and too scared of itself to be comfortable. All the brutal screams Death Metal bands come up with, and they can’t reach the fear of the self in that song.

On the other side you get “Guilty”, which is a breakbeat-laden Blues thing where Rag’n’Bone claims he’s not guilty for feeling about hurting the lover he just woke up next to. Already in the opening lines we get death, because somewhere in this ‘million ways to hurt’ there must be an element of violence. Two lines later he writes the lover off completely. Although the rest of the song is simply about leaving a person, the first lines and those hard drums did their thing. Again, his low voice contributes a lot. It adds a layer of toughness and darkness to it all. Any other singer couldn’t evoke the image of death.

Death includes the loss of others, and “Life in Her Yet” is a more subdued number where he tries desperately to cling to someone who’s dead or lost all their memory. The repetition of the title is him trying desperately to convince himself you can defeat death, but saying that he ‘can’t let go’ isn’t a sign of strength but of weakness. He needs her. He cannot live with someone dying. In this song there is no incredibly low voice, but soft and defeated singing.

These are the main attratctions, but every song has the spectre of death hunting them. After all there’s a song called “Lay My Body Down”. Whatever “Reuben’s Train” is about, he sings it like a dirge at a funeral. From the singing alone, low and stretching into infinity you can deduce that the subject of the song must be dead. “No Mother” transforms the stomping work songs (that were all about death) with bass wobbles. Despite the EDM influence, it doens’t add any joy to the song.

He achieves this atmosphere successfuly because he understands how old Folk music works. He’s closer to Dock Boggs than anyone contemporary. The brand of ‘serious music’ he’s been grouped with, the bland wailing of Adele and Ed Sheeran are nowhere to be found. Always he’s a slave to the melody, but in the old days where all you had was a pickaxe and a banjo you couldn’t wail like you’re on the X-Factor. Sure, his voice is more polished and he has a greater variety in tone. Most Folk singers couldn’t pull off both “Guilty” and “Life in Her Yet” since they’re completely opposite characters. Now this may seem inauthentic, but by being aware of the overall theme of death he connects these two. They become two different expressions of the same theme.

3.5 wolves out of 5

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Mushishi Zoku Shou (Next Passage)

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Mix a few of these episodes in the original Mushishi, and hardly anyone would notice the difference. That’s not a compliment. The original Mushishi had mainly novelty value. It was a deeply flawed show with a brilliant premise. Next Passage doesn’t do much but gets more steam out of it.

The fact it’s still fun speaks volumes of its premise. The appeal of Mushishi was its weirdness. It’s both because it’s so far away from Western thought, and because weirdness is integral to its themes. Nature isn’t a benevolent or a destructive force. It just exists, indifferent to us and we have to learn to harness it. The mushi and the mushishi are an expression of this idea.

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It’s also a unique take on fantasy, one we don’t see enough. Instead of grand heroic stories, Mushishi is personal. The plights of the characters are always simple and relatable. They deal with relationships, sickness, raising children and depression. They live in the mountains, but they face the exact issues we in the 21st century face. Some themes are eternal.

The series doesn’t know how to handle these stories, though. If they are personal, they need something to bring them to life. The world is full of people raising children and losing their loved ones. The only reason we care about a story like this is because we identify with the person, because we know him.

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You need ‘relatable’ characters, but it doesn’t mean they need to reflect the viewer’s personality. It means they should be written with specific speech patterns, behaviors, and reactions that establish a personality. Once you establish a personality we can believe this is a real human being and we’ll be invested in their struggle. After all, don’t they say that a million deaths is a statistic, because the numbers strip the people of their personality?

Now, the people in Mushishi aren’t numbers but they’re rarely human beings. They exist so things will happen to them and Ginko exists so he will reach them. All of this is so a story will be told. All of this without any grand purpose. It’s odd to have such a unique anime that never tries to lift itself up.

There are moments where it improves on the original. Next Passage is noticeably darker. The situations are often less certain. It’s a small addition, which adds a bit of danger and excitement. It also causes the characters to not just be peaceful. The emotional scope is wider, with a few characters bordering on the immoral. It was almost non-existant in the original, but here it makes the world more believable and alive. The improvement is only slight.

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It also shares with the original a horribly constructed first episode. The exposition was a nice re-introduction, but the first episode is never sure whether it’s concerned with the main character’s story, or introducing elements of the world. The show settles for the usual format in the second and the quality improves.

The art is more beautiful this time around. People always over-emphasized the atmospherics, as if the stories didn’t matter. The art this time though is a wonder to behold. The level of detail is high, but it’s almost negligible. Every story has its own atmospheric focus, and the extra darkness helps the atmosphere. There is always a little dread in the scenery, nature looking good but always hiding something. The movements of the characters are also very smooth, helping bring them to life a little.

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The stories themselves, even without characters are interesting enough. The novelty value hasn’t worn off. There’s still nothing quite like Mushishi and it’s hard to think something will ever come. The Mushi don’t appear visually so much, but their odd presence still takes the center. The mushi always represent some idea, in some episodes much more clearly than others. They way they operate is tied to that idea. Every detail about a mushi is a part of the theme it represents. This makes them both magical and fantastical, but also interesting. This is how magic should be.

Next Passage got its acclaim because most of those who watched were already fans. It’s not brilliant and it’s not a step forward, but it shows the idea still has steam in it. Even if it didn’t improve on the flaws, the uniqueness of Mushishi still works. If you enjoyed the original, there’s no reason not to enjoy this one. In some cases it’s better.

3 mushi out of 5

 

 

 

Zora Neale Hurston – Their Eyes Were Watching God

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Is this novel really about Black people?

Can a Black person write a novel whose novel about a character who happens to be dark-skinned, and make it about things other than the Experience of Living as an African-American? It’s pretty racist to expect every book written by a Black to be about this. They have more in their life than just being dark-skinned. Women can also write about things that are not Being a Woman.

I’m not American, so I may have missed the part where it revealed truths about the African-American Experience. Then again, I didn’t miss it in that Chinua Achebe novel. What drives the story, the grand theme that connects it is love.

People often ask what is love (no references to the song please). The novel is an examination of that idea. It’s not an easy question. A Jewish proverb claims that not disciplining your son equals hate. It’s often a defense of hitting your kids.

Nanny thinks that mere survival is enough for happiness. She’s the mom who pushes her son to make sure he’ll have enough money to survive, which she defines as ‘rich’. The problem is, humans often need some sort of reason to survive. There are also other ways to survive other than being rich.

Some think love is protection. Yet protection can often slip into prevention. We all know these protective parents who think keeping their children away from things is good parenting. Then their kids reach their 20’s with depression and having no idea where to go. Joe Starks had good intentions. He did love and tried hard to make Janie happy, yet how could she happy if she’s being kept away from life?

This examination ends with Tea Cake. Tea Cake is a character whose role often feels like wish-fulfillment. He’s almost an ideal. There’s a wifebeating thing going on, but it’s addressed and then pushed away. Whether it’s pushed away because they didn’t take it seriously back then, or because Zora forgives Tea Cake is unclear. He doesn’t have a major flaw, but the pushing away goes in Janie’s head. She pushes it away because she was raised in a society where women are second class and she can’t think in any other way.

Janie is a little better. This is where Zora resembles other feminist writers. Then again, race is a pseudoscientific idea while sex is biological, so it’ll be harder to escape it. Janie isn’t a 3rd-waver who travelled back in time. She wants the ordinary dreams of loving husband who’ll define her world.

You can’t expect her to want anything else since that’s all she knows. What Zora recognizes is that you can still give this character an agency. Janie’s life may revolve around husbands, but she never gives up on looking for the husband that suits her. There’s a reason behind every action she does, even if she realizes it was wrong.

This adds some realism, but Zora doesn’t do enough with it. When Tea Cake appears, all development stops. The romance scenes are well-written but the only conclusion is a tragedy that comes out of nowhere. Too many realist authors add a surprising disaster for the climax. Something is happening, but it’s disconnected from what the story is about. Since Zora doesn’t deal with the randomness of tragedy, the climax only exists to be climatic.

It’s weird to see Zora descends into this cliche. Up until then she’s a talented author. The dialect prose takes some time to get used to, but it’s not used to obscure the dialogue. She manages to give different characters their own speech patterns. The men’s ‘I love you’ monologues are dead-on. Every time a character explains themselves, even when they’re obviously wrong their dialogue makes it clear they see themselves in the right. No one comes off as a caricature.

Zora’s prose is also pretty. It’s poetic, but precise. Her description of the disaster are a highlight. The disaster may have been pointless, but the scene is powerful enough because Zora’s description focuses on how it feels like, rather than give a shopping list of what happens. All her descriptions rely on pointing out the unique details that define a scene. The prose also has a great rhythm. The title comes from a paragraph in the novel, not a poem. If this is supposed to be an influence from the oral tradition, it’s more convincing than Chinua Achebe’s novel.

It’s an enjoyable novel. It’s well-written and realistic enough. Zora avoids the main pitfalls of realism – structurless events and dull characters most of the way. Her poetic prose is pretty and helps to emphasize the reality, rather than exaggerate it too much. She fails in conclusing her ideas, and only her good prose carries the ending. It’s good, but not very remarkable.

3 eyes on God out of 5

Black Sabbath – Paranoid

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I avoided this album for a long time on purpose. All the metalheads I knew were the most boring people to discuss music with. People whose musical world consists of Ed Sheeran, Rihanna and Coldplay are much better. At least they wouldn’t be afraid of the occasional bass drop or rap verse. Metalheads were so dull, generic and stupid that I couldn’t imagine their music to be any good. Dull, generic and stupid people probably listen to dull, generic, and stupid music.

It’s a hard album to avoid though. It haunted me like whatever’s haunting the protagonist in the title-track. It’s especially hard when you’re into Stoner Rock, and consider Monster Magnet to be one of rock’s greatest achievements. Eventually, I caved in and wondered why no one told me about how this record sounds sooner.

It sounds as influential as you heard it is. If you’re into the slower genres, its influence is more apparent. More than the birth of Heavy Metal, it sounds like the birth of Stoner. Sneak “Electric Funeral” in a playlist full of Electric Wizard, Sixy Watt Shaman and Kyuss and no one would notice the band playing it is from the 70’s. What’s far more interesting though, is that it doesn’t sound like a heavy metal record at all.

After playing some doomy riffs, Ozzy sings with that very familiar way of stretching syllables. I completely forgot that between the verses there are distorted guitars. By the time they turn it down again and Ozzy does his thing, I had to admit this doesn’t have that much to do with Heavy Metal. Paranoid is, at its heart, an American Folk record. It owes more to Dock Boggs and Blind Willie than anything. It’s a reinterpartation of the genre.

The reason it still sounds as brilliant today – aside from containing great melodies – is that Sabbath understood their source material better than anyone else. Death was a day-to-day reality in the Old Weird, but try to listen to “Oh, Death” again. It’s such a different era. It sounds alien and scary. Folk music wasn’t easygoing, but looked at tough subject matters in the eye.

Led Zeppelin tried to made a theater of it all. They tried to make big, loud music out of a genre that gained its strength from a banjo pluck and one powerful line. They worked against the style they’re interpartating. They turned up the volume and exaggerated everything, but it never had the emotional punch.

Sabbath knew that Folk Music was very dark. All they did was enhance the darkness with distortion, and some drums. How different is “Hand of Doom”’s lyrics to Dock Boggs’ “Oh, Death” or “Country Blues”? Ozzy may have been more opaque and updated his subject matter to nuclear apoclypse and sci-fi, but he didn’t work against the genre. The addiction he talks of in “Hand of Doom” is the same alcoholism folk singers been singing about. The title-track has a higher tempo, but the lyrics are the same thing as “Man of Constant Sorrow”.

Even “Planet Caravan” fits the concept. It’s weird and sparse, which is how folk music sounds like today. The Old Weird now looks like an alien planet to us, so actually singing about space travel makes sense. It’s far more deserving to be called Space Rock than anything by Pink Floyd. Pink Floyd’s songs sounded like they had space, but didn’t express what outer space felt like. Leaving planet Earth must be a pretty intense emotional experience. “Planet Caravan” has the wonder, the loneliness and the vastness of space in one song. The vocal effects are a brilliant touch.

People who are into guitars probably already own this. It will be forever considered a pioneering Heavy Metal record, but it will also always stand above the genre. Is there any follower of Black Sabbath that tried to replicate this album’s purpose? Most bands borrowed Black Sabbath’s noise and darkness. None of them were familiar with folk music and why it works, not even bands from that era. Even Monster Magnet, one of the greatest rock bands ever took a very different direction.

4 paranoids out of 5

Ed Sheeran – X

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There is a brilliant message buried in X. It shouldn’t be too hard to unearth. All you have to do is listen to “Tenerife Sea” after remembering Sheeran brags about how girls ask him to fuck in “Don’t”. There are women who are certain all British men are hot guys in suits, that they’re very romantic, nice and will never break your heart. Ed Sheeran is that hot guy, only he’s aware that the image of a romantic man can be another way to have sex with as much women as possible.

Or maybe there is no message. Maybe Ed Sheeran believes his own bullshit.

Kid Rock also believes his own bullshit, but it took him some time to start. That’s also about the time he lost it. Before that, he tried really hard to convince himself he’s a brilliant musician. He did that by drawing from various American music styles – the loud guitars, the aggressive rapping, the country twang and figuring out why these tropes work. Kid Rock never sounded genuine on “Picture” but it didn’t sound like he tried. His inspiration for that ballad was not heartbreak but other ballads, but he listened to enough to make it work.

Ed Sheeran is like the British version of Kid Rock, with acoustic guitars instead of distortion and a Unthreatening Nice Guy image instead of redneck-ness. There must be a way to connect bragging tracks with acoustic ballads about love. The underrated Everlast made a career of this and Jason Mraz also had a brief time in the limelight.

Everlast and Mraz had a more focused image, though. Everlast’s ballads weren’t meant to sound like a Nice Guy. They were meant to sound like the chink in the macho man’s armor. Jason Mraz was always an average dude. Ed Sheeran, in one has a lot of sex and in the other is a hopeless romantic.

This isn’t the result of expressing a wide range of emotions. Sheeran sounds comfortable in “Sing” and “Don’t”. After all, he’s a famous singer so he must have first-hang accounts of girls asking him upstairs. The problem is that he brings this sexual confidence to his ballads.

Love songs that come from a place of sexual confidence sound either insincere, or pointless. If you’re so confident in your ability at wooing, why are aiming for catharsis? The best love songs are those where the singer sounds like he has to get it off his chest. On Zombies’ “This Will Be Our Year”, the singer sounds like he’s exploding from happiness. On Cure’s “Lovesong”, Smith sounds like he will fall apart if the woman in question won’t marry him.

Sheeran doesn’t sound happy, sad, confused or any emotion that can lift a love song. He sounds like he’s trying to pick up girls. The songs sound no different than any song where a rapper waves his dollar bills and offers expensive drinks for sex. The difference between Sheeran and TI is that Sheeran sounds like he’s trying to have one night stands with girls who are dying for romance. TI knows his girls just want a sugar daddy.

This isn’t an image that exists outside of the record. Every artist creates an image inside the record that helps connect the songs and bring personality. Some play the same character on every album – Dave Wyndorf is a sexy nerd pretty much all the time. Some change – Marilyn Manson went from being Antichrist Superstar to an old man. If “One” and “I’m a Mess” were sincere enough, they could stand sitting next to “Sing”. “Picture” could stand next to a song about how we never meet a motherfucker quite like Kid Rock because Kid tried really, really hard to sound vulnerable.

It may be the set up of just guitar and vocals, which meant to sound intimate but isn’t. It can’t even count as a rip-off of Nick Drake, because any Nick Drake rip-off would sound a little more sincere. On “Photograph”, he rips off the lyrics of Incubus “Love Hurts” and doesn’t even bother to add anything. On “Thinking Out Loud”, he asks the woman if she will remember the taste of his love. Facebook news feeds moved on, but Sheeran is still stuck somewhere in time. I can’t even remember a time these lines meant something.

He’s a little better in the other tracks. There are good hooks in “Sing”, “Don’t” and “Runaway”. They would’ve worked much better in different hands. The toughness in “Don’t” would’ve added a lot to Jason Mraz. Everlast would’ve dealt with the alcoholism in “Runaway” much better.

Afire Love” is the track that best sums up the record, the good and the bad. Sheeran is at once convincing, but reveals how weak a songwriter he is. The subject of Alzheimer’s is pretty touching, and the melody is beautiful. The lyrics are so anticlimatic, though. The first verse is just a dull chronicle of how a person started losing his memory and that it made people feel bad, with a mentions of the devil and heaven which add nothing to the tone. Imagine how beautiful the song could be if Patterson Hood or Frank Turner – lyricists whose whole point is intimacy – handled them. Look at the song title. Such a serious subject deserves a song that’s not titled like another cheap love song.

Maroon 5 are another apt comparison, but they handled their fame better. They were into love songs for the sake of singing love songs, so even with their new sexual confidence their love songs weren’t obnoxious. Ed Sheeran never, for one moment, sound sincere. He’s full of confidence and arrogance but sings of weakness. Imagine if Snoop Dogg sang Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”. It’s not a clever contrast. Sheeran doesn’t play with these personalities, so they end up working against each other.At best, it’s decent pop but until he does something with his image it’ll be a glass ceiling. Even the best tracks sound weaker because they’re performed by him.

2 cups of ginger ales out of 5

Of Monsters and Men – Beneath the Skin

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The view from the tallest mountain on Skyrim must be extraordinary. It must also wear itself out if you stare at it for an hour. This isn’t an attempt to find a cool way to say “this album is good but monotonous”. This album is the pop music equvilant of standing on the top of a snow-covered mountain, looking down while thinking profound thoughts and feeling profound emotions.

That’s not a bad idea. It’s a good one that becomes fantastic on lead single “Crystals”. It finds a bridge between stadium pop and the sort of epic nature the band loves so much. It’s the sound of a band discovering where else their sound can take them, and writing better melodies to accompany it. The chorus is so beautiful that the dullness that follows it is jarring.

It’s never bad, but the songs tend to blur together. At first you’re checking the tracklist, surprised the song changed because the tone and atmosphere didn’t. The second time you check tracklist, you’re surprised that by “Empire” no idea appeared. “Wolves Without Teeth” only sticks out because it has a better melody than all the rest, but the band’s talent for melodies is a given.

Music isn’t as simple as just writing good tunes. If you don’t surround them with interesting enough sounds, the melodies are wasted. It’s not as if the sound the band came up with takes advantage of repetition. Some bands use a uniform sound to trap you in it, or to beat the listener into submission. Even then it’s a hard thing to do right. Slipknot couldn’t do it with Iowa. What makes Of Monsters and Men think they can do it with their nature pop thing?

There’s an attempt here to go darker and more ‘artistic’, but it’s a cover. It’s a useless attempt by the band, anyway. They sounded ‘artistic’ enough compared to their peers. Mumford & Sons just sounded mushy and afraid to be more than background music (except that annoying banjo in “Little Lion Man”). Of Monsters and Men nailed what sitting outside under the shade of a tree sounds like. They had more purpose and more good songs than American Authos, Fitz & the Tantrums and Imagine Dragons.

The addition of glacial and epic sounds are great, but that’s the whole album. There is nothing as fun as “Mountain Sound” or easy like “Little Talks”. It’s all big, profound, looking at glacial and lost at thought. It’s never horrible. It will work as a decent soundtrack to Skyrim, but it will quickly fade into decent background music. Maybe it’s something the band needed to get out of their system, to prove they can get more serious and ‘deep’. There are still a few killer melodies here. Let’s hope it’s an experiment, and not a sign of things to come.

2.5 glaciers out of 5