Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Top 10 Party Crashers: Sampler Smackdown, Pt. 2

Here's part 2 of comparing sampled songs to the songs they were sampled for.

6. "Spirit in the Dark" by Aretha Franklin vs. "School Spirit" by Kanye West: As much as I love Aretha Franklin (especially "Since You Been Gone" and "Baby I Love You"), "School Spirit" just has an infectious spirit (pun intended) that "Spirit in the Dark" doesn't. The way Kanye stretches out Franklin's voice in the sample it sounds like she's saying "e-voo" or "evil," followed by a slightly lowered pitch "in the dark." The main verses use the humming refrain of the latter part of "Spirit in the Dark" to great effect, creating a earnest chorus to off-set Kanye's bitter lyrics. Besides being an amazing song, "School Spirit" is pretty the summation of Kanye's "College Dropout" album. Lines like "Told 'em I finished school and started my own business/They say "Oh, you graduated," No, I decided I was finished/Chasing all your dreams and what you got planned/Now I spit it so hot you got tanned" perfectly capture the album's theme of being trapped in a life path that's stifling and oppressive. What is odd but charming is how the beats use of fraternity stepping ("Alpha step, sigma step..") and the gorgeous humming refrain make being miserable in college sound kind of fun. I always chuckle at the line "This nigga graduated at the top of his class/ I went to Cheesecake, he was a motherfucking waiter there" because Kanye's delivery and the joy in the music makes the situation sound more like a funny scene in an after-college comedy, instead of a depressing comment on how much a college degree is worth nowadays.

7. "Family Affair" by Sly and the Family Stone vs. "Family Affair" by Ghostface Killah: How long did it take for Pete Rock to make this beat? As much as I dislike the Roots, the way they sampled "Everybody is a Star" on "The Tipping Point" kept intact the song's melody (as well as adding on a bunch of unnecessary backing vocals) while Pete Rock's beat just samples the bass line and Sly singing. Ghostface sounds best over maximalist soul tracks like The Stylistics "You're a Big Girl Now" and Isaac Hayes' "Walk On By" since they compliment his emotional delivery. The original "Family Affair" is one of the best soul songs ever, managing to be sad, creepy, and funky all at the same time. Frankly, even a good sampling of the song probably couldn't beat it--it's untouchable.

8. "Theme from 'Tenebrae'" by Goblin vs. "Phantom pt. 1 and 2" by Justice: As much as I like Justice, Goblin are the kings of horror movie music (Bernard Hermann doesn't count since he mostly scored thrillers). Their music mixes disco and prog rock in such a charmingly cheesy way that it makes the Argento movies they score seem far cooler than they actually are. Listening to "Phantom," it's hard to hear what Justice adds to the original except a more jagged rhythm and a ton of filters.

9. "Sure Shot" by The Beastie Boys vs. "Daylight" by Aesop Rock: "Life's not a bitch/She's a beautiful woman/You only call her a bitch because she won't let you get that pussy/ Maybe she didn't feel y'all shared any similar interests/ Or maybe you're just an asshole who couldn't sweet talk the princess"? This is why Aesop does not rock. Beasties win.

10. "Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless)" by Crystal Waters vs. T.I.'s "Why You Wanna": Since I'm lame enough to have heard the T.I. song before "Gypsy Woman," I assumed the latter would be the sort of slow burn disco song Donna Summer did it so well, the kind of song where the energy of the performance makes you dance (or nod your head) faster than the actual BPM. Actually, "Gypsy Woman" is a more a house song than a disco one (I know some people don't hear the difference but if you don't start differentiating somewhere, 70% of electronic music with singing on it is disco). The tempo is quick and, unlike "Why You Wanna," the horn line circles in on itself. The way the horn line is sampled on "Why You Wanna," the last note is left unresolved, like the melody isn't finished. This bothered me at first, but it benefits the song tremendously, because it leaves the listener hanging on the last note, waiting for resolution, only to jump back into the beginning of the horn line.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Top 10 Party Crashers: Sampler Smackdown Edition, pt. 1

I thought it'd be fun to write a post comparing songs that have been sampled to the songs they were sampled for. I'm sure it's been done before on other blogs and in magazines, but hopefully I can pull out some surprises and maybe even piss some people off (always the highest praise a blog can receive)--though I might need more than four or five readers to accomplish the latter feat.

1."Just Don't Want to Be Lonely" by Main Ingredient vs. "Dead Muthafuckas" by Cam'Ron- No contest, Cam wins this one. The strongest part of "Just Don't Want to Be.." is the laid back hook, which is exactly what gets sped up in the chorus of "Dead Muthafuckas." As much as it's cool now to complain about the staleness of sped up vocal samples in rap songs, the combination of huge beats and helium vocals still gets me every time.

2."The Ecstasy of Gold" by Ennio Morricone vs. "Blueprint 2" by Jay-Z- It's no surprise Jay-Z used this Morricone song for his second attack on Nas. After a melodramatic piano build, the song is all grandeur, full of triumphant horns and an anthemic melody Metallica fans have been humming for years (the band uses the song as their onstage intro music). As good an MC as Jay is, you don't want to hear him whining about Rosie Perez over one of the most gorgeous instrumentals ever.

2. "Nautilus" by Bob James vs. "Daytona 500" by Ghostface Killah- I first heard "Nautilus" on the Master Sounds radio station featured on Rock Star's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The song, along with James' cover of Paul Simon's "Take Me to the Mardi Gras," has been sampled on numerous rap songs. including LL's "Rock the Bells" and Slick Rick's "Children's Story." Since "Nautilus" is a cheesy fusion song and "Daytona 500" is an undisputed classic, you'd think this would be a no brainer. However, my vote goes to "Nautilus." Firstly, I love cheesy fusion songs--some of Herbie Hancock's best songs are the kind of shiny, fluffy disco instrumentals that house DJs in the 80s sampled the hell out of. As much as I've come to appreciate more traditional hard bop jazz, there is still a part of me that only really likes the kind of jazz that sounds like free form funk or disco. Secondly, the beat to "Daytona 500," like a decent amount of early RZA beats, just does not do it for me. While propulsive, it lacks melody and dynamics, though I suppose you could argue the scratchiness of the beat adds texture. Add to this the fact that the chorus is thin and cliched, and the title goes to "Nautilus."

4. "Hunters of Heaven" by Harumi vs. "Big Lost" by Diplo: I first stumbled upon the Harumi song on an mp3 blog and thinking they were a Japanese psych band, I downloaded it. Turns out "they" was Harumi, an obscure Japanese songwriter and super producer (Bob Dylan, VU) Tom Wilson, who teamed together to make a psych pop record for Verve in 1967. According to this review, the results sucked. Having only heard "Hunters in Heaven," I have no opinion, but the horn line is amazing. When I first heard it on Diplo's "Florida," I was convinced I could place the sample because it just sounded so familiar. As far as which song is better, I'm going to have to go with "Big Lost" because its energy and groove have managed to make the Harumi song sound better just by association.

5. "Every Breath You Take" by the Police vs. "I'll Be Missing You" by Puff Daddy and the Family: Even though "I'll Be Missing You" is cheesy and cliched and sentimental (not to mention arguably exploitative), it's a better song than the original because it treats "Every Breath" like the sappy love ballad it is. Even though the song is supposed to be about a stalker, there is not an ounce of menace in Sting's voice or in the music. I'm sure to this day there are couples who think of it as "their song" because they don't pay much attention to the lyrics outside of the chorus. By turning the song into an elegy, Puff Daddy understood it better than its creators.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Top 5 Party Crashers

"The life cycle of the turtle is a wondrous thing..."

Since I'm consistently too tired to write a long post about one subject (oh, M.I.A. post, we fought it out but we're still friends), I've decided to take a page from one of my favorite critics/arch-nemesis Greil Marcus. His column "Real Life Rock and Roll Top Ten" used to drive me nuts with its various obsessions (situationism, Elvis, Sleater Kinney) but it always had at least one entry that was worth reading. Thus, I introduce:

The Top Five Party Crashers

1. Lil Wayne in the New Yorker: It's odd over the last couple of years how the New Yorker is suddenly covering rap. My brother and I laughed our asses off when, in the article on Houston rap, Sasha Frere Jones said that, unlike other rappers, Houston rappers aren't afraid to rap about death and racist cops. We were like "Does he even listen to rap?" The Dylan comparison in the article seems weird at first until you think about it. Wayne's love of words and his relentless delivery reminds me of Dylan circa "Bringing It All Back Home." And if you think comparing a lyrical genius like Dylan to a mere rapper is insulting, just listen closely to the lyrics to "It's a Hard Rain Gonna Fall"--the song is leaden with clunker lines.

2. Vitalic- OK Cowboy: Ridic. Maybe it's because I just listened to this album while buzzing off a crappy cafeteria (my work has a cafeteria) Vanilla Creme coffee with extra sugar, but this sounds like the greatest techno album ever made. A lot of the songs feature that electronic classical, "Bach Rocks" moog sort of sound that Daft Punk does on "Voyager" and "Verdis Quo." Songs like these always remind me of the soundtracks to 60s Sci-Fi movies or old educational films about the breeding cycle of turtles in the Galapagos.

3. The Old Grey Whistle Test, Vol. 3: I checked out from the library the third volume of performances collected from the English 70s music program, and while for sheer starpower the collection is kind of weak (no Bowie, no Roxy Music, no Stones, all who are on earlier volumes), there are some amazing performances from unexpected artists. Roger Daltrey's version of Leo Sayer's "Giving It All Away" is just begging to be put in a Wes Anderson movie. At first listen, the song seems kind of lame, another in a long line of boy-loses-his-innocence songs that the 70s are full of. But for me, the magic of the song is how cheesy it is. In a weird postmodern twist, the song is both too lame and overdone to be sincere and yet open to being sincerely appreciated for being so cheesy. It's a sort of similar phenomenon to people who appreciate Justin Timberlake songs because they're excited by how excited everyone else is about them.

4. "Bangin' Screw" off Paul Wall's "Get Money and Stay True": I checked out Paul Wall's second album from the library on a lark, but I've been pleasantly surprised. Most of the production is done by Houston rap/house music DJ Mr. Lee and it's full of lush, buzzing keyboards and synthetic choir voices. Paul Wall is still a pretty generic rapper, but he flows well and that's all the music needs. My favorite song is "Bangin' Screw," which has a beat that reminds me of the music from the old NES games, "California Games," where you could surf, skateboard, and BMX bike. The song's about driving around Houston listening to the late great Houston DJ Screw (pioneer of the chopped-and-screwed style of production) and it feels very nostalgic. It feels nostalgic to me too, but more because the music reminds me of playing old Nintendo games during the summer, buzzed from soda and candy.

5. Slate.com's "Ham of the People" article on Al Pacino: It never occurred to me that Pacino might enjoy hamming it up--I always just assumed he was resigned to chewing up scenery because that's what directors wanted and what paid the bills. He's certainly gotten the most reaction from his over the top performances (My brother and I are constantly repeating the line from Michael Mann's "Heat" where Pacino taunts Hank Azaria by telling him his mistress (played by Ashley Judd) has an ass "you want to take a bite of!"; we can't imagine how anyone on the set kept a straight face after that line). His performance in "Any Given Sunday" often feels like a parody because he was injecting pathos in what was basically a grizzled caricature of the long suffering football coach who lives only for the game. When he makes his before-the-game speech about how he's lost everything in his life to football, it's hard not to laugh.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Cheese Is the New Cool

It's a lot harder to feel cool for liking Italo-Disco after watching this video.