Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Today's random pairing of new albums: Fennesz, "Black Sea" and Kanye West, "808s and Heartbreak"

Fennesz's music is simply so much better when he unleashes a full-out drone attack, as opposed to being cute and poppy with wistful melodies and introspective acoustic guitar plucking. Tracks like "Glide" and "Black Sea" unfurl slowly over several minutes, piling up noise and always making sure to maintain texture's grip on melody. Perhaps all the collaborations he's been involved with since the release of "Venice" have revived Fennesz's yen for drone and abstraction because there's a real "returning to his roots" feel to this album, almost back to the rougher edges of the "Field Recordings 1995-2002" material.

Kanye West, as everybody surely knows, has not only completely departed from his sonic norm but is challenging charts worldwide with some of the most personal and introspective hit songs in pop music history. I love the fact that this is not a hip hop album -- rather, it is a Kanye West album and nobody is trying to pretend differently. Rhythms (4/4 beats, electro-pop beats) and melodic leads (rave-y synths, Autotune-a-go-go) that were completely foreign to R&B music just a few years ago are now used with such regularity that it truly feels like the genre(s) can credibly incorporate nearly any sound or style and mold it into a hit song. The boundaries are disappearing, and "808s and Heartbreak" is a big nail in the coffin of R&B uniformity. We've come a long way since the days of dueling divas trying to out-scream each other over Boyz II Men's simplistic, cookie cutter, and endlessly recycled beats.

"808s and Heartbreak" is Kanye's "This is Hardcore", his post-everything "life is bullshit" record. I thought that the second single, "Heartless", was caustic enough, but then I heard "Robocop", which ends with his mind evaporating into the world of painful flashbacks, coolly spewing random insults and snippets of dialogue ("haha that was your first good one in a while") over the cheery tones of a string quartet playing a near-variation of "Eleanor Rigby". It's unsettling stuff, but makes for utterly fascinating listening. With lead (anti)-single "Love Lockdown", West has made his very own "Tusk", by following up a string of huge hits with a song that's difficult to love thanks to a sparse vocal melody and nary a backbeat with the exception of occasional stretches of frantic, thumping percussion.

It's a Kanye West production, so of course, all this sounds fantastic even if its unfamiliar territory for him. I wouldn't wish his personal troubles on anybody, but his reactions to it all -- caustic robotic ranting over chunky electo-pop -- along with the musical quality of the results, makes for one of the most compelling narratives in pop this decade.

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