Shuffle Lessons, Volume 3.

It’s been a long time since I posted a Shuffle Lessons. My last SL post came on August 18, 2012 – back when I still wrote in lowercase letters and the Royals hadn’t made the playoffs in my lifetime. A few nights ago I got into a conversation about various artists from my teenage and college years – Green Day, Simple Plan, The Rocket Summer, Linkin Park to name a few – and I got a hankering to do a quick shuffle through my iTunes.

Plus I have a LOT of other writing to get done today, and things like this always provide a nice way to break through the writer’s block and get the blood flowing in the fingers a bit.

A refresher on how this works: I open iTunes, select my “Top 2000 Most Played” playlist, click “shuffle songs” and write a paragraph on the first five songs that come up. It’s very random, but with a few caveats. If another song off the same album comes up, I’m skipping it and going on to the next one. If the song provides nothing substantial out of context, I’m skipping it. Example: the track “The Library (Intro)” opens the new Childish Gambino album – It’s a 5 seconds long snippet of some spinning machinery…I’m not writing a paragraph about that despite it having 11 plays and breaking in near the bottom of my Top 2000 Most Plays playlist.

If you want to listen to the songs, the titles are all linked to each of them.

Okay. That’s all the caveats. I’m giving myself 20 minutes here so lets get started, shall we? Lettuce.

Say You Will – Kanye West

In the wake of his sample heavy and insanely popular third album, Graduation, Kanye’s mom passed away from a botched surgery and his long-time fiancé broke off their engagement. This was around 2008. We all wanted another installment of the academic-themed College Dropout/Late Registration/Graduation albums, but instead we got 808s and Heartbreaks – a stripped down emotional auto-tuned album that was mostly disappointing. I guess I should’ve expected Kanye to trek into new territory after he “graduated” from his first three works, but this was too different and not remotely revolutionary. Although, looking back on this album after Dark Fantasy and Yeezus makes me realize that 808s was simply a stepping stone toward what the sound would eventually become.

“Say You Will” is the opening track to the album. Subtle piano and choir-esque “ahhs” accompanies the “beep…boop” and drum cadence that loops throughout the track. The song is fine – a perfect example of what is to come on the album.

Related: I prefer this Dido/Kanye mashup of the song…

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? – Amy Winehouse

Continuing the “preceding album is one of my all-time favorites but this album was forced in another direction” theme with this one – Back to Black was one of my all-time favorites and a death caused the followup to drastically move in another direction. It was the death of Kanye’s mother that changed his direction, but the death between these albums was Amy’s own. I was on vacation in Europe in the summer of 2009 when I found out Amy Winehouse had died from drug use in Camdentown. I had been in Camdentown just two days earlier exploring the shops and pubs of the London neighborhood. It was shocking and breaks my heart still.

Thus, this track comes on her posthumous work, Lioness: Hidden Treasures. She had been recording and working on another album at the time of her death, but it’s obvious she didn’t have much work done on it because this album feels far from complete. The album is mostly covers and remixes of her old stuff with a couple new tracks. “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” is a cover of a track by the same name by The Shirelles from 1961. Here’s that song…

It’s a good cover – true to the original, so nothing really earth-shatteringly special. But it’s still beautiful. “WYSLMT?” has horns and backup Dreamgirls-esque vocals. I just love Amy’s voice. I can picture her in a smokey lounge sitting on a stool with a spotlight on her while she melts the hearts of everyone present. If only. RIP Amy.

Necromancer – Gnarls Barkley

Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo made a wonderful team their three years of making music – way too short. They put out two albums. I love them both.

In the past, I’ve asked myself this question: which Gnarls Barkley album do I like more, St. Elsewhere (2006) or The Odd Couple (2008)? St. Elsewhere has some of my favorite Gnarls tracks – “Crazy” and “Smiley Face” and “Go-Go Gadget Gospel” and “The Last Time” – but The Odd Couple is a better album from start to finish. It lacks the real stinkers that St. Elsewhere has. About 75% of the time I think I like The Odd Couple more. But then “Crazy” comes on and I get thrown back to the summer of 2006 and it’s St. Elsewhere instead.

“Necromancer” is one of those stinkers. Tracks 7-12 make up the desert portion of the album, and it’s track 12. Honestly, the only time I listen to this track is when I fail 6 consecutive times to skip these tracks and go straight to track 13, “Storm Coming.” The song features distorted static vocals with a ominous dark feel to them. There’s no chorus. Just a few verses with synth solos between verses. Danger Mouse really kills it with these solos, but they’re lost between Cee-Lo’s weird verses. Moving on.

Daria – Cake

“Man, why don’t I listen to more Cake?!” – me, this past Saturday morning when I woke up and listened to two and a half of their albums – Fashion Nugget (which this song comes from), Prolonging the Magic and some Pressure Chief since I didn’t have class.

John McCrae is the vocalist for Cake. I only know his name because Ben Folds announces him following McCrae’s backup vocals on the live album version of “Fred Jones, Part II.” As you probably know, his style is unlike anything else around. Is he singing, or is he just talking? Hard to say, but I really enjoy it.

I always assumed that “Daria” was about the MTV show by the same name – Daria was a spinoff of Beavis and Butthead, which I was never allowed to watch as a kid but nevertheless quoted at the lunch table with the kids who did. But upon further research I discovered that Daria first aired in 1997 and Fashion Nugget came out in 1996. Maybe they were singing about her before she had her own show. The show featured the Cake song a couple times though, so maybe MTV and Cake were in talks about it? I sure don’t know. Anyone out there have the answer to this conundrum?

This isn’t my favorite song on the album, but only because Fashion Nugget is so strong. It’s good fun just like the rest of Cake’s stuff though. Big fan of Cake.

Pusher Love Girl – Justin Timberlake

Rounding out this Shuffle Lesson is the ultimate Vacation Track – the strings that open “Pusher Love Girl” and the entire 20/20 Experience immediately transport me to a boat in the middle of the Miami intercostal waterway. I just can’t help it. The memories this song triggers are just way too strong.

Justin is singing about Mary Camden (aka Jessica Biel, his wife) being his drug that takes makes him “so high [he’s] on the ceiling, babe” and “all [he] want[s] is [her].” The strings guide this song along with Justin’s falsetto, backup horns and a snappy cadence that immediately forces a strange and uncontrolled response of weightless arms. It’s light and airy and somehow the arms just start floating away from the sides of my body. Is it a dance? Hard to say. Again, I can’t help it. This song just gets into my bloodstream like Jessica gets into Justin’s.

I will say – this song is three minutes too long. Justin loves his extended tracks these days and this song just goes on and on about being a “junkie” for her love. I can do without part two of this track.

But now I’m turning off this vacation track so I can be productive. This was fun. On to writing some papers and some book.

-apc.

x – Ed Sheeran

Ed-Sheeran-x-2014-1200x1200

I’m not a musician.

I took piano lessons for something like eight or ten years when I was a kid. I started when I was 7 and quit sometime in high school. I never learned how to read sheet music without counting “Every, Good, Boy, Does, Fine,” so at a certain point (high school) the music got too difficult to play by ear. I don’t have many regrets in life, but dropping the piano instead of finding a jazz piano teacher who can teach playing by ear could be considered a regret. Maybe there’s still time. Life after seminary.

Today, I can play most piano chords – C, F#, D7, Asus2, G, Emaj7, etc. – throw it at me and I can look at the keys and play it. I understand chord progressions. I can sit down at a piano and play through most any song as long as I’m given the chord progression. I can even figure out the melody if I’ve listened to a song enough times. But I’m not a musician, and I don’t review albums as if I am.

I do, however, know how to groove.

I like percussion, cadence, chord progressions, samples and lyrical flow among other things. Strings are gorgeous. Gimme a dirty bassline (see: “Don’t” on this album) and I can’t get enough. The tone of an artist’s voice is more important to me than what they’re singing about. I don’t care much for actual lyrical content – songwriting is impressive and creative, absolutely, but for some reason my ear doesn’t hear the words themselves. I don’t know the words to some of my all time favorite songs.

When I listen to music, my mind is not tuned into the meaning or language in songs. I’m in it to experience the groove. I feel music more than I listen to it.

Friends who know me well will respond: “Whatever. You know all the words to all the songs we listened to on that road trip we went on that one time.” True. And some artists are easy for me to actually hear and internalize lyrical content – hip hop, boy bands, pretty much anything I digested between 1998 and 2004 – these are exceptions. When I take in an album for the first time (Ed Sheeran’s x, for example) I don’t hear the words themselves as much as I hear their sound and flow (both areas where Ed excels greatly).

I say all this to make sure we’re all on the same page for where these album reviews come from: I am a consumer. My angle is not remotely “expert” on anything besides my own personal experience of music.

If you’re purely a consumer like me, then these reviews are for you.

Disclaimer over. On to the review.

***

It’s pronounced “multiply,” which is an extremely annoying album title, but follows up nicely to Ed Sheeran’s debut album + (pronounced “plus”) which is equally goofy.

But that’s pretty much where my negativity ends with this album. Ed Sheeran is fantastic. x is predominantly acoustic guitar centered with strong percussion/piano parts, but what truly drives the sound Ed Sheeran’s work is his vocal cadence. He’s quick and clever with his flow. His crooning quickly gets into my shoulders and neck area and gets me bobbing around.

The only song I really knew off this album prior to my first listen this week was “Sing,” and I was already a big fan. It came across Justin Timbelake-ish. It’s the high range vocals that do it – every time he goes up, he sounds like JT. Turns out, that track is produced by Pharrell Williams and while I was doing some research I literally read, “Justin Timberlake’s debut album, Justified, was a favourite of Sheeran’s, which he consciously tried to channel for ‘Sing,'” on Wikipedia. Well, boom. Talk about stroking my listening ego.

Take a listen here…(warning: video contains puppets)…

Caveat here: Sheeran wanted to keep “Sing” off the album and work more exclusively with Pharrell and put it on a future album. It’s the only Pharrell track on the album, so it’s naturally one of my favorites. But let’s be honest: if Ed puts out a full album with Skateboard P he’ll win multiple Grammys. You heard it here first. We’ll revisit it in a couple or three years. #Grammys2017?

Also, I’m not sure everyone realizes just how impressive Pharrell Williams is. I mentioned this in my review of G I R L earlier this year, but everything the dude touches turns to gold. But this isn’t a Pharrell post, so moving on.

This album keeps me bringing me back to Adele. Not necessarily in the sound, but in the content. This whole album is about Sheeran’s heart being broken and drinking/drugging his sorrows away. He’s not happy with this chick, and it’s entirely to our benefit. I’ve often thought if Adele falls in love and gets married we’re going to lose out on a lot of quality music. I might feel the same way here. Nobody wants to hear cute love songs (okay some people do, but I don’t) – we want tales of heartbreak and anger and frustration. WE want songs that get under our skin and make us feel something strong. That’s how Ed is like Adele – okay, they’re both British too.

Sheeran clearly has a bent toward self-medication. The entire focus of “Bloodstream” is feeling the chemicals kicking in as he tries to recover from broken heart. Those are his words, not mine. He mentions drinking away his sadness in multiple songs – which ALWAYS reminds me of Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.”

Elton and Jamie Foxx get the most mentions on how Ed Sheeran hit it big. Now I’m picturing the three of them hanging out at the booth from Horrible Bosses drinking cider – Elton and Ed on one side of the booth and Motherf*cker Jones drinking from a straw on the other. I digress.

While the core of the album is groovy and fast-paced, “One” is an odd choice for an opener upon first take. It’s directed toward the same love interest from +, which feels opposite from the rest of the album. However, it makes sense when partnered with track 2, “I’m a Mess.” By opening the album with love, it actually manages to pull the listener into the heartbreak deeper. Ed’s like, “here’s this love that I had, and now I’m going tell you how I jacked everything up and now I’m broken hearted.” And I’m like, “thanks, but no thanks, Ed. I wish I’d never met this girl so I wouldn’t have to feel your heartbreak as much.” It’s better for it though. “One” is a cute lead track that I’m sure the sentimental ladies really swoon over.

Apparently “One” was the first track recorded too, which makes me believe the track layout is less about the ebb and flow of the album as much as mirroring the story of Ed Sheeran’s own life. I wonder…is the track list simply in order of when he wrote them? Hmmm.

I should also mention this nugget: Ed Sheeran can rap. “The Man” and “Take It Back” are both straight rap. Don’t let his lyrics convince you otherwise: “I’m not a rapper/I’m a singer with a flow,” he says in the latter track. Malarky, I say. This is acoustic rap and it’s so good. It is a bit strange to hear someone with an English accent rapping – just different. The sound has a subtle enough difference that it sounds like something fresh and new.

There’s a balance between up-tempo grooves and stripped down acoustic ballads here. I’m a huge fan of the former and kinda meh about the latter – shocker, I know. Overall, it’s a very strong album. Henceforth, I’ll proudly claim to be an Ed Sheeran fan.

Top Tracks (no particular order):
– Sing
– Take it Back
– The Man
– Don’t
– Bloodstream

x is up for Album of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Album at the 2015 Grammys. His competition for AOTY: Beyonce, Sam Smith, Pharrell and Beck. His competition for BPVA: Coldplay, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Ariana Grande, and Sam Smith.

As of this post, I think he’s the front runner for BPVA, but will lose out to Queen Bey in AOTY.

One last thing before I go: I’m planning reviews for all 5 albums up for Album of the Year. Potentially more than that if I really get into this. You can find the other links here (will update links as posts are released).

For other reviews up for Album of the Year…

Pharrell Williams – G I R L
Ed Sheeran – x
Beck – Morning Phase

Beyonce – Beyonce
Sam Smith – In the Lonely Hour

RETURN TO GRAMMYS HOMEPAGE

-apc.