Beatles not the only colossal remasters of ’09

I’ve always been interested in the exposure effect, a psychological term that posits how our tastes and preferences are guided by mere exposure. In the beginning of the summer, I tested this effect by subjecting myself to a weekly sit-in listen to the Oricon’s Top Twenty Singles in their entirety, regardless of how many times a single stayed on the charts and how many times I was subjected to the same damn Sakurakou Keionbu songs (“Cagayake! GIRLS” was actually OK). I was diligent for about two months before being plagued by sheer boredom and lack of interest. While I discovered one or two artists that I furthered some research into, the majority of the charts were deeply invested in formula: the acoustic strumming of some up-and-comers, mushy pop by the resident big names, a few enka tunes, and the sugary sweet big band of idols and anime opening themes. Apparently, ’twas not the season for parallel interest in consumers’ buying habits. In addition, my experiment lagged any significant results: I rated songs on a scale from 1 to 5 and without looking at the previous ratings, continually rated them each week. Aside from a few songs that vacillated between two numbers or that I enjoyed a lot, most ratings were consistently in the 2.5 range. Songs: you cannot repeat-listen yourself into loving them. You can however, repeat-listen yourself into dislike or becoming indifferent.

Albums by the Rolling Stones are similar. I feel like if I were going to rate them, I would give them 5 out of 10 across the board. They have a few great songs, a lot of good songs, and a whole lot of over played songs; I like them, I just don’t love them. I’m a huge fan of classic rock so the sheer sound and arrangement of the music appeals to me, but I can’t find myself getting excited over any of it. I’d like to think each and every album has a time and a place in my life somewhere and this just may not be the time for the Rolling Stones, even with a slew of remasters to their name. After all, if the Beatles were going to remaster their entire back catalogue the Rolling Stones would have to get in on it, too, and earlier, releasing most of their albums throughout the summer while the Beatles waited to dump their entire discography in September. The difference is that everybody hyped the Beatles remasters for months, while nobody really cared about the Rolling Stones. Why? Because the Rolling Stones never went away.

Like the sudden death of any superstar in their prime, the Beatles dissolved while talent was still on high, leaving a legacy of worship and nostalgia behind. Think of all those awesome Beatles albums we would have had if they had never broken up! The Beatles cashed in during infallibility, leaving poor records and backlash a mere glimmer of mystery. That’s not to say they don’t deserve the fame and recognition: they’re the freaking Beatles. But unlike most bands, almost every single one of their albums carry the distinction of greatness and we’ll almost never hear a critic proclaim the superiority of their early, middle, or late periods aside from personal preference: across the board, they pretty much always get 10 out of 10. But for the Rolling Stones, the 60s was just the beginning. The first eleven albums are an oral record of their introduction to the world of fame and a sentimental footnote to their work in the 70s, the 80s, the  90s, the 00s… These rock n’ roll relics just don’t expire. They were plagued by tabloid scandal, attacks of unoriginality, and accused of falling lifeless. Paul McCartney may have died in 1966 but apparently the Stones died in 1980 when they released Emotional Rescuesays Ariel Swartley: “the Stones have actually died and this word-per feet, classic-sounding, spiritless record is a message from the grave.” AllMusic was a touch kinder, skewing the playground rock versus disco spat by calling the dance-inspired tracks “sexy disco-rock” (sexy in front of anything makes it OK, try it: sexy terrorists! sexy homophobia!), although this particular album is entirely omitted from their Classic Rock Required Listening Guide.

Even so, all of their albums are worth a listen, if only to acquaint yourself with albums you would be ridiculed for never hearing. The 13 remasters of their most recent work is a good a time as any (Exile will arrive later in the year, just in time for shopping season!), though you’ll probably recognize a lot of the songs in the same way everybody knows that “Harden My Heart” song but nobody knows the band that wrote it. If you listen to it long enough you’ll probably get it. You’ll probably even like it: the Rolling Stones had perfected their formula early enough to warrant ample imitation on most of these discs, and with enough exposure you might even learn to love it. Maybe.

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Lee Jung Hyun’s “Vogue Girl” and Western beauty

“Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul.”

While the rest of the world was watching Kanye West make an ass out of himself last night, I was busy catching up on some albums and watching the Old Hollywood promotional blitz for Lee Jung Hyun’s comeback mini-album Avaholic. I listened to the album back in May when it was released and was sincerely disappointed. A long time fan of Lee’s eccentric techno, I’ve come to love the beautiful mess of her shrill voice and high-pitched attempts at rap. I loved the tribal influence on I Love Natural and the traditional Spanish instrumentation on Passion. But for all its purported hip-hop influence, Fantastic Girl had all the toughness of a mewling kitten and the street sense of a Hall & Oates single. After three years, my expectations were pretty high and the failure to deliver on even five full-length tracks was a rude wake-up call; Lee Jung Hyun: No longer awesome.

But when I stumbled upon a couple of performance videos for “Vogue Girl” (or “Vogue It Girl” as the television shows call them), I was forced to reassess my initial response. OK, so Avaholic, as a whole, is still sub-par pop, but “Vogue Girl” is extremely fun and fits right into the mold of current electro-inspired Korean hip-pop. It’s got a great beat and sassy attitude and if the satire is intentional, it’s kind of genius.

Some of the performances have Lee spoofing Classic Hollywood cinema, namely as Audrey Hepburn (Roman Holiday, Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and Marilyn Monroe (The Seven Year Itch, although the opening clip they used was from Some Like it Hot – a totally different, declining-health Monroe). But even after watching something like ten of these performances, the song began to seem a bit hokey and even the Hollywood schtick seemed slightly bizarre. Lee Jung Hyun is a beautiful Asian woman, so why the exultation of  a platinum blonde stereotype? My hope is that the whole concept pokes fun at these pedestaled institutions of fashion and beauty, although the lyrics of the song are so vague it’s hard to debate. But let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and operate under those terms, that she’s not just having fun playing dress up but that she really does have something to say. Take for example the lines “Making, making / an image that I don’t even know” and the playful, mocking call of “Baby, don’t you wanna wanna be a di li di di di, it girl?” as if she’s some sort of sleazy publicist. But she’s not; she’s dressed as the product of misogynistic Hollywood studios, going through the motions of the winks and the ultra-feminine poses, while playing the preening starlet who’s aware of and very satisfied with the use she can get out of her sexuality; in promotional photo shoots, it goes further back historically as she dons the heavily tiered powdered wigs of a Marie Antoinette inspired get-up. The implications are brilliant in a way I’ve seen rarely expressed by a pop star, particularly an Asian one who has more to lose with the world’s obsession with Western women’s beauty standards.

But though those are the central concerns, it’s more than that: using Classic Hollywood figures attacks one of the biggest industries to fuel the obsession with a woman’s appearance. And while many might just see Marilyn Monroe as the classic embodiment of femme fatal or condemn her role as a willing play-thing of big-wigs and casting directors, there’s really something very vulnerable and sad about her entire existence that demands a sympathetic eye-opener to the strings that manipulated her every move, abandoned her during her weakest moment, and allowed her life to end so tragically and alone.

But if Lee is attempting to make a big statement, she’s not very good at following up on it: the rest of her performances of “Vogue Girl” drop the Hollywood act and feature her seemingly just as flawless and airbrushed as her fickle public demands and generally embodying whatever stereotype I thought she was making fun of up until that point. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking to ruminate on the possible satire in the those few moments of promotional brilliance, or maybe it’s just another culture she’s almost fetishizing in the likes of her past fascinations with Native American and Spanish cultures, but I’d like to think it’s one more positive, albeit brief, message that managed to slip through the cracks.

Maki Goto’s “Fly away” and BoA’s “Eien”


Maki Goto – Fly away / BoA – Eien

These are the coolest pop videos and songs I have seen and heard so far this year. “Fly away” is dynamic, with teeth, and even though the music video is not really edgy and it’s not even all that entertaining (no story line, no discernible context for the lyrics), it’s this conventionality that works in favor of, rather than against, the music. In a time when experimental drivel like MEG’S FREAK is coming out (and OK, I acknowledge and applaud the hypothesis, but I reject its aural conclusion), it’s the simple songs that seem most stimulating; “Fly away” and “Eien” use technology that compliments the genre, rather than bastardizes it.

In fact, “Eien” is almost quaint: boy meets girl, girl falls in love, boy shares text messages, boy breaks up with girl, girl cries. The sound comes from mid-90’s era R&B and the music video is much like Maki Goto’s: amazing, entertaining dance routines, set amid some useless shots of a somewhat, to not at all related backstory. BoA looks androgynous and pulls it off beautifully and even though the dancing is kind of a Michael Jackson rip-off, what isn’t? Plus, it lets BoA show off the extent of her skills. Now there are some major gender issues that make these music videos a tad repulsive (there’s the obviousness of Maki Goto, squirming around blindfolded on a bed, following by high-heeled thrusting, but then there’s the suited, crop-haired BoA, who makes this masculine image appealing only because despite the attempt, BoA is still portrayed as so goddamn feminine, it’s regressed to an almost condescending “cute” status), but they’re still entirely enjoyable as a whole; there’s real talent here, despite how the marketers are selling it.

Chinese Democrazy

Chinese Democracy

I think the biggest problem with reviews concerning the new Guns N’ Roses album is that everyone keeps comparing it to earlier records, namely Use Your Illusion I & II, which seems desperately misguided to me. It’s been almost twenty years since those records were released; not only were they written under different cultural and social contexts, but under different musical culture and social contexts. I’m not going to be the first person who says a) no one would care about this record if it was any other band’s fifth (original) studio effort, and b) production-wise, this CD is so far from anything Guns N’ Roses, it’s probably not fair to call it anything other than simply Axl Rose. But I say it anyway.

That being done, my favorite tracks are “Better” and “Sorry.” Here is Chuck Klosterman on “Sorry”:

On the aforementioned “Sorry,” Rose suddenly sings an otherwise innocuous line (“But I don’t want to do it”) in some bizarre, quasi-Transylvanian accent, and I cannot begin to speculate as to why. I mean, one has to assume Axl thought about all of these individual choices a minimum of a thousand times over the past 15 years. Somewhere in Los Angles, there’s gotta be 400 hours of DAT tape with nothing on it except multiple versions of the “Sorry” vocal. So why is this the one we finally hear? What finally made him decide, “You know, I’ve weighed all my options and all their potential consequences, and I’m going with the Mexican vampire accent. This is the vision I will embrace. But only on that one line! The rest of it will just be sung like a non-dead human.” Often, I don’t even care if his choices work or if they fail. I just want to know what Rose hoped they would do.

It takes two…right? DOUBLE & Namie Amuro

BLACK DIAMOND PV ░ [ View ]

There are fewer things as both wonderful and tragic as a mediocre artist rocketed into outstanding after a collaboration with one of Japan’s most successful veterans of pop. “BLACK DIAMOND,” a collaboration between DOUBLE, the Japanese “Queen of R&B” and Namie Amuro, the Japanese “Queen of Hip-Pop” is essentially a song that doesn’t even come alive until the chorus charges in and the number is accompanied by a fancy setting, both glamorous and impossible, fashionistas draped in couture and of course, a snappy little dance number to promote THE BEST COLLABORATIONS, a collection of DOUBLE’s most successful duets with the likes of Lupe Fiasco, AI and of course, ZEEBRA, the jack of all Japanese collabs.

Beside the questionable dynamic of incestuous collaborations between artists, what strikes me as most interesting is the recent influx of collabs to begin with and the level in which artists seem to grasp at them when in dire need of resuscitation. It’s nothing new, certainly, but with longtime artists like Madonna and Timbaland, Anna Tsuchiya and AI, and Ami Suzuki and Yasutaka Nakata, even artists who have built their entire careers on being one woman-shows are bringing in artists from different genre pools in a hope to reach a wider, and sometimes newer, audience. What we end up with is the “4 Minutes” effect, where an artist becomes the guest to his or her own party, another “featuring” in everything but print.

DOUBLE, too, is veritably superfluous on her own track to the point where, assuming no prior knowledge, the music video is less equal parts anything than a promotional spot for Amuro’s newest single. Not to discredit DOUBLE’s enthusiastic thrusting where Amuro nonchalantly phones in dance moves, but providing breathy sounds and echoes is hardly headlining business. The song rests on the smooth harmonics of the chorus, a brilliant move where each solo give and take seems more a competitive sing-off than a healthy vocal blend (and it’s never a dance-off, not when the two can’t even find it within themselves to sync). Espousing the merits of the thrashing synths and bubbling bass is moot when both are now synonymous with both artists anyway: it’s all there and it’s all timed to make sure the song is more everything than whatever its counterpart plans to be on May 28 when it comes out (I’m guessing MISIA).

But if collabs are only meant to provide an extra boost for 4 minutes, where does that leave fans of the song and not the singer? Is it fair to take the Suzuki route and push your luck a second time, hoping a Part II will keep interest piqued? At which point does it stop being interest in the artist and start being interest in the collaborator…and should it even matter?

A peek at Ayumi’s new single “talkin’ 2 myself”

Some faithful readers might have noticed that I completely bypassed doing a review of Ayumi Hamasaki’s latest single glitter which was released back in July (but I did mention it!). This is because despite the fact that Hamasaki is still one of the few artists I genuinely anticipate new releases from on a consistent basis, glitter was almost epic in its mediocrity. Despite its huge promotion and accompanying mini movies filmed in Hong Kong and starring famous actor Shawn Yue, “glitter” bordered on the very thin line known as dull and the accompanying track “fated” almost teetered straight into insipid.

However, now that Hamasaki’s schedule seems to be a bit clearer (first Asia Tour is over, relationship with boyfriend of several years kaput), she finally has time to focus on the musical aspect of her career, more specifically, the singles which she once released on a practically bi-seasonal basis. Although talkin’ 2 myself (which features a c/w track entitled “delicious”) isn’t set to be released until September 19, the title track has already been leaked in low quality. And without sounding too much like an overzealous fan-girl, I will attempt to coherently illustrate the sheer awesomeness of this song.

“talkin’ 2 myself” is a return to the rock roots that Hamasaki planted beginning with third album Duty and continued to flourish with in I am… and even RAINBOW. Unfortunately, the poppier songs had begun to take over once again, leaving original tracks laced with one or two “is this LOVE?”’s among the more synth-like tracks (with a trail of somewhat lackluster albums in its wake). However, I guarantee this song will take you back to “evolution” and “UNITE!” era Hamasaki in a heartbeat (it helps that Hshe has, for some reason, cut and styled her hair to the exact same haircut she sported back in ‘01 during the DOME TOUR and the beginning of her outrageous fame). Yes, the guitars are a bit generic (umm, Dir en grey’s “DRAIN AWAY” anyone?) but the song has so many waves, it’s hard not to dismiss the generic and embrace the unique play between the electric synth quality of the track and the organic orchestral tones.

On a final note, the lyrics bear suspicious resemblance to Hamasaki’s earlier work as well: nothing says “evolution” like “We must go on making our own decisions” and the self-flagellation of “If you should have the feeling of being unfulfilled / That’s something you brought upon yourself.” Good to see you again Ayu, we missed you.


Ayumi Hamasaki / talkin’ 2 myself / September 19, 2007

AFI members’ side project Blaqk Audio

I’m not exactly the biggest AFI fan (though my review of Decemberunderground might have you think otherwise), and certainly not a long time follower of the band (usually the people who think they’ve sold out with their last two albums and exclusively enjoy pre-Sing the Sorrow work). Ironically, my two favorite AFI albums are their last two albums, maybe because I’m a sucker for anything with more melodic drive and sharp studio production.

Enter the group’s solo project Blaqk Audio, consisting of AFI vocalist Davey Havok and guitarist Jade Puget. For fans of AFI’s earlier work, the side-project is probably unwelcome, but for fans of the slick single “Miss Murder,” the completely synth driven project is a pleasant, more industrial version of the punk rock band, complete with Havok’s vocals offset by computer bleeps and blips – think a club version of the Cure’s “Want,” but with nicer hair. The new album, CexCells, will be released on August 14 and features help by producer Dave Bascombe, who has also worked with artists such as Depeche Mode, Echo & the Bunnymen, and Erasure. Check out their MySpace page for some song samples, including the first single “Stiff Kittens,” an amazing electro-pop song with Havok’s trademark eerie lyrics (“How it breaks their hearts / that we’ve made an art / of desecrating our sanctuaries“). “Bitter For Sweet” is a less enjoyable track that brings to mind more stereotypical elements of Assemblage 23’s work, leaving me hoping more of the songs will sound like the former.

Aside from Cut Copy’s new album, this is probably the next release I’m genuinely looking forward to; not bad for two boys in love with synthesizers and software.