This year I edit the music reviews in Trinity News. I also write them sometimes. Totally Dublin album reviews are only 75 words, and this blog is rangy at the best of times, so I enjoy a good old-fashioned 300 word explication from time to time. Here are two from Issue 1, which would have been out in Fresher’s Week, around the 20th October.
HEALTH – Get Color (City Slang)
It’s striking that a band making what is essentially loud, esoteric experimental music would decide to name their album Get Color. Colour is what you associate with pop music, summer music, beach music. Happy music. Colour is catchy and accessible to everybody. HEALTH tick none of those boxes. They’re danceable, yes, but it’s the kind of post-apocalyptic dancing you do to music that uses peals of feedback as its melodic hook. So why Get Color? Why not Get Black? Get Dark? Darkness seems, on the surface, like HEALTH’s forte. “Nice Girls”, built over an intense, tom-heavy drum beat, approximates a particularly dead-eyed version of Liars, and the robotic/military sound of “Death+” is as ear-numbing as industrial noise can get.
The lyrics are never audible. But that’s part of the charm. Because the songs aren’t so much narratively about things as they are complete auditory experiences, as pretentious as that undoubtedly sounds. You can describe something to someone with as many words as you have in your head and they’ll still translate it back into picture using their own set of prejudices. It’s better to show them. That’s what HEALTH do. They take things like urges, aggression, fear and joy and turn them into slabs of danceable noise.
The key is “Die Slow”. At once both the most accessible and the best thing the band have ever done (imagine that), “Die Slow” is an undeniable giant. Driven along by a continent-sized bassline and BJ Miller dominating his drum-kit, it’s a statement in itself. You can have hypnotic, feedback guitars. You can have shoegaze vocals. Progressive is fine. Experimental is fine. Go that route if you like, but if you do it right, even the most close-minded club attendee is going to be sucked magnetically from wall-propping position to the middle of the dancefloor.
That’s what Get Color means, then. Get Color in the sense of hewing pop music from slabs of noise, but also Get Color in the sense of bringing a whole new palette into play, of bringing innovation to dancefloors whether they want it or not. You won’t hear many albums as simultaneously abrasive and immediately appealing as this, so my advice is to put it on in the dark, as loud as it deserves, and get a little colour yourself.
Jay-Z – The Blueprint 3 (Roc Nation)
Alarm bells should be ringing when any artist releases an album entitled The Blueprint. It’s hubristic for a musician to set their music on a pedestal above predecessors and peers. It turns it into a competition. But that’s what mainstream hip-hop is all about, being the best right now, and it’s something to which Jay-Z has held a roughly recognised claim to for nearly a decade. After all, The Blueprint 3 is part of a series, the third in line after 2001’s original (triple platinum after its release on the day of the World Trade Centre attacks) and 2002’s three million-selling Blueprint²: The Gift and the Curse. Since then, Jay-Z has retired and returned, transcended musical prejudices with a headline set at Glastonbury and, historically, played at the inauguration concert of the President of the United States. It’s fair to say that if anyone can claim to know what the blueprint for a hip-hop album is, it’s Shawn Carter.
It’s a pity then that this album is so unsatisfying. With a cast of guests ranging from Rihanna to Young Jeezy to Luke Steele of electro-pop duo Empires of the Sun, Jay-Z has no material barriers to making whatever music he wants at this point in his career. However, fifteen years on from his debut, it’s not clear that he knows what he’s trying to say. One song that instantly sticks in the craw is the ham-fisted “D.O.A. (Death of Autotune)”. Claiming itself to be “practically assault with a deadly weapon”, “D.O.A.” sets its sights on the hip-hop zeitgeist with a sharp tongue and no pitch correction. But over a staid guitar line and without any of Jay-Z’s truly cutting lyrics, it simply comes off as too calculated and, let’s face it pop fans, not half the tune that some of T-Pain, Lil Wayne and Kanye West’s singles are.
Oh yes, Kanye West. A man whose last album consisted of little more than auto-tuned vocals and 808 kick drums. And one who also features on The Blueprint 3, one whole song after “D.O.A.” Huh. “Run This Town”, the track with West and Rihanna, is actually quite good. So is much of the album. “Empire State of Mind”, an ode to New York with Alicia Keys over some ringing grand piano, would stand up against anything Jay-Z has done. But the problem, as the man himself calls it on the opening track, is thus: “I don’t run rap no more, I run the map”. Jay-Z’s more important right now in the grand scheme than he is, strictly speaking, musically relevant. We’ll find out soon if the two can be mutually exclusive for the Noughties’ greatest.