“You Won’t Believe What You’ll Do”- The Disingenuousness of Pharrell’s New Video

Before the excoriation and finger-wagging begins, I want to genuinely praise Pharrell Williams. Forget the legion of hits he’s produced in the last 20 years with partner Chad Hugo as part of the Neptunes. In the past year alone he’s lent his silky croon to colossal hits “Get Lucky” and “Blurred Lines,” unleashed a firebreathing cleanup verse in “Move That Dope,” manned the boards with Hans Zimmer for the Amazing Spider-Man 2 soundtrack and dominated the Billboard charts with the Oscar-nominated “Happy.” If the time from January 1, 2013 to December 31, 2014 was all we had to judge Pharrell on, his discography would still be unassailable.

What Pharrell should be criticized for is the bizarre “pro-woman” campaign that’s accompanied sophomore LP G I R L. Before the album had been released, Pharrell spoke to GQ about the “Women and girls, for the most part, (who) “have just been so loyal to me and supported me.”” The stylized album title then was Pharrell’s way of paying tribute to members of the opposite sex that had helped him out so much.  What Pharrell seemed to be forgetting in his tip of the Dudley Do Right hat was using the word “girl” infantilizes those heroic women who had helped him along the way. If you’re a man reading this, ignore the “would you call your mother this?” test and think about it this way: if a woman consistently referred to you as a “boy” wouldn’t it start to rankle you? I know it would me. The word “boy” connotes a doe-eyed naivety I’d like to think I’ve pushed past. Boys and girls are people who don’t know better; with minds that worry about things like lunch and the time until recess. When you insist on using either to describe someone who has reached adulthood, all you’re saying is their mind is set to childish.

If Pharrell’s facile campaign had stopped there, I wouldn’t be writing this article. Only when he released the video for the clattering funk of “Come Get It Bae” did I find myself compelled to write something. The song itself is undeniably catchy, with rallying handclaps that recall “Iko Iko” and strutting guitar Pharrell might’ve swept up from the floor of the “Get Lucky” sessions. I wish it was left there and we never had to see Pharrell’s grand cinematic vision for G I R L‘s third single. Instead what we as viewers are provided with is the zenith of Pharrell’s ludicrously mixed message. In red block lettering recalling “Blurred Lines,” the words “BEAUTY HAS NO EXPIRATION DATE” dominate the first frame of the video. By itself, that kind of hokey “Dove Real Beauty” message is blandly inoffensive. The problem is with who Pharrell trots out to “prove his point.” “None of them boys know the first thing about your fantasy,” he assures a parade of under-40 women from his director’s chair. The supposed lack of a black woman on G I R L‘s cover is “replaced” by the absence of a woman who has made it past her fourth decade on Earth.

Now I understand when you’re casting a video you go with the best, most qualified candidates. It is part of the reason I took offense to the controversy that swirled around the casting for Arcade Fire’s stunning “We Exist” video. In the clip, which premiered in late May, Amazing Spider-Man actor Andrew Garfield plays a young person struggling with gender identity while living in a small town. For an excruciating six minutes, Garfield’s character is leaving home in women’s clothes and getting into fights at the local watering hole. Ultimately Garfield’s unnamed character steps on-stage with Arcade Fire at Coachella and finds a “home.” When Against Me!’s lead singer Laura Jane Grace saw the video she took to Twitter “Dear @arcadefire, maybe when making a video for a song called ‘We Exist’ you should get an actual ‘Trans’ actor instead of Spider-Man?” Grace (formerly Thomas James Gabel) has been open about her own personal battles with gender dysphoria and was understandably upset about the exclusion. I don’t share her same frustration, a. because I’m not transgendered myself and b. I believe Garfield gave a real portrayal of an extremely disenfranchised minority. The women in “Come Get It Bae,” through no fault of their own, fail miserably in conveying the agelessness of beauty. There isn’t even an attempt made to capture beauty in its twilight years. No pieces of flab, no grey hairs, and zero wrinkles are shown as striking women nod in approval to the luridly repetitious “come get it bae.”

Not that I personally mind lurid come-ons in R&B. The Weeknd has staked an entire career on being a hedonistic lecher. In “High for This” he’s coaxing a woman into popping ecstasy to have better sex. “Enemy” has him doing his horrifying best to make a lover into a rival. Elsewhere in the Indie R&B circuit, Miguel begged “tell me that the p**** is mine,” in “P**** is Mine,” and came away with one of 2012’s most beautifully desperate songs. The difference between those two and Pharrell is they weren’t trying to mask their material as The Second Sex. They understood misogyny was under-girding their material, because men can be misogynistic. They know they don’t deserve applause for telling a sad truth and they’re not looking for any. Despite his assertion being a “feminist” is an impossible aspiration, Pharrell’s seeking credit for wearing the sheep’s clothing of one. The whole thing is remarkably disingenuous, telling women they can go their own way while ensuring what they need in their life is Skateboard P. “You won’t believe what you’ll do,” he insists in his feathery voice. What’s significantly harder to believe is that Pharrell thought any of this could be uplifting.


Willie Nelson Live at Starlight Theatre


Aside from the house lights fading down and cheers erupting into the cool summer night air, country legend Willie Nelson’s on-stage entrance at Kansas City’s Starlight Theatre was gloriously unceremonious. Coming after a riveting set from rising alt country artist Jason Isbell and Alison Krauss’ nostalgic bluegrass affair, Nelson’s work was austere from the start. Opening with “Whiskey River”, he firmly stood in place with his weathered guitar Trigger and nasally sang “whiskey river don’t run me dry” before his Family Band had set up on stage. Rather than dwell on the slinky vamp of “Still is Still Moving to Me”, he spit out lines like they were last rites. At 81 years old, Nelson has every right to play up his legend. He could coast on past glories and no one would blame him. But not once in his near two-hour show to a sold-out crowd did he kick up his cowboy boots.

When classics came, Nelson never lingered on them for long. Most artists would anchor sets or close with a song like “Funny How Time Slips Away”, not Willie. He has enough songs for 20 shows and is blessed with the luxury of tossing out greatest hits like they were garbage. He didn’t afford the bluesy ballroom number its proper denouement; choosing instead to leapfrog into the aching “Crazy”. I personally prefer Nelson’s effort to the Patsy Cline affair and last night reminded me why. His punctured whine fully conveys the desperation of “I’m crazy for trying” and live the line is devastating. But even “Crazy” wasn’t allowed to luxuriate at Starlight. Nelson and the Family obliterated it into dust with the walloping “Night Life”. Mickey Raphael’s harmonica wailed and Nelson soloed with the steely-eyed intensity of a contract killer. The admission “it ain’t no good life” would’ve been toothless without their full-committal.

While Nelson and the Family’s allegiance to the material was mesmerizing throughout, the show’s middle was the most spellbinding. “Georgia on My Mind” brought the crowd to a reverent hush with just the wobbling incantations of “Georgia, Georrrgia.” Bobbie Nelson’s work on the keys was punctuated, affording Willie room to sweetly sing his old song. In the right hands the number has the power to stop anyone in their tracks and it was clearly in the right hands with Nelson.

It was “Always on My Mind” though that truly won the night. If the phrase “hindsight is 20/20” didn’t exist before Nelson cut his version of the Brenda Lee song in 1982, it would’ve been invented shortly after. Few song narrators have ever sounded as wrecked as Nelson in “Always on My Mind”. Everything he should’ve done was blindingly obviously, but he ignored all of it. Watch Nelson in the song’s rudimentary video. Around the 1:40 mark his eyes repeatedly look away after he confesses “I just never took the time.” It’s the look of a man who knows he’ll never get her back. She had every right to leave and fully executed said right. Despite the song being set to a slightly slower tempo live, Nelson kept in that nervous flitting. More than his defiant soloing in new track “Bring It On” or picking in the eerie border town tune “I Never Cared for You”, his nervousness was the most bone chilling. For a master wordsmith, it’s oddly hilarious that what left the biggest mark was a simple action.

“Odd” is what has best described Nelson since the beginning though. Crossing over from Nashville songwriter to singer in the early 1960s was “odd.” Releasing an insular concept album about a murderous preacher and having it go double-platinum is “odd.” Ending the night with the one-two punch of goofy pot ode “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” and Hank Williams country gospel standard “I Saw the Light” is “odd.” He’s not “The Red Headed Stranger” as has long been suggested. He’s genuinely strange. And without his peculiarities, country music would be far less interesting.

(Originally posted on AllFreshSounds)

“Heavenly Father”- Bon Iver


Though last year’s soaring LP Repave by Volcano Choir essentially acted as a new Bon Iver effort, it’s really been three years since the act Justin Vernon came to fame with has issued anything new. In the run-up to Repave‘s release in September, Vernon expounded on the silence surrounding Bon Iver, saying “I really have to be in a specific headspace to even begin to illuminate an idea that would create another Bon Iver record, and I’m just not there.” At the time his words were effectively a death knell, terrifying fans (myself included) that a follow-up to Bon Iver Bon Iver would never come. Today then is a cause for minor celebration amongst Bon Iver torch-carriers. As previously reported on my AllFreshSounds blog, Bon Iver is contributing a new effort to the upcoming Zach Braff film Wish I Was Here and today Line of Best Fit points out the song “Heavenly Father” has officially debuted. In terms of sound, it owes at least a bit of rent to Repave closer “Almanac” which was similarly constructed around an electronic figure. That said, the synthesizer in “Almanac” was far more confident and forward-moving than the electro manipulation we hear in “Heavenly Father”. The piece hiccups and stutters in shifted pitches as Vernon’s familiar ache floats atop. At times invading hi-hats tics make you think “Heavenly Father” could launch into trap territory if given enough time. But the song doesn’t have that kind of certainty. Vernon’s perpetually wondering if he can ever come to accept a higher power, or so it seems. “I was never sure how much of you I could let in,” could be a religious skeptic’s call to the Lord or an explanation offered to a former love why things didn’t work out. (You can listen to “Heavenly Father” now through the All Songs Considered Media Player on NPR and look for the Wish I Was Here soundtrack to drop digitally July 15.)

“The Bullfighter Dies”- Morrissey

Former Smiths lead singer Morrissey’s career has been marked by an extreme sympathy. He’s the one with compassion for the outcasts, the person willing to talk to the broken and battered. He takes pity upon defenseless children and gives a voice to those suffering in silence. For many the notion of a “bleeding heart” is a cloying kind of problem, to Morrissey it’s a wonderful gift that bears kindness.

On the latest single from the forthcoming World Peace Is None of Your Business, that gift is nowhere to be found. The bleeding heart has been all sutured up. With a valedictory accordion and easily bending guitar notes adjoining him on “The Bullfighter Dies”, Morrissey’s not empathizing the death of a Spanish icon, but celebrating it. In fact between him and the instruments, he seems to be the only one cheering. Every note played in the intro by the trumpet reads as mournful. Not Moz, no he’s laughing through the lamentation. In his mind, the toreador tempts fate by needlessly harassing the innocent bull and whatever befalls him is a fit punishment. The bullfighter knows what he’s getting into and shouldn’t be surprised when the moment of truth finally comes. “Nobody cries” as Morrissey succinctly puts it in his wavering baritone during the rousing chorus. It’s hard to shed a tear for someone we know is going to die.

(You can listen to the studio version here. World Peace Is None of Your Business drops July 15 on Harvest Records.)

“Tambourine Light”- Woods













Titling the A-side from an upcoming 7″ single “Tambourine Light” couldn’t have been a mistake by psych-folk rockers Woods. Before lead singer Jeremy Earl’s voice can begin, his shimmering guitar riff engenders comparisons to The Byrds’ epochal cover of “Mr. Tambourine Man”. It’s not just Earl and his guitar tone; everyone in Woods manages to summon the spirit of the folk-rock originators. Kevin Morby’s barely there, but anchoring bass doesn’t fall far from the Chris Hillman tree. The way Aaron Neveu plays his lilting drummer pattern, Michael Clarke may as well be manning the kit. Even Woods’ soft harmonizing exists on the same spectrum as the Roger McGuinn-led group In the “jingle-jangle morning” it’s clear who Woods are following.

There are digressions though. Earl’s voice is best described as “quietly aching,” whereas McGuinn’s is routinely labelled “nasal” or “drawling.” And while that’s a miniscule difference, it’s an important one. McGuinn sometimes sounded disappointed singing through those nostrils, but you got the sense he’d move past it. With Earl, it’s harder to tell. Sure he’s looking up “past the Sun,” but at what and for how long? “Forever” is a word he let’s go of as the band gels into a restful groove. That said it’s an eternity where the bliss of it being “forever morning” can easily be misconstrued as “forever mourning.” In that period of time he’s pushed creeping shadows away and has felt all sorts of challenges come up “against him.” Hearing Earl describe these struggles you realize if anyone’s ready “for to fade,” it’s him.
(“Tambourine Light” will be out July 8 on Captured Tracks and is backed by “Tomorrow’s Only Yesterday”. You can hear the track here now.)



‘Small Victories’- Chris Shelton

Post-rock isn’t an easy genre to carve out your own niche in. Too pulverizing and you’ll immediately be lumped in with Swans’ apocalyptic racket. If you opt for a tense, jittery sound you’re bound to be thrown into the same abandoned quarry Slint floats in. Attempting to conquer death with skyward guitars and voluminous drums will put you right in line behind Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Even mellowing out and doing some inward exploration risks unfair Tortoise comparisons. In short, there’s no winning when it comes to operating in the post-rock genre.

Which is precisely what makes Kansas City artists Chris Shelton’s Small Victories EP so revelatory. I think of every one of those aforementioned bands when I see “post-rock” as a genre tag, but the music itself doesn’t force me to make comparisons. In fact hearing “Homework”‘s limpid guitars lines appended to a calm drum pattern, makes the comparison game nearly impossible. I can’t or don’t want to think about anything. Instead I’m far more comfortable kicking my feet up and staring endlessly out my window. The song’s dulcet background woos mirror the sigh of contentment you let out while enjoying something simple.

Not that Small Victories can be defined solely by its simplicity. As leisurely as Shelton’s guitar playing in the closing title-track sounds, it’s actually an involved latticework of tremulous runs and reverbed hiccups. Not unlike Real Estate’s sun-drenched “Talking Backwards” from earlier this year, it proves how much work goes into relaxation. A truism equally applicable to “Indigo Folds”‘ desert crawl. Though the guitar does considerably more sidewinding and the drums splay across the track, you get the sense that soon enough they’ll lay back down on some rolling hill and peer up at the stars.

If the nature references come across as trite or navel-gazing, they’re not meant to. There’s just an ease to this EP that could rarely be found in urban sprawl. Nothing, not even the flitting solo of “Parachutes” sounds anxious or confused. With Small Victories, Shelton has paved his own lane and taken his time doing it.

(You can find Small Victories as a “Name Your Price” album on Bandcamp.)

“Rooney Mara”- L3thargic1

“Harsh” is how Hannibal, MO electronic-artist Lethargic1 tags their second EP Towns on Bandcamp. Seeing the adjective appear next to the word glitch, I innately suspected Crystal Castles levels of brutality to come hurling out of my laptop speakers. I was primed to turn down the volume before the song had even begun.

But that action isn’t at all necessary for Towns’ lead-off track “Rooney Mara”. In fact if you dialed down the volume a smidgen, you may not hear anything at all. Opening on confident but not overly brash drum machine taps, the track quickly segues into spaced-out skips with enough room to lie down in. It’s restful music and sleep is one of the first things I think of when I hear “Rooney Mara”. The way L3thargic1 blurs individual glitches together resembles a dream where you miraculously go from point A to B without remembering a single action along the way. And like any good dream, “Rooney Mara” is over much too quickly and you’re left wishing for it to return.

(Towns is available for download now through L3thargic1’s Bandcamp page now as a “name your price” album.)

Angel Olsen Live at the Riot Room


Angel Olsen’s set at Kansas City’s Riot Room in Westport was one of blissful contradictions. Before the show even began, Olsen asked for “a little more vocals,” as if her spring-loaded cannon of a voice needs extra amplification. In between tales of lost time and vacant lovers, she warmly asked for a beer with an “appreciate ya” attached to the end. Fuzzed-out brawlers and barely strummed wailers managed to coexist in the same intimate space. Similar to her terrific second LP Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Olsen’s set was both bristly and tender.

It was the tenderness that captivated the crowd first. Soft splashes of tambourine accompanied opener “Free”, which found Olsen keep her fingers tightly crossed for “pure love.” While “Hi-Five”‘s rural trod picked up a few paces, Olsen continued to ruminate on making a lasting connection. “All I ever need is someone out there to believe,” she lonesomely sang as the tightly packed crowd nodded along. Whatever dark alley she wandered down, the audience was eager to follow. And few roads were as pitch-black or rocky early on as “Drunk And With Dreams.” Olsen nearly shred her voice to promise “I’ll be the one, I’ll be the one,” each facial shiver making the promise seem more real.

For someone so frequently guarded in song, Olsen’s on-stage presence was remarkably candid. She gave tips on fiscal beer drinking: the higher the alcohol content the less you have to drink and offered Duchess Sour is “how I feel about myself some time.” As the night continued, that openness spilled over into the band’s songs. Rather than whisper what song should come next, Olsen half-yelled “you wanna do “Forgiven/Forgotten”?” to her guitarist. Even with the cat out of the bag, the Burn Your Fire For No Witness-highlight still bulldozed the enthusiastic crowd and wracked Olsen’s voice as she screamed “I don’t know anything, but I love you.”

Such transparency is what allows for a song like “Miranda” to exist. Whether or not it’s an autobiographical tale is irrelevant, constructing a song around a partner’s knowledge their other half is with another is devastating enough. Throughout the course of the entire night, the 2012 track came closest to pure country. When Olsen asks “what lover is waiting up for you tonight,” the question keeps up the embattled tradition of Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn. Further clawing, she slowly realizes every nice thing that was said may have been a white lie.

Songs such as foot-stamper “High And Wild” and “Sweet Dreams” helped to temporarily ease these sobering realizations. The latter stole into a world of reverie, a world where warped, flanging guitar was more mushroom-fed than whiskey gulping. In “Tiniest Seed”, brushed drums painted Olsen’s tortured references to time in a warmer light.

But some things can only be avoided for so long and by the time her band left her alone on the dark stage, it was becoming clear which half of the contradiction had won out. Save for one lone wolf, everyone in the audience looked dead ahead as Olsen delivered an astounding version of “Unf***theworld”. When she warbles “I wanted nothing but for this to be the end,” it’s one of the most arresting musical moments of the year. An old manner insists “begging is undignified,” though Olsen imbues the indignity with tremendous courage. In that instance, the breathless crowd wasn’t intently focused on Olsen because she was the last one standing. Like Olsen, they were praying for peace of mind.