Friday, September 3, 2010

Perusing Amazon MP3’s Irresponsibly Awesome Bargain Bin

bargain bin I must admit I’m a little late to this party.  What party, you ask?  The “Amazon Would Rather See You Pay A Pittance For Sweet Music Than Watch You Steal It” Party.  It’s rather fantastic.  And you’re all invited.

Andrew’s done everything he can over the past few months to make me (and anyone who will listen) an Amazon mp3 convert, and I’ll admit to being a holdout.  Amazon is for books and DVDs and video games – you know, physical media I can touch with my grubby physical hands.  If I wanted music from Amazon, I’d just buy a CD.  But please, I’ve got iTunes.

Allow me to admit yet a third thing: I was wrong.  Deeply horribly wrong to neglect Amazon so.  I heard through the grapevine that they had a hundred albums on sale for $5 a pop in their digital store.  One hundred albums.  That’s like your uncle dumping his collection of Generation One Transformers toys on the floor and saying, “Yeah, whatever you want, you brats.  A dollar for each robot man.  Buck-fifty for two.”

It seems like Amazon runs deals like this every month.  Due to my egregious ignorance, I feel it’s only right if I point you in the direction of some straight-up steals available in the month of September.

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – I Learned the Hard Way

Sharon and her Dap-Kings are the brainchild of Philip Lehman and Gabriel Roth (who plays under the awesome pseudonym Bosco Mann).  If retro is in, then the Dap-Kings are real in.  The band, formed in the 90s, plays funk and soul with old instruments and analog recording equipment.  Before the Amy Winehouse star went supernova, you may have heard the Dap-Kings lending retro-soul authenticity to her Back in Black album.  They’ve since gone on to gain wider acclaim, due in no small part to their rollicking full-band arrangements and their tsunami of a leading lady.

Sharon Jones’ voice splashes your face like a bucket of cold water.  She bends her notes, coaxes them on-pitch, then blasts them into the microphone with conviction.  And she’s backed by a band that’s learned a lot from the days when James Brown used to fine his band each time they missed a note or entrance.  The Dap-Kings are crisp on horns, funky on bass, and generally just a lot of fun.

Their most recent release, 2009’s I Learned the Hard Way, shows the band continuing down the mellower on which they embarked with 2007’s 100 Days, 100 Nights.  Of course, by mellow I simply mean they’ve started employing more mid-tempo grooves that cavort and thrust, as opposed to earlier cuts like “My Man Is A  Mean Man” that sizzle. 

“Money” is by far my favorite track from Hard Way.  Sharon opens the song with some talk about the state of the world, par for the course for anyone who heard her debut on “Switchblade.”  It promptly settles into an earth-shaking groove full of honking baritone sax and Sharon’s trademark wailing.  I will have a hard time listening to the rest of his album with “Money” stuck on repeat.

Girl Talk – Feed the Animals

Pittsburgh DJ Gregg Gillis (aka Girl Talk) has carved out a peculiar niche.  Not content to peddle mere mash-ups, Gillis constructs entire albums in punk-Rauschenberg collage.  His two favorite colors are arena rock and crass hip-hop.  He suckers you in with a familiar Boston or Kansas riff, only to sucker punch you with T.I. and Ludacris. 

The opening track of his previous album Night Ripper sold me forever on Girl Talk.  “Once Again” sounds like Gillis, with its snippets of “Milkshake” and disgusting Boston lick, is gregarious, in-your-face, and sultry.  It’s like he pieced together the favorite parts of your favorite songs, added in a few he thought you might like, and forever changed the way you hear “Ooh Child.”

Gillis refined his formula for 2008’s Feed the Animals.  From the opening bass line of “Gimme Some Lovin’” to the melancholy closing strains of Journey’s “Faithfully,” Animals condenses decades of dance, rock, and hip-hop into one hour-long fever dream.  Defending why he named it his album of the year, Jody Rosen wrote in Slate’s 2008 Music Club about Gillis’ use of slapstick musical jokes on the iPod audience and how Animals “hangs together like a traditional album better than most anything else I heard this year. Which may be Gillis' best joke of all.”

Feed the Animals is best digested as one complete experience.  It was, in fact, composed that way.  But if I choose standouts: I urge you to relish the Busta Rhymes/Police pairing on “What It’s All About” and the blood-pumping Soulja Boy remix on “Don’t Stop.”  Better yet, throw a party.  Get your friends a little tipsy.  Put this album on.  You can thank me later.

Sufjan Stevens – Illinois

If you’ve made it to 2010 without listening to Sufjan, I don’t know if we can be friends.  Dude plays almost every instrument you’ll ever hear on his recordings.  Plus, he’s so sensitive

After some modest success, Sufjan Stevens naively (or perhaps ironically) told the world he would be doing an album for each of the fifty United States of America.  He released Michigan in 2003 and moved on to Illinois in 2005.  Lucky for him, Illinois is so good he may not ever need to do another state album.

His style is decidedly indie, but it’s hard to classify underneath that admittedly humongous umbrella.  Is it Christian music?  He does mention Jesus occasionally.  Is it singer-songwriter stuff?  He does write and sing songs.  Is it rock?  There are guitar and drums, yes.  He seems determined to frustrate my iTunes which simply throws up its hands and dubs him “indie.”

Influences as varied as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, The Cure, Neil Young, and Nick Drake dance throughout Sufjan’s celebration of the Prairie State.  “Chicago” and “Casimir Pulaski Day” make my chest tight.  “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” and “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders” – with their bouncy, atypical time signatures – compel my hands to clap along and my chest to bob. 

It’s a rich, varied album to bathe in and you’re a fool if you don’t own it.

Digging Through the Rest

I’m in awe of some of the other albums available.  Those feeling nostalgic for 2004 can pick up the Zach Braff-curated Garden State Soundtrack (assuming you didn’t illegally download it as soon as you unpacked your college dorm – I mean, who does that?).  If you’re still wondering if the Gorillaz are for you, take a $5 flyer on their sophomore effort Demon Days

There are, of course, a few more…esoteric choices.  MC Hammer’s Greatest HitsThe Best of Lang Lang?  Any of Best Week Ever’s five remaining fans (yeah, I know it’s cancelled – do they?) can snatch up comedy records from Doug Benson and Paul F. Tompkins. 

They can’t all be winners.  Every bargain bin with a two-disc edition of Forrest Gump is bound to have a few copies of Ernest Goes to Africa.

Those who need further convincing can check out this month’s specials for themselves.