Stumbling Upon Janelle Monáe’s Wondaland (Or I got a terrible fixation on ArchAndroid…can’t get it off my mind…)

I have a confession to make. I’m not a big fan of black music.

This is not to say that I don’t listen to it. When I was growing up, I was surrounded by Sister Sledge and Tina Turner from my dad, and lots of gospel music like the Winans from my mom. We listened to Chicago black stations like WGCI and before it went away, WYCA. But even when I was a child, you get me alone with a radio and I broadened my listening repertoire to Light FM, classical music, orchestra, and one strange stint when I listened to country. When I hit my teens, I pretty much stuck with Christian music, because it was safe and, well, Christian. And then I hit college, where Pink Floyd was (literally) forced upon me, and I left most of black music behind as I dove into .

Not all of it. I latched onto Arrested Development hard when they came out with “Tennessee”. I briefly flirted with PM Dawn, and when India.Arie hit the airwaves, I sucked up as many CDs of hers as I could. I wanted desperately to like Erykah Badu, but couldn’t get pass all her swearing (now, to show my hypocritical side, I fell in love with Ben Folds enough to get two of his CDs. I just ignored all the swearing he did.) I wasn’t into rap enough to like Queen Latifah, and Alicia Keyes felt too…dramatic.  Of course, my dark dangerous secret: I like Prince. Love, love, love Prince. Even some of his raunchy stuff. But other than that, I became was picky on which black artist I listened to. 

Enter Janelle Monáe.

I first heard of Monáe on the Paste website, which paired two topics I never saw before: "science fiction" and "black female artist". I like science fiction. I’m all for black female artists, even though I rarely listened to them. And I studied the pompadour, tuxedo clad Monáe and thought, "hmmm…this is…different."

And then I watched her video, "Many Moons" from her Metropolis CD.

I watched it again…and again…and again…and that’s how I learned the story of Cyndi Mayweather, Wondaland, and a new genre I’ve never heard before, "afropunk".

Listening to Janelle Monáe is an audio-cinematic experience. Between her two CDs Metropolis and ArchAndroid, Monáe tells the story of Cyndi Mayweather, a cyborg living in the year 3005. Cyndi’s plight is laid out on the opening track of Metropolis, accompanied by appropriate marching music: she’s committed the sin of falling in love with a human millionaire, Anthony Greendown, and is now on the run for her life. The story is scattered throughout the both CDs, both in the music tracks and the linear notes: from what I can make it, Cyndi Mayweather runs, gets captured, then somehow, while being held prisoner, learns that she may be the Prophesied One who will bring peace and unity to the world.

The best thing about her music is that it breaks genre barriers. Yes, we got the dance (Dance or Die, Many Moons) and R&B (Mr. President) and soul (Locked Inside), but then she does an about face and waltzes into a 1950s crooning ballad (Sir Greendown). From there she crowd-dives into a punk rock screamfest (Come Alive), trips into 60s psychedelica (Mushrooms and Roses), slams through glam rock (Make the Bus—my favorite song on the CD), and tosses in sweeping orchestral numbers that invoke 1950s film noir (Say You’ll Go, BebopbyeYa). She brings in the Punk Prophets a.k.a Deep Cotton to sing 3-part harmony with her on 57821, a song with such a baroque classical  hymn feel to it that it made me weep in sheer joy. (well, okay, I didn’t weep, but the first time I heard it, I stopped whatever I was doing and just stood there listening with my mouth dropped open. Not a lot of music do that to me nowadays.)

Her vocal range is so awesome. She flows effortlessly from a hip-hop diva a screaming manic, her voice evoking Charleston-dancing flappers from the 20s in one song (Faster), to a high-pitched Kate Bush bubblegum doll in another (Wondaland).  In Neon Valley Street, there’s a note she does that’s so soulful, just one note. I am fully convinced that in a studio somewhere, Anita Baker is standing at a microphone with her mouth opened and a weird expression on her face, wondering why the note she’s supposed to sing isn’t coming out her mouth. 

And the influences! Take a sip of ArchAndroid, and you can taste the clear notes of Stevie Wonder, Prince, David Bowie, Fleet Foxes.  In fact, I’m certain there’s even a little XTC influence there (Yes, I’m looking at you, Of Montreal. Don’t think I didn’t recognize that little two-note bass in Make the Bus. I know those two notes are really Colin Moulding’s.  I know.)

And the crazy thing about all this genre-flipping is that Monáe makes it all work.  Well, not just her. The neat thing about this CD is that it gives you tastes of not just other genres, but other bands as well. I’ve never heard of Of Montreal and Deep Cotton before, but I’m deeply interested in their work now. And her guitarist, Kalindo (or as it’s said in Cold War: KALLLLINDOOOOOOOOOOOO!), wow, wow, wow, wow. Here is Jimi Hendrix’s legacy, right here. Right here.

This is just the beginning. Monáe plans to release more videos, make a graphic novel, and do Suite IV of Cyndi Mayweather’s story. Mainstream people love her, sci-fi geeks love her, and Prince appears to find her pleasing as well. Here’s to hoping that Janelle Monáe i.e. Cindy Mayweather truly is The One that will unite everyone together. And I so can’t wait for Suite IV. If only there was a time machine I can use to go forward…no, wait. that would be a bad idea. If I had a time machine, I would use it to go back in time, get my college self, and say, "You gotta come with me. They got AFROPUNK IN THE FUTURE!!!"

Then my past self would be all, "Holy crap, are those dreads you’re wearing?!?!"

And since it now appears that I have no clue what I’m writing anymore, let’s put on our saddle shoes and tip the Tightrope ONE MORE TIME!!!

Christmas Product Placement #5: They Might Be Giants “Here Come the ABCs” and “No!”

Have I overloaded your senses yet? There’s been a lot of stuff thrown your way this week at the Cafe. Poor Aunt Billie-Joe Bob must be trembling under all the gifts you got her. But what about her children? Haven’t you thought about her children? Dear God, won’t someone think of her children?! All eight of them?!?!?!?!

I got just the thing to turn those snot-nosed, whiny brats into quiet cherubic mice. Get a copy of They Might Be Giants “Here Come the ABCs” and “No!”. Open up iTunes or Winamp or whatever music program you got. Transfer the CDs to .mp3s. Put the players on repeat. Start the music and walk away.

I’m very, very picky when it comes to children’s music. If I’m going to be stuck in a room making sure that my kid’s paint-smeared hands stay on the paper we’re drawing on and not on the walls, then I better not be listening to some candy-pop drivel that’s been ‘kiddified’ with edited lyrics. And I can only listen so much to high, slightly off-pitch voices singing, “Ring around the Rosie” or “Twinkle, twinkle little star…” before I start stabbing the off button on my CD player. That’s why I highly recommend They Might Be Giants. It’s music both you and your kid will enjoy.

TMBG ABCThey Might Be Giants have been around for quite a while. I remember first hearing a tape of “Flood” when I was a freshman in college. It was one of the things that got me hooked on rock…the underground kind (although I believe “Flood” was more of a mainstream release. Someone tell me if I’m wrong. The two main frontmen: John Linnell and John Flansburgh are considered geeks in the rock world. The music lyrics are weird but fun, though they can get downright strange sometimes. They also have the tendency to run pretty short (most songs being around the minute to minute and a half mark) which made them perfect candidates to switch over to children’s music without skipping a beat. In fact, one could say that it’s adult music for kids.

“Here Come the ABCs” have 23 original songs on the alphabet (though the alphabet song does worm its way into the song “Who Put the Alphabet in Alphabetical Order). Sometimes they focus on one letter. “Flying V” discusses both the poetic formation of flying geese and a certain brand of guitar. Other songs are just plain fun. Can you name countries using every letter of the alphabet? They did with “Alphabet of Nations”. There are even a couple of bonus songs, including the theme song they do for “Higgley-Town Heros”, and a hidden track that I take great delight in: “I never go to work”.

“Here Come the ABCs” is Daniel’s favorite CD, but his absolute, most favorite song that gets him screaming in glee, is the title song off their other kids album, “No!” Do I even need to explain why?

NoNo is no.
No is always no.
If they say no, they mean a thousand times no.

No plus no equals no.
All nos lead to no, no, no.

Finger pointing, eyebrows low.
Mouth in the shape of a letter ‘O’.
“Pardon me?” No!
“Excuse me?” No!
“Can I stay? Can I play?” No! No! No!

If I had fun writing typing that in, imagine a two year old squealing at the top of his lungs whenever this song is played.

Do your kids a favor. Don’t settle for crappy kids’ music they advertise on those commercials. Get them real music. Real music that not only they will love, but that you will love to. That way, you won’t mind if your kids beg you to play it over again for the 328th time. You may even find yourself sneaking it off to listen to it on your own. It’s that much fun.

Christmas Product Placement #2: anything by Phil Keaggy

All right, you got some nice Christmas music for Aunt Billie-Joe Bob. You also tried to take back that hideous all cat choir Christmas CD to that specialty shop that sell things for cats and by cats that had popped up in the decrepit section of the mall. However, the store owner is just as frantic to get rid of her stock as you are. So not only have you not returned the Cat Christmas CD, but somehow, you’ve been suckered into buying four more copies.

So as you stare at five identical CD covers of cats looking non-plussed in bright Santa hats, maybe you should wander over to the nearest music store again to try to clear your head. What else can you get for your poor aunt? May I suggest Phil Keaggy?

phil-keaggy.jpgEveryone knows Phil Keaggy. Christian singer, quite popular in the 70s and 80s with his band Glass Harp, then on his own. Incredible guitarist with nine-and-a-half fingers, having to always put down the rumors of when Jimmy Hendricks was asked if anyone was better than him, he replied, “Phil Keaggy.” Musician who keeps putting out CD after CD after CD after CD, and yet each one seems different–instrumental, blues, acoustic, electric jam, Spanish flamenco. This guy is so prolific, it’s getting hard to keep up with his releases, and I’ve been collected stuff from him since my college days.

Even if you’re not a Christian, you should listen to this guy. The man is a musical whiz, and at least his instruments are fun to listen to. But for you Christians out there, you must have at least one CD. One! Because if you don’t, you’re missing out on some awesome Christian music.

What CD do I recommend? Hard to tell. He’s done so many–nearly 50 CDs to date, in fact. Feeling a little Beatlesque? Get “Sunday’s Child”. Want a more soothing tone with vocals? Get “It’s Personal” (one of my favorites–his voice is a little deeper than his previous works). In the mood for Spanish Guitar? Get “Lights of Madrid” (another favorite). Want more kick-butt electric? Get “On the Fly”? Do you just want him doing Christian Contemporary? Get “Inseparable” or his self-titled “Phil Keaggy”. Are you a writer, or any other type of artist? Do your craft while listening to “Music to Paint By”. Are you one of those who went to his concerts and saw him looping back his own music through a Jamman and thought, “Man, wouldn’t it be great if he released a CD with just him doing that?” Why are you even reading this review? Chances are, you already have “Roundabout”. Don’t have a clue what that last sentence meant? Get the “Philly Live” DVD and watch him be a one-man band. Overwhelmed by the mere snippets of choices I mentioned? Then subscribe to his monthly podcast at philkeaggy.com, then put on some earphones and grooooooove….

With all the stuff he’s put out, it’s surprising that he’s not super popular. When was the last time you heard a song from him on Christian radio? Do people simply consider him as part of the great wave of musicians of the 80s who happened to fade into the background with the advent of Christian alternative and pop? I don’t know. With Christian music, it’s always hard to tell. Maybe it’s because his music isn’t really considered pop-worthy anymore. His music is far more diverse and ‘musical’ than that. In a sense, Keaggy’s music is underrated in the Christian Music Industry. No one knows how to classify it, because the man just puts out a lot. Maybe that will change with his latest vocal CD “Dream Again”, but I’m not holding my breath.

But you know what? It’s okay. Phil has never been about how popular his music is. He just wants to worship God using the best gift he has, and if we have fun with him, hey, that’s cool too.

Goodness, where did that soapbox come from? This is supposed to be a Christmas Product Placement, not a rant on the Christian Music industry. So let me tuck that soapbox under my desk and get to the true meaning of the Christmas Spirit. Buy Phil Keaggy’s music! Buy! Buy! Buy! Get several copies of his library if you have to. Wipe out your checking account! You can always sell the unopened gifts on eBay to get your cash back. You’re gonna have to do that with the Catty Christmas CDs anyhow.

Christmas Product Placement Week! The Darkest Night of the Year by Over the Rhine

So it’s a couple of weeks before Christmas. You’re rushing through the stores, panicked. Aunt Billie-Joe Bob is coming to stay at your place for a week, and the gift you’d originally gotten for her, the ‘It’s a Catty Christmas–All Christmas Songs Hits sung by cats” is looking mighty tacky right about now. You got to find another gift, pronto, that will endear you to her good side and that you can all enjoy as well. But the choices are endless, and time is running out. The pressure is on. What will you get her?!?!

First of all, relax. You don’t know that the reason Aunt Billie-Joe Bob is really coming is so she can get away from her smoking, boozing husband who snores like a banshee. She’s just grateful that she is able to get away from the week–if she sleeps on the floor in the bathroom, she’s happy. Plus, she gets the added bonus of spending the week with you, whom she hasn’t seen in ten years. Just the fact that she gets to pinch your cheeks and you groan, “Come on, I’m thirty-two already,” makes her heart sigh with happiness, because she gets to hear your complaint in person. So spend some time with her. Take her out for dinner. Arrange for a day at a spa for her, or, if you’re really brave, do it yourself with letting her take over the bathroom for a night. Really, she’s that easy to please.

But if you still insist on getting her a gift, then perhaps my Christmas Product Placement Guide will help. I’ve decided to take a day this week to give you ideas on music, books, anime (because, Aunt Billie-Joe Bob is a closet anime fan, and you would know that if you spent more time with her, you selfish old goat) and other things that pop into my mind. Reason why I’m doing this? Feh, no particular reason. Really, I’m doing this for fun. (And if my family is trolling for ideas for me, sorry, I already own most of what’s going to be up here. You know where to go for other ideas.)

otr.jpgSo let’s get started with Christmas music. I highly suggest getting Over the Rhine’s The Darkest Night of the Year. This CD gives its own directions on the perfect time to listen to it: at midnight, December 1, in the dark, with a glass of wine.

It’s hard to classify Over the Rhine. They’re not exactly a Christian band, although they are Christian. It’s definitely not Contemporary Christian. More alternate folk pop, with a lot of bluesy bluegrass jazz, and a touch of country gospel sprinkled liberally. What I do know is that the music is good.

Over the Rhine is fronted by married songwriting couple Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler. Karin provides the haunting vocals while Linford plays the piano. He does play other instruments, but the man is a virtuoso at the piano. If you’re lucky to watch them live, watch the man’s fingers–they almost dance over the black and white keys. Listening his piano alone is sheer audio pleasure, but add Karin’s pure crystalline voice to the mix, and you got soul music coming out of your speakers.

This is not a cheery, happy CD that will have you dancing. It’s for those nights where you sit and watch the snow falling, creating a blanket of white all over. That still, vaguely melancholy feeling. The first track “The First Noel” sets the tone with low, trembling organ and the voice of a cello vibrating deep in your bones. In fact, I don’t think there’s many instruments on the CD. There are several piano/cello collaborations, and there’s some songs with electric guitar and drums. But there’s also a couple of songs with just Karin singing and Linford playing the piano, like’s “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” that sounds so perfect you never want it to end. Besides traditional carols, there’s also several original tracks that fits well in the Christmas spirit. My personal favorite is “Mary’s Waltz”, a song about a dying little girl who only wishes to dance.

Over the Rhine is coming out with a new Christmas CD this month, made entirely of original songs called Snow Angels. I listened to the first couple of tracks and got instantly hooked, so it will be going into my Christmas library soon. But if you never heard the group before, I’d suggest getting the Darkest Night of the Year first. Then, turn off all the lights in your house, open wide the windows, settle yourself on the couch and breathe the music in. Deeply.

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