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Courtesy of Dead Oceans Records

May 10, 2016

Spinning Singles: Mitski, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Alicia Keys, Steve Gunn

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CORRECTION APPENDED

“Happy” — Mitski

“Happy came to visit me, he brought cookies on the way.” Mitski softly spills out the words in a ghostly, vibrating mumble, over a quick, blasting automatic weapon-esque drum machine pulse on her single “Happy” — the second pre-released track from her forthcoming, sophomore sum, Puberty 2. The track is a beautiful mystery: a queer, sad, riddle of a song.

The track recounts the memory of a visit from Happiness (who goes by male pronouns) who laid her down, told her it would all be okay, then vanishes while she’s in the bathroom, leaving a mess and reminders of the visit in his wake for the singer to clean up.

In the song’s three brief verses, Mitski crystallizes the intoxication of happiness — the everythingness of small moments, the sun-filled room, cookies and tea with a lover — and the violent hangover of the come-down, the desperation to get it back. However, the most haunting emotion on the track, is Mitski’s apathy about the whole affair: that she is not heartbroken, screaming or crying: just a little bit sad, as she quietly cleans up the debris: “And I turned around to see/All the cookie wrappers/And the empty cups of tea/Well I signed and mumbled to myself/Again I have to clean.”

As it turns out, ambivalence about heartbreak is much sadder than heartbreak by itself. We know what to do with heartbreak; it is familiar and legible to us, and we have libraries of rock and roll songs to tell us how to feel and heal. Ambivalence about happiness, however, is a different and much scarier game of existence.

Mitski has made sad songs, haunting songs and strange songs before — they comprise the bulk of her last album, Bury Me At Makeout Creek — but never like this before. The macabre non-love story is woven into a carnivalesque soundscape of instrumentals and production. The track is an experiment, into a St. Vincent, or tUnE-yArDs-ian land of acerbic, uneven, discordant beats, minor-key saxophone riffs, distorted vocals, machine-gun drums and, generally, having no idea what to expect the next note will bring. The biggest surprise for me on the track comes with the indelible chorus, when Mitski cries out “And if you’re going, take the train/So I can hear it rumble, one last rumble/And when you go/take this heart/I’ll make no more use of it,” not liberated, but confident in her capacity to self-preserve and carry on.

Jael Goldfine is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at jgoldfine@cornellsun.com.

“Dark Necessities” — Red Hot Chili Peppers

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Courtesy of Warner Brothers Records

Internet denizens mocked Kylie Jenner for her Kylie Up Close video in which she proclaimed, “I feel like every year has a new energy, and I feel like this year is reall about, like, the year of just realizing stuff.” Yet, if the four-and-a-smidgen months have been any indication, the mainstream music world is very much so been experiencing a period of new, bizarre bursts of energy and important realizations. In the case of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, this realization comes in the form of realizing that perhaps an important bond ran under the group’s long-running partnership with Def Jam founder and super-producer Rick Rubin.

Rubin, after all, brought the group three stellar albums in a row: 1999’s Californication, 2002’s By the Way and 2006’s Stadium Arcadium. Additionally, all of the albums featured guitarist John Frusciante, whose guitar work arguably wormed their way into listeners’ ears even more effectively than Anthony Kiedis’ often cryptic vocals. Yet, upcoming album The Getaway instead features Josh Klinghoffer, who has toured with the band since 2007 and appeared on 2011’s I’m With You, and producer Danger Mouse.

Danger Mouse is not a producer to be dismissed. His combinatorial mash-up of the Beatles and Jay-Z, 2004’s The Grey Album, cast two often over-idolized artists into a radically rejuvenated and reimaged light. He has worked with a plethora of artists, from A$AP Rocky to Beck, and, perhaps mostly notably, teamed up with crooner-cum-TV judge Cee-Lo Green to concoct Gnarls Barkley. If the opening hits of Gnarls Barkley’s 2008 “Crazy” have ever synced up with your adrenaline-fueled heartbeat and pumped you up for a wild night, you have Danger Mouse to thank.

And yet, he is not the right producer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, as evidenced by “Dark Necessities,” the group’s first single off of The Getaway. After all, the Red Hot Chili Peppers long thrived off of always seeming slightly off-kilter. Despite the many studio takes required to create them, tracks like “Dani California” and “Can’t Stop” always felt like the band nailed them on the first take, slight flubs and all. However, Danger Mouse (and, in fairness, an older, calmer RHCP line-up) have put a track that lacks most elements that first endeared listeners to the group.

The first 30 seconds of the track, which are propelled by muted bass, clean guitar and hi-hat pattering, sound like inoffensive instrumental music written to underscore the trailer of a political thriller film. After the initial swell, Flea’s funky bass line and Kiedis’ characteristic stuttering vocals cut in to truly usher in the track. Unfortunately, both musicians’ contributions sound merely like lackluster imitations of their previous work.

Strings and piano are the most conspicuous additions to the band’s toolkit, and feature prominently at a break that occurs around the three minute-mark. At that moment, the overwhelming strangeness that nags at the listener throughout “Dark Necessities” bubbles over. Are the Red Hot Chili Peppers even trying to still write rock tracks?

Still, if RHCP are still trying to crank out rock releases, “Dark Necessities” falls short. And if they’re instead aiming for mainstream, toothless rock-pop, well, it falls short as well. Perhaps the single was an odd choice to evidence the type of material to expect from The Getaway. If not, however, RHCP listeners must face the same concern as many fans as aging rock bands and consider that their once rebellious heroes have become complacent in the studio.

Where have the rapid-fire lyrics, distorted riffs and hyperactive funk drumming that once defined the Red Hot Chili Peppers gone? Perhaps we will find out later this year, but I fear listeners will be disappointed.

Shay Collins is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at scollins@cornellsun.com. 

“In Common” — Alicia Keys

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Courtesy of RCA Records

 

Whenever artists take moderately lengthy hiatuses between projects, suspicion inevitably arises as to what their next release will bring. A period working on side projects might bring about a radical shift away from the creator’s previous ethos (think Fall Out Boy’s radical mainstream shift on Save Rock and Roll). Alternatively, a break from the demands of touring and recording can bring about an inspired, reinvigorated release. Consequently, Alicia Keys’ single — “In Common” — that was released leading up to her first release in four years granted fans a first peek at how Keys intends to frame her new work.

In truth, “In Common” does not fall neatly into either category outlined above. Keys undoubtedly has her finger on the pulse of recent pop releases. The pulsing, understated beat of “In Common” calls to mind Rihanna’s current mega-hit “Work,” while her confessional lyrics fall in live with Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself” (and countless other pop hits, without a doubt). Above all else, the constant of Keys’ music — her always exemplary ability to convery rich, aching emotion through her voice — has not wavered.

The ultimate strength of “In Common,” however, lies in its lyrics. Keys throws a head-fake at the listener. At first she seems to politely break up with a former lover, singing, “We got way too much in common/If I’m being honest with you.” However, Keys then reveals the painful, relatable heart of the track: insecurity. Keys weaves a multi-layered skein of connection, fear of intimacy and complicated love. “If you could love somebody like me,” Keys concludes, “You must be messed up too.”

If Keys pursues this intimate, honest take throughout the rest of her album, it will undoubtedly continue the trend of heart-baring, beautiful pop music. In essence, Keys has not left, but rather expanded upon her incredibly powerful voice.

Shay Collins is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at scollins@cornellsun.com. 

“Into You” — Steve Gunn

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Courtesy of Matador Records

Steve Gunn makes music that’s meant to be forgotten — the new single off of his new album Eyes on the Lines, “Ancient Jules,” is no exception.

“Ancient Jules” positions the singer/songwriter (see, even his most fitting moniker is as used up and vapid as any genre-label in the popular canon could be) squarely in line with a whole dynasty of ephemeral strummers and just-barely-good-enough lyricists: think Willie Nile, think Mark Knopfler solo, think latter-day ex-Byrds, think Kurt Vile. Yeah, think Kurt Vile especially. They cut an album together just last year, and, among other similarities that all surely spring out of not having that many ideas, they both have a certain proclivity for making songs that are about twice as long as they should be. Although, Vile likes to wear that guitar playing more on his sleeve and put it higher in the mix, and he feels more comfortable getting a little edgier in the lyric department than such ingrained rock-“poetic” platitudes as “You were lost / on the road from a different way/pushed too far/miles away” (a real lyric from either “Ancient Jules” or just about any other guitar-rock track since 1972).

That’s not to say it doesn’t sound nice; something as innocuous as a six-string-fronted, PG rated wander ballad in 2016 really can’t be anything but pleasant. It’s just boring as hell, man.

Troy Sherman is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at tsherman@cornellsun.com. 

Correction: The single review of “Dark Necessities” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers previously referred to Anthony Kiedis as a guitarist. Mr. Kiedis is a vocalist.

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