Some Songs Considered #001 – Kendrick Lamar, San Fermin, My Morning Jacket
Welcome to Some Songs Considered, a column that recognizes they can’t all be zingers and truly appreciates the ones that are.
Click titles to jump:
“Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’, the song we need right now” by Julian Kimble
“Divine Misunderstanding: My Morning Jacket’s ‘Believe (Nobody Knows)'” by Charles Bramesco
“Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’, the song we need right now”
by Julian Kimble
Music’s most invaluable characteristic is the way it makes you feel. That distinct, evocative power is also what fuels its first cousin: replay value. In the month since Kendrick Lamar released his latest van Gogh, To Pimp a Butterfly, the song I find myself revisiting the most is “Alright.” Over the course of this short duration, I’ve come to the conclusion that after coping with his own demons and absorbing what’s going on in the world, Kendrick realized that this three-and-a-half minutes of assurance is what we all need.
Self-loathing, survivor’s remorse, and guilt are clear and constant themes on To Pimp a Butterfly, but from a sonic angle, it’s a cosmic slop of sounds. When I first listened to the album during the wee hours of March 16, “Alright” stood out against that spaghetti hurled voraciously at a canvas. It opens with a sample that sure sounds like Rick Ross and Elijah Blake’s “Presidential” striking like five bolts of lightning, and a saxophone that would’ve made Mo’ Better Blues’ Shadow Henderson envious looms beneath Kendrick’s offering of support: “I’m fucked up/Homie you fucked up/But if God got us/Then we gon’ be alright.” Pharrell echoes this promise in the hook over a drum corps’ upbeat, exuberant march.
That plod, and the release of To Pimp a Butterfly at a time when police killings have pushed the African-American community to a breaking point, makes “Alright” reminiscent of another song from a similar, yet more crucial period…
The summer of 1964, also known as the Freedom Summer, was pivotal for the Civil Rights Movement. In June, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner — activists part of a larger group aiming to increase voter registration in Mississippi — were murdered in the events which inspired Mississippi Burning. The following month, 15-year-old James Powell was killed by an off-duty NYPD lieutenant in Harlem, triggering six nights of rioting. Released in the thick of this discord and in close proximity to the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Martha & the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” became the unlikely anthem for social transition. It was the calm amidst the storm.
Though “Alright” resides on a less historically-significant level, people react to it the way I imagine some did to “Dancing in the Street” a little over 50 years ago. I witnessed the anthemic potential of “Alright” the first time I saw Jerome Baker lll play it as the “go home” song during a party; the response ranged from celebration to people on the brink of tears. A month later, as TPAB has been certified gold and “Alright” has had the opportunity to resonate with more listeners, that collective elation is even stronger when DJs release it upon grateful crowds.
But the song’s positive vibes betray its dark undercurrent.
In To Pimp a Butterfly’s arrangement, “Alright” succeeds “u,” the album’s uncomfortable moment of rock-bottom reflection. It finds Kendrick empowering others to eschew the black cloak of depression, but his admission that vices became his escape method reveals a static cling. Moreover, his “I’m at the preacher’s door/My knees getting’ weak and my gun might blow” confession sounds suicidal. Nevertheless, the break towards the song’s end is its ray of light:
I keep my head up high
I cross my heart and hope to die
Lovin’ me is complicated, too afraid a lot of changes
I’m alright and you’re a favorite
Dark nights in my prayers
This glimmer of optimism, a miscellany of stacked vocals and layered music, is the true brilliance of “Alright.” If it doesn’t move you (either physically or at your core), check your pulse. It’s also part of why a mix of exhilaration, inner-conflict, and tears will accompany Kendrick’s first large-venue performance of it. That moment can’t come soon enough.
“Yes, A Fucking Opera: San Fermin and Sophomore Album Expectations”
by Bryce Rudow
San Fermin are rising ‘indie’ superstars. The group, originally put together to flesh out an album sprung from the mind of classically-trained composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone, were catapulted into the spotlight when their debut LP (and its hit single “Sonsick”) were latched onto by blogs and NPR outlets alike back in late 2013. On April 21st, they released their highly-anticipated sophomore album, Jackrabbit.
But cards on the table, I have a hard time being ‘objective’ about this band from here on out. Not only do I pride myself on being one of the early adopters of this band, and have thus since become (professionally) close with its members, they also happen to have helped me surprise my then-girlfriend with a private-concert proposal last October before their gig at Black Cat in DC later that night. It was absolutely amazing of them, and both Mollie and I will forever be smitten with Ellis and lead-singer Allen Tate for agreeing to do that. They helped our love bloom.
However, there’s still an indisputable fact that I can’t stop thinking about when listening to this new album:
Even though their sophomore release Jackrabbit is getting positive reviews for its intelligent take on pop, there is no denying that if the tables were turned and their debut album was released post-Jackrabbit, we would all be talking about how much this band ‘matured’ and what ‘a big leap’ they had made with their sound.
I’m not saying that Jackrabbit is a sophomore slump by any means though; my admittedly-biased ass sees it as an apples-and-oranges situation — there’s a new lead singer, this is the first time Ellis wrote an album with an actual band in place as opposed to locking himself away in the mountains, they most likely had a fancy producer telling them ‘this is how we mix things at this level.’ Regardless, it’s a pretty interesting scenario that San Fermin finds itself in.
Usually, we get upset at follow-up albums because they sound like a retread of what we’ve already heard and either a) it’s not as good, or b) it’s basically as good, but it’s not fun because it’s not new. But when a band completely changes its integral parts and creative process then comes up with something good but unanticipated, how are we supposed to react? I mean, what did we really expect? The same-formula-but-ultimately-not-as-fun sequel that doomed other ‘breakthrough’ bands like the xx or Purity Ring?# Even more symphonic instruments, where each instrument was the voice of a different character telling the story of the creation of the universe? A fucking opera?
To be honest, yes. I was expecting a fucking opera.
I have been following this band almost as long as I’ve known the woman I am going to be married to for the rest of my life, and I was blindsided by this album. I could have even sworn that Ellis once said something about the idea of an opera combining both albums.
But then I started thinking about the history of this band, San Fermin, and it all made sense.
Their debut album was really the brainchild of just Ellis. He wrote it while while isolated at a writers retreat in Colorado and only after it was finished did he start thinking of who was actually going to play it; think of him like the GM/Coach of San Fermin. Fortunately, Ellis the GM was smart enough to ‘cast’ the roles of that album incredibly well; Allen Tate’s voice is fucking butter and now-former female lead-singer Rae Cassidy was absolutely oozing with charisma on the record. However, after getting the opportunity to actually tour together and really become ‘a band’, Ellis the Coach then had to start learning to play with this team. Sometimes that meant realizing it was time to give someone like saxophone player Stephen Chen the chance to wile out on a solo, but that also meant learning to write with them, as opposed to for them as well (Sadly that also meant learning when it’s time to see other people, as the departure of original lead-singer Rae Cassidy couldn’t have been for talent reasons.#).
So this ‘sophomore’ album from San Fermin, this is really their first one as San Fermin, The Band. It may not be the opera some of us may have been expecting – and maybe Ellis still will surprise us with a ‘solo’ operatic venture in the future — but it’s unmistakably above what its indie-pop contemporaries have set as par. The horns aren’t mixed at the right levels and despite Charlene Kaye’s wonderful stage presence she’ll never match Cassidy’s vocals, but where San Fermin the debut album felt like a piece of art you couldn’t touch, Jackrabbit feels like it was made to be latched onto. If you’ve been a fan of San Fermin from the start it’s a hard mental transition to make, but if Jackrabbit is your first taste of San Fermin, you’re in for a treat.
…then go listen to their first album, it will change your life, I swear…
“Divine Misunderstanding: My Morning Jacket’s ‘Believe (Nobody Knows)’”
by Charles Bramesco
My Morning Jacket is a festival act of the first order, and that’s not just because I first saw them in driving rain, my bare feet sinking into three solid inches of muck at New Orleans’ Jazz and Heritage Festival. The defining characteristic of their music is its voluminousness, the stadium-filling guitar licks and Jim James’ full-throated baritone. It takes up space, and in doing so, conjures visions of summer nights spent swatting flies in crowded amphitheaters. But, like, in a good way.
“Believe (Nobody Knows)” happens to be the third single off of MMJ’s upcoming LP The Waterfall, but it’s the album’s opener. It’s been four long years since the merry band of Kentuckians last united for Circuital, and they make their grand entrance here with an ascending synth swell, the aural equivalent of pulling back a red velvet curtain. James hangs back for a minute or so until allowing the soaring guitar line to stretch and fully open, but when it does, it harkens back to some of MMJ’s most beloved classics. In the headed-for-the-cheap-seats guitar, initiated fans will hear the grandbaby of “Gideon,” “Evil Urges,” and yes, even “One Big Holiday.” The warm, soft-edged piano lends this song a lovely sense of balance; it’s a intimate counterpoint to the theatrical guitar riffs, the fan gently bobbing their head while the band lets it all hang out onstage.
Though the recent hiatus has seen plenty of solo work from the band’s individual members, James’ vocals make him sound like he spent the entire interim locked in a state of sustained meditation. He’s seen it all, and yet knows that he’s still got so much left to see. He sings of lessons learned and forgotten, cosmic smallness, messages sent from a greater power. Like a prophet without a prophecy, he intones, “In that moment I woke among the smoke and mirrors / I was blind.” Somebody’s been reading his Socrates. The time-tested paradox about knowing only that you know nothing survives a million stoned dorm-room life chats and takes center stage in the new track. James’ revelation isn’t some pseudo-#deep 4 A.M. epiphany, it’s a divine communiqué. James is a religious dude, and his voice shines with heaven-sent enlightenment on “Believe.” And that title; is he imploring us to keep faith in the Highest, even though nobody can definitively prove the presence of a kind and loving god? Or is it that he believes in that unknowing, getting closer to God than ever by surrendering the need to figure it all out in the first place? Now there’s a dorm-room roundtable worth having.
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