N.E.R.D. – Nothing [86/100]

Notes: “Party People (feat. T.I.)” is a solid opening with a sound more reminiscent of The Neptunes than N.E.R.D., though the sound that keeps coming to mind is The Chemical Brothers, or maybe Q-Tip. No accusations here, just a comparison, but Pharrell does admire both and he’s talented enough I’ll consider it a hat-tip. “Hypnotize U” has tons of club bass, floor toms and synthesizers, unique from anything I’ve heard from them in the past but it’s not really landing with me, can’t put my finger on why. “Help Me” has that offbeat N.E.R.D. sound that intrigued me years ago, more thoughtful lyrics than the first two tracks that had me fearing Pharrell had further devolved into the “Cars, Money, Hoes” theme that pervades hip-hop on the radio. “Help Me” really is catchy, interesting choice of instruments and the arrangement breaks the mold. Solid on all levels. “Victory” has Pharrell backing himself in 3-part harmony over handclaps and overdriven bass guitar. The bridge is genuinely impressive and shows the most focus on vocal harmony I think I’ve ever heard in a N.E.R.D. song. Interesting take on what’s intended as an inspirational song. “Perfect Defect” has catchy hooks throughout, a slick funk bass line follows nicely syncopated vocals and a horn section, honestly there’s more going on in the song than I’m able to determine in one listening, lots of instruments dropping in and out, an arrangement that blurs the lines between verse, chorus and bridge. Really impressed with it. “I’ve Seen The Light” Starts out sounding like Pharrell’s about to wax poetic about some sailors a few hundred years ago, but the chorus has that Neptunes sound that is often imitated, rarely duplicated. “Inside of Clouds” picks up right at the end of “I’ve Seen The Light” and is about 85 seconds of peaceful flute, guitar and xylophone building up to a big airy chorus that lasts about 10 seconds, and makes you wish for more. “God Bless Us All” goes back to club bass and snares, a somber message in a minor scale, and mariachi-style horns. Hopeful ghetto blues? It’s an interesting sound and done fairly well. “Life As A Fish” has a choir backing Pharrell who sings, in his usual upbeat way, about evolution. I do get a laugh out of his lyrics every now and then, and I think he likes that. Sampled splashes and big explosions over a light but slightly chiding message tell me to lighten up a bit as we proceed. “Nothing On You” moves into more standard hip-hop, though Pharrell uses clean, 7th or 8th-fret electric guitar barre chords in the chorus. Not a lot to say on it, it’s not bad but there have been some highlights on the album and this one’s not one. “Hot-n-fun” features Nelly Furtado, the sound is an industrial club sort of sound, overdriven reverb bass and electronica-inspired arpeggiated synth. Furtado’s bridge-chorus thing is great and really focuses an otherwise loose track. “It’s In The Air” opens with a great sample of Sen. Patrick Kennedy’s rant during a debate over the war in Afghanistan and then moves into a really nice downtempo track with elements of blues, early rap, country-western and jazz. It’s a hard track not to like, and Williams ties together sounds in a way that really does him credit as an evolving musician. “Sacred Temple” starts out sounding dangerously like the previous track but brings in a ’90s house sound and a chorus full of drums, horns, and guitars that I can only call it a very N.E.R.D. sounding chorus, the sheer energy of the song saves it. “I Wanna Jam” has a great rap-rock feel, subtle synthesizers follow electric guitars to cover a very catchy scale. Again, loads of energy in this song and the vocal performance is as solid as the instrumental. “The Man” is a tom-laden with a nod to “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”. Really having trouble categorizing the song, not a bad thing in itself but even by N.E.R.D. standards the song feels roughed-in, more a sketch than a song and a weak ending to an otherwise solid album.

Tone and Overall Sound: 16/20 Points. While some people would score this section lower, they would also be people that haven’t listened to previous work by the band. What’s interesting to me is that as time’s gone on N.E.R.D. has moved further from a rock band and into areas that could’ve had The Neptunes slapped on it and nobody would raise an eyebrow, in particular the club offerings. Still, innovation and originality push this category up about 4 points.

Melody and Harmony: 20/20 Points. Even on tracks where I don’t agree with certain choices, they’re almost always done with such polish and finesse that you know you’re listening to a true pro. This felt like a more experimental work than previous albums, and while there were one or two instances where I wasn’t going for it, when the melody and harmony shined they were really something to hear, and I can’t give it less than full marks.

Rhythmic Qualities: 16/20 Points. Syncopation saves the score here, N.E.R.D. goes beyond 4/4 rock in favor of subtle syncopation and does it without the listener feeling lost. The only occasional confusion is trying to discern verse, bridge and chorus from each other, but it’s both not a bad thing and something they’ve done for quite a long time. Maybe a bit too much reliance on the club drumkit and bass in the front of the soundstage.

Mixing and Production: 20/20 Points. I wavered for a bit on 16 or 20 and decided to give full marks for having the album as a whole flow well from track to track, along with the attention to detail in sampling, panning, dynamics, arpeggios and sliced samples that almost always improved the song as a whole, and that’s the bulk of the points in this category.

Theme and Concept: 4/10 Points. When Pharrell is on-point he can really put down some lyrics that makes you stop and reflect. That wasn’t the case for all but a few tracks. The core of the album, from tracks 3 to 8 are the high point in my opinion, and given the amount of talent in hip-hop right now they’re pretty still weak. It’s not their strong suit, and it never really has been, but there are a few flashes of talent.

Presentation: 10/10 Points. The more I considered the artwork the more I liked it. Pharrell in profile, wearing a camo soldier’s helmet (war) with three feathers (peace) on the side, red, white and blue, all against a white backdrop with drop-shadow. Colorful, symbolic and largely open to interpretation, much like the band itself. Simple and well-done.

Total: 86/100 Points. I may still prefer their “Fly Or Die” album but I suspect that’s nostalgia talking, this is by far their most diverse work, and it’s remarkably solid given the number of genres Williams and the band tackle. Personally I’d like to see more of a focus on lyrics to go with the vocal harmonies, but honestly it’s never really been their thing. That said, the album is absolutely worth a listen, and probably more than one because there’s a lot to take in. Will it chart as well as their last two? Maybe, maybe not, but that shouldn’t stop you from listening to the evolution of a genuinely talented group.

Ray Charles – Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters [78/100]

Released yesterday, this album is a set of 10 never-before-heard songs that cover the whole range of the Genius’s abilities, from country-western to blues to funk. It was a bit of a sentimental rollercoaster to listen to, but I enjoyed it very much. Below are my notes and scores for the album.

Notes: Sound quality is exceptional given the age of the material, some of which dates back to the 1970s. From track to track you’re reminded of Ray’s ability to shine in any genre. “It Hurts To Be In Love” has tons of emotion over a funky swing sound, with little stabs of electronic piano placing it firmly in the 1980s. “Wheel of Fortune” feels like two songs in one, the swelling strings of orchestral soul on one side of the coin and a more syncopated big band sound with subtle two-part harmony that gives the song tons of character. An early favorite in this album. “I’m Gonna Keep On Singin'” Opens with tasty funk licks on bass and takes you on a trip that feels largely improvised and delightfully so, like you could feel privileged to sit in for a jam session with the Genius hard at work. Even though the whole band seems to be in attendance, for most of the song it feels quite minimal and intimate, transitioning with a bridge featuring marimbas that places the track firmly in funk. “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” is slow blues that is soulful, but with a solo that feels about 8 bars too long. His vocals seem forced but still beautiful. “Isn’t It Wonderful” doesn’t categorize well but bass and electric guitar pluck out a simple 4/4, Charles’ vocals are spot-on but the track feels very roughed-in, and in fact several of these tracks were finished posthumously by the producers. I’d bet dollars to donuts this was one of them. “I Don’t Want No One But You” uses a gospel chorus over a love song characterized mainly by the horns and bass with tasteful melodic riffs on electric guitar that saves the song from being simply okay. “A Little Bitty Tear” takes you back to the heady days of Charles’ country-and-western albums, and is a masterfully done cover. Ray’s vision in country music is so evocative of a time gone by, when the stories were heart-breaking and eloquent. Charles didn’t pen these lyrics as the song covers a work by Hank Cochran. “She’s Gone” reminds me that it’s either a rare gift or a life’s work to sing the blues over a track that feels largely upbeat and it not feel out-of-place. It’s slightly jarring but not bad. “Why Me Lord?” is a duet with Johnny Cash that seems decades overdue, but hearing the two legends together, you feel privileged for the opportunity to hear it. Cash is lead vocals with Charles providing backup vocals and keyboard, and it’s primarily a Johnny Cash song, but even for the brief time you hear them together the sheer talent is evident.

Tone/Overall Sound: 16/20 Points. These master tracks have both unrealized potential and tons of polish. The unrealized potential stems from some of the recordings actually being unfinished and the producers later finished them. The sound is clear, and Charles’ style has confounded obsessive categorizing types for years.

Melody and Harmony: 16/20 Points. Both are effectively used throughout the album but when the songs don’t pop, it really seems to be because the melody doesn’t carry the song. Given these are almost all the remaining unreleased masters it’s understandable that sometimes the quality isn’t there compared to the other works we tend to associate with him.

Rhythmic Qualities: 12/20 Points. Even though we cover a lot of ground with regard to genre, the rhythm and percussion are weak through all but a handful of tracks. It’s understandable given what genres we /are/ in that there’s not a lot of room for originality, but just the same this is one area that seems to be given short shrift.

Mixing and Production: 20/20 Points. This was a tremendous undertaking by John Burk, who also produced Charles’ final studio album, Genius Loves Company, and the effort is both evident and worth it. On one front you have some masters that are nearly 40 years old, and on the other you have tracks that aren’t completed. Many producers would’ve simply left those out, but out of love for Charles’ work, he set about hiring an orchestra and finishing the tracks as closely to Ray’s vision as he could. The sound quality of the tracks is perfect, and given the age of the tapes that’s no mean trick. Completely exceeded expectations.

Theme and Concept: 8/10 Points. Given that this is a collection of unreleased songs I’m not looking for an overarching theme to the album, but instead looking at themes within songs and lyrical qualities. I’ve always been a fan of Ray’s understated, poignant lyrics, he has the true bluesman’s gift for storytelling. He can be repetitive with regards to song themes, but that’s an effect of the genres he dabbles in, and does quite well at branching out within those genres.

Presentation: 6/10 Points. A simple black and white photo of the Genius, with three fonts used in two colors. The front cover honestly looks a bit cramped, even though it seems they were trying to avoid exactly that.

Total: 78/100. If you liked the man’s prior work there’s a good chance something in this grab bag will appeal to you, and any time there’s a chance to hear something new from artists dead and gone there’s a rather unique feeling of unearthing a precious resource. Totally listen-worthy.

Scoring Method: http://is.gd/gnNWc [pdf]
Sennheiser HD25-1 II
Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS
MOG 320kbps MP3 Stream

Winter Is For Writing

Most of you know I thrive on projects. The more ambitious, the more I toss and turn over it, the better. Sometimes I remember projects with more fondness than I honestly had for them at the time. Writing projects can be like that, but I remind myself that this could just be important practice, training for a career in who-knows-what. This winter I’m revisiting music reviews, and trying to review one new release a week and maybe one of my favorite albums weekly or bi-weekly too. The good news is I put much more work into the details first this time, and I feel like I can make a more objective statement about the music itself than with my prior setup. I’m using a rubric much like written compositions are scored against, which you can see here. I created the rubric to cover the things I find most important, and also make it a point to reward innovation, originality, and creativity.

I’m also using high-quality headphones instead of my 5.1 surround sound system. The Sennheiser HD25-1 II is known for being neutral and true to the source, with tighter bass than other models I tried while deciding. I justify this by my experience as a music producer, and referenced the headphones with several songs I created and found the bass to be heavy but true to the sound I was trying to achieve in my work. They’re being fed into a Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS sound card, and all equalizer settings between software and hardware are set to flat. With my end of things sussed I had to decide on a source. I can’t sink 10 bucks a week into a new release every week so I chose to use a music streaming service, and decided on MOG.com for their 320kbps CBR MP3 streaming. That’s going to have to be good enough given that I’m not going to buy the discs every week and I don’t even know how critics get review copies of CDs, and honestly I’m hard-pressed to notice a difference between an MP3 at 320 and a CD.

MOG is also writer friendly and has a section for blogs and reviews, and I plan to embrace that community and see where it leads. Like most of my best projects there’s a fair amount of making it up on the fly, but the only way to get it right is to find out how to do it wrong.

The first review should go up either tonight or tomorrow. Haven’t decided on an album, or whether I want to write reviews day-and-date with the release, but we shall see.