Dig These Discs :: Janelle Monáe, Holy Ghost, Neko Case, Goldfrapp, Gloria Estefan
After decades of smoking Latin beats, Gloria Estefan records the classics of the American Songbook. Brooklyn-based disco/synthpop duo Holy Ghost! Gets "dynamic," and Afrofuturist Janelle Monáe gets "electric." Sensual animalists Goldfrapp drop another hot album, and crooner Neko Case mixes some pop in with her alt-country vibe to pleasing effect. Dig in to Dig These Discs!
"The Electric Lady" (Janelle Monáe)
Singer/songwriter/producer Janelle Monáe has made a big splash as a maverick of the Afrofuturism movement, singing R&B and soul. From her debut album "The ArchAndroid," this 27-year-old Sci-fi fan moved on to telling stories of the strong women in her life, saying, "At some point I realized that the true heart and glue of the community were the women. My mama and grandmamma and my aunties and who to this day, are some of the most powerful beings on the planet. Under their guidance, I went from cleaning houses everyday in my maid outfit to the world-traveling performer I am today. They made me believe in myself enough to move from Kansas and pursue my dreams." This Cover Girl began to write lyrics and songs about these rebel women who refused to be marginalized and lived their lives boldly. This -- plus a series of intense, vibrant paintings she made while on tour -- became "The Electric Lady." She teamed up with Erykah Badu for the women-centric anthem "Q.U.E.E.N.," about which she said, "An Electric Lady is Quirky, Unafraid, Electric, Epic and Nicety. That’s when you’re being nice and nasty, noble and naughty all at the same damn time. Her cut "Dance Apocalyptic" is already creating a buzz in the blogosphere, thanks to a new video and its Motown feel. In the song, Monáe trots out her funky, futuristic alter-ego, Cindi Mayweather. The album is peppered with song breaks outlining the progress of this android on the run. Solange Knowles chimes in on the title track "Electric Lady," and with Miguel in the sexy duet "Primetime." "We Were Rock ’N Roll" is a fast-moving, funky rock/disco hybrid, while "Look Into My Eyes" recalls Shirley Bassey singing "Goldfinger." She sings an anthem of the ghetto woman, and croons about victory in the game of love. Monáe gets deep with R&B in "Can’t Live Without Your Love," and puts down a modern slow rap in "Sally Ride." Assisting Monáe were Roman GianArthur, the soul singer Miguel, Badu and Prince, who conversed with her, "from his purple telephone in Minneapolis, whenever she was weak and unsure which artistic direction to go." A major coup, Prince chimes in on "Givin ’Em What They Love," singing, "I am sharper than a switchblade, first and last of what God made, and that’s the truth." Like Prince, this stylish singer has gained a signature clothing style by wearing saddle shoes and tuxedos, which she called "a standard uniform." Monáe has not addressed rumors around her sexual orientation, saying that she "only dates androids," adding, "You can compare it to being a lesbian or being a gay man or being a black woman... What I want is for people who feel oppressed or feel like the ’other’ to connect with the music and to feel like, ’She represents who I am’." Maybe she’s from Kansas, maybe she’s from the future; either way, Monáe is one of the few performers today who is keeping things real.
(Bad Boy/Wondaland/Atlantic Records)
"Tales of Us" (Goldfrapp)
The electronic English duo of Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory release their sixth album, "Tales of Us," and move back to the softer sounds of their debut album, "Felt Mountain." The band is known for their sprawling instrumental soundscapes and depictions of animal totems. When paired with Goldfrapp’s breathy soprano vocals and Gregory’s multi-layered synth and string arrangements, their music can be transporting. For this album, they have given all 10 tracks, except "Stranger," pet mononyms. The band released the first single "Drew" on Sept. 2. It is a mellifluous, sad-tinged tune that leans toward the introspective. The album kicks off with "Jo," a metered piano piece with haunting vocals, creating an almost Asian feel, as she whispers, "You gotta run for your life." She follows with "Annabel," which relies on classic piano sound for the instrumental, with highs that let Goldfrapp show her vocal range. The track "Ulla" draws the listener in with beautiful harmonies and string arrangements. "Alvar" is a suspenseful story-song, and "Thea" builds up the intensity, with a slightly more pop feel. "You’re insatiable," Goldfrapp sings in the edgy, seductive Simone, paired with a Spanish guitar effect. "Stranger" sounds like it could have been recorded by Astrud Gilberto; it is timeless and otherworldly. She sings of a girl with "red, red hair" in the sparse cut, "Lauren," and finishes things off with the earthy track "Clay." Goldfrapp has the ability to take listeners on a journey of introspection, losing themselves for a while in the music. "Tales of Us" is a perfect vehicle for this escape.
"Dynamics" (Holy Ghost!)
Holy Ghost!, the Brooklyn-based disco/synthpop duo of Alex Frankel and Nick Millhiser, is back with a new album that is more pop-based, with vocals and arrangements. The two grew up together on the Upper West Side, and attended Manhattan’s tony Trevor Day School together as kids before pairing up as adults. Both got into music at an early start, with Millhiser saying, "First grade, I started playing saxophone and I hated it, and I wanted to quit," before adding that his parents then made him take up the drums. Frankel began lessons with jazz pianist Les Horan at the tender age of 6. The two did some early hip-hop work with their band Automato before cutting their debut single "Hold On" in Nov. 2007. They did remixes for artists including Moby, Cut Copy and MGMT, and after a few years touring, are now preparing to drop their second album, "Dynamics." This sophomore release features more single-track vocals, yielding a more personal, emotional response. "I tried to make more simple, personal ideas come across more effectively," said Frankel. "When you’re doing up-front vocals, you can’t bullshit the lyrics, because you’re talking directly to your audience." "You’re not gonna take it, no I’m gonna take it, no we’re not gonna take it on the road," they sing in "Okay," which functions as the chorus. The eight-minute track "Dumb Disco Ideas" starts with a strong bass hook, like an old Sylvester cut, and pairs it with catchy pop vocals, lots of synth effects and nutty vocals like "this bodega has a club in the basement." "Changing of the Guard" is a fast-moving, song with the refrain, "I can do better than that." Among the best of the album is "Dance a Little Closer," a pop/dance amalgam. They channel Glenn Frey circa "Miami Vice" in "Cheap Shots" and "It Must Be the Weather," and go for a similar ’80s pop song about New Year’s Day in "I Wanna Be Your Hand." The duo is going "back to New York City" in "Bridge and Tunnel" and get a pop/hip-hop vibe in "In the Red." The album features catchy hooks, sticky synth and four on the floor beats. Also featured on the album are cameos from folks like Kelley Polar and LCD Soundsystem’s Nancy Whang. "’Dynamics’ is really a descriptive term we used to focus on contrast, but it’s also referring to a lot of Alex’s lyrics this time around, which deal with the dynamics of relationships," said Millhiser. "It’s a good single-word descriptor of what we were trying to do with these songs, something we kept coming back to when writing and recording."
"The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You," (Neko Case)
Singer Neko Case is back with one half of her dual-track career with vocal partner Kelly Hogan (she also tours and records as part of the New Pornographers) and guitar by M. Ward of She & Him. This, her sixth album, blends the alt-country sound of her early work with a deeper, more eclectic sound. The 42-year-old has found a strong partner in Hogan, as their reverb-drenched voices soar. Case also credits Hogan with keeping her more balanced, with Hogan telling the Associated Press, "She’s my idol. She’s totally brass balls. She’s one of the bravest people I know as far as running her own freak flag up the flagpole. Every time she makes a new record, the flag gets bigger with more freaky things on it. It’s more compelling." Case stopped by "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" on Sept. 3 to sing a fiery version of her first single, "Man," howling "I’m a man, that’s what you raised me to be." She jumps into things with "Wild Creatures," creating a mellifluous soundscape. "My brain makes drugs to keep me slow, a hilarious joke," she sings out in "Night Still Comes," adding, "if I puked up some sonnets would you call me a miracle?" In "Local Girl" and "I’m From Nowhere" Case looks at loneliness on the road, as she says, "I was surprised when you called me lady/ because I’m still not so sure that’s what I wanna be." She is brutal in the a capella song "Nearly Midnight, Honolulu," a tune about a mother yelling at her child to get the fuck away from her while waiting for an airport shuttle bus in Hawaii. Case said she didn’t get involved in the incident, but wrote the lyrics, "Please kid, have your say ’cause I’ll still love you, even if I don’t see you again." In "Calling Cards," she pays tribute to a longtime lover, singing, "Every dial tone, every truck stop, every heart break, I love you more." Her sound on this song is reminiscent of "People Got A Lotta Nerve." She moves fast and loose in "City Swans," and employs tricky synth effects in "Where Did I Leave That Fire." "Afraid" is Case’s anthem of self-worth, and "Ragtime" is a bouncy pop delight. Case is currently on tour, moving from Chicago to California, through the desert and up to Canada, and back down the East Coast.
"The Standards" (Gloria Estefan)
Former Miami Sound Machine frontwoman Gloria Estefan is taking up a new sound in her 27th studio album -- the sound of classic tunes from the American Songbook. "It’s been on my back burner for a long time," said Estefan of the project, which she completed with help from her husband, Emilio, and Grammy-winning pianist and producer Shelly Berg. "I grew up listening to Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, Henry Mancini and great romance recording artists in Mexico and Cuba, so this genre is right up my alley." Estefan is no stranger to the classics, having recorded "Come Rain or Come Shine" opposite Sinatra in the 1993 "Duets" album, and "Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)" last year with Tony Bennett on his "Viva Duets" album. She sings passionately in "Good Morning Heartache," noting that she wanted to "get enough life under my belt" to make the pain credible. Estefan moves through the classics like "What A Difference a Day Makes," the song she sang with Miami Latin Boys back in October 1975 at her first official gig. Estefan has been around for decades, and this shows in her music. She sings "They Can’t Take That Away From Me," honoring the tradition of the classic while at the same time making it her own with a 6/8 Afro-Cuban beat. She gives a similar treatment to the Fred Astaire gem "The Way You Look Tonight," and "What a Wonderful World," which she calls, "one of the most beautiful songs ever written." This multilingual singer brings her Spanish flavor to cuts like the Brazilian classic "Eu Sei Que Vou Te Amar (It’s You I’ll Always Love," also singing it in French. She composed a Spanish version of "Smile (Sonrie)" and sings in both Spanish and Italian. The strings are excellent on "The Day You Say You Love Me," and the brass hums in "How Long Has This Been Going On." She slows things down in "Embraceable You," and brings the Latin heat in "You Made Me Love You." "I’m not a jazz singer, though I love the genre," she said. "But in the end, we produced an intimate kind of album that rides a fine line between a jazz record and a pop record."