Toni Braxton “You’re Makin’ Me High”

Here’s a slinky hit from my teenage years, with a video that felt uncomfortable, sexy, and powerful. I was 14 when it appeared on MTV, unable to appreciate what was happening. It was unshakable anyway.

Check out Toni Braxton’s 1996 single, You’re Makin’ Me High.

I loved the trippy, futuristic imagery right away: the meat of the video is framed by shots of Toni clad in a white vinyl catsuit, fooling around on a neon podium in some giant speaker-festooned egg. It’s pretty normal, as far as peak-weirdness mainstream 90s music videos go. The story kicks off when Toni gets an email, saying “Yo Toni! Tonight’s the night > The game is at your place this time! Call us>>” and her friends show up in a mirrored elevator.

This scene is what always stuck in my head: we’re seeing a group of confident, gorgeous black women in control, coolly judging a series of peacocking men as they appear in the elevator doorway. Some of the guys throw cash around, some show off six pack abs, and others pose and blow kisses. It’s bulging with sexy imagery, but the catsuit was a red herring; the women aren’t on display here. Instead, the men are completely objectified by Braxton and friends, played by Erika Alexander, Vivica A. Fox, and Tisha Campbell-Martin. They’re standing around, hoping to be chosen, each conforming to a cliched vision of what men should be. It probably made my 14 year old brain recoil in confusion, but the whole scenario never left my mind.

Seeing it now, it’s a simple satirical role reversal, a commentary on gender politics that I was only hazily aware of, if at all, at the time. To me, it was something primal, vital, and new. I was decoding one of the ways the world works, and I didn’t even know it. I was learning something that I wasn’t ready to put into words. I was experiencing feminism at a time when it seemed to be a punchline on sitcoms and AM radio.

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What about the song itself? It’s a perfect funky earworm of a pop tune, regardless of the video. Braxton was known for her deep vocal fireworks, and the hooky bassline comes courtesy of Babyface’s clean, percussive production.

As a kid, I pretended that I didn’t like glossy R&B like this. It wasn’t cool in my insular, suburban Michigan crowd, at least not for insecure white boys. But I secretly loved it, singing loudly when it came on the radio in my car. Because of my mindset, I wasn’t able to openly and honestly enjoy songs like this. It’s kind of a revelation to revisit songs like this from my adolescence from a new perspective, appreciating it on whole new levels. Oftentimes I feel like culture has matured along with me,


I just decided that this has to be on my New Years Eve party playlist. If you’re coming, you’re going to hear this soon.

Gr◯un土 – Vodunizm

When I saw the name Gr◯un土 on a list of recently released albums, my first thought was to pass right on by. After all, there are countless indistinct artists with unpronounceable ascii-fun names. Then I saw the cover art and was intrigued. Something called to me. I found a stream of Vodunizm and a smile immediately crept across my face.

 

It’s a feeling I haven’t had so fast in a long time. Total buoyant physicality; my body had to move. Shoulder shrugs at the desk turned into dancing around my apartment, spilling coffee on my pajama pants and scaring the cats. Dancey, approachable music rarely hits me with such a visceral impact. The first phrase that ran through my head was, “interstellar rave music for a misty mountain jungle sleepover.”

After a bit of digging, I realized that sentiment wasn’t total nonsense.

Written in English on his Facebook profile, the artist’s own statement sums up the intention here pretty well. It’s earnest and guileless and I love it. He’s talking about the title track, “in which indigenous beats gradually permeate and resonate with the psychedelic overdub sounds, the festive sound world that freely runs through organic~cosmic~Balearic realms makes our brains totally shiver!” However cheesy that might seem, it paints a warmly specific picture in my mind.

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The music structurally reminds me of slow motion dub techno, but it’s far too active and bright to fit with Basic Channel or Deepchord. The mood leans into the celebratory tent, all neon strobes and moving bodies, yet the tempo is suited for the chillout room. I’m sitting here on my third listen, fourth cup of coffee at noon on a Saturday, and it sounds perfect. That says it all.

The deep, rubbery beats are sprinkled with a galaxy of tangible  instrumentation, whether sampled or recorded live. Songs erupt, cut through with traditional Japanese percussion, bells, and chimes. Obvious samples are rare, but at one point the classic Godzilla roar makes an appearance. The fact that it’s not jarring or dumb says a lot about the otherworldly context.

These tracks manage to dilate time, slowly expanding in a beat cloud of unknowing. I felt lost inside a mere 4 minute song at the center of the album, ping ponging between antique female vocal samples like a foggy hall of mirrors. At 77 minutes, it’s a long album, but it felt like waking from a dream at the end, the homogenous sound washing tracks together in memory. It’s a cohesive sound world that I want to be cocooned in.

Some time during my second go-round, I realized that this percussive, almost tribal atmosphere was reminding me of nothing so much as Boredoms’ magnum opus, Vision Creation Newsun. Both albums stand as futuristic productions built from the dizzying interplay of tactile, timeless elements. The unyielding beat, the blend of ancient and modern textures, the  sun-worshipping mood, these all connect the album to a time and place that seems long gone in our world. This album engaged my nostalgia center without directly referencing anything I’ve listened to, in the past or today.

Within minutes of clicking play I was scouring the internet to find out more. It seems Gr◯un土, aka DJ Ground, is from Osaka, Japan. This is, maybe not coincidentally, where my beloved Boredoms are from. He’s well known there as the main organizer for ChillMountain, an outdoor music festival that’s been going on for a decade, which really explains the time-stretching dynamic of his music. I can imagine floating on beats like this for hours amidst a sea of bodies and glowing lights in the thinned atmosphere.

Vodunizm is his debut full-length album, a fantastic introduction to this sound. It’s always flirting around the edge of familiarity before taking off down new paths, mining history and cinema for inspiration. It feels like an utterly complete artistic statement.

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The album is digital-only for now, and you can get it for 1800 yen on Bandcamp. Google tells me this is roughly $15, which makes sense. I’m emailing to ask about a possible physical release, but until then I’ll enjoy it right here.

Cocteau Twins – Heaven or Las Vegas

Cocteau Twins made some of the most unique music of all time. I could hear a two second clip from any song in their catalog and know instantly who it is. This is the only dream pop band that sounds like it came from actual dreams.  People tend to love everything they’ve done, or nothing at all. I’ve been addicted for years.

At the center of that iconic sound is Elizabeth Fraser’s ethereal, incomprehensible vocals. Her voice is so expressive and inscrutable, it conveys worlds of emotion and narrative without the crutch of recognizable vocals. Concrete words float to the surface now and then, throwing the mood into sharp relief. Most of the time, we’re floating along a string of syllables, interlocking melody and tone without language. It’s a real life special effect.

Here’s the title track from their greatest album, Heaven or Las Vegas.

One thing that stands out with this track is the fact that I can actually make out a portion of the lyrics, including the title phrase. It’s a rare moment of total clarity that crystalizes the punchier sound they were going for on their final release for the legendary 4ad label. Heaven or Las Vegas mutated the band’s somnambulent drift with crisper, more overtly electronic production that, to me, teased out the inherent chest-pounding catchiness of their best songs. It’s not exactly club music, but the technicolor dynamic is far better suited for high volume enjoyment with friends.

The band, including guitarist and producer Robin Guthrie and bassist Simon Raymonde, always created a consciousness-defying, holistic sound. Listening to their albums is like hearing a single living instrument more than a group of actual humans working together. With this album, they cranked up the saturation and surrendered to the groove.

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Who have I got to thank for this great musical love? Probably Gregg Araki, director of weird and weirdly tender masterpieces like Mysterious Skin and Nowhere. His aesthetic runs all over the place, sometimes feeling like nihilistic Looney Tunes, but every single one of his films are tied together with perfect dream pop and shoegaze soundtracks. For the last 25 years, Araki has introduced millions of people to the joys of Slowdive, Ride, Jesus and Mary Chain, and of course Cocteau Twins. While I can’t pinpoint exactly where I first heard this Scottish trio, it’s a safe bet that one of my teenage VHS rentals contained a song or two.

This is how I celebrate black Friday: staying in, writing, and listening to old favorites. Seeing some friends later. I’ve done buy nothing day for years now, so it’s usually like this. If you’re out and about in the shopping madness reading this, plug your headphones in and enjoy the oasis. If not, you’re probably already relaxing in your own way. For me, there’s few artists better suited for a peaceful day.

The Weeknd “The Morning”

Here’s that moment, almost 5 years ago, when I realized The Weeknd was my jam.

While Abel Tesfaye is currently riding a wave of stardom with Can’t Feel My Face and spots on the Fifty Shades soundtrack, here’s the original slow jam that seduced the world. It’s called The Morning.

It’s great seeing more of my friends finally recognizing this dude, thanks to his latest single, but I’ve been proselytizing for years now. For all the fine work he’s done since, the original Trilogy of albums from 2011 stands as his obvious masterpiece. I’ve got fond memories of walking down the sidewalk with friends in San Francisco, belting out the verses to this tune. We were ecstatic and laughing at the seemingly sudden and magical way R&B had re-entered our lives as a vital force. It had returned older, wiser, and a lot more psychedelic than we remembered from the 90s.

I’ll just leave you with a link to those evocative lyrics. It’s just not the same to quote them in print; you’ve gotta sing ’em.

2 8 1 4 – 新しい日の誕生

Sometimes there’s no better way to discover music than aimlessly sliding through the dark dream of the internet.

One day at the office I was looking for something that I could drift to. I wanted a sound that stretched like taffy until it reached the horizon. I needed my surroundings blurred beyond recognition, smeared into the very fabric of reality. With 新しい日の誕生 (Birth of a New Day) by 2814, I found exactly what I was looking for.

As a writer, I rarely listen to vocal music while doing my job. The lyrics work their way into my hands, spilling into whatever piece I’m trying to finish. It’s too much of a distraction; I lose all focus. Some people do fine with hip-hop or pop music blasting while they write, and I almost envy them. Instead, I’ve settled into a groove with certain genres that help me stay on task, creating an aural environment to work in. This means that I end up playing a whole lot of jazz, techno, and ambient music for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. It also means that I’m forever seeking new music with a similar hypnotic effect.

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Stereolab’s Ticker Tape Of The Unconscious

I know I just wrote about Stereolab, but I’m in the middle of a binge. Indulge me?

I just listened to my brand new vinyl edition of their 1997 masterpiece, Dots and Loops. It reminded me that, of all the jazzy sprawl and monastic focus of the album, this dreamy pop song lingered in my mind the clearest.

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Brian Eno’s Windows 95 startup sound, slowed down 23x

Oh wow. This is suddenly wonderful.

Today at work, the Mac OS startup sound was mentioned, and I offered that I always liked the original Windows 95 sound, created by Brian Eno. Besides; I associate that sound more with Wall-E than my office computer. It’s true; the godfather of ambient music has been in more ears than even the biggest pop stars. Searching youtube for the clip, however, brought me this little treasure.

I hope you’ve already hit play.

There’s really nothing much to say about this other than: listen to the massive difference that a simple, yet drastic change of tempo can to do a song. Suddenly we’re in echoing-angel, gossamer synth territory, and it feels great.

I hope some of my friends see this and get the same kick that I did.

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