I Heard Your Single: A survey of the month’s releases, featuring Jennifer Lopez, D.J. Khaled, Sepalcure, and more

J. Lo and Pitbull teamed up this month ()
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At the end of each month I survey recent singles from local acts—selectively, not exhaustively. By “singles,” I mean everything from 7- and 12-inches to “focus tracks” (e.g. they gave the MP3 away two months before the album release, or made a video), and by “local” I mean they live in New York. (Remixes and guest appearances by New Yorkers on out-of-towners’ records also get looks in.) Suggestions are welcome to matoswk@gmail.com, no guarantees made. In April, I listened to the radio a little more than usual.

Like most of America, I’m imagining, I spent a few weeks thinking Fun. feat. Janelle Monae’s “We Are Young” (Fueled by Ramen) was something MGMT must have done years ago that I’d somehow missed. Now that I know better, I still think it’s an MGMT song I’d somehow missed before, the proviso being that it’s got too much musical theater for its own good, though clearly not the public’s. It’s damn catchy, but drivel oftentimes is. And putting Monae’s name on it when she’s not even audible beyond being part of a backing vocal chorus is just as annoying as the song.

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The credited guest vocalist, of course, is one of the great nuisances of our time. One of the big reasons for this has been D.J. Khaled, the Miami radio jock with a profoundly annoying whiny screech (“We the best!”) who puts his name on all-star assemblages that others produce. Sometimes they’re listenable, though, like “Take It to the Head” (Cash Money), by Khaled feat. Chris Brown, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, and Lil Wayne: comfortable, plush mid-tempo production in the richer-than-thou Miami style, and a nice Rick Ross guest verse—everybody else is on autopilot, like just about everything else on the charts. (As for the title and the guy who sings it, let’s not even start.)

Speaking of Miami-New York connections, Jennifer Lopez feat. Pitbull’s “Dance Again” (Epic) is as redundant as its title and gets the Dumb Lyric of the Month award for these guest-rapper lines: “What do you think? It’s a rumor/ I’m really out of this world—moon, luna.” God, enough hashtags! Anyway, I say Lopez isn’t allowed to dance again unless it’s in those long pointy Mexican dancing boots that keep showing up on Q’Viva! (The Chosen), the talent contest show she somewhat testily cohosts with ex-husband Marc Anthony.

More and more, mainstream pop’s referents are to its own reality-show entertainment-industrial-complex omniverse—see the new Kanye leak “Theraflu,” dull technoid bloops stuffed with updates for people who stopped following his Twitter already. (He wishes Wiz and Kim the best.) Against that sort of thing, it’s utterly bracing to encounter Bigg Jus’s “Black Roses” (Mush). I was never a huge Company Flow guy, but hearing Jus’s diction cut across musical bars with stare-you-down impunity makes sense simply as a way to stop the dull-ass traffic. “You don’t want us to roll out the red carpet/ It won’t be no pretty dress-up night at the Oscars,” he brays over askew horns and a beat as drunken as the lyrics advertise. I prefer Jus & El-P’s “Brooklyn Heatwave Mix” (YouTube), on which the drum machine is set to “rivet” under industrial-grind low end.

Queens rapper Homeboy Sandman’s “Cops Get Scared of Me” (Stones Throw; free download) doesn’t come on much like a boast, even though, starting with the title, that’s pretty much what the words are. But the track, by L.A. producer Exile (who made a terrific album, Below the Heavens, with M.C. Blu in 2007), is halting and beautiful—far-away string samples, up-close record-fuzz noise, in the D.J. Premier lineage except ethereal rather than rugged, and a terrific match for a lyric about the rapper’s ability to hold his power in check: “I don’t beef, I just bou-ou-ounce.”

D.J. Premier is the touchstone for CSC Funk Band’s “A Little Weight” b/w “A Little Planet” (Electric Cowbell; YouTube), a 500-copy Record Store Day 7-inch also out digitally. The Brooklyn unit—featuring ex-GWAR drummer Jimmy Thomson, who runs the group’s label, and headed by guitarist Colin Langenus of the equally unalike USA Is a Monster—played an R.S.D. event last year for Fat Beats Records, covering Gang Starr’s catalog in tribute, on the anniversary of Guru’s death; Masta Ace joined them for “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight,” from the duo’s 1990 debut, Step in the Arena. Recording an instrumental cover of that song isn’t the same thing as covering Maceo & the Macks’ “Parrrty,” the 1973 James Brown production that Premier chopped up for “Weight”—CSC’s version is a lot less monochromatic by default. Their B-side re-versions Gang Starr’s “The Planet,” off 1994’s Hard to Earn, which does something similarly clipped and spiky to Taj Mahal’s 1968 “The Cuckoo.” Put this next to Seattle band Juno’s 2001 cover of D.J. Shadow’s “High Noon” on the live-bands-covering-hip-hop-D.J.s playlist.

Crybaby (single) by Cookies VISION

Cookies, led by former Mobius Band member Ben Sterling, have a two-sided concept single of their own, and both sides are titled “Crybaby” (Cookies Ltd.; free download). The concept is that neither version sounds much at all like the other, despite being the exact same song. It’s not a new idea, of course, tying into the tradition (since the mid-’90s) of bands covering one another for B-sides (Elvis Costello’s 1996 E.P.s had a number of these) as much as the old Neil Young one-song-two-ways trick. Here, the styles chosen say something about what’s in vogue for 2012, indie-wise. “Crybaby (A)” is predicated on the point where early-’80s downtown skronk (via saxophonist Colin Stetson) and the decade’s ascendant yacht-funk: slap bass, synth squiggles at the end of lines a la Bernie Worrell in Stop Making Sense. “Crybaby (B)” slows it way down, brings in celestial synth pads and then cuts them away over bare handclaps and echoing 808 drops, and turns it into a darksider ballad, like James Blake with pop nous. Then Stetson comes skronking back in. The resulting meld, I have no term for.

Sepalcure’s Eternally Yrs E.P. (Hotflush) isn’t entirely new—the title track appeared on last year’s debut album from the group—but it’s nice to encounter anew, and “Don’t Cry” is even nicer. It begins as the duo’s little contribution to the Dayglo neon-rave thing going on all over dance music—mnemonic synth riff, fluttery breakbeat, the usual ghostly divas—but by the halfway point we’re securely back on Sepalcure’s home terrain. The two remixes are just as good: British drum & bass producer Marcus Intalex, in his house and techno guise Trevino, makes over “Hold On” with zingy Chic strings and a playfully broken beat, while Canada’s Kevin McPhee spreads “The One” over eight minutes that build to a fierce gallop—the drums even resemble horse hooves on plank wood.

Country Mile - Diamond Rugs by Free Music Friday

Finally, Diamond Rugs are a supergroup: John McCauley and Robbie Crowell of Deer Tick, Ian Saint Pé of the Black Lips, Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, Hardy Morris of Dead Confederate, and Bryan Dufresne of Six Finger Satellite. “Country Mile” (Partisan; free download via Rolling Stone) sounds both jolly and despondent, always a fun combo, as it staggers from bopping twang to beady-eyed squall.