Elvis Costello and the Roots, “Walk Us Uptown”
Elvis Costello has always thrived in the company of a fierce backing group, and if anyone can match the slashing attack of the late, lamented Attractions, it's the Roots. The first taste of Wise Up Ghost, the E.C.-Roots album that arrives in September, folds a whole lot of history into its three-plus minutes — what else would you expect from a Costello-Questlove collaboration, a summit meeting of pop’s biggest nerd-connoisseurs? There's dub; there’s New Orleans funk (listen to the horns); there’s some wonderful Steve Cropper–style guitar playing; there are menacing organ lines that nod to garage rock, and to Costello’s old keyboard ninja, Steve Nieve; there’s some vaguely psychedelic clatter that you may as well just call hip-hop. The groove is a monster, but “Walk Us Uptown” isn’t just funky, it’s smart — a song calibrated for optimal punch, with every brass blast and guitar chord slotted into the arrangement just so. (I'm especially fond of the little breakdown at the 2:27 mark.) Not quite sure what Costello is on about — the “uptown” here seems more allegorical than geographical — but as usual he piles up the rhymes in a way that feels good when they hit your ears. Speaking of nice sounds: extra credit to the guy who miked Questlove’s drums.
AlunaGeorge, “Your Drums, Your Love”
For several months now, Singer Aluna Francis and producer George Reid have been seducing listeners with music that puts a British spin on R&B — a clubby, crisply minimalist sound that blends dubstep and garage with some audible New World influences, like the Neptunes. The duo’s debut album hit SoundCloud yesterday, and it’s strong throughout, especially in the beats department. I like AlunaGeorge best in their sexy-sad mode, when the mood is damp, torchy, a bit noir. The unrequited love ballad “Your Drums, Your Love” is a fine example; it’s a song that sits on a rain-lashed side street, just down the road from Sade’s house. Reid’s beat swirls together a big rubbery bass with a lush, pitch-shifted vocal refrain. Francis isn’t the greatest vocalist, but she has style, bringing sass to everything she sings — even to sad-sack tales of hopeless romance.
Bonnie McKee, “American Girl”
You may not have heard of Bonnie McKee, but you’ve heard her. She’s one of pop’s biggest songwriters, with a catalogue that includes Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite,” Britney Spears’s “Hold It Against Me,” and a whole armful of chart-topping Katy Perry hits. Teenage dreams are McKee’s specialty: She’s a 29-year-old woman who knows just how to tickle the ears, and limbic systems, of the nation’s mall rats. Thus, “American Girl,” the first single off of McKee’s forthcoming second album, a new attempt to step out from behind the scenes. (McKee’s 2004 debut bombed.) “American Girl” is, of course, a top-grade piece of professional song manufacturing, but it’s not so much a song as an ironic essay about writing bubblegum pop songs. “I fell in love in a 7-11 parking lot,” the song begins, and it keeps going, eventually blasting into an indelible chorus: “I was raised by a television/Every day is a competition/Put the key in my ignition.” Are American youth, female and otherwise, being celebrated in this song? Pandered to? Reviled? The answer, of course, is all of the above. The record was released on iTunes this week and promptly entered the charts at no. 38.
Limp Biskit feat. Lil Wayne, “Ready to Go”