One of the last things I loaded onto my iPod before departing for NYC (to see LCD Soundsystem! ) this week was the new mixtape>"/>
One of the last things I loaded onto my iPod before departing for NYC (to see LCD Soundsystem!) this week was the new mixtape from the Weekend, Balloons, an album of R&B sketches that you'll probably see described with qualifiers like "indie," "ambient," or "experimental." The homie Andrew Matson would call the stuff "Noir&B" (possibly my favorite coinage to come out of the Seattle music-crit pool in the past several years).
One reason for the qualifications is that these songs don't feel as tightly structured as traditional pop or R&B; they seem to stretch out and meander rather than tightly coil around choruses and verses. A lot of that may be because these songs constitute a "mixtape" rather than a proper album--the stakes are lower for a mixtape, and it's generally more allowed for an artist to leave things loose and impressionistic.
But there's something beyond the mixtape-as-sketchpad aspect of it, and it's something that the always on-the-money Nitsuh Abebe gets at in the latest installment of his "Why We Fight" column for Pitchfork: The Weekend samples Beach House and interpolates Siouxsie and the Banshees' "Happy House." This is indie-friendly stuff. And there's also a distinctly dreamy, detached vibe to it, a sense of distance that many listeners who don't normally fuck with "mainstream" R&B might relate to.
Abebe talks about the "Palmer Problem," a reference to "Addicted to Love" rocker Robert Palmer's remake of Cherelle's "I Didn't Mean to Turn You On," and the idea that a white (or "white") remake of black (or "black") music (or "arty" remakes of "pop" musics) might make it safe for some listeners or soulless to others, and why either of those reactions is a kind of trap. (I'm probably butchering this in the paraphrasing; just go read the whole thing.)
Abebe compares The Weekend to Swedish underdog pop star Robyn, but the thing Balloons immediately made me think of was the latest mixtape from Robyn's countrymen jj, Kills . . .
jj are a boy/girl duo whose original songs tend toward strummy acoustic guitar, breezy island-signifying hand percussion, and heavy-lidded vocals. Those vocals, in addition to sounding druggy, often incorporate the lyrics of American pop and hip-hop, with a specially fond eye toward weed smoke and syrup-sipping. (They also do some straight-up covers.) The mixtape Kills took things a step further, though--the tracks were instrumentals of pop songs from Taio Cruz to M.I.A., with jj's Elin Kastlander singing over them in her blurry croon (often Auto-Tuned), sometimes singing original lyrics, sometimes singing lyrics snatched from the songs themselves or from other pop songs entirely.
For a somewhat casual Top-40 listener such as myself, this did something far more interesting than offering some "indie-approved" avenue into pop music or whatever--it created a kind of hall of mirrors, where I was often unsure what was jj, what was the original track, and what was something else entirely. It wasn't that jj excused my unfamiliarity with pop music, or held my hand through it--quite the contrary: They made a virtue of the disorientation itself.
I'm sure Kills would sound just as good if you knew every single couplet and sample, but for me much of the fun was in approaching it with some ignorance, spotting some things but likely missing others, in being surprised or confused--just as an R&B rather than an "indie" listener might encounter such a tape and be mystified as to why this childlike Swede was shower-singing over the whole thing.
So, yeah, the first thing I heard from The Weekend that I recognized was that Siouxsie Sioux rip, but it didn't make me think, "Oh, this is far away enough from R&B that I can like it," it just made me think, "Oh, weird, what is this doing in here? Neat." All of which is just my incredibly long-winded way of enthusiastically co-signing Abebe: "Right now, though, watching genres dissolve into odd pockets of competing sensibilities feels terrific."