Week Fifteen: Awaken, My Love!

And so continues an exercise which does suggest that when it comes to popular music of the last decade or so, I am rather out of touch. Childish Gambino, or Donald Glover, may be a well known television star, and may have singles with tens of millions of plays on Spotify, but insofar as I’d ever heard of him before it was only a sort of dim peripheral awareness of his name. If you’d asked me who Childish Gambino was last week, I might have correctly identified him as a musician, but it’s equally possible I’d have hazarded a guess that he was a cartoon character.  Or a mafia boss. The name, apparently, comes from a Wu Tang Clan Name Generator (irrelevant aside no. 1 for today – If you want to see someone really gamely try to make sense of music that they’re never going to get, have a look at David Aaronovitch’s review of Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers)).  He got lucky. I got ‘Prince Dragon’ which is not going to stand out on the album racks…

The album begins with Me and Your Mama and the first couple of minutes of instrumental noodling had me wondering if I was in for nearly an hour of ambient background music. And then at around the two minute mark, the song very abruptly shifts gear, before doing so again a couple of minutes later. The highly tenuous comparison that came to my mind was “What if Paranoid Android had been written by someone who was basically content with his lot?” No? Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t help thinking that both are playing with the ghost of Pink Floyd, albeit to achieve very different musical ends.

Thereafter, the record is a bit of a mixed bag, at least to my ears. I’m not sure Mr Gambino really quite has the voice to pull off the next track, Have Some Love no matter how many times they track the vocal. On the other hand, he’s on home turf with Boogie Man which sounds like a great lost 70s funk record, a James Brown or Sly and the Family Stone single that had  escaped my notice up to now. It would have stood up well against pretty much anything on the Prince record that I reviewed a few weeks back.

Zombies – is good too. I’m prepared to overlook a vocal performance I don’t much care for, because it’s just funny. How can you not like a song with lines like “We’re all so glad we met you/ We’re eating you for profit/ There is no way to stop it.” I think it has replaced Jamie T’s Like a Zombie as my favourite song about zombies (although it’s not an especially crowded field. The only other example I can think of is the Cranberries awful caterwauling Zombie, which appears to have been the result of her hearing a grunge record, thinking ‘I can do that’ and proving beyond reasonable doubt that she can’t).

Redbone was the second single, I think, and it just presses the wrong buttons. There are hints of George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic sound that that, unfortunately, for me is so tangled up with the Snoop Dogg, Dr Dre and Warren G records of the early 90s that exhaustively mined it for samples that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to appreciate anything that plays with that particular sound.  Although, actually, going over to Youtube for research purposes, it’s amazing how much better it sounds when it’s played at the correct speed.

What would once have been the second side of the record doesn’t feel as strong to me as the first. Terrified is alright, but I just don’t like the high pitched squeals, oohs and that seem to be a calling-card of so much R&B and hip hop. I do on the other quite appreciate the 70s prog guitar parts. The guitar part that comes in from around 2 mins into The Night Me and Your Mama Met is another highlight for me, and perhaps just an indication that the funk that I like is really just up-tempo rock music.

Baby Boy pretty much runs the gamut of effects pedals (or maybe some of what I think is heavily synthesized guitar is actually keyboard) and sounds ok, but when its over, I struggle to remember what it actually sounds like.

Stand Tall brings things to a close, sounding, ironically, just a little too horizontal for its own good. The robotic autotuned vocals may or may not be covering up his limitations as a singer, but here sound like its being done for ill-advised effect. It’s also one of two or three songs on this record that sound like they are mining the sounds of 1980s videogame arcades. Or maybe it just sounds that way to people, like me, who spent much of our childhood playing 8 bit computer games (Donald Glover is about my age, give or take a few years, so I expect it’s not entirely coincidence.)

I doubt I’ll be going back to this record in its entirety very much, but I can’t deny that there are a few really damned good pop songs here. At the risk of repeating myself, just as with last week’s Beth Orton record, he’s at his best when he makes sure that a song doesn’t outstay its welcome. There was, after all, a time when the six minutes of Bohemian Rhapsody was considered to be extraordinarily long for a pop song, and yet here there are three tracks that come in over the six minute mark and only one of those which really makes use of its length.

Highlights: Zombie, Boogie Man, Me and Your Mama

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