Free Funk for All

Quebec’s very own Leonard Cohen. Crescent St., Montreal.

There is something satisfying about turning a corner in a grid of unremarkable buildings—offices, laundromats, Chinese takeouts, utilitarian staples—when a mural pounces out of the greyness. Proud of its hiding spot? I doubt it; a mural is not meant to shy away from eyes. It’s an indication that a city has decided it no longer needs to quarantine its art to funky neighborhoods. Free funk for all.

I considered such thoughts during my last visit to Montreal. Of course, one would expect vibrant murals adorning the buildings along Rue Sainte-Catherine, where college students put away bowls of inexpensive Vietnamese noodles and plates of Turkish lahmacun. But it seemed wherever I went in the city, murals were never off limits.

Just as a billboard paid for by the highest bidder was not chosen by the people of the neighborhood in which the billboard blares its advert, the art was most likely not chosen by local committee either. The murals may not be to everyone’s liking, but, in a way, the artwork evens the playing field of what is in view on a walk around the city. Here are some of my favorites from that August, 2019 visit. Note that over time, some of all of these murals will disappear and yield to new murals. A city inhaling, exhaling, living. Trying on new hats. Distilling recent thoughts and feelings. Or, just because it wants something new.

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Fake Me Out, Please


Fake meat has come a long way. And the curiously bleeding fake beef from Impossible Foods has taken a lead in this revolution, graduating from placement at a few tester restaurants here and there to nationwide availability at Burger King, arriving later this year.

Over the weekend, I tried 5 Napkin Burger’s version of the Impossible Burger, with lettuce, tomato, pickles, swiss cheese, and their mustard aioli (a.k.a. “burger sauce”). The patty arrived surprisingly charred like beef, an upgrade from my last encounter with Impossible beef a few years back, where the charring more closely resembled that of the outer crust of falafel. Unfortunately, the burger was well done — I had forgotten to ask for it to be cooked to medium. Then again, having the option to request doneness for a fake beef burger indicates what fake meat has achieved.

But my mistake had uncovered another similarity between Impossible meat and real beef: they both lose their precious juice and become disappointingly dry when overcooked (that is, cooked to well done). Despite the less than stellar dining experience, I’ll chalk this similarity up as a win for fake meat.

Priced the same as beef burger, 5 Napkin Burger seems to be going after carnivores as well as vegetarians. Both should be satisfied, so long as they remember to ask for their favorite cooking temperature.

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Did Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s latest album, Sex & Food, get accidentally political?

Does the extra fuzzy guitar on “American Guilt” usher in a new direction for UMO? Does singer Ruban Nielson put a potato sack over his head before he records his vocal tracks, or does he just make it sound that way during editing? Does asking too many questions like this count as clickbait? I attempt to answer these questions (except the last one) over at Cultured Vultures.

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Jack White Shakes up Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Result is a Beautiful Nightmare

In the popular music of today, guitar solos seem to have become an endangered species. That’s because the instrument itself seems to have become an endangered species in this current landscape dominated by hip-hop, dance pop, and electronic-driven work. As expected, Jack White’s latest album, Boarding House Reach, contains plenty of White’s luscious guitar riffs and solos high in the mixes. But this time, they coexist in a rhythmic sea of hip-hop, spoken word, funk, and country. Did Jack White just save rock ‘n’ roll by adapting it, or did his experimentation go a genre too far?

I explore the matter in my first piece for Global Comment: Genre, Gender, and Class Tumble in Jack White’s Sonic Blender.

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A window into Charlotte Gainsbourg’s mind

With her new release, Rest, Charlotte Gainsbourg now considers herself what she refers to as a “proper writer.” For the first time, she has written her own lyrics. Her collaborators on her previous three studio albums had taken care of all lyrical and songwriting duties, with the exception of one track she co-wrote with Beck on her 2009 release, IRM. While she was working on Rest, Charlotte Gainsbourg revealed to Mojo that Beck, during the IRM sessions, had offered a simple yet insightful nugget of advice for hurling oneself into the waters of songwriting: “You have to write the worst song ever, and that’s how you start.”

Thankfully, her worst song ever does not appear on Rest. Instead, the veteran actress (Antichrist, Prête-moi ta main, Nymphomaniac) sings her bilingual French and English lyrics, distilled from her diaries, to the techno, house, and ambient beats of French electronic artist Sebastian Akchoté, creating a pleasantly dynamic yet poignantly personal work that showcases Gainsbourg’s vocal versatility. Akchoté must have taken notes on how Gainsbourg’s vocals on her 2006 release, 5:55, written by Air and Jarvis Cocker, occasionally fell into an awkward placement atop the band’s downtempo tracks, where Gainsbourg was unable to break out of a breathy delivery. Likewise, Akchoté must have also been informed by the sweet alchemy Gainsbourg and Beck had struck on IRM, with Beck’s braiding of singer-songwriter hooks and irresistible electro-indie rhythms allowing Gainsbourg to offer her own version of punchy French 60s yé-yé (albeit in English) as well as an injection of sexy edginess into her breathiness, creating a delightful contradiction.

The contradictions on Rest are less subtle. Gainsbourg recalls standing by her father’s dead body as the sound of nails driven into the coffin remains with her in “Lying with you,” while a driving drum machine and haunting keyboard lines, reminiscent of a late 70s Tangerine Dream groove, creates a darkness that lurks just beneath a glossy veneer of pop.

In contrast, Gainsbourg lays bare her grief in “Kate,” in which she reflects on the life of her half-sister who died in an apparent suicide. Akchoté opts for a sparser electronic pulse as Gainsbourg pushes through sorrow with a powerful angelic voice (“On the way to school / You were singing your idols” builds up to “A soul too tender” and “Lost forever”). With majestic, string-soaked turnarounds that sound as if they nod to Sufjan Stevens, Akchoté sharpens the edge of emotion with a touch of distortion on Gainsbourg’s vocals.

The infectious and dancefloor-ready “Deadly Valentine” reveals a recitation of wedding vows, perhaps representing her devotion to her long-standing partner, the actor and director Yvan Attal, in place of a legal marriage owing to her avoidance of the institution. While Akchoté managed to make all 23 brief tracks on his 2011 release Total sound and feel unique, Akchoté must have known he had hit on a killer groove for Gainsbourg’s “Deadly Valentine,” enough to lay down an almost interchangeable chorus for “Sylvia Says.” Thankfully, Gainsbourg brings a fresh tone and flavor to each to keep them distinctive and, fortunately, both tracks are not back to back on the CD (for us old-school folks who still play albums from start to finish).

Gainsbourg takes us for a gentle jaunt into French nouvelle chanson on “Dans Vos Airs.” While a comparison to Coralie Clement may be tempting, Gainsbourg’s own breathy coffeehouse delivery possesses too much body to be mistaken for the airy whispers of the former.

On “Songbird in a cage,” the only track whose lyrics Gainsbourg did not pen (Paul McCartney wrote the song for her some years back and also played guitars, piano, and drums on the track), Gainsbourg deftly alternates between yé-yé half-shouts on verses and silky Phantogram-esque choruses. Rounding out the top-shelf guest appearances Gainsbourg secured for the album, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo of Daft Punk wrote the sparse, spacy music of the title track that dovetails well with Gainsbourg’s sensual dreamscape (“Stay with me, please / Do not let me forget you / Take my hand, secretly / I’ll let you fly me away”).

While the bare leg that pops “out of the sheet without shame and cold blood” during “Lying with You” belongs to the French singer, songwriter, and provocateur Serge Gainsbourg, his daughter has shown that while she was born from entertainment royalty (the British actress and singer Jane Birkin is her mother), she has carved out her own career and style, despite living in such tall shadows. Many fans of her father have expected to hear his daughter write and sing songs like his to satisfy their fix after Serge’s untimely death in 1991. While the Serge effect is unmistakable on Rest, especially in “Les Crocodiles,” with a confidence-oozing spoken narration, a buildup of strings, and a dry snare seemingly sampled from Histoire de Melody Nelson and only slightly fattened up, such details don’t spell out a mini-me Serge imitation. Rather, they form a tribute pulled sparingly from a songwriting toolset when the timing was right. And no one is better prepared for such a tribute than Serge’s own offspring.

After sharing thoughts on a visit to her sister’s grave in “Les Oxalis,” the final track, Gainsbourg attempts to lighten up the ambience with a hidden track containing an auto-tuned recording of her daughter singing the alphabet song, put to a stock electronic beat. Most likely, the idea behind the track—besides underscoring the continuing cycle of death and life—was that a singing child can put a smile on just about anyone’s face. Unfortunately, the track comes off as sounding like knob-nerd studio experimentation.

While Rest loses some ground compared to the instant catchiness of IRM, Gainsbourg’s own words make her new album her most vital to date. The album’s brave reflection on grief, melded with a beat-driven physique, creates a compelling and rewarding opus that reveals a deep connection between the artist and her work, something her fans (myself included) have been waiting for.

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