Thursday, September 26, 2013

Janelle Monae's The Electric Lady on CD

When I think of 2010, I think of two albums--The Black Keys' Brothers and Janelle Monae's The ArchAndroid. I stuck both of them in the CD player in my car and they didn't leave for the entire year. Since I spent a lot of 2010 driving, those two albums are engrained in my brain for the rest of my life. Even on my death bed I'll remember every note, every syllable. It was no secret to me that I'd enjoy Brothers--I heard "Tighten Up" on the local Austin radio station and instantly fell in love. Janelle Monae was more of an unknown quantity to me. I'm not the biggest contemporary R&B fan in the world. After seeing the amazing, catchy "Tightrope" video on YouTube, however, I decided to take a chance.

While it took a few listens for it to sink in, The ArchAndroid eventually snuck its way into my heart and became my favorite album of the year. (Brothers, of course, came in second.) An epic and incredibly ambitious concept album about an android named Cindy Mayweather who is sent back to the past (our present time) to free the citizens of Metropolis (yes, this is inspired by the 1927 film) and winds up in an Atlanta asylum named The Palace of the Dogs, The ArchAndroid is a wild, genre-leaping journey that soars from modern R&B to psychedelic '60s rock to James Brown to quirky indie rock to Mancini-esque tropical torch to Clair de Lune. By the time the album is over--and I felt compelled to listen to it from beginning to end on several dozen occasions--I always felt simultaneously exhausted and exhilirated, like I just finished a really wonderful book. There's no other album in my music collection that's remotely like this one.

Suffice it to say, I had very high expectations when the follow-up, The Electric Lady, was released last week. Lady picks up the story where The ArchAndroid left off--it contains Suites IV and V to The ArchAndroid's Suites II and III. You might be asking yourself, "Where's Suite I?" That's contained in the 2007 EP Metropolis, which wasn't really noticed until The ArchAndroid became a hit. That's too bad--the EP is every bit as good as its follow-up; in fact, "Sincerely, Jane" might be my favorite Janelle Monae song of all (yes, even more than "Tightrope"). Now whenever I have the hankering to listen to Janelle Monae, I have to play Suites I-III in one big uninterrupted hunk.

You might suspect by now that I'm not as gobsmacked by The Electric Lady since I keep finding a reason to talk about the first two albums. You might be right. On first listen, my impression was that Janelle's penchant for playing musical leapfrog was over, and that she was settling into her career as a contemporary R&B singer. Apparently as the Cindy Mayweather Saga continues, this lovely android starts to mature and realize it's better to stay safe, fall in love and be happy than to free the masses from the Great Divide. After the first two or three listens I tried to reserve final judgment on the album--even The ArchAndroid starts off with three or four fairly conventional R&B songs and doesn't really kick into gear until "Cold War" and "Tightrope" make their auspicious appearances. That's when the album gets airborne, and it never comes back down to Earth.

It took a few more listens, and now the songs are starting to differentiate and bloom. "We Were Rock and Roll," one of the album's first singles, is an impassioned, ultra-serious plea for a return to the innocence and excitement of our musioal past, all set to an amazingly addictive disco/funk backdrop that would be right at home on the Jackie Brown soundtrack album. In fact, it might be Janelle's tribute to Diana Ross, just as "Tightrope" was a tribute to James Brown. "Look Into My Eyes" is a gorgeous torch song that's sort of a hybrid between the lush, tropical "BebopbyeYa" and the sultry spy-movie motif of "Sincerely, Jane." Even her duet with Prince, "Givin Em What They Love" is as sexy and daring as, well, a really good Prince song. "Victory" is one of those songs that may seem conventional and ordinary on the surface--but listen closely and you'll be treated to one of Janelle's greatest vocal performances ever.

Another minor complaint is that The Electric Lady seems less tied to its futuristic themes than its predecessors, and doesn't follow the linear narrative of The ArchAndroid. Janelle did reveal in a recent review that The Electric Lady is actually a prequel to The ArchAndroid, which is probably why it doesn't seem to push Cindy Mayweather's adventure forward. Janae's also announced that there will be a Suite VI and VII, the finale, so perhaps the story will again take precedence. Then again, the sci-fi plot has always been merely the icing on the cake. The real story has been, and contionues to be, about this incredibly talented young woman, still in her mid-twenties, who has a beautiful voice for the ages, an imagination that won't quit and a vision that still stretches way beyond the horizon.

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