The music of minute three starts deep in the realms of experimental pop, journeys through the world of half-joking R&B, and finally lands in the midsts of one of the most politically-charged though ironically-soothing classics of soul. Each of these albums are (or were) a surprise for the listener.
Jesse Lanza crafts a beautiful, familiar electronic intro to Oh No and then shows us her real vision through the use of many unfamiliar sounds. Har Mar Superstar may look like a straight-up comedy act, but image aside, Bye Bye 17 is one of the best R&B records of 2013. Finally, Marvin Gaye broke the mold of the powerhouse Motown label with the highly political and sonically divergent What's Going On. I encourage you to indulge in your preconceptions and watch them evaporate as you listen to these three records.
New Music: Jessy Lanza - Oh No
A spacey, stringey synth opens Jesse Lanza's latest release, Oh No, followed by a single, cleanly sung chorus on the introductory track. It's a kind of overture that introduces us to the backbone of the album: masterful synth pop with smooth, siren-like vocals. However, the sassy, spoken line ("I say it to your face but it doesn't mean a thing") that opens the follow up, "VV Violence", is the first sign that Lanza has many more layers of paint to add to this canvas.
While vintage synthesizers and eighties drums are present throughout, we also find Funk influences, tension-building A Capella, and even Donna Summer-esque orgasm sounds. Oh No is a more nuanced and artful pop offering than the equally valuable, but preeminently accessible records of artists like Ariana Grande and Carli Rae Jepsen. It's the thesis of a scholar of pop music rather than the new product from the established vendors of the genre.
Ten From Back Then: Har Mar Superstar - Bye Bye 17
Whenever I introduce people to Har Mar Superstar (Sean Tillman), I make sure to show them a picture like this or this. His image is as much a part of his appeal as his music. At first, you might think he's an ironic party boy who writes dance songs about beer and threesomes. While he's been there and it's great, Bye Bye 17 is, to most people's surprise, a bubbly feel-good R&B record with a talented backing band.
The lead single "Lady You Shot Me", like many others, is an effusive love song that shows off Tillman's incredible voice. Har Mar has mastered this type of material - he is a songwriter for some pretty big pop acts. In addition, he works in some pretty out-there subject matter, like in "Please Don't Make Me Hit You", where he pleads to his lover to drop the kinky stuff.
As good as the record is, the best way to enjoy Har Mar is at a live show, which usually includes gradual removal of his clothes and often singing while standing on his head. If you like fun, check it out (he tours constantly). If you don't like fun, but do like R&B, don't judge this book by its cover.
Classic You Should Know: Marvin Gaye - What's Going On
What's Going On is a turning point for Marvin Gaye. His previous records, great as they were, were more-or-less standard Motown releases. Fueled by depression and influenced by the complex artistic works of records like Pet Sounds and Seargent Pepper, Gaye challenged the Motown machine with his first self-produced and highly-political album. Without the changes first heard on What's Going On, Gaye might have been no more revered than a swath of other cookie-cutter Motown acts.
What's Going On strays from the norm in two general areas. First, the sound. Instead of the tambourines and big horn sections most Motown artists relied on, Gaye uses a unique collection of instruments (vibraphone, bongos, strings, a single saxophone, a treble-heavy guitar, and of course Gaye's soothing-but-desperate voice) which is present in full on almost every track. The characteristic sound set Gaye's production apart from Motown's mainstays.
The second innovation is lyrical. The album revolves around a returned Vietnam veteran and deals with a number of issues including war, drug use, and environmental decay. When Gaye pitched the album, Motown executives were sure that people would not buy such a politically-charged album. Regardless, Gaye pushed it through and released what ended up being one of the most acclaimed albums of the Motown era.