Welcome, time-crunched and over-stimulated music fan, to All Shook Down's High Five -- a place where Byard Duncan wades through the shit to find you the hits. Well, five of them, anyway.
This week's selections often seem to work at cross-purposes with themselves -- a positive message nestled behind a doomy name, buoyant instrumentation supporting sarcastic lyrics. In fact, each track's strength is derived in part from its capacity for embracing paradox. These are challenging tracks in that respect, but the rewards are worth rooting around for.
Chance the Rapper - "Favorite Song"
It would be a crime to not lead off this week's installment with Chance the Rapper, whose "Acid Rap" mixtape pretty much nuked the music blogosphere's collective attention last week. The latest in a series of genre-sponging hip-hop artisans, Chance enjoys the dual benefit of being dauntingly young (just 20) and lushly produced. This support seems to imbue him with a boastful disregard for temporal limits: He flits, for example, between references to "three retweets" and to an album that "sounds like '92." What he lacks in clarity of purpose he makes up for in dexterity and style; his voice -- nasal, insistent -- can be warped, on a dime, into something silky and melodic.
"Favorite Song" is vertiginous and calypso-laced, and acts as a sort of formal introduction: Chance as the "cocky khaki jacket jacker," Chance as the "Laffy Taffy jolly raunchy rapper." It's easy to get lost in the sonic colors here -- the puns and plosives, the verse fragments that are at once nonsensical and striking ("Fuck all the faculty/ Tobacco-packing acrobat"). But getting lost is part of the fun.
Dead Gaze - "Fight Til It's Dead" (via Soundcloud)
You shouldn't expect cheery proclamations from a song called "Fight Til It's Dead" -- nor, for that matter, from a band called "Dead Gaze." Unfettered cynicism, after all, is hardly the proper tool for conveying serious shit about love and perseverance and other G-rated topics. Yet "Fight Til It's Dead" is radiant precisely because it's consciously entrenched in certain harsh realities. At times, it's even tongue-in-cheek about them: "Don't let the world hold you down," frontman R. Cole Furlow sings. "Kick it while it's down." At other times, the song is unflinchingly earnest: "With the door wide open, the wind hits our face/ It makes us believe in a god." Set against a chugging, semi-sweet arrangement, the lyrics act like a fleck of sunlight piercing a cluster of curdled storm clouds.
Wild Nothing - "Dancing Shell"
If Dead Gaze's lyrics urge the listener to grit her teeth and plunge forward through life's veritable slalom of bullshit, Wild Nothing's "Dancing Shell" is a glimpse of total surrender. The words are submissive to the point of hyperbole and sung in an unsettling narco-fugue: "I have no feelings/ I have no thoughts/ I have to make you love me/ Watch me, watch me." Though the irony is apparent here, there's something to be said for such biting ventriloquism. "Dancing Shell" examines our obsessions, then picks them apart, guts and all, till we're forced to look away. Plus, bonus points for one of the most warped sax solos on record.
NONONO - "Down Under"
Will we ever tire of the honey-voiced Swedish electro-pop chanteuse? Not this week, dear readers, and probably not next week either. "Down Under," as its name suggests, plumbs deep emotional fissures in search of "something real." Never mind that the song's hiccups, tinkles, and swells are about as far as you can get from what is traditionally considered "natural"; the lyrics do most of the heavy lifting here: "What's that sound I hear down under? Is it your heart? Is it just thunder?"
Frances Cone - "Long Way Down"
Owing its textures and shuffling feel to Fiona Apple's "Paper Bag," "Long Way Down" is at once perky and sultry, pleasant and haunting. These may seem like paradoxes, but if Cone's voice is any indication, she's more than comfortable mixing sonic chemicals and watching the resultant bubbly eruption. In less than three minutes, you get a breathy falsetto with a sandpaper upper edge, a thick lower register, and plea after howled, buttery plea. Beneath it all is a masterful arrangement with (surprise!) textures that you wouldn't guess meshed: A little surf guitar here, a swell of whistling organ there. Beautiful. Mournful. Bright. All of the above.