The Critic’s Conundrum Part II: Ra Ra Riot’s The Rhumb Line

Guest post by Dave Arey

If there’s one rule in music criticism, it’s that everyone loves a good story. As much as things should be about the music, they rarely are.

Ra Ra Riot has had a good couple weeks following the August 19 release of The Rhumb Line. The album currently has a score of 78 on Metacritic, including a four-star review from Rolling Stone.

Some of this praise is well-deserved; The Rhumb Line is certainly an intriguing effort from an up-and-coming band. However, if you read any of the band’s positive press, it’s hard to ignore the drowning death of drummer/co-songwriter John Pike, and how it has profoundly affected the band’s coverage.

Pike’s story is one that music critics are sure to jump on. For one thing, it’s certainly unique – not every band deals with members who die prematurely. It also provides a specific way for critics to interpret The Rhumb Line.

Consider “Dying Is Fine.”  Even though the album can be seen as a eulogy for Pike, “Dying is Fine” was written far before his death — and as such it looks toward the future, not the past:

No more of this living dying
Just scientific analyzing
Forgive us oh life
The sin of

Death oh baby
You know that dying is fine but maybe
I wouldn’t like death if death were good
Not even if death were good

There are a few different things going on here, and they have very little to do with physical death. On one hand, “Dying is Fine” borrows liberally from an e.e. cummings poem (even the “oh baby” is directly taken). That means that the song is a shout-out to Cummings, and it also comes with some sense of detachment, since the sentiment being expressed came from someone else first.

Also, there is a clear division between “dying” and “death,” the former being physical but the latter being spiritual. Physical death wouldn’t be a big deal, since it’s bound to happen. Spiritual death, on the other hand, is something worth fearing.

In the end, “Dying Is Fine” is really about a common theme — living life to the fullest and doing what you want without fear. Physical death is, as Cummings said in his poem, “perfectly natural.” There’s nothing you can do about it. The only thing you can change is how you live. So do what you want and stop thinking about it.

Given what happened to Pike, any song with the word “dying” in it is going to recall vivid (and obvious) images. However, if you divorce the song’s lyrics from the story behind the album, you could just as easily see it as an expression of someone’s hopes and fears and questions about the future. Pike’s death took a complicated song and gave it a simple explanation.

MP3: Ra Ra Riot – “Dying Is Fine”

Hip-Hop Wisdom: When the Stars Come Out on “Swagger Like Us” … T.I. Shines?!

King or not, T.I. essentially gets bottom billing on his single “Swagger Like Us,” which also features Kanye West, Lil Wayne, and Jay-Z. Ridiculous, right? And yet Mr. Candle Guy still steals the scene.

Kanye sports a memorable line or two, with: “I know I got it first / I’m Christopher Columbus, y’all just the pilgrims.” But with the mixtape-style beat he jacked from M.I.A., the producer still comes off a bit lackluster. Meanwhile Jay-Z just raps about stacks of money (“Can’t wear skinny jeans ’cause my knots don’t fit”), and Lil Wayne is still using that effing autotune effect. Enter T.I.:

You go see Weezy for the wordplay
Jeezy for the birdplay
Kanyeezy for diversity
And me for controversy

Though more compliment than kiss-off, T.I.’s opening salvo establishes him as the ace in this star-studded deck. His three colleagues have their uses, he’s saying, but by distilling each to a couple words he cuts them down to size while aggrandizing himself. If nothing else, T.I. puts himself on the same level as Jay-Z, Kanye, and Wayne — an impressive feat in itself.

MP3: T.I. – “Swagger Like Us” (feat. Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Lil Wayne)

Hip-Hop Wisdom: Beat Juice in Four Words, Lil Wayne’s “Cannon”

“Cannon,” the near-legendary cut from Lil Wayne’s Dedication 2 mixtape, is stunning through and through — possibly the best use of guest verses this decade. Every rapper — Wayne, Freeway, Detroit Red, Willie the Kid, and Juice — puts in a couple knockout punches. It’s like watching the Harlem Globetrotters as they toy with the “cannon” sample, shooting behind their backs, dribbling between their legs. But the most quietly impressive trick comes from Juice, tucked away until you think the last verse is over:

I’m hot, they fannin’

That’s it; four words. Can anyone beat that? “Fuck you, pay me” gets thrown around a lot, but that’s from Goodfellas. Surprisingly, the best that comes to mind is from Kanye West, who in the song “Two Words” spits:

I am limelight
Blueprint, five mics

In three words he points to his biggest success (at the time) and the pretty irrefutable cred that comes with The Blueprint getting The Source‘s perfect five-mic rating. The list of albums sharing that honor includes the saints of the hip-hop canon: Run-D.M.C., Straight Outta Compton, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), The Chronic, Illmatic, and Aquemeni, just to name a few.

So: Who else has achieved such perfection in four words or less? Readers, I need your help on this one.

MP3: Lil Wayne – “Cannon” (feat. Freeway, Detroit Red, Willie the Kid, and Juice)

Roger Miller’s “Reincarnation”: Love, Religion, and the Afterlife

Guest post by Dave Arey

I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of reincarnation, even though I seriously doubt it’s possible. My curiosity stems from the birth of the idea itself and what it means about humans. If religion is seen as an expression of our hopes and fears, then reincarnation expresses our fear of death. If there was some way to avoid death, we’d take it — even if we didn’t know what was on the other side.

Most people think of reincarnation as a positive idea. However, the Roger Miller song “Reincarnation” presents a completely different picture of it. It starts out as a funny little idea for a love song; what if we weren’t human? Would we still love each other?

If I was a bird and you was a fish
What would we do, I guess we’d wish for
Reincarnation, reincarnation

In this verse reincarnation is a positive thing. In the second verse, Miller calls it a “power” — in this case, a supernatural way to right wrongs. It’s also a somewhat cheesy way of saying you love someone so much that you’re willing to wait a lifetime for them.

Then the third verse completely changes the meaning:

I love you, and don’t you know I always will
You’re a girl, I’m a boy,
But suppose you were a rose
And I was a whip-poor-will

This is a great verse, not just for the use of the word “whip-poor-will” (which surprisingly shows up in a lot of country music; check out “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams or “Deeper Than the Holler” by Randy Travis). The examples Miller chooses are effective because they actually make you think. Could you muster some sort of emotion toward a flower or small bird? It’s a tough question — far tougher than if he had used a dog or cat (or, conversely, a cockroach).

This verse shows that reincarnation is not necessarily a good thing. Sure, we all want to live forever, but is turning into a small animal or inanimate object what we mean? Is living enough, or would we have to hold onto the things that make us human?

Here’s Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy covering the song during a solo show.

MP3: Jeff Tweedy – “Reincarnation” (Roger Miller cover)

Paint It Black: Black Kids and Black Eyed Peas

The Black Kids’ aggressively catchy debut, Partie Traumatic, isn’t shy about finding fun through formula. Its influences are tried, true, and in clear focus: synthy ’80s references (a la the Killers), Springsteenian epicness (Killers again), hypersexed dance rhythms (CSS), and boy-girl shoutalong choruses (Arcade Fire, Tilly and the Wall, and a host of others).

But lyrically, “Listen to Your Body” bears resemblances to some touchstones that are even more mainstream. Look at these couplets, aggrandizing like a puffy-chested tween boy and awkwardly sexy like a 12-year-old trying on her first “sexy” Halloween costume:

Yes you was tryin’a hex me / All tellin’ me I’m sexy

So now you’re in my bedroom / All talking bout some boom boom
But you really shouldn’t assume / ‘Cause my man’s coming home soon
He tryn’a have a rival / Best stick to your survival
Ain’t tryn’a be liable / I swear it on the Bible

Note the pseudo hip-hop phrasing that doesn’t quite fit the syllables (like the emphasis on “AH-summe”) and the sore-thumb word choices of “hex me” and “liable.” Brings to mind another gem — Black Eyed Peas “My Humps.”

I drive these brothers crazy / I do it on the daily
They treat me really nicely / They buy me all these icies

Awkward, right? Plus, both songs use the same “sexy” and “dance next to me” rhyme.

What’s to glean from all this? Maybe nothing. Maybe just that hip-hop’s reach seeps far into popular music. Maybe that it’s only a matter of time before Black Kids show up on Now That’s What I Call Indie Rock! comp.

But if nothing else, it shows that these Kids from Florida just wanna have fun.

MP3: Black Kids – “Listen to Your Body”