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Entries in brittany julious (22)

Thursday
Feb282013

In Which She Stopped Attending Years Ago

When Will You Come Home?

by BRITTANY JULIOUS

I

We don't talk about status. We pretend that we are black like everyone else and that we are still "real." But our conversations over holiday dinners acknowledge the separation. There's a lot of "them" and and a lot of "us." Blackness is not a monolithic culture. I know this inherently as a woman whose tastes run counter to what I've been told I should like. These tastes were not a choice to be different, but the things that shaped me as an individual. They continue to evolve and so too does the notion of blackness. 
 
I think of this in relation to my parents, my family, and our summer holidays together. Fourth of July or Memorial Day barbecues were a way to connect to the other side of the family that didn't live in the suburbs and live like we lived. My sister stopped attending years ago, first due to her job, then college, then friendships and adulthood. But I always went, in the back of my mind feeling like these trips down to the South Side were a means of rectifying the wrongs of breaking away from the community. 

II

This summer, my mother called from her car. She was outside of my new apartment, ready to pick me up so we could ride together to join the other side of the family for the Fourth. 
 
"It's not happening," she said. 
 
"What does that mean?" I asked. 
 
"It means they celebrated and didn't tell us. It means we're not going down there." 
 
There was a visible anger in the tenseness of her body and the direct stare she gave me as I entered her car. I sat in the passenger seat as we drove to Oak Park.  

"I knew this would eventually happen. This is so like them. This is what they do," she said.

What they do is stay down South. They like where they live. This is their home, their streets and sidewalks. This confused me as a child, but as I've grown older, I've understood the symbolism and importance based on where one lives. Place holds meaning and meaning changes with age and time.  

What we do is take the expressway past Chinatown and Bridgeport and straight to the neighborhoods that "blend together." I went to school on the north side of Chicago. Years later, I still live up here. When I discuss this part of the city, I break things down by neighborhoods, official and emerging. I live in Wicker Park. I live in the East Village. I live in West Town. I live in Ukrainian Village. These names encompass large areas and then smaller groups of streets. But to me and to many Chicagoans, this makes sense in a way that saying Back of the Yards or the South Shore may not. Everything is just the South Side past 35th street. This is not the reality, but place also builds stereotypes and laziness. It is easier to dismiss than understand. 

III

Our new part of town, the South Side of Oak Park, was about the same in terms of beauty. We lived off of a major avenue filled with boxed businesses that attracted temporary visitors. Before, we had a run-down Dominick's, a Subway, and a Blockbuster. Now we had a Walgreen's, a car dealership,and a laundromat. 

Our blackness existed on the other side of town. Blackness as a whole existed on the other side of town. The Austin neighborhood, predominately Black and predominately troubled, was across the street. We lived over there too, nearly two decades ago, but I still claim the vast, cold, and penetrating neighborhood as my own. 

When I mention Austin to New Chicagoans, they don't understand. It is a part of the city that is not: is not nice, is not new, and is not desirable. It is not where they live and walk and ride. It is the city that is vast and the city that we tend to forget about, or the city that we ignore.  

My memories are of my grandmother's living room, the expansive backyard, and the few friends I made on the street where my grandparents live. To the Chicagoans who were born and bred here, a mention of Austin is a point of fear and respect. Even they don't meet a lot of people from that side of the city. It shuts them up. There is no question of authenticity. It is an unknown Chicago, and therefore a respectable one. It is not for tourists, but people live and work here. They have done so for years and will continue to do so.  

The other Oak Park was no less beautiful, but the residents were largely black and they moved into that part of town perhaps because they could see faces like their own. Or maybe, as my parents did when we first "crossed the street," to be close to the place they were before. That part of Oak Park was a reminder of that part of Chicago. It was a reminder of where they came from, where they're going, and the structure of this city. 
 
On Madison Avenue, past Taylor Boulevard is where the Black businesses begin. They are not always Black-owned, but they cater to the Black customer, and in particular, the Black woman. A number of beauty supply stores sit next to and across the street from one another. They are always large and always packed, but I've grown to love them the older I get for their convenience and comforting familiarity. I can always find heavy, curly wigs or tiny bottles of neon-colored nail polish or make-up that is sustainable for exactly one day. No one store is owned by the same person, but you can walk into any and find your way around with ease.  

I came home during the holidays and I pointed out the new beauty supply store across the street. It was the first such business to exist outside of the segregated neighborhoods this town pretends don't exist. It was a bid deal, at least to me, and symbolic in its arrival. It took over an old pharmacy. Neon lights shine long into the night. This store, this space for this particular culture that I know and participate in, but does not define me, surprised me.  

My mother hadn't noticed it, or perhaps she blocked out its existence along with the new cheap shoe store, the other hair braiding salon just a few doors down from the one she's gone to for years, and the low-income housing apartments being constructed from the long-dormant remnants of a local cable company.  

These spaces were empty before, a true dimming on the small community within the local community inside of the town. But it is these new businesses that inspire a fear of change. It is a gentrification of the dilapidation that arose from the break in the economy. It is a renewal. It is an expansion of what it means to live here on this side of town and in the town as a whole. It's not just us anymore.  

At first she said, "You know what kind of store that'll be," but last week, the lights were on and the doors were open.  

"There are mannequins in the windows, modeling clothes," I pointed out as we drove down the street.  

"Hmm," she said. "That's unexpected. Maybe it won't be that bad."

Brittany Julious is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find the first part of this series here.

Photographs by the author.

"Thank You" - Dolly Varden (mp3)

"Why Why Why" - Dolly Varden (mp3)

Tuesday
Jan292013

In Which We Recall It At A Moment's Notice

The New York Review of Hooks Vol. 6

by BRITTANY JULIOUS

Party Girl breaks through every few years because it has to. Whether it is Parker Posey's perfect humor, the fashion, or the snapshot of a forgotten New York, the film continues to impact new audiences for its perfect combination of the outdated and the timeless. In the end, the movie is a coming of age story about a twenty-something woman in a big city, a plot that is straightforward and always memorable. But for many fans, the music is what is most memorable.

Earlier this month Peace Biscuit re-released the film's soundtrack as a free download. Listening to the two volumes was a pleasurable representation of the eclecticism and charms of the film, but what has always stuck out in my mind was a scene toward the latter half of the film in which Mary (Parker Posey) organized Leo's (Guillermo Diaz) 1000+ record collection using the Dewey Decimal system. After a momentary fit of anger, Mary helps Leo find the records he needs to use for his set at Renee's, the "hottest" club in the city. In a classic moment of music fandom, Leo begins to shoot off names that were, have become, and continue to be legends: Grace Jones, Tom Tom Club, Parliament, Madonna, Erik B. & Rakim. It is not just the way that Leo recites the list. It is the fact that he has one and that he can recite it so quickly. Like any true music fan, what he needs at any given moment can be recalled at a moment's notice.

"& It Was U" - How to Dress Well (mp3)

"Set It Right" - How to Dress Well (mp3)

How to Dress Well gave the performance of his career and I missed it. His live performance was even more profound than his latest album, Total Loss, as audiences were able to understand and witness the layers of change and death that proved invaluable in the creation of this latest record. Or so I heard. I don’t doubt the claims. I only wish to have been there during this show, on the South Side of Chicago, in mid-December, in order to be immersed in a sound that already sounds extravagant and lovely through tinny speakers.

In interviews musician Tom Krell described the music for this album as a reaction to immense loss in his own life. It was, "dealing with the initial shock, anger, misery and pain, then working it through in my music." This pain is present, heavy, and soul-shattering. The first time I began to listen to the record, I had to stop not because I could definitely relate to his pain, but because it sounded so direct and impenetrable. Total Loss sounds like an intrusion on Krell's mind, his tears, and his anger. And yet, it is because of the rawness of the record that it is so powerful and damn good.

"Set it Right" in particular is a stand-out track. It's brutal both in lyricism and instrumentation. Compared to lighter, lovelier-sounding tracks such as "& It Was U" or "Running Back," "Set it Back" is direct in it's yearning. Krell sings about the people he misses – friends, loves – and the desperation is palpable. In that sense, we have been there. We have all been there.

"London" - Ofei (mp3)

In recent months, this sort of musical earnestness has become the norm for a variety of musicians of different levels of popularity. In particular, I'm thinking of musicians Oppaa, Mmoths and Ofei. All three released songs that have elements that sound as if the songs were created in tandem with each other. Oppaa's "N'questia," is a step forward from an earlier single he (W.B. Allen) released nearly a year ago. Built on rich samples, a steady beat, and vocals that highlight a smooth melody, "N'questia" sounds immediately familiar and comforting. It's the sort of song that is pleasant and sophisticated. In contrast, Ofei's "London" sounds bare and stark, but still packs an emotional punch. Likewise, in producer Mmoths' new single, "For Her" featuring vocalist Young & Sick, the rhythm is steady. The melody is crisp. The lyrics are mournful. If you are a young man looking to talk about your feelings, now is as good of a time as ever.

Earlier this week, when the temperature dropped to near zero in Chicago, I tweeted "Kate Bush Weather" because I knew instinctively what was needed to complement the brutal weather. There is not an iciness, but an isolation in Bush's music that seems right for the brutality of winter. It's just right for both hours spent at home in hibernation and also for those quick jaunts on near-abandoned streets and roads. I don't know if her music would work as well during this time in a heated car. Walking alone, facing the elements head on, her work seems just right.

"Billions" - JoJo (mp3)

"Thinking Out Loud" - JoJo (mp3)

While not as openly and directly earnest as the musicians mentioned earlier, JoJo's new mixtape, Agape, is driven by a desire to create music that speaks to her various influences and cultural background. JoJo is a Boston girl and she slips in bits and pieces of her hometown and heritage through skits that sound taken from the back of a local local pub. More importantly, on songs such as "Take the Canyon" and "Billions," JoJo gets to focus on what made her such a compelling pop star in the first place: her strong, soulful vocals.

Last year, The FADER suggested that Craig David was "having a moment." Even before the perfect remixes by Ryan Hemsworth and Sango of his early single, “Fill Me In,” the past stylistic choices of David's music was evident in singles by Disclosure and Bondax. When I mention David's stylistic choices, what I mean is the way in which he combined elements of the underground with the mainstream to create an effect that was immediately charismatic and memorable. Besides emerging crossover artists, other more established mainstream acts such as Usher broke through again to radio listeners who perhaps don't listen to the radio. Last year’s “Climax” was a testament to restraint and perhaps a precursor to the latter half of 2012 and music in 2013.

"Nuclear" - Destiny's Child (mp3)

"Suit & Tie" - Justin Timberlake (mp3)

There was not a lot to love on the surface when listening to Justin Timberlake's new single. It wasn't just that it sounded different than anything else out now. It sounded old. It sounded lost. I listened to 2006's FutureSex/LoveSounds in anticipation of the song and was thoroughly disappointed by the contrast in production. Although his last album and new single featured the same producer, Timbaland, what was missing was the great push forward toward the future of music. FutureSex/LoveSounds anticipated the synths of the past five years, but did so in a manner that made the record an instant classic. Production was both heavy and created with a light touch. It was never dance music to have dance music. It was never maximalistic production just for maximalism. However, although "Suit & Tie," Timberlake's new single is not as immediately show-y as "Sexy Back," it can grow on the listener. It has a welcome loveliness that will make the chorus turn into something of an ear worm.

The new Destiny's Child single, in contrast, does not build or grow on the listener. It's interesting to see that both performers of the last decade also chose producers of the last decade. Changes in mainstream musical direction feel much more fluid, but listening to the new singles demonstrates how quickly music has turned direction. Both "Suit & Tie" and "Nuclear" sound outdated and of a different era.

Although this potentially stifles any hope for a true Destiny's Child reunion, for Justin Timberlake as a solo artist, it could at once be a push in the direction of something different for the mainstream. Like the suggestion that Craig David is having a moment, mainstream music is in a moment of flux, open to changes that can occur with a strong push in one direction versus the other. The mellow, loving, sweetness of "Suit & Tie," could help turn this tide. 2012 saw a greater appreciation for music that sounded calmer, more collected, and less hurried through the likes of Frank Ocean, Miguel and Solange. Although the last couple of years have produced a handful of dancefloor gems, it has also suffered in repetitiveness and homogeneity. A 180 can only be a good thing.

Brittany Julious is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find the last edition of The New York Review of Hooks here.

Thursday
Nov292012

In Which She Performs For A Willing Audience

The New York Review of Hooks Vol. 5

by BRITTANY JULIOUS

We listen to Mary J. Blige because we are lonely or heartbroken or distressed. "No More Drama" is infallible because it is so familiar. Blige is not lovely or pretty on stage. She almost writhes, perched in desperation. Her performance during the 2002 Grammys was particularly captivating.

Clad in a gold form-fitting suit, sporting her soon-to-be signature short hair, Blige needed nothing more than a wireless mic and a clear stage to perform the song, a hybrid of emotional ballad and raucous, self-esteem power statement. She looked up again and again. She shook her fists; ignored the audience. This moment for her was a point of revelation and regeneration.

Blige's personal troubles (drug abuse, difficult relationships) were no secret to her many fans, but this particular performance was revealing to the world and a moment of catharsis. It is difficult to not feel taken in by her facial expressions - this is a woman with a lot to say, a voice that demands attention.

I grew up with her music, but I also grew up listening to Brandy and Aaliyah and in recent years Rihanna. These women made R&B, but their style is different from the power Blige demands. Their voices contain a lighter quality and a less memorable affect. It's obvious a great deal of work by producers goes into the final product, creating music made to please through manipulation and calculation. The listener is never carried away by the visceral quality of the audio. Instead, we remember the pop melodies, the sleek production and the overall package of the performer.

Post-dubstep as an emerging genre gained traction in 2010. Releases by British artist like Joy O (originally Joy Orbison), James Blake and Mount Kimbie sparked a trend that continues to develop and define its aesthetics two years later. Most of the output relies on slightly-danceable electronic production, glitchy synths and cuts, and samples by female R&B vocalists. Blake's CMYK EP, released in early 2010, stood out in particular as some of the best examples of the genre.

I heard the title track for the first time during my day job and the rush of sounds was overwhelming. Blake sampled Aaliyah's "Are You That Somebody" and Kelis' "Caught Out there." The sampling came off pronounced and eager: Blake wore his influences on his sleeve, proudly highlighting the memorable qualities in the original.

"Are You That Somebody" - Aaliyah (mp3)

Like many hip hop singles from the 90s that sampled funk, disco and quiet storm, post-dubstep artists like Blake involved themselves with music previously ignored or isolated within the stylistic constraint of its genre. However, unlike the previous era of samples, these musicians find an inherent worth in the vocal performances rather than the instrumentation, melody or production. It is Kelis' voice that twists and turns, jumping between octaves and pitch to create the perfect complement to the mood of Blake's song.

But to consider these singers strong vocalists without the backing of high-end producers like Darkchild or Timbaland would be an aural stretch. We consider Mariah Carey's voice powerful for a reason. She hits notes that might come across as posturing, but her talent is unparalleled. Despite their lack of vocal prowess, performers like Ciara or Rihanna find perfect singles through the assistance of world class producers. Their music is less of a solo performance and is instead indicative of a collaboration between singer and producer.

To create something unique, producers utilize vocal samples that add to, rather than take away from the finished products. The singers need to compliment the hard beats, the dirty synths, or the heavy orchestration. The voices are equal to - rather than more powerful than - the instrumentation of the record. A Mary J. Blige or a Mariah Carey exists on a different vocal plane than a Rihanna or a Brandy. They are remixed, but rarely sampled in this same deconstructed capacity. And the voice of a Blige or a Carey would only clash with the final product. It’s no surprise then that as Blige and Carey age, their music is further isolated in the traditional realms of r&b. The production behind each of their songs must not take away from the selling point of their music - their voices. And as the state and style of mainstream music continues to masticate into an unrecognizable free-for-all, it is vocal talent that is one of the least important elements of a successful single.

New producers in the post-dubstep genre are able to use the weaker vocalists perhaps because they’ve already demonstrated how well their vocals work in collaboration with the instrumental and creative processes of a producer. Less than demonstrating a lack of desire to manipulate the vocals of stronger singers, new post-dubstep musicians like Blake, Jamie xx, and Mount Kimbie have found a clearer route to the sounds and aesthetics that help to define their emerging genre of music.

The rise of the “alternative” or “indie” idea of R&B continues to flourish in 2012, with no end in sight. In interviews, many of the core producers and singers site their childhood influences, their listening habits as young adults. But through the evolution of this “new” sound that has flourished online and in the headphones of lonely internet obsessives, something continuous has emerged.

Two popular tumblrs, MTHRFNKR (previously known as Post-Dubstep) and Indie R&B, have monitored this growing sound. It’s hard not to draw a connection to the sampling of the last couple of years. Personally, I began listening again to all of the R&B albums I amassed throughout my childhood and adolescence during this same period of time. Why am I just listening to these reconstructions, I thought, when I could relive the purity of the real thing? It’s not that I had forgotten about them as much as I had grown into sounds and scenes that were different than what I had always known.

"110%" - Jessie Ware (mp3)

Two of the most compelling examples of this unique return to the soulfulness of R&B in the 90s was evident in full-length releases from Jessie Ware and Sonnymoon. Ware worked with producers such as Julio Bashmore to create songs that were almost austere in their simplicity. “110%,” so passionately light, is one of the best new songs of the year. It sees the noise, the “drop,” the dirty synths of the past few years and positions Ware’s voice as the true star. In this case, they were correct.

"Just Before Dawn" - Sonnymoon (mp3)

Similarly, although Sonnymoon’s self-titled release incorporates a wider array of genres into their overall sound (especially jazz), it is Anna Wise’s voice – soulful, earnest – that makes songs like “Nothing Thought” and “Just Before Dawn” sound like vestiges of a past that feels increasingly more appealing that the mainstream music of the present. Similarly, 21-year-old Lulu James, who released a new single “Be Safe” earlier this year, exhibited more soulfulness than has been heard as of recent. James reminds me of vocalists who began in the r&b genre but veered somewhere left of that in time with the popularity of EDM aesthetics, shining so quickly and profoundly.

"The Wilhelm Scream" - James Blake (mp3)

Blake released his first solo album in the winter of 2011. At first, I thought it was about the lack of lyricism, the direct quality in the phrases and the instrumentation that made it so appealing. But Blake’s voice wrapped around me, all smooth-like. There was an assuredness evident beyond his age. Or possibly the way he sings is exactly of his age - the soulfulness competing with the energy and exhaustion of the world around him.

After having lived with the album for close to two years now, it’s multitudes have become more evident: the weight of a single idea, the minimalism among the occasional barrage of noise. Blake moved away from his sampling, something that made sense. Blake’s voice is unique, is at times strong, but he’s not a crooner in the same way that a Jamie Woon or a Jamie Lidell exhibit in their music. Choosing to sample himself opened up another level of experimentation in creating his sound. He didn’t need other vocalists to create new works. He could – in essence – build from within, completely.

"Whatnot" - Machinedrum (mp3)

Machinedrum, another producer of music ranging in genre from minimalist footwork to house to lo-fi rock, uses this same method of production. As his output as a dance music producer has grown, so to has his use of the manipulation of his own voice. Again, it’s not particularly strong, but there’s something captivating about it in the same way that Brandy or Rihanna’s voices are captivating. The uniqueness is beyond the normalized idea of a strong vocalist. The weirdness in their voice, in his voice, means that songs like the recently released “Whatnot” or the entirety of his Room(s) LP create a fuller, lusher overall sound.

I have to remind myself that music is personal, and the way we respond to it stems first from the self. But there is something special happening here. Perhaps the growth from sampling to creating to embracing is just the path of least confusion. Perhaps it is just the desire for the universality of soulfulness, the desire for the reality and presence of a voice, any voice.

Brittany Julious is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. You can find the first volume of The New York Review of Hooks here. She tumbls here and twitters here.