Eric Penna

Geeked Up: Voices In Our Heads

Olympian feats of Dylanology, acoustic hangover ballads, liberating Norwegian growls, and Prince forever and ever amen

This week, the organizing principle for my ecstatic laboring through the 93 million songs floating around our biosphere is voices. To clarify, I’m not referring to voices of superior technical quality; what fun is that? I’m simply talking about voices that have had a lasting impact on me during the past months and weeks and days. Now, there may be those of you who think some of the following vocal efforts sound like a ’possum hissing when it jumps out from behind a rusty, busted washing machine (true story!). Well, my apologies, because those ’possums can scare the shit out of even the most stoic and dead-inside among us. Regardless, let’s step away from the appliance, take a deep breath, and ease into the vocalese.

Voice, “Cheers to Life” (Precision Productions)

It seems only appropriate to lead off a column about voices with the 2016 International Soca Monarch and 23-year-old charm machine Aaron “Voice” St. Louis, the youngest man ever to win the the annual Trinidad and Tobago Carnival competition. Voice does not possess a mighty, exultant instrument, nor is he a jubilant shouter; rather, he croons with a heart-fluttering delicacy that’s not really built for a large, outdoor competitive atmosphere. Yet he triumphed this year, with a song cowritten by the studio crew Precision Productions (who have dominated the Monarchs for the past five years). “Cheers” exquisitely distills empathetic glee into a series of lilts, yelps, chants, and spring-loaded jump-up raps that seem to warm your skin and, in my case, make the harsh light of a coffee shop glow like a sunny coastline.

The Carnival tradition in the West Indies dates to the late 18th century, when slaves were forbidden from joining their plantation masters’ costume-ball Lent celebrations, so they created — as oppressed peoples often do — far more vividly fanciful and intensely raving “mas” (short for “masquerade”) parties. Percussion and stick fighting were banned in Trinidad around this time, inspiring the use of steel pan drums forged out of oil barrels and other rituals like “moko jumbie” (stilt-walking and dancing), which still resonate today. The music, evolving from calypso to soca to rapso to EDM pop, has become less overtly political or oppositional; with a tenous economic situation — based mostly on decreasing oil production — plus constant corruption (government, police, courts) and heavy drug trade, TNT is far from a paradise for the disenfranchised populace partying with a “dutty mas” mix of mud, paint, motor oil, cocoa, and molasses smeared on their bodies and faces. In that context, “Cheers to Life” is a lifeline.

Colleen Green, “Cold Shoulder,” from Colleen Green EP (Infinity Cat)

Wryly tagging her buzzy garage pop as “Ramones-core” and performing in shades while accompanied by an iPad or drum machine, Green personifies lo-fi cool. So who better to embody a song called “Cold Shoulder”? What’s unique is how she sidesteps deadpan detachment for a sly, matter-of-fact coo that lightly nestles in the mix and applies a wounded-heart decal to the chugga-chugga guitar. When Green chants, “Sun, sun, fuckin’ up my love now,” you wink and nod instead of shouting along.

Boogie, “Out My Way (Bitter Raps 2)” (Interscope)

Coming on like an every-kid from the block, this Compton MC is actually a 26-year-old father who’s working on his third album-length project (upcoming Interscope debut Thirst 48 Pt. 2) in three years. Thus far, he’s drifted seamlessly from bleary cloud-rap to bright-eyed shit talk, a nice complement to ATL’s double cup of codeine and Auto-Tune. The Jahlil Beats production on last year’s breakout “Oh My” opted for full theatrical menace, yet Boogie rolled coolly through the ominous ambience, tossing off conversational punch lines like he owned the school parking lot. Here, producers Keyel and Amaire Johnson raise the bar with stabbing strings and a tick-tock G-funk-gone-trap vortex, and Boogie’s voice is even more cocksure, barking about his krumping bonafides and (again) registering his disgust with social-media scrubs. But the chorus is the keeper. Boogie grouses, “Get the fuck up out my way,” but the bluster quickly fades and he’s plunged into a dizzy spin, his warped voice mouthing “wa-ay wa-ay wa-ay wa-ay” as if he’s being pushed onto a moving amusement park ride. It’s a deft free-fall.

Prince feat. Rosie Gaines, “Nothing Compares 2 U,” from Rave Un2 the Year 2000 DVD (Image Entertainment)

When news hit last week that Sinéad O’Connor had gone missing in suburban Chicago, it was easy to fear the worst, considering the singer’s often erratic behavior. When she was found to be safe, the episode sent me back to this clip from Prince’s iconic 1999 New Year’s Eve show at Paisley Park. Though O’Connor’s teary tour de force claims custody of “Nothing Compares,” this version by the actual songwriter is just as vital. The rapturous interplay between Rosie Gaines’s gospel-honed alto and Prince’s tender tenor is dramatized by a gilded, punchy big-band arrangement. Prince crowd surfs during Kathy Jensen’s sax testimony, then sweeps back onstage in a belted purple bathrobe to bring down the house — “All the flowers that you planted, baby / In the back of your yard / All died when you went away” — before teeing up Gaines to shake the rafters. The rapid-fire call-and-response; the plea to the crowd, “Can you sing with us tonight? Can we hear your voices?”; the lovely, softly improvised fade. Ahhhh …

Body Games, “Perfume” (self-released)

This young North Carolina trio released Damager, their debut album of electronic pop-noir vignettes, in March. “Perfume,” the closing track, still propels me into a bewildered swoon. Setting the tone with a ghostly snippet of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” — “Once I had a love …” — buoyed by wistfully gorgeous synths, Kate Thompson recalls an absent lover with aching sweetness while the backdrop darkens into a swoosh of gray and a lonely drum machine plods forward. “I don’t mean to freak out at the end of the day,” she lilts (as I usually crumple onto the sofa), “I don’t mean to be weird when I’m feeling afraid.” With partner Dax Beaton adding his voice, the story enters the more freighted present. But when they both sputter, “It takes a whole helluva lot more than we’re willing to give to make this change,” the only reasonable response is “nooooooo.”

Patti LaBelle, “Forever Young” at Live Aid, 1985

Since I’m writing this on May 24, 2016, the birthday of both Bob Dylan (his 75th) and Patti LaBelle (her 72nd), let’s consecrate this random convergence with the most fabulously hammy cover of any Dylan song ever. Ms. LaBelle, who could bust a lung singing “The Wheels on the Bus,” beamed with joy from the second she strode onstage at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia for the overly hyped concert to fund Ethiopian famine relief. And “Forever Young,” written by Dylan in 1973 as a hopeful lullaby for his eldest son, Jesse, was to become a historic Olympic event in LaBelle’s clutches, as she launched her fearsome operatic soprano into the night sky like a brocaded shot put. Cue the interpretive gestures and cartoony vocal quirks, but all the stage business was simply dramatic prelude. Blasting away at the chorus, extending the word “young” for a fortnight, glowing and grimacing simultaneously, LaBelle paused to briefly glance at the band, only to turn back to the mic with her voice at peak roar in a casual display of her supremacy. Striking a pose on the border of sacred invocation and Broadway soliloquy, she fluttered her fingers, placed a hand on her hip, flicked away tears (so what if they weren't real?!), and proceeded to belt out “young” for nine freaking seconds. Pulling away from the mic — who needed it at this point? — she conducted the band, wailing at glass-shattering frequencies: “STAA-AAY! STAA-AAY! STAAY-AAY! STAA-AAAAAY! FOREVERRRRRRRR!!” Oh fuck, she’s blowing a kiss and giving thanks to the Lord above while hoisting my wretched soul into a vertical suplex and crashing it ecstatically to the canvas. That’s it, it’s all done — finito. Feed the world, bitches.

Dave East, “Gorilla Glue (EASTMIX)” (Dave East Music)

Rapping with a wily boom that sounds like he never sleeps in the same place twice, East assaults the lurching beat from Chief Keef’s viral smash, “Faneto” (coproduced by Keef and Da Internz and currently soundtracking Vines galore). Hardly just an ode to the sticky-ickiest, East always delivers his bars like he’s one step ahead of a gunshot. When he’s on, it’s a whirlwind: “Blowing smoke when I ride by / Still screaming out, ‘Fuck the precinct' / Steph Curry with a Cuban on / That’s a 30 clip, fuck a defense / Fake jewelry turn my neck green / I ain’t never rockin’ no cheap shit / Pacific Ocean in a new yacht / Drinking brown water till I’m seasick.” East out.

Kvelertak, “1985” (Roadrunner)

You wake up, and a sweaty, tattooed Norwegian man wearing a huge owl mask with glowing eyes has you in a choke hold and is howling about Norse mythology. When he lets you go, though, three hairy liberators dazzle you, all assembled with a three-guitar assault that spans Lynyrd Skynyrd and Guns N’ Roses if they’d grown up freezing their asses off and listening to death metal. Kvelertak is perhaps the greatest rock band in the world — at the very least, they’re responsible for the greatest rock song of 2013, “Bruane Brenn” (“Burning Bridges”) — and if you watch them onstage or hear their latest album, Nattesferd (Night Traveler), don’t be surprised if your hand involuntarily forms into a fist, or your face contorts into a delirious grin. Frontman Erlend Hjelvik growls with a hoarse, beery flair, and here they unleash a pagan riff on Van Halen’s 1984.

Xenia Rubinos, “Lonely Lover” (Anti-)

Even a weary plaint has an indomitable spark when New York–based Puerto Rican-Cuban singer-songwriter Xenia Rubinos strolls by. With a gentle jazz guitar caressing the snap of a cable-thick bass line, plus drummer Marco Buccelli’s crisply spare funk shuffle, Rubinos’s voice winds and snakes down every melodic side street. Nagged by life’s daily grind, synths spiral as she sings with a bittersweet yearn, “Mami just feels like she needs to breathe today / Give a little space ’cause I’m going insane …" But no matter whether that space ever really comes. Rubinos sounds like she’ll still be strollin’, still struttin’, still searchin’, head held high, lonely or not.

A Giant Dog feat. Britt Daniel, “Get With You and Get High” (Merge)

Sabrina Ellis is an indie-rock anomaly, a frontperson so committed to tales of the flesh (and related matters) that she practically clambers through the speakers to give you a big ol’ sloppy pooch-smooch. She seems to be horny and fucked-up most of the time, and sings a song called “Jizzney” (no, I’m not kidding). “Get With You and Get High” is a concise, acoustic hangover ballad with an expertly childlike synth figure and a practiced, cracked falsetto from Spoon’s Britt Daniel. This summation is note-perfect: “Was I good to you? / I can’t remember it / Costumes and the pills / Helped a little bit.”

Gang of Youths, “Strange Diseases” (Mosy/Sony)

Why are there seemingly talented young bands who still want to sound like U2 or Arcade Fire or — gulp — Temper Trap? Are they unaware that the market and moment for anthemic whoa-oh expectorations of beauty and banality has now shrunk down to the size of Bono’s wee booties? This band of earnest Aussies is fronted by wild-haired buccaneer David Le’aupepe, who preps us for the Gang’s new album by proclaiming that it’s “the final chapter of the part of my life I spent in love with someone fighting cancer.” Okeydokey, then. The music features a predictably pounding regiment of violins, with Le’aupepe astride his trusty steed, charging into romantic battle. Why I’ve listened to this song more than once is baffling, but there’s something about the kid’s relentless, hell-bent-on-connecting ministrations. I’m sure their live show is a bloodbath of hearts on sleeves. You were warned.

Katy B feat. Chris Lorenzo, “I Wanna Be” (Virgin/EMI UK)

After hard-passing on this slick Brit-house track when it was released almost two months ago, I recently heard it quaking my car system (such as it is) late one night driving home after hanging with friends. With my guard down for a minute — that bourbon and ginger and whatever cocktail didn’t hurt — Katy B’s gift for subtly urging on a melody and nimbly muscling a bass line to her will suddenly emerged. Lorenzo’s production is a less-precious Disclosure, but this is Katy’s fitful, moody world, and we should appreciate her ability to exist as a vocalist on club tracks while coming across like an approachable, sane, talented, real person. That’s no easy task when you’re in a morass of wannabe divas and cut-and-paste anonymity.