Refresher Course: the Prodigy

Invaders Must Die marks the Prodigy’s first album with the group’s three original members since 1997’s classic Fat of the Land. Even with the success of Invaders‘ first two singles, it’s not too hard to tell that the group’s best music is well behind them. Before the forgettable Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned, and the uncharacteristic Dirtchamber Sessions mix, the group stood atop the world of electronic music as one of the most undeniably talented and unique of its day. Although they may never return to the level of popularity they once saw, or release music as invigorating as they once did, here’s a look at a few songs that exemplify why the Prodigy are a vital piece of the puzzle that is the history of pop music.

Though not entirely given credit as innovators, the Prodigy’s “Wind It Up” (album version, not the video version) offered a sound that would be heard nearly three years later with Moby’s landmark album Everything Is Wrong. The song’s blend of keyboards and blistering loops offered a balance reminiscent of a lot of early drum ‘n bass as well. 1992’s Experience is easily my favorite Prodigy album, and remains one of the key building blocks of electronic music in the 1990s.

Officially the group’s fourth single, the cartoon sound effects, reggae tangents, explosive drums loops, streamlined turntablism and happy hardcore moments of “Out of Space” gave us one of the most entertaining glimpses of how rave would sound for years to come.

Though the Chemical Brothers remix of Voodoo People is more representative of UK electronica at the time, the original mix had a grinding guitar loop that set the basis for the group’s industrial leanings with Fat of the Land. The first half of Music For The Jilted Generation is one of the best series of tracks they ever recorded, “Break & Enter,” “Their Law,” and “Speedway (Theme From Fastlane)” all being personal favorites.

On the flip side of Jilted was “Poison,” a song that came as a unique blend of everything the Prodigy had done up to that point, yet offered something entirely unique. In comparison, it was quite slower than the rest of the album, and was much more reliant on vocal loops than the Prodigy had been in the past. It still stands as an outlier, but one that doesn’t sound out of place amongst any of the group’s music up to that point.

Though it failed to even make it onto the pop-charts in the US, “Breathe” was the second single from Fat of the Land to take the number one position on the UK singles chart. In fact, the single was the group’s most successful ever, spending 22 weeks in the top 10 in the UK. Though “Firestarter” offered a sinister edge that set the pace for the album as its first single, this single’s fluid bass hovered in the background while Liam Howlett and Keith Flint shouted repetitive vague lyrics, and was far more indicative of the sound on what would become the group’s most commercially successful record.

Kelly Clarkson “All I Ever Wanted” Review

The release of Kelly Clarkson’s fourth album, All I Ever Wanted, has to come as a relief for the singer, especially considering the drama that surrounded 2007’s My December. Between the label’s outspoken dissatisfaction with her songs and Clive Davis supposedly having offered Clarkson $10 million to scrap five of its tracks in favor of selections of his choosing, the grief alone should have driven her mad. And it almost did. After the release of the album she canceled its supporting tour and fired her manager. Responding to all of the controversy, she commented “I just want people to hear it, instead of 100-year old executives making decisions on what’s good for pop radio. It’s people my age who listen to it. My gut hasn’t been wrong yet, so why wouldn’t I continue to follow it?” I believe that Stephen Colbert might call such an intuitive gut reaction “truthiness.” And removed from the overwhelming drama Clarkson now finds herself refreshed, renewed and going with her gut once again. This time around the recording process included working with a new production team, a new group of writers and a new outlook based on what’s transpired in the past year and a half, but the question remains whether or not her instincts will continue leading her in the right direction.

When the album’s first single, “My Life Would Suck Without You,” was released in January Clarkson’s instincts were almost immediately vindicated—the song finding immediate success while making history in the process. The single jumped from 97 to the number one position on the Billboard Hot 100, making it the largest leap to number one ever. Not only that, but it became the singer’s first single to top the charts since her first, 2002’s “A Moment Like This.” Co-written by Max Martin and Dr. Luke (the duo behind Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” and Britney Spears’ “If U Seek Amy”) the song’s guitar rolls along before thrusting into the song’s chorus, not unlike that of her second highest charting single, “Since U Been Gone.” From there the album rolls into the first of two songs co-written by Katy Perry, “I Do Not Hook Up.”

After comparing Clarkson’s version to Perry’s it’s quite noticeable that while the original composition remains essentially intact, the vocal part is a bit more fitting for Clarkson’s hearty gasps. That’s been a pattern for the singer though, utilizing others’ songwriting and adding her powerful voice in creating something that sounds entirely hers. Be it Avril Lavigne’s “Breakaway” from a few years back or Clarkson’s work with Chantal Kreviazuk and Our Lady Peace’s Raine Maida, she’s long since proven her ability to utilize the skills of those she works with.

For as much as she’s able to do that however, some of the weaker songs on All I Ever Wanted are those co-written by Clarkson—in particular those written with the album’s co-producer and OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder. Aside from “If I Can’t Have You” the duo’s lyrics fail to grab the listener, particularly “Impossible.” “Can’t change the winds you say/Won’t matter anyway/Can’t reach that far/Cause it’s impossible.” The song’s overly sentimental theme feels a bit inappropriate, but considering it’s placement in the later stages of the record where the tempo has all but gone to rest, it’s not entirely out of place. And the faults of the song don’t reflect the quality of its sound—if there’s one thing that can be said for those tracks, Kelly’s voice fails to crack throughout.

If we’ve learned anything from the video of Clarkson jumping on stage with Metal Skool a few years back, it’s that: a) she has a killer sense of humor and b) even at her drunkest, she’s still got an amazing voice. That being said, there are definitely some songs that fail to make good on what she’s capable of. “I Want You” is written as a playful bopper, but it compresses her voice into something that is far beneath its potential. The song style is better suited for someone like Lily Allen, as it leaves a lot of room for the vocals to be played with while staying away from any extended moments where the spotlight is solely on the singer.

Aside from “I Want You” Clarkson’s voice is allowed to extend itself as far as it can go. There’s a reason that she’s not joining the fashionable pop artists in wading knee deep in vocoder—plain and simple she doesn’t need to experiment with ways to make her voice sound unique and powerful. As weak as the lyrics from “Impossible” are, the song still sounds great solely because of the vocals. With her rendition of Aranda’s “Whyyawannabringmedown” Clarkson strips down her voice as much as she can to match the ragged (well, ragged for a polished pop album) guitar track that echoes behind her. But even when she’s trying to sound raw sounds as crisp and full as ever.

When the artificial-looking cover for Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck Without You” was released she posted the following blog post in response, “it’s very colorful and they have definitely photo-shopped the crap out of me but i don’t care haha! whoever she is, she looks great ha!” With All I Ever Wanted Clarkson’s not creating anything remotely edgy, she’s not stepping outside of what’s worked for her in the past, and she’s not paving the way for any new trends in pop music. Yet Clarkson’s still not catering to executives who would rather sharpen her recording approach to align her against her contemporaries, and she’s remains strong in creating music that’s comfortable to her. Truthiness in pop music is rare, but once again Kelly Clarkson’s instincts have proven to be the best guide for her and her career.

Spritual Mansions "Lady Cascade" (Influenza)

Approach Influenza as a series which serves to help give insight as to where music is born; these are the thoughts, influences and the inspirations directly from the mind of the artists. Here guitarist and vocalist Ryan Harris discusses his songwriting process, in particular discussing the creation of “Lady Cascade” from Spiritual Mansions’ latest album Touched. The band will be hosting a CD release show for the album tonight at the Turf Club—joining the band will be Daughters of the Sun, Whitesand/Badlands and Magic Castles.

On “Lady Cascade”:

I’ve found that the most productive time for me to write songs is in the morning, right after I’ve woken up. I’m not sure if it’s because my voice is stuck in the lower register, I’m still half-dreaming, or that the day hasn’t yet had the chance to clutter my mind. At any rate, most of my songs are written in bed and I generally have a rough recording of the song before I eat breakfast.

The original demo of “Lady Cascade” is a crusty-eyed collage that features about four layers of my voice trying to sing harmonies that are far out of my range. The guitars aren’t necessarily in tune with each other or played in time, but the internal microphone on my laptop makes every mistake sound intentional.

For me, the most enjoyable part of recording a song is hearing the backing vocals finally added to a track. Harmonies accentuate melodies and develop feelings introduced by the lead vocals. Mark, Sam, and Anthony did a wonderful job doing backing vocals on the entire record, but this song is probably the most ambitious in terms of vocal arrangement and expression.

Concerning the subject matter for this song, I imagine it as being the musical equivalent of NBC’s 30 Rockas drama instead of comedy: this is a chapter in a straight-to-DVD folk-opera starring Tina Fey as Lady Cascade, the seductive but cutthroat cougar boss. I haven’t figured out the rest of the story yet, but this chapter introduces the plot and main character.

Q-Tip “The [Abstract] Best” Mixtape

One of the most exciting aspects of J. Period & Q-Tip’s The [Abstract] Best mixtape is how fresh tracks from The Renaissance sound when contrasted against songs from Tip’s back-catalog. One of my favorites, “Move,” is considerably more vivid when cast between a pair of lackluster singles from 1999’s Amplified, “Vivrant Thing” and “Breath & Stop.” But the mix doesn’t stop at Tip’s solo material, it goes back to the beginning, covering his time with A Tribe Called Quest and many of the cameos he’s made along the way.

Amongst Busta Rhymes shout outs and personal commentary from Mr. Jonathan Davis himself, The Best is a solid excerpt from his entire career. But at its core, the mix is simply an introduction. Its 49(!) tracks are all chopped up and remixed, prepared to best serve the people who have casually been introduced to the MC by recent appearances on the Ellen Degeneres Show or the like. In under an hour and a half you get a feel for who Q-Tip is, no matter how much you knew about the man and his music prior to listening. And while there are some classics missing, the very last sounds on the mix are cuts of dialog sampled from a vintage recording, “It is time to turn the page to volume two.” Hopefully they do drop a second volume, so we can once again look back at a man who has been vital to the history and future of hip hop.

The Submarines Interview

Currently winding down their North American tour, the Submarines and the Morning Benders will be retuning to Minneapolis Wednesday night when the bands play the Triple Rock Social Club. Culture Bully’s Chris DeLine recently caught up with the Submarines’ Blake Hazard and John Dragonetti to discuss the recent split single they did with their tour-mates, remixing their 2008 album Honeysuckle Weeks and French Canadian cuisine.

You recently played Montreal—did you try any poutine?

John Dragonetti: No. Poutine makes me do bad things.

Blake Hazard: Yeah, no poutine, but I had a nice chat with a wide-eyed squirrel on my morning run up snowy Mount Royal. So I had some local flavor there.

Do you typically have much time while on tour to explore the cities you’re visiting?

John Dragonetti: Typically there isn’t a lot of time. When we were in Europe last, I think we had all of nine hours in Dublin. Still, we do our best to explore—especially if there’s a day off. Record shops, vintage clothes stores and vegetarian restaurants usually get us in to the part if town we’d want to check out.

Blake Hazard: Yes, and because I run most mornings, I get to see a lot of the cities we visit on foot, which is great.

You recently covered “Waiting For a War” by your tour-mates the Morning Benders for a split single—is that your favorite song of the band’s.

John Dragonetti: That song hit me right away. There are others, since touring together, that have really grown on me.

Blake Hazard: I had originally wanted to try “Doctor Doctor,” and there was no shortage of cover-worthy songs to consider. John was sure about “Waiting for a War” from the start, so that made the choice a bit easier.

What’s the appeal in performing someone else’s music? Did you enjoy the Benders’ rendition of “1940″ that they did for the split?

John Dragonetti: All the hard work is done for you. You don’t have to go through the struggle of writing. It’s all there and hopefully you can bring something fresh to it. I loved the Benders version of “1940.” They really made it their own.

Blake Hazard: I loved their version. I find writing and performing to be totally separate endeavors, so it feels like as great a challenge to cover a song as it is to record your own. I like having a chance to sort of re-imagine some else’s song, even if it’s not a radical departure from the original. It’s daunting, but that’s a good reason to do it in itself.

For what it’s worth I think I’m still partial to your album Declare a New State—do you enjoy the fresh feeling of performing new material while touring, or do you prefer playing music you’ve had time to grow into?

John Dragonetti: I think I’ll always be partial to that record as well. However, lately it has been more enjoyable playing material from Honeysuckle Weeks. Maybe it’s because we’re playing with drummer, Jason Stare. Fresh is good but it’s true that you can convince yourself that the new song is better than the old song, simply because you’re bored with the old.

Blake Hazard: I guess I feel a different emotional relationship to each song, whether it’s from the first or the more recent album, so they all continue to interest me live, though I find trying new arrangements of older songs exciting.

Are there any songs from the new album that you especially enjoy playing live? If so, why?

John Dragonetti: “Thorny Thicket.” It feels different from the record. More energetic with new guitar bits.

Blake Hazard: I agree, and have been really into playing “1940″ and “Symphonika” particularly.

Are there any plans for giving Honeysuckle Weeks the same remix treatment as you did Declare a New State back in 2006?

John Dragonetti: We actually just mastered a new EP with remixes by Amplive, Ra Ra Riot, Wallpaper, Styrofoam, Morgan Page, to name a few. It’ll be released on iTunes but we have a limited edition CD that we’re selling on tour. It features artwork by the amazing folks at Asthetic Apparatus.

Chris Chu (of the Morning Benders) Interview

Following last year’s show at the Fine Line Music Cafe where the band opened for the Kooks, the Morning Benders are returning to play the Triple Rock Social Club tomorrow night. Culture Bully’s Chris DeLine caught up with the Benders’ Chris Chu recently, talking about the band’s upcoming album, tainted peanut butter and the split single the band recently did with the Submarines.

The last time I saw you the band was on tour, opening for the Kooks. What are your favorite memories from that tour?

Chris Chu: All the free Clif bars! During that tour since we were playing big places they would give us free food… and Clif bars. So many Clif bars! Now Clif bars have salmonella. Ahh the good old days…

Have you come across a city yet that has got you thinking about leaving your West Coast base?

Chris Chu: We are thinking about New York. We also just went to Montreal and really liked it there…

How’d you get involved with the Submarines?

Chris Chu: It was written in the stars.

Who came up with the idea for the covers project you’ve all put together—the Submarines covering your “Waiting For a War” and you covering their “1940″?

Chris Chu: I think they did. I’m not sure though. These ideas are in the air, you know?

Who was in charge of choosing the song you covered?

Chris Chu: We got to pick it ourselves, and they picked the one they wanted to cover. We liked “1940″ cause it had a sort of Dub vibe to it. It sort of stood out to us on their album.

I’ve always enjoyed split albums and split singles–my favorite being the record NOFX and Rancid put together for the BYO Split Series. Do you have any favorite split singles or records?

Chris Chu: I’m not sure I know any. I think we’re going to be doing a split 7″ later this year though, exciting stuff… can’t say what just yet… btu soon!

Last year I had the good fortune of being able to ask a few questions of Sune Rose Wagner of the Raveonettes. Regarding the band’s EP series that they were in the middle of he said “It’s a little bit more interesting to write and record four songs at a time than having to concentrate on 12-14 songs for a full length. This way you can do something new and exciting on all three of them. I wish people just recorded singles instead of albums, actually.” You’re putting out two EPs this Spring and have been no stranger to them in the past. Do the shorter recordings have a similar appeal to you as they do Wagner?

Chris Chu: I like the idea of EPs, but I’m not sure if they are anymore interesting or anything. We like them because you can get them out faster, less prep and such for an EP than a full album, and we like to put as much music out as possible. I tend to write songs in big batches, so the idea of the album comes pretty natural. Our next album, for example, was taken from a family of like 15 or 16 songs.

U2 “No Line on the Horizon”

There are certain things I don’t like about U2 that tend to blur my perspective on whether or not the band is actually any good. But when they recently played the Grammy Awards, it felt like the ol’ band was stretching itself a little thin. “Get Your Boots On” fell flat—and I certainly wasn’t the only person who thought it was one of the least memorable performances of the night.

For the longest time I was turned off by the group because I thought that Bono was a bit of a douche bag for rocking designer clothing & sunglasses while participating in meetings where he was a prime advocate for impoverished countries. But when it comes down to it, he does some good work and I guess the singer of the biggest band in the world should be able to revel in a little Armani swagger if he so chooses. So now, I just happen to dislike him because I feel like he’s kind of a douche… though that could probably be chalked up to jealousy.

The fact of the matter is if I put all of that aside, I still can’t get behind U2 and the band’s music. The last time I really enjoyed anything new from the group was from a period that many consider the band’s worst (I still think “Staring At The Sun” is a pretty decent radio rock single, as far as mediocre bullshit goes). So what’s changed since then? Certainly the face of pop music has shifted (though you wouldn’t know it by recent news), but what’s more important is the band has become a victim of its own success. Possibly a result of trying to change too much, for too many years, the band is no longer willing to change, refusing to once again become the U2 that people love most.

Somewhere between having that godawful shriek from “Elevation” drilled into my head and now, it feels like U2 has lost touch with what exactly it is that U2 does. How much did The Joshua Tree kick ass? Achtung Baby? A lot. Even Zooropa and Pop have to be given some credit for a willingness to experiment within a shifting environment (though the latter somewhat overdid things). And while it drives me nuts, that damn “Elevation” fit in perfectly with what was going on in modern rock radio at the time—had it only been played a few million times less than it was, it might have even been tolerable. But with the few brief tastes of what is to come from No Line on the Horizon, it sounds like the band is lost somewhere between not knowing whether to reach out and try for something new, or go back to something safe. The title track is picture proof of this—The Edge sounds like he wants to do something new, but falls flat and ends up sounding like he’s riffing on a track that shouldn’t have made the final cut on a U2 album (even considering 1997 standards). As for Bono, it’s a sad state of affairs when he records vocals so tired and feeble that we can only hope for another “Elevation” to come along and save this album from becoming a complete joke. If not, a few more people might end up joining me in looking back on something like “Last Night On Earth” with some sort of odd fondness, and a feeling of longing for better times. Not great times, but certainly better than this.

The Guystorm “Real Big Business”

The Guystorm’s debut EP, loosely titled The Dark Album, contains a handful of whirlwind tracks that the band has been fine-tuning since first coming together in late 2007. If my memory serves me correctly (it usually doesn’t), I believe the band’s performance at the 2007 Clapperclaw Music Festival was its second show ever, and that’s where I first saw the band. Not to discount the part that a few strong drinks played that night, but the Guystorm are the only band I really remember from the show… and from what I remember, they blew me away. Despite the band being a bit green, they were fierce and proved early on that they had a feel for their sound, something many bands never find. The next time I saw the band, I was flat out drunk. Opening for the Hands at the Nomad last March, the Guystorm once again impressed me—this time playing songs that I’d become familiar with from the ultra-rough demos they’d uploaded to their MySpace page.

Normally, I’d be hesitant to suggest a group based on a few drunken memories, but with one listen to their EP all skepticism is quickly dismissed. Perhaps the energy that singer Angelo V. Pennacchio showcases at the band’s live shows fails to completely transfer to the recordings, but his wails and howls still effectively drive the thrust and bounce that envelopes the EP. Sounding like a pre-Rick Ruben (International) Noise Conspiracy, the recording of “Real Big Business” effectively trumps any preconceived drunken notions I had of the band. The EP’s four other tracks all offer something unique, from hints of surf to funk, but they collectively echo the same feeling and emotion—one that the band hopefully carries over to a full length release sometime in the near future.

Bishop Allen “The Ancient Commonsense of Things”

Two new tracks were recently released by Bishop Allen in preparation for the band’s third full-length release, Grrrr… “The Ancient Commonsense of Things” has a full-bodied sound with simple harmonies, not unlike how the New Pornographers sound at their finest. “Dimmer” takes a different approach, quietly chugging along, building a deliberate vocal pattern cast over a bed of fiddle and tubby bass. For those unfamiliar with the band, in addition to being the inspiration behind naming You Ain’t No Picasso, Bishop Allen were briefly featured in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. And what’s good enough for Michael Cera is usually good enough for me. Grrr… will be released March 10 via Dead Oceans.