Review: Sam Sparro, "Sam Sparro"

In a world where Miley Cyrus hates exactly seven things, the Jonas Brothers are burning up, and The Pussycat Dolls want to "grow up" and become whores (dream big!), a star with a little depth and soul is sorely needed. Sam Sparro, a gay Australian gospel singer, has arrived to fill the void in everyone's iTunes libraries--you know, the empty space in between all of your guilty pleasures. Because, you see, Sparro's debut is just commercial enough that everything clicks, but eccentric enough that you can feel selective and unique when listening to it.

It's I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-Pop-Music.

Over the course of the album's 55 minutes, ten of which aren't necessary, listeners will be warped to a planet where life is sparkly and spray-painted, everyone's sexy, and there's really no reason to leave the dance floor. Sparro is an artist of transportation, and the tracks on Sam Sparro are a testament to his ability to take concepts that are entirely unoriginal and infuse them with, well, magic.

There are missteps, however, and they begin early; the opening track is not only grating, but contains few musical qualities beyond the garbage-lid drum line. Sparro is a pretty smooth guy, so spitting words like "seductive" and "in the mood" in his overly digitalized vocal track almost works, but falls short when compared to other electronic artists like Daft Punk, a group that is most likely the primary inspiration for this album--even if Sparro won't admit it. There are traces of Confessions-era Madonna, Goldfrapp, and more recently, Australia's own Kylie Minogue. "Speakerphone," off of Minogue's X, could easily fit into Sparro's synthesized set.

Rather than jumping into the fastest cuts, Sparro lets the album burn slowly. (I said he's a smooth guy.) Enough has been written about "Black & Gold," even on this blog, but Sparro's sensual touch is undeniable here. The bass slowly creeps in, Sparro withholding the vocals until the sixty second mark. The lyrics on "Black & Gold," however cryptic, are bizarrely energetic--he begins with a casual reflection on Darwinism, and bursts into "nothing but black!" halfway through the song, bringing to mind the image of a solar system strobing to the monotonous, double-time synths.

"Too Many Questions" follows, and while considerably less exciting on a visceral level, the track is far more stimulating lyrically: "I will go without hesitation/to my own unknown destination/with the music like syncopation/and explore my own imagination." It sounds rhyme-y on paper, but Sparro's delivery is extremely strong rhythmically, so strong you may be singing the chorus on repeat for a few days. Sparro reaches his emotional peak on this track early on, which is to his advantage; the rest of the songs on "Sparro" are too busy having fun to notice the crying kid in the corner. But who's complaining? No one wants to dance with that kid anyway.

The rest of the album is hit or miss as a whole, but Sparro has shuffled the tracks in a clever way as to make songs like "Sick"--a beautifully-produced club track with a futuristic melody but a trite hook--seem more interesting when stuffed between far better material. In other words, he's squishing Crisco in a non-fat formula. "21st Century Life"--of the lean, non-fat variety--is another early highlight, despite its tonal similarities to Seal's "Get It Together" off of Seal IV.

After the useless and wholly uninteresting couple of "Waiting for Time" and "Recycle it!" (the latter reminiscent of the interludes on Justin Timberlake's Future Sex/Love Sounds), Sparro hits gold with "Cotton Mouth," a creole-tinged confession of drug use and alcohol. Or, "polluted water." The following track, "Hot Mess," is another fatty filler, but is buoyed by "Pocket," Sparro's cautionary tale of enemies he let slip away. Sparro shows a bit of emotion here, which is nice after the dry "Mess," and one cannot help but wonder if his sexuality is the origin of his enemies' animosity. Even if that is not the case, Sparro should consider the consequences of his honesty. Sure, the critics like him, but they all declare him "this year's Scissor Sisters" or "the new Mika"--openly gay musicians they pin to Sparro because of his homosexuality. Not only is this a narrow way to critique Sparro, far more talented than either of the latter, but it adds depth to the lyrics of "Pocket": "Keep your friends close, and your enemies in your pocket." Rolling Stone is not a homophobic magazine--in fact, they are aggressively anti-homophobic, bordering on maniacally accepting of minorities--yet they still stuck Sparro in a box by comparing him to gay contemporaries. But they gave him a good review, so are they his friends? Or enemies he let slip away? The song was written beforehand, anyways, so clearly it's not about Rolling Stone, but it's an interesting thought.

It's a good thing all that introspection is rewarded by the strongest track on the album, "Cut Me Loose," a no-nonsense, no-comprehension-necessary dance cut in which Sparro tells a female club goer "I can't leave right now/these tunes are serious!" When Sparro's having fun, it doesn't ooze through the speakers. It gushes. On "Cut Me Loose," the bass line is heavy and the synths are so hyperactive they seem to stutter in their delivery, overwhelmed by the excitement of Sparro's rapid-fire chorus. More than any other song on the album, "Loose" embodies the spirit of dance, and more importantly, the qualities in music that transport listeners.

Closing with the paradoxical "Still Hungry," a song with both humor and heart, Sparro drops us back off on planet earth, where the butter, sadly, has 145 calories per tablespoon, and the girl who walks up to you on the dance floor is probably drunk--or maybe that's just a personal experience. Regardless of your earthly encounters, "Sam Sparro" is an album that belongs in your 2008 library. It has weak tracks, but like anything glittery, there has to be something for the diamonds to be compared to--and the diamonds on Sparro's debut far outshine the dull spots.


Sam Sparro (!) and Lindsay Lohan (?)

Kind of a dry week for music. Katy Perry's new material was just so-so, I'm not into Coldplay, and radio's gone to crap since Justin Timberlake's "My Love" left the airwaves a year ago.

For whatever reason, however, dance tracks are getting hotter and hotter. Music typically fluctuates in one big group--think of seaweed being swayed by oceanic currents--so it's odd that music as a whole can be so weak while bass-heavy techno is consistently impressing me. But who cares? If I can work out to it, it's on my iPod and being played.

Lindsay Lohan. Yeah, she's pretty ridiculous. I say ridiculous because part of me kind of wants to like her--the whole Samantha Ronson business has suddenly made her edgy--but at the same time, it's Lindsay Fricking Lohan. She's the queen of rehab and everything fake, all the way down to her obsession with leggings, something that has clearly gone to the wayside of what's vogue (unless you're Mary-Kate Olsen, which means you wear whatever is most likely to scare away young fans). She's a got a new album coming out, though, and I didn't think her first was so bad. Granted, I do not own a single track, but I don't hate Lindsay Lohan the vocalist. I liked that "Daughter to Father" song, or whatever it was. Not bad. Her new stuff, though, is pretty bad.

But that hasn't stopped me from listening to it!

Her "lead" single, "Bossy," was released a month ago, but it's so bad no one's paid any attention. I found it accidentally two days ago, and even now I'm not sure exactly how I ended up on her iTunes page. But that's water under the bridge now. The track is boring and uninventive, with production that is literally scraping the bottom of the barrel. It's got clubby synths and a persistent beat, and that's it. Luckily for Lohan, Ne-Yo provided her with some seriously addictive lyrics, including the anti-climactic (but methamphetamine-infused) chorus, where Lohan rings out, "I'm just a little bossy/I like it how I like it when I like it/that's just the way it is." Ne-Yo can inject a little personality into everything he writes, and "Bossy" is no exception.

Also great is the iTunes free single of the week, "Black and Gold" by Sparro, an artist destined to become the next 'It Boy' of faux-hipster circles. This track is also ridiculous, but in the best way possible. Sparro rants on about evolution and stars and crap, but that's not why anyone's listening to "Black and Gold." They're listening for Sparro's jello-thick, '80's inspired vocals and thumping bass reminiscent of the early days of disco. The instrumentals have a rolling, relentless quality to them--like riding a horse or running a marathon. Ironically, Sparro sings, "it's all just a bunch of matter"--meaning, pretty much everything beyond the bass line is, well, unnecessary.

For the record: I am entirely unimpressed by Hercules and Love Affair.

UPDATE: Sam Sparro is not only the best artist I've found in recent memory--as in, this past week--but is far better than I gave him credit for above. He is a wonder.


Mad Style: SSX 3 Soundtrack

As an avid videogamer, it's kind of sad they don't have a more prominent on The Happiest Activist. Even more tragic is how, when I'm finally about to write about them, it's just their soundtracks.

SSX 3 (2004) is a blow-your-mind, constantly exciting, relentless thrill ride of a game--and I don't even care how grammatically confusing that last sentence was. As far as extreme sport games go, it's my absolute favorite. As far as games go in general, it's easily in my top five.

And I have played many a videogame.

But on to why SSX 3 has mad style: the soundtrack is the best soundtrack to ever accompany a videogame. It introduced me to around fifteen artists I still follow today, many of which have dropped off the face of the earth. I was reminded of how kick-ass the music was today on iTunes when under the "Just For You" list--a ridiculous and useless invention of pretentious Apple employees--the number five spot was occupied by The Ceaser's "Jerk It Out," from their 39 Minutes of Bliss album. Even before I wholly understood what the lyrics meant (all too apparent to me now), I played this song on repeat. There are around 40 or so tracks in SSX 3, I think, and at least 30 are of the download-right-now-or-die variety.

Finger Eleven, Basement Jaxxx, Ima Robot, Swollen Members, and even MxPx (before they became posers. Or, before we all knew it).

Needless to say, the entire soundtrack of SSX 3 is on its way to me as we speak. Amazon, I salute you.


just sayin'...

I think it's funny that Lady Gaga's "Just Dance" became famous overnight. I've been listening to the track for a week or two now, and while I think it's just okay as far as dance songs go--Gaga's lyrical enunciation is a bit on the corny side for me, which ruins any sex appeal the track would otherwise have--it's great to see her all over the place. I'm pretty sure "Just Dance" is going to be the anthem for America's Best Dance Crew.

Also, does anyone know: is Akon playing along in the track?


Best $200 I've ever spent

Above: The prepiness is complete!

Went to a few stores today, picked up a lot of amazing items. Seriously, the shopping leprechaun must have been in my back pocket, because I got deals even when nature disagreed!

(The whole nature disagreement ordeal began with the torrential rain, which Lightsey and I had to sprint through at breakneck speed to avoid drowning. Needless to say, I was wearing my Toms, and when you mix cloth shoes and rainwater...)

With spending less than $200 under 2.5 hours I bought a beautiful blue polo from Bacharach, a Nordstrom's tie, slacks and a dress shirt from The Gap, and white sneakers from Lacoste. For anyone who doesn't know, that's a freakin good day!

The Lacoste's actually have a funny story, but I'll keep it short. I was talking with a friend via text about some douchebags she was hanging with, and when I found the Lacoste shoes--on sale for $84.00--I told her, "I'm about to join their league." In general, I despise Lacoste in the same way I despise Abercrombie and Fitch. It's lowbrow, easy-to-be-refined clothing. No imagination necessary. However, $80 was a good deal. When I went to try them on--ahem, have an employee put them on my feet himself--I asked if the $80 was the final price. He's like, "Uhh...they aren't on sale." So no problem, I would get them anyway. But apparently they assumed I would bitch about it because I was shopping at Nordstrom. You know, I must have been BANKING to even WALK INSIDE such a place! Please. So in the end they took off 30% for my "inconvenience." In non-subservient language, that means "because some idiot put the shoes in the sale rack."

The tie's (below) got a funny story, too. The ties at Nordstrom's are ridiculously expensive. Prada, Armani, and Thomas Pink (my favorite) are the name of the game. However, I picked up a blue and yellow plaid tie, which was great with my pink shirt from The Gap, and found out it was only $27.00 off of $100+. When I got to the register, the cashier asked if he could buy it from me. Seriously. He wanted it and would pay me $40.00. I said no, thanks, I brought it to the register because I want to own it...

The rest is history. I love The Gap, at Bacharach I was hussled into buying SOMETHING--the sales guys were desperate (and no one was around to bale me out), and I felt satisfied enough by the end to head out with cousin in tow and call it a day.

Above: Texture and color make up my work ensemble. Now if I could only learn how to tie a tie...

The Japanese are on to something

My young cousins are over today, and the eight year-old (Lightsey) asked me to play a dress-up game online. It's kind of addictive; my cousin and I are competing over who can make the best outfit. Here's one I thought turned out, well, kindasortathebestever.

Ladies, take note: you should be dressing like this!


Review: Katy Perry, "One Of The Boys"

Katy Perry's album dropped on Tuesday, and I promptly drove to Flightpath to pick up Wifi and download it off iTunes. Stupidly, though, I downloaded the whole album--it was $7.99 and seemed like such a good deal at the moment--before realizing I had three of the songs already, which weren't part of the "complete my album" discount. So, in the end, I paid for a bunch of songs I already had. Let's be honest. readers (oh who am I kidding?!)--er, Justin: it's just not that great.

While critics are by and large giving her a harder time than she deserves, the complaints are legitimate. As a reader of Katy Perry's blog, I see how her "rocker" image is kind of a facade. I understand some people really admire her style, but as one critic pointed out, her physical appearance is just a combination of Lily Allen (a true trend-setter, in my opinion) and burlesque performer Dita Von Teese. Granted, Perry is far more attractive than either of these fashionistas, but her musical style is just as convoluted.

Disclaimer: I really like Perry as a human being. I love "Kissed A Girl." I think Perry is gutsy and unconventional.

But, no matter how often she checks The Sartorialist, Perry can't help the producers her label (the evil Capitol Records) chose. While I think the album is going to spawn at least one more hit--the addictive but dated "Hot N' Cold"--it is weighed down by musical production that sounds...well, like it was thrown together in 2003. For all intents and purposes, 2003 was a bad year for music.

With all the musical panache of a naughtier (albeit leagues more interesting) Michelle Branch, the tracks on "One Of The Boys" stumble one on the other without instrumental transition. The producers followed a standard pop-rock pattern, one that has been used more in recent memory than Amy Winehouse uses crack: 1) Start glittery, low-key elecronic ting track; 2) slowly integrate a strumming guitar; 3) fade in the electric guitar and abruptly bang out the drums, 4) start chorus and repeat.

I guess I'm being a bit hard on her, too. I just wanted Perry to be successful. I still want her to be successful. She's not a bad girl. She's not a rocker chick at all, really; she's tender and gentle and, at the heart of her lesbian-esque writing tendencies, a vulnerable young girl in the middle of numerous life transitions. As a Christian, I can understand her struggle a tiny bit: I'm a total believer and have seen the power of God work enough times to keep me within the folds of the faith, but there are so many temptations, so many factors that are working to convince Christians their beliefs are a sham. Of course, neither Perry nor I are stereotypical Christians. We are fighting against the stereotypes that say all Christians are judgemental and closed-minded and--ugh--Republican. I think this is where the critics don't understand who Perry is. They have not experienced the paradox of being both a Christian and being judged by members within the Christian community. That's where Perry finds herself "Lost."

But on to the good stuff. There are a number of catchy, authentic-sounding tracks on "One Of The Boys" (sorry, my italics bar isn't working, otherwise these titles would be elegantly tilted instead of annoyingly stilted by these pockmarks we call "quotations"). The aforementioned "Hot N' Cold" is a fantastic pop record, and is one that gets better as it wears on, peaking at the bridge transition: "Someone/call a doctor/got a case of a love bipolar."

"Mannequin," displaying a touch of lyrical brilliance on the part of Perry, leaves Perry softly cooing, "You're not a man/you're just a man-ne-quin" near the beginning and finishing will a passionate repitition by the end. The title track is just as good, with a retro-feel that elevates above saccharine terrotory. Of the ballads, however, I was not as moved. They are clearly not her strongsuit, but not poor by any means. "I Think I'm Ready" has a dainty, feminine feel to it, as if Perry is smiling as she sings, and "Lost" is pretty if you like 2005-era Kelly Clarkson.

I suppose if I had heard all the tracks together--that is, not already listened to "I Kissed A Girl" on repeat for three weeks--I would appreciate the entire album a bit more. "Ur So Gay," though, feels strangely out of place in this rock-tinged album. While I never liked the song that much to begin with, stuck in the middle of passionate pleas for love and early mornings spent over the toilet bowl (as on "Waking Up In Vegas," another track with clever lyrics and poor production that deflates the entire venture into "Hannah Montana" territory), it just sounds childish.

So there you go. A pretty good album from a very talented artist. She can do better. Her producers can do better. The best thing, though, is that Perry knows it. She knows she has to be smarter next time, more cutting-edge and less like her contemporaries. Or, perhaps, we will only see the real Perry when she stops paying attention to her contemporaries altogether.


Late night photoshoot

This was taken around 7:45 in the evening, which is way to late for a photoshoot. The shoot was supposed to be for my friend's wedding, but my favorite images (one of them is above) did not turn out wedding-ish. She looks sad, but for me it's beautiful. She has really classic proportions, so taking her pictures felt like what I imagine post-Renaissance artists felt when painting their subjects...

Doesn't this one look like a painting? The color range is so rich, even though there are only a two "colors" (black and white) the shades in between illustrate the image as if the entire spectrum is present. I'm proud.


Money is becoming a problem. As in, I keep spending it even though I don't really have any income.

Yeah...okay, here's my public declaration: I will NOT be spending any money on superfluous things until I have a job.

I still want to write about that ring but I haven't taken a picture of it yet.................


New Music: Solange (Knowles) and Lights

My computer's charger failed a few days ago--it "zaps" every few seconds when I plug it in--and it's left me unable to blog. Well, I'm venturing into the densely glitch-filled forest of the P.C. That's "personal computer" for anyone born after 1990. That's "not a mac" for everyone else.

Two great artists have been revealed to me by the music gods of iTunes. I find most of my great music by playing around on Apple's most accessible application, but 30-second samples hardly convey the quality (or lack of) in a song. Like an ancient Aztec ritual, my dollars (with tax, the $0.99 comes out to $1.07) pour down the altar of the internet in sacrifice of the all-mighty iTunes--for my listening pleasure.

(Three cheers for melodrama!!)

Anyways, first up is Lights. She's some new, Disney-flavored electropop songstress who released an EP last week. The EP, cleverly titled "Lights-EP," is pretty okay as far as pop goes. APPARENTLY, one (or two) of her songs is on an Old Navy commerial, but as Tivo has spared my eyes from all television ads, I can't really verify that. I can, however, verify that her plucky "Ice" and sunny "White" are great electropop additions in a year that is already brimming with options in the genre. "Ice" is the better of the two, with a melody reminiscent of Lily Allen and a vocal track that sounds a bit like Britney Spears as a crackwhore. So, basically she sounds like Britney Spears. At first I thought Lights was referencing drugs ("You turned to ice"), but I now know she, literally, means ice. Like, the cold kind. That is kind of a let-down considering female artists are always more interesting when referencing drugs...

And, speaking of Lily Allen, I still think she freaking rocks. I don't care that she's fat and the American media hates her. Allen's Myspace showcases at least two songs off her upcoming (?) album that are blowing my mind. Her new material is obviously influenced by Imogen Heap, so it's heavy on electronic beats (by the release of Allen's next album, the amount of electropop may just drown us all.). Speaking of Imogen Heap...

I kid.

"I Decided," a single by the tranny-like Solange Knowles, is without doubt one of my top five favorite songs this year, and that is saying a lot. Over a chilled yet infectious base line and clap track, Solange gently asks the producer to "turn the mic up, I can't hear myself." Luckily for her (and her record label), just because she's Beyonce's kid sister doesn't make her Beyonce. Granted, every producer alive wishes his or her little starlet in training sounded like Beyonce, but when she's your older sister, it's better to differentiate yourself. You know, like Ashlee and Jessica Simpson! Jessica has a great voice, and Ashlee...well, sucks balls.

Solange, however, does not suck balls. Her voice is raspy and layered, with a great pinch when she hits the high notes. Her speaking voice is eerily like Beyonce's, however, and that will definitely throw off casual listeners. The song is a throwback to 60s and 70s soul, but unlike 90% of the female soloists that are attempting an Amy Winehouse-redoux, Solange just may succeed. "I Decided" is a ridiculously delicious slice of musical heaven, and belongs on everyone's summer playlist, right next to Sugar Ray. Hey, I know you listen to Sugar Ray. Don't deny it.


American System Integration: Initiating...

I'm back in the U.S. and am already buried in make-believe stress. There's nothing I have to do with deadlines attached, no schoolwork. I really don't even need to write this blog, something that does occasionally add to my stress.

However, here I am. How sad is that? How American is that? I want to blog because it makes me feel accomplished and I love reading my own words. It's true. But at the same time, it would be far less stressful in my life if I didn't.

Enough philosophizing. I've a ton of meat to grind, so let's get cooking.

Spain is a beautiful country. The people are so sincere, and the Spanish live at a pace that all human beings should aspire to live by. No joke, the average work day (9 to 6) has over four hours of breaks. So the eight or nine hour workday becomes a four or five hour workday. The Spanish don't need to be babysat by their careers, and their productivity is still high. There is a mix of cultures, too, but the ties between race and income is scary. The darker your skin in Spain, the less money you make. I know that sounds bad coming from a white guy, but it was an honest observation. The poorer districts had more racial diversity, while the El'xample (where we lived) was wealthy and white.

Let it be, I suppose.

As far as style is concerned, I was only partly impressed. The people of Spain are a practical people. They love their food and their wine and their time off, but they are not superficial in any way whatsoever. Collectively, they are a confident and proud bunch of people. Usually this converts into great style. I've said it before: Self-confidence comes before good taste and good style. But the Spanish just don't care. I mean, they certainly dress better than most people in the U.S.--lots of skinny jeans, leather jackets, and loose-fitting frocks--but not with the carefully-articulated color combinations and texture mixes that pervade American dressing. Here's a good way to illustrate my point: Ralph Lauren is the American brand. The colors are primary colors, sweetly combined pinks and greens and cloth belts making up a look that appears relaxed but rigidly composed. Spanish designers (the huge chain Mango, for instance. Summer dress from 2007 at right) has shirts with actual feathers and advertises color combinations that are so off the style radar they shock the senses. Banana yellow and mango orange with a baggy pink sweater is a simply example.
However, the clothing in Spain has close ties to nature and the art of Antoni Gaudi, arguably the most influential artist of the twentieth century aside from Picasso. That's why black is simply not a wardrobe choice in Barcelona. When is the last time you saw black in nature and called it beautiful? French design is all about a rebellion against nature. Blacks and harsh blues with touches of polygonal prints are motifs found throughout all of modern clothing design, but not in Spain.

Zara, however, offers a really refreshing look at men's clothing. Besides being ridiculously affordable, the clothes push men to dress well without knowing it. You can buy a polo, or you can buy a polo at Zara. The Zara piece, though, will have a soft-cotton collar and a v-neck design, bringing both timelessness and a bit of immediacy to the entire look. But how would anyone notice that unless they are obsessive compulsive and control freaks like me?

I have picture of their Summer 2007 collection for women to the left. I'll post more from their men's collection later, or at least what I bought myself.

So here I am. I'm happy to be home, but only because I get to see my dogs and take a bath lying down. I am proud to be an American, but I'm not proud of how the states look from the top of Monjuic in Barcelona.

Still to come:
-My RI-DI-CU-LOUS ring
-H&M...it exists
-A few new artists

To close, I'd like to say I'm very proud of Katy Perry. She's frickin' stuck to her guns and now's got a top-ten single on pop radio. Way to go. Not since The Killers "Sombeody Told Me" has an artist written about sexuality so honestly and gotten a hit out of it. I have that weird half-happy feeling though, like I did when other favorite bands went big. Keane, Sara Bareilles, Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse, Lupe Fiasco...but you know what, it's cool. As long as she's happy and keeps making music.