Published Aug 01, 2004Story-time #1: A friend of mine works in a family-owned coffee shop. During a recent shift, one of her co-workers accepted a counterfeit $100 bill from a customer. Upon discovering the forgery, the café's owner recouped his losses by docking the pay of every employee on-shift. Asked why none of her co-workers pursued the matter with labour officials, my friend answered, "Because no one wants to see [the owners] get in trouble."
Of course, if the coffee shop in question was a Starbucks, here's betting that its employees wouldn't hesitate in pursuing a complaint, but because it's family-owned, the café somehow got away with screwing its workers out of their hard-earned pay. Why do we expect less from independent businesses than we do from corporations?
Whatever the answer to that question, I sense that same mentality at play in many of my peers' approach to music. Most independent music fans relish discovering bands who are relatively unknown. I must confess that I'm the same way, always proud to show off new finds to my friends as if I'm letting them in on a secret that no one else knows.
Given that the major labels spend billions of dollars every year trying to make everyone aware of their releases, it's no surprise that serious music lovers look underground to find their musical fix. This has everything to do with our selfish desire to own music, as if we're all competing to see who can compile the most intensely personal soundtrack to life. Insofar as this phenomenon is a sign of aesthetic passion, it is to be lauded, but when it begins to taint our assessment of corporate-backed music, it strikes me as troublesome.
Story-time #2: Driving around town on a recent Friday night, I was playing Brandy's Afrodisiac at full volume and loving every second of it. In the backseat, an indie-minded acquaintance of mine was recoiling in disgust, barely able to disguise his contempt for the title track, which he'd been exposed to for all of 15 seconds.
Such is the typical reaction I encounter when I tell people that my two favourite albums of the summer are Afrodisiac and Christina Millian's It's About Time, a pair of records by women better known as television actors than as singers. Released within a month of each other at the start of the season, these two LPs verily embody summertime, the singers' breezy vocals whooshing in unison toward a candy-coloured sunset. If you like to skip rope and listen to music, these are the records for you.
As with all such sublime postmillennial pop releases Kylie's Fever and Kelis's Kaleidoscope also spring to mind credit must be split between the singers and their collaborators, a collective endeavouring that might strike indie purists as calculated corporate manufacturing, but which in fact recalls the 50s-era girl-pop sessions helmed by Phil Spector.
In the case of Afrodisiac, Timbaland continues his staggering run of stellar productions, adapting the R&B template he developed for Aaliyah (R.I.P.) to Brandy's mercurial voice, which switches from boy-you-done-me-wrong rasp to gospel-style exhalations in alternating breaths. Beats aside, what's most impressive about Brandy's performance here is her willingness to submit her vocals to heavy digital processing, a sacrifice that yields a host of spine-tingling doubling effects and mesmerising textural wrinkles.
Millian is equally unabashed in her use of such vocal tricks, especially on "I Need More," a screwy pop oddity produced by the Swedish duo of Bloodshy & Avant, the folks behind Britney Spears's indelible "Toxic." To tell the truth, Millian's weak voice is made tolerable only by the liberal application of digital touch-ups, just the sort of airbrushing that a ham-fisted indie group like, say, the Organ could stand to exploit.
But since we expect less from independent artists than we do from their well-financed counterparts, that quintet somehow rules the college charts with a sound that is not only regressive, but clumsily played. In truth, the Organ is no less a marketed entity than Millian, but at least the latter has sense enough to admit when she needs a crutch. And boy, can she skip rope.