» Full Dark, No Stars - Stephen King's new novella questions mankind's ability to trust others.
[02.21.2011 by Bridget Doyle]


 » The Top 30 Albums of 2010 - Fashionably, fabulously late, our favorite music (and believe me, there was a LOT) of 2010, the year that some have called the best year for music ever. And only some of those fools work here. Plenty of usual suspects, lots of ties and a few surprises that I won't spoil, including our unexpected #1.
[12.24.2010 by The LAS Staff]


 » Live: Surfer Blood/The Drums at Lincoln Hall, Chicago, IL - Remember when Weezer used to put together records that you could sing along to and rock out to? That's what Surfer Blood's show was like!
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Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
»Screaming Females
Castle Talk
Don Giovanni
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross - The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
»Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
The Null Corporation
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
Halcyon Digest
No Age - Everything in Between
»No Age
Everything in Between
Sub Pop
Robyn - Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
The Walkmen - Lisbon
»The Walkmen
Fat Possum

Rating: 8/10 ?

August 30, 2007
Maya Arulpragasam, known to the music world as M.I.A., is an intelligent, driven artist with a rare opportunity: an open audience and the major-label financing to do whatever she wants, the only Sri Lankan female rapper in history to be granted that power. She'll take a meeting with anyone intrigued - Timbaland, Three 6 Mafia even - and leave the star power off the record if it doesn't fit her vision. Adding to Arulpragasam's unusual approach is her apparent lack of interest in video hits - she can be seen riding an elephant in 2005's "Galang" clip and partying in what might as well be Borat's Kazakhstan to most Americans in this year's "Birdflu." Poke fun all you want at the notions of not just what a foreign artist is "supposed" to represent, but what really is foreign after all?

In a way, Arulpragasam is so international that the music of M.I.A. is foreign to no one. Her latest album, Kala, was tracked everywhere from Trinidad to Liberia, the United States having proven her on-record expositions of xenophobic paranoia correct. Arulpragasam's debut album, Arular was a massively acclaimed, masterfully orchestrated swatch of what that paranoia feels like, with jittery beats, squirmy synths and 808s, and spare hints of the melodic or arranged. To put it bluntly, Arular sounded like a recording of a United Nations parade caught in a traffic jam during a sun storm, a Reggaetón station the only frequency cutting through the noise, remixed and blasted through speakers a bit frayed.

Since the success of debut the fact that M.I.A.'s dad was involved with the Tamil Tigers has been blogged to death, and that Arular was his codename, but the album didn't come across as rebel propaganda, its politics seemed disconnected from the actual music. If not for a single reference to the Feds, how was anyone to think that the barely sensical "Galang" was anything but a jilted weed anthem? It certainly felt revolutionary, what with "the bombs to make you blow" on the lead track, but Arular's most horrifying depictions of war were tucked away into its calmest tune. That track, "Sunshowers," summed up what's most unique about the M.I.A. listening experience: being confronted with having your fingers broken in an unnamed camp eerily similar to Gitmo but, in a tone droll as popped gum, unspeakable torture is described as "Quit bendin' all my fingo/ Quit beating me like you're Ringo," and paired with a chorus that appeared to be about "my baby."

Kala's a lot more like that. Kala is only received as a political record if you listen up properly. The music itself no longer asserts itself like a militia; it's too calm and more scattered. Guerrilla, if you will. The few booming calls ("Birdflu," "Boyz") sound more like triumphant hoedowns at a summer camp than fierce indictments of foreign policy. And Arulpragasam herself takes particular joy in misrepresenting her topics - the cover for the for "Boyz" single and its matched video could be the wired world's answer to any boy-crazy Missy Elliott tune, but as the song marches on it becomes clear that M.I.A. is not just cruising "rowdy" boys, she's looking for one that will "start a war." Or, given her mixed messages, maybe Arulpragasam is just mocking the ones that do start wars with a faux-fistpumper. Her tone, droll as ever, tends to make it hard to tell.

A bit of a step back from Arular, this time around M.I.A.'s music suffers a bit from all the souvenir shopping. Rather than let anyone waste their time trying to figure out if "Mango Pickle Down River" is supposed to be a novelty or a four-minute skit, I'll spill the beans: it's apparently a remake of a hit song down under, where some aboriginal kids get their freestyle on, and in her version M.I.A. appropriates the silly tone for her own verse. Rapping about fishing with some kids over a buzzy human beatbox is cute, but perplexing. M.I.A. assimilates New Order's "Blue Monday" and the Pixies' "Where is My Mind?" on one track for no particular reason, the same way the opening lines on the record quote Jonathan Richman's pre-punk classic "Roadrunner." But those interpolations don't add much to "20 Dollar" or "Bamboo Banger" at all, they just sound like bribes for critical adoration, an unusually shallow move for a Tamil Tiger daughter.

On the other hand, Kala's top two cuts work a shameless sample each: "Jimmy" is some kind of ska-Bollywood karaoke that might as well be Madonna. Yeah, it might sound off, but as long as she loops those euphoric disco strings again, who cares? And "Paper Planes" is hysterical, sampling "Straight to Hell" by the Clash, where she brags about having "more records than the KGB," a sings between a series of sound effects on the chorus: "All I wanna do is [shooting gun], and [cocked gun], and [cash register], and take your money."

Because these most lighthearted moments are also the most inspired, M.I.A. could easily be accused of lax politics -- if the punishing "Bird Flu" wasn't the bronze medal. And who would really want to see Maya Arulpragasam taking the warm fuzzy route anyway? She's too interesting as a dilettante. I just hope that in all the artistic and commercial freedom she has been afforded, M.I.A. finds a way to scrounge up all that intensity over and over again.

Reviewed by Dan Weiss
Dan Weiss is the music editor for LAS. Formerly an editorial intern at CMJ and creator of the now defunct What was It Anyway?, his work has appeared in Village Voice, Pitchfork, Philadelphia Inquirer, Stylus and Crawdaddy among others. He resides in Brooklyn where he enjoys questionable lifestyle choices and loud guitars.

See other reviews by Dan Weiss



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