By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Much can be made of Janelle Monae's fantastic soul music — its Afrofuturist revival, its wacky narratives, the timing of its critical success during the administration of America's first black president — and something will be made of it right here in this column. But the most important thing to understand about this exciting rising star is this: Don't deconstruct it, just dance.
Any enlightenment to be had will come eventually. Monae works both sides of the truism offered by fellow space cadet George Clinton: "Free your mind and your ass will follow." She's got big ideas behind her words and music, but she doesn't preach. She dances, usually spontaneously.
"I don't choreograph pretty much anything I do," she said last spring in a BET interview. Watch the video for her hit "Tightrope"; she clearly has a relative idea of how she wants to move, but she's also clearly making much of it up as she pivots down that asylum hallway. "So I'm merely creating art right in front of my eyes and the audience's eyes. It's like a spiritual, out-of-body experience. I feel very possessed." She added, in an AP interview: "I want them to allow the music to transform them as much as it's transformed me."
Get them moving, and their minds will follow.
"The ArchAndroid" (pronounced "the ARK android"), Monae's universally acclaimed debut CD, is a highly theatrical statement. When I refer above to her soul music as fantastic, this is not merely a superlative. Drawing from the same wells of other musicians who've used sci-fi and fantasy as African-American allegory, Monae claims a wild backstory to her songs: She is an inmate of the Palace of the Dogs Art Asylum. She has time-traveled here from the year 2719, and her DNA has been used to create an android freedom fighter named Cindi Mayweather, sent to free the citizens of Metropolis from an oppressive group called the Great Divide.
"I believe we're going to be living in a world of androids by 2029," she told the Guardian newspaper, apparently with a straight face. "How will we all get along? Will we treat the android humanely? What type of society will it be when we're integrated? I've felt like the Other at certain points in my life. I felt like it was a universal language that we could all understand."
That capitalized Other — the stranger in a strange land — is a common sci-fi theme and has shown up throughout the legacy of Afrofuturist music, from DJ Spooky's trip-hop back through Dr. Octagon's "Earth People," Digable Planets' "Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space)," Afrika Bambaataa's scratch-cut classic "Planet Rock," even Herbie Hancock's own android assembly in "Rockit." Before that, Clinton's Paliament/Funkadelic launched the "mothership," and the first contact with black aliens occurred right here in Chicago, where Sun Ra landed with his Arkestra in the mid-'50s and eventually claimed "Space Is the Place."
Gerald Majer, in his Beat-like recollection of Chicago's avant-jazz scene, The Velvet Lounge: On Late Chicago Jazz, attempts to describe the tug-of-war between black American history and sci-fi futurism exploding from Sun Ra's early '60s concerts here, enigmatically concluding: "Space is the place: you move in, you move aside, you dance where it divides."
The divide between sanity and madness is central to Monae's cosmology. Her vision of the future is not optimistic, singing in "Locked Inside": "When I look into the future, I see danger in its eyes / Hearts of hatred rule the land while others left outside / Killing, bleeding Citizen, while music slowly dies / and I get frightened, see, I get frightened." The love of her man, however, will keep her from "going crazy."
"So many people deal with so many obstacles every day that they need to relieve some of that stress," Monae said in a recent Vibe interview. "So 'Tightrope' deals with balance and not getting too high or too low. So I just really focused on creating art, songs that I felt would connect to people."
Her musical journey started when Janelle Robinson left her native Kansas City for New York City to study theater. She wanted to be a Broadway star. When that dream faded a bit, she relocated to Atlanta, where she met like-minded artists, like Chuck Lightning, and formed the Wondaland Arts Society (which releases her music, now distributed through Sean "Diddy" Combs' Bad Boy label). Outkast's Big Boi discovered her and began pushing her on his compilations, even slipping her into the Outkast movie "Idlewild." (He guests on "Tightrope"; she appeared on his solo debut this year, too.) The theatrical flair continues — videos are planned for each song on "The ArchAndroid," as well as a graphic novel and, yes, a musical.
So, free your mind — it will come back to you — and trust yourself to just enjoy the groove. Monae's voice is clear and strong. Her music is Motown sharp and James Brown funky. She dances like someone who knows how but doesn't spend a month rehearsing. Last time she was in town, she opened for Erykah Badu and completely upstaged her. (Word so far on this tour is the same is true of her Georgia friends in Of Montreal.) Let the very human beats and belts carry you away, then chat about the big ideas on the way home.
with Janelle Monae
• 7 p.m. Saturday
• Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine
• Tickets, $23, etix.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Crowded House called it quits in 1996 after four albums and several modest hits. Granted, most of those hits were on the front end ("Don't Dream It's Over" in 1987, "Better Be Home Soon" the following year), and the band fared better in Europe and its native lands down under. But singer and songwriter Neil Finn's McCartneyesque melodies have survived as a credible, inspiring body of work.
Rumors and requests of a reunion persisted, but in 2005 founding drummer Paul Hester killed himself. The reunion, however — of Finn and bassist Nick Seymour, adding Mark Hart and a new drummer, Matt Sherrod — eventually happened in spite of this tragedy, possibly because of it.
Crowded House Mach II has been a more complex affair, thus far delivering two albums ("Time on Earth" in 2007, this summer's "Intriguer") of densely arranged tunes with wilder undercurrents. We caught up with Neil Finn this week to hear how the new venture is holding together.
Q. How's this tour going?
A. We're in really good shape as a band. It's a very generic answer, but it's true. We've clocked a lot of miles, and our instincts are serving us very well. We're jamming more.
Q. Beg pardon? I certainly don't think of Crowded House as a jam band.
A. Well, as much as our spirit of adventure will allow us. It's not always going to be particularly appealing for the audience to hear us go off together, but we're striking a balance. But I do love the way some songs can be, to some extent, redefined. When I say jamming, I mean throwing a few new angles on the tracks. There are quite a few points in the set where we depart from the script.
Q. Like where?
A. "Private Universe," "Hole in the River" — these have allowed themselves to become quite sprawling, quite intense. Generally speaking, most audiences have seemed quite thrilled with them.
Q. Is there something about the new lineup that lends itself to this happening?
A. We always had that inclination in the old band, though we were regarded as this tight pop band. I think we always had a sense of openness on stage, though. ... We began our career in the first incarnation by busking, the three of us, on streets, in houses, restaurants. So early on there was a freedom, a willingness to get the audience involved and go where you wanted to go. Our drummer at the time [Hester] had a mad sense of abandon and humor, and that became a part of our show. We don't have his presence anymore, but our approach to performing is still looking for those moments that jump off.
Q. You ended the band saying you needed some creative space. Did you find it?
A. Absolutely. I felt hemmed in by Crowded House at the time. I went and made two solo albums, another two with my brother [Tim Finn]. In the course of that I got to play with some amazing people. It was good for the natural restlessness of creativity.
Q. The solo songs called out to be outside the band?
A. It's hard to talk about, but yeah. I suppose I could have done this with the band, or I could've kept the name and done the same thing with other people. But I attached myself to the idea that the band is a fairly involved, encompassing thing and you had to be in it completely; you couldn't come and go.
Q. I remember Rhett Miller speaking about his first solo album away from the Old 97s. People were always asking him, "These sound like Old 97s songs. Why couldn't you just do them with the band?"
A. Right, he toured with me once; I remember that same conversation. He could have; I could have. Sometimes you just have to feel around outside your comforts.
Q. Was re-forming the band inevitable after Paul died?
A. It was part of the sequence of events, no doubt. I was seeing Nick quite a bit in the aftermath of that awful thing. We reconnected and found ourselves playing music, as we do. I was working on what was to be a solo album at the time, but he started to be a part of that process. By the end, we were reconciled to some new spirit of the band. ... It put a good history to our story, so that it wouldn't end in that dark place.
7:30 p.m. Sunday and Monday
House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.