Music reviews: “The Way I’m Running” and “The Electric Lady”

PigPen Theatre Co., The Way I’m Running

So last year around October 6-8, I was in New York on my way to Seattle via Spain, and while there I got to see PigPen Theatre Co.’s The Old Man and the Old Moon. It was really exciting to me that this year, almost exactly a year from when I saw PigPen live, they released a new album of music — just in time for my birthday, no less.

Important disclaimer: these excellent dudes graduated with me in CMU’s School of Drama Class of 2011, so I’m not a totally unbiased reviewer. That said, these guys are some of the most talented artists, storytellers, and musicians I’ve ever experienced, and even if I didn’t know them I’d be stanning for them.

For those unfamiliar with PigPen, they create original folk music with a strong emphasis on storytelling, acoustic instruments, and vocal harmony. Think Mumford & Sons, but with a little more Fairport Convention/Steeleye Span/Decemberists to the lyrics and a little less heartbroken-man-with-a-banjo. Many of their songs are written to be part of their theatrical shows, like The Old Man and the Old Moon (now playing in Chicago), but they’re not what I’d call musical theatre songs for the most part. They’re too self-contained for that. Though they sometimes comment directly on a storyline or move a plot along (as in “Just Like the Sea” or “Grand Old Paris” from their first full-length album, Bremen, both songs featured in Old Man), they’re more often sort of . . . atmospheric. It’s hard to tell what came first, a scene in a play or a song; sometimes it seems like PigPen uses plays to curate their music in the style of a jukebox musical like We Will Rock You, and sometimes their songs are just so bursting with story that the only way you can imagine them is with a full set and costumes.

The Way I’m Running is tragically short, with only five songs, but it makes a great gateway drug companion to PigPen’s other albums. This album showcases a little more variety in musical style than Bremen: it opens with “Sailor” and “Song from the Stone,” both totally classic PigPen songs — especially “Song from the Stone,” which makes the best use of PigPen’s intricate instrumentation and showcases their soul-stirring vocal harmonies. (Look, I know that sounds cheesy, but there it is. Seven voices in impeccable choral harmony gets me right where I live.) On the other hand, “Giant” has a certain Beatles-ish je ne sais quois that I haven’t heard in PigPen’s other work — maybe it’s the combination of the falsetto ooooh backup vocals and the, I quote, “*NASTY GUITAR SOLOS*” — and “The Way I’m Running” has a lot of high-energy polka to it, and “I Crash” sounds ready for the kind of radio stations that play Mumford & Sons.

“Song from the Stone” is definitely my favorite song on the album, but the title track “The Way I’m Running” almost beats it out. “Running” is one of my favorite kinds of songs: bouncy, catchy as hell, danceable, good chorus to sing along to, and actually about death and destruction if you listen to the lyrics. I love it. I’m sick. But it’s a song about a girl who picks up a hitchhiker and then runs their car into the wall and it’s so peppy! How can I not love it?

All in all, The Way I’m Running is a great addition to PigPen’s ouevre, and thanks to the greater variety in its music, it might even stand on its own a little better than Bremen. Still, what I’m really waiting for is a The Hazards of Love-style concept album from these guys. (Also, when is the Prison-fish song going to make it onto an album?)

You can stream The Way I’m Running on Bandcamp (and I think on Spotify?), but it’s only $5 to own. For more on PigPen’s music, shows, videos, etc, check out their website.


Janelle Monae, The Electric Lady

Speaking of concept albums . . .

Janelle. Janelle. Janeeeeeeelle oh my god guys I love her so much I can’t even tell you she’s perfect. JANELLE MONAE’S MUSIC EXISTS IN THE WORLD. What is your excuse for not having it in your ears right now?!

Janelle Monae’s The Electric Lady kind of couldn’t be further from PigPen, but it’s fitting to feature them both in one post because they are the two artists I will unfailingly, unflaggingly, unendingly chatter at people about. I’ve been falling into incoherence over Janelle Monae’s latest album, The Electric Lady, all summer long, ever since “Q.U.E.E.N.” and its accompanying video was released.

Because like, here’s the thing. Do you like pop music? Janelle can do that — you’ve heard her (being woefully underused) on fun.’s “Tonight (We Are Young).” Do you like social justice and overtly political music? Janelle can DO that, wow, I’ll talk about that in a minute. Do you like science and sci-fi? So does Janelle! The Electric Lady features suites IV and V of her long-running Cindi Mayweather story, heavily inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and referencing such notables as Philip K. Dick and Sally Ride. Do you like to dance? I give you “Q.U.E.E.N.,” and “Dance Apocalyptic.” Do you like incredibly talented singing? I present Janelle’s sweet crooning on “Primetime” with Miguel, soulful belting on “Sally Ride,” bubbly chirping on “Dance Apocalyptic,” and Hendrix-like rock on “Givin Em What They Love,” supported by Prince.

Apart from showing off Janelle Monae’s incredible vocal, musical, and creative range, what I really love about The Electric Lady is that it’s unabashedly political without sacrificing the music even an iota. The lyrics in this, man. In “Q.U.E.E.N.” Janelle asks sarcastically “Hey sister am I good enough for your Heaven? / Say will your god accept me in my black and white? / Will he approve the way I’m made?” During the rap in “Electric Lady” she goes from shouting out to Beyonce to feminist rhetoric and messianic imagery with “Gloss on my lips / Glass on my ceiling … Illuminating all that she touches, eye on the sparrow / A modern day Joan of her Arc or Mia Farrow.” The whole of “Ghetto Woman” is an ode to working-class women like Janelle Monae’s mother, trying to raise her daughter on a janitor’s salary, and it’s easy to draw the connection between that song and Janelle’s angry accusation in “Q.U.E.E.N.”: “Keep us underground working hard for the greedy / But when it’s time to pay they turn around and call us needy.”

Emily J. Lordi sums up the feminist, political side of The Electric Lady better than I can:

Monae’s album title alone performs a black feminist coup by turning a glorified object into a glorious subject. Here the male fantasy theme park of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland becomes TheElectric Lady, a female agent who not only claims a term (“lady”) historically reserved for white women but also seizes the creative power that “electric” connotes. But the title also evokes an era when “electric” became a keyword in American culture—when a nation emerging relieved from the 1970s energy crisis would create the “Electric Slide” and “The Electric Company” and give birth to a neon sneakers-wearing generation of kids with astronaut dreams. Welcome to the future of the past.

That retro-future vibe is enormously evident in both music and lyric, even to someone like me who’s got a pretty tin ear for funk, soul, and R&B. And Rafi D’Angelo raises another great point about the politics of the album:

… more surprising (or perhaps not at all) are the winks and nods at the lesbian rumors that have followed Janelle for years.  There are moments on the album where she’s either poking fun at the rumors or acknowledging them with a quiet nod of acceptance.

The end of “Givin Em What They Want [sic]” fades out as Janelle sings she followed me back to the lobby // she was lookin at me for some undercover love.  The third verse of “Q.U.E.E.N.” seems to have been written entirely with the gay rumors in mind and “Sally Ride” is notably titled considering Sally Ride is thus far the only openly LGBT astronaut sent to space.  Most telling is an interlude in the last third of the album with “callers” ringing in to a radio station with comments like “they should just do whatever they do to people like that” and “robot love is queer” supposedly in reference to Janelle’s alter-ego Cindi Mayweather being an android.  Listening through the ears of a gay man, so much of Janelle’s persona seems to be in code, android being a substitute for lesbian much the way mutants stand in for homosexuals in the X-Men franchise.

It all makes for an incredibly complex, intricate, deeply satisfying album. (I like Suite IV better than Suite V for the most part — I don’t know that I’m the target audience for soul and funk for the most part — but there are moments I love throughout the album. I just want to roll around in the opening of “Sally Ride” like a puppy in the grass.)

Why are you not at least listening to “Q.U.E.E.N.” and “Dance Apocalyptic” RIGHT NOW they are both on YouTube and the whole album can be downloaded from Amazon for just $10. GET ON THAT.

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