Monday, September 14, 2009

#108. 'Now I got her talking like this'

The-Dream "Falsetto"

I like it when a song surprises me. I'm not talking about actual surprises within the song itself, those fail as often as they work in my experience, but those times where an artist I've ignored or written off puts out a song that fits right into my comfort zone and absolutely nails it. It's not exactly rare, I've long believed that every artist no matter how horrible they are has at least one great song in them, but it's nice to be ever so slightly gobsmacked by an artist I wouldn't have looked twice at in normal circumstances. The 00s were particularly rich for this sort of thing, with everyone from Chris Brown ("Forever") and Lil' Wayne ("A Milli") to Theory of a Dead Man (the low key "Santa Monica") and Daughtry ("Over You") managing to get kinda great for one song only to fall back even harder thereafter, and that's just the ones that didn't make this list. The most impressive of these, however was The-Dream's "Falsetto," mostly because it wasn't just an anomaly in an otherwise lackluster discography but the start of a great string of singles that secures his place as one of the most vital performers in modern R 'n' B.

Of course The-Dream had been kicking around for a while as a producer and songwriter, but as an artist all I had to go on pre-"Falsetto" was the rather middling "Shawty Is a 10." Now, "Shawty" wasn't bad by any stretch, but it didn't jump off the page either. It struck me as the work of a fairly personality free R. Kelly wannabe, and having Fabolous, aka the most boring MC ever, on the track did little to challenge that assessment. Even the knowledge that The-Dream was behind the curtain on "Umbrella," and if you think there won't be more on that one later you're living in a fantasy world, didn't bolster my opinion of him, since as a performer he didn't exude much in the way of charm and as a producer he didn't seem that interested in doing more than the bare minimum to get a track going. Of course I was about to be proven wrong a few times over, but at the time I didn't exactly go out of my way to see what else he was doing in the future. Really, it amounts to a bad first impression more than anything. "Shawty Is a 10" may be the kind of song that would get the public at large on his side, but it left me utterly cold.

My reaction to "Falsetto" was pretty much the exact opposite though. After seeing Andrew Unterberger rave about it early last year I figured I owed it a listen just to see if it really was that good, and within about 10 seconds I was absolutely hooked. This was light years beyond "Shawty" on a production level alone, producer and frequent The-Dream collaborator Tricky Stewart put forth a thick bed of low synth tones with eastern-tinged mock-flute over top of it that made the song sound slightly sinister yet undeniably sexy. The real hook though was the hint of dirty, old style R 'n' B guitar work that Stewart threw into the intro. If it didn't pay off in the most awesome part of the song I'd be aggravated by its randomness, but it foreshadows an excellent mid song guitar solo that sounds transplanted from a vintage electric blues recording yet meshes perfectly with the song around it. It's one of those things that you'd never expect to hear in a modern R 'n' B song, and as such it's presence lifts what could have been a pleasant little diversion to the realms of near-awesomeness.

But would the song be any worse off without the guitar? Ignore that fact that it's integral to the song's structure and imagine what the song would be like with the guitar solo excised. It's still got that atmosphere to boost it above the throngs of modern male R 'n' B-ers. Stewart's beat is addictive enough on its own to carry the song and The-Dream's vocals are a perfect match for it even if his lyrics are a bit less than stellar. It's another case of the words not being as important as the way they sound in context, especially the way that the multiple layers of vocals converge at the cusp of the second chorus - not in sync but not offset enough for a rondo effect, just that little bit off time that makes for a bit of a disquieting moment - or the choruses themselves which take words out of the equation altogether. The guitar solo is an incredible bonus, but the song was a winner from the start.

Coming up tomorrow: Bringin' the 80s back without nostalgia?

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