Illustrator Spotlight: Ping Zhu

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A really lovely series of work by Brooklyn-based illustrator Ping Zhu. More images below.

Illustrator Spotlight: Ping Zhu

ping-zhu31

A really lovely series of work by Brooklyn-based illustrator Ping Zhu. More images below.

Watch Jaden Smith vomit everywhere in new ‘Fallen’ video

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Jaden Smith has taken a break from thinking about stuff to release a new music video. The track, titled “Fallen”, was dropped by the singer on Sunday evening, and is taken from his upcoming project Syre

The video features Smith stumbling around a deserted, 19th-century ghost town in California. Viewers are given the chance to see the singer – who once compared himself to Galileo – gyrate in front of a pink-hued sunset, and vomit violently over…

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33 confirmed dead in Oakland warehouse party fire

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Thirty-three people have been confirmed dead following a fire at a warehouse party at Oakland’s Ghost Ship, California.  

The fire broke out at the DIY artist space on Friday evening (December 2), as Los Angeles-based label 100% Silk held a party. Firefighters have been working through the ruins of the space to recover fatalities, though the actual cause of the blaze is still unknown. According to the LA Times, Alameda County Sheriff’s Sgt Ray Kelly confirmed the space was…

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Photographer Spotlight: Mo Costello

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Macon, Georgia-based gospel quartet The Inspirational Heavily Aires participate in photographer Mo Costello’s latest exhibition, “Max”. Challenging expectation and inviting the audience to fill gaps and silences, Costello attempts to rewrite narratives of addiction and deprivation through a collective staged experience. See more images below.

Protesters win fight to stop Dakota Access Pipeline

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The U.S Army Corps of Engineers made the announcement on Sunday (December 4) that the permit will no longer be granted for the Dakota Access Pipeline running near the Standing Rock reservation. It’s a huge win for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and the thousands of protesters who stood against the major threat to water access, the local environment and the land’s sacred status for Native Americans.

Assistant Army Secretary for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy said in a statement that…

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John Legend: Darkness and Light

John Legend doesn’t waste time getting to the point of Darkness and Light, his fifth solo album. On “I Know Better,” the record’s gospel-infused opener, the singer refutes the celebrity he’s acquired to date: “Legend is just a name, I know better than to be so proud/I won’t drink in all this fame/Or take more love than I’m allowed.” At this stage of his career—which includes 10 Grammy awards, a Golden Globe, and an Academy Award for Best Original Song—Legend could’ve continued to play it safe; his mix of secular and spiritual soul has taken him far over the years. But on Darkness and Light, Legend pushes beyond his comfort zone for something a bit more ambitious.

With its meditative and ingratiating songwriting, this is unmistakably a John Legend album, yet there’s a renewed sense of peace and even a sad wisdom that distinguishes it. He sings lovingly of his infant daughter, Luna, wondering who she will become as she grows older. He ponders the different sides of love, and the raw emotions they evoke. He's made a love record about navigating the bleak world and finding happiness in dark times.

For Darkness and Light, Legend reached out to Blake Mills after hearing what the producer did for Alabama Shakes’ breakout LP, Sound & Color. In turn, Mills wanted to push Legend to the limits of his emotional range. “There was this hole in John’s material that I felt like a huge part of his personality could come through,” Mills recently told Billboard. “We’re still talking about ‘What’s Going On’ some 40 years later. Yes, ‘Sexual Healing’ is a great track. But when we think of Marvin Gaye, ‘What’s Going On’ is the song that comes up.” The implicit criticism there rings true: Legend has calling-card songs like “Ordinary People” and “All of Me,” yet by and large, he makes safe R&B that doesn’t resonate long-term or hit hard politically (he released a collaborative LP with the Roots in 2010, but those were covers of Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, and Bill Withers.)

For Darkness and Light, Mills wanted to merge Legend’s artistic and political sides, bringing the opinionated guy we see on “Real Time With Bill Maher” to the forefront. We hear shades of this on “Penthouse Floor,” a standout featuring Chance the Rapper, even if the grooving track behind Legend still feels more sultry than angry as he wonders: “All this trouble in this here town/All this shit going down/When will they focus on this?/Streets fired up with the TV crews/Look, Ma, we on the news!/But they didn’t notice before this.”

Conversely, on the Miguel-featured “Overload,” Legend reflects on his marriage to model Chrissy Teigen, running down the endless distractions posed by the shiny device in his hand as a metaphor for connection (“Let that cell phone ring/Let that blue bird sing/Let that message say ‘unread.’”) The album comes full circle near the end, on “How Can I Blame You,” in which Legend is pulled over for a traffic violation—but instead of a menacing encounter, or a meditation on the rash of police shootings of black men during traffic stops, Legend uses the moment as a metaphor for life’s rapid pace. He’s urged to slow down and appreciate what he has. In the end, Darkness and Light isn’t the political feat Mills and Legend had hoped for, but it’s a step forward in the singer’s evolution. He may never be a firebrand, but Legend proves there’s still strength in humility.

Yoko Ono / John Lennon: Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins / Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With the Lions / Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band

Courting confusion is part of the job description for anyone working in the avant-garde. Some experimenters meet this requirement with the equivalent of a shrug, while others take to the task with more evident relish. For over half a century, the singer and visual artist Yoko Ono has found herself in the latter camp, gleefully scrawling her new approaches into the official ledgers of cultural production.  

The editors of the recent volume Fluxbooks credit Ono’s 1964 Grapefruit as being “one of the first works of art in book form.” Ono’s early short films likewise helped expand cinematic practices. In the years before she started dating a BeatleOno sang with one of John Cage’s most trusted musical interpreters, and turned a New York loft space into a contemporary-art destination that drew the likes of Marcel Duchamp to her door.

Yet this multimedia artist’s most notorious act of provocation was her approach to becoming tabloid fodder. She took one of the world’s most popular musicians and hurried along his engagement with the experimental fringe (an attraction already evident in John Lennon’s work, as early as 1966’s Revolver). In some quarters, she’s never been forgiven for this. But Ono’s radical influence on pop history has also inspired generations of visionary artists.

The Lennon/Ono collaborative albums were a critical part of their take on celebrity coupledom. Their first two LPs carried the series title “Unfinished Music,” a conceptual gambit with deeper roots in the aesthetic of the Fluxus art movement than in that of the British Invasion. The first set to be issued, subtitled Two Virgins, was a sound-collage set reportedly produced during their first night together. The album’s name, and the full-frontal nudity of its cover, referenced the couple’s sense of innocence in approaching a new beginning—as well as the fact that the recording took place just prior to the consummation of their relationship.

As the product of a first date, Two Virgins is fascinating. As a sound artifact from the initial decade of Fluxus-inspired activity, it has plenty of competition. Casual clips of the couple’s conversations—mixed in alongside Lennon’s tape loops—blur the distinction between the private and the public-facing. This approach recalls efforts by some of Ono’s contemporaries, like Charlotte Moorman and Benjamin Patterson. But what makes Two Virgins distinct is the range of Ono’s voice. In the opening moments, she contributes some pure-tone humming, which sounds downright companionable amid Lennon’s meandering keyboard motifs and reverb tape-effects. Four-and-a-half-minutes in, Ono unleashes the first of her extended yelps, from the top of her range. Even if you know it’s coming, this sound always registers as shocking.

This aspect of Ono’s musicianship confused (and enraged) large portions of Lennon’s audience. Despite her purposeful variations of timbre and her ability to hit notes cleanly, Ono’s recourse to this proto-punk wail was often decried as unmusical. And after the White Album’s “Revolution 9”—a much tighter collage created by Lennon, Ono and George Harrison, now sometimes interpreted by classical musicians—she was often accused of being the driving agent behind the Beatles’ breakup. 

Tensions from Beatlemania carry over into the couple’s second, less idyllic “Unfinished Music” release, subtitled Life With the Lions. Corporate tussles between the Beatles and their record label provide some of the inspiration for “No Bed for Beatle John,” a piece recorded in Ono’s hospital room, following a miscarriage. The album’s dominant track, though, is the side-length workout “Cambridge 1969,” a live recording driven by Lennon’s guitar feedback and Ono’s harshest vocalizations.

In failing to create much interest over its 26 minutes, “Cambridge 1969” reveals something important about Ono’s art. The performances of hers that work don’t do so merely because she can kick up a unique noise. Instead, the takes that have true liftoff usually find her switching up those extreme textures with greater frequency. Unlike some of the composers she hung out with, circa 1961, Ono is not a drone artist. She’s an expert in subtle variations, carved from blocks of seeming chaos.

Her 1970 album Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band is a triumph, in part, because it sounds fully aware of this reality. It’s also iconic because it contains some of Lennon’s most aggressive guitar work. Opener “Why” hurtles from its needle-drop opening, with slide guitar swoops and febrile picking that anticipate the variety of Ono’s vocal lines. When the singer enters, she wastes no time in applying a range of approaches to her one-word lyric sheet. Long expressions full of vibrato give way to shorter exhalations, rooted in the back of the throat. Spates of shredded laughter communicate the absurdist good humor that’s often present in Ono’s work. The minimalist pounding of drummer Ringo Starr and bassist Klaus Voorman is there as a foil, propped against all the invention on offer from Ono and Lennon.

“Why Not” inverts this script by arranging similar licks inside a slower tempo. Ono’s voice becomes more pinched and childlike, while Lennon’s guitar lines have a bluesier profile. Elsewhere, Ono puts a new spin on an “instruction” piece from her Grapefruit book, with the echo-laden “Greenfield Morning I Pushed an Empty Baby Carriage All Over the City.” Here, in another surprise, Ono’s voice sounds stolid and more traditionally “correct.” That feel is subsequently obliterated by the noisy middle section of “AOS,” a track Ono recorded in ’68 with saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s band. The Lennon-led backing group returns for the final two pieces of the original LP configuration, which have a comparatively calmer air. 

Like Lennon’s ’70 solo album of the same name (and near-identical cover), Ono’s Plastic Ono Band initially scans as acerbic, yet manages to create a supple variety of song-forms from that opening template. Ono’s absorption of her new husband’s sonic language was only beginning to pay dividends, too. As Sean Lennon’s Chimera imprint and the Secretly Canadian label continue to reissue her catalog, Ono’s subsequent experiments with rock and pop formats will come into clearer view for audiences that have only heard rumors about her craft. Still, these opening reissues—which come complete with era-appropriate B-sides and outtakes—all manage to reflect a key aspect of Ono’s broader artistic intentions, as defined in a 1971 artist’s statement: “I like to fight the establishment by using methods that are so far removed from establishment-type thinking that the establishment doesn’t know how to fight back.”