Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Unwound

I've been listening to the Numero Group's recent Unwound reissue Rat Conspiracy The three-disc set (although it is only being released on vinyl and mp3) collects Unwound's first two albums and a third disc of singles and outtakes. 1993's Fake Train is and remains one of my favorite albums of all time, and it was nice to revisit 1994's New Plastic Ideals. Unwound did an amazing job of combining the energy and ferocity of hardcore with some of the noisy art-rock of Sonic Youth. The result is music that  has the aggression of hardcore with the emotional and musical complexity of post-punk and emo, with very little of the pretension or bullshit. Unwound channeled the feelings of depression, anxiety, dissatisfaction and confusion of late adolescence. Their songs are about being bored, feeling unsettled, having nervous energy that you can't contain. They alternate between pretty melodies and all-out noise, falling apart unexpectedly and then retreating into moments of quiet contemplation. I don't know what it says about me that this hits me just as hard at 39 as it did when I first heard it at 19. Maybe somethings you don't outgrow.

One song I've rediscovered with this set is "What Was Wound." It starts off as fairly typical jangly early 90s indie rock, albeit with a tempo that's a bit off. It follows the typical quiet-loud-quiet dynamic that Nirvana perfected. Unwound does it so well though, creating a feeling of unpredictability and controlled chaos. "Salt of the earth on an open wound" indeed.

If you want more proof, watch this entire show from around the time New Plastic Ideals came out, or just skip to 8:00 to watch them play "Nervous Energy" live.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Chuck Inglish Review

Chuck Inglish
Convertibles 
Sounds Like Fun/Federal Prism 

Chicago rapper/producer Chuck Inglish emerged seven years ago as half of the retro-leaning duo Cool Kids. Their signature sound was Inglish's stripped-down beats, with booming 808s and snare slaps that sounded like early Def Jam. The Cool Kids haven't done much as a duo since 2010's "Tacklebox," but both Inglish and Sir Michael Rocks have been busy making solo mixtapes and producing for other artists. The Cool Kids have another album on the horizon for 2014, but in the meantime Inglish has just released his first solo album, "Convertibles."

Convertibles is Inglish's chance to show his diversity as a producer and a rapper. That diversity starts with his label. His Sounds Like Fun imprint is signed to Federal Prism, which is run by TV On the Radio's Dave Sitek. Cool Kids have always been on the fringes of mainstream hip-hop, and Inglish continues that trend by signing to an indie rock label.

I won't lie: the best songs on "Convertibles" are the ones that hew closest to the sound that Inglish is known for. It's hard to go wrong with old-school trunk-rattlers, which Inglish proves time and time again. "Attitude" and "Swervin'" both have pulverizing bass, although Inglish does different things with both beats. "Swervin'" is in the vein of g-funk, with the hint of a piano and snapping snares. "Attitude" has a harder beat, but contrasts it with a sung hook by BJ the Chicago Kid.
"Money Clip" is built around a driving beat with a few string and synth flourishes. The uptempo beat spurs Inglish to drop his usual laconic delivery for a more spirited flow:

"San Diego dayglow, get what you pay for
It's not everyday though, they do what we say so
Uh, def that bump
It's not a drop, it's convertible bruh
Put a rack up on it if you ain't no punk
Do it up like the steps, walk it out like a pet
Off the top, get a tip like 75 percent
This establishment was meant, washing money with the lint"


He's assisted on the track by Vic Mensa, Retch, Hassani Kwess, and Sulaiman. That's a lot of MCs for one track, and it gives it the feel of a posse cut. Most of the songs have at least one rapper and/or singer. Ab-Soul and Mac Miller offer stellar verses on "Came Thru/Easily." "Action Bronson" mixes his culinary and sexual metaphors on "Gametime." Sir Michael Rocks joins Inglish and Polyester the Saint on "Swervin'." These MCs all help offset Inglish's serviceable but not spectacular rapping. He's fine on the mic, but his rhymes have very little stakes. His label is rightly named: Inglish is all about having fun, and as a result his rhymes feel lightweight. He likes cars, he likes pretty girls, likes to have beer and weed with his friends, and doesn't like having his heart broken. To his credit he is less raunchy than many of his peers, and he gets some good wordplay in, but he rarely says anything of consequence.
Inglish doesn't waste his solo debut with a bunch of standard Chuck Inglish beats. He takes the opportunity to branch out and try different genres. "Legs" is a disco-funk with dance artist Chromeo. "Ingles (Mas O Menos)" is a combo electro/Latin club rap track with Mexican-American rapper Cap Angels. Inglish goes full Prince with Jade on "P.R.I.S.M.," which features an electric guitar solo that would make his purple majesty proud. The latter half of the album is made up of downtempo songs that show a more sensitive side and psychedelic side to Inglish.

The album ends with "Glam," a track which features singer Macie Stewart and Chance the Rapper. Chance has been on a roll for the last year, and he doesn't slow down here. His verses add depth and gravitas to what would otherwise be a pretty frivolous album.

"Rid me of my evils
God bless me and all my foolies, my disciples, and my people
Say a prayer for the nine one time
Niggas that robbed me by the Ryan one time
Go vagabond in the line one time
Bro gods, whole squad in the line one time
I know I'll see the clouds with silver line some time
So I don't even feel the need to rhyme some time
See my nigga smiling sunshine sometimes
So bring the hook around for your sun one time"

It ends with the chorus of "God loves all my niggas, nigga."

"Convertibles" isn't a perfect album. The genre-switching makes it lack cohesion, it drags a bit in its later half, and it doesn't pack much weight lyrically. Still, the combination of good-time rhymes and heavy-hitting beats makes it an album worth picking up. Inglish and crew may not have a lot to say, but they are having a good time saying it. As with all of Inglish's work, the beats are throwbacks to the old school with the technology and finesse of the twenty-teens. It's the kind of album you want to put on in your convertible while you are riding around with the top dropped enjoying a warm spring afternoon.


Originally posted on RapReviews

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Actress Review

Actress, Ghettoville, Ninja Tune (www.ninjatune.net)


Actress is the stage name of British producer Darren J. Cunningham, who has been performing under that moniker for the past six years. His three previous albums offered an art-damaged mash-up of ambient, dance, minimalism, and experimental music. Actress has called Ghettoville “the bleached out and black tinted conclusion of the Actress image,” and it sounds like a funeral. The bubbly warmth that underpinned his earlier work is largely absent, replaced by bleak industrial soundscapes.

Actress’s music has always challenged listeners with its sparseness and occasional dissonant elements, but there was a warmth to his earlier albums that smoothed out the rougher edges. That warmth has been hammered out of Ghettoville. At times it seems as if Actress is daring listeners to try to make it until the end of the album. He starts things off with seven minutes of slow clanging (“Forgiven”), and then gives the listener five and a half minutes of static glitch (“Street Corp.”). It’s not until “Corner,” the third song on the album, that anything like a beat appears, and it is slow and mournful. Where Actress’s earlier work was grounded in throbbing pulses, Ghettoville is lethargic and murky, crawling along at a menacing pace.

Not everything here is static, distortion and clanging. Much of the album features Actress doing what he does best: deconstructing standard electronic music templates, and creating music that is experimental yet recognizable. “Rims” is built around a sinister bassline and some clicks and whistles that’s like two songbirds having a low-riding competition. “Gaze” is a house music song bleeding through the walls of an apartment. “Image” adds some clattering Detroit techno 808s into the mix. Actress is also pushing his sound forward, adding filtered vocals and offering fractured takes on hip-hop (“Rule”) and R&B (“Rap”). These songs capture what makes Actress such a vital and important part of contemporary electronic music. His songs are stripped down to the bare essential, and he uses sounds that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with music. He explores the patterns that emerge with repetition, avoiding big buildups or breakdowns. Everything feels carefully placed without a single extraneous click or blurb. At his best, his experimentation is grounded in beats so even at their weirdest the songs still bounce.

Unfortunately, the rhythm of the album is constantly interrupted by cacophonous dirges which makes it feel unsettled. Some of the songs stick around long after their musical point has been made, and the album itself is overlong. Just when “Ghettoville” settles into an off-kilter groove like “Rims,” it gets derailed by a buzzkill like “Contagious.”

While much of Ghettoville is up to Actress's usual high standards, it is an unfriendly and uneven album. It’s the soundtrack to urban decay and depression. It’s about exploring dark places and spending an uncomfortable amount of time in them. It is also a suicide note from a pseudonym, and like many suicides, there is a selfishness and lack of regard for others in Ghettoville. Actress isn’t thinking about how his music will sound to other people. He’s not concerned with bringing listener along. He’s not attempting to make an aesthetically pleasing album, or one that sets a consistent mood.  As a result, Ghettoville is a bit of a letdown. If this truly is Actress's last gasp, he's not going out with a bang but a whimper.

Originally posted on RapReviews

Friday, March 14, 2014

Female Rappers

There was an article last week on NPR titled "Where Did All the Female Rappers Go?"

I wrote a comment on the site, and there was a nice debate in the comments section.  Here's what I wrote:

I'm not going to deny that there is a lot of sexism towards and prejudice against female rappers, or that mainstream hip-hop has gotten cartoonishly sexist. However, Angel Haze's album was panned because it was not that good. Her lyrics, which were strong on her mixtapes, are reduced to overused flower metaphors, cliches, platitudes, and vague encouragements to overcome adversity. The album tries to mash together her fierce rapping with dance pop and it doesn't work. Haze is gifted, but "Dirty Gold" is not a good example of her talents - it's an example of the label trying to make her all things to all people and losing what is interesting about the artist in the process. And Kreayshawn is terrible as a rapper- there's a reason her album didn't sell.
You're right that Haze's album was rated lower than less lyrical rappers, but lyricism isn't the end-all, be-all in hip-hop,. That's like saying an artist is no good because their paintings aren't representational. Having a certain vibe can be just as powerful, even if the rapper isn't saying much lyrically. "Hard In the Paint" may be simplistic, but it works as a song a lot better than many so-called lyrical rap songs. Especially ones as chock full of cliche's as the ones on "Dirty Gold."
Haze is emblematic of the problem facing female rappers. It's not enough for them to be able to rap. They have to sing as well. They have to be street, but also sexy, rap as well as the boys but also be good-looking and have pop appeal. Meanwhile, a male rapper can be overweight, ugly, and do nothing but slur about getting drunk and partying with strippers and they get a million downloads.

Anyways, it led me to review two recent mixtapes by female artists.  The first was Chicago rapper/singer Tink's Winters Diary 2. 

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Brand New You're Retro

I've been enjoying a lot of the melodic punky music that has come out recently. The Joanna Gruesome record from last year is growing on me. I originally had issues with the noisy lo-finess of of it, but with better headphones the melodies come through much more clearly. They have a nice contrast between male and female vocals, loud punk elements and strong melodies.






I also like the new Bleeding Rainbow record. It is a little less punk, but still has that winning combination of loud guitars and female vocals.



I'm also really enjoying Solids' Blame Confusion, which is more grungy and less melodic.




What dawned on me in listening to them is that they all sound very early 90s. Joanna Gruesome could be on K Records. But since they are all in their twenties, them playing this music is sort of like if I had played classic rock as a kid. Or the Beatles. Which makes me feel old.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Angel Haze Review

I reviewed Angel Haze's new album Dirty Gold on RapReviews this week. It's posted below. I had a viscerally negative reaction to the album after listening to it for two weeks straight. Maybe I don't listen to enough pop music so the terribleness of it shocks me, or maybe I was just expecting more from Haze. She has been through legitimate shit and has legitimate talent, but this felt like so much other narcissistic, shallow, self-absorbed pop culture bullshit. Blech.

Diversity has become such a politically correct buzz word in recent years that it is easy to overlook why it is such an important issue. Done right, diversity allows for the inclusion of voices and ideas that would otherwise be overlooked. Diversity means including women and people of color in medical studies, so that issues that are specific to women and different ethnicities are addressed. It means designing buildings so people in wheelchairs can use them. It means designing products and programs that address the wants and needs of a range of customers and constituents, and not just the ones that are the most dominant. Diversity means getting a more accurate picture of what is really going on. Over the course of six mixtapes, Angel Haze has shown why there needs to be more diversity in rap, and what we are missing by having so few prominent female rappers. Haze is a fierce, skilled rapper who can shit-talk with the best of them but also drops rhymes about the struggles that women face. Her 2012 covers EP "Classicks" ended with a version of Eminem's "Cleaning Out My Closet" where she rapped about being sexually abused by multiple men for years. It is a perspective that you rarely get in pop music, let alone hip-hop.
"White Lilies/White Lies" is another example of the perspectives we miss because men dominate hip-hop. There are a thousand rap songs about strippers, but "White Lilies/White Lines" is one of the few that is from the point of view of strippers themselves. "Whose daughter is on the stage?" Haze asks over a brooding beat. "I know her by name." The song is a punch to the gut that will ensure that you never look at a stripper the same way again.
Ironically, it is Angel Haze's very diversity that ends up hurting her major label debut "Dirty Gold." Haze tries to walk the line between battle rapper, pop star, emo rapper, and motivational speaker. That's a lot to tackle in one album, and it is not surprising that it ends up a mess. Too many of Haze's raps are yelled, and they don't jibe with the pop production and softer elements in the music. It's like her label wanted her to be all things to all people all the time, and as a result she's not entirely successful at any of them.
It be easy to blame her label for all the problems with "Dirty Gold." Their attempts to make her next Rihanna certainly aren't helping her, and the fact that she leaked the album ahead of schedule suggests that Haze wasn't totally on board with the direction her label was taking her. While the pop/rap hybrid doesn't always work that well on "Dirty Gold," it's not what really stunts the album. The heartbreaking thing about "Dirty Gold" is how bad the lyrics often are. Haze has shown on her mixtapes that she is not afraid of tackling real problems and addressing things like abuse and her troubled upbringing with frankness and honesty. On "Dirty Gold" she defaults to overused flower metaphors, platitudes, and the kind of empowerment cheerleading that would make Oprah embarrassed. Her spoken word pieces are particularly painful, The album starts with her saying "I'm making it for people who just want to get lost." An interviewer says "That's interesting how music does that. It's like a trapdoor." "It locks you in," agrees Haze. It sounds like a pseudo celebrity doing a confessional on a reality show. Or this spoken intro from "Black Synagogue:"
"And the light, the light can make everything feel beautiful. It can make it feel safe, so safe that, like, in the night, we spend all of our time running away from our truths. And then we meet someone who tells us, 'God will always love you, no matter what you do. The only thing that will never stop loving you is God.' And because of all of our darkness, which at night I still run from, which at night we all still run from, we get stuck chasing light. That's a Black Synagogue."
There is a criticism of religion in there somewhere, but like a lot of her lyrics, it is frustratingly cliched and vague.
Songs that should be moving end up falling apart under the tortured prose and overworked metaphors. The aforementioned "Black Synagogue" is about Haze's disillusionment with religion after growing up in a cultish Christian sect. It comes off more like a temper tantrum than spiritual questioning. "Black Dahlia" is a message to her mother, who raised Haze in the sect. It should be a heart wrenching tear jerkier, but instead it feels like high school poetry. Natalia Kills does some spoken word in the song, telling her mother that she would rather have not been born if it would have made her mother's life better. However, she does it in a British valley girl accent that kills the gravitas of the moment (It doesn't help that Haze inadvertently titles the song after the name given to Elizabeth Short, the aspiring actress who was found mutilated and dismembered in an empty lot in Hollywood in 1947).
It's the endless string of cliches and empty platitudes that killed "Dirty Gold" for me. The love song "Planes Fly" (which could be about a woman) has any romances stamped out of it with clumsy, trite lyrics:
"I'm up in the air, still running from everything below
Yo, I'm not sure what this is but I've got jet fuel in my soul
Propellors tucked in my ribs
We'll fly
When the tunnel's got no light
And the light exposes this dull life
It's alright
When the good feels bad but the bad feels better"

I realize I'm being much harder on Haze than I usually am on male rappers, especially since she can actually rap and is rapping about suicide, self-doubt, love, and other topics not usually heard in the Hot 100. Maybe I am inadvertently playing into the double standard that often goes hand in hand with diversity, in which members of minority groups are held to much higher standards than the majority. There's also the fact that it is harder to rap about real issues than it is to rap about nothing. I'll put up with Ty Dolla $ign rapping about his two bitches in the club, but when a rapper tries to put down some real talk, I expect them to step their game up. I'm also not Haze's target demographic. No doubt her songs would hit much harder if I were a young woman and not a middle-aged man who happens to hate pop music. There have been a number of positive reviews written online about "Dirty Gold," so the record is definitely connecting with some people. It is certainly the type of album that wants to be cathartic to listeners.
I can live with the fact that Haze is going for a pop sound that I'm not a fan of. I can deal with the cheesy power ballads and the EDM beats. What really disappoints me with "Dirty Gold" is how shallow it is. You take a woman who can rap, sing, and could offer some much-needed counter programming to what mainstream hip-hop usually delivers. Instead, she's going for Nikki Minaj meets Eminem meets Rihanna on the Tyra show. It feels like a major missed opportunity. Hip-hop deserves to have more albums by female rappers, and we deserve better albums than "Dirty Gold."

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Against Me!



I will admit to being one of those people who never paid attention to Florida punk band Against Me! until their lead singer changed from Tom Gabel to Laura Jane Grace. Laura's gender transition is the big story that follows the band around. Like Chaz Bono and Lara Wachowski, Laura's become a poster girl for transgender rights. It's a good story, and one that has catapulted a fairly successful punk band into a much larger spotlight. Their new album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, would be a strong album if all the members had boring and unremarkable backstories.

My impression of Against Me! was that they belonged to that strain somewhat cheesy, anthemic, Warped Tour-ready alt-punk that the kids loved and that left me cold. Songs like "I Was a Teenage Anarchist" sound to me closer to Kings of Leon than Bad Brains. "Stop" sounds like a Franz Ferdinand  cover.  Their new album is still anthemic rock, but they seem to be less concerned with chasing commercial success. That and Laura has a whole new mess of stuff to sing about.

The title track is a powerful song about her experiences being transgender.

"Your tells are so obvious
Shoulders too broad for a girl
Keeps you reminded
Helps you remember where you come from

You want them to notice
The ragged ends of your summer dress
You want them to see you
Like they see any other girl
They just see a faggot
They hold their breath not to catch the sick."

Later she sings "You know it's obvious but we can't choose how we're made."

The rest of the album isn't always as strong as that opening track. The cheesy alt-rock of their earlier work seeps in during the latter half. I still like it, and I like how Laura is incorporating her experience into punk. One of music's greatest gifts is it's ability to allow us to understand and empathize with people different from us. Most of us will never know what it is like being trans, but Against Me! give is a window into that world. 



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