Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Best Hip Hop Albums of 09 in Videos

My top hip hop albums of 09 is up at RapReviews now. Here they are, alphabetically, in video form (I didn't realize that half of 'em didn't have videos when I started this...):

Brother Ali, Us 



Danny!, Where's Danny?



Del and Tame One, Parallel Uni-Verses



Doom, Born Like This



Madlib, Beat Konducta 5-6



Mos Def, The Ecstatic



Oh No, Dr. No's Ethiopium

P.O.S., Never Better



Raekwon, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Pt. II



Skyzoo, The Salvation

Best albums of 2009

Originally posted on Blogcritics.com
My year-end list isn't actually "best-of," but rather a list of the albums released this year that I loved the most. I listened to a ton of music this year, and a lot of it was good. The following are the albums that resonated with me, that I kept coming back to, that I told all my friends to go buy, and that I wouldn't want to live without.

Port O'Brien, Threadbare. How much do I love this album? So much that I bought it on vinyl after paying for the digital version, just so I can have a physical copy of it. So much that I can't stop listening to it, even though it breaks my heart every time. I loved last year's All We Could Do Was Sing, especially the quieter songs like "Don't Take My Advice" and "In Vino Veritas." Threadbare is basically an album full of quiet, sad songs that document the loss of singer/songwriter Cambria Goodwin's brother. It's a cohesive song cycle that gives me hope that there is still life left in the album. Beautiful, beautifully sad, and essential.

Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest. I was reluctant to admit it at first, but this album is as great as everyone says it is. It is the perfect example of a lot of the music coming out this year: rooted in folk, and yet subverting the genre with odd song structures, delicately constructed songs, and gorgeous harmonies. It's not easily digestible, but each time I listen to it, I get something new out of it. Download the version of Michael McDonald singing "While You Wait For Others."

Thao and the Get Down, Stay Down, Know Better, Learn Faster. Upbeat, rocking songs about heartbreak and disappointment. Also one of the best live shows I saw this year, second only to Bon Iver.

Madlib, Tha Beat Konducta Vol. 5-6 and Oh No, Dr. No's Ethiopium. The Brothers Jackson drop two more solid hip hop instrumental albums, continuing label Stones Throw's streak as the number one label for innovative hip hop. Madlib's is a fitting eulogy to the late J Dilla, and Oh No's is a body rocking blend of hip hop and Ethiopian music. Madlib is quirkier, while Oh No plays it straight, but both are head-nodding, creative, and excellent soundtracks to whatever you're doing.

P.O.S., Never Better and Brother Ali, Us. These two albums, both on Rhymesayers, prove that hip hop still has a lot of juice left in it. P.O.S. combines rap and punk into a hybrid that manages to capture the excitement and energy of both genres. Brother Ali gets his grown man on, proving himself to be equal parts street preacher and battle rhymer over some of producer Ant's best work.



Sonic Youth, The Eternal. While I love early Sonic Youth, I had written them off in the early nineties as played out. Then their 2004 album Sonic Nurse convinced me that there was still worthwhile music left in the old farts. This year's The Eternal is not as innovative or essential as eighties masterpieces Daydream Nation or Sister, but it is full of the band's signature sound, done really, really well

Wilco, Wilco (The Album). Yet another group of old-timers proving that they can still write good songs, and have fun doing it.

Del and Tame One Parallel Uni-Verses. There were a lot of hip hop superduo albums out this year (Buckshot and KRS One! O.C. and A.G.!), but Del and Tame One's collabo has stayed in steady rotation on my speakers. It's an underachieving record: basically two old dudes talking shit, smoking weed, and rapping about back in the day. But their styles perfectly compliment one another, and Parallel Thought's beats keep it all cooking.

DOOM, Born Like This. Daniel Dumile, AKA MF DOOM, AKA DOOM, AKA King Geedorah, AKA Victor Vaughn may wear a metal mask, but he's no clown. He's always used his comic book persona to deal with real issues, and his goofy rhymes hide some deep subject matter (ok, maybe not the funny but homophobic "Batty Boyz"). He's been on hiatus for a few years, and came back full of piss and vinegar, telling everyone and their mother to go stuff themselves. "Once sold and inbred skinhead some nigga jokes," he raps on "Gazillion Ear," which sums up how he feels about a lot of his fans. Born Like This is inconsistent, but when he's on, DOOM is almost as relentless and unstoppable as his comic book namesake.

Yellow Fever, s/t. This is a seemingly slight, inconsequential album that I can't get enough of. Maybe it's Jennifer Moore's beautiful voice, or the incredibly catchy songs, or the deceptively complex songwriting. Maybe it's the fact that the stripped-down sound of the two-piece is the perfect antidote to a lot of the more lush, baroque sounds coming out of indie-land these days. Or maybe Yellow Fever are simply really good. I'm going to go with the last one.

Honorable Mention:
Here are seven more albums I loved almost as much as the ones in my top ten:
Phenomenal Handclap Band, s/t
Dragon Turtle, Almanac

Adam Acuragi, I Am Become Joy
Danny!, Where's Danny?
Basement Jaxx, Scars

Antlers, Hospice

A Sunny Day In Glasgow, Ashes Grammar

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Bob Dylan's Christmas

Bob Dylan's Christmas album, based on the two tracks I've heard, is laughably horrible. The video for "Must Be Santa" confirms that he is fucking with everyone. Nice wig, Bob. Merry Christmas, hope you like crap.

Sareem Poems and Thundamentals Reviews

I reviewed Sareem Poems Black and Read All Over: The Deluxe Edition this week on RapReviews. He's from Long Beach. Solid, positive rap with Theory Hazit and Oddisee on the boards.


I also reviewed Thundamentals album Sleeping On Your Style two weeks ago. They are an upbeat Aussie crew. A little pop for my taste, but not bad for what it is, although the video for "Movie It Up" makes me like them less.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

CounterParts LP Review

My review of the CounterParts LP is up at RapReviews. They are a multi-racial, NorCal/SoCal crew who do positive, golden age hip hop in the vein of People Under the Stairs. It's partially produced by Fatgums, who I'm a fan of, and is the first official release from LBC label/store Beat Rock. Worth your time, and the ten bucks they are charging for it at the Beat Rock store.

Here's a video of them playing life at the Beat Rock store:

Horse Stories Review


Horse Stories
November, November

Toby Burke, the man behind Horse Stories, was born in Melbourne, spent time living in London, and eventually moved to L.A., where he formed the group. He's also released a solo album, done scores, written fiction, and done art installations. In short, he's a renaissance man, keeping himself busy by dabbling in multiple creative projects. He may be from Australia, but the music he makes has more to do with the country-tinged singer/songwriters of 70s Laurel Canyon than anything coming out of the land of Oz. Maybe that's the influence of his adopted home, L.A.'s hip Silverlake neighborhood. Whatever the reason, November, November, his third album as Horse Stories, is full of gentle alt-country and Americana.

A word of warning: November, November isn't an exciting or dynamic album. Horse Stories concentrates on subtlety and intimacy. The songs are delicate, quiet, and intricately constructed. The tempos are slow, the instrumentation sparse. Burke's beautiful, soulful voice whisps out of the speakers. It's the kind of music that can be richly rewarding, but is also easily overlooked and ignored. He probably gets talked over when he performs live as an opening act.

He does offer some uptempo moments. "To Anyone" is gently rocking, with a driving back beat and organ accompaniment, and "To The Light" has a Western swing. Most of the music is more along the lines of "Telephone Message (November, November)" on which Burke's voice is accompanied only by his guitar, a piano, and a cello. The stripped-down arrangement allows space for his voice to shine. "Oh, though the world must change/Can we be the same?" he asks, before concluding, "Well your letters weren’t enough/So I am on this bus/I hope that your address is still the same." Burke's lyrics, as with his music, are efficient and economical, getting ideas across with the minimum of syllables.

The mood of the album is both melancholy and hopeful. Several songs are about long-distance friends and lovers, and the music is full of both heartache at being apart and the joyful expectation of being reunited. Things might be lonely now, but better days are just around the corner. It's similar in both sound and mood to Aimee Mann's work, but Burke is optimistic where Mann is clinically depressed.

It took about five listens for November, November to really click for me. The first few times it seemed too subdued, too slow, and frankly a little boring. Finally I got it, and I was able to appreciate the sparing use of piano, the gentle tones of the french horn, and the way his voice and lyrics create a mood. You need to spend time with November, November to truly appreciate it, but it is well worth the effort.

The album will get a full release in January. In the meantime, you can pick up the vinyl here or check out the artist's website.
http://www.perfectblackswan.com/NN

Originally posted on Blogcritics.org

Yellow Fever Review


Yellow Fever
S/T
Wild World Records
It's fitting that Yellow Fever's self-titled debut is on the Vivian Girls' Wide World Records. Like the Vivian Girls, Yellow Fever are so rudimentary and primitive that they could almost be considered naive art. The Austin duo is comprised of singer/guitarist Jennifer Moore and drummer Adam Jones, although they are occasionally rounded out live by an additional guitarist or keyboardist. They forgo the Vivian Girls punk fuzz, and instead concentrate on stripped down indie pop. Jones' simplistic drumming would make Meg White proud, and Moore keeps her guitar work to basic chords. The end result sounds like a slightly more capable and infinitely less snotty Stains, the fake band featured in the cult classic Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains.

Album opener "Rat Catcher" sounds like 90s K Records, and "Cutest Boy" steals its melody from a children's song. "The cutest boy I ever saw/was drinking cider through a straw," sings Moore, and you begin to fear that you are in for a tweefest. Cutesy-pie lyrics, unaspirational musicianship, it's enough to make you want to go crafting and write a zine about your cat. Which is great if you love twee, but I've always been irritated by the gratingly childlike posturing of the genre. To me, a bunch of young adults pretending to be in elementary school seems escapist and kind of pathetic.

Thankfully, Yellow Fever are not twee. They certainly flirt with twee-ness, but they never dive full in, owing to their two main strengths: Moore's voice, and their songwriting. Moore has a pretty voice that sounds like an American Leticia Sadler of Stereolab fame. She makes lyrics like "why won't you recognize how psychedelic I am?" palatable. Her voice is paired with good songwriting and strong melodies: Yellow Fever may be minimalist, but they are catchy as hell. There is a strong sixties garage vibe to Yellow Fever, albeit filtered through 90s Northwest indie pop. While their straightforward garage jams are fun, songs like "Alice," "Hell Fire," and "Culver City" point to a fuller, more complex sound that could and should be the future of the band. These songs show a maturity that proves that there is much more to Yellow Fever than three chords and jokey lyrics.

Yellow Fever may not offer virtuosity or dense layers of production, but they do offer some catchy tunes and a sense of light, breezy fun. Like the White Stripes, they use their minimalism as a challenge, a constructed constraint within which they create great pop songs. Fans of the Vivian Girls, Mecca Normal, and 90s Northwestern indie pop will definitely want to catch this fever.

Originally posted on Blogcritics.org

Addendum: I really like this album - I've been listening to it a lot, even after the review is over. Here they are playing "Donald" live:

Thursday, November 26, 2009

O.C. and AG Review/Fiasco

I reviewed O.C. & A.G.'s Oasis album last week for RapReviews.
Or rather, I reviewed a four song sampler. I had gotten the sampler a month earlier from their PR people. I'm not a fan of album samplers. I understand that labels use them to avoid people leaking/pirating their music, but how am I supposed to review an album based on four songs? And if you want to build excitement for an upcoming release, send me a couple MP3s. Most of the PR firms I have contact with do an excellent job of this. Whatever. The point is, I had four songs to work with, the typical press release about how this was a classic by two hip hop veterans. The whole thing got my Irish up, especially owing to the mediocre rhyming on the first song of the sampler, "Think About It." It was standard bullshit hip hop posturing, by two jokers I had never heard of before. I mean, I knew who Showbiz and A.G. were, but that's all I knew, and I didn't have a clue about O.C. I was honest about my ignorance in my review:

I'm not familiar with A.G. or O.C., I've never listened to Showbiz and A.G., and I don't own anything by the Digging in the Crates Crew (D.I.T.C.). Not because I have anything against them, understand, but we've just never crossed paths. Finally, I'm not a huge fan of the hardcore East Coast style of rap that O.C. and A.G. specialize in. I respect it, but It's not my thing. My copy of Mobb Deep's "The Infamous" is collecting dust on my shelf, and the few spins I've given the new Cormega is enough to convince me that while I admire the man, I'm not a fan.

Here's problem 1: Showbiz and A.G.'s debut, Runaway Slaves, is a classic. I mean, a classic. If you don't believe me, check it out yourself. And O.C. has done some much-respected stuff himself. Not knowing who they are is like a rock critic not knowing who Big Star are. Yeah, they are obscure, but anyone who is hep should know about them. So I'm a fucking noob. So I don't know everything about underground NY hip hop from the early 90s. Yes, there are holes in my musical knowledge.

Problem 2 is that they aren't hardcore hip hop, or at least not in the same vein as either Cormega or Mobb Deep. Mobb Deep are more like NY crime rap, and Cormega, I don't know what the fuck he is...lyrical street rap? Whatever, they aren't the same and I never shoulda compared them. What I meant was the hardcore NY bluntness, where they hit you with their rhymes like a bat to the head, with little flourish or finesse. NY rappers can be as unforgiving and cold as the city they are from, and as a Cali native, it ain't always my bag. It's why the first Only Build For Cuban Linx never worked for me. It's like having a conversation with a cold-blooded killer.

Anyways,the bitches and money rhymes on the opening track rubbed me the wrong way. As I said in my review:
The lyrics on "Oasis" sum up what I don't like this kind of rap. They are all about how hard the MCs are, how much money they have, how much pussy they get, and how they will fuck up your effeminate faggot ass. It's all presented as bluntly as possible, like a hammer to the skull. Gotcha. You have nice cars and pretty women. Check. You know it's 2009 and not 1999, right? "Young With Style" is about having freaky sex, and "2 For the Money" is about all the money they have and the many, many things they spend it on.

I concluded my review by saying:

When they put some effort into it, like on "Put It In the Box" and "2 For the Money," O.C. and A.G. deliver solid if unremarkable hardcore hip hop. I'm not impressed by their tales of bitches and dollars or their deliveries, but I know that there is a fan base out there who thinks I'm an idiot for not liking this. Then again, they probably are planning on buying it anyways. I can't speak for the whole album, but after hearing these four songs, I'm not going to go out of my way to pick it up.

I gave it a 6.5, meaning good but lacking, and rating the beats a 7.5 and the rhymes a 5.5. Not a horrible score, but goddamn if people weren't pissed off about it. The emails came the morning the review was posted. I knew I was in trouble when the hip hop blogs started saying that Oasis was the pick of the week. Uh-oh, this wasn't some obscure little band that no one cared about. I had just picked a fight with some respected artists. No, I had just shit on some respected artists, and admitted I was totally clueless to boot.

The emails started coming to RapReviews. I'm posting this one, because I think he nailed a lot of the issues with my review:

"First of all the kid ain't even reviewing the album, he's reviewing a 4-TRACK SAMPLER of the album and secondy the reviewer says in the text that he's not a fan of DITC, never heard Show & A and don't even like hardcore New York hip-hop at all. So why in the hell should he be the one who review the album?? he clearly can't make a decent judgement on the album which means bad press for OC & AG. now if it was someone who was familiar with this group and thought they fell off, then fine, but THIS is a fucking joke, he even says the lyrics are all albout pussy, beating people up, etc, when it's a partly very conscious record so again it's bad press for a new album from OC & AG, and it's not at all justified."

I got one in my inbox too, a little more blunt:


If you don't like that type of music why are you reviewing it? If you think Word...Life by O.C. is too hardcore then your ignorant ass has no business on a hip-hop website. O.C. is not even in the same realm as Mobb Deep, the comparison was awful. Go listen to the latest Lupe album and then maybe your simple self can boast about how great his "message".

I'm sure the album isn't anything special but you have no business reviewing anything on a site dedicated to listeners of hip-hop.


Ouch.

Here's the thing: any time you write a negative review, the haters will come out, and the wonderful anonymity of the internet allows people to be pretty fucking rude without fearing any consequences. That's life. That comes with being an internet music critic. I wrote a negative review of the new Jamie T album, and a pissed off fan wrote a pissed off comment on Blogcritics. Whatever. It's a mediocre album. That's life.

But with O.C. and A.G., I was in the wrong, and that sucks. I wrote the review based on a couple songs, and going about it with the wrong mindset. I was feeling pissed off and cantankerous, and getting off on my own snarkiness. It was more like a blog post than a review. Had it been Lil Wayne, it wouldna been a big deal, because I would have been one little voice among many. But for a more independent/underground release like Oasis, a shitty review could possibly have bigger impact (although in this case, only to start intense forum posting about what a clueless jackass I was). The label quickly sent a link to the entire album, and I've been listening to it and...it's pretty damn good, in fact, the kind of solid, effortless underground hip hop that NY knows how to deliver. The two MCs prove themselves more than able, and the few songs about flossing are countered with tracks that tackle much realer subject matter. So I'm an asshole.

The flipside of this is that my review was re-labeled "Sampler," and Flash wrote a much more thorough, much more knowledgeable review about the album.

And I've learned a valuable lesson: if you are gonna be a dick, you better be right.

Review: Dr. No's Ethiopium


I reviewed Oh No's new album on RapReviews this week. His last beat album, 2007's Dr. No's Oxperiment, mined Mediterranean funk. This album uses Egyptian music, which I love. I really dug this, and you should go buy it. When they first released it, they offered a limited edition pound of Ethiopian coffee from Silverlake coffee shop Intelligentsia. I shoulda got it. I love Egyptian coffee almost as much as Egyptian jazz.

Review: Dragon Turtle, Almanac


(Originally posted on Blogcritics.org)
"Casualty," the opening track on Dragon Turtle's Almanac, starts out as mellow bedroom folk, not unlike Iron and Wine. Around the four-minute mark, discordant guitar squalls and feedback are introduced, and continue for another ear-splitting four minutes. What began as a gentle idyll turns dark, sinister, and unsettling.

This contrast continues throughout the entire album, including the album cover imagery of a double helix ablaze. Just as fire can be both comforting and destructive, Almanac can be soothing and disturbing. There is a constant tension between tranquility and violence, and harmony and chaos in their music. It's like watching a mild-mannered person explode into rage; you are forever wary that beneath the calm exterior there is a pool of anger bubbling up. It puts you on edge, so that even during quietest moments of the album, you are waiting for the discord.

The band is made up of Brian Lightbody and Tom Asselin, and rounded out by several contributing musicians. Lightbody lives in Brooklyn and Asselin lives in rural Pennsylvania, explaining the bipolar nature of their music. The chaos and noise of New York City is contrasted with the peace and quiet of the boonies.

The Brooklyn connection makes sense, since like fellow Brooklynites Grizzly Bear, Dragon Turtle uses folk music as a jumping off point for experimentation. However, rather than going in a psychedelic, harmonizing direction like Grizzly Bear, Dragon Turtle embraces ambient music. They describe themselves as "Ambient-Winter-Calypso-Space-Folk," which isn't that far of the mark.

"Island of the Broken Glass" starts off with acoustic guitar and heavily reverbed vocals, then adds congos, electric guitar, and other instruments. Each sound is stacked on top of the other, so that the initial melody gradually devolves into bedlam. "Belt of Venus" is a ghost of song that is slowly filled out during it's three minute lifespan. "Hourglass" takes the same concept, only stretches it out over ten minutes, filling out the initial musical idea with more and more strata of sound.




"Moon Fallout" goes in the opposite direction. It begins with cacophony and whittles down so that the feedback and wailing saw become part of the melody. There are moments that are incredibly delicate: "Organ Fallout" takes a simple piano melody and backs it with washes of noise, samples, and other eerie sounds; "Hometime" is three minutes of lightly plucked acoustic guitar.

The key word that comes to mind while listening to Almanac is texture. While the core of song may be a simple melody played on acoustic guitar with vocals buried deep in the mix, they are layered with instruments, sounds, and ideas.

Asselin is credited with providing "atmospheres" to several tracks, and congas, trumpets, pianos, hammond organs, saws, cellos, a sax, and an erhu are layered into the nine songs on the album. The eleven-minute-long "Hourglass" even credits two people as "dancers."

The result of all of these contributions are songs with depth and complexity. Rather than pop songs, they are compositions, offering the new discoveries and experiences with each listen.

Almanac can be a challenging record. Adding elements of noise into an ambient record might be invigorating for listeners who are into chaos, but discordant tracks like "Casualty" and the apocalyptic "Apophis" can be annoying, jarring contrasts to the calmer tone of the bulk of the album. Also, the sense of dread and disquiet running throughout the album can make it hard to digest.

I've been listening to Almanac over and over, and I hear the album a little differently each time. So much of pop music has been clinically perfected, it's refreshing to hear an album that avoids that sterile spotlessness and doesn't give away all of its secrets at once.

Review: Nouvelle Vague - 3


Originally posted on Blogcritics.org

"Nouvelle vague" translates to "new wave" in English and "bossa nova" in Portuguese. It's also the name given to the group of young filmmakers who popped up in France in the early 60s, including Truffaut and Godard. The band Nouvelle Vague plays with all of these meanings, doing bossa nova covers of New Wave songs in the spirit of 1960s France.

The group is made up of producers Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux, who work with a revolving cast of young female singers. The idea is that the singers aren't familiar with the original songs, and so give a completely original and naive interpretation. 3 is their third album, following their 2004 self-titled debut, and 2006's Bande A Parte. Both of those albums kept pretty strictly to the formula of bossa nova New Wave, offering mellow versions of songs by artists like the Clash, Joy Division, and the Undertones. They've expanded their palette with their latest release.

It starts off with a twangy, country take on Depeche Mode's ode to bondage, "Master and Servant." They also give a light country shine to the Talking Heads' "Road To Nowhere," and reimagine Plastic Bertrand's "Ca Plane Pour Moi" as a ska song. "Blister In the Sun" appears as a groovy jazzy jam, and Brazilian singer Eloisa's lack of command of English adds to the charm.

The second half of the album is more in the template of earlier Nouvelle Vague albums: bossa nova riffs on "Heaven," a torch song take on "Say Hello Wave Goodbye," the quiet acoustic guitar of "Our Lips Are Sealed." I enjoyed songs that kept to the Nouvelle Vague formula more than their experiments in country and ska, although I appreciate that they are coloring outside their self-imposed boundaries.

While knowing the originals is part of the thrill, it's not essential to appreciating Nouvelle Vague. I wasn't familiar with Soft Cell's "Say Hello Wave Goodbye," but I loved Sophie Della's sultry interpretation. Likewise, I'm not a fan of Simple Minds' "The American," but I did enjoy the acoustic version with Silja. It strips out the cheesy 80s production and melodramatic bombast of the original, and replaces it with something prettier and more palatable. The Psychedelic Furs "Heaven" also benefits from being stripped down, and I prefer Nouvelle Vague's adaptation to the Furs'.

I was only shocked once, by "God Save the Queen." Here's a song that caused a sensation in the U.K. 30 years ago, and got Johnny Rotten beat up in the process, and now it's being sung by a whispy female singer over a simple acoustic guitar accompaniment. It's both beautiful and a little creepy to hear her intone "no future for me." The highlight of the disc is Nadeah Miranda's run through of the Police's "So Lonely." It captures the loneliness and isolation of the Police's song, while managing to improve upon it.


The original male singers show up on several tracks. Martin Gore contributes backing vocals to "Master and Servant," Terry Hall sings on "Our Lips Are Sealed," Ian McCulloch appears on "All My Colours," and Barry Adamson lends a Hetfield-esque growl to "Parade." I liked Terry Hall's contribution, but the rest did more to detract than add to the songs. It sort of defeats the purpose of Nouvelle Vague to have the original singers participate.

From a critical perspective, Nouvelle Vague are a gimmick, and one that's threatening to run its course. From a listener's perspective, it's a brilliant gimmick, and a lot of fun. From my perspective, it combines three things I absolutely love: new wave music, acoustic covers, and French female singers. I'm not sure how much more mileage the band can get out of their schtick, but I'm enjoying 3 too much to care.


(speaking of Nouvelle Vague, here's the traffic scene from Godard's new wave freakout, "Weekend," about a yuppie couple on a killing spree.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Girls Album Review



Originally posted on Blogcritics.org
Christopher Owens, lead singer of San Francisco band Girls, has one of the best back stories of any musician in a while: he was born into the Children of God cult, where his mom prostituted herself and his baby brother died because of the cult's lack of belief in medicine. Owens fled at 16, was a homeless punk for a while, got taken in by a rich dude, moved to San Francisco, and formed Girls with JR White. Take that, Kings of Leon!

I don't know what kind of music you'd expect someone with such a fucked-up upbringing to make, but it's not the music on the Girls' debut, Album. Girls mix 90's Britpop, 60's beach rock, and indie quirkiness. It's all complimented by Owens sneer, for which he should probably pay Elvis Costello royalties, or at least buy him some drinks.

"Lust For Life," their debut single, is one of the best songs of the year. The joyous, jangly guitar hides some pretty dark sentiment, as Owens sings:

"I wish I had a boyfriend
I wish I had a loving man in my life
I wish I had a father
Maybe then I would have turned out right
Now I'm just crazy
Fucked in the head."


The rest of the disc doesn't always live up to the potential of "Lust For Life." There's an odds-and-sods feeling to Album as if the group hadn't quite found their sound and threw all of their early experiments onto the album. The acoustic "Goddamn" sounds like Owens fucking around with his acoustic guitar in his bedroom. It's immediately followed by the fuzzy surf guitar of "Big Bad Mean Motherfucker," which sounds like the Girls covering Jesus and Mary Chain covering the Beach Boys. "Morning Light" is 90s shoegaze, and "Darling" is alt-country. This stylistic jumping is disorienting, and detracts from the overall effect of the album.

The flipside of that is that the band is clearly not a one-trick pony. For all of his snottiness, Owens can be heartbreakingly sincere, as on "Hellhole Rat Race." "I don't want to cry my whole life through," he sings. "I wanna have a laugh or two/So come on and laugh with me." It's moments like these that Girls prove that they are worth the hype they are getting.



Is Album as good as everyone says it is? Of course not. No record could be. What it does do is perfectly capture the boredom, confusion, and exuberance of being young. It's enough to make you want to drink cheap beer and pick up on art students.

For twenty somethings, Girls will be a cathartic experience, and for those of us on the wrong side of thirty, Girls are a safe way to reminisce about your glory days, handily referencing the bands you listened to when you were young and cool. Album may be uneven and overlong, but Girls deserve credit for capturing the feeling of NOW.

(Version of video for "Lust For Life" with nekkid dudes.)

D. Focis-The Be Strong LP Review


My review of D.Focis's The Be Strong LP is up at RapReviews.com.

He had worked on the Bobby Creekwater EP, which I liked, so he sent me a link to his solo album.It can be downloaded at his website. I was into it. Grown up hip hop with a positive message. He's dropping a greatest hits on Black Friday, so keep an eye out for that.

Here's a video for the song "Miracle" featuring Bobby Creekwater.

D.Focis feat Bobby Creekwater - Miracle from Entreprenegromovies on Vimeo.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Review: Port O'Brien, Threadbare




The cover for Threadbare, the third album by Oakland-based Port O'Brien, is a shot of a flowery hillside disappearing into the fog. It perfectly captures the beauty, sadness, and almost overwhelming sense of loss that permeates the album.

Threadbare was recorded after the recent death of singer/songwriter Cambria Goodwin's younger brother, and the album is filled with her mourning. It begins and ends with "Without Hope," whose line "mourning's never linear" became a mantra for Goodwin as she tried to deal with her grief.

Songs like the delicate "(((Darkness Visible)))" and the tragically gorgeous "Next Season" are almost difficult to listen to because they are so full of despair. Anyone who has ever lost a loved one will recognize the feelings that these songs, and the album as a whole, produce. It's like being punched in the gut, like being unable to breathe, a pain so acute and all-consuming that it's impossible to think of anything else.

At the same time, there is also a certain joy in the album; Goodwin had to have loved her brother very much to feel his loss to deeply. Like a good wake, Threadbare has its moments of celebration.

More than anything, though, Threadbare is about picking up the pieces and trying to start over. The majority of songs are slow and somber. Even uptempo songs like "Leap Year" and "Sour Milk/Salt Water" are weighed down with heavy sadness.

"This too shall pass," they sing on "Oslo Campire," and "Tree Bones" has the line "Mama, we'll no longer be/On this land by the sea/Push away, I beg and plead/We'll no longer come with thee." The baroque folk and off-kilter sea shanties of last year's excellent All We Could Do Was Sing are muted or absent. Goodwin takes a larger songwriting and singing role than on previous efforts, and singer Van Pierszalowski's voice is approaching a Neil Young croak.

Threadbare is a beautiful album, and one of the best musical documentations of loss that I've ever heard. It's further proof that Port O'Brien are an important band, and is one of my favorite albums of the year. My only wish for the band is that their next album allows them to concentrate on more uplifting and positive emotions; they've clearly had their share of heartbreak.

Originally posted on Blogcritics.org


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

XO Review

I reviewed the mixtape Monumental by DC rapper XO on RapReviews this week.

Neon Indian Review

Originally posted on Blogcritics

There's a great scene from Breakfast At Tiffany's where George Peppard's character Paul comes to a party at Holly Golighlty's apartment, and agent O.J. Berman asks him if he thinks Holly is a phony. Paul says he doesn't think so. "She is," Berman says, "But on the other hand you're right, because she's a real phony. She honestly believes all this phony junk."

Adam Palomo's Neon Indian project is, in some respects, phony. It's all predicated on retro synth sounds, and echoes 80s video games and has-been New Wave artists whose music has dated worse than their haircuts. Neon Indian is also part of a genre that has been given the tremendously irritating name chillwave. I want to kick my own ass every time I type that. Palomo didn't come up with the name, of course, and you can't fault him for an adjective some over-Adderalled blogger came up with, but still. Chillwave. Yuck.

Neon Indian is real phony, because Palomo honestly believes in the phony junk he's doing. Behind his phony veneer he actually means what he's doing. Any kid with a computer and neon Ray Bans can channel some Tron sound effects and cop an attitude of bemused irony. That's not Palomo's deal. Yeah, he's using a cheesy sound palette just this side of chiptunes, but he's using it to write actual songs with actual emotions.

Exhibit A: "Deadbeat Summer," whose goofy synths are redeemed by the melancholy singing of a lovesick boy stuck inside on a hot summer day doing bong rips and pining after a girl he can't have. In fact, the whole album is imbued with the ennui of a recreational drug user who gets high because he can't get laid. There is a hazy, druggy, bored quality to Psychic Chasms, which is fitting: The first song Palomo wrote for the album, "I Should Have Taken Acid With You," was about a canceled appointment to drop acid with Neon Indian's visual artist, Alicia Scardetta. That song would be immensely lame were it not so damn good. What could have been a cheeky, winking nod to LSD becomes a bittersweet lament about missed opportunities. This is largely due to the longing in Palomo's voice, which comes across in the same pretty but muted way as Kevin Shields' vocals in My Bloody Valentine.

Palomo's influences are pretty obvious. The title track could be a New Order cover, "Terminally Chill" could be a B-side off of Daft Punk's Discovery and "Ephemeral Artery" could be any number of New Wave bands that hit it big on MTV in the 80s. All that means is that he's got good taste. I'll admit that part of the fun of this record is noticing all of those antique sounds that you haven't heard since your Speak & Spell ran out of batteries in 1986, or you upgraded from the NES to the Super Nintendo in 1991. Of course, Palomo was born in 1988, so this album isn't so much a nostalgia trip for him as it is an exploration of an era that he missed out on. In that sense, it's not much different than Jack White playing analog rock n' roll or the Animal Collective riffing on the Beach Boys. The artists are using the sounds of a bygone era as a jumping off point for their musical explorations.

While the dated synths may be a selling point of Neon Indian, the real reason to buy Psychic Chasms, however, are songs like "6669 (I Don't Know If You Know)," with its gorgeous melody and haunting refrain of "But you wouldn't understand." It's proof that Adam Palomo is more than just a smart-assed stoner with vintage gear. The vintage gear is decoration, complimenting strong songwriting that makes Psychic Chasms, much more than a THC-laced trip down memory lane. Neon Indian may be phony, but they are real phony.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Applejaxx Review

I reviewed Applejaxx's debut, Back 2 the Future, on RapReviews this week.
Sort of like Black Eyed Peas meet Neputunes meet Lil Wayne only Christian. The beats were futuristic, and he had some nice off kilter lyrical moments. Worth checking out.

Applejaxx Music Video from Fadacy on Vimeo.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Rita J., Dat's Gospel, and Wax Tailor Reviews

I have three new reviews up at Blogcritics. First off is Rita J.'s Artist Workshop.

She has a YouTube clip of her performing at something called the Estrojam.



Then I reviewed Dat's Gospel Mixx 2, a Christian street rap album.
It was not half-bad, and I found myself liking it a lot more than I woulda though, given that I'm not a fan of Christian rap or street rap. They have a blog. Not really my thing, but pretty impressive nonetheless.

Finally, I reviewed Wax Tailor's In the Mood For Life, which I really like. Portishead meets DJ Shadow, only French.

Here's my favorite song from the album, "No Pity."

Friday, October 23, 2009

Rakes Review/Rakes Break Up

British new wave punk band the Rakes have decided to call it a day on the eve of an American tour for their new album Klang. Bummer.

At least they went out with a good album. My review of it is up at Blogcritics.com.

Here's the video for "1989," the first single off of the album.



Here's the video for "Strasbourg," off their first album, which I reviewed for Clamor magazine.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Brother Ali-Us Review

My review of Brother Ali's new album Us is the featured review at RapReviews this week. I loved it. Here's the video for "Us."



Here's the review, originally posted on RapReviews 10/20/09. I'm proud of it,so I'm reposting it
:
I first heard Brother Ali last year on "The Truth" off of Jake One's "White Van Music." I had heard of him, but only knew that he was a white albino Muslim. Then I heard him rap and I was sold. "Hungry pacing in a bus station with my nuts hangin/But I never sold base, motherfuck Reagan/ Shit just wasn't in my upbringin!" he rapped, sounding like a combination preacher and boxer, full of righteous fury and ready to give you a verbal beatdown. From that verse, I knew I had to get educated about Brother Ali.

"Us" is his fourth full-length, coming two years after "The Undisputed Truth," and seven months after the EP "The Truth Is Here." The album starts off with the intro "Brothers and Sisters" featuring Chuck D. and Stokley Williams, who proclaim that Brother Ali is "a soldier in the war for love." That may sound cheesy, but he means it, and he makes it work. In the liner notes he explains that the working title of the album was "Street Preacher," because a fan told him that he didn't just perform music to entertain, but also to spread the Gospel of "love yourself and stay connected to the world."

And preach he does. Brother Ali uses the mic as a pulpit to preach against the ills of the world, from slavery ("The Travelers") to inner pain ("Babygirl"). One of the most touching songs is "Tight Rope," about various people trying to walk the line between two worlds. The first verse is about a Somalian Muslim in Minnesota trying to fit in to Western culture while still staying true to her faith and culture. The second verse is about a child from a broken home, and the third verse is about a gay kid in a fundamentalist household. While other rappers are busy calling each other faggot and saying "no homo," Brother Ali raps:

"Daddy says people go to hell for being what he is
And he certainly believes him
Cause there ain't no flame that can blaze enough
To trump being hated for the way you love
And cry yourself to sleep and hate waking up
It's a cold ass world, y'all
Shame on us"

Here's a deeply religious man performing in a very homophobic genre taking a strong stance against homophobia. That is a true test of bravery and conviction. He also makes it about "us" not "them," making it clear that all of us are complicit in allowing injustice to continue. "Us" is not just the title of the album, it's the recurring theme. This album is about the good and the bad of the human experience, and Ali continually makes the point that we are all part of the same family. "The world's getting too small to stand in one place," he raps on album closer "Us." "It's like we're roommates sharing the same space." This message of unity and togetherness is welcome in a scene and country and world that seems so divided at times.

Ali's message raps are effective for one basic reason: he is a rapper first, and preacher second. He started out trying to be the baddest MC there is before deciding to use his mic skills to address serious issues. A lot of message-based rappers are focused on the message first and the art form second, which makes for mediocre music. Ali would be an incredible rapper if he was rapping about bullshit; the fact that he addresses such righteous themes only makes his music that much more powerful.

It's not all message raps on "Us," though. Ali also lets loose and has fun. "Fresh Air," the first single, celebrates his recent marriage, making domesticity sound like more fun than a limo full of strippers. "I'm the luckiest sumbitch that ever lived," he jubilantly raps. "I spend my life doing shit I love." Freeway and Joell Ortiz join him on "Best@it" to take out sucker MCs with so much fury you almost feel bad for the poor rappers they set their targets on. These tracks let the listener know that Ali has a lighter side, which makes him seem that much more human, and in turn makes his messages that much more effective. He's not holier than thou; he's one of us, full of foibles and flaws, and willing to make fun of himself and other rappers.

There's another "us" on this album, and that's Brother Ali and producer Ant, better known as half of Atmosphere. Every track on the album is a collaboration between the two. Ant is refining the more musical sound of Atmosphere's "When Life Gives You Lemons..." There are seven musicians listed in the credits, and it sounds like a lot of the music here is from live instruments rather than samples. That gives the album an incredible energy. Songs like "The Preacher" and "Fresh Air" practically jump out of your stereo, and their funky sound reminded me of Lyrics Born. The tracks that aren't constructed entirely out of live instruments still use a guitar lick or piano as a basis for the beats, which adds a nice feel to the entire disc. The downside of this is that, as with "Lemons," there are a few too many downtempo tracks, which cause the second half of the album to drag a bit. Still, I was a big fan of "Lemons," and "Us" is a continuation of the mature sound and mature themes of Atmosphere's album.

"Us" is uplifting, thought-provoking, funny, heartbreaking, and bootyshaking. It's one of the few hip hop albums you'll own that gives shout outs to mother-in-laws and home ownership. Ali may be preaching, but he's not dogmatic or judgmental. "Us" is further proof of Ali's amazing skills on the mic, and proof that hip hop can be mature without being boring.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Imaad Wasif Review

My review of Imaad Wasif's new album, The Voidist, is up now at Blogcritics. He has toured with the Yeah Yeah Yeah's, and is on the soundtrack for Where the Wild Things Are.

Here's the video for "the Redeemer," which is, as I say in my review, freaky seventies L.A. hippy weirdness. Also, nekkid ladies, so NSFW.

Si Para Usted Review

My review of Si, Para Usted: The Funky Beats of Revolutionary Cuba Vol. 2 is up at Blogcritics.com now.
It's a collection of funky Cuban music from the 70s. Worth getting. Here's my favorite song:

Friday, October 16, 2009

Miles Benjamin Anthony Robison Review

I reviewed Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinsons' new album Summer Of Fear at Blogcritics this week. And compared it to Blood on the Tracks.

Here's him opening for TV on the Radio, being talked over while doing "Summer of Fear."

The Heavy Review


I reviewed the Heavy's House That Dirt Built on Blogcritics. I dug their more soulful stuff, but wasn't a fan of the two harder rock songs they had. Maybe I missed the point.

Here's "Sixteen."

And a video for "How You Like Me Now."

The Heavy - How You Like Me Now? from Ninja Tune on Vimeo.

Skyzoo Review


I reviewed Skyzoo's album Salvation for RapReviews. It's one of the better rap albums I've heard in a while. Good beats, solid lyrics, and he handles all 16 tracks himself.

One of my favorite tracks was "Maintain."

Here's a video for "Beautiful Decay."

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

What I'm Listening To

So I started writing for Blogcritics in September, thinking it would be a way to write about something besides music. I've done a book review and two DVD set reviews, but mostly I've just been writing about non-hip hop music. I still do a review a week or so for RapReviews, but with Blogcritics, a new world has opened up. This is because I contact PR folks directly, rather than being sent stuff to review by someone from the site. This means that they'll ask me to review stuff for them, and right now I'm like a kid in a candy store. You want to send me a zip file of the new Heavy album? Ok. Hey, I kinda like that Imaad Wasif song in your PR blast. Can I review the album? And two minutes later it shows up in my inbox. Awesome, right? Being on the mailing list for good American indie labels and Astralworks? The problem is, now I have six albums that I should review....by next week, plus another two or three that I should do sooner than later. I did four reviews this weekend, which is four times as many as I normally do. Normally I like to sit with an album, and then take long time to ruminate over what the album means to me. Now I'm cranking 'em out, which is good, in that it forces me to get shit done, but potentially bad, in that it could lead to sloppy mistakes. Whatevs.

I can't help thinking of the days of my youth when I was lucky to hear one new album a week, much less get five good albums in the span of a few days. So here's what I'm listening to:

Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson - Summer of Fear
Port 0'Brien - Threadbare
Girls - self titled (I think)
Imaad Wasif - The Voidist
Si Para Usted comp (funk music from Cuba from the 70s)
The Heavy - (new album - my itunes thinks it's Heavy D and the Boyz)
Rita J

And I may be forgetting some...

I'm excited about the Port O'Brien. I really loved their last album, and I am going to make every effort to see them at Bottom of the Hill on Thursday, Nov. 5. Here's the video for their new song.


And a video for "In Vino Veritas," one of my favorite songs from their last album.

Jamie T Kings and Queens Review

Kings and Queens is the second album from Wimbledon born musician Jamie T. His debut, Panic Prevention, was nominated for a Mercury prize, which is like a British version of a Grammy, only based on artistic merit rather than commercial potential.

The 23-year-old, born Jamie Alexander Treays, plays a combination of punk, folk, and hip-hop. Vocally he sounds like Alex Turner from the Arctic Monkeys channeling Joe Strummer, spitting out heavily accented lines with a gravelly slur. Lyrically, he shares the documentary lyrics of Turner, the Streets, or Lily Allen, combined with a political bent that again brings to mind Strummer.

The album explores several genres, some more successful than others. His attempt at hip-hop works on the poppy "Touch the Sky," in which he talk-sings rather than raps over a lazy beat. "Sticks and Stones" is another winning stab at folky hip hop, but when he goes for a harder rap edge on "Castro Dies," he falls flat.

He's better on folkier material like "Spider's Web" where he rants about terrorist paranoia over a gentle acoustic guitar riff. The single "Emily's Guitar" is essentially a folk song, with Jamie singing over an acoustic guitar. The delicate music is contrasted with Jamie's snarling voice, giving the song an edge not unlike a young, cockney Bob Dylan.

Jamie's strongest point are his lyrics. His songs paint pictures of the daily life of 20-somethings in London, capturing little details with eye of a poet.

"I'm still travelling trains," he sings on "British Intelligence," "Delayed in the rain on a Monday morning/Watched by surveilance teams/Business men live out their dreams and sleep with secretaries/In stockrooms overflowed with coffee and machines."

He also seems to be veering into stream-of-consciousness Dylan territory at points. On "Sticks and Stones" he sings "Well the jokers looking over as he pulling an ace/The militia take cover under my staircase/Witches in the kitchen bitching and itching/While two old school friends haunt the hall ways." It's not quite "Tom Thumb's Blues," but it's in the same vein.

While I liked Jamie's voice, his lyrics, and the way he mashes up different genres, his experiments are not always successful. The songwriting is sometimes lacking, especially on the first third of the album. There are a handful of songs here that are great, but a lot of the tracks don't quite hit the mark.

As a result, Kings and Queens has the feel of an artist exploring his sound but not quite reaching his potential. Kings and Queens is worth listening to for "Touch the Sky," "British Intelligence," "Emily's Guitar" and "Spider's Web," but the best is yet to come from Jamie T.

Originally posted on Blogcritics.org

French Miami Review

This is the self-titled debut album by San Francisco trio French Miami. The band combines synthesizers and angular guitar riffs, resulting in sound that is early-80s post punk meets 90s math rock. Opening track "God Damn Best" is the most complete realization of their sound. Jagged guitar lines mix with Roland Curtis's synthesized bass notes, Chris Crawford's propulsive drumming, and Jason Heislelmann's impassioned yet slightly monotone singing. As with most of their songs, "God Damn Best" focuses on patterns and repetition, cycling the same lyrics and notes over and over again. It's hypnotizing and energizing, the kind of song that makes you want to flail around. It's no wonder that their live shows are said to be amazing.

Crawford is the linchpin of the band. His incessant drumming keeps the songs moving, and there is an abandon to his beat that counters the sterile precision of the music and vocals. His drums have a heavy, analog sound, and you can feel every cymbal crash and hear the rattle of the kit with each beat of the kick drum. This lends an organic feel to music that might otherwise feel too robotic. Even when they use a drum machine, like on "S.F.O.," the drums still add an additional kick.

They don't quite hit the high-water mark set by "God Damn Best" on the rest of the album, but they do come close. "Multi-Caliber Rifles" is a four-minute exercise that starts out with a simple guitar riff and keeps adding layers on top of it. "Science Fiction" pits a manic guitar line against a synth wash as Heislemann sings "And then we'll make it out cuz I'm not jealous anymore." His vocals sound a little like Ian Curtis, and the overall sound of the records recalls the desolate feel of Martin Hannett's production on Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures.

The one drawback to French Miami's sound is that all of the repetition gets, well, repetitive. They have a tendency to work the same riff and lyric over and over again, and it doesn't always work. The more straightforward songwriting on "S.F.O." is a good sign that French Miami are expanding their musical range. Even with some missteps, this album remains one of the more invigorating and exciting debuts I've heard in a while. It's great to hear a band referencing 80s post-punk without the jokey irony or hipsterism, and I'm looking forward to seeing what French Miami does next.

Originally posted on Blogcritics.org

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Basement Jaxx Review

My review of the Basement Jaxx new album is up at Blogcritics, here:
http://blogcritics.org/music/article/music-review-basement-jaxx-scars/

I thought it was a return to form from the boys, or maybe just a reminder for me of how good they are. Like Daft Punk, they combine dance and pop with enough brains to make the music snobs happy too.

Here's a video for "Scars"


My favorite song on the album is "My Turn" featuring Lightspeed Champion. It's a sad indie song that gets a house boost:

Lightspeed Champion is trying to watch all of the worst movies on IMDB here.

I also really liked "Feelings Gone" featuring Sam Sparro, that seems like a pretty good pride anthem.

Overall, a Scars is a good album. Go buy it.

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