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

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 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 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

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

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Basement Jaxx Review

My review of the Basement Jaxx new album is up at Blogcritics, here:

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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