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.


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'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
"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

"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
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

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

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.

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