Monday, December 27, 2010

Girl Talk Review

I reviewed Girl Talk's All Day on RapReviews last week. I think what he does is interesting, but 12 tracks of it is about eleven too many.

Looks like he's fun live, tho.

The Aztext Review

I reviewed the Aztexts new EP this week on RapReviews. They are a Vermont hip hop group that is releasing their new album one EP at a time. They may not be from a hip hop mecca, but they do a pretty convincing take on new old school.

Here's a video of them performing live. Which seems to be the rarest of things: a good live hip hop show.

The Aztext (Live) from Paul Varricchione on Vimeo.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

KingHellBastard Review

I reviewed KingHellBastard's Remember the Name last week on RapReviews.
They are a Milwaukee crew doing new old school, my new name for retro rap. Which I also coined.

Here's them doing "It's the Crew Again" with Sadat X.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

GFX Review

I reviewed the album by Buffalo hip hop duo GFX this week on RapReviews. The group is producer Cufx and rapper G-wza, dropping moody beats and introspective rhymes.

I've been listening to Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou Dahomey lately. I've had the album for a year, but I've been revisiting it. It's 70s African funk, which is a genre I love. It's funky, polyrhythmic, and wicked as hell. 

Thursday, December 02, 2010

What I've Been Listening too

I downloaded Aloe Blacc's "Good Things" today. It's neo-soul on Stones Throw. I really like a couple songs, but some of it is a little cheesy for my tastes. We'll see if it grows on me. The first single is "I Need A Dollar."

I also downloaded Zion I's "Atomic Clock" last week. They are conscious hip hop from the Bay Area. Amp Live, the producer, has an electronica edge to him that I like. Sort of a combo of old school boom bap and electronica.

I've also been listening to Mikey Dread's "Dread at the Controls." He worked with the Clash in the early 80s, and I love his odd voice and the full sound he gets. It's prime studying music.

Finally, I've been listening to Gonjasufi a lot. It's stoney, tripped out psychedelic eletronica. I got the album early this year, but only really listened to it now. It's perfect late night listening.

I also got the new Sufjan Stevens, "Age of Adz," for the wife, but she hates it. Instead of doing mellow orchestral folk, he's doing arty electronic weirdness. It's interesting, but I'm not looking to marry it.


I'm excited about OFF!, a new punk band featuring Keith Morris of the Circle Jerks and a bunch of dudes from other bands. They sound like 82-era Circle Jerks. It may be scthick, but I'm loving it. Raymond Pettibone, the guy who did most of the early SST artwork (Black Flag, Minutemen, etc), did their artwork. I think I'm gonna get it.

And here's Keith singing the same kind of song, thirty years earlier.

Alexipharmic Review

I reviewed Alexipharmic's "Good Side of Bad Vol. 3" EP a few weeks ago on I wasn't sold on his delivery, but I liked his beats and his message. His label, Elephant Memories, donates half their profits to charity, and his one-sheet included information about the aid work he had done in Kenya. Where Obama was born, if you are a die-hard conspiracy theorist who thinks birth certificates are a load of rubbish.

Here's a video for "America."

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Danny Brown Review

I reviewed Danny Brown's They Hybrid on RapReviews this week.  Brown is profane, offensive, and totally awesome. He's one of those rappers who gets away with saying some immoral shit because he says it in such a clever way. You can listen to it and download it for free, too. He just played in San Fran, evidently. Passion of the Weiss had a good interview about him with his collaborators, and also some more music to download.
He also has an entertaining Tumblr feed.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Blow Your Head Review

I reviewed Blow Your Head: Diplo Presents Dubstep this week on RapReviews. I was into it, although I don't listen to a ton of electronica these days. The best parts either reminded me of drum n' bass, crunk, or Flying Lotus. Like Zomby. Or Caspa's remix of Rusko's "Cockney Thug."

It's not on the comp, but Diplo's video for "Keep It Goin'" is fugging awesome. Like a bad drug trip.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Von Pea Review

I reviewed Von Pea's Gotta Have It on RapReviews last week. I'm a fan of Von Pea, and I liked the album. You should buy it.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Madlib Medicine Show #8: Advanced Jazz Review

I reviewed Madlib's Advanced Jazz this week on RapReviews. It is an 80 minute mix of classic jazz.  Esoteric as all of Madlib's stuff, but still a nice starting point for some great jazz. It made me realize I have to check out Eric Dolphy, and dig deeper into Coltrane's mid-to-late-sixties catalog on Impulse. He's put out a ton of records, most of which are more experimental and out there than his early-sixties stuff like Giant Steps or My Favorite Things. I'm not always a huge fan of avant-garde jazz, but when it's not too abstract or dissonant it can be interesting. It makes me realize how little I really know about music, though.

I really like A Love Supreme. It's adventurous but still conventional enough for me to grasp on to.

U Don't Like Me

I'm not a huge fan of Diplo. I like some of his work, (like "Pon The Floor") but in general he's too abrasive and annoying. Ditto for Lil Jon. Still, their collabo, "U Don't Like Me," is pretty awesome in a punch-you-in-the-face kind of way. I love the video game theme of the video, with poor Diplo getting his ass kicked in many different ways.

I'm six months late to the Danny Brown train, but have heard a few songs by him. He's got a street Kool Keith thing going. Raunchy and raw as hell, but pretty awesome.  His album "The Hybrid," was available for free, but I can't even figure out how to download it from his bandcamp site now.(update: I swear the download link wasn't there yesterday!)

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Flying Lotus N' Thangs

Flying Lotus has a new video out, directed by Beeple, for a new song from his new EP. It's fuggin' weird, like a fever dream. Murderous robots and people holding signs that say things like "Kiss a dude."

Flying Lotus - Kill Your Co-Workers from Warp Records on Vimeo.

I also came across this, one of the best songs ever. Check out those clothes! It's 1990 all over again. And those computer graphics - you can tell by the fonts that Tribe was rocking Macs back before they were cool.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Treasure Island

I been busy. Mostly busy working and studying, but also busy doing stuff. I went to the Treasure Island music festival, which was pretty amazing despite the rain. It was worth it to see Superchunk and Broken Social Scene, who were incredible live.

When the going gets tough, the tough listen to emo, so I've broken my Drive Like Jehu's Yank Crime again. When you can't get enough 8 minute long math-rock songs. I heard an interview with the guys in the band, and they said they broke up mainly cuz they got bored playing such long songs. I guess I can understand that.

This is my favorite song from the album, "New Math." It has such a scary, frenetic energy, all jagged starts and stops, and the singer, Rick Froberg, sounds like an office drone losing his mind, screaming "Yeah you been had!!!!" like a madman. I think the fact that he sounds so square makes his outbursts that much more chilling.

I'd stoop to that. Sure I would. Yeah you been had.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Burnerz Review

I reviewed the new Burnerz album last week on RapReviews. It's a collab between Zion I MC Zumbi and producer The Are. 14 tracks of solid underground hip hop. Stupid name, good album.

On a similar theme, here's Dilla and Madlib doing "Fuck The Police" live, with an explanation of where the inspiration for the song came from.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Kane and Abel Review

I reviewed the newest Kane and Abel album on RapReviews last week. They were No Limit artists back in the day. I was not a fan of their music, but I'm not sure if that is because I don't like the genre, or they aren't that good. Probably a little of both.

This video for "Supa Clean" makes them seem like a parody act. What's with the little person dressed as black uncle sam?

Luciano and Duane Stephenson Review

Reggae artist Luciano has been releasing albums steadily since the early nineties, but his most recent, United States of Africa, is the first one I've had the opportunity to listen to. I've heard of him, of course, and his reputation as a deeply religious, deeply conscious artist who exists outside the trends of mainstream reggae and dancehall.
United States of Africa is an ambitious album, chronicling the struggles Africa has undergone and is still undergoing, but imagining it as a unified home for Africans and the African diaspora. The album deals with the Rastafarian dream of returning to the Motherland with an intensity, sensitivity, and understanding of current affairs that isn't present in most reggae odes to leaving Babylon and returning to Ethiopia. Luciano also ties in concerns with the economy ("In This Recession," "Invasion"). This is protest music done right.
The production combines earthy rasta dread with contemporary techniques and sheen. Luciano has a voice has a rough edge to it, which adds an element of depth to his music. The songs manage to balance a serious message with a sense of joy, which makes the album more uplifting than the subject matter might suggest. Highlights include "Moving On," which sounds like classic rocksteady; "Invasion," which is both weary and hopeful at the same time; the gorgeous "Unite Africa"; and the early reggae feel of "Hosanna." I personally didn't like the inclusion of alto sax and synthesizers on several songs, which added an unnecessary cheesiness. Still, United States of Africa is a powerful album, and places Luciano firmly in the tradition of Bob Marley.
Duane Stephenson is another reggae artists following in Bob Marley's footsteps. His sophomore ablum, Black Gold, was released last month, following up on 2007’s August Town. Before striking out on his own, Stephenson was the singer/songwriter in To-Isis, who had a hit with a reggae version of Eric Clapton’s “Tears In Heaven.” Stephenson’s voice is reminiscent of Marley’s and he share’s the late legend’s heartfelt lyrics and social concerns. However, Stephenson’s music is polished with a layer of R&B sheen that veers close to schmaltz. The production is too cheesy and too middle of the road for my tastes, and as a result I wasn’t into this. Still, Stephenson has a great voice, and fans of smooth R&B should love Black Gold, even if I didn’t.

Originally posted on Blogcritics as 
Music Review: Luciano and Duane Stephenson - United States of Africa and Black Gold

Saturday, October 02, 2010

What I'm Listening To

I've been really into the Mountain Man album lately. I downloaded their debut for my wife about a month ago, but only this week listened to it myself. They are a vocal trio of three women (who met at Bennington in Vermont, of course). It's not the kind of music I normally listen to, but there is something so beautiful and soothing about it that I can't stop listening to it.

I also have been listening to the new Superchunk album, Majesty Shredding. I was suspicious at first: is this just gonna be a bunch of old farts trying to recapture their rock out glory days? However, like Sonic Youth, Superchunk are good songwriters, don't stray to far from their sweet spot, and are still making interesting music. At least for an old fart like me. Sounds like 1994 all over again.

And them doing my favorite song, "Throwing Things," acoustic:

I also got a two-disc set of Big Youth, which is pretty amazing. Also, his "Goodness Gracious!" from "Can You Keep A Secret" (in the first five seconds of this clip) is in the Beastie Boys "Pass the Mic." A song which, while it still holds up, has some splaining to do for years of shitty rap-rock.

I've also been listening to Junior Byles, who is one of the most amazing, heartbreaking reggae artists ever. I love his version of "Curly Locks," a song about a rasta whose girlfriend's father doesn't want her going out with a dreadlock. Lee Perry did a version that was more whimsical, and Sinead O'Connor did a good version as well, but Byles' is number one. Byles was a gorgeous singer, with a sensitivity that made his music something very special. Unfortunately, the elements that made him an amazing singer also led to his mental instability, and he's spent most of the past three decades living on the streets and pretty much insane. There is footage of him playing live in the 2000s, but he is clearly a shell of his former self.

Ernie Smith - The Best Original Masters Review

Article first published as Music Review: Ernie Smith, The Best Original Masters on Blogcritics.
Ernie Smith was a Jamaican artist who had a string of hits in the early seventies, including “I Can’t Take It,itta Patta,” “Bend Down,” and “Life Is Just For Living.” He recorded for the Federal Records label, who is know for their polished take on reggae. The production on this best-of collection owes more to the countrypolitan sound coming out of Nashville in the same time period as reggae.
There is none of the deep bass or colly-fueled skank of contemporary reggae producers like Joe Gibbs, Niney the Observer, Bunny Lee, or Lee Perry. Instead, there is a pop sheen to the songs, from Smith’s restrained baritone to the inclusion of non-reggae elements like strings and piano. Many of the songs sound like country-western, but for the mild reggae lilt. “I Can’t Take It” even includes a spoken word interlude at the end of the song, in clear, American English, without any of the patois or slang that makes reggae so distinctive. He also experiments with pop on “Footprints on the Ceiling.”
Even the more “reggae” songs on this disc are produced in a way that make them sound country. In the hands of Joe Gibbs or Bunny Lee, “Bend Down” could be a mellow, post-rocksteady reggae song. Smith makes it sound like George Jones with some dreadlocks on bass and guitar. The same is true with “One Dream,” “Ride On Sammy,” and “Pitta Patta.” Smith tries out some patois on “Duppy Gun Man,” but it sounds staged and insincere. His patois on “Key Card” and “Nice Time” sound more natural.

I’m not trying to write him off as a posh, fake Rasta. His pop approach to reggae may not have jibed with what was going on in the dancehall at the time, but forty years later his material sounds like other pop artists of the time, including Johnny Nash and George Jones. Smith’s take on “Sunday Morning Coming Down” is on par with Johnny Cash’s version. The pop production techniques add novel elements to the reggae sound palette, and it’s old enough to sound cool and retro rather than cheesy and watered down. As non-traditional as Ernie Smith’s music is, I found myself really enjoying this album.
There is an upbeat vibe to the songs that acknowledges the hardships in the world without being overwhelmed by them. There’s a story in the liner notes about how Smith decided to return the Jamaica in the late '80s after years of living in Florida. There had been a hurricane, and on the U.S. news, Americans were complaining about how they lost everything. This was contrasted with the Jamaican news, where poor villagers who lost everything were happy to still be alive. Smith realized he was living in the wrong country, and moved back to Jamaica, where he continues to record today. The Best Original Masters is worth investigating for any fan of early seventies pop and country, and anyone who appreciates the pop songwriting from that era.

Madlib Medicine Show #7: High Jazz

Stones Throw, 2010

There's an ice cream shop in San Francisco called Humphrey Slocombe that specializes in "unique" flavors. So unique that they got written up in the New York Times about a month ago. Their most famous flavor is Secret Breakfast, which is vanilla with bourbon and cornflakes. Some of their flavors, like Secret Breakfast, offer a unique take on old standards, and end up being really good. However, a lot of them are just weird. I've tried their Peanut Butter Curry, which was edible but wacky, their Salt and Pepper, which was kinda gross, and their Balsamic Caramel, which was fucking nasty. My problem with Humphrey Slocombe is that their ice cream is interesting, but not particularly enjoyable.

Which brings me to Madlib's latest installment of his monthly Medicine Show, "High Jazz." This disc contains thirteen songs of Madlib's various avant-jazz incarnations. It includes tracks by Generation Match, Jahara Massamba Unit, the Kenny Cook Octet, Yesterday's New Quintet, and R.M.C. What are these different incarnations? I don't know. Are there other actual people in the groups, or is Madlib playing all the instruments? I don't know, except that Karim Riggins played drums on some of the tracks.
Before I get too deep in my criticism, I should disclose that I don't know a lot about avant-garde jazz, seventies or eighties jazz, or music theory. I own a lot of 50s and 60s jazz, but not much beyond that, and my collection doesn't get much more far out than a few Sun Ra albums that I enjoy but don't totally understand. I like jazz on an aesthetic, not intellectual level, appreciating how it sounds versus the theory and thought behind the composition. In short, I'm a lay person, so my observations and criticisms should be taken with a grain of salt. I've also not delved too far into Madlib's jazz persona. The only album I own is his jazz-funk "Sound Directions," which I liked. I've stayed away from his Yesterday's New Quintet material, mostly because I was pretty sure I'd feel the same way I felt about it as I felt about "High Jazz."

That said, I like what I like, and I wasn't liking a lot of "High Jazz." Partially because I don't "get" what he's doing musically, and don't have a refined enough ear to appreciate it. Mostly, though, I didn't get into "High Jazz" because many of the songs sounded half-baked and half-finished. "Reality or Dream" by the Big Black Foot Band featuring Black Spirit sounded like someone reciting poetry while the band warmed up. Generation Match's "Electronic Dimensions" was a series of electronic blurbs and bloops that meandered around without any since of direction or purpose, like two stoned robots talking to each other.  Russel Jenkins Jazz Express's "Drunk Again" sounds like three different bands playing three different songs at once. Jahari Massamba Unit's "Pretty Eyes" and "Wanderin'/Nighttime" are pretty enough, but underwhelming, more background music than something that commands your attention.
I'm fully aware that as someone who is not a big avant-garde jazz fan, I could be missing the genius of these songs. To the extent that I'm not enjoying this album because I'm not smart enough to get what's going on, so be it. My real complaint, however, is how half-assed and tossed off the above songs feel. Madlib has been churning music out like a madman this year, and I'm noticing a disturbing lack of finish to some of his output. It's like he's so concentrated on getting shit out the door that he doesn't spend enough time editing what he's doing, and the result is a noticeable sacrifice in quality as he increases his quantity. Madlib is a talented dude, and he should let his prolificness get in the way of making quality music.

Not that "High Jazz" is terrible. Things get more interesting on the deep spaciness of "Space and Time" by R.M.C., with its tinkling piano and heavy acoustic bass. Yesterday's New Quintet's "Conquistador" and the Big Black Foot Band's "Tarzan's Theme" also pick up the pace, providing a groove you can hold on to and sounding more recognizably like songs. Poysner, Riggins, and Jackson's "Funky Butt, Part 1" offers up some funky latin jazz, and the disc closes with "Kimo," a song by the Joe McDuphrey Experience that sounds like a jazz version of house music.

If you are a jazzhead, you might appreciate "High Jazz" on a level that I am unable to. Maybe I'm totally missing the point of this album. To me, it sounds like a lot of half-finished ideas that were rushed out to meet a deadline rather than a well-constructed, well-thought out album. Too much of it is like vinegar ice cream: interesting, but not very enjoyable.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Intelligence

Article first published as Music Review: The Intelligence - Males on Blogcritics.

Seattle’s The Intelligence started as a side project by A Frames’ drummer Lars Finberg. From humble beginnings as scrungy cassette tape recordings, The Intelligence has become a real band with real production values on their sixth full-length, Males. It’s a trajectory the band started on 2007’s Deuteronomy, but their latest could possibly be their best.

Like the A-Frames and Thee Oh Sees, The Intelligence mix post punk and art rock elements into their clattering garage soup. They aren’t faux mods in Beatle boots pretending that it’s 1966 all over again. Instead, they meld raw, primitive rock with more complex ideas and songwriting. The garage rock elements give the music vitality and danger, but the artier elements give it weight.

The weirdness factor has been toned down from previous releases to the point where every song here feels like a song. It’s not weird for weird’s sake, and the artiness doesn’t make the music unpalatable. Rather, like a good Sonic Youth song, The Intelligence have a je ne sais quoi that makes Males more than just another garage album. Speaking of Sonic Youth, Lars is a dead ringer, vocal-wise, for Youth pinch singer Lee Renaldo, and “Sailor Itch” sounds like Daydream Nation gone surf rock.
Let’s not oversell the art rock thing, though. This is rock n’ roll, not conceptual art. Song titles like “Bong Life,” “Tuned to Puke,” and “Mom or A Parking Lot” make it clear that The Intelligence leans more towards so-dumb-it’s-brilliant rather than book smart.  

Lead single “Like Like Like Like Like Like” is a short-but-sweet blast that is in and out before you have time to defend yourself. “Mom or A Parking Lot” is a nightmarish piece of psychedelia with chipper but creepy keyboard. My favorite song on the album was “White Corvette,” a punky new wave song that rides the same notes for most of it’s three minute running time until finally giving you relief in the chorus, “It’s no fun/No no fun!”

At eleven tracks in under 26 minutes, Males is over almost as quickly as it begins. Most of the songs clock in at around two minutes, ending before they wear out their welcome. The result is a joyride that maintains it's brainy energy without ever sagging or getting boring.

Gappy Ranks

Article first published as Music Review: Gappy Ranks, Put The Stereo On on Blogcritics.

This is the debut solo album by London reggae artist Gappy Ranks, who first made a name for himself as part of the dancehall group Suncycle. On his solo album, he veers away from the hip hop-influenced dancehall of Suncycle, looking instead to rocksteady and early reggae.

Retro is the name of the game: the cover of the album evokes mid-sixties British ska, Gappy covers songs by Bob Marley and Tenor Saw, and recycles Treasure Isle riddims on several tracks. Just as many contemporary R&B singers are referencing and reworking classic sixties soul, Gappy is referencing and reworking reggae and rocksteady from the late sixties and early seventies.

The key to the sound of Put The Stereo On are the producers, the Peckings. The Peckings are Chris, Duke and Trevor Price, sons of British reggae pioneer George Price, aka Peckings. The Peckings contemporary take on old school sounds shows that they share a love for the music that their father so tirelessly promoted.

The songs range from the mellow skank and cultural lyrics of “Mountain Top” and the serious dread of “So Lost” to the more modern sounds of “A Little Understanding.” The mix of classic reggae sounds and riddims with modern production techniques and lyrics works perfectly on “Pumpkin Belly” and the title track. The analog riddims are beefed up with modern bass and drums, and Gappy’s commanding voice reminds you that this is the 2010s, not the 1970s.
Unfortunately, the Peckings try to make Gappy sound too contemporary, often running his voice through Auto-Tune. The robotic effect clashes with the classic riddims, and killed a couple of the songs for me. “Happiest Day of My Life” would be a much, much stronger song if Gappy didn’t sound like an underwater Cylon over the bright rocksteady riddim. His voice sounds better when the Auto-Tune is either not used or used sparingly.

Even with the unfortunate overuse of vocal effects, Put The Stereo On is a strong album. I loved the mix of old and new sounds, and the way Gappy and the Peckings put a fresh spin on 60s and 70s reggae and rocksteady. Not all of the songs worked, but those that did were pretty brilliant.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010


I reviewed Ana Tijoux's 1977 for RapReviews this week. She's a French/Chilean rapper who at her best moments sounds like a female mixture of Mos Def and Manu Chao. A little too mellow on the second half of the album for my tastes, but I still enjoyed it. It reminded me of parties in Italy when I was a student there. Ten years ago. Christ I'm old. I love the title track.

Also, I finally downloaded Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers L.A.M.F. on Emusic last week. It was a long lost album by the former New York Dolls guitarist. I heard about it back when I was obsessed with the Sex Pistols in the late 80s. Sid Vicious covers "Born to Lose" and "Chinese Rocks" on Sid Sings. L.A.M.F. was released on a label that went under in the seventies, and was really hard to find until it was rereleased in the 90s. Scrungy, dirty rock n' roll that makes me want to take a bath.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Loose Change Review

I did a review of Loose Change's album on RapReviews a coupla weeks back.

Dillinger Review

Originally published on RapReviews

Dillinger, CB200 + Bionic Dread 
Hip O Select/Island Def Jam 1977/2004

Jamaican music has always been dominated by the dancehall.  They were controlled by the soundmen with the biggest, most powerful systems, many of whom became successful producers. They were ruled by selectors with the rarest 45s and their chatty deejays keeping the crowd pumped up. The key to the success of any any Jamaican sound system in the sixties and seventies was having the newest, rarest tracks. That often involved working with labels to get a steady stream of unmarked 45 containing exclusive songs. Soon the Jamaican engineers were experimenting with versioning songs, which began as simple instrumentals, and eventually became the weird and wonderful world of dub. These exclusive versions were a must for any successful sound system.

The deejay was another key to a successful system. Early deejays like King Stitt and Dennis Alcapone would chatter over records, often commenting on the tracks, and keeping the party going. This would be adapted in the Bronx as rapping, with funk and disco 45s replacing reggae.

The instrumental versions gave the deejays plenty of space to do their thing, and the crowd ate it up. Pretty soon deejays were releasing records of their own. The spontaneous nature of deejaying meant that the lyrics could be much more conversational and current than the lyrics to song, and labels got to re-release the same backing track as an entirely new song.

For a hip hop fan looking to explore reggae, dancehall, as deejay music came to be called, is a good place to start. It's essentially Jamaican rapping, with deejays sing/talking over a riddim, ie bass and drums. As with early hip hop, there is a lot of crate digging going on, with producers unearthing forgotten riddims and giving them new life. Dillinger's "CB200 + BIonic Dread" is a great introduction to the genre. This 2004 re-issue presents remastered versions of two classic dancehall albums, complete with extensive liner notes.

Dillinger's "CB200" and "Bionic Dread" were released in January and March of 1977. All the songs were recorded in Studio One, with Sly Dunbar (of Sly and Robbie) and Ossie Hibbert overseeing production. Most of the backing tracks were newly recorded versions of popular Studio One songs, with Dillinger rapping over instrumentals of songs by Gregory Isaacs, Delroy Wilson, and the Mighty Diamonds among others.

The first ten songs are from "CB200" while the second ten are from "Bionic Dread." The album covers show the development that took place in Dillinger within the three months that they were released. "CB200' is a folk art painting of an unimpressive motorbike; "Bionic Dread" is a stylized painting of a bionic rasta on a futuristic motorcycle speeding past a country family with all their possessions piled on their Woody. It looks like a Journey or Boston cover from that era, showing how much more successful and sophisticated Dillinger had become. Musically, "Bionic Dread" is similar to "CB200," although arguably a little less impressive.

Part of the success of "CB200" is the fact that the music sounds amazing. Studio One had just updated their gear, so the sound is crisp and clean, but not tainted by the digital instruments or recording styles that would come into vogue in the 80s. The bass, drums, and horns all shine through, without any of the muddiness that is so prevalent on some deejay albums. The main reason why these albums have remained classics, of course, is Dillinger himself.

Born Lester Bullock, this Kingston native hung around sound systems with deejays like Dennis Alcapone as a kid, trying to make a name for himself. He cut some tracks with Lee Perry that didn't go anywhere, and released an underrated debut in 1975, "Ready Nattie Dreadie." "CB200" was his masterpiece, the success of which was largely due to the single "Cokane In My Brain," a big hit outside of Jamaica. The song was inspired by the drug use of white tourists to the island, and built upon a version of BT Express's "Do It (Till You're Satisfied)." Dillinger presents the song as a conversation between two guys named Jim and John. John asks Jim to spell New York, and after Jim spells "N-E-W-Y-O-R-K," John tells him he's wrong:

"A knife, a fork, a bottle and a cork
That's the way we spell New York, Jim - yeah
You see I'm a dynamite
So all you got to do is hold me tight
Because I'm out a sight, you know
'Cause I'm a dynamite
But everytime I walk in the rain
Man, oh man, I feel a pain, I feel a burning pain
Keep on burning in my bloody brain
I've got cocaine running around my brain"

It's a funny, classic song, and it's not hard to see why it was such a hit with European and American stoners. For most of the album, however, Dillinger abandons the jokey, funky style of "Cokane" for something dreader and more melodic. The only drug he raps about is collie herb, and he's more interested in escaping Babylon than laughing at their drug choice. "Plantation Heights" is arguably the best song on the album, and a good indicator of the real Dillinger. Over a version of the Mighty Diamonds' gorgeous "I Need A Roof," Dillinger sing/raps about the "ital bud" and marijuana agriculture. American listeners might have a hard time decifering his accent, slang, and cultural references, but lines like "I smoke marijuana" ring through loud and clear.

While Dillinger's thick patois isn't the easiest thing for a gringo to decipher, it's not hard to get the jist of what he's talking about. "CB200" is an ode to his motor bike, and "Race Day" and "Natty Kick Like Lightening" also explore Dillinger's love of going fast. "No Chuck It," with it's references to motorslaughter and "Davey vs. Goliath" riots references the turbulent times that Jamaica was experiencing in the late 70s.

The nature of dancehall deejaying as a spontaneous act means that not everything Dillingeris saying makes sense or is supposed to. On "The General," he explains "Natty dread don't shiver because he don't eat liver" a few lines before advising listeners, "You've got to live the life you love/and love the life you live," and saying Ethiopians should get out of Babylon. Much of the lyrics are seemingly stream-of-conscious, and a lot of the songs fade out mid-verse. The profound mixes with the inane, social criticisms and religious affirmations are juxtaposed with bragging and talking about riding motorbikes.
The point, though, isn't WHAT he is saying, it's HOW he's saying it. For this reason, Dillinger is one of the best of the 70s deejays, and a good entry point for a novice to the genre. He sing/talks to the melody, riding the riddim, and inserting vocal tics and flourishes every so often. He melds with the track even more perfectly than a singer would, actually becoming part of the rhythm and melody. The barking, aggressive style that deejays took on in the 80s and 90s isn't apparent here.

The end result is an album that meshes the mellow riddims of reggae with the wordplay and syncopated rhyming of hip hop. In other words, its the best of both worlds. For newbies to reggae and dancehall, it's an excellent starting point. For fans of the genre, it is a must-own.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


I just got the four-disc Evolution of Dub Volume One: Origin of the Species. It's a box set released by VP records last year that consists of Joe Gibbs Dub Serial, King Tubby's Dub from the Roots and The Roots of Dub, and Niney the Observer's Dubbing With the Observer. All of the discs come in sleeves that reproduce the original artwork. I stumbled upon in at Amoeba today when I was looking for Niney's Dubbing with the Observer, which is super hard to find, even illegally. It's meant to be a classic of the genre. The point of the collection is to put four early dub albums together to show how the art form evolved. Joe Gibbs Dub Serial, which had a retail price of $50 in the early seventies (which is probably several hundred dollars in today's cash), was one of the first dub albums, and is less messed-with than Tubby and Niney's albums. This is probably all the dub I'll have use for for a long, long time, but it was a score to find four classic albums for about six bucks each.  I'm sure it would be much more meaningful if I smoked pot.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Purify Review

I reviewed Purify's Remixes Felt album this week at RapReviews. Purify is a Midwestern producer who does mellower, sample-based beats. Felt is a project with Murs and Slug. I was into it.

I have  a few more reviews I'm working on, but most likely will be on a hiatus for a bit, or at least posting sporadically. I'm going back to school, and working full time, which seems like a lot of work. Hopefully I'll still have time to do some reviews every couple weeks or so. How else am I going to get new music? All my record-buying money is going into books and school.

I've decided my study music for school this time around will be dub and jazz. I always need non-vocal study music. Last time around it was mostly ambient electronica and opera (which has words but still does the trick).

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Common People

I studied in Florence, Italy in 1995. It was one of the best years of my life (to date), but at the time, I wasn't ready for it. I had moved to San Francisco in the Fall of 1993, and spent the next two years getting immersed in the burgeoning SF punk scene, seeing Green Day, Jawbreaker, and a lot of other smaller bands Before They Were Big (although Cake and Rage Against the Machine were probably the only bands I actually saw Before They Were Famous-Schlong, Skanking Pickle, Strawman, Pounded Clown, Tilt, Fluf, etc. never had such a big impact).

What was I talking about?

Oh, so I arrive in Italy as a twenty-year old who is really into country, rockabilly, Kiss, gangsta rap, and punk rock. My roommate in SF had been into the blossoming Brit Pop scene, but it seemed like fey, wimpy, affected garbage to me. I wanted to hear American music, dammit! I hated the idea of sucking up the Brits, and the snobbery and utter wimpiness that I associated with it.

Half a year in Europe changed my mind. We would go to the Scorpione bar (between the Ufizzi and Santa Croce, for anyone who knows Florence, and they would play videos that we would dance to. One of the videos on constant rotation was Pulp's "Common People." It was, and remains, one of my favorite dance songs of all time.

Musically, it references synth pop, glam rock, and British pop, but gave it a (then) contemporary sheen. More importantly, it had a level of musical sophistication that was sorely lacking among the deteriorating grunge scene. By 1995 grunge was sold out and played out. True innovators like Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam had given way to shitty imitators like Candlebox and Creed. The music was muddy, dreary, and no fun at all. I was sick of distorted guitars, and sick of white kids from comfortable backgrounds whining about how miserable they were (see emo). Worse, American music had gotten insular and navel-gazing. I was over it, and looking for something that was more fun and had something to say.

"Common People" is a fun dance song, but it is a fun dance song that dissects how the rich see the poor as a font of authenticity and realness, romanticizing the suffering and squalor of the lower classes. Singer Jarvis Cocker calls out the girl in the song (based on a Greek woman he met at university), but also calls out the hopelessness and meaninglessness of the lives of the "common people."

"You'll never fail like common people," he sings. "You'll never watch your life slide out of view/And then dance and drink and screw/Because there's nothing else to do."

When I got back to SF in summer of 1996, I started going to Popscene, then at the Black Cat Club. Every Thursday me and my roommate Matt would dress in our most mod gear, drink guiness and dance. Every week this song came on, and it was always a cathartic experience, naming how meaningless and inconsequential we were feeling, and making it seem ok. I still love the song, and whenever I hear it, it makes me smile.

So I got into Brit Pop for a while until eventually, the artifice and foreign-ness of it got on my nerves again, and I gravitated towards other types of music. When I went back to Italy in 2000, I was listening mostly to hardcore punk. That year my biggest musical discovery was Bob Dylan. Sometimes you have to go away to come home.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Arcade Fire and albums

I bought the new Arcade Fire, The Suburbs, last week. I coulda downloaded it on Emusic, but I went in and paid my $13 for a physical cd at Ameoba, because that's how the band meant it to be digested. I do a lot of digital downloads, and there is a positive side to it, but there is something to be said for the permanence and physicality of an actual album.

I believe in albums. I believe in listening to 40-60 minutes of what an artist has to say, to hear how their songs interconnect, what the different songs have to say about an artist, and the mood that is struck over the course of an album. Mostly I listen to music on shuffle on my iPod, but I'm fucking sick of it. I'm tired of hearing a reggae song after a punk song after a hip hop song after a jazz song. I'm tired of how it doesn't make sense, how there's no rhyme or reason, how I skip ahead before I reach the end. I used to know how all of the songs bled together on the albums I loved, how the end of one song fed into the beginning of another, the mood shift as a slow song is followed by an uptempo song. Now it's just a hot mess, 1000+ songs on shuffle with no rhyme or reason. I want to go back to listening to albums. I want artists to keep making them. I realize it began with the technical limitations of records, but it makes sense. And I think 45 minutes is a perfect time frame, maybe a little less, maybe a little more. In the 90s, every album became a double album, all of them pushed to their 75-minute capacity. This meant that albums were bloated, full of filler, and not enjoyable to listen to as a whole. Less is more. Give us your good shit, leave the detritus for a mixtape or box set.

I haven't listened much to The Suburbs, but when I do it's as a whole, not on shuffle, as an album, like Win and fam meant it. Dammit.

Busy Signal and Capleton Review

Two recent dance hall releases highlight two very different approaches to the genre. Busy Signal’s D.O.B. is full of high-energy songs about partying, while Capleton’s I-Ternal Fire offers a more mature and reflective perspective.

Busy Signal’s third album, D.O.B., is full of raucous riddims, hyperactive rapping, and many odes to partying and getting it on. Much of the success of the album is owed to the producers, who include DJ Karim, Kalonji D’Aguilar, Stephen “Di Genius” McGregor, Shane Brown, T’Jean Bennett, and Andrew Myrie. They show some of the same risk-taking and experimentation that made turn of the century hip hop so exciting. There are latin riddims on "Picane" and "Busy Latino," and classical flourishes on "Opera." "Nuh Fraid" sounds like Southern club rap, and "Hair Dresser Shop" draws from American R&B. Several tracks offer up the distilled essence of dancehall, including "Summn' A Guh Gwaan," with Bounty Killer, and "My Money (Money Tree)." The latter is little more than a snapping beat with Busy Signal's Auto-Tuned voice filling up the empty space, minimalism at its best.

Busy Signal rounds out his dancefloor movers with a handful of slower tracks. "Sweet Love (Night Shift)" is an update on the Commodores' 80s hit "Night Shift," and despite the cheese factor, Busy makes it work. He tries the trick again on "One More NIght," but this time around the source material (Phil Collins) isn't worth resurrecting. He picks a better song to rework on "Hi Grade," which references Tenor Saw's "Ring The Alarm" to praise the herb. The album ends with the ballad "Peace Reign," which proves that there is more to Busy than nightclubbing. Still, Busy Signal is at his best when he's getting asses to move, and the finest moments on D.O.B. are the uptempo ones.

There's not much geared towards the club on Capleton's I-Ternal Fire. The dancehall veteran has put out over twenty albums, and his slack days are far behind him. His latest album sees him examining what is right and wrong with the world, offering up 15 tracks of reggae that draws from roots artists like Bob Marley.

At his best, Capleton channels the righteous anger and soulful riddim of roots reggae. "Global War" criticizes Western countries for their wars; "Acres" celebrates marijuana agriculture; and "Same Old Story" is a moving ballad. The production throughout is lush, drawing heavily on acoustic instrumentation to create an organic feel. However, while the album sounds great and I appreciate the conscious lyrics, I-Ternal Fire is too mellow for my tastes. It's adult contemporary reggae, which isn't my cup of tea. While I may not put I-Ternal Fire on heavy rotation, it is still a solid album that fans of mellower reggae will enjoy. Personally, I'll stick with the more energetic if less morally defensible Busy Signal.

Article first published as Music Review: Busy Signal and Capleton on Blogcritics.

Gotham Green Review

I reviewed Gotham Green and Quickie Mart's Haze Diaries Volume 3 on RapReviews this week. Decent stoner rap, with enough solid tracks to make it at least worth a perusal on their bandcamp site. They have some stuff for free, if you are feeling cheap. Here's the song they did with Freddie Gibbs.

There's a music marketing site I read sometimes called Audible Hype, and they said that there has been a 300% increase in albums released this decade. Here's a quote from their post on how oversaturated hip hop was last year:
According to SoundScan, 105,000 new full-length albums were released in 2008, up almost 300% from earlier in the decade. The number that sold over 1000 units in the first year? Only 6,000.


Also, I'm loving the new Roots album, How I Got Over.  Maybe because there are so many indie rocker guest spots. It's mellow, grown-man hip hop, but I love it.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Thee Oh Sees, Yellow Fever and the Bare Wires at the Independent

I went and saw Thee Oh Sees, Yellow Fever, and Bare Wires play at the Independent on August 7, 2010.
I was excited to see Yellow Fever, whose debut last year has stayed in heavy rotation on my stereo.

Bare Wires from Oakland opened up. I know nothing about them, except that they are from Oakland, are named after a John Mayall album, have a lead singer who looks like Wierd Al, a bassist that looks like Joey Ramone, and sound like the Sweet meet the Kinks. Here they are playing at SXSW this year.

Yellow Fever were good, but a little mellow for the crowd. It was a woman with a Buddy Holly look on guitar and vocals, and a guy who looks like my friend Chad on drums and keyboards. Dude was multitasking.

The highlight was the Oh Sees. I don't know anything about them, either. Evidently their singer, John Dwyer, is an SF garage punk legend, having been in the Coachwhips.

Their sound is a mix of rockabilly, punk, and garage rock, distilled like a fine bourbon into the purest essence. They were ROCKING. It was probably the most rock n roll experience I've had in a while. Dwyer played his guitar like it was trying to escape from him, the drummer pounded away on his drums, and the bassist (petey dammit) banged his head like a possessed mod. So, so good. HIPSTERS DANCED. For real.

I think his wikipedia entry says the difference between the Oh Sees and Coachwhips is less drugs. Goddamn.

Anyways, I was really into the show, even if I did leave before midnight.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Mac Truc and Reggae Gold Reviews

I have two reviews for RapReviews up now.  The first is Mac Truc's II Be Heard.
He's a rapper out of the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virgina) who does grown man rap - jazz-influenced beats and rhymes with perspective. He reached out to me because I had reviewed TruBless's album a few years back. It's a solid album, worth a listen.

I also reviewed the Reggae Gold 2010 compilation. I'm still not totally sold on contemporary reggae, but there is some good stuff on the comp, including "As We Enter," with Nas and Damien Marley, that samples one of my favorite Ethiopian reggae songs.

Hey, hold these flashlights and look tough. Sweet, that's our video right dere.

I just got the new Roots, which is great, and the new Arcade Fire, which I haven't listened to. It seems good though.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

What I'm Listening To

I just found a copy of Sly and the Family Stone's trippy masterpiece There's a Riot Goin' On.  It's a claustrophobic, intimate record. Drugs may have been involved.

I also bought a two-disc compilation of producer/singer Linval Thompson's stuff. He was somewhere in the Horace Andy/Dennis Brown/Bob Marley vein. I just got his Six Babylon Recently, which is pretty great. The one downside to his groovy, heavy, dready music is that ever single song is about loving Jah and/or having natty dreads. Except for this song, about how much he likes weed.

Finally, I loaded my iPod up with Iron Maiden so that I could listen to the sweet, sweet sounds of Bruce Dickenson wailing away on "Run to the Hills" while packed like a sardine can on Muni on my way home.
Rock the fuck out.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Giano Review

I reviewed Giano's Beautiful World for RapReviews this week. Backpack Christian rap. Liked the backpack, wasn't feeling the Christian, but if you are a hip hop head who is at church every Sunday, cop this.

The Definitive Collection of Federal Records Review

This two-disc compilation covers the output of Federal Records from the mid-sixties through the early eighties. The label was founded by Kenneth Khouri in the early sixties. Khouri got his start in the 1950s cutting singles of mento records, and was on the front lines as ska exploded and then evolved into rocksteady, eventually settling into reggae.
The songs are arranged chronologically. Disc one starts out with the bright, raw sound of ska, including the Maytals' “My Daily Food” and Eric “Monty” Morris’s “In the Garden.” They are upbeat, energetic, and infectious, but they pale in comparison to the more sophisticated rocksteady songs. One of the first rocksteady songs recorded is included, Hopeton Lewis’s “Take It Easy.” One listen to that track and you’ll understand why a generation of Jamaicans abandoned the energetic but simple pulse of ska for the cooler, smoother rocksteady groove. Hopeton Lewis’s “Sounds and Pressure” is also on the disc, along with tracks by the Paragons and the Gaylettes.
One of the hallmarks of the Federal label was reggae remakes of pop tunes. There is a range of covers on this compilation, from Englebert Humperdink's “Talking Love,” to the Monkees’ “Its Nice To Be With You” to Dusty Springfield’s “Son of A Preacher Man.” Some of these covers, like the Gaylettes’ version of “Preacher Man,” are brilliant, but there are examples of pop songs that would have been better left alone. Gilbert O’Sullivan’s weepy “Alone Again Naturally” was anything but a natural fit for a reggae remake, as The Now Generations muzak version attests.
As the music changed from rocksteady to reggae, Federal’s output acquired a pop, cosmopolitan sheen. Disc two, which spans 1973-1982, is far from sufferah music. The polished production strips the songs of any danger, edge, or dread. This is reggae for dinner parties with polite society, music for red wine rather than spliffs. It’s still enjoyable, but is a marked contrast from other reggae producers of the era. This is definitely not the Black Ark.
High points include Ken Boothe and B.B. Seaton’s soul scorcher “(It’s the Way) Nature Planned It,” Delroy Wilson’s “I’m Still Waiting,” and Bob Andy’s “Fire Burning.” Other notable artists include Ernie Smith, Johnny Nash, and Marcia Griffiths. The album comes with excellent liner notes written by reggae historian Steve Barrow, and lots of photos from the era. All in all it’s a nice overview of a very fertile 18-year period of Jamaican musical history, and a good documentation of the Federal label’s contribution to that history.

Read more:

Article first published as Music Review: The Definitive Collection of Federal Records (1964-1982) on Blogcritics.

Romain Virgo and Gyptian Reviews

Romain Virgo - Romain Virgo
Romain Virgo is a twenty-year-old Jamaican singer who has just released a stellar self-titled debut album. I’ve seen YouTube videos of him covering Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” on Digicel’s Rising Stars show, which he won in 2007. It is a tribute to his soulful voice that he does the original proud. Simply put, Romain has a gorgeous voice, one of the best I’ve heard in a while. It is smooth as silk, warm as a Jamaican summer, and rich with emotion. He conveys longing, joy, sadness, and heartbreak, often in the same song.

The album starts off with “Mi Caan’ Sleep,” a deceptively upbeat track. Over the bouncy “Feel Good” riddim, Romain sings about stress-induced insomnia. The verses are all about the violence and problems in the world, but the chorus sounds like a celebration. He acknowledges the bad in the world, but refuses to let it get him down. He’s less joyful on “Murderer,” an angry condemnation of violent youth, warning them “Jah Jah gonna school ya.”

Romain doesn’t spend too much of his time worrying about trouble and strife. Much of the album is R&B influenced slow jams, complete with the occasional (and totally unnecessary) Auto-Tune. It is a testament to his talent that he makes cheesy songs like “Love Doctor” palatable. While I wasn’t as impressed with the numerous love ballads, the uptempo tracks like “Customer Care” and “Live Mi Life” were enough to win me over. This is an excellent album and a must-hear for anyone into contemporary reggae.

Gyptian - Hold You
If Romain Virgo is an artist you need to hear, Gyptian is an artist you can’t escape from. His hit “Hold You” has been ubiquitous, most recently appearing as a remix with Nikki Minaj. Gyptian specializes in slick love songs, and comes off like a Jamaican Usher. He has a good voice, although like Romain Virgo, dabbles unnecessarily in Auto-Tune.

Most of this was too polished for my tastes, although I did enjoy “Leave Us Alone,” and I have to admit that Gyptian does what he does very well. Hold You is tasteful, well-done babymaking music, pure and simple. This is sure to be the soundtrack for countless late night romantic encounters. If you can’t get enough of “Hold You” the song, then Hold You the album should be more than enough to give you your Gyptian fix.

Article first published as Music Review: Romain Virgo and Gyptian on Blogcritics.

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