Monday, May 31, 2010

She & Him at the Fox in Oakland

Article first published as Concert Review: She and Him at the Fox Theater in Oakland, California, May 29, 2010 on Blogcritics.

Any skepticism I had about actress Zooey Deschanel's musical project She and Him went out the window when I heard their first single, "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?" Clearly, this wasn't just an actor's vanity project, like Bruce Willis singing the blues as Bruno or Jennifer Love Hewitt trying to cash in on the tween pop phenomenon of the early aughts. It's safe to say that people listen to She and Him almost despite the fact that Ms. Deschanel is a famous actress. It's her voice, a combination of Ella Fitzgerald and Patsy Cline, that is the real star of the act.

It's also safe to say that Ms. Deschanel's celebrity was a contributing factor to the She and Him show at the Fox Theater in Oakland selling out. If the 2,800 people in the audience had been lured by the thrill of seeing a real live celebrity, they weren't disappointed by the music. Ms. Deschanel sounded fantastic, her voice holding up throughout the show and proving that she doesn't rely on studio tricks. She had boundless energy and enthusiasm, jumping up and down and smiling wide-eyed throughout the show.

Opening band the Chapin Sisters performed thirty minutes of folky female harmonies in hippy dresses. They sounded amazing, but it was definitely not my kind of music. I liked them better in their sixties glam as backup singers for She and Him. She and Him's band also consisted of a drummer, acoustic guitarist, and bassist. M. Ward proved that he was an equal partner in the group, performing tasteful but shredding guitar solos, and offering a nice contrast to Ms. Deschanel's vocals. My one wish was that he had more singing parts.

The band sounded rich and full, sounding great even when M. Ward and Ms. Deschanel tackled several songs with just an acoustic guitar. They brought out guitarist Al Anderson of NRBQ for their cover of that band's "Ridin' In My Car," and he joined them again for a joyful interpretation of "Roll Over Beethoven" at the encore.

Zooey's parents and husband were standing in front of me throughout the show, and I couldn't help imagine how proud they must be of her. Not only is she a successful actor, but she is also an exceptional singer. Zooey has found her perfect vehicle in She and Him, and I hope the project continues to bear fruit for M. Ward and her for years to come.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The New LCD System Is As Good As Everyone Says It Is.

And you should go buy it. Also, "Drunk Girls" is the dumbest song on the album.

Here's an old video of them doing "Tribulations" live.

Sizzla Review

I did a review of Sizzla's latest, Crucial Times, for Blogcritics last week. It was one of the first contemporary Jamaican deejay records I had listened to, and while I wasn't in love with all of it, I really liked a few songs, like "Precious Gift," where he combined the melody of reggae with the bark of dancehall. In fact, I think I've used that expression in every reggae review I've written. Time to explore some new adjectives.

Epsilon Project Review

My review of the Epsilon Project EP, Audacity, is up at RapReviews.  California underground hip hop. Pretty good stuff.

Epsilon Project - Inspiration (Prod. by Kev Brown) from Epsilon Project on Vimeo.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Madlib Medicine Show #4: 420 Chalice All-Stars Review

I reviewed Madlib's Medicine Show #4: 420 Chalice All-Stars this week on RapReviews. It's a mix cd of reggae, dub, and dancehall. Essential if you like reggae. I've been listening to it non-stop.

There's a series of YouTube videos that stream the album and give info on some of the tracks.

Power Struggle Review

I reviewed the new Power Struggle album this week on RapReviews. Conscious hip hop from a Philippineo-American perspective. Another solid release from Beatrock Records.

You can download the single off the album, plus some other stuff, on their downloads page.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Shut Up, Dude, That's Racist

Das Racist
Shut Up, Dude
Self-Released (and free)

First published on

Das Racist scored a surprise hit last summer with their hit "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell." The entire lyrics of the song were basically "I'm at the Pizza Hut/I'm at the Taco Bell/I'm at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell." It was so dumb it was smart, sort of like Jackass or Forrest Gump. The duo is made up of Indian-American Himanshu Suri, and Cuban/African-American Victor Vasquez. They live in Brooklyn, and met at Wesleyan, one of the ten most expensive universities in the country, and the alma mater of indie psych stars MGMT.

They may act stupid, but they aren't stupid, and they have the student loans to prove it. Their influences include the Wu-Tang Clan, MF DOOM, dadaism, and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. In interviews, Himanshu name-drops literary critic/Columbia professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and claims that their music is protest music along the lines of 19th century African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. Those are pretty big words from a purveyor of jokey, stoner hip hop that is just this side of Weird Al territory.

There are three reasons why Das Racist is more than just a joke: they have a much-needed perspective, being from two ethnic groups that are generally underrepresented in the cultural debate, they aren't preachy, and they have good beats. If Himanshu and Vasquez decided to merely regurgitate their college syllabi in hip hop verses, it would get old quick. Instead, they use humor to make their criticisms of racism and consumerism in America. Musically, they tap into Baltimore-style dance-oriented hip hop, minimalist electronica, and dabble a little in reggae. The beats are consistently good, from the stoney Middle Eastern vibes of "Ek Shaneesh" to the e'd up club music of "Chicken and Meat."

While I like "Shut Up, Dude," I sometimes found Das Racist's brand of snarky, sarcastic intellectualism dishonest and irritating. This is an attitude that is endemic to hipsters: too often they choose to trade only in sarcasm and irony, mocking other people without ever taking a stand themselves. (The worst example of this was Le Tigre, who made shitty dance music under the guise of subverting the dominant heterosexist paradigm.) The broad agenda that Das Racist lays out in interviews doesn't always match the goofy rhymes in their music. Their closest contemporaries are probably Lonely Island, composers of "Dick In A Box" and "I'm On A Boat."

Also, their non-sequitur flow has been done before and better by artists like Ghostface and MF DOOM. They boys even tackle Ghostface's "Nutmeg" and rap over DOOM's "America's Most Blunted," here called "Deep Ass Shit (You'll Get When You're High)." They don't come close to Ghostface's crazed storytelling or DOOM's blunted, biting humor, and both tracks merely highlight their shortcomings as MCs.

Das Racist have the potential to be something great, offering nuanced and cutting insights into racism in America, the Latino and Indian-American experience, and the state of hip hop. On tracks like "Shorty Said" they manage to be funny and insightful, commenting on how they get lumped in with anyone who is remotely brown, and offering up lines like "Shorty says I look like a gay David Banner on acid." They mix up pop culture references in a consistently funny series of one-liners, connecting sounds and words in a seemingly random way that can be both deep and hilarious.

"Skinny jean/fat wallets
Chakras from papa
I'm in Maracaibo
Vic is in Caracas
Eatin' a Cuban sandwich
I'm pukin'
Tryna write some rap songs in Sanskrit"

When they hit it right, Das Racist come off like Lil Wayne with an M.A. in Ethnic Studies, pumping up Wayne's trademark stream-of-consciousness flow with bigger ideas beyond getting laid, getting high, and getting money. When they flop, they sound like a couple of over-educated stoners fucking around on a Friday night. Either way, "Shut Up, Dude" is worth your time.

Junk Science Review

I reviewed Junk Science's new album A Miraculous Kind of Machine for RapReviews this week.
Left-of-center rap with some thoughtful lyrics and interesting beats. Here's a video for "Fire Drill," one of the better songs on the album:

Friday, May 07, 2010

For A White Agnostic Who Doesn't Smoke Pot, I Sure Listen to a Lot of Reggae

I've been listening to a lot of reggae lately. I finally bought Lee Perry's Ape-ology, which collects his Superape, Roast Fish and Corn Bread, and Return of the Superape LPs. It's two CDs of the dankest, muddiest, deepest dub and reggae, the kind of music that you get a contact high from just listening to.
This video for "Roast Fish and Corn Bread" lets you see the master at work.

I also got Serge Gainsbourg's reggae album, Aux Armes Et Cetera. It was originally released in the late 70s, but got a rerelease in 2004 with an extra disc of new dub and deejay versions. It's sort of horrible, sort of awesome. Gainsbourg isn't exactly a reggae singer, but he's backed by Sly and Robbie, so it sounds good. His reworking of the French national anthem evidently caused riots when it came out.

I also got Madlib's Medicine Show #4, which is a mix of dub and deejay tunes. I'm loving it.

I was also listening to the two Joe Gibbs Discomix albums, which got me interested in deejay/dancehall, so I downloaded Major Laser's album from Emusic. It's a project from Diplo and Switch, the guys who did "Paper Planes," working with dancehall deejays. It's noisy, obnoxious, raunchy, and amazing, dancehall meets glitchy Bmore club music.

My biggest coup of the week, though, was figuring out who sang "Ring the Alarm." I had heard it sampled by Big Audio Dynamite and Fugazi, but I never knew the source. Turns out it is Tenor Saw, and there is an entire album (Stalag 17,19-20) with just that riddim. It's definitely a classic.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Joe Gibbs 12" Discomix Volumes 4 and 5

VP Records has just released volumes four and five of Joe Gibbs' 12" Reggae Disco mix Showcase. Like the first three volumes, released last November, these two CDs each contain eleven 12" singles originally released in the seventies, when producer Joe Gibbs was at the height of his powers. The tracks all clock in between six and seven minutes long, with the first half being the original version, which transitions to a deejay or dub version for the second half.

Having the original and deejay version back to back demonstrates how versatile and resourceful the Jamaican musicians were. They could take the same riddim and rework it into dozens and sometimes hundreds of different versions, each offering a different take on the backing track. The deejay versions give legs to good songs, and sharp-tongued toaster can redeem a weak song.

Volume 4 opens up with Junior Byles' "Dreadlooks Time," backed with Kojak and Liza's take, "Fist to Fist." It's a classic riddim, and one of the standout tracks of the compilation. Other highlights include Dennis Brown's sublime "Your Man," presented here with an extended dub version, and Wade Brammer's "My Love," backed with Lui Lepkie's "Can't Take My Landlord."

There are several covers, some of which aren't entirely successful. The reggae takes on Michael Jackson's "Shake Your Body Down to the Ground" and "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" pale in comparison to the originals. Covers of "I Can't Stand the Rain" and "Working My Way Back to You" are better, owing mostly to the deejay versions, in which Prince Weedy and Trinity offer different takes. The disc closes out with two songs full of heartache, "Why Girl/Did We Have to Part" and "After You/Love Me Forever."

Volume 5 has its share of love songs, but also has more roots subject matter. It starts off with Earth and Stone's "Ring Graft," here paired with Snuffy and Wally's superior version, "Dreader Mafia." This is followed by "Su Su Pon Rasta/Stop Su Su Pon the Dread," and "Burn Babylon/Don't Trouble Natty Dread." The dread theme continued on Sammy Dread's "Dreadlocks Girl," backed here by Tappa Zukie's "She Never Love Me So," which is a highlight of the set. Another highlight is Junior Murvin's "Time Stiff," which is complimented by Trinity's equally powerful "Time So Rough."

There is ample evidence on this set that the deejay was much more than someone who talked over records. Prince Mohammaed's "Give I Power" shows the true strength of the deejay. The original, case Carl Brown's "Let the Power Fall," is well-meaning but repetitive. Prince Mohammed expands on the theme of the original, fleshing it out and adding much-needed variety. Ruddy Thomas's "Being With You" is a pleasant but inconsequential take on the Smokey Robinson original, but Joe Tex and U-Black gives it an injection of adrenaline. Even in cases where the original version is strong, the deejay version offers a unique twist, like Delroy Jones frantic take on Home T. Four's "Playmate."

As with volumes 1-3, the deejay versions make the 12" Reggae Discomix Showcase Vol. 4 and 5 must-haves. Each disc provides over 70 minutes of smooth, soulful reggae, and having the 12" version of the song is the closest you are going to get to being in a sweaty Kingston dancehall in 1979.

This article was first published at

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Antlers/Phantogram Review

I saw the Antlers with Phantogram last Saturday. It sort of confirmed that I'm not a huge Antlers fan, although I thought they were good live. Chatty-ass crowd. I wrote a review of it at Blogcritics, here, In
what I hope will be a return to regular writing for that site and RapReviews.

Here's an NPR video of them playing live at the Black Cat in DC. 

Sunday, May 02, 2010


I'm working a review of the new Junk Science album, who sound a little like El-P. Which made me search YouTube for El-P, and I came across this video for "Deep Space 9mm."

It's one of my favorite El-P songs, and the video is crazy, reflecting the paranoia of post-911 NYC.

Signed to Rawkus? I'd rather be mouth-fucked by Nazi's unconscious.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Death of Lala

It was announced yesterday that the music service Lala would be shutting down at the end of the month. Lala was bought by Apple in December 2009, and it's clear now that they bought them in order to shut down a potential competitor. Lala allowed you to purchase MP3s at less than Apple's price, and purchase streaming albums at ten cents a song.

I didn't care about that aspect of Lala. I was more interested in the way it allowed websites to embed players that allowed users to listen to songs and albums. Pitchfork used it to post the albums it reviewed, so that you could listen to it while you read the review. Lala didn't allow users to download songs to their computer, and you could only listen to a song in its entirety without buying it. After that, you'd get a thirty-second snippet, which is enough to get a sense of the song. I liked Lala because it allowed me to legally share music I was excited about with my friends, without screwing the artists. If someone was interested in the music, they'd have to purchase it. There are a lot of albums that I purchased based on listening to them on a Lala player posted on Pitchfork.

This is all coming to an end on May 31st. Now I will have to research another platform to stream songs, which is a pain. This all goes to prove that despite the great products they produce, Apple really are bastards, just like most businesses. Steinbeck had a quote in one of his novels to the effect that the qualities that make you a good businessman don't make you a good human being.

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