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.

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