Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Nick Weaver review

I reviewed Nick Weaver's "Yardword" EP a few weeks ago at RapReviews.

Andy Stott Review

And Stott
Faith In Strangers
Modern Love, 2014

“Faith in Strangers” is Andy Stott’s second album of 2014. He released “Drop the Vowels” earlier in the year as one-half of Millie and Andrea. His solo album balances the hard-hitting cacophony of “Drop the Vowels,” with the soothing dub of his 2012 album “Luxury Problems.” it manages to be the best of both worlds, offering both beats and more introspective sounds.

Album opener “Time Away” starts things off slowly with what sounds like a foghorn eventually melting into a wall of ambient swells. “Violence” also starts slowly, with just a synthesizer and a woman’s voice (Allison Skidmore, who was also featured on “Luxury Problems”). Her singing is plaintive but muffled, processed so that it is impossible to make out any words. Drums finally kick in around the three-minute mark, and this is where the song, and the album, really takes off. There are crushing 808s and distorted snares and synths, all slightly off beat. It’s an odd combination of beautiful, banging, and disquieting. It sounds like a fever dream version of trap music.

The mixture of gorgeous vocals, synthesizers, thundering bass, and distortion appears throughout the album. “On Oath” and “Science and Industry” use those elements over a skeleton of minimalist techno. “No Surrender” and “Damage” combine them with drum ‘n bass. “How It Was” applies them to house music. It’s never glitchy or harsh enough to make it difficult to listen to, but it constantly keeps you on your toes. There are two weaknesses that electronic music can fall prey to: it can be too repetitive and predictable, and it can lack any real low ends. Stott solves both problems by keeping his songs off kilter, and backing them with heavy beats.

The title track mixes things up by being less dissonant and more straightforward. I had assumed that the title of the album, “Faith in Strangers,” was meant to be ironic. I was surprised by the sense of hope and optimism in the title track, especially after the darker moments on the rest of the album. “Damage” and “Violence” live up to their namesakes, although even at its noisiest, “Faith in Strangers” can still be beautiful.

The album ends with “Missing,” which like “Time Away” is mostly ambient. It’s an ambiguous way to end things, and it doesn’t tie the album together or make a statement the way some of the other tracks do. Stott seems to be intent on challenging the listener and distancing himself from the dancefloor as much as possible. It may not get him gigs playing stadiums, but its what makes his music special. There are no phony builds, no bass dropping, no obvious patterns. “Faith in Strangers” keeps listeners on their toes, and keeps their head nodding the whole time.

Serengeti Review

Originally posted on RapReviews

Kenny Dennis III" marks the third time that Serengeti's mustachioed character Kenny Dennis has been given his own project. He has a long and storied fictional history. He started out in Tha Grimm Teachaz alongside PMDF and DJ Koufie. They were signed to Jive, and were supposed to release their debut, "There's A Situation On the Homefront," before an altercation with Shaq at a live event caused their label to shelve the album. He's released an EP and a 2013 album, and has been featured on other Serengeti projects. 

"Kenny Dennis III" is a concept album with storyline about Kenny hooking up with his friend Ders (played by Anders Holm) to tour malls with a 90s high-energy hip-house group called Perfecto. The story is pure hip-hop Spinal Tap, the flailing has-been grinding through the most depressing tour imaginable while refusing to acknowledge that he isn't a superstar. He's also battling a pill addiction, egged on by his new friend Joji.

As Kenny, Serengeti raps in a gruff "Joey from the old neighborhood" kind of voice about absurdities. "Hot dogs for lunch/Hot dogs for dinner/I don't eat breakfast/I am no beginner" he raps on album opener "No Beginner." There's a Madvillain vibe to the album, especially in the way that Odd Nosdam's dusty breaks compliment Kenny's bizarre rapping. I only knew Nosdam from his anticon. days, and I didn't expect such straighforward crate-digging from him. He samples old soul and surf rock, throwing in some of the art-damaged weirdness that anticon was best known for. Nosdam's beats ground the album, making it groove even when it devolves into nonsense.

The character of Kenny is funny, but not funny enough to carry an entire album. Serengeti may have known this, which might explain why Kenny only raps on ten of the 19 tracks. Still, even ten tracks is more Kenny than I needed. It's like one of those Saturday Night Live movies that tries to stretch a three-minute sketch into a 90 minute movie. Also, the character of Kenny isn't so much funny as he's weird and annoying, which makes it even less fun to spend an entire album with him.

Anders Holm's sketches as Ders are what really end up making "Kenny Dennis III." Where Kenny is a big character, Ders is more understated. Ders is an aspiring actor who is beaten out of a Different Strokes reboot by a funnier, more attractive actor. He fully embraces their 90s throwback rap, starts wearing nothing but mall clothes, and even gets into parkour when Perfecto flames out. He catches the optimism and ego and tragedy of being an artist on the margins. I found myself listening the skits that Ders was on more than the actual songs on the album because they are so funny. 

I can see how Kenny could appeal to listeners. There is a DOOM-like quality to his absurd-yet-smart style of rapping, and nobody could argue that Serengeti isn't committing to the character 100 percent. I didn't find him funny, nor did I find his rapping appealing from an aesthetic standpoint. As a result, I was more into "Kenny Dennis III" for the skits and beats than for anything that Kenny had to say.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Body Count Review

Originally Posted on RapReviews

Body Count
Sumerian Records

It’s not that surprising that Original Gangster Ice-T would form a metal band as a side project. Ice’s love of metal was evident on his first album, which sampled Black Sabbath. What is surprising is that Body Count, Ice-T’s metal band, would be around twenty five years later. And yet last summer saw the release of Body Count’s fifth album, “Manslaughter.” 

At face value, hip-hop and metal are very different. One is centered on speaking rhythmically over mechanical drum beats, the other is centered on screaming over guitars. One is a predominantly African-American art form, the other is predominantly white. But there are also a lot of similarities between the two. Both are art forms that represent outcasts and the underclass. Both genres often celebrate nihilism and anti-social behavior, and both genres often use violence as subject matter. Chief Keef and Norwegian black metal band Mayhem may sound totally different, but they both share a certain level of misanthropy and disdain for mainstream society. There’s also a level of boasting and fantasy in both genres. Few gangsta rappers are actual gangsters in the same way that few Satanic metal bands are actual Satanists. 

What Body Count do well is combine the aggression and attitude of hip-hop with the musical aggression of metal. Musically the group, led by axeman Ernie C., is as tight as ever. They combine thrash, doom, hardcore, and even a little death metal. There are chugging guitars, wailing solos, and hammering drums. Whatever the novelty of a bunch of black guys from Compton playing metal, they are no joke. Musical high points include the relentless “Manslaughter” and “Bitch in the Pit,” the chugging “Talk Shit, Get Shot,” and the thrashy “Pray For Death.”  It’s all loud and heavy.

The challenge Ice-T has had with Body Count is how to translate his rapping to metal. Rap lyrics might be a couple pages long; your average metal song might only be a paragraph. In trying to adapt his lyrics to metal, Ice tends to dumb them down to a ridiculous extent. It doesn’t help that he essentially rap/yells them rather than singing or screaming or screeching or growling. There’s a reason why so few metal bands have “clean” singing:  the lyrics sound better when you can’t quite make them out. 

Ice-T has always used Body Count to push boundaries and push buttons. He got almost all the cops in the country mad at him for “Cop Killer,” and no less than Charlton Heston read the lyrics to “KKK Bitch” at a Time-Warner shareholder meeting in an effort to get the conglomerate to drop Body Count from Warner Brothers Records. If you are pissing Charlton Heston off, you are doing something right. (The irony being that compared to Cannibal Corpse, who sang about murdering women and raping their dead bodies, Body Count seem pretty tame.) “Manslaughter” tries to be shocking and gleefully offensive, but it comes off more as dumb and sophomoric. For example, the title track isn’t about killing men. It’s about how masculinity is being killed by wimpiness. The remake of “99 Problems” is about the 99 bitches Ice-T has. This from a man with a reality show about how much he loves his wife. The remake of Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized” would be funny if not for the stale racist jokes. I’m not even going to write about “Bitch in the Pit.” 

There are a few songs that get it right lyrically. “Get a Job” and “Wanna Be A Gangsta” show the humor that has always been part of Body Count. “Back To Rehab” vents frustration at addicts who can’t stay straight. The album ends with the intense and thoughtful “I Will Always Love You,” which is dedicated to “the heroes...young men and women who have given their lives and risked their lives for this country!” 

“Taught you everything, dropped out of school at 17
Trying to get a job at an early age,
But no diploma means minimum wage.
Bumped into a military recruiter,
Said the same, no game, no first person shooter.
With high-school you missed it,
So that day you’re enlisted.
First day off the truck
Basic training, scared as fuck,
Drill instructors, demons from hell
You never forget what you hear and yell
Six minutes of torture drives you insane
March, run, march, train!
You’re asking yourself why the fuck you came,
Lock them all 30 rounds, watch your lane!”

It’s Ice-T dialing back his metal persona and dropping some lyrics remind you why he matters as a rapper. It’s also a song that manages to pay tribute to soldiers while not glossing over the horrors of war and the ambiguities of the wars we’ve been fighting for the past twelve years. 

If only Body Count could have made more songs like that one.

D'Angelo Review

Originally posted on RapReviews

D'Angelo and the Vangaurd
Black Messiah
RCA Records, 2014

For a genre that is ostensibly all about getting down and getting it on, R&B has a significant amount of capital G Geniuses. Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, George Clinton, Sly Stone, and Prince are examples of R&B musicians who have taken the music far beyond its boundaries. Add to that list D'Angelo, the Virginia-born musician who is best known for his 2000 masterpiece "Voodoo." He's also known for basically dropping off the face of the earth after in the wake of that album (the story goes that at least part of the reason for his retreat from public life was how oversexualized he felt as an artist, and how much attention was given to his six-pack and model good looks vs. his music, in other words the same ish that every single female R&B singer has to put up with).

D'Angelo was supposed to drop an album with Prince in 2009, and every year since then has promised new work from him to no avail. He did release a few songs, played live a few times and even toured. Still, a new album from him seemed about as likely as a new album from Dr. Dre or "Madvillainy 2." And then, out of nowhere, "Black Messiah" drops.

The album was originally supposed to come out this year, but D'Angelo put it out in mid-December to coincide with the protests going on around the country and the world in the wake of the grand jury decisions on the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. In the liner notes he writes:

"It's about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen. It's not about praising one charismatic leader but celebrating thousands of themÉ"Black Messiah" is not one man. It's a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader."

It's fitting that "Black Messiah" is meant to reflect the Ferguson protests, because the album is powerful and messy, and manages to convey anger, hope, and beauty, sometimes all at once. On my first two listens, I found myself wondering if there were any actual songs on the album. So much of it is texture that it takes a while to understand their shapes. This is an impressionistic album that is built around grooves rather than traditional pop songwriting. It makes "Black Messiah" a challenging record, which isn't something I expect from R&B.

The album starts off with a squall of feedback before going into the sloppy, tripped out Southern funk of "Ain't That Easy." "Take a toke of smoke from me as you dream inside," he sings. In another artist's hands, this might be a babymaking slow jam, but D'Angelo keeps things a little off. The song is a little shambling, the pieces not quite all fitting together. Even lyrically there is more going on than just a standard love song:

"Ever hit with a choice that you can't decide?
Which direction left or right?
Shut your mouth off and focus on what you feel inside
See y'all know I'ma go with my vibe
You won't believe all the things you have to sacrifice
Just to get peace of mind
And you take what they give as if it did suffice
Still it's just a waste of time"

From there the album goes into a Malcolm X song about how Jesus was black, which kicks off the noisy "1000 Deaths." The song seems to be about both staying strong as an artist in a genre that doesn't reward age, and staying strong as a black man in a society that doesn't trust his skin.

The musical fury of "1000 Deaths" seems abated by the pretty ballad "The Charade." That is, until you actually listen to what D'Angelo is singing:

"Crawling through a systematic maze to demise
Pain in our eyes
Strain of drowning, wading through the lies
Degradation so loud that you can't hear the sound of our cries
All the dreamers have gone to the side of the road which we relay on
All we wanted was a chance to talk
instead we've only got outlined in chalk
Feet have bled a million miles we've walked
Revealing at the end of the day
The charade"

While there are some neo-soul and contemporary R&B elements in "Black Messiah," much of it is built on analog equipment and analog sounds. If you told me this was a lost 70s classic, I would believe you, even though it is full of hip-hop influences. It has the heaviness and intimacy of Sly Stone's "There's A Riot Goin' On," and it is hard not to compare the two albums. It's also hard not to hear Prince on "Black Messiah," especially in D'Angelo's voice and his willingness to mix rock in with his funk and soul. Even more impressive, it sounds like the D'Angelo record we've been waiting for for 15 years. It builds on the sound he perfected on "Voodoo" while moving it forward. It's not a passible copy of his former glory that fans will put up with because they are hungry for more. We've all bought those albums, and tried to pretend we like them. "Black Messiah" isn't like that.

The fact that D'Angelo was able to release this album on a major label in this age of market-testing and Auto-tuning the soul out of any major release is a feat in itself. It's even more amazing that an album 15 years in the making is so vital. "Black Messiah" is an incredible album, and an essential addition to D'Angelo's discography.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Old punks don't die, they just play metal

I was listening to the NYT Music popcast recently and came across an old episode about metal with the poet Michael Robbins. He and NYT's Ben Ratliffe remarked how punk didn't seem to age - people didn't grow old with punk. At the same time, I've been listening to crust legends Amebix, and reading criticism by punks about how they went metal. Which got me thinking about how punk doesn't age. Most of the punk bands I can think of that didn't burn out early either went metal or some other genre. To whit:

Black Flag went metal. They started incorporating  Black Sabbath riffs in their first proper album. Other artists that went metal include Bad Brains, Descendants, Discharge, and GBH. Subhumans last album was metal. I'd argue that the whole Epitaph/Fat Wreck Chords sound is essentially punky metal.

Other bands went in an alt-rock path, like 7 Seconds, Husker Du, and Stiff Little Fingers. Still others went roots - I'm thinking X especially, and Joe Strummer's solo work. Hell, the Clash weren't a punk band by their third album.

The whole first wave of punk bands stopped being punk by the 80s. Johnny Rotten's band after the Sex Pistols was PiL, who were not punk at all. Mick Jones of the Clash formed a dance/hip-hop/reggae hybrid. The singer of the New York Dolls became a crooner. Most of the new wave bands had members who had started out in punk bands.

Even looking at how the genre evolved, it went in a metal direction. Crusty punk, which was pioneered by Amebix and further refined by Doom and a host of d-beat bands is basically a punk riff on Motorhead, built around chugging guitars. Grindcore is owned as much by metal as punk, and the bands on punks extreme could be categorized as metal.

Looking at contemporary punk bands, Fucked Up have basically become a rock band with a punk vocalist, Trash Talk have strong metal elements about them, and many of the other so-called punk bands either veer towards post-punk or some other genre.

I think the reason for this is that punk, while a vital and energizing form of music, is extremely limited. It depends on playing fast and loud and simple. Once you learn how to actually play and want to do something beyond three chords, you end up moving into different musical territory. Near me there is an unincorporated community called Kensington that is less than one square mile and has a population of about 5,100. It's small. If you walk to far in any direction, you leave it. And it doesn't want to grow. Punk is a little like Kensington, narrowly focused, encompassing a limited musical geography, and resistant to expanding that geography.

This isn't to disparage punk at all - it is and remains one of my favorite types of music, and the early albums and singles by the classic punk bands are musical treasures. I'm not dissing "Nervous Breakdown" or "Out of Step" or "The Punch Line" or any of it. It is interesting, however, to examine why punk bands don't tend to have long careers, and why so often it is the early albums by punk bands that remain the most highly revered (this isn't true across the board, and it is also true of many non-punk bands). Punk is important, but it is not music that is conducive to mastery.

40 for 40

I did a playlist on Spotify to commemorate my 40th birthday, which was at the beginning of the year. It's forty songs that meant something to me throughout my life, in the order that I heard them. I was going to do a song a year, but really years 1-4 are a wash and not enough time has passed in for the last five years or so to have a lot of songs that really stick out as important to my life or whatever.

I start with a Woody Guthrie song that is one of the first songs I remember hearing. My mom had a record of his. "Heart of Glass" by Blondie has been one of my favorite songs since I heard it for the first time around 1980. My sister played the Xanadu soundtrack so much my parents banished it. My day care in 3rd grade had "Rock the Casbah" on 45. "Miss You" was just one of many songs my parents played over and over again at high volume while I was trying to sleep, and one of the few I still like. "Beat Street" got me into hip-hop, and I was lucky enough to come of age in an era when much of the pop music was being made by innovative and interesting people - Prince, Madonna, even Duran Duran. Anyways, enjoy.

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