Saturday, September 29, 2007

[059] Songs For The Deaf

Album: Songs For The Deaf
Artist: Queens of the Stone Age
Release Date: August 2002
Label: Interscope
Producers: Josh Homme, Eric Valentine, & Adam Kasper

"This is W.O.M.B.- The Womb,
And if you, my pets, learn to listen, I'll let you crawl back in.
Here is something you should drop to your knees for, and worship,
But you're too stupid to realize yourselves.
A song for the deaf - that is for you."
- Natasha Shneider as the radio DJ introducing the title track

Sometimes life gives you lemons, right?
I’m sitting here writing this in the dark. Well, it’s not literally dark, cuz the screen is on, but it’s dark because my power is out. I’m in NY, so it’s 10:45 PM, Thursday night, hot as a motherfucker with no A/C as I start this, but since my wireless router is also out, I won’t be able to post this until who knows when, so my apologies to the people that read these things with their Cinnamon Toast Crunch. It’ll be posted a bit late, so you can enjoy it for your weekend. I’m typing on my girlfriend’s laptop by candlelight. I lit the candles with my Songs For The Deaf promotional matches, which I got at the best concert I ever attended: Queens of the Stone Age at Bowery Ballroom in NYC, with Dave Grohl on drums; I also salvaged half of Grohl’s setlist that night - only half because the rest disintegrated after Dave repeatedly doused himself with Poland Spring. The matchbook even has the original release date on the inside. I know this is bullshit to everyone but me, but somehow it’s fitting that I tried to write this entry this afternoon at work and had writer’s block, now I can just shoot from the hip by candlelight, lit by matches promoting the album I’m writing about. Coincidence? Yeah, OK, maybe I’m reaching, but there’s a vague parallel to Queens of the Stone Age’s place in the 2002 Hard Rock landscape, trying to stay afloat amongst the Nu Metal debris. They got nowhere by going the traditional routes, jumping on Ozzfest, etc., but they decide to keep to themselves, record a hands-down classic that plainly comments on the sad state of affairs for headbangers, and come up with a hit. Of course, Grohl on the skins didn’t hurt.

I know this album pretty much backwards and forwards, so I’m just gonna wing it and see what comes out. For me, the reason I love QOTSA is because they sound exactly like what a Hard Rock band should sound like, the exact midpoint between Led Zeppelin and The Stooges. What does that mean to you? I don’t know, maybe nothing. But what if I propose that (a) Hard Rock and Heavy Metal are as criminally ignored as Hip-Hop is, (b) and within that sad fact, Songs For The Deaf is the best Hard Rock album of the past 20 years. I hope you would say, ‘OK smarty-pants, prove it.' You got it. Without having to go over the entire history of the genre, I think we can agree that Metal got its reputation damaged with critics, journalists, etc. by the idiots in the 80's.; they made the genre cartoonish, and no matter how much a band like Poison talks about bangin’ groupies, the fact of the matter remains that they looked like the groupies they were after, and what teenage boy is going to want that as a role model? More than that, Hard Rock can be just as beautiful or exhilarating or crystalline - whatever the hundreds of adjectives record critics like to use - as Indie Rock or Electronica or Pop. And so we’re left with the two bands that got it right in these last 20 years: Metallica and Guns N’ Roses; they found the balance between tough and sexy, between punk fury, prog intricacy, and bluesy grime. We all know what happened with Metallica, and there’s a whole family tree of pretty good Metal, from Tool to Mastodon, in the 20 years since they put Newsted on the payroll. The only problem with them is that their good albums from the period we’re looking at here weren’t good enough to make the list. GNR on the other hand, well, they left us probably the greatest Hard Rock album of the last 30 years, if not ever, and then took a nosedive into the dirt. At the time, the guys following their lead weren’t so obvious - they were the guys in Seattle, but the vibe being put forth was different; Green River sounded like GNR because they were pulling from the same sources, but they didn’t aim for the same outcome. In the end, Pearl Jam just wanted to be on classic Rock radio, and Soundgarden and Alice in Chains took the sexiness and jettisoned it in favor of the self-doubt and mood swings of Goth. So, in many ways, with the post-Grunge 90's producing like maybe two or three good Hard Rock records, none of which are on this list, receiving a gift like Songs For The Deaf is long overdue. Bands from Stone Temple Pilots to post-haircut Metallica would’ve given their left nut to make this album; even the Foo Fighters’ weak One By One, released only a few months later, was an attempt at repeating this glory.

The album has a loose structure running through it that simulates driving through the sunburnt Californian desert, flipping from radio station to radio station. I’ve always taken this aspect of the album for granted because I usually skip through the skits & bits, but realize that the band recorded all of this - the guest DJ’s, all the background theme music. It’s by no accident that the album is a giant puzzle. There’s a great story about how Queens took a vacation from recording, and while they were out, Eric Valentine, the label-appointed producer, tried to assemble the album the way the record label wanted. But he couldn’t - the band had recorded so much, and arranged things so that only they knew where all the pieces fit. Paying attention to the jingles and slogans on the radio transmissions, not to mention the cornucopia of instruments scattered throughout, it must’ve been maddening to hear them one by one and not have any clue what you were listening to. Even the hit single “No One Knows” has a flute part in the chorus.

The band very significantly crafted a unified sound on Songs For The Deaf. Usually when I write about QOTSA, I talk at length about how Josh Homme orchestrated the proceedings, like they’re really just “Josh & The Queens”. But this album is the Queens album that feels most like it was made by a band. Nick Oliveri and Mark Lanegan get in just as many ideas and turns on the mic as Josh, and Grohl never feels like a hired gun. The band works more in the improvisational spirit of Homme’s Desert Sessions, pulling both the relentless “Millionaire”, sung by Oliveri, and Lanegan’s haunting “Hangin’ Tree” from the project, as well as inviting in a motley crew of guests, including Alain and Natasha from Eleven, Dean Ween, and Marilyn Manson’s Twiggy Ramirez. Somehow, the united core of the Homme-Oliveri-Grohl power trio doesn’t stifle the varied energies brought in by their guests or the different styles of the songs. The ear-splitting, wonderfully offensive “Six Shooter”, which was originally slated to open the album, is miles away from the swinging Prog-Rock of “The Sky Is Falling”, but they sit next to each other and play nice. The band sequenced the album like this, with a roller coaster of moods; the most Metal of the songs - the screaming apocalypse of the title track - is surrounded by the two most musically light ones, the 60's garage pop of Nick’s “Another Love Song” and the acoustic death march of Josh’s “Mosquito Song”.

The styles on the album are like a jukebox of all the best Hard Rock has to offer, and Queens tackle them all with aplomb. Mark Lanegan's "God Is In The Radio" slows ZZ Top's Texas boogie to a pulsating shuffle, while "Song For The Dead" bookends Lanegan's funeral blues and Homme's Eddie Hazel-esque solo with Dave Grohl's tribute to Descendents/Black Flag drummer Bill Stevenson. Best of all is the Glam-Punk-Pop triple-punch of "Go With The Flow", "Gonna Leave You", and "Do It Again"; Josh & Nick excel at writing the kind of short, punchy Rock songs that would've been hit singles in the 70's, and these three, combining T.Rex, the Ramones, and Cheap Trick, are among their best. I think I'm going to stop writing now, because I could keep going all weekend. I didn't even get to the part about it being a great break-up album, with Josh & Nick's relationship problems heavily informing the lyrics, and Josh threatening to hire someone to off Nick's ex. You should watch the 3 short making-of videos for more fun. As long as you get the point that, even if you want to continue to underestimate Hard Rock, don't ignore this album. It's a must-have in your collection, even if just as a driving record, like the band intended.

00. "The Real Song For The Deaf" [unlisted hidden track]**
01. "You Think I Ain't Worth A Dollar, But I Feel Like A Millionaire"
02. "No One Knows"
03. "First It Giveth"
04. "Song For The Dead"
05. "The Sky Is Fallin'"
06. "Six Shooter"
07. "Hangin' Tree"
08. "Go With The Flow"
09. "Gonna Leave You"
10. "Do It Again"
11. "God Is In The Radio"
12. "Another Love Song"
13. "Song For The Deaf"
14. "Mosquito Song"
** This is a hidden track in the CD's "pregap"; if you rewind past the beginning of the first track. “The Real Song For The Deaf” is the typical Queens joke; electronic noise with a super low frequency meant for the hearing impaired - the bass will rumble through your woofers so hard, that a deaf person could feel the vibrations. I played it in my car; it pretty much blew my speakers.

"...Millionaire" [live at the 2003 Rock Am Ring Festival]

"No One Knows" [video]

"Song For The Dead" [live at Big Day Out, Australia 2003]

The making of Songs For The Deaf
[from the bonus DVD included with the first pressings of the album]
Part One
Part Two
Part Three

- BONUS: "Millionaire" [live at the 2002 Visions Fest]
- BONUS: "No One Knows" [live at the Troubadour in LA, 03.02]
Dave Grohl's first show with QOTSA, during recording
- BONUS: "No One Knows" [live in London, 2005]
from the live CD/DVD Over The Years And Through The Woods
- BONUS: "First It Giveth" [video]
- BONUS: "Song For The Dead" [audio]
- BONUS: "The Sky Is Fallin'" [audio]
- BONUS: "Six Shooter" [audio/fan video]
- BONUS: "Hangin' Tree" [live at the 2002 Visions Fest]
- BONUS: "Go With The Flow" [video]
- BONUS: "Go With The Flow" [live at Big Day Out, Australia 2003]
- BONUS: "Gonna Leave You" [live on Hard Rock Live]
- BONUS: "Do It Again" [live at the 2003 Hultsfred Festival, Sweden]
- BONUS: "God Is In The Radio" [live on Fuse's 7th Ave. Drop]
excerpt of the restructured 2005 version
- BONUS: "Another Love Song" [acoustic - live on the 91X Garage]
- BONUS: "Song For The Deaf" [live at the 2001 Bizarre Festival]
One of the first performances, with different lyrics
- BONUS: "Song For The Deaf" [live at Big Day Out, Australia 2003]

Thursday, September 27, 2007

[060] Sister

Album: Sister
Artist: Sonic Youth
Release Date: June 1987
Label: SST; reissued on DGC
Producer: Sonic Youth

"No one is right
Nothing is solid
Nothing can be held in my hand for long
We. Should. Kill. Time"
- from "Pipeline/Kill Time"

Sonic Youth were probably the most important band of the 1980’s. By sticking close to the ideals of their roots, but still evolving and improving through constant recording and touring, they wrote the book on how to be an Alternative Rock band in a post-Hardcore, MTV world. They saw the future because they were at the forefront of the present, and for the most part, they’re still lurking near the edge. To truly appreciate this though, it’s kind of necessary to hear more than a few of their albums, and – full disclosure – I was never a big fan of theirs. So, yeah, I was on a mission, because how could Sonic Youth exist and be so groundbreaking, and I not put my all into giving them a fair shake? The only album of theirs I ever actually bought was, of course, Daydream Nation, the 1988 epoch-defining follow-up to Sister, but for some reason I never really assimilated it beyond the essential “Teen Age Riot”. I burned copies of Goo and Dirty from my friend, but only listened to them a couple times. I started to concede that maybe they weren’t for me. So, I did what any frustrated music nerd would do – I downloaded their entire discography on the Internet. When I listened to Sister for the first time, I had already started writing these entries. The list was done, but now I had an album on my hands that absolutely had to be included. I had to cut an album (which will show up in a couple weeks as Part 2 of the Honorable Mentions), and it was painful to choose. And once Sister was on the list, and I kept listening to it, it kept getting better and better, and moving further and further up the list. If I didn’t post it now, I’d have to keep changing the order everyday. I guess all it took for me to like Sonic Youth was this one album. I approached the band’s discography with a certain preconception of their earlier material; I assumed that anything before Daydream Nation was feral noise that I had no interest in. Then I heard “Schizophrenia”. I was very wrong.

“Schizophrenia” is one of the weirdest, most gorgeous songs I’ve heard in recent months; the guitars link up in just the right way, bent notes having conversations. It helps that Steve Shelley is a thrilling drummer, and I have no clue how the band ever made music without him. He wrenches the steering wheel from Thurston Moore’s hands for “Catholic Block”, banging out the sort of dance rock that has become so en vogue in recent years, and the rest of the band follows his lead. All the songs exhilarate on a base level; when you’re deathly afraid of something, pure fear releases adrenaline like pure excitement does. That’s the effect that Sister has. More than in any album I’ve heard in a very long while, I hear the future in Sister. I see the entire course of Alternative laid out like Kim Gordon’s “Pacific Coast Highway”, guitars thrashing, banging on anything just to make noise, get your attention, someone hear them. These songs are hot to touch. “Stereo Sanctity” manages to be completely unbridled, but where the old Sonic Youth would’ve disintegrated into the squall, they remain whole here, honoring the song, rush rush rush rush, big finish…or fall apart from fatigue. It’s nothing new, the sounds they coax out of their guitars, the different tunings, the banging on the strings with whatever, as soon as Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo create new languages, they get to work on butchering it with slang. On the hesitating, ethereal “Kotton Krown”, Moore and Gordon sing a love song to each other, intoning “Angels are dreaming of you”, while Ranaldo slaughters a roomful of guitar pedals behind them. Moore and Gordon safely pack their love away, and join in on ratcheting up the sonic dissonance.

Ranaldo’s “Pipeline/Kill Time” forms the centerpiece of the album, plainly illustrating the success of the song cycle – as all these songs push the limits of structure, of noise, of lyrical linearity, heavily influenced by author Phillip K. Dick, the band never lose themselves. As Ranaldo lets slip the quote at the top, his guitar starts to break apart and float away. Somehow, Moore walks in right through the exploding noise, swatting away the fuzz like erasing a blackboard, and plants the perfect pop of the opening verse of“Tuff Gnarl”, before that song too goes off on tangents of six-string dread, with Shelley pounding out tribal machine-gun beats. They return, as if gone around the block, on “White Kross”, dicing up cyclical guitar churn and industrial beats. Sonic Youth walk in another time, playing today because they’ve seen tomorrow, and know how to get there; even the relative novelty “Master-Dik” pokes holes in Hip-Hop while also paying tribute to it, evoking Run-DMC over squealing loops. Furthermore, is it an accident that their cover of San Francisco punks Crime, the 1976 gem “Hot-Wire My Heart”, sounds simultaneously like The Stooges and Nirvana? They knew what was coming, as they stood on the line of the old and new, punks of the 80’s getting snatched up by major labels, releasing this album on Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn’s seminal label SST, at the end of its heyday, almost as if closing a chapter in music history. Punk was packed into a small room, and what Sonic Youth understood was that they had to knock a few walls down to make room for the all new arrivals. They were a step ahead; in Sister, you'll hear the future too.

01. "Schizophrenia"
02. "(I Got A) Catholic Block"
03. "Beauty Lies In The Eye"
04. "Stereo Sanctity"
05. "Pipeline/Kill Time"
06. "Tuff Gnarl"
07. "Pacific Coast Highway"
08. "Hot Wire My Heart"
09. "Kotton Krown"
10. "White Kross"
11. "Master Dik" [CD bonus track]

"Schizophrenia" [live]
from the documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke

"(I Got A) Catholic Block" [live at the Osheaga Festival, 09.06]

- BONUS: "Beauty Lies In The Eye" [video]
- BONUS: "Stereo Sanctity" [live in Wisconsin, 1987]
- BONUS: "Schizophrenia" [live in London, 1987]
- BONUS: Well, I have no words. You just have to watch.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Heads Up: QOTSA finally release the correct single from Era Vulgaris

"3's & 7's" is, by the majority of public opinion, the best song on the new Queens of the Stone Age album, not to mention it should've been the clear choice for first single. But for some reason, the muddled "Sick Sick Sick" got released instead. Well, "3's & 7's" finally has a video, and it looks like Josh saw Grindhouse. I'd say this is gonna get banned by MTV (which it probably will), but who fuckin' watches videos on TV anymore anyway???

Queens of the Stone Age: "3's & 7's" [video]

Heads Up: Bat For Lashes

Bat For Lashes being written about is nothing new; they've been getting praise pretty much everywhere. I just haven't had time to listen to them until now. You know when you hear a song for the first time, and it shoots straight to your heart, and your brain screams "YES!!!!!!!!!" Yeah, I just had that reaction. Thanks to Goldenfiddle for deciding to post this so I could find it. Fuckin' spectacular song and video.

Bat For Lashes: "What's A Girl To Do" [video]

- Bat For Lashes website

[061] If You're Feeling Sinister

Album: If You’re Feeling Sinister
Artist: Belle and Sebastian
Release Date: November 1996
Label: Jeepster [UK], The Enclave [US]; reissued on Matador
Producers: Tony Doogan

"Nobody writes them like they used to,
So it may as well be me”
- from “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying”

In the film version of Nick Hornby’s classic music-obsessive novel High Fidelity, Jack Black’s Barry famously derides a Belle and Sebastian ballad as “some old sad bastard music”, and this has since painted the band in a bad light for the uninitiated, especially in America where, when the band was hitting its stride, us yanks were being inundated with Rap-Metal. Like The Smiths before them, Belle and Sebastian are wrongly regarded as morose, when in fact they’re actually pretty lively with a sharp sense of humor. They're not going to rock you - Belle and Sebastian’s version of Rock & Roll is the same as The Beatles’ when they were playing Skiffle. In fact the band’s music is far more represented by Todd Louiso’s portrayal of Dick and his innocent approach to his new budding relationship with Anna Moss, than by his musical taste. Hey, B&S may not jump out of your speakers, cuz they are restrained to be sure, but they are far from crying in their teas and lagers.

That’s not to say that their predecessors didn’t work at a relative whisper in the spectrum of Rock history, mostly because the music could be too timid to make itself known. Belle and Sebastian have come to represent the important mid-point in the trajectory of what is called “Indie Pop” or “Twee Pop”; if you don’t want to put a label on it, it’s that pasty kid on your block who stays in his bedroom playing his guitar. The roots of Indie Pop are in the less agressive end of UK Punk, bands like The Undertones, Television Personalities, and the Buzzcocks, as well as the early 80’s roster of Postcard Records bands like Orange Juice. It grew with the release of the C86 cassette sampler included with NME magazine. C86 became a tag for any band with fey vocals over jangly Byrds guitars, though the bands on the sampler reject the idea of there being a cohesive scene. There was one however, half way around the world in both New Zealand, with Flying Nun Records, and in Olympia, WA. Calvin Johnson had formed Beat Happening, and started K Records to give a home to similar bands looking to recall the cutie innocence of childhood; he ended up changing the life of a kid named Kurt Cobain. Cobain just happened to be equally influenced by Hüsker Dü, and so the ear-splitting buzzsaw guitars won in the end, and the Seattle sound smothered the Twee scene through the early 90’s.

Belle and Sebastian signaled a return of sorts, only when they came out, their sound was more accomplished and mature. Like any great band, they wear their influences like badges, in this case on their cardigan or gold-button blazer, and their influences went further back than Punk, to the mid 60’s. Beyond the jangle of The Byrds, B&S pull from a variety of the lush Pop and Folk of the time; elements of Simon & Garfunkel, Burt Bacharach, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, a pinch of Bob Dylan, and pre-Ziggy David Bowie all get nods, but none more so that the prettiest moments of The Velvet Underground, especially their eponymous third album. Stuart Murdoch has maintained that he’s always been unhappy with the recording of the album, but I would say whatever those imperfections are, they allow If You’re Feeling Sinister to have its beloved timeless quality.

B&S singer/songwriter Stuart Murdoch calibrates the focus for If You’re Feeling Sinister on words right from the start. The cover features The Trial by Franz Kafka, some pretty heady stuff, and he begins “The Stars Of Track And Field” with just his voice and acoustic guitar, and a murmur: “Make a new cult every day to suit your affairs”. Murdoch’s voice is light but never too airy; he’s immediately charming, his quirky, lit-major storytelling and spot-on description of time away at University paint Sinister as the aural equivalent of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. This album is the triumph of the quiet ones, the picked-on come to take over the school. Sinister is the ultimate concept album on getting through high school and college. “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” is enhanced by a tender diary-entry lyric, the charging “Me And The Major” works to avoid an awkward relationship with an authority figure, and in “Seeing Other People”, Murdoch describes a young couple learning about love and sex for the first time, but from a delicate, completely androgynous perspective. The title track stands out though; beginning with the sounds of children on a playground, the gentle acoustic strum and elegant piano build to a gallop as Murdoch’s lyrics filter the uncertainty of religion in a modern world ("But if you are feeling sinister, go off and see a minister; chances are you'll probably feel better if you stayed and played with yourself") through the uncertainty of adolescence (“She was into S&M and Bible studies”). B&S end proceedings with “Judy And The Dream of Horses”, in which Murdoch lays out the band’s modus operandi and enduring themes; the story of a “teenage rebel” who “gave herself to books and learning”. The narrator offers a “kiss and whatever you want, but you will be disappointed”. He assures her that the “best looking boys are staying inside”, perhaps to make music that sounds like B&S, and he suggests Judy do the same – go home and write a song. Murdoch’s advice extends outward to the real world; Belle and Sebastian revived a musical subgenre thought to be dead and gave it a new blueprint which it lives on today. And there’s nothing depressing about that. In fact, it’s pretty unplifting.

01. “The Stars Of Track And Field”
02. “Seeing Other People”
03. “Me And The Major”
04. “Like Dylan In The Movies”
05. “The Fox In The Snow”
06. “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying”
07. “If You’re Feeling Sinister”
08. “Mayfly”
09. “The Boy Done Wrong Again”
10. “Judy And The Dream Of Horses”

"If You're Feeling Sinister" [live at the 2006 Lowlands Festival]

"Like Dylan In The Movies" [live for XFM]

- BONUS: "The Stars Of Track And Field" [live in San Francisco, 03.06]
- BONUS: "Judy And The Dream Of Horses" [live in L.A., 03.06]

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

[062] Fishscale

Album: Fishscale
Artist: Ghostface Killah
Release Date: March 2006
Label: Def Jam
Producers: MF DOOM, Pete Rock, J Dilla, Lewis Parker, Just Blaze, Ghostface Killah, Xtreme, Crack Val, MoSS, The Studio Beatz, Sean C & LV, with Anthony Acid & Ken Lewis; bonus track produced by Cool & Dre, with Diddy

“Trailblazing, stay ballin’ with vengeance,
my arts is crafty darts while y’all stuck with ‘Laffy Taffy',
Wondering how did y’all niggas get past me?
I’ve been doing this before Nas dropped the ‘Nasty’.
My Wallos, I did ‘em up,
My bricks, I sent ‘em up,
My raps, y’all bit ‘em up,
For that, now stick ‘em up.
Ten-Four, good buddy, Tone got his money up,
Worth millions, still bag your bitch looking bummy.
Y’all staring at the angel of death;
Liar, Liar, pants on fire, you’re burning up like David Koresh.”
- from “The Champ”

One of my favorite books is Hip Hop America, a chronicle of the music’s first two decades by Nelson George, longtime music journalist and former co-producer of Chris Rock's HBO show. In one of the chapters, George examines how Hip-Hop music evolves so fast as an artform, it has to constantly eat up naïve young artists and discard its pioneers; like many sports, most MC’s don’t make it past 30 years old. The Old School artists had a hard time adjusting to the faster rhyme styles and frenetic beats of the late 80’s and early 90’s, but as the trends and tastes of the audience have changed over the last decade, the MC’s that debuted in the post-Chronic days of the early/mid 90’s seem to have adjusted well to the role of elder statesmen while still keeping a fairly high profile. They appear to have figured out longevity from a commercial standpoint in order to grant them more artistic opportunities. On the other hand, as present as Snoop, Jay-Z or Nas may be, c’mon, we can all agree it is pretty clear their best days are behind them. Even the prospect of a reunited Wu-Tang album for this coming November doesn’t fill me with the excitement it should. I find it refreshing then to say that Wu’s Ghostface Killah, 35 years old at the release of Fishscale, remains not only commercially relevant (this album debuted at #4 on the Billboard album chart), but also creatively fascinating. From a mainstream perspective, his only peers at this point would probably be Outkast.

Ghostface loves to disrupt your expectations, and by acting his age, he upsets the formula that the genre is stuck in. Instead of being the hardest MC alive, Ghost has no problem showing his sensitive side; "Whip You With A Strap" gets nostalgic for childhood discipline, while on the wonderful "Beauty Jackson", Ghost doesn't get the girl because he's packing heat. "Big Girl" begs the girls to leave that coke alone, even though it's still being featured on an album with more than a few songs from the perspective of a drug kingpin. Like his Def Jam label boss, Jay-Z, Ghostface has found comfort in maturing on wax, never trying to act like a young turk when he was really a grizzled veteran; at this point, Ghostface could be seen as the Rap Brett Favre. Unlike Jay though, to stay fresh and creative, Ghostface has mostly turned away from the mainstream, choosing instead to record a glut of material with collaborators from the more underground end of Hip-Hop. He might occasionally do a single with Missy Elliott, Amy Winehouse, or Ne-Yo, whose pop crossover attempt, "Back Like That", is far from embarassing, but he’d surround it by tracks produced by MF DOOM (4 tracks here; collabo album coming soon) or have "Strap" and "Beauty Jackson" blessed by the late J Dilla. Over the last 4 years, Ghost has released 2 proper albums, a rarities collection and 3 albums worth of material with his crew, The Theodore Unit; that’s not to mention the stray tracks scattered across mixtapes and the Internet. Fishscale is the best album from this period, what I like to call the “Pretty Toney era", and when it was released, it was pretty much universally hailed as an instant Rap classic, being named Album of the Year in more than a few venues. When I wrote about the album as part of my Best of 2006 feature (I placed it at #3, though in retrospect, I would now bump it up a spot), I compared it to The Beatles' legendary “White Album”, and I believe that the comparison still holds true. Both albums are hour-plus long excursions into new sound, deep with experiments and new approaches. The wonder comes in the snapshot of the creative process; not everything works, but when it does, it can be truly awesome.

The album opens effectively with “Shakey Dog”, a Hip-Hop crime narrative of godlike proportions. Ghost spits a never-ending stream of consciousness tale of a drug heist gone wrong, skipping any notion of a chorus and barely breaking to take a breath. As an artist with at least a dozen tracks that can be called certified Hip-Hop classics, it stands as the best song of his career, and belongs in the pantheon of epic Rap crime stories alongside the best of Kool G Rap, Nas and Biggie. “Crack Spot” and “R.A.G.U.” are almost as good; the former is a comedic tale of drug paranoia over a Charlie’s Angels beat. The latter features Raekwon and Ghost coming together over the smoothest of Pete Rock’s three strong contributions. Rock’s “Be Easy” is a classic party jam from days gone by, complete with booming bass, brass, and boasts, while “Dogs Of War” is the best of the album’s group cuts, featuring Ghost’s teenage son, Sun God, while Pete Rock chops up Sly & The Family Stone’s “Family Affair” in the background. Ghost has always excelled over tracks culled from the Soul music of the 60’s and 70’s, getting better with each album, but on Fishscale, he branches out with excellent results. On Rocky-quoting "The Champ", producer Just Blaze brings his usual bombast to support Ghost's legendary battle rhymes, but this time with searing Rock guitar; MF DOOM does the same for "Clipse of Doom" while DOOM brings Ghost some sunny 60's garage pop on "Jellyfish", and his trippy "Underwater" is almost beyond description, but it would need to be to back up Ghost's story about "SpongeBob in the Bentley coupe" and "mermaids with Halle Berry haircuts". It's this type of thing that Ghost tosses off with subtle humor and almost no effort, and why he's probably the best MC around right now. Even the album's outtakes are incredible; do yourself a favor and seek out the unreleased "Charlie Brown" and the mindblowing "Alex (Stolen Script)", from More Fish. Even more encouraging is that, by all evidence, the "Pretty Toney era" isn't over yet. If this is where Ghost is at now, imagine where he'll be in five years; he'll probably be calling himself "the Stephen Hawking of Rap" or something equally hilarious and ridiculous. For now, we'll have to settle for "Architect music, verbal street opera", but I'm definitely not complaining.

01. “The Return Of Clyde Smith” [interlude]
02. “Shakey Dog”
03. “Kilo” [feat. Raekwon]
04. “The Champ”
05. “Major Operation” [interlude]
06. “9 Milli Bros.” [feat. Wu-Tang Clan]
07. “Beauty Jackson”
08. “Heart Street Directions” [interlude]
09. “Columbus Exchange” [interlude]/“Crack Spot”
10. “R.A.G.U.” [feat. Raekwon]
11. “Bad Mouth Kid” [interlude]
12. “Whip You With A Strap”
13. “Back Like That” [feat. Ne-Yo]
14. “Be Easy” [feat. Trife]
15. “Clipse Of Doom” [feat. Trife]
16. “Jellyfish” [feat. Cappadonna, Shawn Wigs, & Trife]
17. “Dogs Of War” [feat. Raekwon, Trife, Cappadonna, & Sun God]
18. “Barbershop”
19. “Ms. Sweetwater” [interlude]
20. “Big Girl”
21. “Underwater”
22. “The Ironman Takeover” [interlude]
23. “Momma” [feat. Megan Rochell]
24. “Three Bricks” [feat. The Notorious B.I.G. & Raekwon] [bonus track]

"Shakey Dog" [audio]

"Beauty Jackson" [audio/fan video]

- BONUS: “Columbus Exchange” [interlude]/“Crack Spot” [audio]
- BONUS: "Back Like That" [video]
- BONUS: "The Champ" [audio]
set to scenes of Rocky III
- BONUS: "9 Milli Bros." [audio]
- BONUS: "Whip You With A Strap" [audio]
- BONUS: "Clipse Of Doom" [audio]
- BONUS: "Be Easy" [live at B.B.King's, NYC 10.05]
Preceded by a freestyle by Sun God (Ghost's son); Pete Rock on the decks

Monday, September 24, 2007

[063] Parklife

Album: Parklife
Artist: Blur
Release Date: April 1994
Label: Food/SBK/ERG
Producers: Stephen Street, with Stephen Hague, John Smith & Blur

"We wear the same clothes 'cause we feel the same"
- from "End Of A Century"

"I'd love to stay here and be normal
But then it's just so overrated"
- from "Tracy Jacks"

Despite the fact that Parklife, Blur's classic third album, debuted at #1 in the UK, the band will forever be criminally underappreicated by the people of their home because they came to be perceived as the snarky bourgeois counterparts to the working class upstarts in Oasis. It's fitting then that in the great documentary Live Forever, Blur singer Damon Albarn pops the balloon, revealing that the album, which originally seemed like a celebration of being English, is actually an indictment of the post-Thatcher Americanization of the London suburbs. It was sarcasm, one long bit of taking the piss, much like the Beastie Boys' claim that the fans they acquired from "Fight For Your Right" were the exact type of people they were lampooning. In the film, Albarn goes on to plainly regret being so flippant with his message, and considering it was right when the most people were listening, if he had written this album in a simple fashion, the way he was feeling, Blur's career would've likely been far different.

If, I guess like most of the Brits who bought this album, you pay no attention to the lyrics, Parklife is one of the most enjoyable Pop/Rock albums since the 1960's. Surely it was massively popular because it so effortlessly recalls the most popular and most British of bands, from The Beatles and The Kinks, to The Jam and XTC, while also moving their own sound forward. There's almost a mad carnival theme running through the music; the way the waltz of "The Debt Collector", the psychedelic "Far Out", and the silliness of "Lot 105" suggest a commentary on the way the British musical tradition of 20th century, like the long shadow of Music Hall, largely fetishized novelty. The majority of the songs bounce along and easily put a smile on your face, from the frantic punk of "Bank Holiday" to the pastoral beauty of "Badhead" to the cool new wave of "London Loves", but what does it say that we've come to expect this kind of variety of classicism from creative British rock bands? And it is not for lack of trying that Blur update their sound. Only two songs, "Magic America" and "Trouble In The Message Centre", still hold some of the scattered vibe of Modern Life Is Rubbish. On the rest of the album, the band is ten-times as focused as on the previous album. Blur could not have made this album a few years earlier, with guitarist Graham Coxon especially stepping up. Where, on a song like the 1992 single "Popscene", Coxon would heap on the noise, here he cleans it up, and plays smart and subtle. Soaring epic closer "This Is A Low" in particular highlights his brilliant playing. If Pulp hadn't recorded "Common People", then this song would likely be the highlight of the Britpop movement.

Returning to this album now, years later, anyone would think it should have been obvious to everyone where the message of the album was aimed, right from the start of "Girls & Boys", which skewers the promiscuous Brits on holiday in Greece; I'm sure they thought it was an anthem just for them. What does it really say for the cynicism of an entire nation that the youth generation, adults of tomorrow, adopted these songs as anthems?? "End Of A Century" and "Jubilee" are straight-forward attacks on the laziness and mindlessness of being a couch potato, but because of their jaunty strides, the lyrics get overlooked. There are also a few comments of excessive drinking, as well as an undercurrent of unemployment running through some of the songs, most notably the title track. It wasn't a kinder, gentler version of the punk rebellion against the hypocrisy of the authority structure of their society. It was more apathy than anything. The music really did dominate the words, because with one look at the lyrics, I was amazed at how dour and biting they are. It occurs to me now that the reason that a film like Trainspotting, or recent films like 28 Days Later and Shaun Of The Dead, resonate so well is that in the wake of the Thatcher era, there really was a zombie-like nature to British suburbanites. Beyond getting high, or pissed in Begbie's case, what did Renton and his friends ever do? Nothing. Exactly. And that's what almost every song on Parklife is ultimately about; Albarn was begging for his country to see that the urbanization of the countryside he loved, which he had seen examples of the end result of while on tour in the US, was a giant waste of time which he blamed on the influence of American commerce. It's a shame that the people who needed these messages, the ones that Damon Albarn and Blur were trying to shake out of their funk and get back to their senses, were just looking for some Pop music to dance to.

01. "Girls & Boys"
02. "Tracy Jacks"
03. "End Of A Century"
04. "Parklife" [feat. Phil Daniels]
05. "Bank Holiday"
06. "Badhead"
07. "The Debt Collector"
08. "Far Out"
09. "To The End"
10. "London Loves"
11. "Trouble In The Message Centre"
12. "Clover Over Dover"
13. "Magic America"
14. "Jubilee"
15. "This Is A Low"
16. "Lot 105"

"Parklife" [video]

"Girls & Boys" [video]

- BONUS: "End Of A Century" [video]
- BONUS: "To The End" [video]
- BONUS: Damon Albarn talking about the inspiration for Parklife
From the Cool Britannia documentary Live Forever; go in 1:30
- BONUS: "Tracy Jacks" & "Magic America" [from the concert film Showtime]
- BONUS: "Parklife" [from the concert film Showtime]
- BONUS: "Girls & Boys" & "Bank Holiday" [from the concert film Showtime]
- BONUS: "This Is A Low" [from the concert film Showtime]

Friday, September 21, 2007

[064] Turn On The Bright Lights

Album: Turn On The Bright Lights
Artist: Interpol
Release Date: August 2002
Label: Matador
Producers: Peter Katis & Interpol

“I will surprise you sometime. I'll come around, when you're down.”
- from “Untitled”

I stumble into the subterranean club the same way I stumbled out of the pub - stinking of good times. I navigate the hipsters on the dancefloor and push my way to the bar. A vision in red hair saunters up next to me, squeezing in through the crowd so that she brushes up against my body. She plays with her braids and smiles at me; her eyes are big enough to get lost in. This is the kind of girl who gets in a room and takes it apart; it's in the way that she walks, the way she poses. I introduce myself. “My name’s Roland.” She says her name is Stella, and I should join her. The music the DJ is playing shakes my soul; the bass and beat play hopscotch around the elegant guitar repeating over itself. She gets a margarita with a salted rim, and I get a nice ’88 red. We toast to the snow, and how we’re glad it stopped falling. Her lipstick leaves a print on the edge of her glass; I wish I could eat the salt off of her lost faded lips. She says brief things; her stories are boring, but she sells them like a car salesman who gets a commission on words. She swears I'm just prey for all the females, and tells me I look like Crispin Glover raided Dracula’s closet, but it’s a nice suit anyway. I manage an inadvisable retort; “I don’t know if I relate, but I see no harm.” She replies that I’m growing on her.

I follow her to the bathroom and into a stall. She taps out some white and rolls a dollar. She calls my bluff; there are some things you can’t hide. She knows I’m a past sinner. I start getting fresh, feeling on her, grabbing her hip bones like bicycle handles. She swats my paws down, and snaps “Put your hands away. I need to defend some part of me from you.” She pulls me out of the bathroom, and says “C’mon now, pussycat. There’s nothing here to be into”, though as I look around, the place is pretty packed and the DJ is killing it. I trip up the stairs after her, out of the bar and on to the sidewalk. We’re going to her place she says. I tell her to slow down, the night is young. She says she’s sick of spending these lonely nights training herself not to care. There’s got to be some more change in her life. She asks, “Will you be my man?” I can’t decide if what I see in her big eyes is pain or desire. I think I’m not sober enough to tell the difference.

We wander the messy pavements of the greatest city on Earth, snaking through Chinatown and the financial district, down to Ground Zero. As we stand with our noses to the high fences, she says, “See? New York cares, why can’t I?” Staring at the hole in the ground, I wonder aloud how the men of the world ignored her beauty for so long. She says she had seven faces, but didn’t know which one to wear. Her words bounce around my head and tie a troubled knot in my gut. I look at the spotlights on the ground, and mumble “When in doubt, turn on the bright lights. The undesirable will scatter.” She smiles as she grabs my arm and pulls me on, towards our destination, telling me more boring stories, about that time she fell down a manhole or about her Polish butcher with a magnificent beard. She walks with a stride and a smile that tells me she’s excited to be with me. It’s a new beginning; my head is clearing and she’s remaining gorgeous. As we walk arm in arm to her apartment building, we plan our lives together. I say, “If you can fix me up, we’ll go a long way.” She looks perplexed by this, but stays gracious. I regret opening my mouth, and blame it on the booze. She speaks of finding new ways of living. I tell her, “I picture you and me together in the jungle,” and she says that would be okay. I can’t wait to know the things this girl will put in my head.

We get to her building, but instead of inviting me into her apartment, she leads me up to the roof. As we savor the glow of our city and the fresh night air, she reaches out and squeezes my hand. She says we should take a trip now, to see new places; she’s sick of this town and how her face has changed. I say she’s being dramatic, but she says she doesn’t even trust herself for one minute each day. I pull her in and tell her to trust in this. She moves into my airspace and says, “You come here to me”; in her kiss I feel a lifetime of passion that has waited in her lips. We crumble to the rooftop, our bodies intertwining in the cold night. She says it helps with the lights out, and I laugh and kiss her neck. I go down, tracing the goose-bumps on her stomach with my fingers, her rabid glow is like Braille to the night. I tell her she’s Heaven. She says Heaven’s never enough. We’re going to catch cold, but instinct has us enraptured. It's like learning a new language and we’re teaching each other.

As we look over the skyline, I feel the chill of the winter. I feel our bond is set, and turn to look at the beauty to my side, but she’s growing pale, all the color dropping off her face. She starts to back away from me, mumbling, “I’m so sorry, I wish I could live free, but I’ve never known love, and this is too overwhelming. It's different now that I'm poor and aging. You can’t understand. You’ll never understand. I'll never see this face again.” I laugh, and joke that she should be okay, she has six others, but she’s breaking down, ceasing to be whole, her big eyes go black. She pulls a knife out of her bag, and with no hesitation stabs herself in the neck. I move to act but my muscles feel like slow motion. Her blood is everywhere, but my black suit just looks wet. I collapse beside her and hold her in my arms, tight, close, to keep her warm. I trace her cheek and tell her to stay with me, but she’s not listening. She says she feels cold. I say that’s good, because it is. Just then, it starts to snow again. She tells me she’ll say hello to the angels for me. I beg her, don’t leave. Don’t leave. Don’t leave. Don’t Leave. She tells me not to worry, she’ll come and visit. She says, “I will surprise you sometime. I'll come around, when you're down” and she’s gone. Sleep tight.

[This piece of fiction is based on the sound & lyrics of Turn On The Bright Lights]

01. "Untitled"
02. "Obstacle 1"
03. "NYC"
04. "PDA"
05. "Say Hello To The Angels"
06. "Hands Away"
07. "Obstacle 2"
08. "Stella Was A Diver And She Was Always Down"
09. "Roland"
10. "The New"
11. "Leif Erikson"

"Obstacle 1" [single edit - video]

"NYC" [single edit - video]

- BONUS: "PDA" [single edit - video]
- BONUS: "Untitled" [fan video]
- BONUS: "Say Hello To The Angels" [fan video]
- BONUS: "Stella Was A Diver And She Was Always Down" [live in Milan, Italy]

Technical Difficulty

"Sometime life can get all up in your ass."
- De La Soul

Today's review will be up later, like between 5pm & 6pm EST.
To hold you over, News of the Day:
Pat Smear played with the Foo Fighters in NYC last night.
As far as the Internet goes, I guess you heard it here 161st.
Also, half of the Foo fans are dickheads, at least at this show.
...and I'm out.
- John

Thursday, September 20, 2007

[065] Blue Lines

Album: Blue Lines
Artist: Massive Attack
Release Date: August 1991
Label: Circa/Virgin
Producers: Massive Attack, with Jonny Dollar

"Way that we say 'em in style that we write 'em in
Massive attack we keep it strong just like a vitamin"
- from "Daydreaming"

I had this whole mental outline of how I wanted to approach this album, talking about the uncertainty of the music landscape in 1990, a time of disparate styles where Violator and "Been Caught Stealing" butted up against Vanilla Ice and "We Didn't Start The Fire", plus the globalization of Hip-Hop and club culture, and how Blue Lines was a reaction to all that. But my life dictated what I was going to say about this album. Admittedly, I'm kind of stressed out lately. I'm losing a lot of sleep. I'm irritable more than I'd like to be. It's just life, really. Despite that, I had a really good day yesterday - I got tickets for the super-limited Foo Fighters show in NYC tonight, and I aced my annual review at work & got a raise. But when I got home, I passed out, and woke up late to meet my friend; I ended up almost flipping my jeep and dying cuz I was driving like a maniac. Massive Attack saved my life. If I wasn't listening to Blue Lines in my car last night, then I would've stayed wound up and cranky, and I would've stayed driving like a bat out of hell, and I'd probably be writing this from the ICU.

Blue Lines is all about surviving the everyday. Curtis Mayfield sang about "tryin' to get over", and Massive Attack sang about being "safe from harm" and being "thankful for what you've got" (though the latter is a cover). The two most iconic music videos from the album, "Harm" and "Unfinished Sympathy", attempt to illustrate that the black inner city is not a solely American construct. Likewise, when you dig a little and read into the lyrics, you realize that the album had to be made on a working class level; this couldn't have been their fourth album, it even comes through like they're just happy that Horace Andy said 'yes' to being on their album. If you look up 'naiveté' in the dictionary, one of the definitions is, "Natural and artless simplicity". That's Blue Lines; I'd imagine this would come from the pure excitement of creation. Like many debuts, Blue Lines is a hodgepodge of influences - ganja definitely influenced the vibe - but for the world at large, some of Massive Attack's influences were largely fresh. Hip-Hop was just starting to find its footing, commercially, in the US at the dawn of the 90's, so imagine how new it was to UK ears; super-collide that with the emerging euro-dance-pop of the time, the big name in this case being Soul II Soul. In America, they're generally dismissed as a one-hit wonder ("Back To Life"), but Soul II Soul were revolutionary in the UK, and Massive followed them at just the right time with a well-timed classic album. Their use of smoked-out dub with their own brand of Hip-Hop was, at the time, completely singular - "The Bristol Sound". Of course, all these years later, you know it as Trip-Hop, but there's little here of that eventual box, though this album basically built the box. 3D, Daddy G, and Tricky didn't try to copy American MC's. They had their own style; in comparison to the bombast of Run-DMC, Massive is whispering. They ride more low-key beats; even over a tribal beat, the first single "Daydreaming" still feels breezy. The jazzy groove and mournful Rhodes piano of the title track echoes what the Native Tongues posse was working on at the time. "Five Man Army" is the best, toasting the Al Green rimshot break from Rakim's "Mahogany" (and later, Biggie's "Dead Wrong" and "I've Got a Story To Tell") in the dub oven.

Now I want you to do me a favor - name a classic R&B album from the 1980's...
...You can't do it, can you? If you said Thriller or anything by Prince, that would be wrong because those albums are Pop. There are some good ones (like Bobby Brown's Don't Be Cruel) but no great ones; the only answer I could come up with is Janet Jackson's Control, but that's pushing it, because that's almost as pop as her brother. Soul music went and hibernated in the 80's. And the "Rap & Bullshit" hybrid (see: R. Kelly) that so many rappers dissed in the early 90's was a poor excuse that happened to take off. So in these dark times, you had to take what you could get, and in that way, Blue Lines was a perfect fit. Through the thick dub bass and breakbeats, the majority of the songs are Soul songs, as they say, the way they used to make them. This is largely due to the presence of Shara Nelson. This woman is the greatest R&B singer you've never heard. Let's put it this way - after this album, in the UK, they were screaming "the next Aretha!!" That's a tall claim, but if you heard "Unfinished Sympathy" in 1991, then you'd say the same thing; the Brits still consider it among the best songs of all time. I don't think Americans now can understand the masterstroke this song was at the time. It sounded like nothing else, on the album or on the charts. Nelson's vocal is so pure, and strings so powerful, it bowls you over; the swelling strings at 3:20 blow my brains right out of my head every single time. You could slam as many club breaks on the thing as you want, this is a fuckin' Soul song to the core, and Nelson's vocals extend that through the rest of the record; with it's summertime bump, "Lately" could've been a hit in the US, while "Safe From Harm" is dripping with the blues. Over one of the most killer basslines of all time, Nelson warns "If you hurt what's mine, I'll sure as hell retaliate", and the way she delivers it, it's one of the greatest lines in the history of music. Horace Andy is great on the album, but he continued to evolve with and merge into Massive's music, so his contributions to Mezzanine resonate more. So it's really Nelson who makes Blue Lines. She pleads on "Sympathy", "How can you have a day without a night?" That's sometimes how I feel writing this blog; my days bleed into each other, and my brain runs in the red all the time. Her voice, that lyric, filled my soul with calm and understanding. Thanks Massive Attack, for saving my life last night.

01. "Safe From Harm" [feat. Shara Nelson]
02. "One Love" [feat. Horace Andy]
03. "Blue Lines" [feat. Tricky]
04. "Be Thankful For What You've Got" [feat. Tony Bryan]
05. "Five Man Army" [feat. Tricky & Horace Andy]
06. "Unfinished Sympathy" [feat. Shara Nelson]
07. "Daydreaming" [feat. Tricky & Shara Nelson]
08. "Lately" [feat. Shara Nelson]
09. "Hymn Of The Big Wheel" [feat. Horace Andy]

"Safe From Harm" [single mix - video]

"Unfinished Sympathy" [video]

- BONUS: "Daydreaming" [video]
- BONUS: "Hymn Of The Big Wheel" [audio/fan video]
- BONUS: "Be Thankful For What You've Got" [video]

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

[066] 13 Songs

Album: 13 Songs [7 Songs EP + Margin Walker EP]
Artist: Fugazi
Release Dates: 7 Songs - 11.88//Margin Walker - 06.89//13 Songs - 09.89
Label: Dischord
Producers: Ted Niceley & Fugazi//John Loder & Fugazi

“To surge and refine
To rage and define
Ourselves against your line
So sorry friend, but you must resign”
- from “Bulldog Front”

When I finished putting the early versions of this list together, I felt unhappy that I wasn’t able to include any “Punk” albums even though there was a large movement and at least a handful of pretty great albums in the 1990’s; the genre, or movement’s, most groundbreaking days were behind it. Of course, I had included Nirvana, who may or may not be a punk band to you, and this, a collection of Fugazi’s first two EPs which is essentially their debut album. Is that me showing my hand, that I would not initially consider them a punk band, I guess because of their musical progressiveness (and I mean that literally and not in an ELP/Genesis way)? But Fugazi are a punk band, in the greatest sense of that label. They represent the freedom from the constrictions of what came before them, the catharsis and satisfaction of putting every fiber of your being into your art, and the wonder of exploration; Ian MacKaye initially said he was shooting for “The Stooges playing reggae”. In a lot of ways, the way most kids toss the tag “Punk” around today, calling Fugazi a punk band would almost be an insult. For its members, Fugazi existed in order to continue to think and act in the spirit of Punk, but to break the music out of the assumed box, and in the process they helped to chart the path of underground rock and independent labels for the next 15 years. But always always always remember – as legendary as their anti-corporate and pro-audience business models were – it’s their mindblowing music that makes them legends.

Hardcore painted the members of Fugazi into corners in their former bands. I would not have wanted to be Ian MacKaye or Guy Picciotto in the late 80’s; As important as their music was, MacKaye and Minor Threat created so much of what people forced hardcore culture into, and Picciotto’s work in Rites of Spring was the first to be reduced to “Emo”. Joining with the untouchable rhythm section of drummer Brendan Canty (also of ROS) and bassist Joe Lally, 13 Songs shakes loose of people’s conceptions within the first 22 seconds; “Waiting Room” is the breaking of the shackles. Joe Lally’s bass rumbles its ironic/iconic fanfare, followed by the post-Ska beat and skittering guitar. 22 seconds, then it stops. Remember, the song is called “Waiting Room”. The first line is “I am a patient boy”. This arrangement is intentional. Fugazi will not play anyone’s games; they can make you wait. The song still sounds like nothing else, with MacKaye’s bellow bouncing off Picciotto’s whine, as they damn the temptations of laziness. Fugazi want to uplift their audience and stand as equal pro-active humans. Every song here is offering you something; Fugazi do not beat around the bush. These are examinations of self. They are warnings. They are anthems for a better existence.

Their music is organic in its evolution, and as it grows, it spirals outward like the improvisation of the great Jazz players of the past. The sound of Fugazi is singular, the players locked together. The music is based wholly on movement; if you listen to their albums and watch the videos I’ve left below for you, you’ll find that momentum builds constantly. Live, the band moves, the audience moves with them. On records, the music moves, the lyrics move with it; “Waiting Room” speaks of not sitting idly by. Their debt to reggae cannot be understated, and the influence in the band’s DNA contributes to its organic nature. In that vein, it’s somehow fitting that one of Fugazi’s sexiest, most lithe grooves forms the skeleton of an exposé on the objectification of women. Told from the point of view of a woman, MacKaye’s landmark “Suggestion” condemns the misogyny of the society we’re raised in, dissects the mental effects of rape, and screams to a halt with an accusation that we are all guilty. It’s the most pro-female song from an all-male band I know of. Almost as striking is Picciotto’s growling “Glue Man”, a harrowing tale of the downward spiral of drug addiction, built on the band’s ferocious attack, spear-headed by MacKaye’s rubber-band guitar work.

Furthermore, “Burning” and “Give Me The Cure” deal with unnamed afflictions that could be either addiction or possibly illness, significant during the advent of the AIDS epidemic. The majority of the rest of the album represents various stances against the devils of the 1980’s; corporate greed, homogenized suburbia, audacious political bullshit, stunted societal creativity. Picciotto’s fiery blast, “Margin Walker” proposes self-immolation as a protest before evoking the Kennedy assassination, while MacKaye’s rolling “Promises” hopes for a time when speech can get out of the way of unity. "And The Same",
"Provisional", and "Lockdown" ask similar questions, but are already evolving in new directions, the lyrics accelerating in on an abstract course. The formation of Fugazi, and the public realization of their unblinking musical adventurousness signaled an end to the bluster of hardcore, but also a summarizing of the greater Punk ideals - of do-it-yourself aesthetics, of renunciation of excess, of harmonic community that promotes the individual – leading to the beginning of a new musical age.

- Tracks 1-7 originally released as the 7 Songs EP
01. “Waiting Room”
02. “Bulldog Front”
03. “Bad Mouth”
04. “Burning”
05. “Give Me The Cure”
06. “Suggestion”
07. “Glue Man”
- Tracks 8-13 originally released as the Margin Walker EP
08. “Margin Walker”
09. “And The Same”
10. “Burning Too”
11. “Provisional”
12. “Lockdown”
13. “Promises

"Waiting Room" [live in Washington DC, 12.88]
bonus track on the Instrument DVD

"Suggestion" [live in Washington DC, 1991]
featuring Amy Pickering of Fire Party (also on Dischord) on vocals

- BONUS: "Glue Man" [live, mid 90's]
- BONUS: "Margin Walker" [live in St. Louis, 1988]
These 4 videos are from the same show as "Waiting Room".
Shot from the crowd, on VHS
- BONUS: "Bad Mouth" [live in Washington DC, 12.88]
- BONUS: "Provisional" [live in Washington DC, 12.88]
- BONUS: "Bulldog Front" [live in Washington DC, 12.88]
- BONUS: "Promises" [live in Washington DC, 12.88]
- BONUS: Interview with Ian & Guy, and some of "Suggestion" on Fugazi's first UK visit [12.88]

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

[067] White Blood Cells

Album: White Blood Cells
Artist: The White Stripes
Release Date: July 2001
Label: Sympathy For The Record Industry; reissued on V2
Producer: Jack White

“It might sound silly for me to think childish thoughts like these
But I’m so tired of acting tough, and I’m gonna do what I please
Let’s get married in a big cathedral by a priest
Cuz if I’m the man that you love the most you could say ‘I do’ at least”
-from “Hotel Yorba”

There will never be another White Stripes album as good as White Blood Cells. You may think that there can be, or is already, and Rolling Stone can dole out as many 5-star ratings as they want, but this will always be The One. Yes I know they’re one of the most interesting and consistent acts around right now, and they will probably keep growing and getting weirder in their own way, but you can’t choose when you have your cosmic moment...or whatever; you know what I mean. The White Stripes had the perfect story: Brother and sister that talk and act all old-timey courteous and only wear three colors, form a childlike guitar-&-drums garage duo that play poppy folk tunes and old blues songs filtered through the Detroit rock sound. Except there was one problem – they weren’t brother and sister. They were husband and wife. And this was their divorce album.

They had been married for four years, playing in the band for almost as long, and they didn't even take a break after the split (as far as I can tell); they got right back in the studio, so you cannot fuck with the tension in this album. The album is all their fire focused on the music instead of each other. There’s a sonic divide between the previous album, De Stijl, and WBC; this album just feels bigger even though nothing has been added to the formula. The guitars are fatter, rounder, thicker. Meg’s drums slam with more force. The White Stripes have something I like to call ‘The Lurch’, and I’ve never heard another band have it. It may be that Meg’s sense of rhythm is constantly rocking forward, like she can’t wait to get to the 1 and the 3, or it could be the result of their live non-verbal communication, turning on a dime. It’s the same kind of telepathy that Townshend and Moon had. Songs like “Expecting” or the instrumental
“Aluminum”, where the drums and guitar align for every hit, are classic examples of ‘The Lurch’, shoving you with every measure. The cuddly "Fell In Love With A Girl" however is just nuts, a simple punk tune to be sure, but never hinted at by the duo's previous discography. Elsewhere, Jack simply beefs up the guitars on songs he would’ve previously left as simple pop. Without the chunky “Revolution” licks, highlight “I’m Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman” would just be a piano-driven ditty, and “Now Mary” would just be a country hoedown novelty. Likewise, Jack’s shimmering guitar on “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known” almost overshadows the watery organ that the song floats on; it’s the first hint of the full-bodied Power Pop he’d explore with The Raconteurs.

It’s actually quite telling that the quote I chose for the top of this entry is conveniently not included with the lyrics in the liner notes. I would’ve loved to have been a fly on the wall in the studio during recording. As much as Jack White wants to project an outdated, slightly misogynistic image of The Man in a Man’s World, James Brown told us it wouldn’t be anything without a woman or a girl, and you just know that the second they’re behind closed doors, Meg has plenty to say; she’s so quiet all the time, it’s like she’s saving it all up for later. Apparently, Jack was saving too – for this album. For all the big deal people want to make about their sound, it’s the words on this album that really make a difference. Virtually every song alludes to the disintegration of a relationship or a man’s dilemmas with being a husband. “Expecting” claims that she owns him forever, but by “Same Boy”, she’s already forgotten his name. On the aforementioned “Gentleman”, he starts the argument, but it’s one-sided. First he tries reason, that “it don’t take much to satisfy me”, but a minute later, he’s escalating to insensitivity, spitting that a doctor should decide which one of them is the sane one, and abandoning chivalry in favor of his favorite jacket. He can’t even “find emotion to stimulate devotion”, so how could he ever make his way to the real thing?

In other places, he comes off as fragile; He contemplates his ability, or lack thereof, to shoulder marital responsibility and strength on “This Protector” and “Offend In Every Way”. In “Dead Leaves and The Dirty Ground”, Jack’s woman has left him, and he arrives home to “no one to wrap my arms around”, showering her with flowery compliments to get her to return. His frustration turns to bile in the end, with the grand "The Union Forever" crying "There is no true love", but slipping in the even more brutal and revealing, "You said the union forever, but that was untrue, girl!" Oh, the pain in young Jack White's heart! "I Can't Wait" is the most confrontational, with Jack trying to play big man, fronting that he's strong and Meg (or whoever) is weak, but by the second verse of the song, he wants to know how she is going to fix his life, "Tell me how I'm supposed to get through with this??" He's still broken and in denial, and it comes out in such a subtle lyric that you might miss it.

When The White Stripes are done, they could be remembered in many ways. As blues disciples along side The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. As Detroit Rock City Gods, standing tall with The MC5 and Stooges. As representatives of economy in music, hanging out with everyone from the Ramones and Wire to Guided By Voices and Daft Punk. But their songs are what makes them special; Jack has an innate tunefulness akin to Paul McCartney's (see "We're Going To Be Friends", obviously), but he can't put down the Rock Thunder. And here specifically, the words tells their greatest story, a story that they probably won't be able to tell again...not unless he gets his new wife to play marimba on tour.

01. "Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground"
02. "Hotel Yorba"
03. "I'm Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman"
04. "Fell In Love With A Girl"
05. "Expecting"
06. "Little Room"
07. "The Union Forever"
08. "The Same Boy You've Always Known"
09. "We're Going To Be Friends"
10. "Offend In Every Way"
11. "I Think I Smell A Rat"
12. "Aluminum"
13. "I Can't Wait"
14. "Now Mary"
15. "I Can Learn"
16. "This Protector"

"Fell In Love With A Girl" [video]

- BONUS: "Hotel Yorba" [video]
- BONUS: "Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground" [video]
- BONUS: "We're Going To Be Friends" [video]
- BONUS: "The Union Forever" [fan video]
- BONUS: The making of the "Fell In Love A Girl" video
Directed by Michel Gondry

Monday, September 17, 2007

[068] Selected Ambient Works 85-92

Album: Selected Ambient Works 85-92
Artist: Aphex Twin
Release Date: February 1992
Label: Apollo/R&S; reissued on Pias America
Producer: Richard D. James

Myth is a powerful thing in music. The building of an artist's legend is often instrumental to them becoming famous and staying that way. From Robert Johnson at the crossroads to Led Zeppelin and the mud shark, a smudging of the truth can make a musician that much larger. Richard D. James has made some amazing advances in electronic music, but he's crafted his own myth just as much. There is so much information about his career online that at times I didn't feel confident using any of it, because it all seemed too perfect. But I realized that is his twisted way of doing things, and it only adds to his impact on music. None of us should be surprised that an artist who's released music under over a dozen different names would also find it necessary to blur the lines on his biography.

Aphex Twin is the name he's most known for though, and so here you find his debut album. The title alone is the first piece of his puzzle you come across - if it is to be believed, then some of this material could date back to when James was only 13 or 14 years old, not to mention it would be years ahead of the entire electronic music community. If any shred of it is true, then he is that much more of a groundbreaker. But I'm getting ahead of myself. James grew up a prodigy in electronics. He would take things apart and modify them, change them around, put them back together, to the point that he started creating his own keyboards and sequencers. This is another huge part of his legend - if you are creating your own instruments, then no one else is going to have music that sounds like yours. It would be hard to tell what's so special now, 15 to 20 years later, because you hear music like this everyday, on store muzak, in the background of TV shows & commercials, everywhere; since the release of this and other of his early works, James's influence is so widespread that he could easily be credited with steering nearly half of the entire electronic music genre, not to mention making the best band of the last 20 years, Radiohead, want to put their guitars down. Despite being preceded by vaguely similar advances made by The Orb, Richard D. James did one thing that no one had ever done. He made dance music to NOT dance to. It was dubbed Ambient Techno by some, somewhat in line with the soundscapes Brian Eno had done in the late 70's, and "Intelligent Dance Music" or IDM by others. Warp Records, the label that would sign James almost immediately following the release of this album, called it "electronic listening music", and they wasted no time placing him at the head of what would turn out to be a decade-plus mission to push IDM into the dance community's consciousness and revolutionize electronic music.

One of the most consistent parts of his early legend is that James would craft these tracks and record them on regular cassette tapes so that he could drive around with his friends and pop the tapes in the car stereo. Supposedly, some of this incredible album was actually mastered off those tapes! Not only that, but another part of the myth whispers that some of the tape might have fell victim to mangling by a house cat (it's not clear if it was James's cat though). All this is unbelievable when you listen to the album, because what I guess would be damaged tape sounds like filtered decay, and what would be the tape hiss just seems like part of the intended atmosphere. The reason I said that this would be dance music to not dance to is because while the beats are there, they're so murky and far back in the mix that it would be hard to get your groove on. This became the music that you hear in the chill out rooms in clubs or the bars off the main rooms of concert halls because it recreates the muffled sound of tinnitus or inebriation or being really stoned; it also spawned hundreds of imitators that made careers never leaving their bedroom studios; a few, like say Boards of Canada, have even made their own classics.

It's no wonder that the music influenced so many people. The relatively laidback beats, with much lower BPMs than dance fans were used to, draw you in, and the simple, layered compositions give you the impression that you could do this too. James was just as influenced by others here, whether it was Brian Eno, his Acid comtemporaries, early techno pioneers, or old school electro/Hip-Hop acts; the sounds are here, but they're remnants of the past, drenched in dubbed-out echo bass and adorned with beeps and blips. Richard D. James was on his way to being one of the leading electronic composers of all time, never settling for one sound or another, eventually excelling at many diverse styles, from brutal industrial drill & bass to lucid dream-inspired ambient texture movements. He created a legend for himself, but in the end, he was talented enough that he didn't need it.

01. "Xtal"
02. "Tha"
03. "Pulsewidth"
04. "Ageispolis"
05. "i"
06. "Green Calx"
07. "Heliosphan"
08. "We Are The Music Makers"
09. "Schottkey 7th Path"
10. "Ptolemy"
11. "Hedphelym"
12. "Delphium"
13. "Actium"

All these videos are unofficial and made by fans.

"Ageispolis" [audio excerpt]

- BONUS: "Tha" [audio]
- BONUS: "Heliosphan" [audio]
- BONUS: "Xtal" [audio]
WARNING: the fan-made video that accompanies this song includes news footage of intense human suffering, including scenes of 9/11 and Columbine.
- BONUS: a little mashup fun with "Ageispolis"

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The 2007 CSR Guide to Fall Movies, Part 2

Welcome back! Let's get right into November...

[Week Nine]
Friday, November 2 – Thursday, November 8

Unless you have kids and are forced to sit through The Bee Movie (stay retired, Seinfeld!), you have only one option this week, but that’s OK because it’s the biggest release of the season, and potentially the year. Director Ridley Scott, one of the greatest directors of the last 30 years, gives us American Gangster. It’s the story of Frank Lucas, probably the most revolutionary narcotics figure of the 20th century. In the early 1970’s, Lucas, played here by Oscar winner Denzel Washington (who has worked with Ridley’s brother Tony on three films), had the brilliant idea of smuggling Vietnamese heroin back from the war in the coffins of dead US soldiers. When that heroin hit the streets of Harlem, and the black community in general, it changed the world forever. Before African-Americans got on smack, the biggest criminal around the way was “the numbers man”, your local bookie. Lucas basically created the major drug trade in New York City, and now it was drug escalation; before him it was a little weed, a little coke. Heroin had been out of favor since the Bop days of Charlie Parker. Lucas’ heroin led to crack, crack led to Hip-Hop. Frank Lucas is one of those figures in American history that everyone should know, but doesn’t. Scott also reunites with Russell Crowe, who plays the cop who’s after Lucas, and the two know success together; Crowe won his Oscar with Scott on Gladiator. And the rest of the cast and crew is as just as good; the screenplay is by Steve Zallian, who won an Oscar for Traffic, and the supporters include the incredible Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding Jr, Josh Brolin, Idris Elba, Carla Gugino, Armand Assante, John Hawkes, Ted Levine, and Norman Reedus, as well as rappers like T.I., Common, and The RZA. This is as must-see a film as you’re going to get.
See: American Gangster

[Week Ten]
Friday, November 9 – Thursday, November 15
This week, while your less intelligent human peers are shuffling like zombies to lay down cash for Fred Claus, you can feel smart having two brilliant choices to pick from, but both are among the most anticipated films of the year, so you should make every effort to see them both. The first is the new Coen Brothers film, No Country For Old Men. They’ve returned to crime noir on this go-round, and the film, starring Tommy Lee Jones, looks to be a classic. The other film is the super-long-awaited Southland Tales, director Richard Kelly’s extremely troubled follow-up to his adored Donnie Darko (no trailer yet - click for a clip). Southland Tales premiered 18 months ago at Cannes ’06, and was supposedly booed, though some dispute this. Since then, it’s been endless hours in the editing room for Kelly, honing what’s sure to be one of the oddest films you ever see, and hoping the studio will actually release it. It’s a sci-fi musical action comedy. Yes, you read that correctly. I think if you put a gun to Kelly’s head and made him pick a genre, he’d say it’s a satire. Dwayne Johnson (can we stop calling him “The Rock” yet?) stars as an action movie star trying to make a film, but his life starts imitating the script. Add in Sarah Michelle Gellar as an upwardly-mobile porn star, Seann William Scott as an LAPD officer, and countless wacky cameos and bit parts, from Mad TV’s Will Sasso to Mandy Moore, from Kevin Smith to an almost unrecognizable Justin Timberlake. Oh, and don’t forget the three prequels being released in graphic novel form; I believe the first two are out already.
See: Both, but seek out No Country For Old Men first.

[Week Eleven]
Friday, November 16 – Thursday, November 22 (Thanksgiving)

I think the big-budget animated Beowulf looks kinded lame, and could anyone care less about Dustin Hoffman ripping off Willy Wonka in Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, so you have another week to do some catching up. The one interesting film opening on Friday is Noah Baumbach’s follow-up to his 2005 breakthrough, The Squid & The Whale. The new one, Margot At The Wedding, appears to be a sobering family drama starring Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh as sisters, but with flashes of comedy because it also stars Jack Black as Leigh's fiancé. You know no matter how hard he tries to do serious work, he’ll accidentally be funny somewhere in there. Now, this next flick is more of a release for next week, but because of the holiday, Wednesday is a fairly popular release day every year. This year we get The Mist, which registers high on the curiosity meter. It’s yet another film adaptation of a Stephen King work, but what’s special here is that it’s the third one directed by Frank Darabont. The first one was a little film you might’ve seen – The Shawshank Redemption – yeah, and he followed it with The Green Mile. So, it’s been 8 years since, and it’s about time he gives us another film. No matter how good it is, and the first trailer looks...OK, Darabont’s name is still worth the price of admission.
See: Margot At The Wedding if you’re bored or if it gets good reviews. Check out The Mist for Turkey Day.

[Weeks Twelve & Thirteen]
Friday, November 23 – Thursday, December 6

Hey, I know you have to shop. Good thing for you I covered The Mist in Week 11, and I only have one film for you in these two weeks. Black Friday brings the release of Todd Haynes’ surreal Bob Dylan biopic, I’m Not There. This is one of the ones I’m really waiting for – who doesn’t want to see Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, and Richard Gere – ALL as Bob Dylan??!!? That’s awesome, not to mention David Cross as Allen Ginsberg. You can meet me at the front of the line. Other than that, take a week off and save a few bucks for the December onslaught.
See: I’m Not There

[Week Fourteen]
Friday, December 7 – Thursday, December 13

The Christmas season really gets going with an excellent batch of films. First, the big money is on The Golden Compass, which is already being positioned as the next Lord of The Star Potter saga, and it looks pretty massive. Second, from the director of Pride & Prejudice and its star, Keira Knightly, comes Atonement, a romance which looks like Cold Mountain set during World War II. Recent festival screenings have critics absolutely raving that it’s an instant classic and it will clean up at the awards; when people are saying a film is among the greatest of all time at the time of its release, it’s probably even money to go check it out. And third, I want to mention Leatherheads, directed by and starring George Clooney. I haven’t seen any footage yet, but it sounds interesting - a romantic comedy set against the backdrop of the beginning of what would become the NFL - it sounds kind of like Some Like It Hot meets Bull Durham, but with shoulder pads. I’m intrigued because I’ve loved Clooney’s two previous directorial endeavors; the down side is the woman being fought over is Renee Zellweger, but the up side is The Office’s John Krasiniski is playing Robbins to Clooney's Costner, and seems a better prospect than that horrible Robin Williams debacle this summer.
See: The Golden Compass; if you’re like me and you hate sitting in theaters with lots of kids, see it as late in the day as possible. Check out Atonement on a weeknight if you get a chance.

[Week Fifteen]
Friday, December 14 – Thursday, December 20

This is a grab bag week, with a lot to choose from. The blockbuster is going to be I Am Legend, starring Will Smith, and directed by Constantine director Frances Lawrence. The concept is incredible, with the tagline – "The last man on Earth is not alone” – saying it all, and I have a feeling it will be the rare big budget popcorn flick that delivers. Almost as tempting is the new Woody Allen picture, Cassandra’s Dream. A crime thriller in line with his 2005 masterpiece Match Point, this film concerns two cockney brothers (Ewan McGregor & Colin Farrell) trying to one-up each other for a girl, and how their criminal uncle (Tom Wilkinson) gets them wrapped up in wrong doing. Also, do not sleep on Juno, director Jason Reitman's follow-up to his great Thank You For Smoking. It's a teen pregnancy black comedy starring, as the knocked up pair, Ellen Page (Hard Candy, X-Men 3) and Michael Cera (Superbad); the brilliant cast also includes Kingdom duo Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner, as well as the hilarious Rainn Wilson, J.K. Simmons, and Alison Janney. Finally, way under the radar, is Youth Without Youth. I don't know much about it except (a) it's about Nazis, (b) it stars Tim Roth, and (c) it's the first film in a decade from legendary Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola. That all should be enough for a matinee.
See: well, all four, but if I personally had to pick one, after seeing the trailer, I would pick Juno...cuz ya know, who doesn't like to laugh?

[Weeks Sixteen & Seventeen]
Friday, December 21 - New Year's Eve
I combined the last week and a half of the year because most of the movies are opening on Christmas Day, which is a Tuesday. There are a total of 14 films coming out within these 10 days, so I'll try and cut off the excess. The must see is going to be P.T. Anderson's long-awaited There Will Be Blood [12/26], starring a spooky Daniel Day Lewis and Little Miss Sunshine's Paul Dano. A loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil!, it is the third of the gritty westerns I've been mentioning, but it's the only one to feature a score by Radiohead's virtuoso multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood; it looks positively epic. After that, the next movie I would recommend is National Treasure: Book Of Secrets [12/21]. I know you might feel this damages my credibility, but as a man that grew up on Indiana Jones, I think it's refreshing to see a family-friendly action movie in an age of increasingly explicit films. Plus, the entire cast and crew from the original is returning, and they've added Helen Mirren, Ed Harris and Bruce Greenwood - so how could it go wrong? Beyond those two films you have some interesting options. Sweeney Todd [12/21] is yet another teaming of director Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, so even though I'm not a fan of musicals, it still bears mentioning. The Savages [12/26] has Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, which is always good. Hoffman also pops up in Mike Nichols' political drama, Charlie Wilson's War [12/25], starring a couple of up-&-comers named Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. I wasn't going to mention Walk Hard [12/21], cuz I'm really not sold on it yet, but I'm a big fan of Jenna Fischer's, so her starring role warrants the mention. And finally, AVP: Reqiuem [12/25]. I had to do it. C'mon, nothing could be as bad as the first one.
See: There Will Be Blood

So, that's a wrap! Let's do a little recap with my list of the
Top 17 Must-See Films of the Fall.
17. Atonement [12/07]
16. The Assassination Of Jesse James... [9/21]
15. Gone Baby Gone [10/19]
14. Into The Wild [9/21]
13. Cassandra's Dream [12/14]
12. I Am Legend [12/14]

11. Southland Tales [11/09]
10. We Own The Night [10/12]
09. Juno [12/14]
08. Control [10/10]
07. The Golden Compass [12/07]
06. There Will Be Blood [12/26]
05. 3:10 To Yuma [out now]
04. I'm Not There [11/23]
03. The Darjeeling Limited [9/29]
02. No Country For Old Men [11/09]
01. American Gangster [11/02]
Thanks for reading, have fun at the theater, and stay tuned for more goodness here at CSR.