Wednesday, October 31, 2007

[038] Document

Album: Document
Artist: R.E.M.
Release Date: September 1987
Label: I.R.S.
Producers: Scott Litt & R.E.M.

“The time to rise has been engaged,
You're better, best to rearrange
I'm talking here to me alone
I listen to the finest worksong,
Your finest hour”
- from “Finest Worksong”

At one point in the late 80’s, the boys from Athens could do no wrong. They were the definition of “College Rock”, releasing a string of incredible albums on I.R.S. Records, beginning with the American Indie Rock textbook Murmur, before jumping to The WB for super stardom. In the years since Warner Brothers swept them off their feet with promises of complete creative freedom, we’ve all watched as they exploded into one of the most interesting stadium bands in history, and then faded into endearing mediocrity. But Document is special, and no one really talks about it anymore. I guess that’s mostly because all the attention is now paid to Automatic For The People, and Document is only mentioned as an after thought, the album with “the Leonard Bernstein song” on it. But I remember the time before Automatic struck everyone’s fancy, when Document was the band’s undeniable classic, a masterwork that capped a run of amazing mystery and creativity. I still feel like it is that album, their best no matter what the charts for the following decade showed.

R.E.M. was always known for their opaqueness. Their music was a blur of hazy guitar, sharpened with the jangle of twelve strings, backed by thick rhythms that would bleed outside the lines – the beat of the Mills-Berry tandem was the biggest and most on time (Side note: this has been proven; my brother, a DJ, told me once that more than any other Rock band, R.E.M. was exact in keeping a beat); Michael Stipe was known for being unintelligible, that was his M.O. But with Document, R.E.M.’s fifth album in as many years, it was like someone remembered to focus. Everything is all of a sudden clearer, the haze is lifted, mainly due to the entry of producer Scott Litt, the man that would produce their records for the next decade, the ten years they would be at their most visible and popular. Their statement of arrival and intent is immediate; “Finest Worksong” launches with a startling crisp strum and a huge beat, announcing Michael’s words of self-encouragement, as if he’s heard the cries of fans and critics wondering what he’s been mumbling about for five years, “What we need has been confused”, and he and the band are going to give us what we want. But there is a winking air of ‘be careful what you wish for’, because R.E.M. knew how powerful they were, and they probably thought the world wasn’t ready yet. “Welcome To The Occupation” is musically the perfect R.E.M. song, exactly as you think of the band – somber melody, ringing guitar from Peter Buck, deceptively complex rhythm – but Stipe’s lyrics brought a new political fire. At the time, they stepped in shock, presenting for the first time the liberal protest that would lead them to being some of the biggest activists in entertainment this side of Bono. Michael evokes fire for the first of many times on the album (the original sleeve noted “File under Fire”), as he skewers the American foreign policy of the Reagan era with lines like “Listen to the Congress, where we propagate confusion”, and invokes the debacles of American involvement in Central and South America with moans of “Freedom reigns supreme; fire on the hemisphere below”.

The bouncy “Exhuming McCarthy”, which plots the course that “Stand” and “Shiny Happy People” would take, lets its upbeat mood play out instead of letting it obscure its critical message, speaking of being “loyal to the Bank of America” and remembering to “buy jingo, buy America”. “Disturbance At The Heron House” warns of “The followers of chaos out of control”, while “Fireplace” intones about the “crazy crazy world, crazy crazy times”. Of course, “It’s The End Of The World…” is Stipe’s desire to have his very own “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, a comment on the new age of the MTV attention span in the days of Republican paranoia, but in the rush of words he slips in two things twice; the name of comedian Lenny Bruce, who fought for free speech, and the phrase “listen to yourself churn”, which accurately continues the opening of “Finest Worksong”. Elsewhere, R.E.M. present the type of earlier confusion that was on their previous albums, but again, they do it in focus, so the musical attacks are more precise and the lyrics take on a Beat poet majesty. “Lightnin’ Hopkins” is surely the hardest they had ever rocked up to that point, and Stipe sounds positively pissed off on “Oddfellows Local 151”. And in one song, the delicate march of “King Of Birds”, the band planned the American folk journey that they would take to the days of Automatic For The People; it casts that album’s “Drive” almost as a response in melody and tone, the other bookend to their trip through experience.

Document came out on my eleventh birthday. I found this out just now, while researching this album, and I feel cold, as if a Georgia ghost has brushed across my shoulders. For me, seeing the video for the first single, “The One I Love” on MTV is probably the single most important musical moment of my life. It represented to me the promise of music, the vast possibilities. It wasn’t Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Springsteen, Duran Duran, or Bon Jovi. It was new, something I hadn’t ever thought of. Maybe my brain heard touchstones of my parents’ Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel records, I don’t know. I remember it like it was yesterday, the colors muted, the girl with her feet in the bowl, the lightning over that first snare hit, the guitar unlike any I had heard before. And that voice, the most cutting, pristine vocal tone I think I’ve ever encountered. Michael Stipe howling “FIRE”, Mike Mills floating shapeless behind him as always, Bill Berry’s drums cracking with force, it remains one of the few instances in music that can make me cry with every single listen. The Stipe of those days always sounded as if he was on the edge of an emotional breakdown, and the specific qualities of his voice always seem to pull me with him. I would suspect I was not alone. “The One I Love” put R.E.M. in front of everyone. It was their first top 10 single, making Document their first platinum album. Where they may have skirted the outer rim of public notice before, now they were going to be flirting with stardom, on the cover of the Rolling Stone as “America’s best Rock & Roll band”. If you think now about all the music that has come at us in the past twenty years, I think it seems OK to move on sometimes, otherwise we won’t have time for it all, but Document warrants making time for. At times it seemed as if R.E.M. was working on a higher plane, the leaders too far in the distance to catch, but they’ve slowed since Berry’s departure, and the world has caught up; Michael Stipe saw our future, and he left these songs for us, going out to those of us he left behind.

01. "Finest Worksong"
02. "Welcome To The Occupation"
03. "Exhuming McCarthy"
04. "Disturbance At The Heron House"
05. "Strange"
06. "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)"
07. "The One I Love"
08. "Fireplace"
09. "Lightnin' Hopkins"
10. "King Of Birds"
11. "Oddfellows Local 151"

"Finest Worksong" [live, 1989]
from the Tour Film DVD

"It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" [live in Toronto, 2001]

"The One I Love" [live, somewhere, recently]

"King Of Birds" [live, 1989]
from the Tour Film DVD

- BONUS: "Finest Worksong" [video]
- BONUS: "Disturbance At The Heron House" [live in West Virginia, 04.91]
- BONUS: "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" [video]
- BONUS: "The One I Love" [video]
- BONUS: "The One I Love" [live, 1989]
from the Tour Film DVD
- BONUS: "The One I Love" [live, 1994]
- BONUS: "The One I Love" [live in Toronto, 2001]
- BONUS: Document promotional video

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

[039] Gentlemen

Album: Gentlemen
Artist: The Afghan Whigs
Release Date: October 1993
Label: Elektra
Producer: Greg Dulli

"I'll warn you, if cornered,
I'll scratch my way out of the pen.
Wired, an animal,
The claustrophobia begins.
You think I'm scared of girls,
Well maybe but I'm not afraid of you.
You want to scare me
Then you'll cling to me no matter what I do."
- from "What Jail Is Like"

Sometimes I wonder why The Afghan Whigs weren't a bigger presence in 90's Rock. Part of it, I think, is because Greg Dulli's voice was kind of...not that good, in terms of staying on key, etc. Ya know, Mariah Carey he wasn't (thank god). In other ways, and in my personal opinion, his voice was cool as fuck, but rough is an understatement, and the charts don't like rough; wavering and cracking and careening from end to end, he was a bit of a loon, but he was the loon inside all men. And, having said that, his lyrics explored the darkest corners of the male psyche, the unabashedly sexual, the deviant, the power-hungry, the obsessive, the destructive, self- and otherwise. His words are the thoughts men keep from the women in their lives, the thoughts they rarely share with their buddies, the thoughts they are maybe ashamed of, or make them afraid of themselves. On "Debonair" he sings, "This ain't about regret, it's when I tell the truth", and we all know that, sometimes, the truth hurts. That's why they never broke big - the world can't handle, or doesn't want to admit to itself, that men really think like this.

The word of the day is Fuck. Gentlemen is an album that revolves around the many uses of the word. The relationship illustrated is supremely fucked up. In the traditional sense of the word, there is a lot of intercourse going on...
"Cause she wants love,
And I still want to fuck"
Unfortunately for the couple fucking, there isn't much romance involved any longer; the country-noir ballad "When We Two Parted" positions Dulli's asshole character, the one with the "dick for a brain" that will "sell his ass to you", actually showing remorse for once...
"Every night I spent in that bed with you facing the wall, if I could have only heard you scream, to feel you were alive instead of watching you abandoning yourself"
Not only is Gentlemen a chronicle of losing oneself, and the struggle to regain self-control, it is the chronicle of a man and a woman staying together in order to fuck each other over...
"And we dragged it out so long this time,
Started to make each other sick"
It is the ins and outs of hate-fucking; in "What Jail Is Like", he waves infidelity in her face like a challenge...
"This time the anger's better than the kiss"
They want to mind-fuck each other, to drive the other one to the brink, only to pull them back. The co-dependence is frightening, masquerading as love, but there's no love left. Only twisted addictions - heroin, roleplay, swinging - and it's the power over the other one that gets them off. Just as the psycho/melodrama gets to be too much to handle, Dulli's character ends it finally...
"We bit into a rotten one now didn't we?
Well, baby now it's through."
Oh, but wait, on the Soul cover "I Keep Coming Back", Dulli does just that, against his best judgement mind you. The self-destruction within the relationship is the real addiction, and the vicious cycle will continue to roll along.

One of the essential facets to The Whigs, and to Greg Dulli's songwriting specifically, is the acting involved. Dulli has always seen his music like aural films, eventually making moves to join an axis that included comedian Denis Leary, actor Donal Logue, and (the late) director Ted Demme, whose Beautiful Girls featured The Whigs both perfroming in the film and on the soundtrack. It's on Gentlemen that he perfects his cinematic craft; it's his breakout role, and an Oscar-worthy performance. Dulli's character(s) are so convincing that most critics in the 90's thought he really was this misanthropic, misogynistic male creature capable of unspeakable acts towards women. He was disturbed so much by his own lyrics for "My Curse" that he had to have Marcy Mays from Scrawl come in to sing them, presenting a distinctly male point of view in a female's voice, imagining the woman in this doomed relationship finding a letter or ripped-out journal entry tucked away at the back of her man's desk drawer. His lyrics were painted with an eye for emotional detail, stemming from his love for the classic songs of Motown and Stax and the hyper-detail of N.W.A. and Public Enemy.

But for Dulli, his biggest influences met on Gentlemen, producing the crossroads of The Whigs' sound. Before this album, when they were on Sub Pop Records, they had always been lumped in with that label's signature sound while in reality The Whigs were more of a Midwest band. Their drunken stupors were as unpredictible as The Replacements' were, and their sound really came straight from the Hüsker Dü school of buzzsaw punk. You can hear it in the sweltering heat coming from the chorus on "Be Sweet", swelling from the rush of blood to the crotch, and with "What Jail Is Like" in particular, the band produces probably the last Whigs song to hold on to that sound, sounding like an outtake from side 3 of Zen Arcade. The Minneapolis trio's sonic blueprint had carried the Whigs this far, and on Gentlemen it meshes with what would be the second phase of their career, dictated by Dulli's love of another Minneapolis native, Prince. The Purple One's unfiltered sexuality and all-encompassing artistry attracted Dulli, and the two albums that followed, Black Love and 1965, would both be towering Funk-Rock mini-movies in their own right. But the sound that the crossing over of sonic paths creates on this album is breathtaking, and has rarely been heard again.

Hinging on the the guitar interplay of Rick McCollum and Dulli, they built swirling riffs that were both soaked in the grungy distortion of the age and teetering on the Blaxploitation wah-wah pedals of the 70's. It was Soul-Punk of the highest order. "Debonair" starts as straight up Funk, but the slide into darkness reveals the truth. The combination of the sounds results in a sort of inversion of the Joy Division sound, equally harrowing but crowded where JD was spacious. The pleading insecurity of "Fountain And Fairfax" is the mirror image of "Debonair", starting instead as the kind of tribal thump that Mudhoney might have pounded out before exploding into a full Superfly movement. The second that the title tracks slams into you, you can't help but be moved physically by its off-kilter momentum, produced by the vastly underrated rhythm section of bassist John Curley and drummer Steve Earle, and the chorus just grabs you by the lapels and tosses you back and forth. McCollum's slurred solo is a punch in the mouth, and the way he bends his notes here and throughout the album, to echo Dulli's odd voice, is a genius move. Likewise, "When We Two Parted" and "Now We Know" feature McCollum's signature weeping slide guitar which would be a highlight in the band's discography from here on. The movie score string section on the instrumental closer further points towards the band's future, and their ambition set them apart from the rest of the Grunge pack that they continuously got thrown in with. But do yourself a favor, and brave the wild ride that is The Afghan Whigs' Gentlemen; don't be afraid of the "slobbering" man at the microphone. To quote Dulli himself, "I'm not the man my actions would suggest."

01. "If I Were Going"
02. "Gentlemen"
03. "Be Sweet"
04. "Debonair"
05. "When We Two Parted"
06. "Fountain And Fairfax"
07. "What Jail Is Like"
08. "My Curse" [feat. Marcy Mays]
09. "Now You Know"
10. "I Keep Coming Back"
11. "Brother Woodrow/Closing Prayer"

"Gentlemen" [video]

"Debonair" [video]

- BONUS: "Gentlemen" [live at the 1994 Reading Festival]
- BONUS: "Debonair" [live at the 1994 Reading Festival]
- BONUS: "Fountain And Fairfax" [live in Germany, 1998]
- BONUS: "When We Two Parted" [audio]

I usually like to leave the treasure hunting to each person's discretion, but since there is a distinct lack of video out in the ether...
- The Afghan Whigs on Hype Machine

Monday, October 29, 2007

[040] Is This It

Album: Is This It
Artist: The Strokes
Release Date: Aug. '01 [UK], Oct. '01 [US; delayed due to the 9/11 WTC attack]
Label: RCA
Producer: Gordon Raphael

"'Come on and listen to what I say
I've got some secrets that'll make you stay'
I just want to turn you down
I just want to turn you around
Oh, you ain't never had nothin' I wanted, but
I want it all, I just can't figure out...
- from "Barely Legal"

My first instinct for this entry was to have a one line review that read:
"Because it's a perfect album."

But you don't come here for my opinion, you come here for why my opinion should matter to you. That goes for all blogs; that's why people read them - to feel a connection, like someone else might feel the way they do. But few people feel the way I do about Is This It. Hmmmm, how do I put this? Let's say, in general, I am a fan of music and not the musician, which is to say if I like a band's music, I try to not become a zealot defender of the artist (The prime example I've ever encountered are female Smashing Pumpkins fans who think Billy Corgan is God, but that is a story for another day). Friends of mine might argue this fact having heard my support of, say, Queens of the Stone Age or Ghostface Killah or Spoon, but I'd never claim them to be the greatest thing since sliced bread (that would be Radiohead), and with The Strokes, I'd never try and tell anyone that Julian is the next John Lennon, who was really just a regular guy himself. For me, it has always been about this album alone. Beyond it, I enjoy the other two albums, I think they're good, but only a few songs really light my ass on fire like the entirety of Is This It.

I was already on the edge of my seat from the moment I got The Modern Age EP early in '01, badgering the BMG representative for an advance copy of the album as soon as he got it. He came through - the cardboard slipcase, with the original tracklist and cover, oh how I treasured it so. If you were around me between August 2001 and February 2002, then you heard this album in my presence; there is no doubt. I played that thing EVERY DAY for six months. My personal best was nine times in one day. It's just that kind of album - when it's over you want to play it again. Unfortunately, for the rest of the world, The Strokes were built up as the Greatest Show on Earth, and so the backlash was swift and full from both the small-minded who were OK with re-warmed grunge and watered-down nu metal and the impossible-to-please hipster who was too obsessed over whether they had trust funds and bought the old Coney Island High punk club. People wanted the next Stones, Velvets, Television, Ramones, Nirvana, Pavement, or whatever, when the first Strokes should have been good enough.

They just weren't interested in being that...artistic. They wanted to be a Rock band with some good tunes. Actually, the argument I made at the time was on a much smaller scale: The Strokes were simply the male Go-Go's. You may laugh, but The Go-Go's debut is one of the most underrated albums of the 1980's, and like the girl group, The Strokes excelled at making basic Pop music sound like the greatest Rock & Roll you ever heard. They were not alone; there was a lineage. If you want to force the Strokes into any bloodline, don't look towards the garage, look at your radio. Early Beatles & Kinks, Cheap Trick, Blondie, The Pretenders, The Jam, The Cars, and yes, Tom Petty were all contributors to The Strokes' gene pool. Is This It starts with the riff from the Pixies' "Where Is My Mind" over the beat from Oasis' "Supersonic"; clearly they weren't trying to be Aphex Twin, or even the Glimmer Twins. And just because The Strokes wore leather jackets and didn't wash their hair doesn't mean they were Punk saviors, and just because they got fall-down drunk every night didn't mean that they weren't the tightest band around. The way the four musicians and one voice were interwoven with each other was tighter than an untouched vagina. By the time they entered the studio to record these songs The Strokes knew them inside and out.

It has been said that one of the most important things to the presentation of Rock lyrics is to be just unintelligible enough; you want to keep people guessing. Julian found a way to be that without sacrificing clarity; for the most part, his words are clear and all the messages find their way to your brain, except those messages are only half-complete. The singer provides no easy answers, just fragments; it's like that website, Overheard in NY. Every song is like hearing only one side of a phone conversation, even with Julian’s distorted vocal effect. A song like the title track is so one sided as to not even give a hint about what is going on. There's always a WTF moment coming around the bend, like in "Last Nite", a song we've all heard countless times now, when Julian slips in that "In spaceships, they won't understand"; oh really, care to elaborate? How 'bout that part in "NYC Cops" - "They act like Romans, but they dress like Turks" - or in "Barely Legal", the part about the "new trenchcoat"? Yeah, I got nothing, but that's the point. It's been six fuckin' years since this album came out, and it still plays fresh because those mysteries will likely never be solved. Julian knows this, and so he continues to spin more yarns.

Maybe he knows he can't write from the woman's perspective, or maybe he's not that presumptuous, but the masculinity on display is very specific, enough to seem sexy yet affable, but not too much as to come off macho, a factor that was lacking in Rock at the time. If you hang in NYC, think back to the nightlife of the time, and how it's nothing like the Lower East Side or Williamsburg is now. The Strokes and their low-lit tales let the debauchery out of the bag, and now everyone and everywhere wants to be Last Night's Party. And it's in those settings that Julian's vague scenes take place. Most of the songs are about some sort of relationship malfunction, even if that relationship is only a few hours old and fueled by alcohol (This of course made The Strokes look achingly cool, being perpetually inebriated). All the female points of view are second hand: "She says, 'I'm not like that'", "Maya says I'm lacking in depth", "Lisa says, 'Take time for me'", "Nina's in the bedroom; she said 'Time to go now'". Julian puts you on the barstool next to him and cries a bit into his lager, making him just sensitive enough, but then remembers to mention going back to that other girl's place last night.

Julian puts himself out there as the softy to make his band look tougher. The Strokes' songs on Is This It are essentially Pop songs, but they play rough, and I guess that's what most people reacted to. For me, it was an unexplained sweet spot in my musical brain, somehow just missed by all the bands I mentioned above; a little spot of sonic territory left untouched that they jumped on. I honestly don't like to use band equation to describe new bands, but that was the position that The Strokes were put in. Just because Nick and Albert have interlocking guitar parts and are from NYC doesn't mean they sound like Television; if you actually listen, they actually play more like Slash and Izzy on Appetite. Nikolai is clearly Soul-influenced; he makes "Someday" a great Motown throwback. Fab is a sloppy metronome, if that's possible (though he sounds precise enough on "Hard To Explain" to make some think it was a drum machine), and he keeps it simple, almost never using his crash cymbal; the way he switches from straight 4-4 to a shuffle and back, riding the ride, on "Trying Your Luck" is brilliant in its subtly. The Strokes can definitely wail when needed. "NYC Cops" rocks particularly hard, and Fab links up with Julian, double-dutching all over the end of "Soma". Nick's tasty mini-solo on "The Modern Age" is one of my favorites of all time, and Albert bests him, closing "Take It Or Leave It" with a serrated tone that slices right through everything. Best of all is the double climax of "Alone, Together"; its bloodsucker possibly a thinly-veiled reference to Julian's high-powered father, they take a run through the chorus one more time before unleashing a torrential solo and coda.

Beyond all the hype, The Strokes can now be seen as the great Pop band they were, with enough Rock to satisfy the boys. Is This It is one of the leanest albums of all time - I think I've used the word 'enough' more than any other in this entry, to convey the restraint on display - cutting the fat from bloated Alternative concept acts and over-produced Pop products to give the world something it hadn't had in a while: a band everyone could dig. Is This It will outlive the band, because it has everything that you'd want in a Rock & Roll record, everything the music is based on. That's what's important. That's why it's perfect.

01. "Is This It"
02. "The Modern Age"
03. "Soma"
04. "Barely Legal"
05. "Someday"
06. "Alone, Together"
07. "Last Nite"
08. "Hard To Explain"
09. "New York City Cops"
10. "Trying Your Luck"
11. "Take It Or Leave It"
This is the original version of the album, available everywhere but in the US, where "New York City Cops" is replaced by the song "When It Started".

"Barely Legal" [live on MTV, 02.02]

"Last Nite" [video]

"Hard To Explain" [live on Leno]

"Take It Or Leave It" [live on Letterman]

- BONUS: "Is This It" [live on MTV, 02.02]
- BONUS: "The Modern Age" [video/live on MTV, 02.02]
- BONUS: "The Modern Age" [live on Conan O'Brien, 11.01]
- BONUS: "Soma" [live on MTV, 02.02]
- BONUS: "Barely Legal" [live at Radio City Music Hall]
- BONUS: "Someday" [video]
This is what Rock stardom gets you: Slash & Duff are your drinking buddies, and you get to play The Feud against Guided By Voices.
- BONUS: "Someday" [live on Letterman]
- BONUS: "Someday" [live on Conan O'Brien]
- BONUS: "Alone, Together" [live on MTV, 02.02]
- BONUS: "Last Nite" [live on SNL]
- BONUS: "Hard To Explain" [video]
- BONUS: "Hard To Explain" [live on SNL]
- BONUS: "New York City Cops" [live on MTV, 02.02]
- BONUS: "New York City Cops" [live at Radio City Music Hall]
with Jack White on guitar
- BONUS: "When It Started" [live on MTV, 02.02]
- BONUS: "Trying Your Luck" [live on MTV, 02.02]
- BONUS: "Take It Or Leave It" [live on MTV, 02.02]
- SUPER BONUS: 27-minute set [live in NYC, 04.00]
Early set at Arlene's Grocery

Saturday, October 27, 2007

[041] AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted
(or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb Squad, Part 2)

Album: AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted
Artist: Ice Cube
Release Date: May 1990
Label: Priority
Producers: The Bomb Squad, Sir Jinx & Ice Cube

“I heard payback's a muthafucking nigga
That's why I'm sick of gettin’ treated like a goddamn stepchild
Fuck a punk cuz I ain't him
You gotta deal with the nine-double-M
The damn scum that you all hate
Just think if niggas decide to retaliate
They try to keep me from running up
I never tell you to get down, it's all about coming up
So what they do? Go and ban the AK
My shit wasn't registered any-fucking-way
So you better duck away, run and hide out
When I'm rolling real slow and the lights out
Cuz I'm about to fuck up the program
Shooting out the window of a drop-top Brougham
When I'm shooting let's see who drop
The police, the media, and suckers that went Pop
And muthafuckers that say they’re too black
Put ‘em overseas, they be begging to come back
They say keep ‘em on gangs and drugs
You wanna sweep a nigga like me up under the rug
Kicking shit called street knowledge
Why more niggas in the pen than in college?
Now cuz of that line I might be your cellmate
That's from the nigga ya love to hate”
- from “The Nigga Ya Love To Hate”

More than any other rapper, Ice Cube is probably the prime example of the commercial possibilities of Hip-Hop. He grew from being the angriest 18-year-old ever on wax, to a hero for potheads, to a family movie institution. If the parents that took their kids to his movies heard AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, they'd be rioting out of the multiplexes. When he escaped from the unhealthy situation that N.W.A. had become, he refused to become just another gangsta on record. He instead turned his attention to detail on the entire country, from corrupt law enforcement and a faulty justice system to gold diggers, drug dealers, pimps, and homies from around the way. AmeriKKKa’s Most is an album full of the American hypocrisy that was apparent to the ghetto youth of the late 80’s, and that went a long way to fueling the Golden Age of Hip-Hop. The fact that N.W.A. continued after the Ice Cube split is pretty perplexing; Cube wrote so much of the lyrics on Straight Outta Compton, you had to know their creativity would suffer. But honestly, no one was really caring; everyone knew Ice Cube was, for that brief moment, the best MC in the world, and so he went and got the best producers to make his solo debut. The Bomb Squad put their all into making AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted one of the best Hip-Hop albums of all time, but for some reason, seventeen years on, unless you’re a head, a connoisseur, then you probably don’t know it ever existed. It went double platinum and routinely shows up on greatest of all-time lists in Hip-Hop mags, but it didn’t have any hit singles and the couple low-budget videos didn’t get any substantial airplay, and even now you never hear of young kids discovering it. But while the world is dismissing Cube as a Rap relic, putting out albums when he doesn’t really need to anymore, and pointing and laughing at Are We Done Yet?, I guarantee you that rappers are still studying this textbook on emceeing; Cube’s style is so broad, you can hear future strains of 2Pac, Nas, Biggie, Redman, Outkast, Xzibit, Ludacris and Lil’ Wayne.

Despite still being the primary critical talking point for the album, The Bomb Squad’s production is not as ubiquitous as everyone remembers. The key to the album’s brilliant funk tapestry is that Cube’s Lench Mob producer, Sir Jinx produces just as much of the album; now I wasn’t in the studio, so I don’t know if Sir Jinx was learning his tricks from the Shocklee brothers, but the element that separates AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted from Fear Of A Black Planet is that bass – the kind that West Coast Hip-Hop is built on. Public Enemy’s classic is a treble monster, needles in the red, but Cube and Sir Jinx’s feel for the cruising grooves that were paramount for West Coast rappers, the kind that Dr. Dre would perfect on The Chronic, made this album a woofer-challenger. Right off the bat, “The Nigga Ya Love To Hate” is obviously a Bomb Squad production, but the late 70’s Funk samples immediately stick out more. If The Bomb Squad brought one thing, it was a sustained fast tempo. They looked at Cube’s success on the brisk pace of “Straight Outta Compton”, and so their tracks move faster than most Hip-Hop out at the time; and Cube excels, spitting clear and concise at rapid-fire speed. The bravest decision that both the Squad and Jinx made is to change up beats mid-verse. They must have had a glut of beats, because even in the 90-second “What They Hittin’ Foe”, the beat changes three times. There are sirens, gun shots, and people yelling and screaming throughout; the foot-chase at the end of “Endangered Species” is terrifying. The combined effect of all these different approaches is an album with the chaotic menace of a riot.

Ice Cube’s style is equally menacing. At the time of its release, AmeriKKKa’s Most was the most incredible statement from a single MC yet in Hip-Hop. What I mean is that Chuck D had to share the spotlight with Flav and The Bomb Squad, Rakim shared the spotlight with Eric. B, and Slick Rick and LL Cool J were hitting good, but never this good. Cube rhymes full of ferocious cynicism, blacker-than-black humor, uplifting social perspective, and depressing misogyny, working on a cerebral level that is way beyond his 21 years of age. Even on the cover, he’s been scowling for so many years that he looks aged. Even now, as a 38-year-old superstar playing light in movies, he still kinda looks mad all the time. On this album, he had plenty to be mad about. His opening verse [at the top] illustrates exactly his point throughout the album – just because he’s done some criminal shit in his past, doesn’t mean that allows The Man and Black bourgeoisie to run in the ghetto, doing some fucked up hypocritical and counter-productive shit when Cube’s gone and rehabilitated himself and elevated his mind. He knows his stance is unpopular, that’s why the chorus that follows that verse is “Fuck you, Ice Cube!” His criticism of Los Angeles’s bizarro microcosm of America is sharper here than anywhere else; on the title track, he furthers his exposé on the blatant racism by police, noting, “I think back to when I was robbing my own kind, the police didn’t pay it no mind; But when I start robbing the White folks, now I’m in the pen with the soap-on-a-rope."

Even when he’s not dismantling the legal problems of the ghetto, he’s studying the sociology of the harsh characters that inhabit it, and the fact that they have their hypocrisies too. “Who’s The Mack” exposes the two-faced nature of the ghetto male, while on the skit “The Drive-By”, the “hard” gang members are setting off violence to Young MC’s cheesy classic “Bust A Move”; it predates the similar moment in the film A Bronx Tale, when C’s racist friends are preparing for violence to the sounds of Jimi Hendrix on the car radio. The firestorm that descended because of “You Can’t Fade Me” was no surprise – Cube contemplates kicking a pregnant woman in the stomach to cause a miscarriage – but the attention on the portrayal of the expecting gold digger overshadowed Cube’s essential message about unchecked pregnancy in the ghetto and the responsibilities that go along with parenthood. On the battle-of-the-sexes “It’s A Man’s World”, Cube plays the misogynist to the hilt in order to give Yo-Yo ammo to speak the women’s point of view, and she slays like a pro.

The masterpiece “Once Upon A Time In The Projects” pulls all the album’s themes together into one lazing funk tune. In the tale, Cube goes to pick up a girl, but is depressed by everything his eye catches; the parenting is atrocious – Mom is a crack dealer with a shotgun who’s smoking a joint, the brother is gang-banging, the baby is walking around sick, with a dirty diaper, the younger sister is “only 13 and already pregnant”, and the boys hanging out in the parking lot are always getting too high. When the cops bust in, it’s a case of wrong place-wrong time, and Cube paints the officers as being as ignorant as the parent. It’s here that you learn Cube’s overarching point – life in ghetto is a case of wrong place at the wrong time in and of itself – and even if you have to initially take some crap from resistant forces, getting out is of the utmost importance for any intelligent youth looking to make something of their lives. Cube made it out by playing the system, honing his acting by portraying the angry ghetto youth (he was filming Boyz N The Hood around the same time he was making this album), simultaneously holding up a mirror to all the horrible contradictions of his home.

"The Nigga Ya Love To Hate" [audio]

"Once Upon A Time In The Projects" [audio]

"Who's The Mack?" [video]

- BONUS: "You Can't Fade Me" [audio]
- BONUS: "A Gangsta's Fairytale" [audio/fan video]
- BONUS: "It's A Man's World" [audio]

Friday, October 26, 2007

[042] Fear Of A Black Planet
(or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb Squad, Part 1)

Album: Fear Of A Black Planet
Artist: Public Enemy
Release Date: March 1990
Label: Def Jam/Columbia
Producers: The Bomb Squad (Hank Shocklee, Carl Ryder [Chuck D], Eric "Vietnam" Sadler & Keith Shocklee)

"I got so much trouble on my mind
I refuse to lose
Here's your ticket
Hear the drummer get wicked"
- from "Welcome To The Terrordome"

By the dawn of the 1990’s, Public Enemy was firmly entrenched at the head of the Hip-Hop line; to use a high school analogy, they were both the quarterback and the valedictorian. It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back had been called the greatest Hip-Hop album of all time almost from the moment it was released, and their eye-popping videos and energetic live show made them stars by word of mouth alone (because, as Chuck D said, “Radio – suckers never play me”). Then came the summer of 1989, Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, and P.E.’s “Fight The Power”, which was on the film’s soundtrack. “Fight The Power”, and Lee’s famous block party video for the song, made P.E. household names across the land. Everyone was waiting with baited breath to see where they could possibly go next. What they got was Fear Of A Black Planet, an album that was infinitely more aggressive and noisy, disrupting any comfort zone that possibly could have been gleaned from the urban nightmares of Nation Of Millions, and replacing it with tirades on global race relations and an orchestrated cacophony of second-hand aural shrapnel.

Chuck D was so angry on this album that the genius flow that fans came to expect almost broke apart upon re-entry, his uncontrollable frustration spraying venom and vitriol every which way on at least half of his tracks, words spit in short, stream of consciousness blurts. The frenetic “Power To The People” consists more of chants of unity and calls to arms than actual lyrics. But where at first it might sound like he lost focus, it soon becomes clear that his style has just changed to a more off-beat flow. Chuck sounds even tighter on the lightspeed “War At 33 1/3” and the sincere ode to the females, “Revolutionary Generation”. “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” sets the table with Chuck’s assertion that P.E. will “make you all jump along to the education”, speaking out on Black males not only taking responsibility for their own stations in life (“Teach a man how to be a father, to never tell a woman he can’t bother”), but also going further to excelling in a world controlled by The Man (“Our stories - real history, not His story”). Even Flavor Flav has grown past his clown act, contributing the biting cynicism of “911 Is A Joke”. As the album title suggests, these songs mostly concern the state of Black/White race relations, especially in an America where P.E. had played in front of arenas full of White, Midwestern farm teens fascinated by this new rebel music called Rap. And so the epic single “Welcome To The Terrordome” must’ve confused those new fans, backing Chuck’s paranoid soliloquy with wave after wave of confident, booming Funk.

Considered retroactively, “Fight The Power” is obviously Public Enemy’s essential moment, so it’s no surprise to see it included here (in a slightly different version – without Branford Marsalis’ original saxophone solo) as the grand finale. After their collaboration with Spike Lee, the two artists seemed to parallel one another; the title track and “Pollywanacraka” dissect interracial couples like Lee’s Jungle Fever would just a year later, and Chuck admits to being conflicted, taking the position that “God put us all here” so “there should not be any hatred”, but also worrying that “the devil split us in pairs, and taught us White is good, Black is bad”. Likewise, “Burn Hollywood Burn” steps right to the movie business, critiquing the exploitation of Blacks throughout the history of film and encouraging more filmmakers like Spike to pick up cameras; years later, the director would release Bamboozled, which contained the same themes, and even featured an updated version of the song.

Fear Of A Black Planet was the third and final P.E. album produced by The Bomb Squad, quite assuredly the most groundbreaking studio team in the history of Hip-Hop. Still in the heyday of sampling, they followed 1989’s two landmarks, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High & Rising and the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, with tracks that could do nothing but raise the bar into the stratosphere. “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” tends to get most of the attention, and it should; not only has it been rare to hear anyone sample Prince (Arrested Development’s “Tennessee” is the only other example I can think of off the top of my head), the fact that The Bomb Squad snatched just a few licks from the molten lava guitar solo at the end of “Let’s Go Crazy” and built an entire song on it is still mindblowing. “Burn Hollywood Burn” is equally so, with layer upon layer of jackhammer percussion. Even as I use key words like ‘layer’ and ‘cacophony’ and ‘booming’, The Bomb Squad was breaking barriers and reaching out to the national scene; on “Reggie Jax”, Chuck D gives respect to Houston’s Geto Boys and LA’s Ice-T, and both of their syrupy sounds influence slower P.E. tracks like “Polly” and “Reggie”. The Bomb Squad keeps piling on the samples, the guitars and drums fall on top of each other, horns and whistles rip the space, Terminator X elbows his way in to raise the threat level with his scratches; theirs is Frankenstein music. Close to one hundred songs are sampled across Fear Of A Black Planet, each sliver tweaked, morphed, and molded into something wholly new. It is, essentially, the sound of New York City at its busiest, and it forms the backbone of a classic album by one of the few Hip-Hop artists that will never go away, no matter how much The Man tries to shut them down.

01. "Contract On The World Love Jam" [interlude]
02. "Brothers Gonna Work It Out"
03. "911 Is A Joke"
04. "Incident At 66.6FM" [interlude]
05. "Welcome To The Terrordome"
06. "Meet The G That Killed Me [interlude]
07. "Pollywanacraka"
08. "Anti-Nigger Machine"
09. "Burn Hollywood Burn" [feat. Ice Cube & Big Daddy Kane]
10. "Power To The People"
11. "Who Stole The Soul?"
12. "Fear Of A Black Planet"
13. "Revolutionary Generation"
14. "Can't Do Nuttin' For Ya Man"
15. "Reggie Jax" [interlude]
16. "Leave This Off Your Fuckin' Charts"
17. "B Side Wins Again"
18. "War At 33 1/3"
19. "Final Count Of The Collision Between Us And The Damned" [interlude]
20. "Fight The Power [remix]"

"Brothers Gonna Work It Out" [video]

"911 Is A Joke" [video]
Nice to see Samuel L. Jackson was getting work

"Welcome To The Terrordome/Bring The Noise" [live in Paris, 04.07]

"Burn Hollywood Burn" [single mix - video]

- BONUS: "911 Is A Joke" [live in Paris, 04.07]
- BONUS: "Welcome To The Terrordome" [instrumental video]
There was so much controversy surrounding the temporary firing of Professor Griff and then the release of this single, that the band released an instrumental video to make a statement about censorship. It was still banned.
- BONUS: "Can't Do Nuttin' For Ya Man" [video]
- BONUS: "Fight The Power" [video - full version]

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

[043] Bee Thousand

Album: Bee Thousand
Artist: Guided By Voices
Release Date: June 1994
Label: Scat [reissued on Matador]
Producers: Guided By Voices

“I am a lost soul, I shoot myself with Rock & Roll
The hole I dig is bottomless, but nothing else can set me free
And I know what’s right,
But I’m losing sight of the clues
For which I search and choose to abuse
To just unlock my mind,
Yeah, just unlock my mind”
- from “I Am A Scientist”

I would love to know the guy that “found” Guided By Voices, in that moment in 1992, 93, 94. What was the tipping point? What forced them out of the basement into the light? Did a college journalist see them in a bar or at a county fair, and he or she was blown away by Robert Pollard’s Roger Daltrey act, all mic swinging and high kicks? Did the crowd stand in awe of their alcohol consumption? Or was it just some kid down at the local record store in Dayton, Ohio, who found their cassette which was there on consignment? Guided By Voices got “famous” on the back of Pollard’s songwriting, but understand that they could be Any Band, from Anytown, USA. They are the muffled, primitive noise coming from your neighbor’s closed garage after school. They are the scrappy losers that you ignore on the corner stage in your sports bar. They are you and your friends picking up guitars and just hanging out. Guided By Voices are timeless because they aren’t really special. They aren’t studio geniuses. They aren’t mad artistes. They’re just some guys in jeans, with beers in one hand, comic books in the other, and The Who on their turntable. Shit, they probably even have a wannabe Roger Dean painting on the side of their beat up van.

For most people, Bee Thousand (sounds like ‘Pete Townshend’, get it?) was the first time they heard of GBV; it spread like a rumor from one low-watt college radio station to the next on legends of the band drinking more PBR than that frat down the road. But GBV had existed in various forms for twelve years at that point, and they had put out six albums only a few people in the Midwest had ever heard. Rob Pollard and the rest of his buddies were just recording their stuff for fun, on tape recorders and cheap 4-tracks. They couldn’t be bothered with expensive studios; if they wanted to play, they’d just invite each other to hang out, and whoever showed up was in the band for that day. It wasn’t like Pollard was gonna quit being a fourth grade teacher for Rock & Roll. Besides, he wanted to build a family of his own now - Bee Thousand was supposed to be the band’s swan song, the surrender of a prolific poet to his 30-something reality. But it wasn’t to be; his songs were too good to not get noticed by someone somewhere. Instead of retiring from Rocking, they retired from day job hell. Guided By Voices was their job now, and they had a classic album to tour in support of.

To hear Bee Thousand and to have seen GBV in concert were two totally different experiences. The live show was a marathon, a test to see how devoted you really were to Rock & Roll; the album was a sprint, 20 short bursts in 37 minutes. I remember listening to the album for the first time, and I thought I missed something. But GBV could wring more pop perfection out of 90 seconds than most bands could in a whole album, and each album Guided By Voices released was like a mixtape filled with forgotten bands from your best friend. It’s up to debate if Bee Thousand was the best; some others like Alien Lanes or Under The Bushes, etc. But as most of their albums are so hit-or-miss simply because they cram them so full with so many songs, Bee Thousand has the highest batting average, with only the post-punk experiment “Her Psychology Today” warranting a meet between your index finger and the ‘next’ button. Also, Bee Thousand was the first to be found and it was rightly regarded as a treasure from the start. Pollard’s lyrics immediately twist your brain as the wistful “Hardcore UFO’s” wafts in; his fragmented statements and stories burrow their way into your brain like that Lewis Black joke – “If it wasn’t for my horse, I wouldn’t have spent that year in college” – and you wonder for days, months, maybe years, what the hell Pollard is talking about. The power ballad “Tractor Rape Chain” is one of the album’s enduring highlights, and I can surmise that the verses are about one of Bob’s favorite subjects, trust issues, but can someone tell me what the hell is a tractor rape chain??!!? Hey look, even as I type this, MS Word is giving me the squiggly, green bad-grammar line! The program and I have no idea, but what I can tell you is I walk around humming the song for days after I hear it.

Most of the songs are too short (“You’re Not An Airplane” is 33 seconds long), and Pollard too much of a lyrical scatterbrain, art-damaged beat poet disciple (“Hot Freaks” is one of his best rants), to really form a specific narrative, but they know it doesn’t matter much; “Louie Louie” and “Wooly Bully” weren’t exactly Dylan, but they killed anyway. Because of the opaque lyrics, built more on how the words sound together, a lot of the tracks work as perfect little Pop mood pieces. “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” begins as hushed folk before the fuzzy guitar clashes with a recorder (probably borrowed from Bob’s school). “Kicker Of Elves” recalls “Pinball Wizard” while simultaneously predicting Spoon and The Futureheads. The jangle of “Echos Myron” sounds like The La’s “There She Goes” played too fast. “Buzzards & Dreadful Crows” and “Smothered In Hugs” are anthemic bar-band fare, “Gold Star For Robot Boy” their Power-Pop cousin. Then there’s the melancholy introspection of “I Am A Scientist”, one of GBV’s certified classic tunes, if not THE classic. Pollard shoots straight, accepting his fate in the grand scheme of the things; it’s a heartbreaking masterpiece of self-deprecation and self-examination, with the simple arrangement echoing the uncertainty of the narrator. It’s a beautiful song, and it was the turning point of the band’s story… Their story is the secret history of Rock & Roll, representing for all the thousands of garage bands that last past high school, but never escape their hometown scene and the slow death of a 9-to-5. Guided By Voices escaped at the last minute, but, having given the world Bee Thousand and thousands more songs in the name of the part-time rockers working at the office or the factory, they get to kick back now. They might even meet you at happy hour and raise a glass in Rock & Roll’s honor, and toast to the next unknown to emerge from the basement.

01. “Hardcore UFO’s”
02. “Buzzards And Dreadful Crows”
03. “Tractor Rape Chain”
04. “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory”
05. “Hot Freaks”
06. “Smothered In Hugs”
07. “Yours To Keep”
08. “Echos Myron”
09. “Gold Star For Robot Boy”
10. “Awful Bliss”
11. “Mincer Ray”
12. “A Big Fan Of The Pigpen”
13. “Queen Of Cans And Jars”
14. “Her Psychology Today”
15. “Kicker Of Elves”
16. “Ester’s Day”
17. “Demons Are Real”
18. “I Am A Scientist”
19. “Peep-Hole”
20. “You’re Not An Airplane”

"I Am A Scientist" [video]

"Tractor Rape Chain" [live, 2001]

- BONUS: "Buzzards & Dreadful Crows" [live in St. Paul, 06.04]
- BONUS: "Smothered In Hugs" [live in Chicago, New Year's Eve 2004]
from the band's final live performance
- BONUS: "Queen Of Cans & Jars" [excerpt - live in St. Paul, 06.04]

[044] The Soft Bulletin

Album: The Soft Bulletin
Artist: The Flaming Lips
Release Date: May 1999
Label: Warner Bros.
Producer: The Flaming Lips & Dave Fridmann, with Scott Booker and Peter Mokran

"Will the fight for out sanity be the fight of our lives now that we've lost all the reasons that we thought we had?"
- from "The Gash"

When The Flaming Lips started recording The Soft Bulletin, they were, to most of America, a forgettable one hit wonder, another in a very long line of underground bands snatched up major labels in the Alternative boom, and done a disservice by having their most novel of novelty songs pushed to MTV as Buzz Bin fodder. No one would have ever predicted that The Lips would go from being a band that seemed like barely-there acid casualties fascinated by all the buttons, knobs, and pretty lights in the studio to being one of America's best bands, sonic visionaries capable of overwhelming joy and intense beauty. To me, it all starts with singer Wayne Coyne's transformation into a salt-&-peppered monarch butterfly of psychedelic Rock. Coyne's stage presence is so engaging, charming, and heartwarming, you want him to win; his infectious joy wills you into liking his band's music. It's no matter that his voice is thin and strained. His lack of training is endearing, like he walked in off the street and right up to the mic. He makes up for his shortcomings with fake theater blood, confetti, hand puppets, and light shows, fist in the air as if to say 'Power to the people, love to everyone, everywhere'. He's the aging Rock never-was that might just find success by the time his hair makes it all the way to gray. His songs are childlike in their innocence and curiosity, universal and exploratory. He renders everyday experiences in bright colors, big shapes, and basic emotions. The Soft Bulletin is painted in big, thick strokes, but every stroke was carefully considered; it sounds like a widescreen Disney production of The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour, like if The Band had made The Dark Side Of The Moon, if The Flaming Lips made their best album. It is both an artistic breakthrough and masterpiece.

Coyne writes lyrics like a children's book, full of zoo animals and talking insects; on Bulletin, he maps out human nature and adult responsibility in ways a child could learn from. Despite purposefully working in simple states, this is an adult writing about adult things. "Race For The Prize" opens with a story of two scientists by positioning their goal, "The cure that is the prize", against the consequences; "Theirs is to win if it kills them. They're just humans with wives and children." The scientists sacrifice their families for the greater good, and in "A Spoonful Weighs A Ton", they selfishly regret the sacrifice, having given
"more than they had". It wasn't enough that they stunned their doubters and won the love of millions, "lifted up the Sun", and had shown the possibilities of their success to be infinite. I know you've forgotten that I'm talking about two Pop songs. Steve Drozd's drums echo the infinity, crashing down to Earth with the force of the heavens; the pianos and harps and flutes twinkle like the stars, while strings, real and canned, are conducted with sweeping elegance. When Michael Ivins' bass and Drozd's beat land on "Spoonful" at 1:23, you'd think that aliens are attacking. "Buggin'" is a cyclical treat; apparently when Coyne's not spinning some Shel Silverstein, he's flipping some Dr. Suess nursery rhymes. The fragile ballad "The Spiderbite Song", inexplicably left off the UK version of the album, is a confessional that aims to be the emotional core of Bulletin; Coyne lays out examples of devoted friendship in touching odes to his band members, addressing personal ordeals like Drozd's near-amputation of his arm due to heroin abuse and Ivins' miraculous survival of a horrifying car accident.

Revisiting the scientific motif in regards to life issues, the cosmic "What Is The Light?" strives to explain love from a chemical standpoint, and the worried
"Waitin' For A Superman" wonders aloud about the weight of the world's problems as a whole. The epic "The Spark That Bled" conceals its true message of defiance and confidence behind a chugging pastiche of classic Rock, while on the episodic "Suddenly Everything Has Changed", Coyne tackles the inevitability of aging vs. the triviality of everyday tasks. One of the album's grandest statements, "The Gash" is a meditation on the will to continue in the face of adversity. The music that accompanies it is bombast at its best; a battery of horns muscle their way in, making room for operatic flourishes reminiscent of early Queen to fight for attention with a booming beat that would sound at home on a KRS-One album. The album's climactic message of love comes as the acoustic lullaby "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate", tucked into a bed of human beatboxing, dreamy guitars & choirs, and organ hanging like a glow-in-the-dark mobile. The Flaming Lips packed The Soft Bulletin with songs fat with gorgeous orchestrations, lush and pristine production, and a wealth of positivity for their fellow man, all delivered with such verve and strength of spirit that you can't help but love it. It's an irresistible gift from the least likely band. And it's as much a joy to receive as I'm sure it was to give.

01. "Race For The Prize [remix]"
02. "A Spoonful Weighs A Ton"
03. "The Spark That Bled"
04. "The Spiderbite Song"
05. "Buggin' [remix]"
06. "What Is The Light?"
07. "The Observer"
08. "Waitin' For A Superman"
09. "Suddenly Everything Has Changed"
10. "The Gash"
11. "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate"
12. "Sleeping On The Roof"
13. "Race For The Prize"
14. "Waitin' For A Superman [remix]"
* This is the US version of the album; the UK version contains the original "Buggin'" instead of the remix, and omits "The Spiderbite Song" in favor of a track called "Slow Motion".

"Race For The Prize" [live at the Oklahoma City Zoo]
from the DVD UFO's At The Zoo

"A Spoonful Weighs A Ton" [live in St. Louis, 08.06]

"The Spark That Bled" [live on HBO's Reverb, 1999]

"Waitin' For A Superman" [video]

- BONUS: "Race For The Prize" [video]
- BONUS: "Buggin'" [live & acoustic in Toronto, 09.06]
- BONUS: "The Gash" [live in NYC, 04.06]
- BONUS: "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate" [live in London, 10.99]

Monday, October 22, 2007

[045] Doolittle

Album: Doolittle
Artist: Pixies
Release Date: April 1989
Label: 4AD/Elektra
Producer: Gil Norton

"We're apin', rapin', tapin' catharsis..."
- from "Dead"

I hope this will be interesting - I like to share my thought process every once in a while so you guys know where I'm coming from, and reassure myself that I'm not out of my mind for dropping a classic like this so low on the list. It's weird - I'm here and I'm supposed to be praising these epochal pieces of art, and yet sometimes my first instinct is to point out the negatives to justify the placement I've chosen. Ah, the drama of a listmaker. The Pixies' Doolittle is surely one of the most important albums in the paths traveled by Alternative Rock, and American Rock & Roll in general, and on the original incarnation of this list, it was placed in the top 15. But after doing research on the band and listening to the album, my opinion of Doolittle dipped a bit. There was one thing that cut right to the heart of everything: Rob Sheffield, who used to write for Spin but is now over at Rolling Stone, did the write up for the Pixies entry in the Rolling Stone Album Guide, and pointed out that the first half of Doolittle is so monumental that the second half suffers from disappointment and letdown. It's exactly what I recently said about U2's Joshua Tree; Doolittle is frontloaded for sure, just not quite as wide a division. I don't like to let the opinions of outside sources guide where I'm going with my writing, but fuck if he didn't beat me to my own point. And here's a little bonus kicker - if you go back to Sheffield's old haunt, in the 1994 Spin Alternative Record Guide, Rob's colleague Eric Weisbard called the album's pacing "muddled", and suggested programming your CD to play the songs in the order implied by the lyrics in the booklet. I read that passage for the first time more than a decade ago, before I had even heard the Pixies, and it resurfaced in my brain today like I had just read it this morning... I don't know; what am I saying? I guess even the most essential albums have their flaws. I'd say that it's like an ancient King's jewel-encrusted crown in a museum case, and it has some scratches on it, from years of just existing, like oh no, it's only worth $70 million now instead of $80 million, but still it means more to history.

I can see Black Francis wearing the crown, the reigning King of Indie Rock, with Kim Deal as the Queen beside him, Sir Joey Santiago and Sir David Lovering as their brave knights, leading the charge to the strains of "Gouge Aweay"; one of the things I really enjoy about Doolittle is there is ths air of triumph that floats through its best songs, "Debaser" especially. It's just a little song with Frank telling you to check out this surrealist film from the 1920's, and yet when you're inside its two minutes and fifty-two seconds, it sounds like the greatest Rock song of all time. You know it's not really true but you want it to be. The guitars announce his majesty, King Frank I of the Black Country, the rotund fellow with the greatest bleat in Indie Rock history, accompanied by his cooing Queen and her rising bassline. Equally majestic, "Wave Of Mutilation" may be a suicide note, but it sounds upbeat and huge; it's no accident that Dave Grohl chose Doolittle producer Gil Norton to beef up the Foo Fighters' sound on The Colour & The Shape. "I Bleed" and "Dead" sound like the castle dungeon, all whips cracking and pained wails, the drums rolling to the cranking of the torture devices; as Santiago's bluesy leads squeal in unison, you can hear newborn Alt-Rock bands being named in his honor. Peasants work the fields, whispering of the legend of the mysterious "Mr. Grieves" and warning of the murderous "Crackity Jones".

Maybe Black Francis and the band sequenced the album the way they did because they had the presence of mind that this was going to be their big break or something, so they wanted to put their best foot forward. It kind of falls in line with the fact that Doolittle predicted so much of the next 18 years of Avant-Rock, like the Pixies worked so well together because they were four Rock psychics. For each song on the album you could name a band that based its entire sound off that one song. Even the early environmental anthem "Monkey Gone To Heaven" could be Al Gore's theme music now. Despite their legendary inter-band drama starting to creep in during recording, the Pixies sound like they had fun branching out their sound; "Here Comes Your Man" and "La La Love You" want to worship AM Gold, while in "Tame", Frank just wants to scream his head off, shredding his vocal chords in your face. It's not like this album was a instant cornerstone or a massive hit; I mean, it had a couple radio singles, and it was bigger than, say, The Velvet Underground & Nico was in its time, so it's not quite a best kept secret or an "everyone who bought it formed a band" situation. But it still took six years to go Gold in the US, and it's probably just now finally ready to pop Platinum status. As the Pixies pointed towards the future, they also summed up the recent past, combining both the craziest and the most melodic moments of 80's Punk and College Rock - the howls from Talking Heads to Meat Puppets to Bad Brains; the squall of X, of Hüsker Dü, or Sonic Youth - into a singular Pixies sound; much like The Cure, when you hear the Pixies, you know it's the Pixies. Whether the second side is really inferior to the first side doesn't really matter, because the Pixies definitely put their own stamp on Rock & Roll, and it sounded like they were having fun throughout; Black Francis said, "the point [of the album] is to experience it, to enjoy it, to be entertained by it", and like the song says, "hope that everything's alright."

01. "Debaser"
02. "Tame"
03. "Wave Of Mutilation"
04. "I Bleed"
05. "Here Comes Your Man"
06. "Dead"
07. "Monkey Gone To Heaven"
08. "Mr. Grieves"
09. "Crackity Jones"
10. "La La Love You"
11. "No. 13 Baby"
12. "There Goes My Gun"
13. "Hey"
14. "Silver"
15. "Gouge Away"

"Debaser" [video]

"Here Comes Your Man" [video]

"Monkey Gone To Heaven/Tame" [live on Night Music, 1989]
Their first US TV performance

"Gouge Away" [live in London, 06.91]

- BONUS: "Debaser" [live in Boston, 2004]
- BONUS: "Wave Of Mutilation" [live & acoustic, 2004]
- BONUS: "I Bleed" [live on Snub TV, 1989]
- BONUS: "Dead" [live on Snub TV, 1989]
- BONUS: "Monkey Gone To Heaven" [live on Letterman, 12.04]
- BONUS: "Mr. Grieves" [live in France, 2004]
- BONUS: "No. 13 Baby" [live in Greece, 1989]
- BONUS: The infamous "Hey" clip [audio/fan video]
An early YouTube staple, almost 17 million served, even Silent Bob.

[Honorable Mention] Part 2 of 3

Album: Things Fall Apart
Artist: The Roots
Release Date: February 1999
Label: MCA
Producers: The Grand Wizzards (The Roots, Richard Nichols, Kelo, Chaos, Scott Storch, James Poyser, Dice Raw, & Wigs), with Jay Dee (a.k.a. J Dilla)

"Inevitably, Hip-Hop records are treated as though they are disposable. They're not maximized as product even, you know, not to mention as art."
- from "Act Won (Things Fall Apart)"

In my entry for Sonic Youth's Sister, I mentioned its late inclusion into this list, and that I had to drop an album to make room for it. This is that album. The reason I decided Things Fall Apart was the one to go was because I felt that the style of a lot of the music on it is done elsewhere on other albums included in this project. Also, Black Thought is an amazing MC, but he can occasionally be impenetrable and one-dimensional. Now, don't let that take away from this record's greatness. In a pivotal year for Hip-Hop, when both the commercial overground, represented by Jay-Z, Dre 2001, and the debut of Eminem, and the creative underground, represented by Mos Def's incredible Black On Both Sides and the Rawkus family, excelled, The Roots still had the finest Hip-Hop release. Things Fall Apart is a tour de force of boundary-destroying Rap music, and an essential companion piece to D'Angelo's Voodoo; If ever I revise this list in a different venue, you might see this included at the expense of another album.

One of the most important things to note about TFA is that it's one of the best produced albums of all time, from any genre. Roots drummer and de facto mouthpiece ?uestlove puts as much care into the cavernous sonics as he does into his lengthy liner-notes essays. It's the distance in "Table Of Contents (Part 1)". It's the operatic backing vocals on "Next Movement". It's the fade-in-fade-out of the mournful piano and beat in "Step Into The Realm". And that's only the first three songs. The most famous step is the skittering jungle beats that close their breakthrough hit "You Got Me". Keyboardist Kamal Gray takes control on many tracks with his infinite catalog of otherworldly sounds; "Double Trouble" draws breath from what sounds like xylophones and percussive bamboo chutes. On "100% Dundee", Gray picks up where Pink Floyd left off over a steam-propelled bass throb. Common, Erykah Badu & Mos Def all swing through to help The Roots birth the New Native Tongues. And don't think it doesn't bump hard. "Dynamite" and "Don't See Us" revisit The Roots' earlier jazzy style, but with more bite, "Without A Doubt" flips Schooly D's old school "Saturday Night" beat, and the live favorite "Adrenaline" introduces future Roc-a-Fella star Beanie Sigel. Things Fall Apart remains The Roots' most complete vision, and a masterfully orchestrated Hip-Hop classic that is one of the few Rap albums to justify its hour-plus length, It can envelope even the most vocal detractors, and change their mind. It's simply that good.

01. “Act Won (Things Fall Apart)” [interlude]
02. “Table Of Contents (Parts 1 & 2)”
03. “The Next Movement” [feat. The Jazzyfatnastees & DJ Jazzy Jeff]
04. “Step Into The Realm”
05. “The Spark"
06. “Dynamite!”
07. “Without A Doubt”
08. “Ain’t Sayin’ Nothin’ New” [feat. Dice Raw]
09. “Double Trouble” [feat. Mos Def]
10. “Act Too (The Love Of My Life)” [feat. Common]
11. “100% Dundee”
12. “Diedre Vs. Dice” [interlude]
13. “Adrenaline!” [feat. Beanie Sigel]
14. “3rd Acts: ? Vs. Scratch 2…Electric Boogaloo” [interlude]
15. “You Got Me” [feat. Erykah Badu & Eve]
16. “Don’t See Us” [feat. Dice Raw]
17. “The Return To Innocence Lost” [feat. Ursula Rucker]
18. “Act Fore (…)”*
* hidden track

"You Got Me" [video]

"The Next Movement" [video]

- BONUS: "Without A Doubt" [audio]
- BONUS: "Ain't Sayin' Nothin' New" [audio]
- BONUS: "Double Trouble" [audio]
- BONUS: "The Love Of My Life" [audio]
- BONUS: "100% Dundee" [audio]
- BONUS: "Adrenaline!" [live at Woodstock 99]
- BONUS: "You Got Me" [feat. Jill Scott; live on MTV, 2002]

Sunday, October 21, 2007

"Your Season Has Come..."

I understand that The NY Mets not making the MLB postseason is old news with everything that's gone on since, but still, it was a legendary collapse. Sean Block, esteemed friend of CSR and a Mets fan, wrote this brilliant little two-cents piece (unfortunately, I am late to the party as it was obviously written prior to the Yankees playoff loss - but it's still a great read). I liked it so much that I'm sharing it with you. Hopefully, this won't be the last you hear from Mr. Block.
- John

"Your Season Has Come..." - The slogan for the New York Mets 2007 campaign. That is where the problems started. It was a guarantee of World Championship success concocted in February before any sort of pitching rotation was figured out. It was a guarantee of success regardless of the age and physical conditioning of the highest-paid players on the club. It was a guarantee of success for basically the same team that failed the previous season.

I don't blame Omar Minaya for not improving on the 2006 team. I am a believer that if it isn't broke, don't fix it. The 2006 New York Mets were the best team in Major League Baseball in 2006 (that argument is for another day, but they were). So a couple of small moves should have gotten them over the hump - a Moises Alou batting in the six hole, sufficient replacements for departing members of the best bullpen in baseball, young franchise players with another year under their belt. They were a team that was hurt and hungry from a heart-breaking defeat. Those that wanted Alfonso Soriano or Barry Zito wanted to buy a championship. I hate that. I liked the 2006 team. I really, really liked them. I liked the players and their attitude and they had a magic that doesn't happen at all in professional sports in today's climate. I wanted to see that team win. I didn't want a mercenary coming in for a big paycheck. That is pre-2006 New York Yankee philosophy, a philosophy that brings regular season success and post-season head-scratching.

The difference between the 2006 New York Mets and the 2007 New York Mets can be summed up in one word: HEART. 'Heart' meaning fight, attitude, desire, hustle, loyalty, yadda, yadda, yadda. I can go through the entire season and pick apart everything but it's a dead issue. It's over. Your Season Has Came and Went. Good riddance. It is horrible, but it is not painful. The National League Championship was painful. This is more like putting a bullet in the head of a rabid dog that has bitten a neighborhood kid. How to deal with the letdown? I know that the Yankee fan is going to let the Met fan have it. Actually, any fan of any team other than the New York Metropolitans is going to let the Met fan have it. The Met fan doesn't deserve it. Pardon my French, but the New York Mets fucked their fans.

And you know what? The Yankee fan is in the right. Mets fans were quick to bury the Yankees in May. They were quick to announce that the Mets were the new kings of New York. It was almost like the Met fan was happier that the Yankees were not in first place than they were that the Mets were in first place. I love the Mets, but going to Shea for game 2 of the NLCS and witnessing the crowd chant "Yankees suck" after a moment of silence for Cory Lidle made me realize that Mets fans are the worst. I don't like Mets fans and I hate going to Shea. After this collapse, the whole franchise has left a sour taste in my mouth.

If the Met fan took a moment to notice, they would realize that the Yankee fan generally ignores the Mets. The Yankee fan is not concerned with the Mets. Maybe the Yankee fan doesn't respect the Mets, but what reason have they to show the Mets respect? What have the Mets done to earn respect? Granted, they were headed in the right direction beginning in 2005. They were earning respect and they were building a club that would be much like the Atlanta Braves and possibly the Yankees themselves. They would have been a club that consistently won with a mixture of proven veterans and promising rookies. The whole formula was beautiful, but for some reason, the HEART disappeared and any respect that the franchise was achieving has been thrown out the window.

Unlike the Yankee fan, the Met fan is quick to compare the Mets to the Yankees when the Mets are doing well. It's as though fans think of the Mets as the Yankees' kid brother and they watch baseball with the sole purpose of seeing the Mets be better than their older brother. To be blunt, it's pathetic. I admit, it is horrible to watch the Yankees succeed every year and it is especially horrible to watch it this year, but that's reality. If the Yankee fan you work with or live with or hang out with is gloating, well it's because the Yankee fan has every right to gloat this time. I never see a Yankee fan gloat unless they are prodded by a wise-ass Met fan that thinks all the success the Yankees have is unfair and is at the expense of the Mets. The Yankee fan stuck with their team and their team pulled themselves together - as they do every year - and battled adversity. The Mets were cocky and arrogant and played like they deserved the post-season before the calendar turned to June. They fell apart and it's their own fault.

They fucked their fans. To be fair, I think fans should boycott the first Shea Stadium homestand next season. No fans should show up. The Mets should play to an empty stadium to show that this attitude will not be tolerated by the people paying money to support them. It's a ridiculous idea, I know, but it would send the message. The only way to hurt them is by hurting their pockets. This performance doesn't deserve support. This franchise doesn't deserve fans. The New York Mets need to win their fans back. That must be their top priority. Your Season Has Come indeed.

However, the Wilpons will land a huge free agent and there will be a huge trade because this team must succeed. They'll have a new stadium in 2009 and a real shitty television channel to worry about. They will create reason for excitement next season. They will drum up profit anyway that they can. It is a business after all. Personally, and I may sound like I'm not a true fan, but if any of the following players are on the Mets in 2008, I am boycotting the team: Carlos Delgado, Tom Glavine, Orlando Hernandez, Shawn Green, Guillermo Mota, Jose Valentin, Moises Alou and/or Aaron Sele. I look at the Mets as a business instead of as my favorite baseball team at this point in time. If I went out to eat at a restaurant and I got fucked the way the Mets fucked me over in the last four months, I would never go out to eat at that restaurant again. How is the New York Mets franchise any different than a restaurant? They are both businesses that are vying with other businesses for my patronage. I commit time and emotion and money to this team and this is what I get? It's not a question of other teams being better. It's a question of whether or not the Mets gave a crap. And the answer is NO, THEY DIDN'T. They had NO HEART.

We, and I say 'we' as in the Met fans, don't deserve this. We will never hear the end of it - mostly because of the years of shit-talking Met fans who are more concerned with the Yankees losing than they are with the Mets winning. This is the worst collapse in baseball history and the fan - the poor working-class schlub - is the guy that gets hurt the most. Not the million dollar ballplayer who says, "It's very disappointing. We'll have to do better next year," and then drives off in his Corvette or Lincoln Navigator to his huge piece of property in a beautiful neighborhood... or goes on a vacation to a private, tropical island... or buys a private, tropical island to make himself feel better. It's the fan scraping together seven bucks to buy a beer at Shea Stadium that gets hurt. It's not the Wilpons who were able to sell more tickets to Shea than at any other point in the history of the stadium. It's the fan charging tickets on a maxed-out credit card because they want to see Jose Reyes hit a triple live and in person. It's not Omar Minaya who has the luxury of throwing his coaching staff under the bus before his job is ever in jeopardy.

I have ideas as to what the franchise should do. Like every other fan, I think that I would be a better General Manager than anybody that is actually a General Manager. But I don't know what the job entails. It is a tough position and especially with baseball, many things are hit or miss. The New York Mets, like any other big-market ball team, are a business. And if they don't provide the product that I want, I will boycott that business. I did it when Steve Phillips threw Bobby Valentine under the bus and brought in Mo Vaughn and Robbie Alomar and Roger Cedeno and all those other chumps in 2002. I am more than happy to boycott the 2008 New York Mets if a serious change in direction is not made.

Baseball is just a game and the beauty of it is that there is always 'next year.' That's not going to work for me. Here's my advice for fans of the New York Mets:
1. Stop worrying about talking shit about the New York Yankees. They are a proven winner. They are much more successful than the Mets and they always will be. They've had a large historical head start and maybe one day the Mets will have the legacy that the Yankees do, but this will not be in our lifetime.
2. Boycott Shea for the first homestand. It's punishment for the bullshit the team put us through this year. They deserve to take a financial hit and we deserve to send the team a message.
3. Look at the team as a business and not your heart and soul, because the team is a business and has no heart and soul.

I'll conclude this long-winded essay on the 2007 New York Mets with the lone bright spot in the entire season: David Wright. He has matured into a leader and he will be captain of the team sooner rather than later. He strapped the team to his back at many times late in the season and he pushed them up a mountain. He will be the greatest everyday player in Met history. He deserves the money he makes and if it weren't for Jimmy Rollins, he would be the MVP of the National League. He will, and I repeat WILL, win them a World Series. Unfortunately, unless things change, I don't think it will be until Shea Stadium is dead and buried.

[Sean Block]

Friday, October 19, 2007

[046] Voodoo

Album: Voodoo
Artist: D'Angelo
Release Date: January 2000
Label: Virgin
Producers: D'Angelo & Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, with DJ Premier and Raphael Saadiq

“Music lovers come under 2 umbrellas. Number one: those who use it for growth and spiritual fulfillment, and number two: those who use it for mere background music. The thing is this record is too extreme to play the middle of the fence. This record is the litmus test that will reveal the most for your personality. Cats who live for music, and all the new directions it can show you, have cried when I played this record for them. I don't wanna embarrass no one, but I assure you at least 7 of your favorite artists were on their knees BAWLING because of this astounding document of music. This is what we need today. This is no
“miseducation”. This is the blueprint right here!
- Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, from his Voodoo “review” on [late 1999]

Name a CLASSIC R&B album in the last 20 years. Don’t worry, I’ll wait...
In late 1982, R&B, or more specifically, Soul music, died. It was the moment that Thriller detonated across everyone’s eardrums. Ya see, Michael was the only one who didn’t let disco’s clinical gleam die peacefully. He held onto the notion that the endless possibilities of a multi-million dollar studio were as important as the songs, or the blood, sweat & tears that went into the vocals and the performances. The world’s biggest R&B star became the world’s biggest Pop star; with the exception of the Funk monster “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”, Michael Jackson thinned his sound out and got his Pop chart dominance. And that was it. The battle was over. Prince was already too busy exploring other styles; he never left the Funk totally alone, but his appetite for new sounds was insatiable, so his fault is that much less in the matter. They were the two artists set to carry the torch for icons like James, Marvin, Curtis, Aretha, Sly, Stevie, George, and Reverend Al, and they chose to put the torch down. For more than 15 years, we got nothing but second best, good but not great, great but not classic; the histrionics of Whitney, the chipmunk saccharine nonsense of New Edition, the lecherous thuggery of R. Kelly. Mary J. Blige was really the only hopeful, and she managed to navigate around the fresh sounds of Hip-Hop, but her potentially undeniable classic album never materialized. There was far too much of what Wu-Tang called “Rap & Bullshit”. Maxwell gave us a little hope, and then floated away. Erykah was real close, but she never held it down for a whole album. D’Angelo, well, he looked like a good one on Brown Sugar, but not The One. His debut was smooth and rough at the same time, but for the most part too indebted to the past. Then he met Ahmir Thompson, a.k.a. ?uestlove from The Roots.

“My groove is tight, drummer’s drumming right; dirt’s our secret weapon each and every night..."
“Playa Playa”, the creeping seven-minute groove that opens the album is filthy. I don’t mean it has explicit lyrics. I mean it sounds like it’s rolled in dirt and grime. It’s Superfly hanging out in the 36 Chambers. Dating from ’96, D’Angelo and
?uestlove put it together for the Space Jam soundtrack, and of course when they turned it in, The WB looked at them like they were the aliens from the movie. It became the template for one of the greatest R&B albums of all-time. Voodoo came after what seemed like a long wait – almost five years separate D’s two albums, but he used that time wisely. He stretched his legs on songs for soundtracks and worked the tribute pieces out of his system, all the while jamming with Ahmir on the side. The crackling loops at work in “Devil’s Pie” approach the Voodoo sound from the other end. If “Playa Playa” was classic Funk of the most dank, organic variety, then this DJ Premier-produced track, originally found on the soundtrack to Belly, was Hip-Hop at its most crispy, D gliding over top with a condemnation of the jiggy era, and how Hip-Hop’s fascination with excess is always food related – dough, cheese, cream, ice, etc. It’s interesting that these two songs introduce the album as they represent the opposing poles of D’s inherent musical personality; the spiritual, soulful lover-man that was known to break into the rhymes of entire Gang Starr albums between funky workouts.

Once you enter those gates, Voodoo is the Soul music of a new age, significantly recorded in Electric Lady Studios in NYC, the studio built brick by brick by Jimi Hendrix, assimilating not just the obvious influences that critics wanted to use as talking points, but everything that D and his collaborators had heard in their lifetimes. For instance, the overlapping verses and throbbing jazz guitar of “The Root” is specifically positioned as the centerpiece of the album simply because D wanted the album to flow similar to our #49 entry, Tribe’s Midnight Marauders, and its corresponding song, “Electric Relaxation”. Not only does “The Root” house what seems like the album’s spiritual mission statement – “Like the rain to the dirt, from the vine to the wine, from the alpha of creation to the end of all time” – it’s one of three songs to feature the virtuoso Charlie Hunter. It bears mentioning that Voodoo has no overdubs; it exists pretty much as it was recorded, carved out of reels and reels of analog jams, which is even more amazing when you hear the playing of Hunter, who plays an 8-string guitar, 5 guitar and 3 bass, so the guitar and bass you hear was played at the same time by one person. “Spanish Joint” is a spicy workout with Hunter going nuts, and yet overshadowed by Roy Hargrove’s victorious horns. The third of Hunter’s appearances is the sun-kissed “Greatdayindamornin’”, which has the lazy bounce of every G-Funk summer BBQ video the West Coast was turning out only five years earlier.

Voodoo was the coming out party for The Soulquarians, which was the production axis of D, ?uest, Lauryn Hill producer James Poyser, and the late J Dilla, who at that point was still in Slum Village. Jay is absent from the liner notes, but his ideas seem to be everywhere; similarly, a planned duet with Lauryn was left off the album at the last minute, but Voodoo still seems like one up on her Miseducation. Most songs on the album sprang from all-night jam sessions after
“family” dinners at Electric Lady. Friends like Common, Erykah, Q-Tip, and Pete Rock would drive hours just to hang out, maybe do some handclaps. The southern grit of “Chicken Grease” sounds like a particularly alive and funky night, banging out some of the stankiest sublimity. The “future funk” of “Left & Right” started as a collaboration between D & Q-Tip to make a classic party song as good as those on Biggie’s Life After Death, one that played to the dichotomy of his fans, the street corner thugs and the fainting females. The skeletal pulse is blurry and bloodshot, like the rarely seen X-rated video that accompanied it; “One Mo’Gin”
is even murkier, soaked in the sexual tension of the lyric. Raphael Saadiq pitched in on the hit Prince tribute “Untitled”, and the swaying “The Line”, which deals with the self-doubt in following his debut album, being compared with his idols, and being an enduring artist. Where D deals with this stress lyrically on “The Line”, he deals with it musically on songs like the Kool & The Gang-influenced show-stopping ballad “Send It On”, the Roberta Flack cover “Feel Like Makin’
Love”, and the Wonder-fully gorgeous set-piece “Africa”, adorned in damp bass, backwards guitar, and music box bells & chimes.

This atmosphere of artistic community trying to build something to be truly proud of from what they were left by their forefathers birthed brilliance that spilled over onto The Roots’ Things Fall Apart, Common’s Like Water For Chocolate, and D’s subsequent tour. I witnessed the happening from the fourth row of Radio City Music Hall, and it remains one of the most special nights of my life. It was musical perfection, and it remains a sad fact that a planned live album from the tour went up in smoke with D’s countless blunts, and maybe label money that hadn’t been recouped. Despite debuting at number 1, Voodoo was deemed somewhat of a failure because it was too opaque, and casual listeners failed D’s test. With R&B now back in the gutter where D found it, and Hip-Hop in an even worse state seven years on, this essential classic is in danger of eventually being lost to time. I had to do my part to spread D’s gospel, cuz I’m worried I’ll have to wait another 30 years for a Soul album this good.

01. "Playa Playa"
02. "Devil's Pie"
03. "Left & Right" [feat. Method Man & Redman]
04. "The Line"
05. "Send It On"
06. "Chicken Grease"
07. "One Mo'Gin"
08. "The Root"
09. "Spanish Joint"
10. "Feel Like Makin' Love"
11. "Greatdayindamornin'/Booty"
12. "Untitled (How Does It Feel)"
13. "Africa"

"Chicken Grease" [live on HBO's Chris Rock Show, late 1999]

"Left & Right" [video edit]

- BONUS: "Devil's Pie" [audio]
- BONUS: "Send It On" [video]
- BONUS: "Untitled (How Does It Feel)" [single edit - video]
- BONUS: "Africa" [audio]