Saturday, January 26, 2008

[011] Homogenic

Album: Homogenic
Artist: Björk
Release Date: September 1997
Label: Elektra
Producers: Björk & Mark Bell, with Guy Sigsworth & Howie B.

“Electricity and equipment are just tools. Instead of wood or leather or metal, and all these things that we so far make music out of, stroking a string... We're using electricity and to make for the ear. For me, that is probably what I would call 'techno'...
I find it so amazing when people tell me that electronic music has not got soul, and they blame the computers, they got the finger and point at the computers like, 'There's no soul here!' It's like, you can't blame the computer. If there's not soul in the music, it's because nobody put it there...and it's not the tool's fault."
- Björk, from a 1997 documentary on her

This week, my brother Ian got married, some say the ultimate example of love. He and I don’t often delve into our private lives when we talk – we mostly talk about music, and I guess that’s why I’ve decided to mention him in my entries more than others, and kind of make him a part of this project. He’s been one of the most vocal readers, writing that Daft Punk addendum, emailing and calling and texting constructive criticism and rebuttals. He called me to talk about Radiohead’s The Bends, and he explained that what he takes from that album is that it was the last time Radiohead sang about romantic love. I found this interesting, because I never think of him as the kind of person that dwells on lyrical sentiment; I think of him as a fiend for sonic texture and beats, like me. As he loves he wife, he and I love new sound. But Björk’s Homogenic is a unique and earnest intersection of these sensibilities – exploding romance through minimal prose and quilts of elctrobeats and chilled string quartets. I have always loved Homogenic the most out of all her albums because I have always felt the songs were some of the most mentally tactile compositions of sound I have ever heard. Like, say, Trent Reznor or El-P, Björk and producer Mark Bell took things they created in a digital realm, and made them sound organic and elemental by fraying the edges of something inherently smooth; imperfection denotes life because nature favors chaos. But where I initially loved this album for its sonic interpretations of the Icelanic landscapes in Björk’s mind, I now also love it for its message of love.

I’ve always thought that Radiohead and Björk have had an artistic connection, stemming from the similar creative arcs through their 1995 and 1997 offerings, and their subsequent exploration of electronic music; it could be said that the peak of the arcs are where they intersect, Björk’s duet with Thom Yorke on “I’ve Seen It All, from her Selmasongs mini-album. That positions Homogenic as the spiritual cousin to OK Computer, and yet where that album is about the relationship of man with machine, and a prediction of the disconnecting of modern society, Homogenic feels like Björk’s reclamation of the earth under her feet, kissing Iceland’s wind-burned cheek. Post is, like The Bends, about romantic love, the euphoric qualities of it, but Homogenic is also an album of love (and not only because it’s Björk’s favorite subject), the difference being that I would say that its love is adult love, realistic love, the kind of love that accepts the possibility that it can all go wrong, and what you take from these messages of love depends on who you are as a person.

Thom Yorke took from it what he has said is his favorite song. “Unravel”, an achingly delicate ballad which Radiohead recently covered on one of their webcasts, is cast in cascading pastel tones, humming organ drones caressed by digitally purring harps, and it exhibits Björk’s fervently patient side. As she waits for her lover’s return, their love eroding into the darkness, she stands firm, faithful and insistent that it will one day be whole again. Ian and I talked about Homogenic at the wedding, and he said he always felt that the album, and “Unravel”, came from a dark , deep pain, so it seems to me that he was struck by the lyrics about “the devil”, the sway of the unwanted developments in Björk’s life. On the other hand, I feel that both the album and the song originate from a place in which Björk is done with pain, and now has returned with the strength to right any wrongs. I feel that the love on Homogenic is a renewed love.

The album as a love letter to Iceland manifests in a few different ways. In many of the songs, the lyrics directed at a lover can be also seen as directed at Björk’s homeland. There’s a wonderfully telling correlation between the music on the album and the tribute to the island nation that she and others have made, and that is that the title alludes to the generally singular sound and tone of the album, which stems from an artistic reaction to the genre-hopping of the previous albums. Where Debut and Post were about the freedom to explore anywhere and anything, and their varied approaches illustrate that attitude, Homogenic represents the comfort of home, and as such the chosen palette that Björk works from is less wild and fragmented – it’s calm. To further the comfort, the jarring electronics that propel the rhythms are juxtaposed against tender string arrangements that sooth the listener, conjuring visions of fields, or emerald green grass and silvery blue ice. The best examples of this are the album’s first two tracks, “Hunter” and “Jòga”. On the former, Björk lays it bare in the first moments, singing, “If travel is searching, and home has been found, I’m not stopping – I’m going hunting.” The rising and falling of the marching snare drum unfurls like green hills of the Icelandic countryside, accordion blowing by like bitter winds as she allows, “Thought I could organize freedom – how Scandinavian of me”, setting the stage for an album of lyrical self-realization set against a backdrop of nationalism interpreted through music. On the gorgeous latter, the strings are cold and smooth like sheets of ice and the beat lumbers and crashes like an earthquake, as Björk speaks of “emotional landscapes”, presenting a catchphrase for the glacial “Icelandic techno” that inhabits this album.

The sweeping, urbane ballad “Bachelorette” stands out from the rest of the album, placing itself apart from the rest of the landscapes, almost like the cities that dot the countryside. But sonically, the reverse is apparent, as it is the least electronic song on the album – or at least it feels that way – pastoral despite its luxuriant, theatrical crescendos and the din of percussive bursts. The lyrics, the most fully realized of all the songs here, tells of an uneasy love, full of images of nature and wildlife; it’s possible to think that the words are sung by Iceland to Björk, globe-trotting pop star, Björk subconsciously expressing her guilt in leaving her home in lines lik, “You are the one who grows distant, my love, when I beckon you near”.

Elsewhere, the sensual, pulsing “All Neon Like” simmers like the hot springs of the country’s resorts as Björk sends her affection through cryptic code, her voice swooping from a holler to a murmur, mumbling something about halos, webs, cocoons, a turtleheart, and of course the luminous beam that feeds you, whatever that means. What’s important is that her emotion comes through, splitting apart like light through a prism, shining bright colors across your mind’s eye and filling you with warmth. Where “All Neon Like” simmers, the pounding “Pluto” explodes, literally: “Excuse me / But I just have to explode / Explode this body off me”. Like Iceland’s active volcanos, “Pluto” sprays its blistering mess everywhere, the onslaught of cycling noises and thumping beat pushing Björk to the brink until she all she can do is scream over and over, as the drums double-back over each other in one of the most exhilarating moments of electronic music ever

The dissonant, confrontational “5 Years” is a break-up song among the greats, with the beat sounding made up of video game explosions jumping double-dutch all over themselves, surrounded by bubbling synths, sighing strings and chopped guitar squeals and industrial blips; the track is a contradiction, aiming the exploding beat straight in conflict with the joyful melody falling over itself. Björk slams her ex, emasculating him by declaring that she’s “so bored of cowards who say what they want, then they can’t handle love”, and for him to prove himself, daring him to take her on. After she puts her foot down, she turns inward on “Immature”, which spins a tone-poem out of a whirring loop of rainbow sound, piano, and perfectly arranged, clattering percussion; the percussive tones sound organic, wooden, and they mesh with what sound like croaking toads, buzzing insects and rushes of wind – or maybe a geyser of steam releasing itself from the volcanic grounds of her country – to create a slice of nature in a digital world. Over the terrain of rhythm, Björk draws everything she can out of just two lines, “How could I be so immature to think he would replace the missing elements in me? How extremely lazy of me!” Gone is the innocent longing of her past albums, and its place is left a knowing, regal confidence that she uses to grow past her stumbles.

On the poppy, club-ready super-ball “Alarm Call”, she goes one further, inspiring herself with a wake-up of reassurance, freedom, and wisdom. The song is as close as Björk gets to the exuberant, worldly Pop of her past, with a funky groove not unlike some of what Janet Jackson was doing around the time. But what’s special about this bouncy, joyous blast isn’t Björk exclaiming “You can’t say no to hope, you can’t say no to happiness”. It’s what the song, and the contrast between it and the more abstract noise of the rest of the album, illuminates in relation to the time when it was released. Beyond all the beautiful love songs, Homogenic is also the high-point of the tipping point of electronic music on the Pop landscape. After the success of Post, Queen Superstar herself, Madonna was calling – Björk answered by writing “Bedtime Story” for her – and the world started to treat Björk as a public figure/Star in addition to just a singer, illustrated by her infamous paparazzi attack or the suicidal fan that tried to send her a mailbomb. At the same time, Rave culture was breaking apart, spreading various types of dance music across the globe, and in 1997, the US music press decided it was time for the public emergence of “Electronica”, though the UK and Europe had been hip to it all for at least a few years already. And as good as it was, from The Chemical Brothers to The Prodigy’s “Firestarter”, it was impersonal because either it had no vocals or the vocals were mostly detached, cut up into hooks and choruses. Björk showed everyone that the cold electronics could have human warmth.

Also, it wasn’t like her taking equal parts of Pop and Electronica was diluting the music’s power; on the contrary, the songs on Homogenic work because her emotions are at the same excited state as the molecules of the computer grooves. It’s amazing to think Björk was originally planning on making the entire album with The RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan, but he was too busy making their double album, Wu-Tang Forever, which ironically is where he lost his production mojo; the success of Björk’s work with Mark Bell is a blessing then. They didn’t skimp on production, with tracks that were at the forefront of the electronic genre; even now, Homogenic is so good that it still sounds futuristic a decade later, showing countless acts how to transition from the post-Massive Attack age of Trip-Hop into something more focused on the technology of tomorrow. It gave your average Pop Star license to believe that anything was possible, from Madonna, and her Ray Of Light, on down.

The album closes with what will probably one day be the composition that Björk, the most fascinating, enigmatic “Pop” star of the 90’s, is remembered by. “All Is Full Of Love” is a beat-less lullaby, a hymn for the new millennium, a response to Iceland’s love letter on “Bachelorette”. If a voice can be so beautiful as to materialize as the white light one sees at death, then Björk’s performance on this song is that voice, surrounded by perpetually echoing strings and a sympathetic harp. It’s the kind of song that gives you goosebumps. I wonder what it is in the human body that gives us the chills, makes our hair on our arms stand up, gives us “butterflies” when we want to talk to someone we’re attracted to. I guess someone somewhere knows the answer, and has probably put it in a book or on Wikipedia or something. It’s a secret part of me has always wanted demystified, but the part of me that wants to stay innocent and not know always wins out. It’s one of those things that is just a part of life, like love, and home. And if Homogenic represents those things, and furthermore the rejuvenation of love as facilitated by the solace of companionship and home, and resulting in greater personal strength and wisdom – the journey of life – then it is truly the genius triumph that the music makes it sound like.

01. “Hunter”
02. “Jòga”
03. “Unravel”
04. “Bachelorette”
05. “All Neon Like”
06. “5 Years”
07. “Immature”
08. “Alarm Call”
09. “Pluto”
10. “All Is Full Of Love”

I ask that you spend some time with these videos. The documentary is fascinating and in-depth. The live videos are among the best I've found throughout this project simply because Björk is a riveting vocalist. And the music videos created for these songs are among the greatest ever made, with the clip for "Jòga" plainly illustrating that the crux of the album is her love for Iceland, while the videos for "Bachelorette" and "All Is Full Of Love" are exhibitions of the height of filmmaking.

"Hunter" [single edit - video]

"Jòga" [single edit - video]

"Unravel" [live at the Riverside Church, NYC, 2001]

"All Is Full Of Love" [single version; video]

1997 documentary on Björk, including the making of Homogenic
- Part 1 of 7
on home, childhood and music
- Part 2 of 7
on Iceland's history, featuring "Unravel"
- Part 3 of 7
on Björk's evolution through Icelandic punk, The Sugarcubes, going solo
- Part 4 of 7
on her solo career, and recording Homogenic in Spain
- Part 5 of 7
on the making of Homogenic, featuring the recording of "Hunter"
- Part 6 of 7
on Iceland's influence on Homogenic, featuring the making of "5 Years"
- Part 7 of 7
on making music, featuring the recording of "Jòga"

- BONUS: "Hunter" [live in Cambridge, 12.98]
- BONUS: "Hunter" [live at the 2007 Glastonbury Festival]
- BONUS: "Jòga" [live on Later with Jools Holland]
- BONUS: "Jòga" [live in Cambridge, 12.98]
- BONUS: "Jòga" [live at the 2007 Glastonbury Festival]
- BONUS: "Unravel" [video]
- BONUS: "Unravel" [Vespertine tour rehearsal, 2001]
- BONUS: "Bachelorette" [video]
- BONUS: "Bachelorette" [live at the 2007 Glastonbury Festival]
- BONUS: "All Neon Like" [live in Cambridge, 12.98]
- BONUS: "5 Years" [audio]
- BONUS: "Immature" [live in Cambridge, 12.98]
- BONUS: "Alarm Call" [single remix - video]
- BONUS: "Alarm Call" [live in Cambridge, 12.98]
- BONUS: "Pluto" [video - very NSFW!]
- BONUS: "Pluto" [live on MTV Live]
- BONUS: "Pluto" [live in Cambridge, 12.98]
- BONUS: "Pluto" [live at the 2007 Glastonbury Festival]
- BONUS: "All Is Full Of Love" [live at the Riverside Church, NYC, 2001]
- BONUS: "All Is Full Of Love" [live at the Royal Opera House, London, 12.01]
- BONUS: "All Is Full Of Love" [live at the 2002 Coachella Festival]
from the Coachella documentary

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

[012] Crooked Rain Crooked Rain

Album: Crooked Rain Crooked Rain
Artist: Pavement
Release Date: February 1994
Label: Matador/Atlantic
Producers: Pavement

“The jam kids on the Vespas
And glum looks on their faces
The street is full of punks
They got spikes...
See those rockers with their long curly locks
Goodnight to the Rock and Roll era
‘Cause they don't need you anymore
Little girl! Boy! GIRL!! BOOOOYYYYYYY!!!”
- from "Fillmore Jive"

Ah, 1994...A time when flannel and cut-off cargo pants were the fashion norm in the halls of High School USA, and not just what Eddie Vedder wore in the “Even Flow” video. Is it weird that Rock and Hip-Hop both decided that heavy hiking/work boots were cool at the same time? Anyway...What was the whole “Slacker” thing? I never got it, not really. Yeah, sure, I guess, my generation has a general malaise which in a lot of ways still extends into the now, with a lack of careerism, and the average marriage age moving from 25 up to 28 or 29, but I never saw the negative effects. It was less being distracted and more being curious to try new things. If anything, it was more initiative, but in a reverse manner to our parents, like I don’t have time to find a job or iron my shirt cuz there are museums to visit and bridges to bungee jump off of. Everything, including employment, is about the life experience. Shit, Pearl Jam were friggin’ careerists in comparison to so many bands. Like Kurt quoting Neil Young, he burned out while Pearl Jam faded away. But Pavement, with their Rock in shambles, was the quintessential ‘Slacker’ band, seemingly not giving two fucks about anything, including their recording quality. We already talked about the glorious noise of Slanted & Enchanted, but the question occurred to me: What makes Pavement’s sound the aural equivalent of the Slacker movement? Was it the songs they wrote, or the way they played & recorded them? Were the songs a mess, played but smart musicians holding them together? Or was the band in tatters, and the songs were so good that the band couldn’t help but sound awesome? Lastly, maybe it was just contempt for the business that they had to be a part of in order to get their music out to people. The answer to these questions is actually one you don’t want because that’s where the mystery of Pavement lies, though I think a hint would be to say it changes from album to album, EP to EP, and maybe even from song to song. The real question should be how does Pavement fit into Rock & Roll’s history, because they are no Stones or Kiss or U2 in that they were not a big stadium band, nor did they want to be. They are the affirmation of the alternative history of Rock, the one that runs from The Velvet Underground and The Stooges, through Big Star and Patti Smith, Buzzcocks and Talking Heads, Minutemen and The Replacements, Pixies and Radiohead, etc, etc. You see the late 1993 press photos included in the LA’s Desert Origins deluxe reissue booklet for this album, and you see these guys aren’t Stone Temple Pilots or Smashing Pumpkins, and that’s why SM singles/calls them out, singing “I don’t understand what they mean” on “Range Life”. You start to wonder how these hopelessly normal looking guys, who look like every guy in your college dorm, not some wild Ziggy Stardust wannabe, made Crooked Rain Crooked Rain into a Rock album of such majestic, alien power.

Looking back now, Pavement are one of the most fascinating bands of all time. First, these 5 suburban guys made the carefree genius of their records seem miraculous, like they just plucked it out of the ether. Second, their evolution was coincidentally the perfect representation of natural artistic growth of a Rock band, that of so many of the greatest acts in music history. Of course, you have the artists that blew their load on the debut, the artists that managed to hold some sort of consistency, the ones that were wildly erratic, etc. Pavement though, they summarized the artists who grew with the journey of life. Their five album career perfectly lays out the trajectory of the artistic phases; the first phase is concerned with youth and rebellion, making a racket, trying to forge something new out of what their heroes and contemporaries did. The second phase is the solidification of their talents, when they realize this music thing can be more than a hobby, but with just enough of the early edge lingering. The third phase is the experimental phase, exploring new styles and technologies and working relationships and chemical accessories. The fourth phase is usually the contentment phase, featuring some form of summary album, drawing from the three previous stages. And the fifth phase is the settling down phase, easing into adulthood with a kinder, gentler approach. Legions of bands, from The Beatles to the Beastie Boys to Radiohead, have vaguely followed this pattern, but with Pavement, it was clearly delineated across their five long-players. And within this fancy theory of mine, the second phase is always the most intriguing and most satisfying.

For their second album, Pavement was a newly minted Band, with a capital B. Remember when they started, they were just SM & Spiral Stairs screwing around in a garage with Gary Young the middle-aged burnout attempting to keep rhythm. They had gone and added bassist Mark Ibold and multi-instrumentalist Bob Natastanovich for the Slanted & Enchanted tours, but Gary fell apart afterward, making another album look unlikely. Malkmus was living in NYC, and found drummer Steve West immediately suitable to jam with, and so Pavement, one of those archetypal sunny California bands, was moving to The City That Never Sleeps. And with the five-man lineup united, a new, more powerful Super-Pavement was born. Everybody, from the band members to tons of writers and critics have exclaimed it was a new day for the band, and it was; there’s gotta be a difference in the dynamics of three people and five people, even if the same two are still writing all the joints. Of their contemporaries, Pavement’s artistic arc is most similar to Beck Hansen’s, or the other way around, really; the progression of the creative approach and ideas from the debut to CRCR is echoed by Beck’s subsequent journey from Mellow Gold to Odelay in that the vague sketch was present in the beginning, but by the second album, the blueprint had been drawn clearly. It’s no coincidence that because both acts’ second (proper) albums were such artistic triumphs, their third and fourth albums are as different as night and day because they had a comfort level creatively…that, and their brains couldn’t contain all of their ideas. Pavement were very smart, but they were sneaky too, trying to camouflage their brains with lackadaisical humor and sarcasm. What gave them away was all the artistic movement from the debut to this album.

Crooked Rain is a lot of fun. Really, it’s just some dudes fucking around, and they happened to make a classic record. Its lazy, tossed-off feel is so infectious, only heightened by the fact that even though four out of the five guys had been touring together, this was the first album they were making as a band. It’s like this: what do you do when you form a band with your friends? You probably sit around a bunch of days trying to cover your favorite songs (when you’re not thinking of possible band names). The Pavement of Crooked Rain sounds more indebted to the classic Rock of their childhoods than on any of their other albums; music can be a great uniting force, especially the songs that you grew up with. They took what they loved about the Rock & Roll we all hear every day on the radio, and turned it inside out; Spiral Stairs jokes in his essay for the deluxe reissue’s liner notes that the band “finally made our ‘Hotel California’!” I think he was only half sarcastic. There’s an inherent joy in trying to remake what you love from childhood. Even when you turn Rock & Roll inside out like Pavement did, it seems part of you still wants to be like your favorite bands, but maybe in reverse. Maybe if The Rolling Stones were deconstructionists like Pavement, they might’ve taken the Muddy Waters Blues as far as away from its source as possible, like Pavement do with The Stones – “Range Life” is such a brilliant, lovingly cobbled together spit-take spoof of the Sticky Fingers classic “Dead Flowers” that you’d think Ian Stewart is banging on the honky-tonk piano.

The touchstones are there. You just have to dig for them. After the jumble that starts the album, “Silence Kid” turns over with a cowbell and a simple chunky riff reminiscent of “Slow Ride” and dozens of other Rock radio hits of the 70’s. It has a breezy, cruising feel to it, funny again considering the Cali band now in the congested streets of NYC, where the skyscrapers generally block out the sun. Halfway through “Kid”, the band crashes to a bluesy halt and busts out a Big Ending which nicely recalls “Our Singer” from Slanted, and sets up as a bookend to encore fodder “Fillmore Jive”. One thing that “Kid” has that carries through most of the album is that these songs are great actors, playing the opposite of what they are; if they’re a small ditty, they come on like a Rock epic, and if they’re profound and moving, they act aloof and uninterested. The lazing in the noon-day sun Gram Parsons country of “Range Life” endures because once you’ve enjoyed its vacation vibe for a while, and you’ve gotten over the knocks on STP and the Pumpkins, you start to rummage around SM’s other words. The song contains some of his most beautiful, bare introspection on how he feels about being part of this “Alternative Nation”, likening the industry and the life to “turn[ing] out into traffic” or a crime wave that’s “never complete until you snort it up or shoot it down”; imagine how he felt about writing those words when Kurt Cobain died just 8 weeks after this album came out.

CRCR has a lot of juicy bits on the music biz, and the state it was in during the early 90’s. The band’s one kinda-hit single, “Cut Your Hair”, one of the best Indie Pop tunes of the 90’s, looks at – presumably – the Dave Grohls and the Sean Kinneys of the world, the line, “Did you see the drummer’s hair?” theorizing that maybe there wasn’t much difference between the Grunge bands and Winger; it’s the old ‘alternative to what?’ argument. Malkmus then goes for laughs by singing a faux want-ad for musicians:

Advertising looks and chops a must / No big hair!!
Songs mean a lot / When songs are bought / And so are you
Fakes right down to the practice room
Your attention and fame's a career
Career, career, career, career...

He sings the word ‘career’ like “Korea”, and I love to think it was an allusion to declaring war on the Seven Mary Threes and the Collective Souls. One thing’s for sure though – the MTV Buzz Bin got the song and the band over to a new level, with Jeff Tweedy eventually ripping it off for Wilco’s “Heavy Metal Drummer”, and ESPN’s Pardon The Interruption using a soundalike theme song because the two hosts are both bald (which is pretty funny). Even though I wasn’t into it at the time, I was always familiar with it; watching the video now, for the first time since it came out, is like a flashback - I instantly remember drummer Steve West turning into a giant gecko in a smoking jacket.

And so it goes through Crooked Rain, built on a spine of disemboweled classic FM Rock and sideways jabs at The Biz (...not Markie. Everyone loves him). “Elevate Me Later” peaks out from behind its Sgt. Pepper-y curtain of psych-guitars to throw darts like, “Range rovin’ with cinema stars”, flogging their “high-protein land” and “40 different shades of black”. Similarly, the forceful “Unfair” wants to “burn the Hills of Beverly”, but out of Northern Cal/Southern Cal territorial feuding. The languid ballad “Stop Breathin’” is less about its Civil War nonsense lyric, and more about the crawling waltz that borrows from Neil Young, surely a bridge to Built To Spill and some of the Post-Rock scene. “Newark Wilder” mines the same rural feel as “Range Life”, but does so at night, stirring a simmering Country Noir with gorgeous peyote guitar and regrets of “brand new era” that “came too late”; the stark, hushed “Heaven Is A Truck” slides out from behind “Range Life” to capture some of its and the “Wilder” magic.

As Rock deconstructionists who still maintained their status as a Rock & Roll band, Pavement are second only to The Velvet Underground, and Crooked Rain is their definitive statement for that reason. Their music remains a prize for anyone who decides to explore that aforementioned alternate history. Pavement aren’t the quintessential “Slacker” band, because being lazy or stoned or apathetic doesn’t matter to Rock & Roll, and in some cases Rock & Roll thrives on those things. But Pavement are the quintessential “Indie Rock” band, in both their disinterest in the major label world – even with Atlantic Records distributing Crooked Rain for Matador, it was decided to leave the Atlantic logo off the record for fear of looking like they sold out – to their disheveled bedroom guitar hero pin-up music geek sound, exemplified by the obtuse but pretty love song “Gold Soundz”, one of Stephen Malkmus’s best songs, and the wasted epic “Fillmore Jive”. The latter is the realization of everything I’ve said about CRCR – the appropriation of Rock’s power and its clichés, turned inside out, reversed negative, held to a funhouse mirror – even the title suggests that the golden days of Billy Graham's famed club were suspect – beginning in a groggy heap like any great lo-fi garage mess before waking up by declaring “I need to sleep!”, pronouncing the Rock & Roll era dead even as they craft a soaring tribute to it, guitar solos flying like free birds. And when they look upon the fakes they ridicule, and want to “pull out their plugs”, they knowingly pull their own, cutting the last line short. As the album just ends, you know that Pavement knew where they stood, taking their irony, sarcasm, “Slacker” wit, and welding them to Rock & Roll, then spinning it around until dizzy and sending it on its way.

01. "Silence Kid"
02. "Elevate Me Later"
03. "Stop Breathin'"
04. "Cut Your Hair"
05. "Newark Wilder"
06. "Unfair"
07. "Gold Soundz"
08. "5 - 4 = Unity"
09. "Range Life"
10. "Heaven Is A Truck"
11. "Hit The Plane Down"
12. "Fillmore Jive"

"Cut Your Hair" [video]

"Gold Soundz" [video]

"Range Life" [video]

"Fillmore Jive" [audio/fan video]

- BONUS: "Silence Kid" [live in Cologne, 03.94]
- BONUS: "Stop Breathin'" [live in Frankfurt, 03.94]
- BONUS: "Cut Your Hair" [live at the 199? Bizarre Festival]
- BONUS: "Gold Soundz" [live in Frankfurt, 03.94]
- BONUS: "Heaven Is A Truck" [Stephen Malkmus, live at the 2007 Pitchfork Festival]

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

[013] Illmatic

Album: Illmatic
Artist: Nas
Release Date: April 1994
Label: Columbia
Producers: DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock, L.E.S., & Q-Tip, with Nas

“It’s only right that I was born to use mics
And the stuff that I write is even tougher than dykes
I’m taking rappers to a new plateau through rap slow
My rhyming is a vitamin held without a capsule
The smooth criminal on beat breaks
Never put me in your box if your shit eats tapes
The city never sleeps, full of villains and creeps
That’s where I learned to do my hustle, had to scuffle with freaks
I’m an addict for sneakers, 20’s of buddha and bitches with beepers
In the streets I could greet ya, about blunts I’ll teach ya
Inhale deep like the words of my breath
I never sleep cuz sleep is the cousin of death
I lay puzzled as I backtrack to earlier times
Nothing’s equivalent to the New York state of mind ”
- from “N.Y. State Of Mind”

In the era of modern music, from the early 1950’s, when the Blues and Country got married and had a kid named Rock & Roll, all the way up to now, there are very few instances where a major artist was announced to the world with just one line, one lyric. Bob Dylan had “The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind”, I guess, and The Beatles had “She loves you! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” but they weren’t the only things that contributed to their ascension into the public eye. I’m actually hard pressed to come up with an artist other than Nasir Jones that vaulted to recognition from one lyric. When he first appeared, as Nasty Nas, on the classic posse cut “Live At The BBQ” by Main Source, he uttered one line that immediately made him the most talked-about man in Hip-Hop:

When I was twelve, I went to Hell for snuffing Jesus.

A star was born…sort of. The 18-year old from the Queensbridge projects was to eventually be anointed the music’s messiah, New York’s savior from the clutches of the Dr. Dre G-Funk era, and the long prayed for lyrical successor to the great Rakim, but knowing how fickle the music business is, it’s amazing that the world waited for Nas. “Live At The BBQ” was released in 1991, and Nas’s debut album Illmatic wasn’t released until April of 1994. That’s a long time in the lab for a young artist with precious buzz. But first, the record companies had to find him; it’s not like now, with the internet and all that. Nas kicked around for almost a year, ignored by most of the suits because his hyper-literate style, reminiscent of the aforementioned Rakim, as well as Big Daddy Kane, and especially Kool G Rap, had fallen out of the spotlight in favor of the melodious flows of MC’s as different as Q-Tip and Snoop Doggy Dogg, or even the tongue-twisting of acts like Das EFX and Fu-Schnickens. MC Serch from the recently disbanded 3rd Base found Nas hungry for a record deal, and having loved the Main Source track, set up an appearance for him on the Zebrahead soundtrack (which yielded the great “Halftime”), and put Nas on the first single from his new solo album. More importantly though, Serch connected the dots from Columbia Records’ Faith Newman to Nas, and work on Illmatic began. Most times you see situations like this get messy and record companies rush the product out, but not with Nas, probably because the people around him heard an artist of longevity, a street thug with the brain of a scholar. With the assembly of one of the greatest production rosters in Hip-Hop history, including Main Source’s Large Professor, as well as Gang Starr’s DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip – the best producers in New York at the time – Nas crafted a debut among the finest records of all time; before Illmatic, most Hip-Hop albums were produced by one producer or one team, but since this album’s release, with rappers seeing the great effect of the varied production roster, it’s been common practice in the business to hire the hottest guys behind the boards. If you take nothing else from this album, take that, the fact that Illmatic changed the entire way Hip-Hop operated creatively, a whole new interchange between MC's and the tracks they rhymed over.

By the time he was 21-years old, when Illmatic was released, Nas had been subsisting for three years on an unprecedented anticipation in the streets of New York, but the rumor and the real thing were very different; the album dropped like an atomic bomb on Hip-Hop, exceeding everyone’s expectations and served as one of the key albums to return the Rap spotlight to its birthplace in the five boroughs. One could imagine that Nas’s sharp mind formulated the aural assault of Illmatic as the rebirth of Hip-Hop, evident in the old school backdrop on the album’s introduction, “The Genesis”. The track begins with 3 sounds: a sample from the classic Old School Hip-Hop document, the 1982 film Wild Style, the unmistakable sound of a New York City subway train passing on an elevated track, and Nas’s verse from “Live At The BBQ”, which is cut off right before it reaches that ultimate line as if Nas knew it was time to not rest on his laurels and move past his artistic birth to the next level. The ear of an uninitiated passer-by would judge Nas as just another ghetto youth standing on a corner, acting wild with his boys, rolling a Dutch, running from cops, et cetera, et cetera; you all know the stereotypes. The reality however was that Nas was the real deal, an urban philosopher with his mind shaped, as he would allude to a decade later on “Bridging The Gap”, from pouring over book after book of non-curricular reading, devouring [Malcolm] “X and stuff”. Nas was incredibly self-educated, dropping out of school in the ninth grade (“The school drop-out, never liked that shit from day one”) – and what does it say for the NYC education system that the two MC’s with the greatest mastery of the English language in the 1990’s, Nas and The Notorious B.I.G., were both high school dropouts? Furthermore, while Wu-Tang was on about kung-fu flicks, and countless rappers, Nas included, have elevated Scarface’s Tony Montana in the thirteen years since, Nas is the only MC to ever brag that he’s watching Gandhi while writing rhymes. It seems tragic that the trappings of fame and wealth tripped him up artistically for a handful of years, because at his best he seems to be operating on that higher mental level that 2Pac floated on, where the street thug appearance was a façade to help get through to you. Even now, his verse on “Success”, from Jay-Z’s American Gangster is light years beyond…well, you choose a name.

After the introduction, Illmatic kicks into gear with one of the great, epic narratives in the music’s history, a vivid crime yarn that twists and turns with the best films of the genre. Like Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven”, Nas’s “N.Y. State Of Mind” was never a commercial single but still managed to climb to its rightful perch as his signature statement, a song so emotionally deep and musically chilling that it will endure for decades to come. Over a creeping piano bassline chopped by DJ Premier, the lyrics read like classic poetry, packed with immortal project slang and internal rhyming that make the words ring out loud. The song has produced at least a dozen quotable lines that have been cherry picked by other MC’s since the album’s release, and just as many that are haven’t been but are equally incredible; it opens…

Rappers, I’ll monkey-flip ‘em with the funky rhythm / I be kickin’, musician inflicting composition / of pain, I’m like Scarface sniffing cocaine / Holding an M-16, see with a pen I’m extreme / Now, bullet holes left in my peepholes, I’m suited up with street clothes / Hand me a nine and I’ll defeat foes

Nas sets the stage like Scorcese, leaving no detail unexplored, famously running “like a cheetah with thoughts of an assassin”, making a Mack 10 ‘spit’ until it jams, making sure to warn you that there are “three bullets caught up in the chamber”. The song, like the rest of Illmatic, isn’t a straight-up glorification of crime though, with a large portion of the words delivered with a tone of regret, bemoaning the corruption of the “younger niggas pulling the triggers, bringing fame to their name”, and the local snitches keeping “large niggas erasing and their wives ‘basing”. He brilliantly begins the second verse by illustrating his dreams of being the Hollywood image of a Gangsta, “drinking Moets, holding Techs”, getting in “gun-fights with mega cops”, before returning to his grim reality that he’s “just a nigga walking with his finger on the trigger”. Beyond the storytelling, the song serves to introduce the listener to Nas’s unique brand of introspection, one that is equal parts wishful Hip-Hop braggadocio and lucid observations on both personal and ghetto paranoia and the lives of black inner city youth, fearing his own contradictory nature by noting that “I got so many rhymes I don’t think I’m too sane / Life is parallel to Hell but I must maintain”. It’s this conscious sense of right and wrong that sets Nas apart from the pack of Gangsta rappers in the early 90’s; Nas acknowledged the consequences of the criminal, and specifically gang lifestyles, and still managed to foster some hope for his world.

Also produced Premier, the breezy “Memory Lane” and the hard-knocking “Represent” both explain further not just the ghettos that Nas is representing – “My window faces shootouts, drug overdoses, live amongst no roses” – but also who he is – “The brutalizer, crew de-sizer, accelerator / The type of nigga who be pissing in your elevator” – and the daily dangers he faces – “Any day could be your last in the jungle, get murdered on the humble, guns’ll blast, niggas tumble” – delivered with unparalleled vocabulary. Both tracks rank among both Nas and Primo’s best, which is saying something considering their long and storied careers. Even more sobering is the soaring “One Love”, produced with bite and laced with marimba by Q-Tip. Nas writes the first two verses as letters to homies in prison, trying to help his friends’ time pass quicker by speaking on the bleak happenings and block gossip that his friends are missing out on, from “You know you got a son / I heard he looks like you, why don’t your lady write you?” to “Guess who got shot in the dome-piece? Jerome's niece, on her way home from Jones Beach”. Nas pulls constantly at the contradictions of ghetto life, offering a hollow encouragement when he raps, “So stay civilized, time flies / though incarcerated, your mind dies / I hate it when your moms cries / It kinda makes me want to murder”; he spends the entire album proving that he’s more intelligent that pretty much any other MC you’ve heard before, but still he doesn’t see that there’s something wrong when you position your narrator toying with the thought of committing murder one while trying to pen an uplifting letter to a jailed buddy. The moral contortions are fascinating. He calms, and returns for a show-stopping third verse concerning some of his disillusion with the corner life while also being as much of a level-headed role model as he can be to his younger peers:

Sometimes I sit back with a buddha sack / Mind's in another world thinking how can we exist through the facts / Written in school text books, bibles, et cetera / Fuck a school lecture, the lies get me vexed-er / So I be ghost from my projects / I take my pen and pad for the week and hittin’ L's while I'm sleeping / A two-day stay, you may say I need the time alone / To relax my dome, no phone, left the nine at home / You see the streets have me stressed something terrible / Fuckin’ with the corners have a nigga up in Bellevue / Or H.D.M., hit with numbers from eight to ten / A future in a maximum state pen is grim / So I comes back home, nobody's out but Shorty Doo-Wop / Rollin’ two phillies together, in the ‘Bridge we called 'em oowops / He said, ‘Nas, niggaz could be bustin' off the roof / So I wear a bullet-proof and pack a black tres-deuce’ / He inhaled so deep, shut his eyes like he was sleep / Started coughing, one eye peeked to watch me speak / I sat back like the mack, my army suit was black / We was chillin' on these bitches where he pumped his loose cracks / I took the L when he passed it, this little bastard / Keeps me blasted, and he starts talking mad shit / I had to school him, told him don't let niggaz fool him / Cuz when the pistol blows, the one that's murdered be the cool one / Tough luck when niggaz are struck, families fucked up / Could've caught your man, but didn't look when you bucked up / Mistakes happen, so take heed never bust up / At the crowd, catch him solo, make the right man bleed / Shorty's laugh was cold-blooded as he spoke so foul / Only twelve, trying to tell me that he liked my style / Then I rose, wiping the blunt’s ash from my clothes / Then froze, only to blow the herb smoke through my nose / And told my little man that I'm-a go Cypro’s / There's some jewels in the skull that he can sell if he chose / Words of wisdom from Nas, try to rise up above / Keep an eye out for jake, Shorty-Wop / One love.

That being said, Illmatic is not like a U2 record talking about problems in Africa. It’s a Hip-Hop album, and Nas, and the Queensbridge projects he hailed from, were no different than the sources for the couple dozen Rap classics that came before it. In Hip-Hop, you boast that you are the best. That’s what you do, and Nas was an expert, brilliantly blurring the lines between his chest beating and his urban meta-fiction; the result is an album where each song feels like a day in the life of Nas. No where is this better illustrated than on the three tracks produced by Large Professor, the man that put him on in the first place. The brassy “Halftime”, Nas’s solo debut single is included here, with booming Jeep-rattling bass intact. Even in the beginning, his one-liners were killers, from “You couldn’t catch me in the streets without a ton of reefer / That’s like Malcolm X catching the jungle fever” to “I wear chains that excite the Feds” to “I’m as ill as a convict who kills for phone time”. The slow roll of “One Time 4 Your Mind” continues the usual boasting – sexing the honeys, slaying park jams, smoking eleven joints – but Nas also notes that while “starving makes you wanna do crime”, he refrains cuz “crime couldn’t beat a rhyme”; his most simple, but also perhaps most profound claim is that he “represents the thinker”. And if that’s true, which I think is confirmed after all these years, “It Ain’t Hard To Tell”, full of verbal gymnastics, is the glorious closing number, Nas’s words exploding like fireworks over a mutated Michael Jackson beat. The verses are short and punchy, but crammed with as many possible internal rhymes and creative pronunciations as can be – “Nas, I analyze, drop a jew-el, inhale from the L / School a fool well, you feel it like Braille / It ain't hard to tell / I kick a skill like Shaquille holds a pill / Vocabulary spills, I'm ill” – each line like gems encrusted on his lyricist’s crown.

The teetering balance of Hip-Hop’s materialism and boasts, and the worried mind on “the problems of the world today” of someone wise past his years is what fuels Nas throughout, and “Life’s A Bitch”, produced by L.E.S., and “The World Is Yours”, produced by Pete Rock, both dig deeper into the dilemmas that spring from that see-saw. Nas traverses all the dark corners of the ghetto that you’d expect – “the understandable smooth shit that murderers move with” – but, as he begins his verse on “Life’s A Bitch” by waking up on his twentieth birthday, the “essence of adolescence” leaving his body, you observe that, whether true or not, the tales of Illmatic were written by a teenager, from the perspective of a teenager, an astonishing reality to be challenged with, even as Nas fashions his first person narratives with oral dexterity. Where Rakim had once talked about being a stick-up kid in “Paid In Full”, Nas reprises that legend, reminiscing on when he was “robbing foreigners, taking wallets, their jewels and rip their green cards, dip to the projects, flashing my quick cash”, but again he returns to the conflict of the lifestyle. As ghetto fabulous as “I’m out for dead presidents to represent me” makes it sound, he presents the dichotomy that “niggas I used to run with is rich or doing years in the hundreds”; to him, it’s horribly simple – either you succeed and money equals success, or you fail, and failure is incarceration or death. Even AZ, the only guest MC on the album, raps brilliantly that “even though we know somehow we all gotta go, but as long as we’re leaving thieving we’ll be leaving with some kind of dough”, presenting the inherent defeatism that was “dwelling in the Rotten Apple”, springing from the gritty New York Hip-Hop of this new era; as Dre and Snoop had made drugs and gang violence hip and glamorous, Nas, along with the Wu-Tang, and a year later Mobb Deep, weren’t sugarcoating their barred-window environments. In all the cold realism though, Nas always manages to squeeze in options, ways out, which is how you know he was a little more cognizant than the rest of the pack. He raps, “I switched my motto, instead of saying ‘Fuck tomorrow’, that buck that bought a bottle could’ve struck the lotto.” That’s the kind of self-realization that was not in abundance in the Hip-Hop of the early 90’s, pure hope laid simple and plain, and even though self-confidence is an essential element to success in the Hip-Hop game, you as a listener could start to grasp that Nas not only knew he was the shit, but more significantly he hoped if “in his book of rhymes, all the words pass the margins”, his talent might be good enough to get him out of the PJ’s in the end. “The World Is Yours” theorizes that the struggle of this project world is that life here can award you enough positive skill and development to escape…and yet home is still home.

Illmatic is one of those singular statements, a massive representation of an artist not only at his peak, but also hitting at the right time, a zeitgeist defining work – at least from a Hip-Hop standpoint – and benefiting from being mostly uncorrupted by the pressures of the record business grind. This album is Hip-Hop in the mid 90’s, representing that gritty moment from the late 1993 emergence of Wu-Tang through to the surprising ultra-glam of “Hypnotize” in early 1997 and Biggie’s subsequent murder. And despite the fact that Illmatic is not the highest Hip-Hop album on this list, I would say that if you own only one Hip-Hop album in your lifetime, make it this album. If you’re asking why, I would say because in order to break through the cacophony of modern media, you need immediacy, a lack of excess. Besides being packed with nothing but classic tracks, running in a sequence as powerful as classic plates from Highway 61 Revisited to Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album, Illmatic is extra lean, and the more fatty excess you excise, the closer you come to perfection. The reason then, my friends, is because Illmatic is a pretty much the perfect Hip-Hop album, featuring some of the most sublime lyrical imagery of the 20th century. And the world would’ve never heard it without that one line. Damn.

01. “The Genesis” [interlude]
02. “N.Y. State Of Mind”
03. “Life’s A Bitch” [feat. AZ & Olu Dara]
04. “The World Is Yours”
05. “Halftime”
06. “Memory Lane (Sittin’ In Da Park)”
07. “One Love”
08. “One Time 4 Your Mind”
09. “Represent”
10. “It Ain’t Hard To Tell”

"N.Y. State Of Mind" [audio]

"The World Is Yours" [video]

"One Love" [video]

"It Ain't Hard To Tell" [video]

- BONUS: "The Genesis" [audio]
- BONUS: "Life's A Bitch" [audio]
- BONUS: "The World Is Yours" [remix video]
I actually feel that this version is better. The video definitely fits the song more; it's also part one of the "One Love" video.
- BONUS: "Halftime" [video]
- BONUS: "Memory Lane (Sittin' In Da Park)" [audio]
- BONUS: "One Time 4 Your Mind" [audio]
- BONUS: "Represent" [audio]