Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Critical Beatdown: Round One

A new feature, indebted to The Singles Jukebox (not a dating service) and Kool Keith.

Them Crooked Vultures, "New Fang"
AM: There is something crooked and predatory about this loud and limber jam. The participants bring their A-Games, but it's not quite the sum of Zeppelin, Nirvana, and Queens of the Stone Age. 4/5

NS: Might sound cluttered at first, but several listens yield a blocky groove of many variable genius parts. Oddly Franz Ferdinand-sounding (especially the fat guitar sounds), this song proves once again that the magnificent Dave Grohl is never better than behind the kit. Love the slide/strings/whatever that noise is. I want more. 4.5/5

Grant Hart, "School Buses Are For Children"
AM: Astoundingly similar to Ziggy-era Bowie, with a low-budget baroque kinda sound. It could sound like shit and it'd still make me happy Grant's around, but it's better than that. 3.5/5

NS: Firmly ensconced at this point as the fifth best songwriter to come out of Minnesota, Hart chooses to indulge his more introspective singer-songwriter chops. The best thing about this song for me is Hart's keenly affecting wail, virtually unchanged since the Husker days, but the song's whole lilt is supremely pleasant and uplifting. 4/5

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Beck, "IRM"
AM: Unlike Gainsbourg's recent film work, "IRM" is actually quite tasteful, perhaps too polite. Nathan's right to draw a comparison with the digital ramshackle of Beck's The Information, though this is tidied up. On initial listens I thought "IRM" had the sterility of its titular subject, now I think I mistook that for the rhythm. 3/5

NS: You can tell Beck (especially Beck-circa-2007) is all over this track. Gainsbourg's vocals are less effective, but at least they aren't textbook throwback French pop sort of coos, which one might expect from the kid of Serge Gainsbourg. Extra points for the drums, but this still doesn't feel like a completed song. 2.5/5

Girls, "Lust For Life"
AM: A youthful, adrenalized jolt that marks the entrance of a rock and roll true believer. Like if Jason Pierce spent more time in the sun. 5/5

NS: I'm predisposed towards blocking out these sorts of songs redolent of pastoral indie-ness, so maybe I'm missing out on a great pop song under all this. I was personally pretty bored by the guitar-work until maybe the 52-second mark. Songs like this are liable to make me really sad, because I'm pretty sure whatever Girls is trying to talk about is something I've never experienced and never will. 2.5/5

Miley Cyrus, "Party In The U.S.A."
AM: "Party In The U.S.A.," more than the Bush presidency, makes me ashamed to be an American. Trite, pap-rock, focus-grouped bullshit--all accurate descriptors, but they fail to penetrate the horror of the song's maddening buoyancy. 0/5

NS: While I appreciate Ms. Cyrus' willingness to try and mend a bitterly divided nation, I am completely incapable of relating to even a word of what she's talking about (something about culture shock and visiting LA). The worst thing about this song is the awful, awful canned drums that seem straight out of the dregs of the 80s. The paeans to Jay-Z/Britney hurt my ears. 1/5

Brother Ali, "The Preacher"
AM: Rap's foremost humanist takes a break to remind you he's a also a next-level MC. A retread of "Whatcha Got," but who cares? It's Ant who ups his game this time. 4/5

NS: While the uncharacteristically straightforward horns 'n' guitars courtesy of Ant are certainly cool, Brother Ali's lyrical abilities can't help but command attention. Just your good old-fashioned soul-classic rock-rap mishmash, with the Brother taking it to the next level. This is the one I'll probably end up listening to the most. 5/5

Monday, October 26, 2009

A list of this summer's jams, formerly on the side bar. No plans to start a Fall Traxxx or Winter Soundz at the moment. Go find your own music.

In no real order:
  • "If It's True" Yo La Tengo
  • "Auditorium" Mos Def feat. Slick Rick
  • "The Sky Children" Kaledioscope
  • "I Am Leaving" Blue Roses
  • "I Want For Nothing" Wye Oak
  • "What You Do" Chrisette Michele
  • "Walkabout" Atlas Sound
  • "Dream City" Free Energy
  • "VCR" The xx
  • "Panis Et Circensis" Os Mutantes
  • "The Sweetest Thing" Camera Obscura
  • "I Feel A Change Comin' On" Bob Dylan
  • "Take You Home 2 My Mama" The-Dream
  • "One Wing" Wilco
  • "Hang Fire" The Rolling Stones
  • "If It Were Left Up To Me" Sly and the Family Stone
  • "Madonna Of The Wasps" Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians
  • "Pretty Wings" Maxwell
  • "Over It" Dinosaur Jr
Which is your favorite? Mine is "Pretty Wings." A new Rockaliser feature is in the pipeline...

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Three Years (and Six Verses) in the Life of Benjamin Andre

Let's take it back to '03. Still reeling from that whole 9/11 predicament, our country was finding ever newer and more fractious ways of wasting time. Based on pretenses that once seemed reasonable, the US began its occupation of Iraq. Scientists finished completely mapping the human genome. Peter Jackson finished the third installment of a fantasy series that collectively was only a few hours shy, length-wise, of The Cure For Insomnia. And, for a while, the best-selling album in America was an album marketed as an Outkast release. In reality, it was two solo albums sold together, each generating multiple hit singles that satisfied consumers and critics alike. It was called Speakerboxx/The Love Below, and it was the album that got my tenth-grade guitar-head into rap.

Many arguments persist about which solo disc was better: generally, the fans of Outkast's more traditional southern-fried gangsta sound preferred Big Boi's Speakerboxx, while a more esoteric group of Prince fans, soccer moms, emo kids and vegetarians preferred The Love Below. I happen to like both albums just fine, and I acknowledge that there is a fair amount of filler on each, but I must give the edge to Three Stacks in this case. Dre's first single was a loopy pop number, with no rapping, played in 10/4 time. It also made a legitimate claim to being possibly the greatest song ever written. The rest of the album, though not as good, is deft and entertaining, and more importantly diverse: he was doing things with jazz, musical numbers, singer/songwriter material, and whatever else, all previously unseen in hip-hop.

One thing Andre didn't do much on that album, however, was rap. This led some to believe that his emcee abilities were lagging behind his partner's. This perception was reinforced after the release of the soundtrack to Idlewild, which was unfairly savaged as a poor followup to Speakerboxx/The Love Below that went further in capitalizing on Andre's mounting interest in classic blues, jazz and ragtime. Too bad, because Idlewild has a number of classic tracks on it (and the movie, by the way, is in its way far more watchable than Purple Rain). There were cries that Outkast had gone from being respectable elders of the rap community to outsized, self-important artistes, and a fair amount of the criticism seemed to stem from the fact that there wasn't enough rapping.

Now we are approaching the end of the decade, and Outkast has yet to release another album. The plan has been to release two more solo albums independently before moving on to the next proper Outkast release, but Big Boi's Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty has been in the works for at least two years and still has yet to be released (which is a shame: the tracks that have leaked so far have suggested that this album may well end up a masterpiece, easily besting almost anything on Speakerboxx). What is Andre to do in his spare time?

The short answer is that he has been completely blowing away the competition on other artists' tracks. Since 2006, there has been perhaps no rapper who has proven such severe lyrical dominance without releasing a single album of solo track. Mr. 3000 has done the impossible by establishing himself as the emcee to beat in a profession that tends to discard its elders quickly. For your benefit, I thought I would provide a list of guest verses Andre 3000 has done, accompanied by some comments.

UGK, "Int'l Players Anthem." This is probably the most high-profile release that Dre has yet guested on, and it also may be the track with the stiffest competition: his partner Big Boi is present, as are Bun B and the late Pimp C. I've written about how much I like this track before, but one thing I didn't mention is how successful the rappers are at carving out their own, minute-long niches. In reverse-order, Big Boi indulges his surreal side over a stripped-down bass and drum groove, the sound of a cash register, and some 'Kastian slowed vocals; Bun B offers his own characteristic paean to settle down with a girl over the manic repetition of synth handclaps; Pimp C describes some of the more lucrative aspects of the pimping game as the drum beat kicks in. And yet none of them can top the moment when Dre begins "So..." and the Willie Hutch sample kicks in, sans drums. I'm not a rapper, so I'm not really aware of how difficult it would be to rap without a beat, but Andre's tone and delivery strike me even more with the limited accompaniment. "Int'l Players Anthem" is a song about marriage, of course, specifically Andre 3000's impending nuptials, and simply the ability to talk interestingly about an institution without resorting to gloss and sentiment is a revelatory act in itself. He projects a humorous tone of humility about his predicament ("I'm no island/peninsula maybe") and explains in lucid terms why marriage can be a serious and important thing, even to self-described "players" ("I'd hate to see you frown but I'd rather see her smiling") and ends on a note rarely addressed in music, literature or film: as "spaceships don't come equipped with rearview mirrors" so does the marriage ceremony seem set up to foreshadow eventual heartbreak. Armed with this knowledge, Andre imagines himself in the company of friends, supporting his decision but telling him, "keep your heart, Three Stacks, keep your heart/Damn, these girls are smart, Three Stacks, these girls are smart. Play your your part." In a little over a minute, Dre spits at least four or five phrases that are deeply intelligent, original and well-written. It's not just great rapping, it's a great essay on love, commitment and fidelity.

Big Boi, "Royal Flush." This was one of the earliest leaked tracks off Luscious Left Foot, and one of the most refreshingly minimal. With Big Boi taking the lead this time and Raekwon following, one would think that the anxiety of influence generated by the "Skew It On The Bar-B" team would be unbearable. And yet once again Dre finds a way to turn the song on its head. It should be added that Big Boi and Raekwon's verses are also really, really good: Big shares his thoughts on American foreign policy and suggest relocating to Atlantis, while Rae, understated as always, returns to the familiar subject of crack dealing. But 3000 proves to be on a whole different level, and it's obvious that his partners understood that, because his verse gets more running time than the previous two combined. He takes time warming up, offering a series of blank portraits ("As a king standing on his terrace/while his partner shooting up at the rifleman") before offering advice to "Live life like there is no tomorrow/and if one come then that's the motto." It's one of those verses where the rapper keeps topping himself in terms of memorable catchphrases, reaching an almost feverish level of ingenuity. Dre drops lines both amusing ("Crack and I have a lot in common/we both came up in the 80s and we keep the base pumpin'") and devastating ("I thought the name of the game was to have a better life/I guess it ain't, what a shame"), and he ably diagnoses the fractured career aspirations of many young black Americans ("Dare make an honest living or make a crooked killing/Or do a bit of both until you're holding on a million?"). The track ends flippantly: "you do the hokie-pokie and you turn your life around." Throughout it all, Dre's voice remains calm and collected, almost journalistic, refusing to romanticize those who choose lives of crime or those who choose otherwise.

John Legend, "Green Light." This is one of those songs that begs multiple interpretations. On the surface, it seems to be about John Legend at a party, imploring some woman to give him the "green light" to take her home. Another scenario, strongly suggested by this video, can alternately be conjectured. That is, that Andre 3000 is giving John Legend the "green light" to temporarily relinquish his role as a smooth-piano cheese merchant and attempt something a bit more unorthodox and cool. In fact, the whole tenor of the video (which I strongly suggest you watch) is that Legend is a complete milquetoast until he borrows some of Dre's credibility. Further research corroborates my interpretation: Andre 3000 was quoted as saying, "This is going to be a surprise for a lot of John Legend fans, because it is a lot more upbeat than John is [...] this is a cool John Legend song." And, at the end of "Green Light," you can hear Three Stacks commenting that "sometimes you got to step out from behind the piano. Even Stevie Wonder got down sometimes" (question: when?). I do agree with Andre that this is high-quality music. Legend's boring lounge-croon is still a factor, but the spacy keyboard arrangements are really catchy and the beat (as De La Soul would say) is slammin'. Legend sings the verses and chorus, but Dre gets the opportunity to sing a bridge or two, and I was reminded of how much I like Andre 3000 as a singer, despite his lack of technical prowess in that department. Taken together, the song is pure sugar-pop euphoria, and Dre's brief verse at the end contributes to the track's sense of ease and well-being. In this instance, the subject of the verse closely mirrors that of the song. He describes encountering resistance upon asking to take a woman home: "What kind of a girl do you think that I are?/The kind that you meet in a bar?/You think you can get whatever you want 'cause you're some kind of star?" To which the answer is, "No, I'm a comet." 3000's demeanor breeches new levels of good-natured flirting, perhaps reaching its zenith in the line "I hope you're more like Anita Baker than Robin Givens." My only problem with the track is that Legend starts singing again as Dre is finishing up, so it's difficult to hear his denouement. Still, it's hard to listen to this and not be smiling.

DJ Drama, "The Art of Storytellin' Part 4." Similar to previous installments of "The Art of Storytellin'," this track is basically the two members of Outkast pontificating on social issues of the day. Chris Rock once said, in praising Lauryn Hill, that "people don't have a problem with conscious rap; they have a problem with conscious beats," a comment that made me reflect on Outkast's role as rap group that, uniquely, manages to write commercially-successful music with a conscience. In interviews, Dre has made comments to the effect that Outkast's music reflects a diversity that is equal parts party, gangsta, and conscious rap, and that it was important to him that one area wasn't disproportionately represented (indeed, one of the reasons that "B.O.B" remains as good as it is is because Outkast managed to mix and match such elements, sometimes in the span of a few sentences). I like this song a lot because it begins with Andre offering a critique of "Make It Rain" culture, to which he argues thusly (this deserves to be quoted at length):
I'm like why? The world needs sun
The hood needs funds, there's a war going on
And half the battle is guns
How dare I throw it on the floor, when people are poor?
So I write like Edgar Allan to restore, got a cord?
Umbilical attached to a place they can't afford.
Obviously, a lot of the value here is in the delivery, especially the way Andre enunciates "the world needs sun, the hood needs funds," etc. The whole thing, however, is just as vivid on paper, a brilliant example of narrative-derived rap. Drawing the line between rap star decadence, urban poverty, and American war culture? That would be something most rappers would only be able to do in twice as many lines. With Andre, it's just the beginning. The rest of the track follows this route, with Andre even offering a mild rebuke of his own behavior, as the disconnect between the life he currently lives and the people he left behind grows in metaphoric intensity. The rest of the track, I hate to say, is kind of a letdown.

Fonzworth Bentley, "Everybody." This is by far the worst tune that Andre has been associated with in recent years. You may remember Fonzworth as one of the more high-profile gofers in the rap community; he also made a memorable appearance in the video for "The Way You Move." Unfortunately, I don't think anyone was saving their best beats for Puff Daddy's personal valet, who also happens to be a very bad rapper. Kanye West features, oddly, not providing a verse but rather singing the hook, which everyone knows by now is a bad idea. Andre is more of a welcome relief here than a lyrical force, but there are a few good moments, most revolving around whatever "shorty" Fonzworth was directed crude and unimaginative innuendos toward earlier. I like the space after the line "Your granny must be Navajo," for instance. Still, this is a weak track in most senses.

Devin The Dude, "What a Job." This track, which also features Snoop Dogg, is perhaps too smooth for its own good. Or at least it would require quite a collection of emcees to make up for the limp musical arrangement. Which it definitely has. In fact, Snoop may have contributed better material than Andre. There is a very "Outkast" sounding moment, I'm not sure how to explain it, when a chorus starts straight out of "Ms. Jackson" provides accompaniment. The best thing about the song as a whole is its subject matter: the "job" in the title refers to the rapping profession, and messrs. Dogg, Dude and 3000 have plenty of reasons for liking their profession. The most commonly mentioned is how much weed they get to smoke. Andre, on the other hand, talks about spending all night working on lyrics, brainstorming ideas, and dealing with a culture that likes to illegally procure his hard work. But the best lines are below:
See, we do it for the boy that graduated
That looked you in your eyes real tough and said 'preciate it
And that he wouldn't have made it if it wasn't for your CD number 9
And he's standing with his baby momma Kiki and she's crying,
Talking about, that they used to get high to me in high school
And they used to make love to me in college
Then they told me about their first date, listenin' to my tunes
And he liked her fingernail polish
I say, hate to cut you off but I gotta go
I wish you could tell me mo' but I'm off to the studio
Gotta write tonight
Hey, can you put us in your raps? I don't see why not.
Andre goes from railing against supporters of file-sharing (a well-worn subject) to offering a symbolic compromise: the people to whom the music mattered most are honored by the artist himself, who considers them the primary reason for why his job gives him so much pleasure. It's heartening to see that as a reason, in addition to the normally-stated copious weed, money, hos, etc. Sentiments like this can be expressed badly (we can all think about terrible songs about "doing it for the fans") but Andre succeeds because he keeps things specific.

Speaking personally, if someone were to come up to me and state that he or she "got high to me in high school," I would view that as just about the most moving and life-affirming thing anyone could possibly say. I think.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Same Rag You've Always Known

No one asked, but here it is: a list of the 11 albums that Rolling Stone gave five stars during the 2000s, baring any late entrants. The only remaining 2009 disc that seems like a contender is that weird-seeming Dylan Christmas album, which doesn't have the glow of a five star album about it, particularly after the turgid Together Through Life. In chronological order:

Bob Dylan-- "Love and Theft" (2001)
Mick Jagger--Goddess In The Doorway (2001)
Beck--Sea Change (2002)
Bruce Springsteen--The Rising (2002)
The White Stripes--Elephant (2003)
Brian Wilson--SMiLE (2004)
Beastie Boys--To The 5 Boroughs (2004)
Kanye West--Late Registration (2005)
Bob Dylan--Modern Times (2006)
Bruce Springsteen--Magic (2007)
Bruce Springsteen--Working On A Dream (2009)

Seven of these albums, distributed over just four musicians, are by artists who in any reasonable estimation of their work peaked sometime between 1965-1975. I'd add that Beck and The Beastie Boys peaked long before 2002 and 2004, respectively.

Anyways the most notable of these reviews is Jann Wenner's five-star write-up of Mick Jagger's Goddess In The Doorway. The review, possibly written by Wenner because even hacks refused to award a Mick Jagger solo album five stars, strains mightily to praise the album. In 974 words, it embodies almost every conceivable qualm one might have with Wenner's publication, presenting them with--and this is the most shocking part--a completely straight face. Is it even worth my time critiquing it?:
In terms of consistency, craftsmanship and musical experimentation, Goddess in the Doorway surpasses all his solo work and any Rolling Stones album since Some Girls

Goddess in the Doorway resembles the Stones' best albums in that it's a varied yet cohesive collection of ballads, hard rockers and one country song

Making the most of this opportunity to stretch himself, Jagger has recruited some outstanding guests...Rob Thomas...Lenny Kravitz...Bono...Joe Perry

It may seem a truism, but it's worth noting that he is - along with John Lennon, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and Bono - one of the great male rock voices of this age
These statements wear their self-parody as unknowingly as the real Mick Jagger!

But what of the other ten? I suspect that about half of these albums will make the magazine's Decade Top 10. Personally, I've heard most of them--many of them on the strength of the RS reviews, I confess--all, in fact, but the Jagger disc and the three Springsteen albums. I doubt I'll hear any of those four, ever: though I love the Stones, I have no desire to hear Doorway, and while Springsteen fans seemed to love The Rising and Magic, I am not of their ilk.

Aside from Goddess in the Doorway, To The 5 Boroughs stands out as this list's other big misfire. It may have seemed natural at the time--responding to 9/11 helped net The Rising five stars, the Beasties hadn't released an album since the 90's, the singles were pretty fun, and RS does adore the Beastie Boys. But as a long-player, it's unexciting, surely the group's worst.

I can understand the Dylan reviews better. Note that 2 albums represents half of Bob's 00's output, and the magazine, which exists in large part to worship at the shrine of Dylan, picked the right two. "Love And Theft" is the weaker of the pair, but still quite good, one of three great records to be released on the 00's-defining, above-mentioned date (the other two being Jay-Z's The Blueprint and Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which are both better so go figure). I do love Modern Times, however. Aside from its deeply ironic title, the album shows a reflective, lonely Dylan, with an arsenal of sharply written tunes. Still, it's a four-and-a-half star LP, tops.

Beck's Sea Change is another album on the list a half star short of RS's ultimate honor. It meant a lot to me when I first heard it, and the first five tracks will blow your mind. But Beck's transformation into a Nick Drake-like singer-songwriter arrived just in time to capitalize on the massive goodwill lent that particular mope in the early 00's, and the second half of his album drags. Plus, it sucks that Beck's vocals are always dirge-y now, even when his musical surroundings aren't. Wasn't that way before Sea Change.

The vocals on SMiLE bother me as well. Wilson's voice is audibly strained a number of times--most noticably on rerecorded but only slightly inferior versions of "Heroes and Villains" and "Good Vibrations"--and we can still only wonder what it would've sounded like had Brian been able to keep it together in 1966. But the old man and his many collaborators' take on a teenager's symphony to God is wonderful, complex stuff. RS surprised no one with the review, but they weren't too far off, either.

Which leaves the two best albums that Rolling Stone awarded five stars, the only two given to youngish artists. The Late Registration review might be the more surprising of the two, and not just because a black person got it. Previously, the magazine hadn't seemed particularly keen on Kanye--College Dropout, which won the Village Voice critics poll, got just 3.5 stars (which Ye later called them out on), and he'd never landed a big profile or anything. But Late Registration is not only an incredible record, but one that also caters to rock crit tastes (I mean, having Jon Brion co-produce your album?). A lush, hip-hop White Album, with enough subtle production tricks and facets of Kanye's then-interesting persona to make 70 minutes go by fast.

And finally: self-indulgence is the name of Jack White's game these days, but there was a time when he'd indulge his audience as well. That Rolling Stone would love the White Stripes was a foregone conclusion, but to award Elephant five stars took at least a small amount of balls in 2003. I vividly remember the issue, the first RS I got via my subscription: it was "The Cool Issue" and featured Lisa Marie Presley on the cover, along with a small blurb about the Stripes album. Elephant is where it all congealed for the Stripes: a blues-punk barnstormer that envisioned the Brill Building as a rickety garage, lower frequencies as the apocalypse, and a glorious coexistence of country-kitsch and multitracked screeds. The best album to receive five stars from Wenner's rag this decade and just enough to make me thankful that Rolling Stone existed in the 00's, if only for personal reasons.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Toast the Kings

One of my favorite albums to come out recently is Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Pt. II. Like only the best sequels, OB4CLII honors and contextualizes the best moments of its predecessor, but also manages to integrate new and modern components that don't serve the purpose of cheapening or dating any of the material. I seem to be alone in thinking that the Wu-Tang Clan has of late been experiencing a Clint Eastwood-style second renaissance, and that collectively their increased output from Fishscale onward reflects the kind of focused genius of their '93-'97 heyday, where each of the key members of the group got one solo album to show off their best work, and everyone contributed to group releases, which used to feel major (even if, in the case of something like Wu-Tang Forever, some of the music was in fact quite minor). I remember 8 Diagrams getting really good reviews when it came out, and deservedly so, as it was their most remarkable, consistent collection since the first album. And yet everyone forgot about it not long after. I wonder if part of the reason is that Raekwon and Ghostface seemed to not like the production on that album, which admittedly is a far cry, conceptually, from Enter the Wu-Tang.

And yet it seems at least that OB4CLII is getting the accolades it deserves. Raekwon has always been one of the more reticent and perfectionist members of the group, so his contributions to the Wu-Tang discography were less plentiful than his buddy Ghostface Killah. So when he does come out with an album, particularly the official sequel to what everyone agrees is his classic, it feels like an event. The fact that any bad blood between RZA and Raekwon hasn't prevented the former from contributing three tracks of his own probably helps. As is the fact that Raekwon gets strong support from producers as disparate as Dr. Dre and J. Dilla, who remains one of the most remarkably fecund producers years after his death.

I want to provide a track-by-track analysis of this album, because there's really something special and profound going on here, and the more I listen to this album the more I find to admire.

1. "Return of the North Star"--Think of this opening number as a "Previously, on..." moment, or at least an opportunity for Raekwon to bridge the gap between the first OB4CL and this release. It also proves that the game has slightly changed. The beginning is the strings lifted from "North Star (Jewels)," the last track on OB4CL, which then evolves into an even more lush string sample, as if fourteen years of advancements in sampling and recording have yielded a change from black and white to Technicolor. Speaking over this sample is Popa Wu, a non-rapper member of the group responsible for many of the more interminable opening tracks on Wu-Tang albums, but he's only on for an album before we here some words from Raekwon himself. This is merely a prelude, though, and the action has yet to begin...

2. "House of Flying Daggers"--If this counts as an opening salvo, it is certainly as brilliant of an opening as any I have heard, and a perfect example of the kind of intense, fiercely melodic beats J. Dilla seemed to have no trouble coming up with. I would also direct you to this awesome video, which may be an ideal way to listen to this song (and I rarely say that about music videos). There are hints of the old Wu-Tang sound--the martial arts samples and all that--but the sound is clearly Dilla updating RZA. Raekwon is joined here by (in order) Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killah and Method Man. For my money, it's Deck who wins on this particular track (as he and U-God tended to do on much of 8 Diagrams), but everyone is on their best behavior. Method Man's switch-around "Got a whole lot of classic joints/and while you're at it, pass the joint" should go in the annals of Method Man lines where he interrupts his own line of thought to talk about weed. This is what the Wu-Tang Clan always did best: classic, minimalist beat work with three or four classic verses on top of it.

3. "Sonny's Missing"--I've already mentioned several of the high-profile producers on this album without even getting to Pete Rock. Well, here he is. This track is certainly a let-up on the intensity after "House of Flying Daggers," but the track still makes good use of some sinister flute and horn-playing. This also could be considered the start of OB4CLII's story proper, or at least it's the kind of story-oriented track that Raekwon excels at, but I should reveal that as a concept album, this is as about as straight and cohesive a narrative as something like Tommy. Which is to say, apart from using the same Wu-Gambinos mafia aliases from the first album, one doesn't really come away with this album thinking that much has happened. Other than that, U-God is conveniently still dead and therefore won't be showing up to guest (too bad!).

4. "Pyrex Vision"--A very short (0:55), pleasant track, the kind of thing that Ghostface really excels at, going into the minutia of the crack-dealing business, talking about pyrexes under oven flames, putting milk in a finished batch to make it fizzier, etc. Also love the way Raekwon intones "What up, beloved?" The beat is similarly just a brief guitar number, but it's pleasing in its slightness.

5. "Cold Outside"--The album's first properly "epic" track, with Wu hanger-on/occasional singer Suga Suga Bang Bang wailing "it's cold outsiiiiiiiiide" effectively. Raekwon takes the first verse, painting a picture of a decadent, almost dystopian urban environment where drug trade casualties have an almost mythic sense of tragedy. Ghostface is then inclined to go into some of the details, tossing off infanticide, dirty cops, AIDS, the Iraq War, and other modern blights as examples of the kind of feeling that elicits Suga Suga Bang Bang's anxious wail. God, Ghostface sounds intensely in command over that wall of horns. to me, its closest antecedent would be something like "Stick Me For My Riches," another song that made use of extended soul-singing.

6. "Black Mozart"--Yet another reason why RZA will always be known as one of the best: you may not notice it at first, but he's sampling (among other things) the theme from The Godfather. And he does it well. There's some gnarly guitar work (sounds like maybe RZA is playing it?), and Inspectah Deck knows how to just take off with a beat like this. Unfortunately, this track contains RZA's only lyrical contribution, and as protracted as it is, it's still for me one of the maybe ten best moments of this album, when he yells "We soldiers, boy we soldiers!" in that angry sort of yelp he perfected with Gravediggaz. It's one of the beauties of this album that, as good as RZA's contributions are, there's enough good stuff otherwise so that we don't necessarily miss his guiding hand. Also funny: RZA is a terrible, terrible singer.

7. "Gihad"--Another expressly minimal beat: just drums, bass and what sounds like Gregorian chants. Yet another song where Raekwon and Ghostface trade off one verse each, and Ghostface's narrative wins in the memorable department for describing a situation in which he negotiates a Mexican standoff while in the process of receiving fellatio. That, you could say, takes some lyrical talent. Don't know what the significance of the song's title is (the group's five-percenter philosophy is not discussed much elsewhere), but it's still worth several replays for Ghost's verse alone.

8. "New Wu"--RZA's second beat on the album isn't as good as "Black Mozart," but it's capable of growing on you. It depends, really, how well you can handle a hook that is nothing more than a choir singing "Wuuuuu Wuuuuu." The extremely cheap-looking video for this is funny, because it shows the gang in a club when this is most expressly not a club banger. The best moment on this song is Ghostface, and the way he raps the lines "Y'all Planet of the Apes standing next to King Kong," implying that it's not about how many monkeys you have in a movie, but the size of the monkey. This song is all right, but it will never be a favorite, and I can think of several other songs in the album that are probably more deserving of a video (including "Black Mozart"). This is also not Method Man's best moment as a hook-man.

9. "Penitentiary"--Another one of those intense, edgy beats, which befits the subject matter suggested by the song's title. The production is neat and minimal, with some interestingly-integrated sitar samples, but it's mostly about the drum beat and Raekwon and Ghostface. By this point it should be clear that the storyline really is going nowhere, and it's best to look at OB4CLII as a series of Runyonesque theme-linked shorter pieces. "Penitentiary" is a perfect example of the sort of song that contributes nothing to the album but is still capable of lodging itself in one's head.

10. "Baggin' Crack"--Raekwon really loves the occasional shorter guitar-bass-drum number. "Baggin' Crack" is at about the same level as "Gihad" or "Pyrex Vision," which is to say perfectly serviceable. Not much to it other than that. Raekwon has talked about bagging crack elsewhere on this album, so if you're into the inner-workings of crack labs (and if you read this blog, you obviously are), this will be a highlight.

11. "Surgical Gloves"--The subject matter isn't much different here, but this is a different, stranger kind of beat. Wikipedia tells me that it is the Alchemist sampling from a Styx song (!), but there's no way to tell that from the proceedings here. Weird drums, with lots of cymbal crashes, and bells, to give you an idea. By the time you can tell that there is some sort of circular riff pattern underlying this whole thing, the song ends.

12. "Broken Safety"--Jadakiss is probably the first high-profile non-Wu member to guest-verse on the album, and for my money he basically blows away all the non-Wu competition on the remainder of the album (which, to give it away, will include Beanie Siegel and Busta Rhymes). I'm not even sure why, but it must have something to do with that beat, an almost perfectly-pitched mood piece with a loose, repeated sample that allows for a lot of creative rhyming. Raekwon isn't as good as Jadakiss here, but he's better than Styles P, who starts off well but ends up seeming kind of sluggish in comparison to Jadakiss' deft wordplay. This is one of my favorite beats on the album, but I understand it may not be for anyone.

13. "Canal Street"--This track is front-to-back brilliant, one of my personal favorites in terms of just letting Raekwon strut his stuff over some suitably epic hard-rap samples. As great as Raekwon is all over this track, you can only understand how great the accompaniment when he shuts up and the beat continues, during the last twenty seconds or so of the track (my advice: listen from 3:10 onward). Over the past few weeks, I have found myself fast-forwarding to those final twenty seconds and just jamming out. Still, I shouldn't deny how great Raekwon is here, when one can bother to pay attention. The turnaround on the bass drum, the way the hook sort of just continues Raekwon's train of thought--this is classic, personality-oriented rap of the eminently repeatable kind.

14. "Ason Jones"--As if the title didn't clue you in, this is the album's token ODB tribute, and while I don't think it works as well as "Life Changes" (a track no one else seems to like, I'll grant you), I think Raekwon makes up for a rather duff verse on that 8 Diagrams track. The song integrates a few audio clips of ODB talking, which of course can't help but tear at one's heart strings. The beat is more vintage soul, less obtrusive than many of the others because this is meant to be a more reverential and gentle number. And, in case you were still keeping track, the narrative is completely shot at this point.

15. "Have Mercy"--For some reason, this very uncommmercial track has a video. Unfortunately, Beanie Siegel doesn't really step up to the plate the way Jadakiss did, but what he does is serviceable, or at least varies the playing field a little bit. This is a dark little tune. Very hushed, very minimal...and the singer Blue Raspberry adds an even more melancholy voice to the proceedings.

16. "10 Bricks"--Whereas this brilliant, J. Dilla-produced number has no video, even as it fulfills the cinematic MO of OB4CLII as well as any track--in fact, this may the bravest and most characteristically penetrating moment of the whole album. J. Dilla is so good that one can be forgiven for not really listening to what Raekwon, Cappadonna or Ghostface (the unbeatable Ironman team) have to say. I predict that the beat from "10 Bricks" will go on to be a remix classic. It's such an organic and casual update of the RZA sound, and yet it really has its own personality.

17. "The Fat Lady Sings"--RZA's third and final track on the album is even weaker than the first two, which may have less to do with the beat than with the fact that Raekwon doesn't seem to be very engaged with it, and doesn't let it go past 2:17. Raekwon experiments with some surreal subject matter, but this is definitely meant to be a RZA mood piece (think "Sunlight") so it doesn't really fit on a Raekwon album.

18. "Catalina"--If you can't tell from the first 20 seconds who the producer is here, I suggest you give 2001 another listen. If you're wondering what sort of west-east synergy could be produced by the meeting of Dre and Raekwon, you may be disappointed to find that the combination doesn't really yield anything resembling tension. Not that we don't know that Dre is capable of better--I would be willing to be a lot of money that this is one of the many cast-off tracks from Detox that Dre has been agonizing over for so many years. Still, the problem with 2001 was always that the rapping was always threatened by the amazing production, but when you got a guy like Raekwon, you don't have to work so hard on the production end. If you listen carefully, you'll notice that Raekwon is borrowing a bit of Inspectah Deck's verse from "C.R.E.A.M."

19. "We Will Rob You"--To be honest, Slick Rick's whole part here, and his attempt at interpolating Queen, is pretty lame. The rest is excellent. Part of the reason is that it contains the only verse from GZA on the album, who is of course always welcome. It seems that GZA has always had a hard time integrating himself on Raekwon's street-level releases--he only had one verse on the first OB4CL as well. He's great, and really works the subject matter as well. But is GZA the first guy you go to when you're doing a song about carjacking? Masta Killa, who is also sorely unappreciated, does some of his best work here as well.

20. "About Me"--The other Dr. Dre track on this album also bears the stamp of its maker (particularly that keyboard line--that's textbook 2001). Busta Rhymes also shows up, and while I didn't think much of his verse at first (it's always kind of hard to figure what he's saying), I am more capable of appreciating his lyricism after a few close listens. Dr. Dre also adds a few samples of him repeating "yeah" a lot, which is kind of silly and suggests that Dre wasn't exactly tailoring this to Raekwon. I could be wrong.

21. "Mean Streets"-- Suga Suga Bang Bang returns, with a song that is structured similarly to "Cold Outside." Which means it's alright with me. Raekwon remains characteristically smooth despite the torrential backdrop, and name checks Miller's Crossing; Inspectah Deck quotes The Godfather, Part III and works a sustained, belligerent pitch; Ghostface sounds genuinely harried and disturbed, almost as if possessed, and ends up murdering the remaining minute of the track. You know that the album has to be winding down at this point, if only because this sort of ridiculous energy needs to have some sort of release.

22. "Kiss the Ring"--In which Scram Jones distills the best twelve seconds of music Elton John ever wrote (0:40-0:52), cranks the octave level up to a fever pitch, and turns the final track into a requiem for the kind of conceptually-grounded album that OB4CL was supposed to represent--the kind that should have been a lot more influential than it ended up being. With that in mind, Raekwon chooses two apt partners to set the tone for the end of an era--Inspectah Deck and Masta Killa. Both turn in performances that are career highs. In particular, I think that it was brave of Raekwon to allow Masta Killa, who has fought for so many years to not be a marginal member of the Wu-Tang Clan, to basically sum up the themes and goals of both OB4CL and its sequel. And I think he does a beautiful job. The way he starts his verse as the drums temporarily cut out, and then they come back in--it might be the best single moment on the album, an absolute spine-tingler. I can't contain my admiration for a song such as this. "So salute, and toast to the best who done it," indeed. It's hard to not have the last 30 seconds get to you.

Bonus Tracks

23. Walk Wit Me--The iTunes release has a couple bonus tracks on it, which kind of ruins the effect of "Kiss the Ring," but whatever. "Walk Wit Me," whose video can be seen here, would probably have worked well somewhere in the middle of the album. Really, it's a strange omission. I love the breakdown where you just hear the singing, and I have to say that the video works pretty well within the context of the song. It's the kind of song one imagines would be good for a boat ride.

24. Badlands--Not a Terrence Malick tribute, but rather another Raekwon/Ghostface trade-off, the simplest trick in the book. A bit noisier than the average track, with some eerie feedback guitar sounds in the middle. Perfectly serviceable.

I'd say that overall, I give the album five stars, an A+, however you want to rate it. I really, really like this album. In fact, it may even be better than its predecessor, which I thought would be impossible. It's kind of like The Godfather, Part II, in that it might be better than the original, but what kind of asshole likes splitting those sorts of hairs?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

It Might Be Incongruous

On the same night that U2 played another sold out show in Hyattsville, MD (with special guest Muse, to sweeten the deal), I was 25-odd miles away at the Bethesda Row Cinema, watching a new documentary that includes among its principals my second least-favorite member of U2, the Edge, whose nickname has infuriated me at least since I was twelve years old. What sort of movie, you ask, would feature the Edge and not Bono, a true Man For All Seasons? Well, the title of this new documentary is It Might Get Loud, and its subject is the cult around the electric guitar, or more specifically around three of its most famous practitioners: aforementioned Dave Evans, Jack White of the White Stripes cum Raconteurs cum Dead Weather, and Jimmy Page, who was a session player for a while in England in the 60s and later became the lead guitarist of The Firm with Whitesnake singer (and Nathan Sacks birthday-sharer) David Coverdale. Here's the trailer for those who are interested:

Generally, the idea is to get what people might consider to be the best guitarists of three loosely defined eras in rock history, get them on a sound stage together, and see what happens. If the relatively brief running time doesn't already clue you in, nothing really does. And that is the biggest weakness of It Might Get Loud, as far as I can tell, which is that the director Davis Guggenheim throws these three guys together and it turns out that, between the three of them, they really have nothing in common, and despite jamming on each other's music it is clear that they aren't really compatible as musicians anyway.

That's just one problem; another problem is the camera's tendency to frame Jack White as a ludditish man-out-of-time, an only slightly pomo artifact of authentic Delta Americana, which of course is a perception that White relishes, and one gets the impression that he did a lot of collaborating with the director so that he would be shot working on a farm, playing a rickety piano, talking about Claudette Colbert, etc. We can get to that later. The principle fact is that, between these three, one can certainly find similarities between two of them, but between the group as a whole there is basically nothing holding them together. Page and White are of course both heavily steeped in classic Chess and Delta blues music; White and the Edge are united by a common love for punk and post-punk, the kind of stuff that was popular in spite of Led Zeppelin; and the Edge and Page are known for their roles as being versatile musicians but essentially sidemen, while White is the one singer of the group who also functions as a front man for at least two groups (let's be honest: the Dead Weather counts as three).

But between the three of them, nothing. That may explain why an extremely small portion of the movie is actually devoted to their meeting and jamming: the gang takes a crack at each other's songs, starting with "I Will Follow," "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground," "In My Time Of Dying," and finally ending with an inspirational group cover of the Band's "The Weight," which is notable mainly for some rather pathetic background singing on the part of Page, who is right to protest that he shouldn't be singing.

The rest of the movie fills in some background on these three men, and interviews them at length regarding their approaches to guitar-playing and how they dealt with being professional celebrity musicians. One's interest in these proceedings depends invariably first on whether or not you like the music of that particular musician, and furthermore whether you find his personality to be tolerable enough to yield a listen. While of the three men I would definitely consider the Edge the worst musician, he is in a way probably the most good-natured and least full of bullshit guitarist on display, and in fact many of the film's most enlightening and informative moments involve the Edge describing the formative years when U2 used to tried to bang out punk tunes in an empty classroom in Dublin. While I've never liked U2's music, it's hard not to admire that they've stayed with the same four principals since their inception, and the Edge seems suitably humble about where he might have been had the band not been successful.

Whereas Jimmy Page's best moment probably comes when he shows us the top of the exact staircase where John Bonham played the drum part to "When The Levee Breaks"--not that it has anything to do with guitars, per se, but even with Bonham gone, one looks at that empty space where a drum set once was, and can imagine just how explosive and powerful that moment may have been. Otherwise, Jimmy Page, who will always remain a legend in my book, doesn't have much in the way of illuminations to offer regarding his love of guitar-playing; his best moment comes when he puts on Link Wray's "Rumble" and tries to explain why that single seemed so epochal at the time. Poor Jimmy Page...everyone else is more or less capable of ignoring the fact that Page has done close to nothing save for the occasional reunion with Robert Plant, and he himself doesn't seem to think that his lack of work ethic is a hindrance or even a problem. Whereas his former band mate Robert Plant went on to do solo work of some repute, and at least tried to champion younger bands like Husker Du, and John Paul Jones is making the touring rounds again with his new group, Them Crooked Vultures (even with these thirty-second clips, I am really, really excited to hear that album).

And Jack White...look, I don't care if he is trying to do his best to look like he's in a Tim Burton movie. And you have to sort of expect that he's going to spend at least part of the movie bitching about the Internet or horseless carriages or whatever. What I can't stand is how affected it all seems. The film begins with Jack White on his farm jury-rigging a slide-guitar with a coke bottle and some pieces of wood, taking a drag of his cigarette and saying, "Who needs to buy a guitar?" after a brief and grisly-sounding noise attack. Of course, the obvious answer is that you can make your own damn guitar, but of course Jack White can't go as far as to make his own amp, which could indeed cost someone more money and isn't as easy to make. So as we know, Jack White's primitivism is an affected one that denies some rather obvious facts in a very rock star-ish way.

(There's a very Spinal Tap moment during an interview on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross, where Jack White has been going on about the White Stripes' aesthetics and how in particular the number "3" is very important to him, and that extends to the White Stripes' guitar/drums/voice triptych. To which Gross asks quite rationally why, if they are so enamored with this particular number, does the White Stripes not have three members in their band, and White replies in a very "these go to 11" way that that wouldn't make any sense, then there would be more than three instrumental components).

Jack White claims he likes to push himself. He likes to say that he'll move an upright piano farther away from where he's standing so that he has to run to it faster. He claims that the human voice is the most honest and primal instrument there is, and his favorite song is "Grinning In Your Face" by Son House, which is just the sound of a human voice and House clapping for time. I'd really like to see White try to write an album with songs consisting of nothing but hands clapping. I'd like to see him try to play his own coke bottle guitar when he's onstage with the Raconteurs, instead of brandishing his custom Gretsch. Until then, maybe he should refrain from saying that technology is the enemy of honest musicianship.

Especially when you got a guy like the Edge, who is more than happy to admit that a lot of his tricks come from mixing and matching his sizable pedal collection. You'd think that would create some sort of friction between the two. Nobody mentions this obvious incongruity. When the three get together, they stick to chatting about where they got their first guitars, or how they dealt with those halcyon days of touring in a van.

There are also other sorts of juxtapositions that are really ill-considered, done in the name of preserving some continuity between three musicians who took very different paths to stardom. So, for instance, we get a moment where the Edge describes the terror and stress of growing up in working-class Dublin, where vicious religious warfare was claiming bodies by the day. The Edge does a good job of communicating the sort of distrust and anger that can sow in a young man with seemingly no future, and it does seem as if he had a legitimate reason to fear for his life. This is followed by a moment where Jimmy Page describes a similar crisis of conscience, except here he is talking about how annoying it was being a session player and having to make up guitar parts for commercial jingles and radio muzak. If you find it perfectly sensible to compare the stress of living in fear of being bombed with having to play guitar on radio jingles, maybe these sorts of montages will make sense to you.

If you're like me, the few moments where Guggenheim breaks out the archival footage will probably rank as the best in the film. I used to watch the Led Zeppelin DVD religiously when I was 16, so I already know all the Zeppelin stuff back and forth, but it's not the worst thing in the world where Guggenheim shows Jimmy playing the solo to "Stairway to Heaven" in full, and you have to figure, ubiquity or not, that is just a perfectly phrased melody if I've ever heard one. The Edge mentions a transformative experience watching the Jam, and there are also a few shots of other British punk bands like the Buzzcocks (playing "Harmony In My Head"!!!). As I was watching this, though, I was thinking, well, why not Paul Weller, then?

And why not get Robbie Robertson, a guy who's much better at talking about that kind of stuff, instead of Page or White, when they play "The Weight" at the end? I know Guggenheim doesn't pretend that this movie acts as a definitive statement on electric guitarists, but there's no reason to think that you couldn't swap out any of the above and replace him with someone a lot less annoying, more lucid, and probably just as popular. Why not get Prince, Robbie Robertson, and Malkmus instead? I can imagine several alternative It Might Get Louds that would probably serve this film's thesis better.

As a music documentary geek, I'd say this is sub-theater material, and is only worth seeing probably if you happen to catch it on VH1 Classic, which seems like an inevitable destination for this movie. Other than that, I would be wary.

Slightly-related corollary: Is anyone else really, really excited by the prospect of Them Crooked Vultures existing? Looks to be Songs For The Deaf+.


Roman Polanski's arrest has occasioned all sorts of name-calling and hand-wringing, but also some confounding aesthetic theory. In a feature called "The Polanski Uproar," The New York Times invited nine smart people to share their opinions on L'affaire Polanski. I should say eight smart people, as the only convincing argument put forth by Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof is that Damon Lindelof is a jackass.

What's strange to me is that four of eight intelligent, educated adults try to divorce context from the art it produces. Here, they argue that personal morality has no bearing on the work an artist produces. Jay Parini's argument is the most extreme, and I'd like to focus on that.

"Can one really separate the art from the man or woman who creates that art? The answer is yes, definitely," Parini writes. He later cites Picasso and Wagner of two examples of flawed men--Picasso was a misogynist, though Parini avoids the term, and Wagner a raging anti-Semite--whose art transcends their creator's foibles. In his words, "being an artist has absolutely nothing — nothing — to do with one’s personal behavior."

Yet no one would ever argue that Ayn Rand's political beliefs didn't inform her art, or that Oscar Wilde's sexuality is is irrelevant to the study of his.* Those are personal behaviors. It's only when the artist in question has failings that the art gets divorced from its creator. Think about it: have you ever seen Ian MacKaye's music discussed separately from his political convictions? It wouldn't even make sense to do so.

And so, just as MacKaye and his collaborators ideas about community inform his art, Wagner's fascism shaped the way he conceptualized and composed music. We'd need a great deal more context to understand why Wagner was a fascist who hated Jews--besides, Theodor Adorno's In Search Of Wagner is smarter on the subject than I could ever hope to be. These whys are ultimately more important questions, but we shouldn't forget that art is made by specific people whose prejudices, lapses, and beliefs are wrapped up in their works.

Prince Rogers Nelson was a werido libertine who had a very unique understanding of human eroticism; Prince wrote the songs "Sister," "Let's Pretend We're Married," and "Erotic City." How do you separate those?

*An artist can't, of course, determine how people will interpret her art, and surely is not conscious of everything that goes in to a work