Monday, June 17, 2013

T.P. ORCHESTRE POLY-RYTHMO DE COTONOU

T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou - Poly-Rythmo '76 Vol. 1
T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou was an eclectic and prolific band from Benin who combined traditional Vodoun rhythms with salsa, funk and soul. Their name, in literal English, is something like The All-Mighty Orchestra with Many Rhythms from Cotonou. (T.P. stands for "tout puissant" or "all-mighty" and Cotonou is the capital of Benin). In the West, their music is primarily available in the form of five compilations and one reissued LP.

The band was founded by Clement Melome, Francois Hoessou, and Eskill Lohento (the latter known in Benin as "Le Rossignol"). A businessman named Seidou Adissa, whom Melome has referred to as "our guardian angel", bought them instruments and became their producer. The band recorded frequently for his label, Albarika Store, although when he was out of town on business they would "secretly" record for other, smaller labels as well. (Analog Africa gathered recordings made for these smaller labels on a compilation called The Vodoun Effect: 1972-1975 Funk & Sato From Benin's Obscure Labels. A sister volume, Echos Hypnotiques: From the Vaults of Albarika Store 1969-1979, features recordings made for Adissa's label.)

At the band’s peak there would be 16 members, and the core musicians in the group had unique specialties that contributed to the band's eclecticism. Amenoudji "Vicky" Joseph, for example, who was recruited by Melome to supplement drummer Leopold Yehoussi, sang in Mina and specialized in traditional music. Eskill, on the other hand, sang in Fona and French.

T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou - Zoundegnon Bernard 'Papillon' guitariste principal Lead guitarist Zoundegnon "Papillon" Bernard was barely competent when he first joined the band (according to Eskill) but Melome liked him, so he stayed. Later on, after improving his skills considerably, Papillon would take the lead on some fantastic Soukous recordings that would bring the band tremendous sales. (One of those records is my favorite by this band. Bearing the text "Zoundegnon Bernard 'Papillon' guitariste principal" on the cover, it features two extended compositions. The bright, multi-sectioned "Chérie Coco" on the A-side and "Mille Fois Merci" on the B. Both tracks are now available on the compilation Reminiscin' in Tempo: African Dancefloor Classis (sic) released by the Popular African Music label.)

T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou - Ahehehinnou Vincent & Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou Dahomey In 1968, Papillon and bassist Gustave Bentho recruited a singer named Vincent Ahehehinnou. Influenced by Otis Redding and James Brown, Ahehehinnou specialized in soul and funk. "James Brown," he would later say "had more influence on our music than Fela". Not all listeners will agree on the proportions, but both influences are obvious on the band’s first LP. Recorded in 1973, it is a collection of Ahehehinnou's afrobeat compositions. He was given top billing: The album cover depicts him in black and white, and the bold yellow frame around the picture bears the words "Ahehehinnou Vincent & Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou Dahomey". (In 2011 Analog Africa reissued this album in an amended form as The First Album. Because the original recordings were marred by background noise, the band was ordered to re-record the entire album, which they did. The 1973 issue features performances from the re- recordings. The 2011 reissue uses two performances from the first recordings, and two from the re-recordings. I'm not sure why the entirety of both versions of the album weren't used, since both could have fit on one disc, but it's a stellar release anyway.)

To hear Ahehehinnou explain it, they were a band dedicated to entertaining their audience, not a band pursuing a musical vision. Maybe that is what makes them so excellent. I like grandiose artistic aspirations as much as anyone, but I'll be the first to admit that these aspirations can be a path to disaster. Why not make music specifically intended to make people happy? Because different audiences, in different regions and different venues, had different demands, this band pursued excellence in a number of styles. If you are a Western listener, you will recognize the funk right away. Among the less familiar styles, you'll hear Soukous, a kind of jubilant, guitar-based Congolese rumba. You'll also hear Sato and Sakpata rhythms. Sato, which is also the name of the tall drum used to play it, is a Vodoun rhythm used to commemorate the dead. It's anything but morbid. Listen to "Gan Tche Kpo" and "Se Ba Ho" to hear this band's mastery of Sato. Sakpata, which is Fon for "god of the earth", can be heard as the elusive rhythmic architecture of songs like "Mi Ni Non Kpo". The band regularly backed up other artists, as well, and was in-demand and highly regarded. Even now, to a 2013 listener with unprecedented access to wildly diverse musical sources, the diversity on display in this band's repertoire is astounding.

What remains consistent is disciplined, energetic performance. The horns are sharply in the pocket, the bass rumbles and syncopates, the percussion cycles and drives. In a band as well-practiced as this band apparently was, there's a danger of becoming stale, a zero-sum fight between technical precision and the energetic spontaneity that makes music like this really move. On their recordings, there is no evidence that the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo ever had to choose one over the other.

T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou - Volume 9: Reconciliation After Melome made Papillon his right-hand-man, Adissa began circumventing Melome’s authority and giving more power to Papillon. Ahehehinnou stood up for Melome, and Adissa pressured him out of the band. While Ahehehinnou seems to have kept the specifics a secret, it appears to have been some kind of threat. It was 1978 when he left the band, a decade after his recruitment. The band united in 1981 to make the Reconciliation album. Papillon died as the record was being mixed. Leopold Yehoussi died soon after. Remaining members revisited their repertoire on 2007’s Nouvelle Formule and a (probably) final release, Cotonou Club, appeared in 2011 with Ahehehinnou on lead vocals. Melome died in late 2012. The recordings this band left behind will never sound stale.

Note: For the quotes and background information in this write-up, I'm indebted (and grateful) to the authors of the liner notes that accompany the six Poly-Rythmo releases available in the US. The good people at the Soundway, Analog Africa and Popular African Music labels have preserved this great band's music as well their history, and those compilations have obviously been prepared with a great deal of care and passion. If you're interested in this band (and you should be!) track down any of these compilations:

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

ERYKAH BADU: New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)

Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) "Because she's self-righteous and she sucks." That's how someone once tried to explain it to me. By "it" I mean this rather unfamiliar concept of not liking Erykah Badu. What series of embittering personal tragedies have to befall someone before that person is incapable of liking Erykah Badu? And, anyway, what's this "self-righteous" business? Isn't calling someone self-righteous just a way to shame that person for believing in things? This is why people can love the Smiths but hate U2. There's an earnestness-threshold across which musicians transgress at their own peril. Your credibility vanishes when your irony does, I guess. But who needs credibility? When you make music, or art of any kind, you can find ways to get away with being preachy. That is, you can have a message without sacrificing the quality of your art. You might sacrifice your hipness-cred or your cool, but you don't need those things. Lou Reed and The Strokes can have them.

And why NOT preach? There are things, often uncomfortable things, people might need to hear. (I'm referring here to things beyond the usual pop-music tropes like "Baby, let's have sex," and "We're gonna party tonight," and "You broke my heart and now I'm drunk'n'sad," and "Let's stick it to the man with our guitars but never define who 'the man' is, exactly, because really, we work for him".) We live in a tangled mess of frayed wires and sometimes we are implicated in the things that, when we proclaim our senses of righteous indignation, we oppose with no dearth of rage. Sometimes what we're shouting down is also what we're standing on. It's not fun to hunker down and think on this kind of stuff, though.

Your dog won't take his medicine unless you wrap it in bacon, right? So artists can wrap those uncomfortable thoughts and observations in bacon. Yeah, the jaded and the cool will fling their noses skyward no matter how flavorful your aesthetic vessel is, but screw 'em. Shake the dust from your shoes. A prophet is never respected in the prophet's own town, nor is a prophet respected in trendy music 'zines.

Erykah Badu probably isn't a prophet, but she has a unique and idiosyncratic worldview worth listening to. I think you should discover it on your own and (if you feel so compelled) think on the bitter pill she's giving you here. It's my job to sell you on the bacon. 

"Here" is her 2008 album New Amerykah Part One. There is a Part Two, but you should start here. (Numerical order, silly.) 4th Wold War is one of those album-length artistic statements people generally associate with the era of Pink Floyd and Yes. Maybe Frank Zappa is a better comparison. Like Zappa's virtuoso, fun-house quirk, Badu creates her own world here. If you've heard any of her music before, you know already that her voice is a versatile instrument employed with a ferocious sense of play. It's the kind of instrument that can get lost in tepid musical settings. Thankfully, Erykah Badu has consistently avoided the lazy backslide into neo-soul cliches that could have made her a ready-for-primetime player.

Badu's plan of action here is apparent from the outset. This is a hip-hop/soul hybrid leaning confidently toward the former via sampling, references, and radical social consciousness. On the first track, RAMP's "American Promise" is sampled and mutated into "Amerykhan Promise", a surreal slab of theatrical funk, complete with pitch-shifted voices chattering in a battle of wills. (It's natural to be reminded of Parliament, here.)  This re-purposing continues throughout, in a series of hallucinatory underground hip-hop tracks.

Madlib (who should be pretty familiar to our regular readers) contributes two particularly great sample-deep tracks. "The Healer/Hip-Hop" lopes slow on a sample from Yamasuki's Le monde fabuleux des Yamasuki and "My People" is an interpretive scat cover of an Eddie Kendricks song. These beats are exactly the sort you might hear under a faded MF DOOM verse, but I love hearing them used by a singer instead of a rapper. In 2012, Madlib's productions would back up a soul singer for an entire album: Check out the terrific Seeds by Georgia Anne Muldrow, who also collaborates on one track here here. That track, "Master Teacher", is a rousing number, provocative not only in it's lyric, but also in it's bold sampling of a familiar voice. Curtis Mayfield is such an unassailable legend that it's kind of daring to use him the way he's used here. He's obviously recognizable and his voice is brutally chopped up into a hammering monosyllable. Conceptually, this might have something to do with a desire to continue Mayfield's project of spiritually charged calls for public action and shared responsibility. Musically, it's an odd and unrelenting earworm.

There's some dark territory here. "The Cell" and "Twinkle" are particularly menacing. The former charges and churns through a hell night of urban violence, and the latter is a trip through the wires of the Cyberbadu's assimilated robo-brain. Trust me on this. "Telephone" pays reverent tribute to Detroit's J Dilla, one of about 10,000 songs to do this. (Badu, whose awesome "Didn't Cha Know" was co-written and produced by Dilla, seems like someone in a meaningful position to pay respects, and her tribute is among the most sincere, along with "Can't Stop This" on the Roots' Game Theory).

The record ends with the secret ingredient "Honey", which lightens the mood with a buoyant, hard-knocking beat and syncopated synth squelches. It's one of the stronger performances here, and definitely the most accessible song. You could view it as a cop-out unit-shifter, tacked on at the last minute as sales insurance, but I think it's fitting that the record ends with a sweet and playful love song. This is an album focused on the pestilences of racism, violence, drugs and death. It is not, however, a black-lipstick slog through a list of dark topics by a self-conscious Serious Artist. For all the time Badu spends pointing out (however obliquely) terrifying things in our world, she's no nihilist. These lyrics regularly suggest a potential for hope, or maybe a desperation for it. During "Soldier", Badu expresses solidarity with the victims of hurricane Katrina, the Nation of Islam, and anyone pushed around by corrupt police officers. This might sound cynical, but she assures us "If you think about turning back, I got the shotgun on your back" as if she's a 21st-Century Harriet Tubman. She won't let you give up. Man, a shotgun is a funny way to show love, but it makes perfect sense here. Cowardice is unacceptable.

This album is filled with dark corners, mystery and details that show themselves only on repeat listens. If the lyrics were gibberish, I'd still enjoy the hell out of it, but I'm glad that Erykah Badu is so willing to be principled and even "self-righteous".

Sunday, June 9, 2013

THE NATIONAL: Boxer

The National - Boxer Moping guitar-rock is rarely something I seek out. Because it's so easy do, and because an audience is so easy to find (people eat this stuff UP!), the world is overstuffed with REM leftovers.

I adore the moping guitar-rock made by The National, however. And I think I like them for the same reasons you do: The National's music accomplishes something not often seen in pop music. It creates a vivid, uniquely unflinching  picture of adulthood. Instead of coasting on the fumes of howling libido and lingering teen rage, this band brood over the uncomfortable fit of grown-up compromise.

My favorite example on Boxer is the single "Mistaken for Strangers". On the wings of a gasping, groaning guitar duet and an intricate drum stomp that gives the song a level of propulsion not normally heard at such a slow tempo, this song depicts that desperate, vacant life you get handed once you finally buy your first suit and start turning into that cynical nobody "passing the night under the silvery, silvery Citibank lights". Angels don't want to watch over you, the song says. Probably because you're so empty and inauthentic.

Elsewhere, the narrators of "Green Gloves" and "Slow Show" miss their old friends ("Hope they're staying glued together/I have arms for them,") and stand awkwardly at the punchbowl, too paralyzed by regret to socialize normally. Relationships are passive-aggressive, self-doubt is suffocatingly present. Instrumental flourishes like harmoniums and french horns are used to augment certain songs, and the effect is always to deepen the sad-sack musical sigh. Drummer Bryan Devendorf holds back when he needs to, often entering a song only when it is well underway to inject a raging bitterness that turns the maudlin, plucked guitars and pianos a seething bite. The National are pretty conservative, musically. Imagine Bruce Springsteen without the pandering, slogans and gospel-of-rock evangelism and you're not far off. It's good to see people using the same old wheel unusually well rather than re-inventing it.

Singer Matt Beringer is so convincingly exhausted and pitiful with regret that you could almost believe he was born in a cubicle, already middle-aged, and went straight to work preparing for an endless string of soul-sucking performance reviews. If that description makes it sound like Boxer is a chore to listen to, you should know that it's ultimately uplifting. After his awkward punchbowl hem-haw, the narrator in "Slow Show" hurries home to a girl he dreamed about for 29 before he met her (in a very-pretty reference to an earlier National song.) This necktied thing we grow into is staid, but not lonely.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

JOHN TALABOT: fIN

John Talabot - ƒIN
The best dance music has always contained a very specific breed of melancholy, a feeling that stretches toward some kind of... I don't know. Transcendence? Wistful longing? I'm thinking of that story about dancer Isadora Duncan responding to a question about what her performance meant: "If I could tell you that, I wouldn't have danced it."

Whatever it is, you can hear it in the starry-eyed teen love songs your grandma swayed to at sock hops, you can hear it in the earnest desperation of Donna Summer's velvet croon, and you can hear it in the best records from Detroit Techno's heyday (check out "Icon” by Rhythim is Rhythim [sic], for example).

You can also hear what I’m talking about throughout fIN, the debut full-length from Spanish producer John Talabot. It’s my favorite album from 2012. I’ve listened to this thing a thousand times and it’s warm-bath music now.

Warm-bath music: Sometimes, after a terrible day at work or elsewhere, I feel defeated. I don’t want Daft Punk to cheer me up (because my misery is too stubborn) but I know better than to wallow in The Downward Spiral. There’s a sweet spot, somewhere. It’s feel-good music precisely because it’s just the right kind of melancholy. It trickles from your headphones with a hand on your shoulder: “We’re all in this together, kid.”

Talabot’s melancholy uplift floats along the techno-house continuum in humidity made from lightly distorted samples and synths. Voices, in particular, are sampled and treated and made woozy with heartsickness. “Depak Ine” opens the album with simmering drones and chopped up, pitch-shifted syllables. Somewhere along the way, Talabot folds in gauzy, harmonized “Ooohhhhs” and swooning lamentations. It sounds like driving away from something, and toward something else. At night. Having forgotten the exact directions. Excited? Scared? Yes.

Prior to this album, Talabot released music under another moniker (though he seems to have disowned that stuff now) as well as a handful of excellent 12’’ records as John Talabot (all easily, and legally, found in digital form now). Building on that music, fIN is a confident, fully-realized deal, a start-to-end listen.

He keeps it moody. When my spouse and I threw a Halloween party last year, "Oro Y Sangre" was the first song I thought of for the obligatory Halloween Mixtape 2012. (It’s not just the sfx-library screams that pop up, you should know. House music rarely employs such effectively dense harmonic structures. This track is a relentless and menacing glare.) Elsewhere, “El Oeste” is a lesson in ominous lurking: Arpeggios and pads, warped like a cassette left in the sun, are needled by sparse percussion until they give up in exhaustion. “Missing You” sounds like exactly what it sounds like: S/he left you, you’re left behind, you’ve got some space to stare into now.

I don’t want to give you the impression that this is the House equivalent of, say, Disintegration by the Cure (not that I would mind such a thing, come to think of it…) This is still dance music, and blissfully so. Talabot’s command of rhythm is deft. I can remember hearing “Estiu” while listening to the album for the first time. For ten seconds or so, I though the beat was hokey. Suddenly, an extra layer, subtle and syncopated, tied everything into something transcendent! Or at least grin-making.

fIN’s rave-readiness notwithstanding, the time I’ve spent with this music has been pretty inert. Usually, it’s been the soundtrack to a long, nocturnal drive or a moody, shoegazing walk. I’ll soak in it, sulking, until it gradually warms me up and (despite my best efforts to stay bitter) I get that heart-in-throat glee and a nice emotional reboot.

So I have no idea how this would work on a dancefloor. Thanks to my mysophobic teetotaling, I very rarely hear electronic dance music in its natural, intended environment. Hearing music is an experience that is not improved by booze-breathed bodies bumping into me. I went to see Richie Hawtin in Detroit a few Novembers ago, and I couldn’t stand the thronging pelvisgrind around me. “Don’t you people realize you’re in the presence of the Plastikman? Pipe down!” Dear lord, I am uncool.

No reveler should have to tolerate my cantankerousness, so I get my fix from Resident Advisor podcasts on calm, brain-rave-for-one walks. I wonder sometimes how producers of House music would feel about that. Most of them are DJs as well, and while that puts them tightly in the middle of the carousing, the art and curation of a producer/DJ are essentially solitary acts; intently focused, frequently without collaboration. I think the best of them know something about loneliness. (I don't have to tell you how crowds can be much lonelier than empty bedrooms, right?) I think they see, regularly, a kind of celebration that leaves people a little empty. I think they see people who have come to escape something. I think they know how stubborn a person’s bitterness can be. I think they know just what to do about it.

And maybe there’s your melancholy.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

GHOSTFACE KILLAH & ADRIAN YOUNGE: 12 Reasons to Die

Ghostface Killah / Adrian Younge - Twelve Reasons to Die It’s been about two decades since Ghostface Killah delivered the opening verse on the Wu-Tang Clan’s classic debut album. The world caught the blast of a hype verse, and RZA’a hip-hop/branding juggernaut was launched. Considering RZA’a ingenuous conceptualizing, it’s actually rather surprising that Wu-Tang lore has gone so underdeveloped. Until now, we’ve never heard a fully fleshed-out origin-story for any Wu-Tang member, which is surprising. The world of the Wu-Tang Clan, a world as insular and complex as Middle Earth or the Star Trek universe, is a rough neighborhood, built on low-budget 1970s genre films (Shaw Brothers kung-fu in particular), Five-Percent Nation terminology and theology, and a series of interconnected samples, slang and catchphrases that could fill a glossary. Comic books are an ingredient, too, particularly with Ghostface, whose debut solo album was a titled with a Marvel Comics reference that also provided his alternate moniker. Origin stories are the most well-known part of any superhero’s (or supervillian’s) mythology, and it seems inevitable that Ghostface would reveal his eventually. (I don’t want to get bogged down in making a distinction between the persona and the human being behind it, or where one ends and the other begins. That’s between Ghostface and either his god, his therapist or his lawyers.)

Here’s the paperback summary: The Ghostface Killah was once an ambitious mobster named Tony Starks before he was betrayed and murdered in a record-pressing plant by the 12 Delucas, who pressed his remains into twelve vinyl records. Written into those grooves was a seething specter of vengeance. The rest, as you can imagine, is a saga haunted by the spirit of those 1970s revenge flicks that made a young Quentin Tarantino say “I want to make one of THOSE! That would be awesome!”

This tale unfolds in 12 Reasons to Die, a collaboration with Adrian Younge. Previously known best for his uncanny blaxploitation score for the uncanny blaxploitation homage Black Dynamite (also known as the movie in the #1 spot on your need-to-see-it list), Younge conceived this project, recording the score with his (one-man?) band (on vintage reel-to-reels, no less!) and sent a script to Ghostface detailing which segments of the story take place in which songs. This record feels like a giddy passion project born out of a that-would-be-awesome moment. “I should produce a record for Ghostface Killah that tells his supernatural origin story! That would be awesome!”

It is awesome, by the way. Younge’s retro-fresh instrumentation is grindhouse cinematic and rare-groove nostalgic. Ennio Morricone and David Axelrod are the most obvious reference points. His sonic palette emphasizes ominous pianos, gloomy organs and stinging fuzz-guitars, with sprinklings of mellotron, strings, horns and harpsichord. “I Declare War” utilizes the wordless singing of a soprano, evoking Once Upon a Time in the West. All the while, live drums boom and bap in charging four-on-the-bloodstained-cement-floor patterns. The arrangements shift from verse to verse, and they’re colorful enough on their own to make the instrumentals disc a worthy listen. I haven’t heard another hip-hop album that sounds quite like this one.

Ghostface turns in a solid performance here, although it seems like focusing on one coherent narrative creates something of a challenge. There really isn’t time here for tangents or non-sequiturs, and you won’t hear much of the cleverness, wordplay or emotional resonance Ghost is capable of delivering. You could call these lyrics “workmanlike”. The storytelling is pretty literal, and in the coffee-table book of Ghostface Killah’s most memorable lines, nothing will come from 12 Reasons to Die. If some of the gut-bursting emotional resonance and renegade poetry wordplay of, say, Ironman is lacking here, it’s a fair trade for such a focused narrative. Anyway, Mr. Killah’s actual performance is as urgent and powerful as ever. He’s always had an intense theatricality to him, and that’s exactly what a project like this needs.

A comic book is being published concurrently with the album, and Apollo Brown produced a remix called 12 Reasons to Die: The Brown Tape (it’s really good, although the sample-based beats he employs are less-than-unique accompaniment for Ghost, compared to Younge’s retro score). This is the kind of immersive project you can really spend some time with.

The supporting cast (Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa, Cappadonna) would normally be considered Wu-Tang B-listers, but they’re uniformly good here. It’s strange that Raekwon doesn’t make an appearance, but maybe he’s waiting in the wings for an Adrian Younge-produced Mafioso rap-opera of his own. That would be awesome.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

AESOP ROCK: Skeleton

Aesop Rock - SkelethonIn the past, Aesop Rock’s labyrinthine lyrics (dense with metonymy, synecdoche and tongue-twister internal rhyme) spiked from the headphones of a million paranoid backpackers like the furious logorrhea of a supercomputer programmed to communicate only through hyperlinks. (Imagine a caffeinated MF DOOM whose book of rhymes features enough footnotes to flummox David Foster Wallace.) On 2001’s Labor Days (one of the great Pissed Off Opuses in hip-hop) he cemented a unique place in pop culture. Here’s a guy with the semantic complexity of a Wikipedia-addicted T.S. Eliot, and all the haunting, middle-finger snark of a vampire Lenny Bruce. No rapper is as clever. No rapper possesses such mastery of wordplay, allusion and surreal imagery. No rapper can make me grin so consistently by telling people to screw off in 10,000 words or more.

You only need to hear about ten seconds of Labor Days, after which you will either demand to hear the whole thing, right now, and again and again forever, or you will recoil in disgust. “Prickles of his voice too nasal! Ugghhhh, give us Barabbas!” 

On None Shall Pass, he focused his dense, daredevil rhymes into coherent narratives, (dig the surreal pirate yarn “The Harbor is Yours”) but didn’t always focus those narratives into anything relevant. For example, “Fumes” tells the sad story of an aspiring author and his addict girlfriend’s drug-death, and tells the tale with detail and clarity that eludes most short-story writers. But why? I don’t demand a clear-cut moral, or anything. These aren’t Aesop’s Fables (heh). I just need a reason to be invested.

That’s not a problem on Skelethon. This record is so personal you can see the aorta stains on Aesop’s ratty denim jacket. On what will probably be his last solo album before he’s officially middle-aged, Ian Bavtz sounds urgent, mature and laser-focused.

A song about a donut shop (“Fryerstarter”) investigates the relationship between aesthetic pleasure and faith, tongue in jelly-filled cheek. A song about a washed up daredevil (“Cycles to Gehenna”) is a surprisingly moving meditation on the way people deal with pain and loss. Elsewhere, songs about adolescent haircuts (“Racing Stripes”), teenage graffiti (“ZZZ Top”*) and a parent/child standoff over unwanted vegetables (“Grace”) show remarkable sensitivity and humor as they investigate the eager identity-assertion of childhood and adolescence.  

Adding to the personal nature of the project is the fact that Aes produced these tracks himself. I’m a fan of his usual go-to guy, Blockhead, and I think the self-produced Bazooka Tooth is the least-good of his albums. Here, however, the production is impeccably designed. Drums are muffled and rumbling, allowing the piercing vocals to stab and dart between columns of gauzy guitars and lo-fi whoooo-ing sounds that sound like ghosts (because, you know, I know what ghosts sound like, apparently). The sound world here is dense and desolate, much like the lyrics. It doesn't sound like anything else on the contemporary rap landscape.

Zero Dark Thirty” and “Gopher Guts” are two of the most moving moments in hip-hop’s recent history, and they’re indicative of Skelethon’s soft-focus gloom and aching tightrope between nostalgia and regret, the things that made it the most played 2012 release on my stereo. Aesop Rock may be the world’s least-accessible rapper, and he’s also the best lyricist since Bob Dylan.

·         * The titular Zs are ZOSO, Zulu Nation and TheZeros.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

MADLIB: Medicine Show No. 9 - Channel 85 Presents Nittyville

Madlib - Madlib Medicine Show: No. 9 - Channel 85 Presents Nittyville When Frank Nitt picks up a microphone he sounds like a man hosting a party. It makes sense: He's an MC, and his acronym job description has that connotation built in. (Do I need to tell you what it stands for?) Grave, streetwise lyricism is all well and good, and most of my favorite rappers lean in the conscious direction, but Mr. Nitt's impresario persona is refreshing.

On this out-of-chronology Medicine Show release, he celebrates the kind of capitalist decadence once caricatured in Soviet propaganda. It's easy to imagine champagne glasses and Monopoly Man monocles. This kind of thing irks bleeding hearts, but it's nice to see the Underground Mitten (as Mr. Nitt calls it) described in a way that would make people want to be here. Nittyville's vibe is quintessentially Detroit: privileged co-ed hipsters bump shoulders with ass-busting day-job MPC nuts. Scarcity makes for strange clubfellows, particularly in a city that birthed Derrick May and J. Dilla.

Mr. Nitt boasts, toasts, flirts with your girl and gives a few shout-outs to his DJ while Madlib adapts seamlessly, a consummate professional, switching over to Channel 85 with a series of drinks-in-the-air productions that perfectly compliment Mr. Nitt's buoyant staccato. More often than not, the layered samples are draped over thick kicks and bundleclap CLOPs on the twos and fours. The way this knocks you could dance to it drunk. Compare Nittyville's decadent bounce to the brittle haze on the Medicine Show's first volume, which perfectly suited Guilty Simpson's heavy-as-lead deadpan. One of Madlib's greatest strengths is his ability to compliment any vocalist.

Chemistry between an MC and a DJ is the classic recipe for great hip-hop. The gold standard is probably Guru and DJ Premier, or maybe C.L. Smooth and Pete Rock. In either case, both partners not only excelled in their respective fields as distinct individuals with instantly recognizable techniques, they also complemented each other perfectly. Madlib has never had a fruitful, ongoing partnership. He's done great work with Dudley Perkins, Percee P, Wildchild and others, with the best fit being his one-off joint effort with DOOM. Musical marriage isn't his bag, I guess, and the benefit of this beatsmithing bachelorhood is the wide, wide variety of rap records to be endowed with his blunted, magic touch.

Rap records like this one: You can't resist the way this project invites you to tango, and teases you with goofy mystery. Who is the un-credited guest on "Eyegotcha"? Why does the "What do you think you're gonna do about them?" chant in "Just Follow" make me think of Oompa-Loompas? Is that Dalek cameo (not the militant hip-hop group, the Doctor Who villain) a clue that Lord Quas loves his BBC sci-fi as much as I do? Am I crazy, or is Madlib sampling the same Residents track he used in a beat from Movie Scenes? (In a totally different way, I mean.) Who are these groupies? Who is that stand-up comic? Did Frank Nitt just name-drop I-75? I'm driving on I-75!

We’re almost to the end, true believers. The Medicine Show's two-part finale finds our blunted protagonist stepping back into the arena that made him a champion in the first place. Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Hiatus

If anyone reads this, I apologize for the recent silence. I recently began a new life as a full-time teacher, and I am adjusting.

DTSS! will have to go on hold for a little while, but I'll be back soon, catching up with Madlib, telling you all about Matana Roberts (our new musical champion!) and some other good stuff.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

ZOMBY: Dedication

Zomby - Dedication
When I wrote about Zomby’s debut album, I was struck by how it looked backwards, flirting with the line between music-as-art and music-as-discipline. “Maybe” I said “Zomby is making one last nostalgic stop before launching into the wide unknown.”

I guess this is the wide unknown. Shorter than his first (it’s a hair over 35 minutes), Dedication could easily be mistaken for another of Zomby’s many EPs. Packaging music as an album rather than an EP gives a listener certain expectations, though. Traditionally, the EP is interstitial and transitional, taking artistic risks in a safer, below-the-radar release likely to only be heard by people predisposed to be root for you. The album, on the other hand, is expected to be a fully-formed statement with a cohesive structure.

One thing carried over from Where Were U in 92? is Zomby’s preference for short tracks crammed together end-to-end with sudden transitions (or, put another way, without transitions.) Those short running-times (along with nervy syncopation on tracks like "Digital Rain") might remind you of the L.A. beat scene, but without the textured warmth that gives Teebs and Flying Lotus their playful bent, Dedication has the dead stare of an NES game-over screen. On Where Were U, this was the quick-minded excitement of a bedroom-studio raver ready to party. Here, though, it’s more like the fractured conversation of someone who is deeply distracted. The inner jacket, in stark white-on-black text, says “Dedicated to BDM 11.11.46 – 25.06.10”. I know a quick Google could probably fill in the gaps, but if Zomby thought I required more backstory, he would have written liner-notes.

What is clear is that this is music in mourning. Everything is dark here. The minimal cover lists titles like “Witch Hunt”, “Vanquish”, “Riding with Death” and “Things Fall Apart”. The second track (“Natalia’s Song”) is so pretty and eager and desperate, not only the (probably sampled) female vocals, but also the minimal, Burial-esque percussion and the swaying synths sulking through their dirge chords. It’s one of the few tracks given a chance to develop, (at four minutes it is by far the longest on the album) but it still strains against some plastic sheet trapping it against the ground, as if it wants to take off into something cathartic but never does. On “Witch Hunt” gunshots (the saddest sound in the world) are used as percussion. Everywhere, crisp synths with sharp, digital timbres, loop in big empty warehouses, with reverb ping-pong against cement and steel. There are no breaks or breakdowns, and the clouds never part. Even a guest spot from Animal Collective’s Panda Bear does nothing to break the cold, morose spell.

This is a record with an emotional purpose singular and clear. I actually find the unrelenting gloom to be a little overwhelming. The way incredible moments like “Vortex” are cut short is almost cruel, but I found myself with a kind of Stockholm Syndrome while listening to this. Dedication made me uneasy, and it captivated me totally. Comparing it to Where Were U in 92? reveals considerable range on Zomby’s part, and I’m sure both records will occupy unique roles in his slowly-growing body of work.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

MADLIB: Medicine Show No. 11 - Low Budget High Fi Music

Madlib - Madlib Medicine Show: No. 11 - Low Budget High Fi Music

Here's the paradox: Madlib's music is, on the one hand, deeply intertextual and, on the other hand, perplexingly insular. To the theory that music can only be about itself, The Bad Kid offers a revision: His music can only be about other people's music. And, repurposed and scrambled as it is, much of it (in one way or another) literally is other people's music. Hijacking is Madlib's art, and he's brilliant at it. When he's not curating or sampling the work of others he's interpreting it with Yesterday's Universe, naming tracks after his heroes, or aping their styles and rhythms.

In theory, this project should be deeply intertextual, connecting to and reflecting the work of others, but it is strangely self-contained, and the resulting music functions best as an obsessive binge. I don't listen to Madlib's music in a rotation with other music. Instead, I listen to Madlib almost exclusively for a chunk of time, and then forget him until the next big Madlib Kick. This is not because he's made about 700 albums, or the fact that his work is diverse enough to be a complete musical diet. It is because his music only makes sense according to the laws of nature in Madlibland.

You can think of this place as underground hip-hop's version of The Zone in Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker. Direct routes are forbidden, and the ground is littered with long forgotten artifacts and debris. When I'm not there, I'm not interested in it and I can't see the appeal of this erratic, scattered mindspace. I'd rather go somewhere safe and warm like Abbey Road. When I feel that specific pull to Madlibland, however, I have to answer and like the Stalkers who lead passengers through The Zone, I have an obsessive compulsion to evangelize the experience.

Among this terrain's most distinct features are the jagged, abrupt changes. Beats and verses and grooves tumble out of the toybox with no obvious structure, sequence, or any transitions a Q-switch couldn't provide. At any moment, any idea can halt or start right in the "middle" of things. Quick cross fades and chaotic sound collage make it impossible to get your bearings. This infuriates outsiders, delights the die-hards, and has never been more prominent than it is on the Medicine Show. If that's not by design, it's a very happy accident. There's something transitory about these volumes, and the release schedule, flexible as it has turned out to be, makes the series something no one will even try to follow unless they are perfectly tuned to Madlib's ADHDJ wavelength.

Low Budget High Fi Music is a microcosm of Madlibland. Inconsistent, messy and scattershot, this volume is vault material (most from around 2005, some more recent) put together like those 1970s Miles Davis records that were pieced together from various late-60s sessions (think Water Babies and Big Fun). The archival nature doesn't bother me - Madlib's release schedule rarely corresponds to when the music is actually made, particularly in the Medicine Show, which has reached as far back as the 1990s. The execution is a little lacking, though. When Teo Macreo spliced and overdubbed those Miles Davis jam sessions, he sculpted them into something more cohesive. Cohesion has no place in Madlibland, and on Low Budget things are even more scattered than usual. Verses fade in and out in medias res, a Beastie Boys cover is split into two (a little here, and some more of it there.)

I wish Madlib employed a more judicious editor (I humbly volunteer!) and I wish he would expand the stable of MCs who rap on his beats, but this is how you listen to prolific eccentrics – you take the good with the bad. Thankfully, the good (the short Loop Digga instrumentals, for example, and the Strong Arm Steady remix) outweighs the bad, and the listening experience is an adventure. I’m going to be sad to see the Medicine Show end.