Sunday, September 28, 2008

THE DILLARDS: Wheatstraw Suite

The Dillards - Wheatstraw Suite
Having made a name for themselves with guest appearances on The Andy Griffith Show, The Dillards, known primarily as a bluegrass group, released this half-hour opus in 1968. While bluegrass is the key ingredient in Wheatstraw Suite, the record is augmented with Byrds-style folk-rock and Nashville country music. Every song is breezy and short, with not a wasted note in sight. The songs are a mix of covers and originals, but they all fit cohesively with each other without sounding identical. A few of them feature orchestral arrangements, but low in the mix, just adding a touch of depth while leaving room for the dobro, mandolin, pedal steel and Herb Pedersen’s rollicking banjo, which is the most ear-catching thing going on in many of these songs, (particularly the rolling and tumbling instrumental “Bend the Strings”.)

Pedersen, who sings lead vocals on five of the thirteen songs included here, replaced Doug Dillard, who left the group shortly before the recording of this album (he went on to be the “Dillard” in
Dillard and Clark). When Pedersen isn’t singing lead in his broad country tenor, Rodney Dillard takes over with his lithe, reedy voice, turning in a particularly affecting performance on “Lemon Chimes”. Both singers are great, and even better when the whole group is harmonizing, as on their cover of Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe” or The Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face”, (which is a great choice for this group, since it was practically a bluegrass tune to begin with).

While there isn’t a weak song in the bunch, it’s a good thing they saved “She Sang Hymns Out of Tune” for last, because I don’t think any song would want to be the song that has to follow something so beautiful and heart-breaking. Written by Jesse Kincaid, it’s a gentle waltz about a sad and strange woman and her lonely death. The Dillards allow it to build from verse to verse, adding more layers of sound as they do, wringing an unbelievable amount of emotion from such a simple song, never resorting to histrionic melodrama. These lyrics are particularly affecting, though it would hard to explain why:

She lived in a sorcerer’s room
she pounded the table and brandished a broom
she turned 10,000 when she touched the moon

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

MADVILLAIN: Madvillainy 2: The Madlib Remix

Madvillain - Madvillainy 2: The Madlib Remix
Madvillainy was a perfect meeting of the minds: Not only were Madlib and DOOM both contributing work that ranks among the best they’ve done to date, but they proved to be an impeccable pairing. This might not be a surprise, as each man’s affinity for developing a new conceptual alter-ego for just about every project is matched only by their shared propensity for smoking marijuana. What the Madvillain project proved, however, was how parallel they are musically, particularly in how comfortable each man is with an unpolished, rhythmic looseness. Usually eschewing computers for manually-controlled samplers, they both employ a production style miles away from the pro-tools beatmapping and rigid drum-machines of slick aristo-rap. (For reference, see DOOM’s series of Special Herbs releases and Madlib’s Beat Konducta series.) Their rapping is similar as well: DOOM uses irregular meters and rhyme schemes, hovering around the beat with an Ornette Coleman flow that refuses to be tied too closely to the ones and twos. Madlib, as the helium-voiced rap cartoon Quasimoto, mumbles his lyrics in short, irregular spurts.

As musically kindred as they are, and even though I think Madlib is the better producer and DOOM is the better rapper, I’d love to see a record that switches their roles, backing baked Quasimoto raps with DOOM’s Metal Fingers production.

That would have been an interesting approach to the long- (and anxiously-) awaited follow-up to their sole album-length collaboration, but what we got instead was a Madlib remix of the first record. It may not be fair to think of this as the proper follow-up; maybe Madvillain 1 ½ would have been a better title, but DOOM’s increasingly erratic behavior/chicanery doesn’t bode well for a return the prolific release schedule one enjoyed by fans of the metal-faced villain, so it may be quite some time before we get completely new Madvillain music.

So what we have here is 51 minutes (that’s a longer running-time than the original) of hallucinatory sonic weirdness, the bulk of which is made up of DOOM’s vocals from the original Madvillainy (plus Madvillain’s non-album cut “Monkey Suite” and one vocal from DOOM’s collaboration with Danger Mouse) set to all new Madlib beats. In between, there’s more non-sequiter audio-collage than usual, even for a Madlib production. Production-wise, this resembles Quasimoto’s Unseen more closely than any other Madlib Invasion.

The charge that DOOM’s rapping is too disassociated from the accompanying beats, (a charge I myself made when I first heard him, before I warmed up to his approach,) is, paradoxically, refuted by the disassociation between the vocals and the beats on many of the tracks here, as compared with their counterparts on the original album. In their original context, these vocals were nestled into the music with an uncanny, psychedelic energy, correlating to Madlib’s samples in unconventional, but brilliant ways. Here, however, they sound detached. Maybe (if you don’t mind me acknowledging my own subjectivity), this is in part because I know how this album was made, with vocals ripped from their original setting with tempos stretched to match new instrumentation, but even a blind listen-test (for which finding a guinea pig is probably impossible, because anyone who’s on board with DOOM’s loose-rhythm flow has probably heard the original album) would reveal an awkward incongruity.

Madlib is an excellent producer, (my favorite in hip-hop) and one would think he’d be able to overcome obstacles like these. Maybe it’s me; maybe my affinity and familiarity with the original makes me too loyal to it, too unwilling to accept a redux. (Another subjectivity alert!) For example, “Borrowed Time” replaces the “Accordian” beat with an ominous airiness that I would love under other circumstances, but when I hear the lyrics, it’s hard not to miss the original production. If these instrumentals had new vocals from DOOM, I think I would like this almost as much as the first Madvillain release, maybe more, depending on the quality of DOOM’s contribution.

Some moments still work. “Invasion (Interlude)”, a 90-second instrumental, would have fit right in on Beat Konducta Vol. 1. Perhaps owing more to the shortcomings of the original, “Drainos” is a success, repurposing DOOM’s regrettable singing from “Rainbows“ and layers it over a less tonal backdrop, actually improving on the original track. “Running Around With Another” avoids sounding like a remix, and would have been a highlight on the original.

The original Madvillainy was a grower, so maybe in time I’ll like this more. As it stands, I think it’s a good, but not great follow-up.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

HEATWAVE: Central Heating

Heatwave - Central Heating

Heatwave’s Rod Temperton is probably best known for having written a few songs for Michael Jackson, including the title track from Thriller, a song you are required to like if we are to co-exist peacefully. Heatwave, the group he put together with brothers Johnnie and Keith Wilder in the mid-1970s, made five albums between 1976 and 1982. You might know their 1976 ballad “Always and Forever”.

Central Heating is their sophomore LP, and it’s a succulent slab of smooth groove. This is a slicker brand of funk than the gritty, James Brown-style 60s funk, and a less loony brand than His Eminence George Clinton and his disciples. This lies somewhere in the ballpark of Kool and the Gang or Earth, Wind and Fire; shoulder-shuffling, Soul Train-style, feel-good music.

The album opens with a “message for the nation” about dancing and getting funky and that sort of business. It’s exactly the kind of platform I support, and the kind we’re just not hearing enough of in this contentious election season. The band warns against the total bummer of being one of those “Party Poops”, and we should all heed their advice. Hardships are acknowledged on this record, like the rent and welfare woes described on “Send out for Sunshine” but Heatwave invites you to forget all about them and just get down. The album standout “The Groove Line” invites you to “Leave your worries behind” and it makes a musical argument convincing enough to win over even the most cynical person you know. Give it a try! “The Groove Line” funks harder than anything else here; after a broiling intro, spiky rhythm guitars set up lead vocalist Keith Wilder’s snappy commands: “Pack your grip! Taking you on a trip!”

Much of the album consists of ballads, and they're just as excellent as their dancing cousins. "Mind Blowing Decisions” is the best of the slow-burners here. With a gorgeous sway and a counter-melody to die for (“Must decide how to go…”) this will find its way onto your after-dark playlist.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

METAFORM: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Metaform - Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

One afternoon last year I was listening to a local rock radio station and the disc jockey, after playing Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks”, mused about having heard those drums sampled countless times. “And we believe,” he said, apparently speaking on behalf of the middle-aged, ponytail-wearing Guitar Center employees that listen to his program “that sampling is not music.” He called it “stealing.”

It’s only fair to mention that “When the Levee Breaks” is one of the few times Led Zeppelin actually gave credit to the source of their own theft; the album jacket credits Memphis Minnie, the actual writer of the song, as a co-author, along with Page and Plant, who did no more to change it than the countless other performers who have interpolated it. Led Zeppelin were notorious plagiarizers: Jimmy Page didn’t write “Dazed and Confused”, and Led Zeppelin were not, contrary to the writing credit, the authors of “In My time of Dying.” Listen to the song “Taurus” by the band Spirit (a great band, by the way,) and then listen to “Stairway to Heaven”, released two years later. Yeah, you could call that plagiarism. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

There’s a quote often attributed to T.S. Eliot: “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.” Picasso is credited with saying “Mediocre artists borrow, great artists steal.” Stravinsky is quoted as saying “A good composer does not imitate; he steals.” Obviously, someone was stealing from someone, which, given the nature of the quote, is apropos. T.S. Eliot went on to say “The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.”

Creating art through the amalgamation of appropriated sources is not new; even the book of Genesis is made up of various myths, recast to suit ancient Judaism. The American folk tradition includes countless songs of ambiguous origin, many assembled from parts of other songs. “Well I woke up this morning,” the Stagger Lee story, and the 12-bar blues chord progression must have started somewhere, but we have come to enjoy them as a communal pool of raw materials available to anyone wishing to create music.

Now that our interaction with music is so dominated by recorded music, it’s only natural that recordings join that communal pool. The Amen Break, for example, is like a modern version of the 12-bar blues progression. (See this great short film on the break's significance: While legal ideas about copyright and intellectual property interfere from time to time, the art of sampling has thrived and allowed for some of the most creative popular music made since the late 1970s. In fact, without sampling, Hip-Hop and Drum and Bass music wouldn’t exist. Thus, the world would be 30% more boring.

Metaform’s Standing on the Shoulders of Giants wouldn’t exist either, and my summer would have been 30% more boring. I spent practically all summer with a pair of headphones pumping this music into my brain and I’m still not tired of it.

This isn’t a beat-tape or a feature-length mashup (not that there’s anything wrong with either of those things,) this is a fully formed, original album, probably the best of its kind since Endtroducing.

Metaform doesn’t just stack beat-mapped loops on top of each other; he composes songs from raw materials samples from other records, unopposed to recording his own instrumentation to sweeten the deal. This album blazes through 19 tracks in 45 minutes and there’s never a dull moment. Where some producers will drag one idea out past its limit, Metaform knows exactly when to change course, and this album is perfectly paced and constructed to create a “whole of feeling”. Laid back, soulful and shifting carefully between dusky moodiness and bright cheerfulness, this music makes it clear that it didn’t take Metaform five years to make it because he’s lazy, but because his attention to detail is impeccable.

The drums sometimes skitter and sometimes bob, horns and guitars swell and disappear, synths percolate and a number of sonic textures drop in; vibraphones (“Lonely Boy”), flutes (“Lamenting Break”) and a fantastic saxophone solo (“Urban Velvet”).

Metaform makes good use of the human voice, as well. The melancholic “Sunday” layers a wispy vocal snippet over twinkling keys and muscular drums to great effect, and the Radiator Lady from Eraserhead makes an unexpected cameo during “Heaven Can Wait”.

A lot of the samples used on this record have been used before; David Axelrod, James Brown, the “Apache” break. In the blog on his Myspace, Metaform explains “we are all digging in the same crates… A photographer can take a picture of the Pyramids in Egypt, which have been photographed millions of times, but their picture will still be totally unique. There are many factors to consider: experience, lens, angle, and so on. The picture will be unique.” T.S Eliot would be proud.