Wednesday, December 1, 2010

GANGRENE: Gutter Water

Gangrene - Gutter Water
I can’t help it. I really do admire skillful rapping, and the potential for complex word play is one of the things that draws me to hip-hop, but frankly, if you create an amazing beat, you can rhyme “fire” with “desire” more than once and I’ll forgive you. I know there are people who look for meaning and skill from an MC first, who can live with bland accompaniment as long as the lyrical flow hooks them. I know that a lot of rap fans are barely aware of how this music is made (I once had to explain to a group of students, all self-professed rap enthusiasts, what sampling is.)

I’m a producer-first hip-hop fan, and that’s my unapologetic prejudice. I could squeeze out a list of favorite rappers, but I’d qualify all of them with “In his prime, anyway…” or “Even though he’s pretty hit-or-miss” and it wouldn’t be the greatest display of enthusiasm you’d ever see from me. Ask me about my favorite producers, though, and I’ll ramble all day and pull out records and play you ten seconds of a beat before I absolutely must play another one and we’ll just end up listening to Donuts.

So here we’ve got an album-length collaboration; The Alchemist and Oh No doing what they do best and crafting a series of earworm beats from scratchy samples and breaks. I guess they rap over them, too, but that’s almost an afterthought. These guys are producers who rap, not the other way around and that’s fine with me. They’re great producers, demonstrating how you can do amazing things even if you don’t have access to orchestras, Rihanna and a million-dollar budget the way *ahem* some producers do.

This thing is a beast packed with details. The Alchemist gives us haunting harpsichords (“Chain Swinging”) incredible basslines (“Get Into Some Gangster Shit”) and even makes the ultra-clichéd twinkling pianos fresh on “Not High Enough”. Oh No gives us awesome vocal samples (“Wassup Wassup”) and horns (“Ransom”) and Kung-Fu strings (“Boss Shit”). As a bonus we get crushing turntables from DJ Romes (“All Bad”) and great guest verses from Raekwon and Guilty Simpson. And we’re like kids at Christmas.

The lyrics aren’t brilliant, mostly just talking shit and celebrating leafy intoxicants, but they’re delivered well enough to compliment the production. The album does feel a little long, and if it had been a thirty-minute beat tape instead, I’d be just as happy with it. Either way, it’s a completely worthwhile release, and if you like low-fi hip-hop grit, this is for you.

Monday, November 22, 2010

KANYE WEST: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Why do we blog and Tweet and use Facebook? So we can mythologize and idealize ourselves. So we can be obsessed with ourselves in front of everybody. So we can use the vernacular of meme and pop-culture to interpret our feelings. So we can justify our behavior and draw out other people's feelings about us. So we can launch an opinion into the public square and carefully control the extent to which (and the context in which) we take responsibility for it. The only difference between Kanye West and the rest of us is the fact that he has the resources to do this on a gigantic scale in front of not hundreds, but millions of people. He is social-networking writ large. Writ HUGE.

In addition to possessing the resources to do it big, he possesses the imagination to do it compellingly. That he does it it at all makes us hate him, because we see in him an unpleasant portrait of our own insecurities and vanity. That he does it so well makes us love him, because he turns our anxiety into something beautiful.

Just like his previous work, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy displays Kanye's mastery of the pop song. Rock, soul, jazz, and hip-hop all produce art-music and pop songs, and the pop song doesn't vary substantially between genres. The ingredients are easy to spot but difficult to master: a distinct hook that immediately sticks in the listener's mind, a structure and pacing that feel familiar, and an emotional snapshot that is relatable and vivid. If you've never tried, it's easy to believe that writing a durable pop song would be easy, but it requires a skill that few posses. The Gershwins had it. Lennon & McCartney had it. Kanye West has it. And unlike the Beatles (who had to rely on George Martin's expertise) Kanye also excels at the art of the pop record, building on both the innovations of Phil Spector's wall of sound and the careful construction of sample-centric hip-hop. Sampling adapts the appropriation and transmission of the folk tradition to a technology-based and product-centric musical climate, and the up-to-the-minute tabloid specificity employed in Kanye's lyrics connects his music to a certain place, time and culture. His almost-unbearable candor is a populist, if circuitous, examination of a zeitgeist. More than a popsmith, then, Kanye is a folk musician.

I know what you're thinking: "Michael, I'm-a let you finish. Kanye's album is good, but Radiohead made one of the best albums of ALL TIME!" Acknowledged. I'll concede that Radiohead is more consistent and does things Kanye West could never do, but Kanye West also does things Radiohead could never do. Their records are admirably impressionistic, but there is no protagonist. There is only a formless existential crisis moaning through a technocratic nebula.

Meanwhile, Kanye's records give us a champion of sorts, an anti-hero who battles not with political forces or the wiles of nature, but with his own materialism and self-absorption. We have a stake in this battle, because we're fighting it too. We're not afraid of the Karma Police, even if we should be. Instead, we're afraid of the way trivial preoccupations vaporize the potential for meaning in our lives. Kanye West glares so unflinchingly into this vapor one doubts his ability to flinch.

This oblivious/astute gaze is more folly than epiphany, and the albatross of Kanye's public persona tempts us to emphasize the former. That albatross is a part of the show, however. The game he plays with the media (a game equal parts accident and strategy) is referred to numerous times in the lyrics, and Kanye (one of the few rappers to release music under his actual name) is even more self-referential than his peers. He makes it impossible to separate the art from the auteur and easy to confuse the two. (And if we're going to dismiss Kanye on account of his bad behavior, it's time to take another look at Frank Sinatra, John Lennon, Miles Davis, Michael Jackson and Elvis.) People have strong feelings about this guy, but those feelings, ultimately aren't about him. They're about what he represents. Kanye West is an icon of entitlement, luxury, victimhood, adolescent bitterness, self-importance, guilt and disappointment.

Thankfully, all this entitlement, luxury, victimhood, adolescent bitterness, self-importance, guilt and disappointment is wrapped up in pop music that makes you nod your head and grin.

In the coming weeks, you'll be hearing a lot of opinions about this album, all of them as biased and subjective as mine. If you thought people hated Kanye's concept album about millionaire's guilt, just wait until the backlash brought on by the perfect scores Fantasy has been given by every publication under the sun. That stuff hardly matters, though. You've probably already decided to buy this album or decided to avoid it completely. You might already know about the impressive stable of beatmakers who joined Kanye on the production side, or the roster of guest vocalists. If you don't know, you will.

This is an aggressive, ambitious work and Kanye accomplishes a lot with his collaborators (like getting John Legend to sing the MF-word over your kid sister's favorite Aphex Twin track and allowing Nicki Minaj to absolutely steal the show from Jay-Z and Rick Ross during a posse cut). Hooks abound, and I promise you will be listening to "All of the Lights" very loudly as you drive this winter, wishing it was warm enough to roll down your windows.

There are a few missteps: the poor mastering job, the out-of-place vocal effect that diminishes some of Kanye's best rapping so far ("Gorgeous"), the hopelessly misogynist skit with Chris Rock, a lame Black Sabbath parody ("Hell of a Life"), the awkwardly employed King Crimson sample ("Power") and some less-than proficient singing on Kanye's part ("Runaway"). It's also a bit of a let down to see the extent to which Kanye's charming self-deprecation has been replaced with an overload of vulgar hatred.

Those caveats aside, this is still some of the most emotionally-stirring commercial art I've encountered in a while, a widescreen memoir brimming with rage and desperation, encapsulated at one point by this thesis statement, a heartbreaking admission of Kanye's own contagious hubris: "You've been putting up with my shit for way too long... Baby I've got a plan, run away fast as you can." We can't though, and he knows it.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

MADLIB: Medicine Show No. 8 - Advanced Jazz

Madlib - Madlib Medicine Show: No. 8 - Advanced Jazz
During a conversation about music while I was substitute teaching, a student told me "I'm going to get into jazz eventually, Mr. Stohrer, probably when I go to college." I told him that is exactly what I had said, and exactly what I did.

As a Prog-rock obsessed teenager, I was no stranger to prolonged instrumental passages and emphasis on technical musicianship, but Jazz was an intimidating stranger. I had Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme and Mingus Ah Um but I sorta had to force myself to choose them over something more instantly satisfying. (Think about how The Decalogue languishes at the bottom of your Netflix queue while seasons of The Office keep getting bumped to the top. You know Kieślowski's masterpiece will ultimately be more satisfying than Dwight Schrute but, ehhh... It's been a long day and you want something easy to get into.) When I put on that jazz I was constantly aware that I was listening to something acclaimed and esoteric that other people had instructed me to like, but to me it was a novelty. All I got from it was mysterious wallpaper.

In college, surrounded by new friends with expansive tastes (not to mention access to the university library and college-town record stores) I was able to get acquainted with this stranger and his gnarled, winding language. By that I don't mean I learned how to name by ear which scale the 'Trane is blowing, and I don't mean I memorized Blue Note session dates and personnel. I just mean I got hip to what those cats were laying down. Dig? My friend Jesse Howell would play me something from The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions and his reactions (mouth agape in astonishment, eyes squinted in overwhelmed laughter) gave me the jazz-bug more than anything before. We traded names: "Have you heard Grant Green?" "Do you like Horace Silver?" We swapped albums: "Take this, you're going to love it." Jazz became the meat in my musical diet and I was a fiend for the robust emotion and wily jubilance jumping from those drumkits and horns. Somewhere along the way, Mingus and Monk became my go-to music for waking up, driving, working out, doing dishes - doing everything. Finally, I sorta had to force myself to listen to Pink Floyd. Rock music didn't leap at me any more, at least not the way Eric Dolphy did. (What if I'd been raised by Beatniks instead of Boomers?) All it took was time, time to get hip to the vernacular.

So here's Madlib, evangelizing connoisseur, dropping the needle on 80 minutes of jazz. With an album cover I desperately want to hang in my kitchen someday, mixing that is more curatorial than technical and a definition of "jazz" that is rightfully inclusive, he's put together a fun mix. Anyone who's been following Yesterdays Universe will know what to expect: clattering, loose grooves and vamping keys. Free-form Sun Ra, a little Art Blakey. I don't recognize most of this stuff. I guess I don't need to.

People still make something of the fact that when On the Corner first came out, no credits were included. "Who's playing that organ? Who's on bass?" Not knowing who plays what separates music from the hero-worship that smothers the simple joy of listening with Mike Portnoy posters from Modern Drummer. Madlib (for different reasons) includes no information, leaving the sleuths to I.D. this tune and that, making us work a little harder than Jesse Howell when he excitedly thrust an Alice Coltrane CD into my hands. Madlib isn't here to guide us through specific discographies, though. He's here to get us hip to the vernacular.

I love that there's no pretense of narrative here, no Ken Burnsing, no attempt to form a coherent (read: simplistic) linear arc. Some of the found-sound folded into the mix informs (like Herbie Hancock explaining how he came to work with Miles Davis) but most of it is Beat poems and comedy records, free from documentary minutiae. There's no canonical through-line, either. We're not hearing played out excerpts from "Take Five" and "So What". This is Advanced jazz. Madlib is spinning stuff your college friends don't know about.

Jazz has an unfortunate reputation as an exception to the rule that pop music is easy to like and understand. This reputation is cemented by The Keepers of Esoterica ("Funk has no place in jazz" they blaspheme) and the Populist No-Thank-Yous alike. (Senior year in high school, I was listening to Bitches Brew for the first time when my mom popped her head into my room and said "Let me know when they're done warming up.") Don't listen to those people. Listen to Madlib.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

HORSEBACK: The Invisible Mountain

Horseback - The Invisible Mountain
Here’s a voice, disintegrating in a bed of chiming guitars and misty drones. It was a roaring fierceness once, but now there’s only a shadow. Sounds get thicker, and it’s either tense or very, very soothing or maybe it’s both somehow. We span glaciers then. No catharsis is given. The song is called “Hatecloud Dissolving Into Nothing.” That’s a perfect name.

That howling voice reoccurs throughout this album as a trapped animal under the hulking doom-metal monolith – sinister as it lashes out, hopeless as it resigns. The lyrics are indecipherable to me, but the voice is just a key sonic detail among sonic monuments. It is not the primary focus. Like a lot of metal music, this record devalues the human voice and makes it slave to the guitar/bass/drum hellstorm. The humanity and intimacy a human voice can provide is replaced with the unsettling sound of an alien presence. There’s something living and organic about it, but it’s a creature formed from unholy unions. We’ve heard this before, in the goblin-screech of Black Metal and the demon-growl of Death Metal, but Horseback lets the creature loose in a surprisingly un-modern heave that draws a line straight to Black Sabbath, ignoring everything between Ozzy and Iommi’s early 70s milestones and this album’s 2009 release date.

That’s not to say this is an Electric Wizard retro hash-bash. There’s nothing very technical, just the slow creep of towering riffage inching slow, slow, slow over something barren and dead, but it doesn’t feel like the product of a pot-fueled delayed reaction time. This is patient music. Clean guitars ring frequently over the main riffs, and use more negative space than we’re used to hearing from “metal” guitarists.

It’s easy for this album to fade into the background, but it deserves a close listen. The desperate emotional weight that uncompromised metal can evoke is in full-force here. It’s more like a hypnotic post-rock apocalypse than a blood-and-guts metal thing. This fits the trend I’ve been noticing as I’ve explored more metal, the same trend that applies to my interest in basically any music: I am drawn to things that trespass beyond the boundaries of the genre.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

BARONESS: Blue Record

Baroness - Blue Record
The latest release from Baroness is an album that walks a lot of tightropes. It’s accessible, but it doesn’t pander. The guitar motifs are majestic and baroque, but not corny. It’s not innovative, but it isn’t clichéd, either.

Baroness integrates distinctly un-metal genres like Southern rock (“The Gnashing”) and ambient music (“Ogeechee Hymnal”) but not in the form of pastiche. Everything here suits a distinct atmosphere without obvious “atmospheric” tricks and sound-effects. That good old-fashioned Heavy Metal Malevolence is around, but this isn’t the Clive Barker Halloween party usually associated with the genre. It’s distinctly American, even Southern. The band strums an acoustic guitar and sings in somber harmony during the ballad “Steel that Sleeps the Eye” and the build that leads it into its sister song “Swollen and Halo” is pure Ennio Morricone, squinting and fingering its pistol in that Civil War cemetery.

At a few points, Baroness blur the line between melodic singing and guttural growls. Switching between the two is a standard tool of the metal trade, (think of it as the distortion pedal for singers, with only an “on” and an “off” position) and it would be nice to see more vocalists make use of shades in between, but it doesn’t work here. Growls and screams are atonal, but melodic singing has to be in tune, particularly in a genre where precision is required to prevent the music from melting into cacophonous mush. Some of the half-melodic screams here are basically just bum notes.

That caveat aside, this is a great record. The second track (preceded only by the chiming bookend “Bullhead’s Psalm”) is called “The Sweetest Curse” and it’s everything Baroness does well. Pete Adams and John Dyer Baizley intertwine their vocals and synch up harmonized guitar melodies as they gallop to some kind of rescue. It sounds heroic, but not in a dragon-slaying way. Add that to the list of tightropes.

Monday, September 13, 2010

ORNETTE COLEMAN: The Music of Ornette Coleman - Forms and Sounds

Ornette Coleman - The Music of Ornette Coleman - Forms & Sounds
A friend of mine told me about the first time he heard The Shape of Jazz to Come: “I had heard that this was just the most out-there thing ever, like it was going to be totally off the wall. I was surprised that it was so tame. Once I got over that initial disappointment, I got into it.”

Ornette Coleman’s reputation as an iconoclast precedes him, but despite the accusations of charlatanism once lobbed at him by purists and formalists, and despite the inaccessibility of his out-jazz progeny, his music is usually very approachable. If anything, his emphasis on melody over all else means listeners predisposed to pop music will know exactly what to listen for.

Usually, anyway. The leap from Ornette Coleman the horn-playing bandleader to Ornette Coleman the composer is not an easy one for most listeners to make. While his classic small group records on Atlantic and Blue Note have grown in stature, his forays into Third Stream music are still approached as curiosities. “Does this guy know what he’s doing?” It took years for conventional critical wisdom to realize he did, at least as a free-jazz innovator. For most of us, the jury is still out on Ornette Coleman the composer. Maybe we just haven’t caught up with him yet.

To put it in context, Forms and Sounds was made in the spring of 1967, between the Golden Circle trio records and the Love Call/New York is Now sessions. Skies of America was still few years away.

The first side is a collaboration with the Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet called “Forms and Sounds” in which short passages for woodwinds are linked by unaccompanied trumpet interludes in a strange variation on the call-and-response format. The woodwind passages hover and chuckle and never quite settle into anything cohesive, which is probably on purpose. He knows what he’s doing, right? As Ornette says in his liner notes: “The music on this record is performed by classical musicians playing the compositions of one whose musical life has roots in jazz.” That musical life, rooted as it is in jazz (and the blues, for that mater) had by 1967 grown into something quite distinct: the hovering, unsettled sound of Ornette Coleman Music, and Ornette Coleman Music is always distinctly Ornette Coleman Music. His gnarled melodies are perfect for rowdy, careening free jazz, but don’t translate particularly well to this setting.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the trumpet solos are more pleasing than the sections composed for the winds. Ornette Coleman’s music is about players operating spontaneously, not ensembles working in structured tandem. Even his classic quartet records from the late 1950s and early 1960s, though they contain attentive, responsive dialogue within the group, are designed to give soloists as much free reign as possible. Isn’t that the whole point of chordless jazz? And isn’t that why Ornette and Don Cherry are so upfront in the mix on The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century while the rhythm section is so frustratingly buried? According to reputation and hearsay, Ornette never told the members of this quartet what to play; he simply demonstrated the head of a tune and let them do what ever they wanted. Some of that free reign is given to the instrumentalists performing “Forms and Sounds” (the score allows them to change register at will) but it’s a far cry from the pulsing, immediate jubilance of Coleman’s best work. His trumpet playing at this stage was not as spry as his sax playing, but that works in his favor, slowing him down so his trademark melodic twist is more bluesy than usual.

“Saints and Soldiers” is a piece for string quartet. It sways and it spirals and never lands on anything. Like most Coleman pieces for strings, we’re left holding our breath. Just before the six minute mark the sway is interrupted by abrupt sawing. I think that part is supposed to be the “soldiers” but who knows? After that, trembling strings melt into mush, alternated with angular, lurching motifs. Listening to it, I find myself wishing the music would either launch into deranged Penderecki territory, or smooth out into a lovely Arvo Part cascade. What we get is a middling waiting room of sound. There are intriguing motifs and ideas, but they lack the structure that could make them powerful. Yes, I just complained that music by Ornette Coleman is too unstructured. The irony is not lost on me.

My favorite track here is not coincidentally also the shortest. “Space Flight” has a pop-song running time and a splattering, angular energy that reminds me of John Adams’ “A Short Ride in a Fast Machine.” It belongs on your “Best of Ornette Coleman” mixtape. The rest of the album remains a curiosity. If this music had been made by someone who wasn’t also one of my musical heroes, I don’t know that I would pay much attention to it. I have faith, though, that Ornette Coleman always knows what he’s doing, even if I don’t always understand or enjoy it.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

MADLIB: Medicine Show No. 7 - High Jazz

Yesterday's New Quintet - Madlib Medicine Show: No. 7 - High Jazz
After a few practice-run EPs and a collection of Stevie Wonder covers, Yesterdays New Quintet released Angles Without Edges in 2001. As I understand it, all five members of the group (Malik Flavors, Ahmad Miller, Otis Jackson Jr., Monk Hughes, and Joe McDuffrey) are Madlib, playing instruments, sampling himself and overdubbing. Angles is my favorite of Madlib’s jazz releases not only for its consistency, but also because it solidly combines so many of the things I love about hip-hop and jazz into one delicious cocktail. The rhythmic tension of great jazz is there, but so is the strophic structure and hypnotic head-nod of great beatsmithing. It’s one of the few records that actually manages an equal marriage between jazz and hip-hop, something that should be a cinch, since both genres revolve around an ethos of personal expression and individual skill, creating an open space for improvisation easily infused with any number of musical directions.

It’s not an easy thing to do, though, and with very few exceptions (parts of Blowout Comb, maybe) most hybrids of the two are really just one or the other. I love A Tribe Called Quest, but live stand-up bass and samples from jazz records do not a subgenre (“jazz-rap”) make, no matter how much it reminds your Pops of bebop. When Guru collaborated with actual jazz musicians on his Jazzamatazz, it was a missed opportunity: generic hip-hop beats played by live musicians are still generic hip-hop beats. When the combination comes from the other side, it is usually little more than a jazz musician including token gene signifiers in a failed bid to assert his relevance. (For reference, listen to Miles Davis’ Doo-Bop or Ornette Coleman’s Tone Dialing. Or better yet, don’t.)

Releases after Angles had less kinship with hip-hop and became more and more about homage: In 2003, Madlib got access to master tapes in the Blue Note vaults and put out Shades of Blue. Ostensibly a remix album, it features more covers than remixes, as the members of YNQ cover Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. In 2004, Monk Hughes and the Outer Realm put out a tribute to Weldon Irvine. In 2005, Sound Directions put out The Funky Side of Life, which teamed Madlib up with guest musicians to cover David Axelrod and Cliff Nobles & Co. In 2007 we got Yesterdays Universe, a compilation of YNQ offshoots and side-projects, tracks supposedly taken from actual forthcoming albums. Earlier this year, two of those releases became reality: The Last Electro-Acoustic Space Jazz and Percussion Ensemble put out Miles Away, a percolating set featuring covers of Phil Ranelin and Roy Ayers tunes alongside originals dedicated to Sun Ra and Woody Shaw, and Young Jazz Rebels put out the Arkestra-style free-improv gem Slave Riot. Interestingly, most of these releases contain original compositions that sit remarkably well next to the covers.

High Jazz, like Yesterdays Universe, is a compilation of music by Yesterdays Universe, the “loosely connected group of jazz musicians performing under several elusive group names, all produced and arranged by Madlib.” This format works well for Madlib: While some of the YNQ offshoot releases have been a little monotonous (like the Otis Jackson Jr. Trio’s Jewelz and Malik Flavors’ Ugly Beauty), each imaginary group sounds wildly different from the others. As a result, High Jazz is constantly changing and surprising.

We get some frantic free-jazz from The Russel Jenkins Jazz Express, low-fi funk from R.A.M.C. and that stupendous title-track, which is just a sweeping string arrangement away from a classic Blaxploitation theme. Elsewhere, Generation Match plays a polyrhythmic groove for a strangled synthesizer on “Electric Dimensions” and The Joe McDuphrey Experience do their best imitation of Pete Jolly’s Seasons. “Pretty Eyes” (by The Jahari Massamba Unit) swings with beautiful piano and organ work, as well as a trumpet solo that reminds me that somewhere along the way, Madlib started including more contributions from other musicians (a good decision, since jazz, unlike the more hermetical process of beatmaking, is best produced socially.) We even get fifteen minutes of a “live performance” from Yesterdays New Quintet, including a Stevie Wonder cover and a rendition of Angles highlight “Broken Dreams”. Ostentatious demonstrations of virtuosity are nowhere to be found, and each player, real or imagined, is equal in these arrangements. The way these halting electric pianos, free-time drums and staccato woodwind honks wind around each other is messy and incredibly fun. Spontaneity and energy are the big draw.

The liner notes tell us a little bit about the (ostensible) releases from which these recordings were taken: Japanese and Brazilian releases, private pressings, and things only found in Madlib’s personal collection. Even if Stones Throw puts out a few of these records at some point in the future, it is safe to assume that most of them will never fully exist. Play along, though, and you will be reminded of certain joys that have been lost for music lovers. There was a time when a person could comb through record bins, stumbling across mysterious records that have languished in obscurity, and only know what the liners on the sleeve told them. A professed fan of a certain jazz maestro might stumble across a release he didn’t even know existed. In the internet age, that mystery and adventure is lost. Discographies are a click away. Every album you want to hear can be found via the internet, legally or otherwise. Madlib’s alternate reality brings that elusiveness back, even if only for pretend. Looking at the album covers in the booklet and listening to the selections included on this CD, I can wonder about Poysner, Riggins & Jackson or The Big Black Foot Band. It is nice to think about music that remains tantalizingly out of reach.

Building this imagined discography, Madlib has become a kind of musical Sergio Leone, creating a universe of homage that has taken on a life of its own. Just as Leone’s films are impressively badass even if you don’t realize how they borrow and subvert Western iconography and conventions, music from Yesterdays Universe is great even aside from all this conceptual coolness.

Madlib's jazz releases are getting more and more ambitious, though there is one major frontier I'd like to see him cross. Other than "Great Day" on Madvillainy, the world of YNQ has been segregated from Madlib's hip-hop forays. Listening to some of the more groove-oriented moments on this release and others like it, I can't help imagining DOOM or Strong Arm Steady or Guilty Simpson dropping verses into the mix. A record of MCs rapping over grooves provided by Yesterdays New Quintet would be amazing. If there is anyone who can marry hip-hop and jazz without simply cobbling together genre cliches, it's Madlib.

This is my second favorite of all the Medicine Show releases so far, after History of the Loop Digga. The second half of 'Lib's monthly endeavor is off to a great start. Next up is a jazz mix. Stay tuned.

Friday, July 2, 2010

DOROTHY ASHBY: The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby

Dorothy Ashby - The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby
I was in People’s Records in Detroit one Valentine’s Day, hurriedly flipping through the jazz bins as quickly as I could so as not to exhaust the patience of my long-suffering girlfriend. There was one other customer, dropping old funk sides onto a portable turntable, obviously looking for his next million-dollar sample. My lovely ladyfriend was browsing through The Real Detroit and I was rescuing old Hugh Masakela LPs from the dollar bin when I heard HER.

Barely a melody, more like a chant, but layered, harmonized. “The moving finger writes, and having writ…” I tilted my head and mouthed the words “What is this?” and then THAT BEAT kicked in. I saw Cratedigger’s head pop up like prairie dog. The money-break, dusty and warm with the kind of natural reverb now made extinct by tacky digital sheen. Strings, vibraphone, saxophone, and that chunky-goodness bassline! My girl gave me the “Are you done?” look and I gave her the “I have attained Nirvana” look. Straight to the counter with me.

Me: What is this music?

Unusually Nice Record Store Guy: This is a jazz harpist named Dorothy Ashby. She graduated from Wayne State, just down the street there.

Me: Is this record (bashful) for sale, or anything?

UNRSG: This copy is pretty beaten up and the first track doesn’t play, but even so, if it was for sale, it’d be about sixty bucks. I had a decent copy last week, and like, an hour after I got it this Japanese record dealer scooped it up for a hundred.

My heart sank. A luxury afforded only to original-pressing-only-fetishists. Enjoy it now, Michael, while you can, because you’ll never hear this music again.

UNRSG: But you can get a reissue for about ten bucks.

Dorothy Ashby had already made a couple of solid, swinging cocktail-funk records by the time this session was held in late 1969. According to the liner notes, she was planning to record just a couple of these songs, and Richard Evans (who produced and arranged The Rubaiyat) had to convince her to make this record. Thank you for that, Mr. Evans.

Evans’ arrangements, while not ground-breaking, are all top-notch. The strings are warm and expansive without overpowering the soloists or blurring the mix into a syrupy mush, and strong basslines are everywhere, (check out “Drink” and “Wax & Wane”). There are upbeat tunes (the jazzy “Wine” and the lilting “Shadow Shapes”) and mellower, more evocative songs (“For Some We Loved” and “Heaven and Hell”) and the shifting moods are complimented with a variety of timbres, like Ashby’s koto playing, Lenny Druss’ wailing oboe on “For Some We Loved” and some vibes, kalimba and electric guitar. Throughout, Ashby’s harp sweeps with a confident ease.

I don’t want to reduce this enchanting LP to a play-by-play, but I can’t hold back about the first 120 seconds. The first sound is a harp, sweeping through caves and waterfalls, joined by an equally reverbed koto. As the picture comes into focus, a brief snake-charmer motif creeps out from vials and jars, incense is lit, lamps go dim and a lumbering boom-bap propels an arcing string arrangement while harp arpeggios fall like snowflakes. A tense, here-it-comes chord is held and released, and what seven-minute overtures fight to earn has been won effortlessly in 40 seconds. Earned and not squandered. Ashby’s opening serenade is bone-chilling. This verse, which brings us to the two-minute mark, renounces with confident ease the “foolish prophets” of science and saintliness. The worldly and the spiritual now dispensed with, Ashby proceeds to play a harp solo that swings the way harps don’t; no cloud-straddling cherub here. This is precise, sexy jazz-funk.

A few people have told me that they prefer Ashby’s Afro-Harping, mainly because they just can’t get into her singing. Those people are wrong. Ashby’s timeless voice, with its wide vibrato, is probably my favorite thing here and if anything was to be changed about this basically perfect record, I might ask for more of that voice.

The lyrics are all taken from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a collection of Khayyam’s 12th-Century poetry compiled and translated (loosely) by 19th-Century Englishman Edward Fitzgerald. Khyyam’s Rubaiyat is lovely stuff, celebrating life and encouraging us to shalalalalala live for today rather than mortify ourselves with a self-flagellating stink of piety. It’s all very Sufi, or very humanist, or both, or neither. Ashby picked all the best lines to sing, usually starting a song with a short sung passage, sometimes reprising it at the end, and letting the instruments do most of the talking.

This album is something special, but it isn’t always readily available (I have the 2007 reissue on the Dusty Groove label, which seems to be going out of print) so keep an eye peeled and grab it if you see it. And watch out for jet-setting record dealers. This should be in everyone’s crates.

Monday, June 28, 2010

ALBERT AYLER TRIO: Spiritual Unity

Albert Ayler - Spiritual Unity
ESP-Disk was named for founder Bernard Stollman’s interest in Esperanto, a universal language designed to unify mankind in peace and understanding. The label’s original aim was to release recordings of songs and spoken-word projects in this new language, but today ESP-Disk is best known for releasing the music of free-jazz giants like Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra.

It’s fitting, then, that the label’s story starts with this 29-minute fireball recorded in one quick summer session in 1964. LBJ had just signed the Civil Rights act into law, Barry Goldwater was on the cover of TIME magazine, and A Hard Day’s Night had just opened in theaters. The musicians arrived, microphones were set up, and this half-hour of music was apparently recorded in a half-hour. No outtakes, no overdubs. Regarding Ayler’s trio, a catalogue description included in the liner notes of other ESP releases reads “American youths brainwashed by the big hype of plastic fantastic rockshuck are only now beginning to recognize the quiet giants of world music among whom stand these three.”

Yes, the kids thought the Beatles were pretty cool until this hoarse horse of a saxophone wail obliterated all that “Ticket to Ride” nonsense. By 1965, Beatlemania had totally tanked and Ayler-fever was sweeping the nation. Nary a sock-hop could be heard that didn’t include a partner-dance to Sunny Murray’s free-time drums, heard on this recording in crazed monaural sound, and bassist Gary Peacock was the new teen-heartthrob, adorning the bedroom walls of a million swooning girls.

I know. That didn’t happen. But while the Beatles brand is fused to videogames and lunchboxes and all varieties of received nostalgia, Spiritual Unity enjoys a sleeper-hit, classic-status reputation to this day. It’s easy to see why. This record has huge, brassy balls.

It’s not what they do, it’s what they DON’T do. Chords? No. Time signatures? Barely. Rules? Of course not. Look at your copy of any ESP-Disk release and you should see the label's motto printed on it somewhere: “The artists alone decide what you will hear on their ESP-Disk.” Imagine the meeting between Ayler’s trio and a three-piece suit at Major-Label headquarters. “Fellas, we want to give the kids something to dance to, can you play something NICE for a change?”

Thankfully, that didn’t happen either. With total creative freedom, these three “quiet giants” made an incredible racket, walking a duckling/swan tightrope in boiling tension for a relentless 29 minutes. That’s a short running time, but I’m not sure our faint little hearts could withstand much more than that. The manic clatter never lets up and it’s an exhausting listen in the best possible way. Whenever I hear this record I feel like I've been splattered in the sweat pouring off of these three. Ayler’s caterwaul is such odd, fractured beauty as he speaks in tongues with his trembling vibrato and his kamikaze phrasing spirals to abrupt stops. When he lays out, the spotlight falls on Peacock’s prickley audiopuncture bass, darting around in spasms and seizures. All the while, Murray’s drums ramble in paragraphs without pattern or meter. I suppose “Spirits” is this trio’s version of a romantic serenade but I don’t recommend you play it on a first date, unless you’re trying to scare away timid suitors.

Don’t be put off by all this iconoclasm. While the Ayler Trio operates with very little rhythmic structure or conventional harmony, there’s always something to latch on to. The singsongy theme that introduces “Ghosts” (included in two different “variations”) sets the right tone; playful and energetic. You’re not going to be able to sing the stuff in between from memory (though your attempts to do so would be a great submission to Youtube) but give this a chance, rock-and-rollers, and hear that ecstatic energy you dig so much pushed through a warped prism of total musical freedom. That jubilance is the attraction. This isn’t austere, alienating music for graduates of the abrasion-endurance-test school of music listening. This is genuinely fun! These guys found their new language, and it’s not Esperanto - it’s AYLER.

Just a couple of years after this debut, John Coltrane got Ayler signed to the Impulse! label, even including him on Ascension alongside people like Pharoah Sanders and John Tchicai. In the late 1960s, Ayler put out some quickly-dated, accessible records that just weren’t EXTREME enough for his purist fanbase, and by 1970, he was dead (suicide, apparently.) The candle that burns twice as bright… Thankfully, Ayler left behind a body of work that demonstrates the kind of fearless music that is made when “the artist alone decides” and the creative process is not tethered by market concerns and “plastic fantastic” hype.

Friday, June 25, 2010

FLYING LOTUS: Cosmogramma

Flying Lotus - Cosmogramma

On his latest record, Flying Lotus races through seventeen complex and creative tracks in forty-five minutes. Without a tracklist, you might never know where one title ends and the next begins. That’s not because it all sounds the same, (it doesn’t) but because the individual tracks, far from being self-contained, fit together so perfectly into this cohesive, well-sequenced suite of oddly inviting music.

The boney gangle of 2008’s austere Los Angeles was persistently claustrophobic and the album felt like a collection of sketches, but on this follow-up FlyLo lets the music breathe and develop. The organic polyrhythmic lope you expect from him is augmented with a larger sonic toolbox, including string arrangements and other live instrumentation. It’s no less spacey, but far easier to warm to.

Some of the songs even feature sung hooks, and the vocals (by the likes of Thundercat, Laura Darlington and some guy called Thom Yorke) are as singalongable as anything we’ve ever heard under the Flying Lotus name (save for maybe Gonjasufi’s infectious cameo on Los Angeles).

The contributions from guest musicians are great, most notably Thundercats’s fluid bass pyrotechnics and Rebekah Raff’s harp.

That harp is one of the most obvious links to FlyLo’s heritage (Alice Coltrane is his Great Aunt), along with the way “German Haircut” and the aptly named “Arkestry” pair lo-fi jazz drumming with saxophone solos played by Ravi Coltrane. Rather than let these elements of 1960s spiritual jazz tie him down to the past, though, FlyLo adopts and adapts them to suit his purposes. A nostalgic homage wouldn’t be as true to the music of Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane as a record that continues to push boundaries they way they did.

The reference points are obvious, (video game music, post-Donuts instrumental hip-hop, the rhythms of jungle and house) but this is as fresh and unique as anything I’ve heard in a long time and it’s a pleasure to hear it now, before the inevitable onslaught of Flying Lotus imitators makes it seem less special. There’s an ease to the ideas here, the open approach of a musician carving out his own space and kicking down doors like its no big deal. Even if some of those inevitable imitators make a more sophisticated or complex version of this music, I doubt anyone will ever make it with the same kind of fearless joy.

Any list of the huge-grin-inducing moments here will be incomplete, but some of my favorites are the ping-pong percussion on “Table Tennis”, the scat singing that introduces “Do The Astral Plane” and Todd Simon’s trumpet-playing on that same track.

The “Flying Lotus sound” is perfected here. No matter how programmed or looped the percussion is, it swings with humanity instead of snapping artificially to a computerized grid like hyper-perfect robot drums. Compressor-overload kicks pummel surrounding sounds, synthy tones are glitched and gutted, voices are timestretched and pitch-shifted, but no matter how tweaked and trimmed, these sounds are weirdly, beautifully soulful.

Monday, June 21, 2010

MADLIB: Medicine Show No. 6 - Brain Wreck Show

Madlib - Madlib Medicine Show: No. 6 - Brain Wreck Show
For better or worse, this is the mix I’ve been waiting for Madlib to make, not for the content (“global psychedelic, progressive and hard rock & funk circa 1968-1976”), but for the execution.

A great DJ mix repurposes pre-existing material in a context that gives it new life, combining portions of disparate works in a self-contained, linear experience (whether for discotheques or living rooms) that voyages from valley to peak, tension to release, in a meticulously-paced arc. Along the way, the DJ reveals unexpected connections and contrasts between the original works, but you’re free to just revel in the music, totally oblivious to all that label-spotting and dancefloor-critique. The DJ did the legwork for you, combing through tons (literally) of records to find that one song, sometimes that one little part of a song, that will complete your musical life.

Madlib’s mixes, on the other hand, usually seem less about creating a new experience from repurposed records, and more about drawing attention to the original recordings. They’re sort of a demonstration for record hounds, put on by the ultimate record hound. Flight to Brazil was a tour of a specific region’s diverse musical landscape, and 420 Chalice All-Stars was an aficionado’s take on a particular genre, and both pointed listeners down specific paths of cratedigging inquiry. That’s why the lack of original track information alongside the Medicine mixes, while understandable from a legal standpoint, is so frustrating.

Finally, though, Madlib has made a mix that isn’t about the source material, but about the mix itself. While taking on an impossibly broad category as his unifying theme, for the first time on any of his mixes he has cast his pet treasures in a new light. It’s just too bad that this light is kind of ugly.

This is the most chaotic and abrasive of Madlib’s projects, interspersing noisy, psychedelic rock music with long sound-collage interludes. Early on, a man with a heavy accent singing a Spencer Davis Group song prepares you for an upbeat excursion through a DJ’s favorite obscure rock and roll. It’s a red herring, though. The songs here are smothered in mangled sound and frequently cut surprisingly short. Just when you start getting into a song (like the melodic tune in the first half of the third track) it is interrupted and rescinded. Attentive listeners will hear material they have heard sampled elsewhere, but what stands out more than anything is how much of the mix relies on spoken-word interludes, spacey intros and “freak-out” portions of songs. At times it feels like the “rock” has been taken out of this psychedelic rock. I think that may have been the intent. When a bluesy saxophone solo pops up in the second track, it’s run through a gauntlet of mixing effects and covered with barely identifiable sounds so it lurks and scowls where, on the original record, it grinned. Brain Wreck Show’s album cover, depicting anthropomorphic rabbits mid-coitus, suits the hallucinatory feel of the mix perfectly (as do the paranoid liner notes, compiled from an unidentified creationist text about Israeli dinosaurs, Chemtrails conspiracy theories, some DJ Quik lyrics and slightly-tweaked excerpts from a controversial book written by one of the founding Seventh-Day Adventists.)

I’m not opposed to music that is jarring and abrasive (can’t get enough Einstürzende Neubauten!) but this mix tries my patience as it descends deeper and deeper into a paranoid Labyrinth of disembodied voices and hallucinatory sounds. Sirens! Screams! Novelty records!

Psyche-rock as far back as Freak Out! and Sgt Pepper’s has always incorporated found sounds (Stockhausen-lite? “Poème Électronique” by way of The Mothers of Invention?) and it makes sense that this is one of the elements of that music that Madlib would hook onto. However, while the interludes on Before the Verdict were tangents at best and distractions at worst, the atonal found-sound here doesn’t feel like a break from the main attraction. To a great extent, it is the main attraction. How you feel about much of this CD will depend on how you feel about sound collages and tape-music.

There has always been an element of musique concrète in Madlib’s projects. Technically, all sample-based music is concrete music, but Madlib, moreso than almost any other hip-hop producer, frequently finds space on his releases to push closer and closer to “Williams Mix” territory. On this mix we have plenty of that, like the dissonant section in the fourth track covered with anti-drug PSAs read by the Looney Tunes or the extended “Eighteen nuns!” bit. This stuff is, from a listening standpoint, my least favorite part of Brain Wreck Show, but in the context of Madlib’s developing methods, it’s actually more intriguing than the songs.

We can think of this mix as analogous to the unaccompanied solos Lester Bowie plays on the second disc of All The Magic or Jimmy Giuffre’s solo clarinet experiments on Free Fall. The turntable/sampler set-up is Madlib’s primary instrument, and with this mix he’s pushing it to new places. A musician who doesn’t explore will surely stagnate. Not every experiment will be a success, but if iconoclasts played it safe, they wouldn’t be iconoclasts, and a lot of our favorite music would never have happened.

I’d like to see Madlib take some of this approach and develop it on future mixes, scrambling and mangling songs even further, blurring the lines between “beat-tape” and “mix”. There are three more mixes to go in this series, and it will be interesting to see how they’re put together.

In the meantime, we have reached the halfway point, and July’s release, High Jazz, sounds very promising.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

MADLIB: Medicine Show No. 5 - The History of the Loop Digga, 1990-2000

Madlib - Madlib Medicine Show: No. 5 - History of the Loop Digga, 1990-2000
This may as well be called Beat Konducta in the 1990s. The fifth Medicine Show release, and the third to feature Madlib’s original work, is a mix of production Madlib farmed out on beat tapes as he was making his name in the 90s.

Hearing the work a favorite artist did in his formative years can, if nothing else, illuminate that artist’s development and the roots of his more recent work, but History of the Loop Digga is more than just a chronicle of Madlib’s dues-paying. While it is fun to spot the signs of things to come (Quasimoto cameos, that “grass increases creativity” sample from “America’s Most Blunted”), this record is a work that stands on its own.

Part of what makes this such a perfect listen is the massive volume of ideas. There are 34 tracks here, but the indexing is pretty meaningless, since most tracks feature two or more distinctly different beats, and there are a thousand little snippets in between to tease us with the thought that Madlib’s vaults are bottomless. The mixing and editing keep things moving at a fast clip: an incredible beat will pop up and then get yanked away in as little as thirty seconds. The only way to bounce back from cutting something like that short is to immediately hit us with something just as good or better, and that is what happens here. This structure is made possible by the fact that ten years of work (from a notoriously prolific artist) are being whittled down into what fits on one CD, and the fast pace is a smart move because the full-length versions of these tracks would, presumably, be pretty repetitive since they were designed to accompany rappers.

Despite how they were intended to be used, I like listening to these beats without rhymes. This way, I can imagine the infinite possibilities, the endless ways a thousand different MCs could rock this beat or that beat. And this must be how producers like Madlib listen to music; imagining the infinite possibilities, how that break or this bassline can be flipped a thousand different ways.

Among all the breaks and basslines here a few recognizable samples pop up, and while I don’t want to get anyone into trouble, I’ll just say it is particularly cool to hear samples from two of my favorite concept albums: a legendary soul singer’s underrated album about his divorce and a Detroit-based jazz harpist’s unjustly overlooked song cycle based on the poetry of Omar Khayyam (I get chills whenever anyone samples that album).

Madlib circa the 2000s samples things no one else would think to use (dig that prog-rock sample in Madvilain's “Strange Ways” for example) while Madlib circa the 90s uses a lot of material you would expect a hip-hop producer to use, but it’s the dish that matters, not the ingredients.

And this is a dish for connoisseurs, one focused more on skill than innovation. This is, naturally, closer to Lootpack in sound and approach than anything else in Madlib’s catalogue. And while the production isn’t as daring as, say, Beat Konducta in Africa, it’s amazing how Madlib’s distinct verve comes through even in this more conservative boom-bap milieu.

As samples of strings, vocals, horns and pianos, (frequently digitized by hardware, bit-crushed and compressed) weave around snippets of speech (locked into the beat or hovering over it) and rapping (acapella tracks scratched on turntable), the drums swing with a classic in-the-pocket bounce. Kick drums are heavy and snares are solid brick, not as sneaky as some of Madlib's more recent beats.

One of the things that makes Madlib’s production so diverse and addictive is the way he’s willing to allow a beat to be sneaky. If you want to know what I'm talking about, listen to Beat Konducta Vols. 5-6. Not everything is a hard four-on-the-floor that even accountants can dance to. This is why Madlib works so well with Guilty Simpson: Guilty’s rapping is all about punching you in the mouth with words, and over those sneaky beats (see “The Paper” on Medicine Show No. 1 for reference) he doesn’t have to compete with a louder-than-bombs BOOM on every downbeat and his voice can be the muscle.

Of course, the opposite can also work, like C.L. Smooth rapping in his incredibly, well, smooth cadence over a booming Pete Rock beat. In the final portion of History of the Loop Digga, we’re treated to some rapping along those lines, laid back vocals in tandem with hard-nodding drums. It’s all pretty solid rapping (courtesy Declaime, Wildchild, Madlib himself, and others), but nothing that will change the art form forever. What makes this portion of the record so enjoyable is how loose and fun it is, like we’re listening in on a few pals just messing around, putting down lyrics and making records for the sheer joy of it. Their enthusiasm is contagious.

It’s impossible to get bored with this thing, and you can’t shut it off halfway through, because everything is tied together in a well-sequenced and cohesive whole. There are several reoccurring sounds, like the “Surgeon General’s warning” and a certain James Brown grunt that show up over and over. Likewise, the sample in “Episode XIV” comes back, for exactly one downbeat, in the next track, used as a transition. Those little touches make this a more immersive listen, a journey from point A to point B instead of a bunch of unrelated ideas thrown at the wall in a see-what-sticks melee.

The album art veers away from the consistent aesthetic found on all the other Medicine Show releases so far, (a visual unity akin to the classic Blue Note covers from the 60s), replacing it with a hyper-violent Blaxploitation comic by Benjamin Marra. (Note to record companies: liner notes that are comic books are awesome.) The incongruity of the artwork, as well as the archival nature of this release, make it stick out in the Medicine Show a little, and I think it would have found more success as a stand-alone release, since the “Volume 5 of 12” tag might put off listeners who aren’t Madlib fanatics. If the Medicine Show eventually goes out of print like Madlib’s Mind Fusion series from a few years ago (impossible to find, trust me!), I hope this one sticks around or goes to a second pressing, because it’s easily in the top tier of Madlib’s releases.

I don’t want you to think that I am some kind of biased Madlib fanatic, but I do want you to know that this particular album is an incredible, joyous listening experience made for music lovers by a music lover. Stop surfing the internet and go get it.

Five down, seven to go. Up next is another mix, and then, as rumor has it, the Medicine Show is going full blown jazz for a couple of months.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

JANELLE MONÁE: Metropolis: The Chase Suite

Janelle Monáe - Metropolis: The Chase Suite (Special Edition)
Janelle Monāe's first full-length album (The ArchAndroid) comes out today, and it's a good time to go back to the beginning of the story and review. By "the story" I don’t mean Monāe's press-kit bio. I mean the story of Cindi Mayweather, the organic-android singer on the run from the law in the futuristic hellscape of Metropolis, sentenced to disassembly for falling in love with a human named Anthony Greendown. In Metropolis, under the authoritarian rule of the Wolfmasters, robots are forbidden to love. You know the rules.

As the product of a prog-rock-fueled youth, I'm a sucker for this kind of thing, and it's too bad musicians who develop a narrative across numerous releases are such a rarity. Jaded Lou Reeds will tell you that pop music is all about sex appeal and authenticity, and concept-nerds like Magma or Coheed & Cambria are an affront to the strum and grit of rock-and-roll™. Whatever. Pop music is all fiction and don’t kid yourself. Liquid Swords is not real and neither is "Folsom Prison Blues".

I think Janelle Monāe's exuberant, unironic creativity is a breath of fresh air. She has an amazing voice, and actually uses her entire range, sweeping from lower registers to soaring high notes and changing her inflection to suit the narrative and mood. She could easily get by on the strength of that voice, in fact, and make a career putting out well-sung and totally generic pop/soul records. Lucky for us, however, she's aiming much, much higher.

Yes, her discography (or at least this first phase) will always be accompanied by a "When we last left our heroes…" summary, but even if it is fairly well-worn territory for science fiction, the sci-fi concept doesn't prevent her from coming up with some outrageously good songs. In fact, if the difference between the on-concept songs here (four, not counting the orchestrated spoken-word intro) and the unrelated bonus tracks (an original and a cover of Charlie Chaplain’s “Smile”) is any indication, it seems like Monāe does her best writing when she's immersed in the dystopian Tomorrowland in her imagination. The unrelated songs are the weakest on the EP; well-sung, professionally accompanied, but lacking the zing! of the other tracks. That's only minor caveat, by the way, and it looks like The ArchAndroid sticks to the Cindi Mayweather saga (it features parts two and three of the four part suite, with this EP being part one.)

The music here is jubilant future soul; syncopated drum loops, loping horns, fizzing guitar solos, turntables, gothic organs, Disney strings, and a people-mover momentum that tumbles through an impressive array of ideas. "Violet Starts Happpy Hunting!!!" blasts out of the gate with a sneering/soaring proclamation: "I- I- I'm an alien from outerspace! I'm a cyber girl without a face, a heart or a mind!" and Monāe rides an Outkast-esque beat, all choppy rhythm guitars and careening synths, her vocals punctuated with a chorus of backup vocals. The thrill I get from this song is identical to the thrill of seeing the first Star Wars (A New Hope, not The Phantom Menace) for the first time. This segues into the highlight, "Many Moons", which is exactly the kind of song that obliterates everything else you were listening to this week. A wiry organ introduces the opening verse, sung in a husky Grace Jones voice and the rest of the song is packed with so many cool moments and inventive details that it would be shame to spoil them. I remember hearing this song for the first time; every time I thought I had it pegged, another hook popped up out of nowhere, sliding naturally into the track's structure.

A classical guitar, what sounds like an accordion and a cathedral organ accompany a robot's aria during the brief "Cybotronic Purgatory" and then the descending horn samples of "Sincerely, Jane" drag Cindi into the underground Wonderworld. None of these arrangements are without precedent or anything like that, but they're remarkably fresh and memorable. This EP never gets boring, no matter how often I hear it, and I am convinced that Janelle Monāe is one of the most inventive and exciting artists in pop music right now. I'm glad she's here.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

CECIL TAYLOR: Conquistador!

Cecil Taylor - Conquistador!
Just look at that album cover. Cecil Taylor is going to play the piano now, and he's going to play it exactly how he wants and if you don't like it he doesn't care. Conquistador! is a 1967 Blue Note release, which means, for those of you not into jazz, it will kick you in the face.

Personnel: Bill Dixon is on the trumpet, Jimmy Lyons on the alto sax and there are two bassists; Alan Silva (plucking the upper registers and bowing the strings) and Henry Grimes (booming out those bottom notes). The skittering drums are played by Andrew Cyrille.

Play by play, like a sportscaster: Side one is the title track, opening with sprays of piano and a tumble of bass. A horn motif, loose and easy. Cecil Taylor's fingers on those keys are a rolling, fumbling beautiful thing while Lyons plays melodic lines in tension with the out-excursions of the rest of the group, eventually getting more and more sporadic and squonky as the music winds up into that Blue Note mayhem we love so much. Cyrille keeps a galloping pulse, heavy on the cymbals, clattering. Five minutes in and it's Dixon's shot. A mourning start to his solo as the band winds down, getting out of his way. Taylor punctuates the trumpet's soft wail and Cyrille lays out. The bowed bass responds. A hi-hat chops in tentatively, and steam is picked up. Winds in unison, moaning bowed bass, heavy cymbals, and that relentless, jagged piano playing. Cecil Taylor's gnarled piano lines are so strange. Listen to his solo at the nine-minute mark, with those rap-tap-clap drum fills. Stuff like that is why I listen to jazz.

Taylor's got the joyful go-at-it-kid enthusiasm of a toddler who just learned to lift the piano lid… if this toddler is the reincarnation of Thelonious Monk. It's sharp, angular playing, winding around tricky lines, embracing awkwardness and uneasiness. It's tension! It's suspense! It's not telling you where it's going, it's just going to go there and anyone can follow if they want. Most won't. I will. Just try to keep up, kid.

I can imagine these guys playing with clenched teeth and squinted eyes, the face of a good thrashing metalhead. Thirteen minutes in and that horn melody teases us before drumrolls and squealing bow that follow Taylor's rolling keys all over the place. I love the way Grimes percolates under everything like it's no big deal. Just doing his thing, popping those low notes under all this musical tantrum. And when we finally get to the bass duet we're ready, but it's short, wound so tight the rest of the band has to jump on it to hold it down. And then you have to turn over the record. I guess these guys are playing to the LP format. Too far over fifteen minutes and the grooves are narrower and sound quality drops. More importantly, those narrower grooves mean it's not as loud, and this music needs to be LOUD.

Side two is called "With (Exit)" and it starts so pretty. And it's a gangly, duckling pretty and it won't ever be a swan, but who needs swans? And who told me free jazz is all experiment and no emotion? Someone who never heard this, obviously.

Lyons steals the show on side two, seriously. You might even forget that it's not his name on the cover. He hits just the right balance between discernible melody and spiraling soundsheets.

The second side is a lot like the first, but a little better. On the 2003 reissue, an alternate take of "With (Exit)" is provided, just to show they never played it the same way twice. Mingus would say they couldn't play it twice. But why would they want to? When I'm not listening to this album I can't recall a single note, but that just means it surprises me every time.

In high school my favorite English teacher told me she liked NPR, except when they played that "experimental jazz." One of my artist friends thinks it's all intellectual nonsense, structurally worthless. My girlfriend has remarked that this kind of thing sounds totally random. It's your loss, people.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

MADLIB: Medicine Show No. 4 - 420 Chalice All-Stars

Madlib - Madlib Medicine Show: No. 4 - 420 Chalice All-Stars

The Medicine Show’s second mix was released on 4/20, and it’s not a coincidence. Before you even get the disc into your stereo, you’re faced with a (pretty fantastic) album cover that spoofs the iconic cover of Lee Perry’s dub masterpiece Super Ape. Where Perry’s simian mascot held a tree-sized marijuana cigarette, Madlib’s is hijacking an entire truck of medicinal marijuana. The liner notes contain a directory to every medicinal pot distributer in Los Angeles, and an FAQ about weed prescriptions. So I guess Madlib likes smoking pot or something. How his mother and I missed the warning signs, I'll never know...

It’s actually too bad ‘Lib couldn’t resist packaging this selection of Jamaican music in a (literal and figurative) green wrapper, because this music deserves to be presented as something more than ear candy for frat boys sitting under their Bob Marley banner taking tokes from a dragon bong. In the States, distanced as we are from Jamaica’s political and religious history by our own cultural insulation and good old-fashioned American Self-Attention, reggae is often used as a signifier of “good vibes” and a vague sense of righteous social awareness, man, though the only thing most Americans know about Rastafari is that weed is used ritually. (Don’t be too hard on those High Times subscribers, though; focusing on what suits our agenda and ignoring the rest is how Americans tend to approach all religions.)

While it’s true that War Ina Babylon and Two Sevens Clash can be enjoyed, like any great music, apart from regional and historical origins (is any song more universal than “Uptown Babies Don’t Cry”?) the religious and emotional depths of reggae and its related genres are too often neglected by American listeners, and to shift attention from those depths to the intoxicant of choice favored by the musicians is akin to understanding the rich tradition of American blues music as “misogyny songs.” There’s so much more to blues than just hating women.

All the concerns I had about Flight to Brazil apply here as well, so I won’t repeat them. I will say that this is a much stronger and more diverse mix than Blunted in the Bomb Shelter, Madlib’s mix of Greensleves and Trojan classics. Also, the transitions between tracks are pretty effective here. Even though a song is rarely allowed to play for more than two minutes, there’s a smooth cohesiveness to this mix. There are lots of little suprises, like the ska cover of the Mission Impossible theme, and a wide array of ska, roots, deejay and dancehall stuff; lots of toasting, singing and dubbing going on. As a listening experience, there's nothing to complain about here.

Four down, eight to go. Next month, the Bad Kid is unleashing an archival release of older material, as if he was Bob Dylan or something. Madlib has put out a few other releases this year in addition to the once-a-month Medicine Show releases: He produced a Strong Arm Steady album (released in January), his collaboration with Guilty Simpson is coming out on CD in May, and he put out two more records in Madlib’s Endless Quest to Make His Very Own On the Corner: Miles Away, as The Last Electro-Acoustic Space Jazz and Percussion Ensemble and Slave Riot as The Young Jazz Rebels. Miles Away is a percolating goatee jazz and Slave Riot is an Arkestra-esque free jazz freakout. Both are in the top tier of Madlib's extensive jazz projetcs.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

MADLIB: Medicine Show No. 3 – Beat Konducta In Africa

Beat Konducta - Madlib Medicine Show: No. 3 - Beat Konducta in Africa
Other than his collaboration with DOOM (which sadly doesn’t seem to be an ongoing concern,) the Beat Konducta series is my favorite of Madlib’s projects. The format is perfect for his frantic work-ethic: a great big pile of hip-hop instrumentals, usually clocking in between ninety seconds and two minutes. For those who came in late, the first six volumes were released separately on vinyl and combined on two-for-one CDs. The first two (Movie Scenes) were an eclectic collection of beats based primarily on soul and funk, but with quite a few curveballs thrown in. The third and fourth volumes (Beat Konducta in India) used samples from Bollywood soundtracks, and the last two were tributes to the late J. Dilla, incorporating samples Dilla had used in his own productions and creating a sorrowful/celebratory vibe perfect for a musical eulogy. As the title suggests, this installment is (mostly) made from samples taken from African music. (The same sample of American composer Steve Reich’s “Come Out” used on the Madvillain album is used here as well, and if I had the encyclopedic knowledge to recognize everything, I’d imagine there are other non-African snippets.)

Occasionally, Beat Konducta beats will be recycled in extended form as backing tracks for rappers, but I prefer them in this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it channel-surfing format. It can be erratic at times, and a lot to digest at once, but it keeps things moving. On the odd occasion when the Beat Konducta stays in once place for too long, (such as “Spearthrow for Oh No” on this volume) it’s tiring. Maybe my attention span is spoiled by the brevity of most of the tracks. Maybe Madlib is just more of a flash-of-inspiration producer, lining up one disconnected idea after another, as opposed to making song-structure instrumentals like RJD2.

Because of the massive volume of tracks, the Beat Konducta records get better with each listen, and that was exactly my experience with Beat Konducta in Africa. Repeat listens reveal a wealth of little moments like the horns that soar over “Red, Black and Green Showcase”, the vocal hook that distinguishes “Warrior’s Theme”, the submarine throb of "Umi (Life)" and the lurching waltz-tome of “Chant 3”. These are scattered among less effective ideas, like the interludes that pair a tourguide record with some of the more muted beats in this collection. “Yafeu” for example, drags on far too long (just under two-and-a-half minutes, but it’s relative, eh?) without ever really hitting us with a great hook. Some of these spoken word portions are actually repeated, which adds to the tedium.

That inconsistency is a symptom of Madlib’s try-anything approach, the same thing that makes his best moments so inspired. Even if this isn’t the strongest of the Beat Konducta records, it is always good to hear Madlib in his element, chopping up cool samples. Writing about the first volume in Madlib’s Medicine Show, I said “Hip-hop, by its very nature, has broken down concepts of music ownership so thoroughly that it would be absurd to fault an artist for one more form of cultural high-jacking.” In my review of the second volume, I accused Madlib of cultural high-jacking. And here I am, writing about the third volume, which I guess falls on the good side of the difference between hijacking another artist’s work and making something new from it.

I love sampling. Before I ever owned a microphone, I was making music patched together from samples. DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing was the record that changed the way I approached making music. Once I heard that, I was done writing songs on a guitar. I spent most of my sophomore year in college crouched in front of my computer (I couldn’t, and still can’t, afford an MPC or anything like that) ripping CDs and looping and layering samples. I didn’t produce anything worthwhile, but I gained a new appreciation for the Pete Rocks of the world, and my interest in hip-hop went into overdrive. When I discovered Madlib, I had found this music’s Ornette Coleman, an artist doing things his own way, producing a diverse range of projects all tied together by a distinct feel that is difficult to pin down. Even when Ornettle Coleman is playing the violin or trumpet instead of his usual saxophone, it’s easy to recognize him. Likewise, whether he’s chopping up breaks or playing the drums or rapping, there is something uniquely Madlibish about everything Madlib makes.

And this particular slab of Madlibishness, while not his masterpiece, is a worthy entry into his perplexing canon. The samples from highlife and afrobeat and soukous give these beats a unique feel, and the way “African Map Hustler” segues seamlessly into “Street Watch” might point the way for a more technique-oriented future for the Beat Konducta, which would be interesting to see. And, if nothing else, tracks like “Heritage Sip” and “Mighty Force” are essentials for anyone’s “Best of Madlib” mix CD.

Three down, nine to go. Next up: Madlib releases an album on 4/20. I'd give you three guesses, but you wouldn't need all three.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

CHRISTOPH DE BABALON: If You're Into It, I'm Out Of It

Christoph de Babalon - If You're Into It, I'm Out of It
The story of drum and bass music has a hundred versions, but purists frequently lament an arc of compromise: jagged breakbeats are domesticated to score car commercials as ritual raves are co-opted by businessmen. An outlaw is deputized. For a listener like me, however (Midwest, mid-twenties) the mythology of psychedelic libertinism and socio-spiritual ecstasy is barely more than the dated liner notes packaged with an LTJ Bukem mix. It’s like how I really dig Jimi Hendrix's music but you couldn’t pay me to watch Woodstock: The Movie. The heroic iconography associated with the pure heyday of drum and bass (the Hendrix-torches-his-axe for the jungle crowd) has typically been the DJ leading his congregation through their rhythmic glory, but I have always preferred the producer, huddled monastic in his bedroom over sampler and calculator, perfecting his masterwork before turntable apostles take it to the world. It’s no surprise, then, that that I am partial to the armchair end of drum and bass. Imagine the difference between swing and post-bop, dance music made avant-garde art. The same radioactive spider that turned Benny Goodman into Eric Dolphy also turned Goldie into Squarepusher. Meanwhile, Sun Ra was from Jupiter and Christoph de Babalon is from hell.

If You’re Into It I’m Out Of It is grim, scary and unyielding. I suppose people could dance to it, but somehow I imagine them sawing through their limbs to escape some Jigsaw Killer death trap instead. You’re not getting out of this record alive, buddy. De Babalon uses the lo-fi claustrophobia of a thousand black metal opuses to pummel his listener with overdriven bass drums and the twitchy, digital bite of spring-loaded sounds. You know those PFM and Spring Heel Jack records that reach for the clouds with a breath of fresh air? This is not that. This music smothers and strangles and slices. It’s awesome. "Dead (Too)" has a bandsaw synth that cuts through all the other music you listened to today and leaves it in little shreds on the floor. "Expressure" is the sonic equivalent of two black eyes.

There are lengthy, drone-based ambient tracks interspersed with the fury and murder, but they are not a calm respite. The ambience is not Brian Eno’s wide-open public terminal, or even Tim Hecker’s day-after-Chernobyl wastescape. It’s more like that box where they locked up St. John of the Cross. That claustrophobia, combined with the almost-excruciating anticipation-of-a-bang tension, is pivotal to the album's structure and makes it a complete, immersive listen. Pretty? Pleasant? No. It’s better.

I know a lot of people would hate this music, (it failed the girlfriend test), but the very things that make it alienating are what make it so thrilling. There’s no arc of compromise here. This music will not work in a car commercial. Your crowd-pleasing DJ has no use for it. De Bablon doesn’t care. If you’re into it, he’s out of it. He painted the basement floor red and he’s got a bunch of strange-looking tools.

I work as a substitute teacher, which means I watch more educational videos than any person should be subjected to. It’s incredible how many of these pedagogy-Spielbergs use anonymous, generic (probably public domain) house and jungle-lite to score their “learning is fun” condescension. Using music as background noise is paying it the ultimate insult. (In that, I am not including using music for dancing, which is a way of actively engaging it.) I admire Christoph de Babalon for making an album that refuses to be ignorable. Great art makes you want to rip it off the wall, they say, either so you can burn it or take it home. This guy doesn't care which one you do, but if you even try to attack this music you'll probably lose the fight. Look at that album title. It's just as audacious as “The Shape of Jazz to Come”. De Babalon has the good taste to spare us the pop-prophetic, self-congratulatory liner notes favored by so many electronic musicians, but you can imagine the sort of Nietzsche-esque exclusiveness he might have included: “Perhaps not even ten men alive are prepared to hear my breakbeats.”

I love the dank atmosphere, the suspense of being chained to the furnace just below that mildewed waterline as the cement floor is sunk under a malicious flood. This is one of my favorite electronic albums. In case you were looking for one more thing Thom Yorke and I have in common (in addition to “scrawny” and “nervous” and “loved by millions”), I once read a review of this record that he wrote for the BBC (which you can read on de Bablon's myspace page). “I choose this record,” he wrote, “because it's the most menacing record I own and it's kind of how I imagined drum and bass was always going to be and then it wasn't.” I think I own some records more menacing than this, but that other part is exactly how I feel about it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

SCIENTIST: Scientist Rids the World of the Evil Curse of the Vampires

Scientist - Scientist Rids the World of the Evil Curse of the Vampires
It’s a dub record, so you know what it sounds like: The chunky wobble of the bass, the rusty scrape of the high-hat, the bass drum’s muddy thud, the horn section playing in a cave, the vamping guitar drenched in cement-floor slapback and the disembodied voices adrift in their delay-unit haze.

Scientist, once a protégé to dub innovator King Tubby, isn’t reinventing the dub wheel here, but he’s a master of his craft. His intuition is perfect, and the addition-by-subtraction process yields a work that never becomes repetitive or dull. There is a bright, crisp sound here, as opposed to the deep murk of, say, Lee Perry’s excellent Super Ape. Little spoken bits at the start of many of the songs (“I am the living dead!”) lend a kind of thematic unity, but it doesn’t really extend beyond those brief catchphrases and the album cover. Scientist’s albums all have amazing titles, by the way, like Scientist Meets the Space Invaders and Scientist Wins the World Cup. It’s like he’s going on all these great adventures, when really he’s just mixing some awesome dub. (He also made an album in 1980 called Introducing Scientist: The Best Dub Album in the World. I like it when artists aim high.)

Like strophic techno, dub is constructed by the addition and subtraction of layers. Each of the repeating elements is congruent with the others, and the music moves through a series of combinations as layers are added and removed, reintroduced or silenced as necessitated by the track’s momentum. Unlike techno, however, these elements are not programmed into a machine, they are parts played by session musicians, recorded to a multi-track tape where they can be isolated from each other in the mixing process. The musicians are typically not the stars of the show, however. It is the man at the mixing boards whose name (or pseudonym) graces the cover.

A few years ago there was a dustup when several tracks from this album were used in one of the Grand Theft Auto games without Scientist’s knowledge or consent. Scientist was apparently upset that his music was associated with anti-social wish fulfillment (“I don't understand why they have someone who steals a car and shoots up the place, then he's listening to reggae and Rastafari on the radio.”) The fact that he received no compensation probably stung a little as well. Just because the cover boasts his name doesn’t necessarily mean he is recognized as the author of this work, however. A managing director at Greensleeves Records said "Basically, Scientist was claiming to own copyrights in songs and recordings as a result of being the mixing engineer. Although we always felt these claims were ridiculous, we had to defend ourselves all the way to trial.” Greensleeves won in court, perhaps because certain people in the legal system just don’t understand how dub works. Apparently, according to precedent, the mixing engineer can not claim authorship of a recording.

So who is the author here? Henry “Junjo” Lawes produced the recordings and wrote the arrangements, which are played expertly by the Roots Radics Band. The original mixes feature vocals by Michael Prophet, Wailing Souls and others, though in Scientist’s mix, these are reduced to well-placed snippets.

Jamaican pop uses and re-uses riddims frequently, and the artistry most often recognized is what a certain performer does with those pre-recorded backing tracks. It’s not unusual for the same Sly and Robbie track to be used for several different songs by several different vocalists. This is similar to the way American rappers will recycle each others’ beats on mixtapes, except in the case of reggae and dancehall the practice is often a feature of “official” releases.

In the early days of dub, a single’s b-side would often be a dub version of the a-side. Somewhere along the way, dub became an art in itself, and whole albums of dub versions were released. I haven’t heard the original un-dubbed versions of any of the tracks on Scientist Rids the World of the Evil Curse of the Vampires, though I suspect I would like them quite a bit. It’s strange that those originals have fallen into obscurity while these versions comprise a recognized classic. Who's the author now?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

MADLIB: Medicine Show No. 2 – Flight to Brazil

Madlib - Madlib Medicine Show: No. 2 - Flight to Brazil
The words of Jace Clayton, better known as DJ /rupture: “As a process, DJing is inevitable and necessary for our times, an elegant way to deal with data overload. As a performance, it's what the kids are grooving to the world over. As a product, it's largely illegal.”

Well, I’m certainly grooving to Flight to Brazil, and I’m sure it’s illegal. For the second Medicine Show release, (and the first of the mixes that will comprise the even-numbered volumes,) Madlib has compiled a wildly diverse mix of music from Brazil and there’s no indication (and very little chance) that the creators of this music gave permission or received compensation, though at the same time there is little indication here of any plunderphonic-politics. If any such comment exists, it is to be found in Flight to Brazil’s cover art (partially pictured above): It’s a painting of Christian missionaries arriving, presumably, in South America. Anachronistic details are added to the paining; firearms, a Coca-Cola can, pharmaceutical vials. Is someone making a comment about imperialism? Is someone being ironic?

Discussions about music piracy frequently cast narratives in which innocent college kids downloading Grateful Dead bootlegs are pursued by rapacious corporate slime, but there’s another side. Regarding the morally dubious business model of the Sublime Frequencies label, the aforementioned Jace Clayton wrote “It’s a sadly familiar economic model: sell the cultural riches of non-Westerners without their knowledge or permission.” Isn't Madlib essentially doing this with Flight to Brazil? No information about the composers or performers behind this music is included in the liner notes, either because of that white-label attitude that makes DJs feel like part of an exclusive “in-the-know” record club, or (more likely) because by releasing this, Madlib is committing illegal copyright infringement. (This may also explain why the words “Stones Throw Records” are nowhere to be found on the Medicine Show releases, though it is clear that Madlib’s home label is behind them.)

It’s a shame, too, because every song on this mix makes me want to know more. And isn’t that part of the value in such an endeavor? And wouldn’t that information likely lead to increased dividends for these musicians (thus compensating for their lack of, erm, compensation) as listeners who are exposed to their work via this mix begin to seek out more?

Even if they aren’t being paid, these musicians could at least be celebrated as unique artists, but instead, the curator is the star of this show. Apparently, the talent on display is Madlib's talent for finding and buying records. The musicians are just some anonymous Brazilian people who made some tunes that would have languished in total obscurity if not for their hip American savior. Without any information, however, this music is still obscure, still anonymous.

Is this anything more than one music geek showing off his finds to other music geeks, ethics and ownership be dammed? Like most of Madlib’s mixes, it’s hard to see any intention here beyond sharing a bunch of awesome records he found while he was digging for material to sample, but it’s hard to deny the middle finger extended (perhaps unintentionally) by a mix of Brazilian music this diverse. You know those cheesy compilations they sell at Starbucks and in the “World Music” section at Borders, the ones with titles like The Sounds of Brazil? This is not like that. This is the antithesis of the coffee-shop tourism that pretends to squeeze an entire nation’s musical output into one digestible smorgasbord of background sound for Yuppies who want to feel “multi-cultural.” Madlib’s fondness for Brazillian music is well-documented, and the depth of his knowledge (or, at least, the depth of his record collection) is impressive.

Likewise, the role of a curator is a natural compliment to his work as a producer of sample-based hip-hop, and while mash-up artists like Girl Talk have blurred the line between creating something new from other people’s music and simply (or complexly) recontextualizing that music, these roles remain sharply distinct in Madlib’s curatorial work, which also lacks the manifesto politics of, say, DJ Spooky, and is rarely any more conceptual than Flight to Brazil’s geographic theme. He’s also not a very technical DJ. This isn’t Gold Teeth Thief. These songs aren’t mixed in any complex way; they’re simply truncated and cross-faded, linked by a man’s voice announcing flights to and from places in Brazil, as well as a repeating sample of a woman going “Whooooo!” (It’s not as dumb as it sounds.)

Listening to this mix illuminates much of Madlib’s original music, particularly his excursions into fusion as Yesterdays (sic) New Quintet; a familiar piano line pops up at one point, for example, one I am sure is sampled by Madlib on another release (or maybe the song is covered by YNQ), and the feel of these rhythms is certainly captured by many of the compositions on Madlib’s fusion projects. That probably isn’t the point, though. With this mix, it seems Madlib is just sharing (read: selling) some cultural riches he found (read: stole). Here’s an awesome song. Now, here’s another. Of course, I am exactly the sort of person to whom this appeals. Yes, thank you, Madlib, I would love to hear some awesome records you found. And it's impossible to deny that the actual music here is terrific. I just wish I could enjoy this mix without fretting over silly ethical questions.

Two down, ten to go. Next up: The Beat Konducta goes to Africa.