Tuesday, May 21, 2013


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And maybe there’s your melancholy.

Sunday, May 12, 2013


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 4, 2013

AESOP ROCK: Skeleton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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