Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Moving Day

Since Blogger thinks it's cool to delete an entire post without warning me beforehand, I'm moving this whole blog over to Wordpress. The new address is here. If you link to me, please update the address. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Let Us Remember: The Congos's "Ark of the Covenant"

In "The Upsetter," the 2008 documentary about Lee "Scratch" Perry, Perry blames the group The Congos and all their many rastafarian friends for tainting his Black Ark studio with rampant drug use, endless mooching, and racism (he claims that God was punishing him for believing in the rasta idea of white people as devils), forcing him to burn it down in a spiritual act of cleansing.

Hearing Perry talk about his time with the Congos without hearing the album that resulted, The Heart of the Congos, you might assume their collaboration was a mess, an ugly testament to an ugly time. But The Heart of the Congos is one of the greatest reggae albums ever made. Combining Perry's Black Ark sound, with its protean bass sound and cave-like echo, and the Congos's deeply spiritual roots reggae sound, the album sounds as vital as ever, forever being what you hand to Bob Marley fans and say "This is the real stuff."

One of the single biggest influence on reggae vocalists since the 1960s has been Curtis Mayfield, and when you hear "Ark of the Covenant," you'll know why. Nothing sounds better over a huge low end than a keening falsetto, and here it's supplied by Congo Cedric Myton. Perry provides the perfect ambience for the group's harmonies, creating echo effects that sound like wind blowing through palms and hi-hats that hiss like smoke released from craters. When the group stops singing at around 2:26, you get nothing less than a clinic on Black Ark dub, with rock-like snares and gurgling, underwater reverb.

Speaking of Black Ark dub....Not to sound like a jerk, but pretty much every next level musical trick you've ever heard was done by Lee Perry first, thirty or forty years ago. From Timbaland using a crying baby as a musical instrument to M.I.A.'s bird squawk percussion on "Bird Flu" to almost anything Animal Collective has done over the past few years, Perry thought of it first, and as opposed to holding this over newer artists as a taunt, I think this fact should encourage fans of those artists to seek out something or everything by the man (plus then you don't look like an idiot when you're talking about how brilliant and original your favorite artist and how "no one else would have thought of that.")

Soulful, sad, a litle creepy, and heavy in every sense of the word, "Ark of the Covenant" and The Heart of the Congos needs to be remembered.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I Will Never Like: Blu

Blu bores me. Sure, he can flow and his lyrics show some degree of writerly detail, but there is absolutely nothing compelling about his personality. Were he a singer and not a rapper, this might not be a problem. I find Thom Yorke to be quite irritating in interviews and his lyrics increasingly read like the repetitive ravings of a bus stop paranoiac, but the sound of his voice can still give me chills.

Rapping requires a tremendous amount of personality and conviction, and truthfully may be closer to acting than singing, because the ultimate aim is to make the listener believe what you are saying is true. This is the reason Tupac will be forever more popular than, say, Rakim, because the former, whether he believed his own bullshit or not, portrayed the more interesting character. I'm not saying Rakim didn't possess personality or conviction, just that his persona of the uber-MC got stale quickly because, while intelligent and poetic, it was, from a dramatic standpoint, pretty one-dimensional.

Looking at it this way, rappers like Blu are bad actors. They write fluid, poetic rhymes full of metaphors and similes but deliver them in a way that signifies only their lyrical prowess and nothing else. What could be more boring? Even when he's rapping about dead friends on Johnson and Jonson's "Hold On John," Blu sounds like he's a motivational speaker giving a lecture on "What Grief Can Teach Us." No wonder so many listeners would rather listen to Lil Boosie curse the world because his friend died, because even if he's not capturing very many specific details, the visceral emotion of losing someone comes across loud and clear and isn't undercut with faux-wisdom and self-help platitudes.

I'm not saying Blu is some unfeeling, uncaring intellectual and Boosie some salt of the earth "real dude," just that the latter better understands the dramatic nature of rap music. The reason so called "positive" or "conscious" rap isn't more popular has nothing to do with listeners disliking songs with positive messages. Popular music is full of hokey songs that even the most cynical listeners find themselves enjoying purely because of the melody. But subtract the melody and have some dude just saying stuff like "R-E-S-P-E-C-T/Find out what it means to me" and the sentiment lives and dies based on its delivery. If rappers want us to respond to their "wisdom" and "knowledge," they've got to convince us that both were hard earned and not some shit they just thought up when they were stoned. Rappers who rhyme about drug dealing and living in fear of being killed have it easier because their subjects are already inherently dramatic.

Blu, and rappers like him, epitomize the problem with lyrical prowess as the primary standard for judging rappers, and help explain the ascendancy of what Brandon Soderberg calls post-lyricism. Just putting some hot lines together and rapping them well is not enough anymore; now you have to, like a good actor, create a compelling character that can transcend the fact that, at the end of the day, you're just a dude reciting poetry.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Right Track: Magik Markers' "7/23"

Magik Markers, like Sunburned Hand of Man and Mouthus, are one of those bands that explores the crusty margins of 60s rock music, the music made by those bands who were too sloppy and/or trippy to break big. I'm talking about bands like Sweden's International Harvester and Germany's Guru Guru and LA's literal "cult" band Father Yod and Ya Ho Wa 13, groups who continue to find a small but obsessive audience all these years later because they, unlike Jefferson Airplane or the Grateful Dead, actually sound heavy and druggy and weird enough to be called psychedelic.

"7/23," off of Magik Markers' new album Balf Quarry, is the perfect marriage of this half-broken, hypnotic noise rock and a gorgeous melody. Almost every element of the song save for Elisa Ambrogio's singing is either clanging or atonal, but her vocal melody is so irresistible that it sounds like a pop song. At around the three minute mark, there's a guitar solo that strangles out the main melody, sounding almost like a parody of it, like the band can't help but make fun of themselves for writing such an easygoing and catchy melody.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

I Actually Like: Rye Rye and Blaqstarr's Blaqout Mixtape

Rye Rye and Blaqstarr's Blaqout mixtape is pretty overwhelming on the first listen. It's unquestionably club music, all crazy build-up and schoolyard chants and pounding bass drums and handclaps. But you'd be doing the music a disservice if you dismissed as "only good in a club." It sounds good, if not better, on headphones because you can hear all the tiny shifts in dynamics that producer-DJs like Blaqstarr excel at, the moments that explain how music that sounds so repetitive on the surface can keep you hyped up and energetic for hours.

There are so many great things Blaqstarr does throughout that need to pointed out: The way he changes up the tempo on "Hustress (Club Version)" not by slowing down the beat, but by slowing down the whole song; the funky flanged drums and Jeezy "Ay!" adlibs on "Ay Buddy"; building a whole beat around the beginning of "Jesus Walks" on "Guns in the Air"; singing over nothing but a decaying sample on "Feel It In the Air," and the moody, almost new wave-sounding remix of M.I.A.'s "World Town."

Speaking of M.I.A.: It's disappointing that she appears anywhere on this mixtape at all, though I don't blame Blaqstarr for wanting to point out his contribution to her sound. The production on Kala owes so much to Baltimore club music, but the critical consensus seems to be that that album created a sound as opposed to borrowing one. Though M.I.A. did take Rye Rye out on tour with her, that barely covers her debt to the music she's taken so much from and which she only casually mentions in interviews .

Honestly, Rye Rye is sort of a negligible presence on Blaqout, but I don't mean that in any insulting way, just that this seems to be mostly Blaqstarr's show. The girl does have charisma to spare and is probably the first teenage girl rapper I've ever heard who sounds like an actual teenager and not some record company's idea of one. Also, her lullaby-like chorus on "Get on the Floor" is integral to the song's chilled banger vibe.

The track I've included, "Hands Up Thumbs Down" is my own edit from the full mp3 mix I downloaded over at, Brandon Soderberg's Baltimore Club blog. I highly recommend everyone head over there and download the full mixtape.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

I Actually Like: Venice Is Sinking

On Thursday, I got an email from the Athens, GA band Venice Is Sinking, informing me of the release of their new album AZAR. Since it was the first email I've ever gotten from a band wanting me to write about them, I felt flattered enough to listen to the album and, lo and behold, I actually liked it.

Venice Is Sinking play the sort of orchestral indie rock often termed "slowcore," and true to form, the tempos on AZAR don't often rise above a sitting person's heartbeat. But it's the band's stately pace that allows their richly textured arrangements to be fully appreciated. Utilizing trumpets, viola, steel drums, and the shimmer of sounds played in reverse, Venice Is Sinking remind of everything I loved about the rich and cinematic arrangements of bands like Rachel's and Low.

The two songs I'm posting for download, "Wetlands Dancehall" and "Iron Range" are my favorites on the album. "Wetlands Dancehall" begins with a shuffling, shaker-driven beat and singer Karolyn Troupe's almost operatic vocals, gradually turning into a glittering waltz. On their iLike page, the band mention they recorded Javanese seed pods for the album and I think I hear the sound of the pods flit in and out of the song's choruses.

"Iron Range" starts out sounding like a Godspeed You Black Emperor! song, with Troupe's viola weaving upwards through a bed of strummed guitars and ethereal synths, the music building towards one of those classic post-rock crescendo that give you goosebumps no matter how many times you hear them. When the vocals come in, Troupe and fellow singer Daniel Lawson use their harmonies to slowly ascend to what sounds like the highest note in both their ranges.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Let Us Remember: Smog's "Let Me See the Colts"

Smog's A River Ain't Too Much to Love is generally considered the beginning of Bill Callahan's kinder, gentler period, a period that, with the release of his new album, Sometimes I Wish I Were an Eagle, appears to have come to an end. But A far from the sappy, nature-loving therapy session it's often made out to be. While songs like "I Feel like the Mother of the World" and "Rock Bottom Riser" are kind of hokey, most of the album has an awe-struck ambivalence to it, a recognition that nature is as much about death and decay as it is about peace and tranquility.

One of my favorite songs on the album is "Let Me See the Colts." As the album's closer, it sums up Callahan's guarded hopefulness in the image of watching colts being trained to race in the coming year. The song begins with Callahan bursting into his girlfriend's room and excitedly asking her to take him to see "the colts that will run next year." He tells her he wants to show the horses to "a gambling man....thinking about the future." This last image is enigmatic, since the reason Callahan wants to show the horses to the gambling man is never made clear. Are the horses supposed to make the gambler optimistic about future winnings? Or is he being shown the horses to make him stop thinking about the future (i.e. which horse he should bet on) and just appreciate the beauty of the running colts?

One of my favorite lines of the song is "The all-knowing, all seeing eye is dog tired/It just wants to see the colts." Firstly, the line's slightly ridiculous since the all-knowing, all-seeing eye would have already seen the colts run, but it's the idea that, having seen all there is to see (and presumably being both exhausted and in despair), the omniscient eye just wants that sliver of hope that comes with seeing horses run, even if it already knows all the future outcomes. You get the sense Callahan empathizes with this feeling, like he's experienced too much to be truly optimistic about anything, but he wants the brief breath of hope and inspiration that comes with seeing something that seems to epitomize all the wonderful possibilities of the coming future.

"Let Me See the Colts" would be a great ending credits song, because it imparts hope without explicitly saying things are going to be OK. Its uplift has a kind of OCD quality to it, like Callahan desperately needs to see the colts run to feel good about the future. Earlier in the song, when he wakes up his girlfriend, she asks him if he's been drinking. "No, neither drinking nor sleeping," he answers, and you can picture exactly what he looks and sounds like. It's this half crazed quality that's part of what makes the song that rare thing: a hopeful song for the hopeless.