Posted in Björk, Cosmic Masterpiece, Essential Albums, Music Reviews

Björk – Homogenic – Review

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I have to be blunt: I do not enjoy this album as much as Debut and Post. I say this while acknowledging that it’s better than both of those albums. My artistic appraisal process is weird.

The reason for my temptation to dismiss this album outright (one that’s thankfully easily resisted for reasons I’ll explain in a bit) is that Björk’s casual steps away from the devilish little pixie she was on Debut have finally cemented. She is no longer an adorable-yet-obviously-capable woman with a wicked sense of humor and a quirky approach to music, she is an operatic goddess. And yeah, she plays that persona very well, but I find it more alienating and less personal, and since her personality was what invested me in her in the first place…yeah, this nitpick becomes an annoying subliminal problem for me.

This isn’t helped by the fact that TWO of the mere ten songs here fail to excite me that much. “All Neon Like” follows in the footsteps of “Like Someone in Love” from Debut and “You’ve Been Flirting Again” from Post (a song with minimalist backing carried almost entirely by Björk’s voice), and it’s the worst of those three by a good distance. Not only is the near six-minute runtime completely excessive, but the bludgeoning beat grows old really fast. It’s a shame, because not only are the vocals and lyrics excellent as usual, but there’s some lovely shining synths in the background that could have served the backing track purpose perfectly fine on their own. Instead, I have to hear a dull groove for an abnormally long time. It’s tolerable, but not much else. The other weak point is the very next song, “5 Years”, which is also driven by an ugly, style-free beat, a complete lack of atmosphere, and most damning of all: the album’s least interesting and evocative lyrics. The unnecessary harshness of these songs showcase Björk’s newfound towering overlady position at its very worst, without bothering to be anywhere near as menacing as “Army of Me” or even the album’s own “Pluto.” They’re easily the weakest songs Björk had committed to tape at this point, which makes me question why so many consider this her masterpiece (or even worse, her only album worth your while).

And yet none of this stops me from giving this album the highest possible grade I can give. No, I’m dead serious. For one simple reason: this is a sonic MASTERPIECE. If this isn’t the best produced album I’ve ever heard, it’s at least up there with Remain in Light and Loveless. If I could live in this album, I would. If I could have a conversation with this album, I would. If I could settle down and have kids with this album…well, I don’t know how I would do that, but I would sure as heck try. Any problems I might have with Björk’s presence being not what I really want out of her or two songs that don’t do anything for me are absolutely squelched by the fact that the rest of this album simply SOUNDS untouchably fantastic. Seriously, this was made in 1997?            How is that even possible? Where did all these shards of cosmic, icy, explosive deity come from? This is definitely the best “winter” album I’ve ever heard; it sounds like a snowstorm converted into music.

The other important element at play is the melodies, which are possibly even better then Debut. The songwriting on this album gets a lot of flak for its heavy reliance on repetitive codas, but the choruses that get repeated are often so jaw-droppingly powerful that I wish they could go on forever.

For the third time in a row, the first four songs are the high point, and they blow pretty much anything from Debut or Post out of the water. The curtain-opening synths and instantly unforgettable percussive bass that open “Hunter” are right up front with the unstoppably powerful emotions and sounds you’ll find all over this album. Björk enters, echoing as if from the peak of a mystical mountain, and immediately establishes dominance over the landscape of this album, treating its universe as her own personal playground. I didn’t make that “goddess” comparison earlier for hyperbole’s sake: her presence really is that shaking, bellowing as she projects her colorful ideas and exaggerated emotions all over her personal world. In a few parts of this opener, we get a taste of one of the album’s main motifs: electronic textures combined with string textures and melodies. This is taken to gorgeous heights on “Joga”, featuring one of those impeccable codas and soul-shattering choruses I was talking about earlier. Both the strings and synths are perfect, melodic and textural at the same time, to say nothing of the vocal melody, which sounds like one of those ideal compositions that don’t actually ever get written. It almost hurts to listen too, it’s so overwhelmingly beautiful. “Unravel” brings the scale down considerably, creating a comparatively modest but equally goosebump-inducing sonic tapestry, managing to somehow be one of the saddest and most romantic things I’ve ever heard. It’s slow, sticky, sweet, and makes a good contrast to the indescribably epic “Bachelorette.” Not only is the melody absolutely amazing, but Björk takes her voice to its absolute expressive height, creating a massive epochal communication of pure being. Oh, and the lyrics just may be the album’s best as well.

Once again, nothing reaches the height of those first four, but not for lack of trying. After the disappointing “All Neon Like”/”5 Years” rut, we get the pretty good “Immature”, an introspective self-hatchet job that finally realizes the potential of the harsh sound of the last two songs: an affecting tool for flogging both yourself and the person who failed you. These feelings climax in “Alarm Call”, Björk’s personal enlightenment anthem. As you might expect, it’s a lot quirkier and less soulful then most other people’s enlightenment anthems (perhaps best exemplified in the album’s most famous line, an extremely memorable precision F-strike about Buddhism), and as usual the melody, lyrics, and vocals are fantastic.

The abrasiveness suddenly comes back after that moment of triumph in the absolutely terrifying “Pluto”, which bludgeons you over the head with the sheer weight of its anger and chaos, to the point where the coda is basically Björk letting out blood-frying scream after blood-frying scream. It could not be more different from the closing “All is Full of Love”, a return to form gorgeous enough to induce reverent tears. It’s cathartic, soothing, luxurious…maybe not the epic climax I would expect from the album thus far, but I can’t think of a better one.

Since I love this album so much and like the idea of it being Björk’s personal universe (just because I don’t find it as resonant doesn’t mean I can’t find it cool), instead of the usual wrap-up, I present to you…Homogenic: The Musical! The story of the little universe that could, shoved into a semi-Judeo/Christian mold because that’s all I can think of. Enjoy!

Bachelorette – Creation of the World

Joga – The Creation of the Sentient Soul

Hunter – The First Contact with Deity

All Neon Like – The Delivery of the Scriptures (probably the lyrics to Homogenic)

Unravel – The First Great Tragedy, Rise of the Evil AntiBjörk

Immature – Frustration at Allowing the Existence of the Evil AntiBjörk

5 Years – The Battle Against the Evil AntiBjörk

Alarm Call – The End Times, Defeat of the Evil AntiBjörk

Pluto – Punishment of the Wicked

All is Full of Love – Oh yay paradise

Music: 5/5

Identity/Themes: 4/5

Lyricism: 5/5

Vocals: 5/5

Diversity: 5/5

Resonance: 5/5

EXPERIENCE: The pixie now has a universe.

10+/10. Yes, this means I now consider Debut and Post 10+s as well. Best Song: Joga

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Posted in Essential Albums, Masterpiece, Music Reviews, Patti Smith

Patti Smith – Horses – Review

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Patti Smith! Proto-punker! Aggressive poet! Caustic voice! Female Captain Beefheart! Down-and-dirty mistress of grit and rebellion! Right? Right?

Well, kind of. The most surprising thing to me about Horses on my first listen is how bombastic it is. George Starostin (who’ll I’ll try to quote less from now on because I’ve been overkilling it recently, but he’s just so darn quotable) described it as “punk theater for all those snobby bohemians in Greenwich Village.” Now, Mr. Starostin is not exuberantly fond of this album for that very reason, but I find that to be a plenty engaging premise. Horses is, after all, essentially a collection of rambling poetry, about as self-consciously arsty and un-gritty as you can get. It’s easy to imagine this stuff being performed on a messily decked-up stage in the New York Bohemian Rent-style gutters of the world.

The very first song, for example, is much more theatrical then punk ever cares to be. “Gloria” opens with an unassuming piano intro before Patti’s characteristically sneering, endlessly pessimistic voice informs us that “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” The tempo and tension build as she throws all caution to the wind in a distilled summary of the punk ideology. The meat of the song is a cover of a 60s pop tune, originally from the point of view of a male doing 60s things, like seeing a girl and “wanting to make her mine.” As if the fact that the singer is now female wasn’t confusing/puritian-irking enough for you, her vocals constantly switch from somewhat sincere to jokey and sarcastic. The band builds some infectious energy and backing vocals provide the amazing “Gloooooorriiiiaaa” refrain. And there you go: a quintessential punk song constructed out of safe 60s pop and mostly traditional (but still powerful) instrumentation.

The rest of the album is less melodic, not working with previous music and all, leaving the delivery in a Leonard Cohen-type area of existence. I do miss the fun inflections that Patti gave to the “normal” melody of “Gloria”, but clearly her semi-spoken word delivery is what she wanted to put her effort into. It’s not totally inaccessible or anything, though: “Redondo Beach” features a pleasant ska arrangement, one that manages to distract from the lyrics about looking for someone on a beach only to see that they’ve committed suicide. At least until you read reviews on the internet that tell you that’s what the song is about.

When people talk about Horses being inaccessible, they’re usually talking about the “booooring” lengthy tracks of “Birdland” and “Land:.” Being the contrarian I am (at least as much as I can be while praising a Patti Smith album), I adore both of these. “Birdland” is an incoherent nine-minute ramble from the perspective of a man who’s just lost his father, but is only now coming to terms with what that really means. The simple arrangement of the melancholy piano and dissonantly creeping guitar allow Patti’s passionate vocals and bizarre writing to shine, and the results are as odd as they are emotionally compelling. The multipart “Land:” makes melodic references to “Gloria” with a super-thick creepy atmosphere, telling a twistedly unpredictable story of the misadventures of “Johnny”, an everyman of questionable sanity.

“Kimberly” is another highlight, an engagingly funky exercise that goes from the feeling of holding your baby sister for the first time to saving said baby from an exploding building. “Free Money” is an honest look at Patti’s tough upbringing. “Break It Up” is…well, it’s just gorgeous, at least compared to the rest of the album, with another stirring refrain. “Elegie” closes out the album on a suitably druggy, melancholic note.

Another short review, but dangit, this isn’t an easy album to describe. I’m not sure I’ve gotten across just how unique it is and how moving it can be. It’s not very solid compositionally, but it’s a fascinating and passionate look into Patti’s psyche. For the “female Captain Beefheart”, Patti’s got a lot of heart.

Music: 4/5

Thematic Content: 5/5

Lyricism: 5/5

Diversity: 1/5 Well, there is “Redondo Beach.”

Resonance: 5/5

Experience: I really need to stop using my best metaphors in the actual reviews.

10/10. Best Song: Either Gloria or Birdland.

Posted in Essential Albums, Iron Maiden, Music Reviews

Iron Maiden – The Number of the Beast – Review

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DAAARRKKKNEESSSS! NOOO PARENTS!

I know next to nothing about Iron Maiden. I know they were part of the cumbersomely named genre/movement New Wave of British Heavy Metal (or NWOBHM). I know they’re part of a genre that generally needs to work really hard to click with me, since I was averse to it for so long. I know they’ve become more and more polarizing in metal community in recent years.

So bear with me here: for some reason, with this little information that I have, I’ve decided that I not only want to assimilate a good portion of their discography, but I really, REALLY want to like it. Not just because I always try to go into something hoping to enjoy it, though that’s true. Iron Maiden is extremely attractive to me for a single, unfathomable reason: they’re a revered and loved metal band that plasters a colorful skeleton/zombie guy all over their album covers. THAT. IS. AWESOME. No band that does that could possibly fall plague to the metal disease of taking yourself insufferably seriously. But it gets better: in doing my research for this review, I found out he has a name: Eddie. EDDIE. Lamest demon mascot name ever, and therefore best demon mascot name ever!

Album covers are really important to me. I’m not sure if I’ve ever disclosed that before. The more you know!

I was honestly a bit disappointed with this album on first listen, but that wasn’t because of any negativity, it was because of confusion. For some reason, I had no idea how to feel about it. So I listened to it again, as is my custom for reviews anyway. Three listens is generally what I go on.

You know how many times I listened to this album before I realized it was kind of awesome? Seven. SEVEN. The last time it took me this long to get a grip on an album was Funeral. I honestly have no idea why this happened. But it did, and now I’m left with The Number of the Beast, a wonderful album with a few nibbles.

First, the good (as usual). What little knowledge I have of Iron Maiden’s history has told me that this was a transitional album, breaking away from their previous, more gothically influenced tone to a world of fantasy and mysticism. The biggest indicator of this is the brand-new vocalist, Bruce Dickinson, who is flat-out the best thing about the album. His vocal and emotional range is unbelievable, his tone is distinctive and rich, he squeezes every possible ounce of infectious juice out of the hooks, and belts like he’s been doing it since the womb. He’s the Freddie Mercury of metal, and his presence is so elevating the album probably would have worked even with subpar songwriting and riffage.

Thankfully, the riffage is consistently excellent and the songwriting is so intense and melodic it makes you wonder why it’s so respected even among purist metalheads. I mean, these are people who profess to hate all pop, right? With its big, meaty, gravy-covered hooks? Those are all over this album. The massive refrain of “Children of the Damned” is goosebump inducing, especially since most of the rest of the song is much slower than the rust of the album. The title track is also incessantly catchy, and comes complete with a Roger Daltrey-style scream. “22 Acacia Avenue” is the closest the album gets to gritty, with savage energy never letting up for its lengthy run. “Run to the Hills” is, blunt look at Native American genocide aside, one of the most satisfyingly over-the-top metal standards ever. Seriously, that hook has so many prongs.

Two songs REALLY stick out, not just in terms of songwriting but as overall packages. The first is the truly epic conclusion “Hallowed Be Thy Name”, which weaves a creative melody over the thought journal of a man about to be executed. The guitarwork on this song isn’t even the kind that make me want to fist-pump or head-bop, it just makes me want to take off my hat and stand in absolute reverence. Then I realize I’m not wearing a hat. And that’s why I have seven huge clumps of hair missing now.

The second highlight, and one of the first songs that really clicked with me, is “The Prisoner.” Sampling an old TV show for its intro, it tells the story of an escaped prisoner and the surprising exhilaration of his new life as a runner. The hook is big and silly and completely awesome, and Iron Maiden’s trademark “chugging” guitar work, especially in the bass, not only fits the story but is perfectly evocative of unhinged, exhilarating freedom.

So this is all well and good and everything, but there are two weak spots. The first is “Gangland”, which comes near the end. It’s alright, but it’s basically just generic heavy metal. The vocals are good, the riffs are a bit limp, and the lyrics are unremarkable. The second weak spot is the opener, “Invaders”, which is actually pretty good for the most part, but is practically broken beyond repair by a barely-existent chorus with one of the weakest “melodies” this side of “Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk.” Even Dickinson can’t really do anything with it, and when Dickinson can’t work with your hook, you need a new hook. This one ruinous moment is so souring (especially since it’s on the opening of the album) and reflects so poorly on the songwriters involved that it’s actually the primary reason I’ve denied the album a perfect score. You should have known better, guys.

But screw negativity, because this album rules. The songwriting is strong, the vocals incredible, the storytelling interesting, the playing infectious, and the atmosphere…charming, honestly. This is a charming album. I wasn’t expecting that.

Perhaps it’s a bit early in my listening of them to do this, but…hail Maiden!

Music: 4/5 -1 off for my nitpicks.

Thematic Content: 5/5 I forgot to mention most of the songs on here are narrative, didn’t I?

Lyricism: 4/5 Surprisingly good narratives, too!

Diversity: 2/5 Heh heh…

Resonance: 5/5 ROCK ON BUDD- wait, I already used that…

Experience: D&D with your geekiest friends. So much Red Bull you can barely see straight. The caffeinated whims of the DM seem a lot more epic in the moment.

9/10. Best Song: Hallowed Be Thy Name or The Prisoner

Posted in Cosmic Masterpiece, Essential Albums, Music Reviews, Talk Talk

Talk Talk – Spirit of Eden – Review

Who missed me?* I’ve got another trip at the end of next week, but that leaves us with two very special weeks of me existing on your dashboard. Yay!

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Ah yes, Spirit of Eden. That scrumptious work that laid down the foundations of post-rock through the guise of not only the more traditional art pop the group was known for, but minimalist jazz. An endlessly weaving tapestry that not only completes itself by its own existence but slips through the sands of time unchanged, as timeless as music can be. A deeply spiritual experience, a barrage of intense fervor simmering under the lid of professional restraint and understated beauty. A work melancholy if any deserves the word, a musically transcendent piece of pure distilled…

Actually you know what screw that. I’m not good at this stuff, and this album is too modest to be described in such superlatives as are often associated with it. I can get behind a lot of those superlatives, but ultimately the most striking thing about Spirit of Eden to me is its humility. A lot of post-rock (and artsy music in general) sets out with the goal of dragging you right through an intense experience, leaving you with the impression that you’ve just experienced something divine, or nearly so. My favorite of these (at least of what I’ve listened too) is Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, a well-deserved classic that shook me in a way nothing else in the genre thus far has been able to replicate.

Spirit of Eden, on the other hand, is shy. It’s not about experiencing divinity; it’s about admiring it from a distance with timid reverence, never daring to approach it. Any hints of that greater experience are brief and not fully realized. It’s a LANDSCAPE album, one that works in space rather than feeling or time.

If you know anything about my taste in music, it would seem from this description that I wouldn’t appreciate this album because of how distant it is. It’s true that I would probably rather be swept away than quietly sit down to watch the stars, but I try to make my open-mindedness as close to a universal principle as good taste will let me. No term that can be taken as an objective description should be used as a criticism unless my experience was so adverse it cannot be taken otherwise. These include such popular pejoratives as “weird,” “slow,” “immature,” “overexposed,” “saccharine,” and yes, “distant.”

But Mr. Miniiiiiikkkeee! Wasn’t that the main reason Spiderland didn’t click with you?

Why yes, person who has so little of a life that they actually keep track of my opinions. Here’s the difference: Spiderland is clinical (which IS an acceptable pejorative by me, albeit a heavily subjective one), Spirit of Eden is human. Its melancholy is effective because of its warmth, however far away the hearth might be. If you call Spirit of Eden cold, you need to get your ears checked.

Now that I’ve completed my dare to write five paragraphs of an album review without discussing the actual music, let’s discuss the actual music. It’s a minimalist album, but it’s the most layered and lush minimalist album I’ve ever heard. The slow opening notes of “The Rainbow”, shifting between several instruments, give an instant gauge as to a potential listener’s enjoyment. If you’re not taken by the guitar entrance at the two and a half minute mark, you probably won’t be taken by anything else on the album. The album’s overall theme of yearning is complimented very well by the compositional style: every note hits, but leaves mountains unsaid. Blowing everything up to epic proportions wouldn’t have been nearly as effective as the slow, gorgeous melodies dipping up and down before eventually fading. “The Rainbow” is the longest and most desperate example of this, with jarring guitar lines popping up when they’re least expected.

“Eden”, on the other hand, is pure bliss. It glows and flows, like a lethargic stream. It’s comforting and nourishing, even viscerally satisfying with its shimmering intensification at the five minute mark, like the stream has opened into a waterfall. “Desire” snatches away the momentary happiness for stark melancholy, and the result is like a slow-motion drowning, complete with shining organ and incredibly jarring chorus that only serves to push hope down further. The piano leads you out into ambiguous relief, or perhaps deeper despair.

These first three songs (AKA the first side) are a complete unit on their own, and in all honesty the album could have stopped there. The second side is doomed to pale in comparison, especially since it’s more pop then ambient, but thankfully it’s still brilliant. The hooks are a lot more visible and muscled here, in order to make Talk Talk’s ambience experiment at least somewhat commercially viable, and the songwriting is solid if not immaculate. “Inheritance” rises and falls in an artistic prelude to Godspeed-style “crescendocore” post-rock, albeit in a much more restrained way. “I Believe In You” is breathtaking, an ethereal-yet-earthy reflection on overcoming substance abuse strengthed by the true story of Mark Hollis’ own triumph over heroin. The contemplatively complete finally “Wealth” relies perhaps a bit too much on repeated chords, but generally brings effective closure to Hollis’ semi-spiritual journey.

Spirit of Eden is one of those “magical” albums for many people, including me, and smothering it in hyperbolic praise is all too easy once it gets to you (a trap I fell into when I first listened to Skinny Fists). I must recommend this album, to do anything otherwise would be wrong, but don’t read about my or anyone elses’ super-emotional experience with it and go in expecting the same. Let it carve out your own experience. Walk through Eden at your own pace.

Ahhh…it’s good to be back. Now for another metal album or something.

Music: 5/5

Thematic Content: 5/5

Lyricism: 5/5

Diversity: 4/5

Resonance: 5/5 I have never wanted to put a 6/5 more than now.

Experience: “And now please rise for our opening hymn, uh…‘In the Garden of Eden’ by I. Ron Butterfly.”

10+/10. Best Song: Eden

*(no one)

Posted in Essential Albums, Hip Hop Reviews, Masterpiece, Music Reviews

Madvillian – Madvilliany – Review

HIP HOP WEEK FINALE

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Yup. Still don’t understand hip-hop.

Thankfully, I can at least have fun not understanding it, and Madvilliany is nothing if not several barges of fun. It’s got a bit of a sinister stigma, what with the title and the cover and the mystique that surrounds it (being the only collaboration between Madlib and DOOM), but the overall effect is so joyfully goofy and chaotic that it might fittingly be called the hip-hop version of Trout Mask Replica. That’s coming from someone who has no frame of reference in hip-hop, by the way, so you should probably take it with as many grains of salt as you can shake out of that horrible shaker with the sticky holes where you always have to yank it around for ten minutes to get any reasonable amount of seasoning and everyone in the entire restaurant knows about it but has never bothered to replace it even though you’re pretty sure they can spare the…sorry, what’s this blog about? Oh right, music.

Madvilliany is the most well-known example of abstract hip hop, which from what I can tell is da HOOD version of psychedelia. Basically everything about it is, if not original, at least unconventional. It features twenty-two songs, only a few of which exceed three minutes. These songs largely throw out the verse-hook-verse structure altogether, instead focusing on making one or two nonstop stream-of-consciousness flows. The writing is extremely effective, contrasting surreal nonsense with sharp observations and DOOM’s low, gravelly, threatening flow. He plays the part of the cartoony supervillain but with a dusting of dirty hip-hop stuff very well, and his central presence alone is enough to make the album an incredibly fun listen.

Let’s not forget about Madlib! His production is entertaining, disjointed, sporadic, and incredibly memorable in its deliberate chaos. Little touches like both sound channels being activated on the word “stereo” or the completely out of place intro to “Meat Grinder” add to the album’s insane, comical character. His high-pitched alter ego Quasimodo doesn’t deliver many verses, but they’re all highlights.

As for favorites, the highlight for me is “Shadows of Tomorrow”, one of those universal time deconstructions that it’s probably best not to think about too hard. The hypnotically jarring production makes for an almost out-of-body listening experience when combined with the vocals and lyrics. That’s the first song in an unstoppable trilogy near the end. “Operation Lifesaver aka Mint Test” is absolutely hilarious and “Figaro” features some of the most fun rhymes on the album.

Generally, every song is at least good. Sorry that this review is extremely short and light on details, but this ain’t an easy album to describe. It really is best summed up by “if you haven’t listened to this you should do that”, and that’s pretty much it.

Music: 5/5

Thematic Content: 5/5

Lyricism: 5/5

Diversity: 4/5

Resonance: 4/5

Experience: Pretty much what would happen if a rapper happened to be a supervillain. Good thing he has a sense of humor, or else he’d actually be dangerous.

10/10. Best Song: Shadows of Tomorrow

Posted in Essential Albums, Hip Hop Reviews, Music Reviews

A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory – Review

HIP HOP WEEK #2

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Here’s a moderately abridged list of things I don’t understand:

  1. Jazz
  2. Hip Hop

Somewhere someone had the brilliant idea to combine them. Yay.

Actually, I take back that sarcasm. Jazz rap is a pretty brilliant idea. Jazz is known for being subdued, mellow, and classy. Hip-hop is known for being frantic, angry, and dirty. The most interesting subgenres are ones that seem self-defeating, because they force you to examine the core of each genre in order to make them cooperate.

Incidentally, is jazz metal a thing? That should be a thing. I would listen the crap out of that.

Anyway, The Low End Theory doesn’t capitalize on the potentially complex combination of jazz and rap, opting to simply have jazz-flavored beats. At first this disappointed me, but as I became familiar with this album and its philosophy, I think it actually works very well. The jazz elements and samples are used to give the album a cool, level-headed, laid-back tone. It sounds so fresh and unique among hip-hop that I would probably believe you if you told me it was recorded yesterday instead of 1991. The beats are memorable, hooky, and offer a good compromise between the silky flow of jazz and the throbbing rhythm of a hip-hop track. This is made even better by the introduction of influences and samples from similar genres like funk and soul, giving the mostly smooth pacing of the album a few nifty sonic grooves.

This is aided by the two MCs, Q Tip and Phife Dawg. I can understand not liking them, since their voices are not as rough or commanding as rappers’ voices tend to be, but that adds to the balance of gritty and silky at the heart of the album’s aesthetic. Q Tip is subdued, cunning, and a lot more arrogant then he wants to admit. One of the most tiresome motifs in hip-hop is the rapper who won’t shut up about how great he is, but Q Tip’s self-awareness gives him an interesting and entertaining presence.

As for Phife Dawg, he breaks down the arrogance of hip hop even better. A casual listen to the song “Butter”, for example, will probably leave you with the impression that it’s yet another “I’m such a player and have so much sex” ramble. Actually paying attention reveals that it IS about a player who has a lot of sex…and he gets his ego completely broken by a single rejection. Then he gets all whiny as he attempts to recompose himself. It’s much more interesting than your typical take on the subject. It was a good decision to give this to a goofy, non-serious ham like Phife.

The album has a number of reoccurring themes: how terrible the music industry is (expertly thrashed on “Rap Promoter”), and how overly negative hip hop music is. The overall message of uniting to overcome societal prejudices gives some of the verses a surprisingly inspiring feel. References to old music and other pop culture add another layer of positive humor. When it does get negative, it’s generally over social issues. The most famous example is “The Infamous Date Rape”, which basically tells the dominant-macho side of hip-hop to sit down and reconsider whether or not non-consensuality is a good thing. Yeah. This type of common sense is severally lacking in rap. The verses get a bit muddled (a common problem on this album, since the satire is sometimes hard to distinguish from the sincerity), but it’s a good song nonetheless, joining the for-some-reason-existent subgenre of anti-rape songs with confusing titles (we can thank Nirvana’s “Rape Me” for that one).

The highlight to end all highlights is, of course, the classic “Scenario”, a rousing finale for a very low-key album. Q Tip and Phife pull out album-best verses to compliment the infectious hook and energetic beat, but the best part is Butsa Rhyme’s endlessly fun guest bars. Other great tracks include the super-goofy “Buggin’ Out”, the lover letter to jazz in the aptly titled “Jazz (We’ve Got)”, and “What?”, which has possibly my favorite set of lyrics on the album, making the best possible use of a very simple concept.

Aside from a few unnecessary ambiguities that muddle the pool a bit, this is a fantastic effort of an album, elevated by two compelling MCs delivering quirky and enjoyable lyrics to incredible and unique beats. This album’s popularity transcends the hip-hop community, and it’s easy to see why.

Music: 5/5

Thematic Content: 4/5

Lyricism: 4/5

Diversity: 4/5

Resonance: 4/5

Experience: Writing half-drunk poetry with Miles Davis on shuffle, snuggled up in a decidedly unthreatening blanket. It takes the mind places, man.

9/10. Best Song: Scenario

Posted in Essential Albums, Hip Hop Reviews, Music Reviews

Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) – Review

HIP-HOP WEEK #1

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So I really don’t understand hip-hop at all.

 

Now that my credentials are out of the way, let’s talk about Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). My very scant knowledge of hip-hop history informs me that this album was part of an East Coast movement, particularly in New York, where the genre was reinventing itself as gritty and dangerous. Social commentary, graphic lyrics, aggressive flows, that kinda thing.

Now obviously I’m not one to be able to speak about the company that this album shares, but if it’s contemporaries are anything like I’ve heard/guessed at, this is actually a pretty poor representation of what this movement was going for. It seems to fit the bill at first glance, what with its in-your-face attitude, but what surprised me was how…well, cartoony the energy is. Everything is super over-the-top, from the flows to the lyrics to the beats, all to construct various chambers of rap battle combat. The nine MCs (NINE) in the group do all kinds of nifty lyrical acrobatics to the effect of swinging a rap-shaped sword around like a maniac. It’s basically Kill Bill: The Hip-Hop Musical.

Awesome! I hate it when hip-hop takes itself too seriously, whether failing to communicate a social message or trying to make me jealous of a position. 36 Chamber’s unique character, complete with dialogue and music sampled from old kung-fu movies, grabbed me instantly, even as a non-rap fan. The album is bursting with manic energy and some surprisingly effective grooves, making it nigh-impossible to stand still while listening to it.

Going back to character for a second here. I would be lying if I said all nine of the MCs struck me as vibrant forces of personality the way everyone says they are. But I’m also not used to analyising hip-hop, so you should probably take that with a grain of salt. That all being said, the variety of vocal styles is a lot of fun, and a couple of the members definitely stood out to me. Ghostface Killah, aside from his hilarious name, brings a lot of super-infectious cockiness and spontaneity that fits in with the battle aesthetic perfectly. Method Man, inversely, seems super cool and chill about the whole thing (at least compared to everyone else), which lends him a strong presence. ODB (whose name I can’t take beyond acronym because I like to keep this blog clean) is absolutely hilarious, not just in his overly immature lyrics but in his intentionally slurred, off-key flow. GZA is probably my favorite, simply because of how ninja-like he comes off. Whenever a piece of wordplay or insane insult stood out to me, it was usually by him. His alliteration is also extremely entertaining.

The beats are more or less in the same camp: expertly rhythmic, usually catchy, simple and vibrant.  The Asian flavor tossed around is especially nice and adds another layer to the bonkers mood. The one on “C.R.E.A.M.” goes so far as to be pretty, with a great piano sample upholding some intelligent lyrics.

This thing can even be affecting if it wants too! The embarrassingly titled “Tearz” opens goofily enough, with an over-the-top skit and intentionally out-of-place sample, but then turns to a pair of stories about losing close friends to muggers and AIDS.

Other highlights? My favorite is “Protect Ya Neck”, in which a rapidly rotating set of MCs viciously verbally eviscerate whatever group is ticking them off at the moment. Aside from the great delivery and intimidating beat, the string of Carlin-worthy rants are just incredibly entertaining. “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’” is filled with fun insults as usual, but it’s all overshadowed by the first verse by U-God. I wasn’t surprised to learn this is one of the most famous verses in hip-hop. In a mere 8 bars, U-God squeezes in more complex rhyming, insane bragging, and cool wordplay then most hip-hop stations play in a week.

So generally this is a great album, maybe brought down a bit by some skits that go on for a little too long. But dangit, as much as I love the idea of Kill Bill: The Hip-Hop Musical, I just can’t get that excited about listening to this all at once. It’s hard to explain, but imagine watching a movie that consisted of nothing but action scenes. Wouldn’t that get your fist-pumping down a bit by the end? I think this is why I like “Tearz” so much, since it offers a refreshing break from all the arrogant verbal fencing. Otherwise, it’s just too much energy all at once for me, and it doesn’t help that it goes slightly over the typical 45-minute LP length. As such, I cannot give this album a perfect or transcendent score (10 and 10+, if you’re new to how we do stuff here).  Nevertheless, if you like hip-hop at all, I don’t see why you shouldn’t check this out. It’s certainly a boatload of fun while it lasts. Maybe even a chamberful.

Music: 5/5

Thematic Content: 5/5

Lyricism: 4/5 Not all of the lines land, but it’s very consistent throughout.

Diversity: 3/5

Resonance: 4/5 One point off for overstaying its welcome.

Experience: I think I already used the “movie with only action scenes” and “verbal fencing” lines. Uhh…what else is this album like? A presidential election?

9/10. Best Song: Protect Ya Neck

Posted in Black Sabbath, Essential Albums, Masterpiece, Music Reviews

Black Sabbath – Master of Reality – Review

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Oh right, THIS is why people love Black Sabbath!

To go with the music critic cliché of the cheesy Beatles analogy, Master of Reality is Revolver to Paranoid’s Rubber Soul: they’re more or less in the same general category and are great in their own ways, but this album ratchets the previous one up to eleven in all departments. The biggest difference, famously, is the guitar tone. It’s far heavier than before, and some of the best I’ve heard on a metal album. It’s just so satisfyingly crunchy!

But just because they were recording what was, at that point, the heaviest album ever made, doesn’t mean they forgot about the songwriting. Not only are the riffs as absurdly catchy as the more famous ones from Paranoid, but the melodies themselves are some of the best Sabbath ever put out. The thing that strikes me the most about them, besides their catchiness, is how huge they sound. This is a BIG album in every respect, especially in the composition.

The band is in top form. Iommi’s monster riffs shine throughout the album’s run time, Ward pulls out some of his most entertaining drumming, Geezer’s basslines add a wonderful depth of mood, I even like Osbourne’s singing on here! When Sabbath is running on all cylinders, it produces some truly marvelous results. The highlights of those results are the sonically powerful “After Forever” (aka “the one with the hilariously out-of-place Christian lyrics written so that the Catholic Geezer could convince people he wasn’t actually a Satanist”) and “Children of the Grave.” “After Forever” is fist-pumping, heart racing and ear worming enough to please anyone, Christian or Satanist. “Children of the Grave” has some of the best, most fun drumming in Sabbath’s catalogue and the most driving riffs on the relatively heavy and mid-tempo album. It’s also got this cool, spooky outro reminiscent of Sabbath’s moody debut. Second-tier highlights are the outrageously catchy stoner anthem “Sweet Leaf,” which boasts possibly the best set of riffs on the album; “Lord of this World” is a tad slow but still a lumbering good time; “Into The Void” is a satisfying conclusion that absolutely tears through any sonic barriers that the other songs might not have conquered with terrifyingly perfect riffs and soloing.

Even the throwaways are fun! The thirty-second “Embryo” is completely dull on a compositional level, but its exotic flavor makes it a fun oddball. “Orchid” is another short instrumental, actually quite lovely if insubstantial. “Solitude” is a ballad, basically an inferior rewrite of “Planet Caravan” from Paranoid (medieval influences and all that), but it’s harmlessly nice and breaks up the heavy sound of the album before the rousing “Into the Void” finale. This is the first Sabbath album I’ve listened to where all the songs are capital G “good”, not just “tolerable” like the weak links on their other work (“A Bit of Finger/Sleeping Village/Warning” on Black Sabbath, “Rat Salad” on Paranoid).

It’s hard describe, besides the amazing riffage and satisfying heaviness, why this album clicked with me so much. I enjoy some of Sabbath’s other stuff, but I always found it kind of…distant, I guess? Something about this album has true character. I should find it solid-yet-generic, but something about its aura is intoxicatingly likable. And no, I don’t think it has anything to do with the hilarious Christian lyrics.

Best Sabbath album? Best Sabbath album.

Music: 5/5

Thematic Content: 4/5 This is the aura, I guess?

Lyricism: 1/5 “They should realize before they criticize/That God is the only way to love”

Diversity: 4/5 Come at me, bro.

Resonance: 4/5 Rockers + that weird aura + “Solitude” isn’t horrible.

Experience: Discovering that your favorite chips have been rebranded. Thankfully, they’re even crunchier then before. What’s with all the religious imagery on the bag, though?

10/10. Best Song: Children of the Grave

Posted in Essential Albums, Music Reviews, Slint

Slint – Spiderland – Review

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I tend to have strong reactions to things. If I love something, I go out of my way to bathe it in flowery oils while singing its favorite song as the sun trickles down the wall of the sky, leaving spare rays of thought tingling in the mind of the bad sleeper. If I hate something, I chase it and beat it with a barbed wire-wrapped scythe while my backup throws lighters and gas cans all over the place until I feel better. I hope you enjoyed that look into my internal landscape.

My experience with Spiderland has been almost totally unique in that I have absolutely no idea how to feel about it. Every tissue in my heart wants to hate it on a conceptual level, and every cell in my brain wants to love it on an intellectual level. The result is a listening experience that’s filled me with absolute confusion, far more then I believe was intended. I haven’t decided whether this is frustrating or fascinating yet, as I’ve never really been in a situation like this before. Well, I’ll break it down and see how it comes out.

I’ve made it no secret that my criticism philosophy stems from the idea that open-minded nuance is the end-all be-all goal. I’ve forced myself to reconcile with the idea that there are no bad genres and that approaches to art I would have dismissed or even hated simply for existing have, in fact, as much potential as ideas that instantly appeal to me. In general, I’ve used this philosophy to break down the barrier between me and “challenging” music, like jazz and experimental. It’s worked out very well, I must say.

Here, then, is my ultimate challenge. In some alternate universe, Spiderland could very well have been conceived like this:

Slint McFrontman: Hey, you know that Steven guy?

Side McSlintman: There’s lots of guys named Steven, but somehow I know which one you’re talking about.

Slint McFrontman: So, you know how he’s got, like, all these musical ticks?

Side McSlintman: You mean like soaring melodicism, thickly luxurious arrangements, richly passionate vocals, and bombastic heart-on-sleeve emotion?

Slint McFrontman: Yeah. So…what if we made, like, an album, that was, like, the opposite of all those things?

Side takes a moment to pick his jaw up off the floor.

Side McSlintman: THAT IS BRILLIANT. We could not only force him to face the extreme example of what his open-mindedness should force him to give a fair shot, but we would take home all the prizes at the Let’s Annoy Steven Awards! I’ll get the guys in the studio right now!

As you could probably gather, this was not an easy listen for me. Spiderland’s main selling points are melodies that are minimalist to the point of barely existing, arrangements that more or less follow the same pattern, blankly spoken pessimistic poetry with almost no vocal melodies, all for the purpose of creating the most clinical, emotionally distant music possible. This album is so lacking in human warmth that I can actually FEEL my body temperature decline as I listen to it. It’s not everything I hate in music, but it’s everything I don’t want in music, and the result is an album that, even if my opinion of it improves, I know I will never be able to fully connect with, much less love. It’s just too cold. My system of “that’s okay, it’s what it’s TRYING to be” has failed me. Sorry.

BUUUUUUUUT…I’ll have to come right out and say that this album is the best possible version of itself it can possibly be. The melodies are hardly resonant, but they’re INTENSE. Every note has significant impact because there’s so few of them. This is not “strangle everything so we look artsy” minimalism, this is TRUE minimalism, and a great example thereof. The same applies to the arrangements, which feel like they could have been played by machines. The effect is mind-bending, unnerving, and fascinating.

The lyrics are excellent as well. The stories they tell are actually very straightforward and easy to follow, but in a neat twist it’s the events being described, rather than how they’re described, that capture attention. The best example is the haunting “Don, Aman”, which takes an already creepy arrangement and adds a good layer of hollow pessimism to it with a story about a partygoer who loses the will to live. The desperate whimpers of “Washer” are the closest the album comes to actually invoking emotion, rather than coldly presenting a situation you might have an emotional response to. The lyrics, above all else, are well-conceived.

All this is cold comfort (heh) for those who highly value music (and art in general) as an emotional experience. I am an ardent member of this camp, but I will sigh and acknowledge a masterfully crafted album when I see one. The playing, writing, and atmosphere are all incredibly tight and professional, and were I a musician I could have a lot of fun breaking into all the amazing technical flourishes in here. I’m definitely glad I listened to this album, as it was without a doubt a one-of-a-kind experience, and I can see myself returning to it, but not often.

In some ways, I feel inclined to give the album extra points so I can feel I more confidently conquered my barriers, but I’ve tried to make my scores as honest as possible. I’ve taken up the “how well does it communicate the intended mood” system, so I suppose that helps, but I won’t rate it higher than my enjoyment allows me too. For better or worse, this is essential listening. God help me.

Music: 5/5 Probably the most painful 5/5 I’ve ever given, but it’s a 5/5 nonetheless.

Thematic Content: 5/5

Lyricism: 4/5

Diversity: 3/5

Resonance: 1/5 Almost gave it a zero, but I suppose that’s the point…

Experience: Slowly immersing yourself in a tank of ice water for purposes of recreation. Also, the tank is surrounded with gravestones and occasionally jets come on. This album is weird.

7/10. Best Song: Don, Aman

Posted in Essential Albums, Music Reviews, The Who

The Who – Sings My Generation – Review

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People try to put us down

(Talkin’ ’bout my generation)

Just because we get around

(Talkin’ ’bout my generation)

Things they do look awful cold

(Talkin’ ’bout my generation)

I hope I die before I get old

-My Generation

The Who have recently become my favorite band. Not the best band, nor the most consistent, influential, innovative, or historically significant, just the one that resonates with me the most. Considering my general artistic palate, they may seem like an odd choice. I’m a slobberingly emotional optimist who tends to gravitate towards groups of predominant idealism like the Beatles, gently honest souls like Bob Dylan, viscerally atmospheric orchestrators like Pink Floyd, fascinatingly unrestrained auteurs like Frank Zappa, bombastic emotional button-pushers like Arcade Fire, and of the course the dumb, geeky fun of Queen or Rush. The Who were the godfathers of the punk movement, and maintained a live persona that was easily identifiable by professional restraint and an edge that was too sharp to be gritty. Neither of these descriptors grabs me.

So why the Who above any of those other artists? I’m putting aside any eloquent dissertations I could hammer and jabber out regarding how Keith Moon and John Entwistle are my absolute favorite drummer and bassist respectively, how Pete Townsend is quite possibly my ideal lyricist, how Roger Daltrey’s versatile vocals were as clear as they were passionate, how each of these personalities combined to make an inimitable whole, or how the artsy pop rock of their prime studio albums actually lines up quite well with my usual tastes, because that’s all grass-level stuff and I’m looking for the dirty roots. On an essential level, my love of the Who comes from two primary factors. The first is their sense of melody, unrivaled by any collection of people who don’t have “Beatle” on their resume or “Stephen Schwartz” on their nametag. It wasn’t simply that Pete Townsend was a brilliant songwriter who created marvelously multi-pronged hooks, it was that every member of the band brought their own thick, intuitive chops. I drool over the intense melodicism in the choruses, the verses, the bridges, the arrangements, the vocals, the guitar, the basslines, and especially the drumlines. The Who put every part of a song to the work of pleasing the ears, and the results are often suitably orgasmic. Melody, by my personal constitution, is the most important part of a piece of music, so the band has already accumulated major points.

The second factor, the one that solidified The Who as my favorite band the more apparent it became to me, is an extremely subjective point: The Who are the most professionally creative band I’ve ever come across. The key word is PROFESSIONALLY, a descriptor placed to discount bands and artists who, though their output may be more imaginative, show little in the way of restraint or the ability to do justice to their ideas. I adore the unpredictable musings of Frank Zappa, but across a twenty-year catalogue he showed that he often couldn’t tell a good wacko idea from a bad one. My previous favorite band, Pink Floyd, often couldn’t deliver on the grandiosity of their vision. The Who were a band that were both intriguingly original and completely adequate, presenting balanced and satisfying packages.

Their debut, The Who Sings My Generation, is an excellent example of both strengths. The compositions are nigh-flawless and the creative variety of arrangements and song topics keep the album intellectually interesting throughout its run time. This is, famously, the first “punk” album, though more in spirit then in content. There’s rough playing, a fantastic collection of garage melodies, amusing lyricism, a strong rebellious attitude rivaled only by the Stones, and…two abysmal James Brown covers. Yeesh. Minor flubs aside, My Generation is one fantastic album, required listening for fans of punk and garage rock, as well as anyone who wants to dig into one of the greatest bands rock ever had the pleasure of seeing.

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