Monthly Archives: July 2013

Sound ‘Round: Eric Church / Gorillaz

Brief book keeping before vacation. 

Eric Church – Chief (EMI, 2011)

eric church - chief Though this North Carolinian’s third album recently passed the two-year mark, damn near half the track list still receives modest radio play, which leads me to believe he may just be the whiskey-guzzling country music Jesus he wishes would arrive. Though his break-out success can be chalked up to his twangy as fuck bravado, or his rowdy as hell charisma, or his cornball-free bouts of sensitivity, methinks it’s his sharp songwriting, which fully blossomed after two albums of growing pains. Hear how the hefty crunch and chest thumping openers sit comfortably next to teen-lite anthems and sad-eyed ballads which name check Springsteen and Jesus (again) respectively. Though he lets the Mr. Tough Guy act ride for too long – a side effect of the macho-centric Nashville industry – his sharp wordplay and expert brevity remind you there’s businessman’s attire behind those aviators.  GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Springsteen” / “Drink In My Hand” / “Like Jesus Does

Gorillaz – Demon Days (Virgin, 2005)

gorillaz - demon daysTheir self-titled debut was intended to be a high concept lark but turned into an oddball fluke as soon as “Clint Eastwood” crossed over. Having accidentally struck gold stateside and gained the autonomy from Blur he always wished for, Damon Albarn got wise and ditched the soupy experimentalism of dub culture, got serious and wrote paranoid pop songs about a world on the brink. In a decade which saw Top 40 juice up the escapism, these cartoons faced reality – capturing the fear, hopelessness and apathy of a post 9/11 world. Though the subject matter leans heavy handed and bleak, the lyrics rarely preach, and Albarn’s morose melodies prove hypnotizing in spurts. But aside from the auteur polishing his arty physique, the real muscle comes from Danger Mouse (a capable producer who has since cooled in notoriety), who lends a facelift to the music via his furbished beats and colorful sonic palette. Who else keeps the whole affair from being a dreary bore? A solid core of guest stars including MF Doom, Neneh Cherry, De La Soul and Dennis Hopper. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Feel Good Inc.” / “Kids With Guns” / “Dirty Harry

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Sound ‘Round: Rachid Taha / Deerhunter

An introduction and a revisit. 

Rachid Taha – Zoom (Wrasse)

rachid taha - zoomAn international journeyman from Paris via Algeria, this eclectic songmeister owes his career to his boyhood home of Oram, a major port town nestled on the southern edge of the Mediterranean. A breeding ground for the multiculturalism much of the Arab world lacks, the city’s cross pollination of ideas and lifestyles helped birth the Raï genre, a musical potpourri of Arabic, Spanish, French and tribal influences. A lush mixture of sound and textures, Raï is decidedly less arid compared to other desert dwellings genres. More importantly, however, is its message of equality, political change and social justice – the music has been heavily suppressed in various countries for its prominent female performers. Topics on his sixth studio outing include a rally against arranged marriages and a love letter to the poor. But his suave vocal register allows him to play it close to the chest as well, as he does on the fantastic duet “Now or Never,” or the bare bones heart breaker which opens the album. Mirroring the music he pioneers so expertly, he’s many things at once, but singular in his vision and purpose – heavy on the message, even heavier on the feeling. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: Now Or Never” / “Ana” / “Wesh (N’Amal)

Deerhunter – Monomania (4AD)

deerhunter - monomaniaI fess up. I blew it. Consider my previous critique null and void. Having underrated the vigor and immediacy of Bradford Cox’s new all-garage-everything phase, a revision is desperately needed. As for why I missed the mark on the first go ‘round, I focused on the barrage of distortion, fuzz, and noise so much it overwhelmed my senses – obscuring the brilliance hidden beneath the music’s unvarnished exterior. The Ramones comparisons are valid as each track is as brief, hooky, powerful and chaotic as the last, but a better analogy is The Rolling Stones circa Exile on Main St.; grimy, smoky, murky, filthy. Scrapping the art house undertones which diluted their best nuggets for so long, they’re now a full-fledged rock outfit; a restless bunch of weirdos fixed on wrestling with alienation and boredom the same way their forebears did – with brevity, tenacity and determination so propulsive it damn near comes apart. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: Neon Junkyard” / “The Missing” / “Sleepwalking

Sound ‘Round: Modest Mouse / Outkast

Investigating their last transmissions while we hunger for more.

Modest Mouse – No One’s First, and You’re Next (Epic EP, 2009)

Modest Mouse - No One's First and You're NExtComprised of table scraps from the album that turned them mainstream and its subsequent follow up, these eight B-sides double as summary and coda – not as thoughtfully sad or torturously poetic as their better songs, but still a worthy capstone to the most successful era of their decades long career. Ruminating on his fleeting brush with fame and not knowing where to go from here, Isaac Brock dresses up his disillusionment, frustrations and anxieties with metaphors involving animals. There’s the snake who keeps eating his tail, the fishes who want to walk just to fall back down, the whale who would rather drown than surface and the rat who personifies corrupt humanity. It’s dour, yes. But, coming from the man who is content to simply float on, his ennui is a coping mechanism more than it is outright misanthropy. “I’ve got it all almost figured out,” he says in the finale, and I believe him. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: King Rat” / “Satellite Skin” / “Perpetual Motion Machine

OutKast – Idlewild (LaFace, 2006)

outkast - idlewildThis is my first encounter with what looks to be, at this point anyway, their farewell effort. Well into a phase of jaded teenage cynicism as a high school senior upon its initial release, I readily dismissed what I mistook as a literal soundtrack to a film I had no interest in seeing. “It won’t be as good as Stankonia.” Pretty accurate, but, then again, few albums ever are. Though this Hollywood companion piece is underwhelming when placed alongside their monolithic previous efforts, it would be a buzz worthy debut for any fresh-faced start up. Yet, there are some telling signs of just how fragmented Andre and Big Boi’s relationship had become at this point. Of the 25 “songs” – 19 if you remove pointless intros and interludes, just one finds the duo working together. A bastard version of their 2003 double album, where “separate but equal” was the mantra, the Dre songs are often brief, unfinished and mere noodlings which dabble in vaudeville and jazz while his counterpart’s deep fried rhymes carry the load. Seeing how their respective post-OutKast outings have ventured (Gillette commercials and solo albums), this footnote of a goodbye seems fittingly prophetic. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: Train” / “Morris Brown” / “Mighty O

Sound ‘Round: Mayer Hawthorne / Kanye West

Dealing with empty sex in ways tepid and wonderful. 

Mayer Hawthorne – Where Does This Door Go (Universal Republic)

mayer hawthorne - where does this door goA connoisseur of casual sex, this one-time Detroit disc jockey was exact in his schemes; play cute with his boyish falsetto, snag a complicit partner, leave before dawn, no strings attached, in and out in roughly three minutes. This third outing, however, finds him playing a sad-eyed wanderer in search of a permanent home for his penis. With the morning after on his mind, he ratchets up the formalities, ditching bubble gum soul for adult contemporary. Where once the music was reliant on peppy percussion, brass, and charisma, it’s turned moody, less melodic, stagnant and slow-footed. Having dared to cross the four minute threshold on just three occasions in his fledgling discography, he does so seven times here, and rarely cooks up a hook worthy of the extended run time. Aiming to leave an impression, he overthinks the formula and puzzlingly avoids his strengths, ultimately sounding lost and nervous. It’s too bad. Chicks dig confidence. GRADE: B-

Key Tracks: Her Favorite Song” / “Where Does This Door Go”

Kanye West – 808s & Heartbreak (Def Jam, 2008)

kanye west - 808s and heartbreakThe polarizing swirl of Yeezus brought back memories of Mr. Ego’s most personal, and just as divisive, record to date. Caught off guard by a sudden break up and, more importantly, the traumatic death of his mother, he shied from sampling Ray Charles, embraced the cold minimalism of prehistoric drum machines and bathed in pitch-corrected melancholy. A far cry from the ornate grandeur of his mightiest efforts, his skills as an expert pop hookmaster shine through the abyss, and sprinkle hints of light over the darkness. Though gloomy from start to finish, the best tracks feature compelling beats, melodies will.i.am would have for himself, well-timed synth bits to keep things interesting and a Lil Wayne cameo. For those who continue to dismiss Kanye’s most cathartic moment as a one-off, you’re forgetting just how influential it remains half a decade later. Just ask Drake. It’s his favorite record. GRADE: A-

Key Track: Love Lockdown” / “Heartless” / “See You In My Nightmares

Sound ‘Round: Homeboy Sandman / Serengeti

Street wise rhyme makers keep hustling.

Homeboy Sandman – Kool Herc: Fertile Crescent (Stones Throw)

homeboy sandman - cool hercA native of Queens, and the son of immigrant parents who held education and initiative in lofty esteem, Angel Del Villar II had already snagged a B.A. from the Ivy League and attended law school before switching careers paths in 2007. Since then he’s been prolific and wordy; four albums, four EPs and one mixtape all built on viscous rhymes concerned with morality and, as he puts it, a “powerful populace.” He’s knowledgeable and empathetic concerning the ills of the world, but his encyclopedic, nimble, and dexterous flow – his most likable selling point – can also be a hindrance. What begins as song can morph to sermon, and what starts with good intentions can become bookish and boring. Putting his scruples to good use, however, he circumvents his pedantic tendencies with brevity, and beats which lighten the burden of trying to stop kids from knockin’ their noggins and poppin their pops. If he ever gets his hands on a teaspoon of melody, he just might do so. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: “My Brothers” / “Dag, Philly Too” / “Lonely People

Serengeti – The Kenny Dennis LP (Anticon)

serengeti - kenny dennis lpA word to the uninitiated: If this is your first encounter with David Cohn’s abrasive rib tip-guzzling, Ditka worshipping alter ego, do some background research and get acquainted with 2006’s Dennehy, and last year’s EP. Warm up to the herky-jerky beats, off-beat humor, Windy City references and obligatory accent (“Da Bears!”), then realize and appreciate it for the mildly amusing, deceptively charming gimmick it is. Like most third installments in a trilogy, this one is the messiest of the bunch. The pacing is spotty, and the laughs derive mostly from the sketches – which give a refreshing third person perspective to Mr. Dennis’ antics. Longtime producer Odd Nosdam brings the understatedly efficient beats, and Cohn shows his affection for humanism in the guise of his favorite character. His favorite character trait? Settling for empty satisfaction. “You like ‘em / You bang ‘em / Sometimes / You don’t like / But then you / Still bang ‘em.” GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: Directions” / “Bang Em” / “Flows”

Sound ‘Round: The Lonely Island / The Handsome Family

Various shades of humor. 

The Lonely Island – The Wack Album (Universal)

the lonely island - the wack albumI’ve always harbored misgivings when it comes to Andy Samberg and his brand of laugh-rap. Just as Adam Sandler did (still does), he oftentimes forces the issue and strains for a comedic grand slam when the result is nothing more than a modest chuckle. Only a humorless prude, however, would say this musical venture with his Berkley bros is devoid of any keepers – “I Just Had Sex” is comedic-pop gold. But having ditched his day job at SNL and seemingly relinquished his seat atop the viral video throne, this third outing skewers the tropes of parenthood more than it tinkers with dead-on hip-hop parody. They rep hard for diaper money and wife pussy, and are sincere when they extoll the joys of life on “YOLO.” Though the jokes are spread along wider intervals due to Samberg’s new knack for being thoughtful, this is their most polished release yet; the beats keep coming, the production stays savvy, and the Justin Timberlake cameo kills per usual. GRADE: A-

Key Track: 3-Way (The Golden Rule)” / “Go Kindergarten” / “YOLO

The Handsome Family – Wilderness (Carrot Top)

the handsome family - wildernessBrett and Rennie sparks, a hubby-wifey duo from Albuquerque via Chicago, have churned out 10 albums of gothic country-folk over a two decade span, all just about as consistent as you could hope for from a band that plays it straight, simple and subtle. The formula remains unaltered here; she writes the quirky prose while he sets the scenery with his lush, low-hanging baritone. There is, however, a twist to be found. In an attempt to keep things interesting – and possibly stave off complacency – they turn pseudo-conceptual, naming each track after animals majestic, slimy and odd. But the beasts in question are never the star, but slither into the background on songs about redemption, love, suicide, and loneliness. Though a slightly austere collection of ballads, repeated listenings reveal the warm depth of the music, the sturdy songwriting, and their black humor which bolsters an edge to their soft drawl. More of the same? Maybe. But, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Octopus” / “Owls” / “Flies

Sound ‘Round: Sly and the Family Stone / Prince

American Originals. 

Sly and the Family Stone – There’s a Riot Goin’ On (Epic, 1971)

sly and the family stone - there's a riot goin onDitching the hippie bullshit of Haight-Ashbury and cozying up to the bleakness of urbanity, Sly’s greatest album stands in stark contrast to his band’s more jovial, upbeat hitmakers from the era of peace, love and understanding. Though over-analytical critics and writers tend to equate the drastic shift in tone to a metaphor for the collapsed hopes of the ‘60s, a better explanation is quite simple; drugs and ego. Tied by the trappings of fame, familial bonds began to fray, causing band friction, lineup changes, and an increased drug appetite which would prove to be Sly’s ultimate artistic demise. But, long before he grew complacent enough to live in a van down by the river, he mustered enough determination to assemble a masterpiece greater than the sum of its parts. Though some assistance came courtesy of little sis’ Rose and soul brothers Bobby Womack, Ike Turner and Billy Preston , Sly did most of the heavy lifting on his lonesome. Cooking up moods, vibes and emotions as opposed to actual songs, the beats are sweaty and thick, the bass meaty and propulsive, the vocals righteous and potent.  The lyrics, though mere rhythmic flourishes at times, say all you need to know from the get go. “Feels so good. I want to move.” GRADE: A+

Key Tracks: Luv N’ Haight” / “Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa” / “Family Affair

Prince – Sign o’ The Times (Paisley Park, 1987)

prince - sign o the timesCulled from an ambitious three-disc offering label execs were squeamish on, Prince’s ninth release – a hefty double album – is paralleled only by Who’s Next atop the short list of Great Compromise Records. Yet, unlike far too many of its two-disc peers, this one cares not for grandiose themes, overarching concepts or profundity. Rather, the blueprint is elementary; an icon with a fully-formed fuck muscle eloquently strutting across any genre he sees fit, occasionally creating new ones along the way. Aside from brief Revolution, Sheena Easton and Sheila E. cameos, Prince makes each song a wondrous playground of sounds and textures, blending and shifting elements of funk, jazz, gospel, rock, pop and rhythm and blues as if they were finger paints. The topics at hand – pillow talk, character portraits, party jams, religious proclamation, and public service announcements – are found elsewhere throughout his library, but never was he better than this. Without equal, and justified in his earth-swelling ego, this is an 80-minute victory lap, with the seven-second falsetto run which kickoffs the finale as the cigar. GRADE: A+

Key Tracks: “Sign o the Times” / “U Got the Look” / “Adore”