Monthly Archives: February 2017

Sound ‘Round: Run the Jewels / T.I.

Fear of a black electorate

Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3 (self-released, 2016)

run-the-jewels-run-the-jewels-3Killer Mike and El-P portray themselves as agents of chaos — anarchists who refuse to die until they’re silenced by the guillotine. While they captured the zeitgeist in 2014 as Ferguson and Baltimore devolved into war zones, I sat on the sidelines perplexed by the self-congratulatory myth making. Album number three turns this skeptic into a convert. The pistol-whipped production leans mean, nasty and sounds like an army of tanks rolling onto the battlefield. Synthesizers sound like buzz saws, adding tension to their paranoid verses and the beats hit hard enough give Richard Spencer nightmares. And that’s just the music. Lyrically, reformed dope dealer and Bernie supporter Killer Mike remains the head and the heart of this duo. Whether espousing on the sin of white privilege, the surveillance state or the rise of El Diablo Trump, he delivers each line with the passion to fill a pulpit as he samples MLK’s stance on violent protest: “Riots are the language of the unheard.” But it’s the growth spurt of El-P that distinguishes this record. Where he perpetually struggled to keep pace with his cohort in rhyme, here his funny bone matches Mike’s zealousness. His best zinger: “Talk real good cuz I’m smart and stuff.” His best truism: “The more we act wrong, the more we act right.” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “A Report to Shareholders / Kill Your Masters” / “Legend Has It” / “Don’t Get Captured”

T.I. – Us or Else: Letter to the System (Grand Hustle / Roc Nation, 2016)

t-i-us-or-elseClifford Harris Jr. was smart and determined enough to go from high school dropout to trap muzik godfather. A nice turnaround for a convicted felon. But at the old age of 36, he looked around at the rap game and saw bling pushers getting replaced by the social consciousness brigade. To stay en vogue, he turned political as voters rejected Black Lives Matter for the casual racism of Make America Great Again. The fact he pulls off this sudden about face is a testament to his craftsmanship. But where Kendrick Lamar spoke of postmodern racism with an unstoppable fire in his belly, T.I.’s approach is beholden to lose beats, fluidic delivery and a muted sense of cool. This isn’t a sermon, but a term paper. So excuse platitudes like, “Believe M-L-King had a dream for real / He in heaven, and we be dealing with demons still.” It’s a nice couplet that could use refining, but I’m thankful he says it anyway. I’m also thankful for the Killer Mike cameo on “40 Acres,” in which he praises Jesus and Muhammad while espousing his atheism. The hits are zero, but the historical moment magnifies the music. By the end, you’ll remember broad themes instead of particulars. There are worse outcomes for protest anthems. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “40 Acres” / “Black Man” / “Pain”

Sound ‘Round: The xx / Teddybears

Analyzing opposite sides of the electronica spectrum

The xx – I See You (Young Turks)

the-xx-i-see-youTheir third album is an earnest attempt to wind up somewhere near traditional indie pop, as in dance-able tunes that do the little things well enough to make the larger units chug along. But these down-in-the-mouth Brits are so beholden to their minimalist beliefs they instead made a fitting conversation piece for wallflowers. That’s not to say they don’t try to live in the groove. The opening flourish of horns is the most exhilarating seven seconds of their career and the bass line that follows is a clear indicator that they’re on the right path. The biggest instigator in the band’s modestly updated sound is vocalist/producer Jamie xx, who went solo in 2015 and got a taste of the pop life thanks to Young Thug and a production aesthetic as warm and inviting as this band is cool and distant. Don’t play this for fun. Do so for the small joy of hearing a band try to alter the formula just enough. You won’t hear a grand slam, but a string of base hits. A nice run of reverb here, some harrowing keyboard hooks there, a pinch of harmony to prove they’re not as sad and out-of-love as they proclaim. As the whisper-soft Romy Croft sings: “I don’t know what this is, but it doesn’t feel wrong.” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Dangerous” / “Replica” / “On Hold”

Teddybears – Rock On (Lateral, 2016)

teddybears-rock-onThis Swedish production trio has spent the last decade attempting to import its dance-friendly brand of Euro-pop stateside after abandoning its hardcore-punk principle of starving for the sake of art. Their previous album — 2011’s Devil’s Music — was tailor made for a breakout American turn that never materialized. Eve came out of hiding, B.O.B. bought his mama a house and CeeLo played with his pussycat. Said songs were used in ad campaigns aplenty to no avail. With a smaller production budget and a guest list absent any headliners, the goal remains the same even if they know prospects are grim. I admire their work ethic more than this follow-up, which gets to the finish line on willpower instead of consistent execution. They take a page from Major Lazer’s playbook and lean heavily on Caribbean jams that lose impact as things progress. Beats will always pay the bills, but they skimp on the melodies — the biggest factor in distinguishing them from a cesspool of Spring Break DJ one-offs. While the big boys struggle to keep the after party going, leave it to spunky Jamaican preteen Baby Trish to salvage affairs. Behind a synth riff as heavy as her attitude, she ponders the same question asked by Joey Ramone and Chuck D. “What’s your problem?” GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: “What’s Your Problem?” / “Best You Ever Had” / “Broken Heartbeat”

 

Sound ‘Round: David Bromberg / Plus Sized Dan

The 2016 Hangover Blues

David Bromberg – The Blues, the Whole Blues, and Nothing but the Blues (Red House, 2016)

david-bromberg-the-blues-the-whole-blues-and-nothing-but-the-bluesThere’s something about an old geezer doing right by his heroes that makes me think nostalgia ain’t so bad. Then you listen to the way this 71-year-old folkie digs into the music and it becomes obvious that nostalgia ain’t the point, but rather a showcase for songs as sturdy and steadfast as a steamboat. Bromberg’s no Delta wanderer but a Philly native who resides in Delaware with his shopkeeper wife who’s just as musically gifted. Knowing good and well his East Coast diction doesn’t sell the forlorn and forgotten numbers, he plays it up for the laughs with a band Bob Dylan would be wise to covet. He does right by Bessie Smith, morphing her you’re-no-good-in-the-sack sassiness into an anthem for grandpas everywhere happy to just get a goodnight kiss. Then there’s the anonymously penned ditty in which a husband discovers his cuckolding when his dog stops barking at strangers. “I hate it when the kids call me Uncle Daddy,” he says exasperated. Matching the jokes is a musical palette as elastic and colorful as the blues itself. On top of the eternal 12-bar riff, Bromberg piles on fiddle, banjo and horns as ebullient as his enthusiasm for the material. His zeal is apparent, and the results are as charming as you’ll ever hear. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “The Blues, the whole Blues and Nothing but the Blues” / “You’ve Been a Good Ole Wagon” / “How Come My Dog Don’t Bark When You Come ‘Round?”

Plus Sized Dan – Plus Sized Dan with Marshall Ruffin (Plus Sized Dan, 2016)

plus-sized-dan-with-marshall-ruffinPlus Sized Dan is the pseudonym for songwriters Clay Harper and Ruairi Kilcullen. The former is the more famous one by default because he registers more Google results. He resides in Atlanta and gained cult status during the ‘80s with punk outfit The Coolies. Harper’s since become a restaurateur who re-enters the studio when he sees fit. Here, he plays producer and instrumentalist, substituting his diminutive drawl for Marshall Ruffin, a fellow Georgia peach whose warm timbre and melancholic delivery drives home five forlorn songs about romance on the brink. Bluesmen akin to Ruffin like to let their well-endowed voice cover the fact they can’t write a song worth a damn. He distinguishes himself right quick on the opening track concerning the less fortunate: “My people are poor people / Poor people got problems / Problems with no solution.” From that broad truism, Ruffin narrows his aim on songs that double as character portraits. “She just sits around looking how she looks / He’s as useless as useless can be.” “I saw you smile to someone / As you walked through the door / I wanted you to need me / You don’t need me anymore.” Hipster-folk idiots like The Lumineers could never be so smart or poignant. Here’s hoping Ruffin and company don’t stoop to their level. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Plastic Bag in a Tree” / “Poor People” / “I Believe You’re Waiting for Me”

Sound ‘Round: Madonna / Lady Gaga

Queens of the club at the Super Bowl

Madonna – Music (Maverick/Warner Bros., 2000)

madonna-musicMadonna’s first album released this century is likely her last great endeavor. After spending the previous decade selling sex and spiritual enlightenment to mixed results, the only thing she’s peddling here is great tunes — 10 of ‘em lined up neatly in a row. The methodology is a familiar one for her. The softer, introspective side of Euro-rave meets dime store American dance hall. In short, it’s high art masquerading as disposable pop masquerading as high art masquerading as… Producers Mirwais and William Orbit largely succeed in helping her play up the musical duality. Club-friendly anthems are given a worldly touch thanks to Arabic motifs, and symphonic flourishes gussy up a country-pop ditty so enthralling it makes Shania Twain sound like Maybelle Carter. No matter the mood or tempo, Madonna masters the material like the supreme shapeshifter she is. You always believe whatever act she’s playing: whether it’s music for music’s sake, relishing the joys of new romance or vowing to never sell out. There’s always a theatrical element with her, but here it’s one hell of a show. That’s not to say she doesn’t mean what she says. The most enjoyable track drives home a universal ethos that nicely sums up her career: Don’t tell me what to do. Yes, ma’am. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “Don’t Tell Me” / “Music” / “What It Feels Like For A Girl”

Lady Gaga – The Fame Monster (Interscope, 2009)

lady-gaga-the-fame-monsterThe purveyors of pop ditched her hyper-glam pretentions as soon as her infamous meat dress began attracting flies. Things have returned to normal, for now. A quick glance at the charts provides not one act whose offstage persona matches their musical smarts. Even Gaga has toned it down. What a shame. But it was never Stefani Germanotta’s cartoonish character that drew me in, rather a bag of unbeatable hooks that remains just as potent and pleasurable nearly a decade later. These eight songs comprise the second disc of her re-released debut and work just dandy on their own. The beats are heavy and mean enough to contain her Broadway sympathies and Gaga’s artistic vision is as focused as it has ever been. Much like her New York home, the music is a melting pot that borrows plenty from other subgenres, be it Hispanic flamenco, Brit pop or New Orleans swing. The great unifier is a steady thread of synth that brings her neo-noir daydreams to life. The subject matter is simpler but just as compelling — boys that drive her crazy. Guilty parties include that bastard Alejandro and her old man. No coincidence the best song comes when she tires of their games and goes out dancing with Beyoncé. Talk about one hell of a girls’ night out. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Telephone” / “Alejandro” / “Bad Romance”