Wednesday, June 21, 2006

To Whom It May Interest #2: PE's Muse Lost Many With Its Mess Age

To Whom It May Interest,

”If you don’t stand up for somethin,’ you’ll fall for anything.”

In 1994, Public Enemy’s Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age left a rather large smear on an otherwise spotless catalog of recorded output that was rife with critical acclaim. By and large, the album was ignored as the hip-hop-buying public were too willing to sip on gin n’ juice, their heads still reeling from the effects of Dre and Snoop’s G-Funk sound blast. PE’s fifth studio record didn’t lack the funk to match the West Coast flavor, nor did it lack the punch that Death Row Records seemed to boast. What it did lack was the “G” factor. PE, being an overtly political powerhouse, were speaking to a generation that was tired of politics. A Democrat was in office, Desert Storm was long gone, grunge was dead and hip-hop was largely based on the rhythms of George Clinton and violence on the streets of South Central. Consequently, Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age slipped through the cracks, the unfortunate result of PE’s unwillingness to cater to trends.

Up until this album’s release, Public Enemy were hip-hop’s undisputed mouthpiece for Black America, delivering upon the public a bold array of statements on race, media, class, drugs and the hypocrisy of America’s justice system. Furious enough to incite anger, but perceptive enough to inspire debate, Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Professor Griff, Terminator X and the Security of the First World were more or less a group of musical revivalists; breathing new life into the words, teachings and ideologies of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers by applying them to the present tense. Chuck D, being one of the few in the hip-hop game that actually lived through Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, approached his material with a spirit that was at times militant but also introspective.

Muse is arguably one of Public Enemy’s most vocal and political records in that its music owes much to Black America’s past. Backed mostly by live drums, instruments, and the occasional soul choir, PE strayed from the sound that, up to that point, had been their signature. Experimenting with gospel, funk, jazz, blues and rock, Chuck D and Co. created an incredibly layered and compelling mix of roots music that accentuated the album’s racially and socially charged lyrics. It’s a musician’s rap record: one that almost transcends hip-hop and crosses into the rock and funk realms.

Rap is a contact sport…,” states Chuck within the first few verses of “Whole Lotta Love Goin’ On In the Middle of Hell,” a bold beginning to a very bold record. From beginning to end the immediacy remains fairly consistent throughout. The appropriately accessible first single, “Give It Up,” is sandwiched between “Whole Lotta Love…” and the funky and bass heavy “What Side You On?” and “Bedlam 13:13.” The album is also peppered by minute or so freestyle tracks that almost serve as mini-intermissions, providing a momentary break from the blast. Flav’s first turn of verse, “What Kind Of Power We Got?,” is a celebratory gospel jam that employs the obligatory soul choir. In case you were wondering by the way, the answer is “Soul Power.”

Up to this point, the content is smart but not necessarily new. The music seems to be the driving force, almost making the content seem secondary. This changes when the powerful and mesmerizing “So Whatcha Gone Do Now?” sneaks in, commanding its listener to hang on to every lyric.

Easily one of the most profound and important hip-hop tracks ever written, especially to come out during G-Funk’s reign, “So Whatcha Gone Now?” is a critique of the “Gangsta” lifestyle and the politics that seem to perpetuate it. Chuck D strongly lambastes “rap, gunz n’ drugs n’ money,” pointing out its shortsighted and greedy hold on black youth in the ghetto. He criticizes the black-on-black crime it creates and essentially states that it’s his wish to be unassociated with the whole thing:

”I’m ‘bout ready to bounce/Trouble on the corner of Blunt Ave. and 40 ounce/Mad uncivilized lifestyles/30 years bids for kids, now that’s wild/I’m raisin’ my child/I’m steppin’ to the curb with a sign/DO NOT DISTURB…”

At the song’s climax, a series of sound bytes featuring uncomfortably numerous uses of the word “nigger” are heavily applied, adding extra commentary to the strength of the song. One can only assume that this track may have had more of an effect on the “gangsta” trend had this record reached more ears.

“White Heaven/Black Hell,” one of the album’s few throwaway tracks, acts as a shout-out to all who’ve been dealt a bad hand thanks to racial persecution. It’s the only instance where the album seems to lack the content to back up its sentiment. The ultra-funky “Race Against Time” and “Aintnuttin’ Buttersong” retrieve the album’s energy, interrupted in-between by the half-minute “They Used To Call It Dope,” a Gil Scott-Heron flavored freestyle over bongos and muted samples.

The blaxploitation-based jam, “Live and Undrugged Pt. 1 & 2,” signifies the album’s midway mark, starting off as a solid and structured poetic attack and then collapsing into a frantic freestyle as the band explodes into free-form noise. “Thin Line Between Law & Rape” adds some reggae to the mix and the filler track “I Ain’t Mad At All” brings back the choir. “Death Of A Carjacka,” a satirical bit backed by church organ gospel, features a skit where a car self-destructs after being stolen. The thieves are of course trapped in the car, alive to see their demise.

“I Stand Accused,” the album’s second single, features Chuck D in perfect form. His voice booms over the smooth, trumpet-accented beat and his flow is absolutely bulletproof. It’s a perfect hip-hop track from beat to execution. It’s the very reason that Chuck D remains as distinct a voice as he is in hip-hop.

Flav borrows a hook from the The Last Poets for a song called “Godd Complexx,” and then the guitars kick in for “Hitler Day,” a critique of America’s willingness to celebrate Columbus Day.

Included in the album is a phone call from Harry Allen, long-time associate of Public Enemy, where he describes in 1994 the imminent change that the Internet will have on the exchange of music. It’s an interesting bit of audio in that it became a big platform for Chuck D, as he is a vocal supporter of music downloading.

Ending the album is “Living In A Zoo (Remix),” a fairly calm track as it’s simply one beat and one looped sample of “say hell yeah.” After exploring all the various avenues in black culture’s impact on music, PE end the album with an old school rap song, bringing its inspiration full-circle.

Coming after albums as solid as PE’s first four, it’s really no wonder that this album was as ill received as it was. Trends aside, politics aside, no critic or casual listener took the “Muse Sick” part of the album to heart. Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age is a celebration of music. I don’t believe it was meant so much for raising consciousness as it was meant to try and expand hip-hop’s boundaries by actually using its influences. Since the album’s release, many hip-hop groups have similarly gone the way of the instrument due to the intricacies of buying song rights and maybe infusing something new into their sound. It was a bold move on the part of PE. It was as bold as Miles Davis when he took Sly & The Family Stone as his template for what he was going to do next. The results: some people got it and others didn’t. PE fans wanted more Fear Of A Black Planet and Miles fans wanted more Kind of Blue. Sometimes it takes a while for your fans to grow with you. But, they usually come around. Hopefully in the case of Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age, fans will give it a second chance and realize what they’ve been missing.

Letters From A Tapehead

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Striped Stockings Make A Comeback...So Do The Dresden Dolls

The Dresden Dolls
Yes, Virginia…
Roadrunner Records
Released 4.18.06

Rating: 2.75 out of 4

When I’d first heard the notes that spoke through Amanda Palmer’s delicate, but angry, fingers, I admit I was a bit smitten. You could just tell, listening to the reverberating keys, that she was striking them down with remarkable gusto, commanding them to do her will, forcing them to feel her pain. Well…I don’t know, is it her pain? Probably not but if she’s writing for the pained demographic then, like all good actors, she must put herself there, like a CNN cameraman in the trenches. It was an attractive pain though. And it was very well written.

I knew after first hearing the self-titled debut of The Dresden Dolls that Amanda Palmer would assume the roll of Goth-Mommy. Around the globe hundreds, maybe thousands, of misunderstood suburban female youths listened to “Girl Anachronism” and “Coin-Operated Boy” and found themselves in the arms, and at the breast, of the one woman who finally understood them all. She even went so far as to help out the teenage boys/men of the world, by grouping with her boyfriend, drummer Brian Viglione, and showing girls “they’re not all bad.” The ever-expanding legions of lost teenage girls finally have someone else to look up. And they can finally wear those black and white striped stockings that looked so cool on Samantha Mathis in Pump Up The Volume. Amanda wears them. It’s okay.

Yes, Virgina…, the follow-up to the Dolls’ first album, finds Palmer and Viglione in an interesting position. The incorporation of punk pathos and cabaret music managed to work very well for them in their debut as it was powerfully applied and accentuated Palmer’s distinct and lovely voice. Plus, a couple years ago there was nothing like The Dresden Dolls, so they enjoyed the distinction of being an original in a sea of copycats.

However, because their concept is so unique, it runs risk of burning itself out. Whereas, with their first album, they may have been taken seriously, it would be easy for them to become caricatures of themselves; loading more and more stock into their act, and less and less into their music.

Yes, Virginia… stands up to its predecessor in that the song writing, production and musicianship have grown. Palmer’s prosaic cynicism is still sharp and even more sexually charged than before. She curses a lot more this time around, too. A bonus for the easily amused. Viglione proves himself more integral, not only providing some great drum work, but also multi-tasking with the occasional bass line or guitar riff. They sound richer, possibly more confident, maybe even more evolved. But, at the same time, there’s something missing. And it could be that they’re not supposed to sound richer. Not to completely short-change the album, but it could be that the raw and unpolished energy with which they approached their debut, should’ve made a second appearance.

“Sex Changes” starts the album off with the familiar Dolls nuances, momentarily relieving any potentially skeptical listeners from the fear that their heroes may have gone astray due to success. Once the hook’s been set, the rather beautiful “Backstabber,” a light-hearted little tell-off about some “greedy fucking fit haver,” tricks the ears by sounding pleasant despite the song’s premise. “Modern Moonlight,” probably the best-written song on the album, adds some caffeine to the tempo and provides some beautifully composed piano over Viglione’s frantic stick-clicks and Palmer’s single-breath vocals. “To My Alcoholic Friends” and “Mandy Goes To Med School” take the Dolls back to their alternative Vaudeville and “Dirty Business” provides more cynical insight into the interactions between guys and dolls (no pun intended).

However, when the pace slows up, the album drags. “Delilah,” “First Orgasm,” “Me & The Minibar” and the sappy “Sing,” unfortunately lessen the Dolls’ punch to a bitch slap. In these instances, Palmer is too willing to dwell on lengthy reprisals of certain phrases or choruses, or too eager to overdo it with tired and desperate sounding climaxes. They lose passion by trying too hard and interrupt the album’s flow instead of enhancing it.

Overall, Yes, Virginia… provides proof that the Dresden Dolls are trying to be more than just a novelty act. It also suggests that, to an extent, they may have had it right the first time. Ambiguity’s a bitch but the album’s still good and for now, we are left with this promise: “you motherfuckers, you’ll sing someday.” Hopefully, they’ll continue to do so as well.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

To Whom It May Interest #1: A Word Or Three About Wire

To Whom It May Interest,

I’ve been simultaneously reading two books at once for the past month or so. One is a biography about Elvis Presley and his rise to superstardom. The other is “Mainlines, Blood Feasts & Bad Taste” by Philip Seymour Hoffman…er, I mean Lester Bangs. A couple weeks ago, I was paging through Bangs’ compiled ferocity and observation and found a review of Wire’s second opus, Chairs Missing. Direct quote from the man himself:

“Wire. Think about that word and what it has meant in your life, perhaps even the lives of your ancestors. Then think just how hot you’d be hoppin’ to get a chance to hear a group whose sound might live up to such euphonious appellation! Wire. The Sound of the ‘70s. Flat. Dead. Dull. Thud. Mud. Plod. Sod. But mebbe with a whiplash on the counterstrike.”

Now, having myself only recently opened the door to the wonderful world of Wire’s initial trio of recorded bliss, my reaction to the review was chockfull of “you don’t know what you’re talking about”s and “what the fuck do you know”s and blahblahblahblah. However, being someone who’s had the benefit of seeing the lasting affects of Wire and their opusX3, it’s easy to see how someone, even the beloved Lester Bangs, can miss the point. Wire is one of a handful of bands that saw that punk rock’s demise was going to arrive as fast of most of its songs ended. Granted, punk rock’s influence on everything rock-oriented that’s emerged in the last thirty years is undeniable, but it seems like the vision and spirit of it all probably lasted about a year. As usual, once commerce takes a stranglehold of art, it’s all down hill from there.

When ’77 ended, it was all about evolving, birthing New Wave, No Wave, Hard Core, Post-Punk and so on all through the ‘80s when, once the ‘90s began, alternative music became the first choice thanks to Seattle and the plaid-clad Grunge fad. If you want a basic idea of what the hallways sounded like in any college boasting its own radio station during that time, turn your attention to Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154.

Like the Talking Heads, Wire’s origin began at art school. Through their stylistic approach to minimalism and pop music, they managed to stay ahead of what would ultimately prove to be punk rock’s evolution. The three aforementioned records document their output between 1977 and 1979 and have recently been reissued by Wire’s Pinkflag label. According to some of the reviews I’ve read, their highly creative output petered out after 1979’s 154 and Wire went through a routine of breaking up and making up all through the ‘80s. Their last record, Send, was released in 2003.

Pink Flag, the first of the series, is their most unpolished and well-known, its own “12XU” having been covered by Minor Threat and “Three Girl Rhumba” essentially outlining Elastica’s hit, “Connection”. Out of its twenty-one tracks, six of which clock in at less than a minute, it almost reads like a testament to the “less is more” ideology. It sounds remarkably complete despite seeming stark and quick upon first listen.

Starting things off with the distortion-clad “Reuters”, Colin Newman, lead vocalist and guitarist, exerts ‘tude sans arrogance and emotion sans schmaltz. This song alone sums up the output of a slew of bands, most of which are now stuck with the shitty tag of “emo”. Time’s been kind to Pink Flag and even more kind to its follower, Chairs Missing.

Within the first guitar strum of “Practise Makes Perfect”, you can already tell that Wire was shooting for something new. Less than a year after Pink Flag, Chairs Missing broke drastically from Wire’s foundation and managed to confound everyone, fans and critics alike. Not necessarily departing from their aesthetic, but adding a healthy dose of distortion and electricity nonetheless, Wire employed the synthesizer, opening themselves to the possibilities of electronic music. The high-pitched whine of the ultra-fast “Another The Letter” and the somber church organ of “Marooned” are two contrasting examples of how this element worked in their evolution.

Newman, for the most part, sheds the polite snarl and tries his hand at harmony, giving these songs an air of introspection and emotion. “French Film Blurred” and the light and poppy “Outdoor Miner” are treated with soft vocals, the latter song featuring an “all together now” chorus that repeats until its climax. “Being Sucked In Again” and “I Am The Fly” however, play like Pink Flag tracks, exuding the familiar ‘tude and the minimal guitar strum. But even those songs shows signs of Wire’s growth, “Being Sucked In Again” opening with long guitar chords and keyboard noise.

Ending with the high-speed static of “Too Late”, Chairs Missing wound up acting as the crossroads to 154.

Beginning with the very moody and atmospheric “I Should Have Known Better”, this record caught me by surprise. Wire had made yet another jump and basically defined the sound of the ‘80s one year before the decade’s inception. Well, they defined the sound of the ’80s that was worth remembering anyway. Up until I’d heard 154, I always accredited the Talking Heads and X with having basically started the era. Not to say that they don’t still deserve the credit, but the list of bands that came out of 154 is absolutely astounding. Out of the three, this is the one that seems to get the least amount of praise.

Holding true to the songwriting expansion that the keyboard and distortion granted them, Wire exchanged minimalism for atmosphere. With the aforementioned “I Should Have Known Better”, the mesmerizing spoken word of “The Other Window”, and the desperate noise of “A Touching Display”, Wire exhibit mood like never before, creating soundscapes that range from beautiful to morbid. Even their guitar-driven rockers like “Two In A Room” and “On Returning” rely on emotion as opposed to the structure of Pink Flag or experimentation of Chairs Missing.

For me, the record’s jewels are the beautifully catchy “The 15th” and the closing “40 Versions”. For those two songs alone, 154 was a worthy acquisition.

Anyway, to anyone into music, I’d recommend picking these three albums up as soon as you can find them. 29 years later, they’re still catchy as hell, very well done and they don’t sound old at all. Had Lester lived to see their influence spawn a shitload of bands, his opinion probably would’ve been a little different.

Letters From A Tapehead

New Selections — Emma Ruth Rundle, Tropical Fuck Storm, Primitive Man, Private Life, Uniform, Erika Wennerstrom, Djrum, Windhand

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