Friday, September 29, 2006

Heavy, man (I’m addicted to drone & blues)

Acid Mothers Temple & The Cosmic Inferno
Starless and Bible Black Sabbath
Alien8 Recordings
Released 2.7.06

Rating: 2.75 out of 4

Seriously, I picked this up because I thought the album title was cool, but I had no idea what I was in for.

Kawabata Makoto, leader of the Japanese psychedelic act known as Acid Mothers Temple & The Cosmic Inferno, could quite possibly be music’s answer to David Koresh. Acid Mothers Temple is more of a cult than a band, with off-shoots galore and a slew of records that I’ve yet to even try and track down. Cosmic Inferno is the newest manifestation from the core of Acid Mothers Temple and Starless and Bible Black Sabbath is one of their newest offerings.

Obvious in their allegiance to Sabbath and wildly plugged into the nuances of the mighty DRONE, Acid Mothers Temple delightfully throw you head first into a vacuum that you may never find your way out of.

This album, whose contents only provide two tracks, is excessively drawn out and excessively murky. The 34-minute title track is a reverberating mass of riff carnage that tackles the air like a swarm of something loud and deadly. Swirls of science fiction noise whip and blip while an incomprehensibly distant vocal wallows through the roar like its lost in a swamp. Midway it speeds into a Motorhead-inspired jam, but the murk doesn’t allow for any guitar solos to hold up. They wind up following the vocals, and never going anywhere.

“Woman From A Hell” continues the Motorhead trend, but the speed doesn’t seem to work its way through the sludge. It was probably a conscious decision on Makoto’s part to make the album sound like it was recorded in a fish bowl. After all, these songs were recorded at the Acid Mothers Temple, so I guess the implication of vast and cavernous acoustics are the name of the game, but man…

Somehow though, I’m intrigued enough to want to grab the rest of the their discography. I’ve listened to this album a lot since I picked it up earlier this year and it does get into your head. There’s something there. I’m just not sure what yet.

Released 5.7.06

Rating: 3.5 out of 4

So, a four-way that can only be described as magical occurred:

Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, ”Geezer” Butler and Bill Ward exchanged vows and, of course, bodily fluids. This unholy union in the house of the holy consequently brought about the conception and birth of Australian rock trio, Wolfmother, whose first living cry outside its amniotic dwelling sounds aloud just before the heavy-handed slam of the opening, “Dimension.” From there, the young apple doesn’t fall too far from its elder tree as it revels in full-on Zeppery and Sabbathry.

Wolfmother’s self-titled debut does not shy away from utilizing the invaluable lessons of its influences. Lacing every riff with old school blues-born vitality, Wolfmother is a time machine, returning us all to the pre-punk arena days. Bass interludes and dissonant organ notes, heavy cymbal crashing and sludgy riffs; it’s a rock homage, respectful and grateful. The energy of album opener “Dimension” and blues rocker “Woman,” the bordering-rockabilly of “Apple Tree,” and the “Manic Depression” jazz syncopation of “Witchcraft,” (a song that even bravely enters Jethro Tull territory with some Ian Anderson flute play), all evoke the era-defining sounds of the ‘70s at its height.

Unfortunately, it also enters into some areas of the ‘70s that maybe need not be explored again. The progressive guitar notes and dramatic organ of "Joker & The Thief" really put the X in S-T-Y-X, though the song doesn’t necessarily disintegrate under the weight of its own flamboyance. “Tales From The Forest Of Gnomes” tries to find its own private Pink Floyd and marry that with some Cat Scratch Nuge, thus completing Wolfmother’s inevitable downward trajectory into 80s hard rock disgrace. It’s too soon to go Damn Yankees, guys. Okay?

But the down points do not detract from Wolfmother’s rock assault. There are licks to be heard. Licks as perked up as the mythological tits heaving on that categorically fantastic cover. All it’s missing is the elder wizard, hands raised to the lightning-veined sky above as his mouth quivers with rage, wooden staff connecting blazing white light while the crystal ball in the other fills with billowing clouds of smoke. Now THAT’s rock.


Letters From A Tapehead

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Don't Feel Right: The Roots get inspired by uncertainty


The Roots
Game Theory
Def Jam
Released 8.26.06

Rating: 3.75 out of 4

This has been a strange millennium. The average Post-9/11 American is a mass of fucked up nerves, barely settling for its Paxil coma while its tied tightly around its need for immediate safety, satisfaction, and Starbucks; its one ear plugged into Clear Channel airwaves, fast food entertainment and news while a cell phone yaps away in its other indifferent ear, its face full of reality TV as it uncontrollably twitches with every flying plane heard zooming overhead or sheds a tear with every mention of the word “levee.” It’s been five years since the era-defining tragedy-turned-political strategy occurred, a full year since Hurricane Katrina exposed economic hardships at home and our lack of disaster preparedness, and we’re no more safe or certain about anything except that we’re very uncertain.

As The Roots so succinctly put it: ”It don’t feel right.”

Uncertain times create mood. I can only imagine that that mood probably sounds a lot like Game Theory.

Game Theory, the 7th album from Philly-based hip-hop collective, The Roots, is an unstoppable sign o’ the times laced with a strong dose of Travis Bickle unease that takes a cue from Chuck D and truly evokes the “Black CNN” aspect of hip-hop he used to speak about. Hell, they even borrowed some inspiration from “Don’t Believe the Hype” for the first track, “False Media.” It only makes sense that they would channel Public Enemy, champions of the info-rap editorial.

Following 2004’s misfire, The Tipping Point, and record label troubles, The Roots have finally found a home at Def Jam and now seem to have some control over the music they want to make. Forsaking the jazz-hop edge that ran rampant in their first four albums, and the experimental hodge-podge that made some scratch their heads with 2002’s mind-blowing Phrenology, The Roots seem as focused and as determined as ever. There’s urgency to most of this album as it fires its bullets, providing fast-paced tracks for Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter to tear through with brilliant fluidity and confidence. Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson’s exceptional drum kit keeps it rolling as guitars and keys provide ample harmony and atmosphere, proving their edge on the competition in a genre largely run by samplers and producers running out of fresh ideas. Also adding to the musical edge is Larry Gold, composer and cellist, playing the role that George Martin played so well with The Beatles, by conducting and arranging the string section.

Malik B. makes a welcome return on “Game Theory,” the album’s title track, sounding like he’d never left in the first place. Building on the mood of the album’s dark mission statement, the aforementioned “False Media,” “Game Theory” comes on strong with a couple-touch organ and fuzz guitar accenting Leonard “Hub” Hubbard’s thumping bass line and the Sly Stone sample that wanders in the background during the tom-heavy chorus spots.

“Don’t Feel Right,” the album’s first single, samples Kool & The Gang and The Ohio Players over “Nawlins,” doom-laden piano. Maimouna Yousef provides a sometimes overlong but nicely sung hook. “In The Music,” featuring Malik B. and rapper Porn, goes into a deep echo drum with “Captain” Kirk Douglas channeling Knight Rider for his riff. Porn cries out the hook, offering some desperation to the hopelessness already established with Thought’s first stanza:

”They say the city make a dark impression/The youth just lost and they want direction/But they don’t get the police they get the protection/And walk around with heat like Charlton Heston…”

Observations like this are scattered throughout the album, delivered with watered-down vitriol so as to ease the sting. Thought doesn’t hold back from what he has to say, but he chooses his words wisely, coming off as an urban-centric intellectual as opposed to some snotty street punk that’s watched Fahrenheit 9/11 a couple times too many.

Rahzel, human beatbox extraordinaire, makes an appearance on “Take It There,” a rather quick song that takes some interesting turns with guitar and strings, changing up its slow and mellow beginning with an abrupt and loud second half. Wadud Ahmad, playing Public Enemy’s Harry Allen, Media Assassin role, breaks into the middle with FM commentary about ”a people disenfranchised from the free world.”

“Baby,” probably the album’s most bubblegum stuck track, finds Thought at his least emotive. The hook sounds bored, subdued by its lazy, Latin-flavored, sunshine daze. “Here I Come” livens the album back up, using techno-synthesized squeals and rock drumming to get in your face and more or less stay there for the next 4:11. Malik B., having been away from The Roots due to his bout with drug addiction, tosses some confession into the mix:

”Black Inc raw life/In this whatchumacallit/Weed smokin’ junkie alcoholic/One foot in the grave/One foot in the toilet/Still I’m onstage/In front of an audience…”

Peedi Peedi, ex-member of State Property and rumored new addition to the Roots crew, makes an appearance on “Long Time,” a syncopated and slightly jazzed number also featuring Philly-based R&B star, Bunny Sigler. The track calms the album’s punch while providing some flushed out guitar work and beautiful string work a la Larry Gold.

The album takes a turn for the Beck with the hippy-glazed “Livin’ In the New World” and then “Clock With No Hands,” a wonderfully realized little testament to sad reflections of the past, has Merecedes Martinez of The Jazzyfatnastees providing some beautiful vocal work. Detracting from the societal and paranoid mood of the first half of Game Theory, “Clock With No Hands” adds intimacy to the album, an intimacy that is carried out with the slow, contemplative nature of the Radiohead-sampled “Atonement.”

“Can’t Stop This,” a tribute to late hip-hop producer J Dilla, unfortunately causes the album to stray from its course. Its well-intentioned existence is drenched with an undeniable air of Hallmark all over it. Smattered with an abundance of personal messages to J Dilla, its sincerity is unquestionable, but its content fails to make as much of a personal impression as the rest of the album.

J Dilla, a.k.a. Jay-Dee, is Game Theory’s inspiration, he himself having produced the album’s beginning interlude, “Dilltastic Vol Won(derful)” and the concluding “Can’t Stop This.” In between, The Roots rise from The Tipping Point’s ashes and make an innovative statement, establishing that art and music do indeed still have a place in the otherwise misled world of mainstream rap music.

To me, The Roots are one of the few hopes hip-hop can still hold on to. Being that they do try and maintain their raw street sensibilities while distancing themselves from the highly plastic and monotonous world of material celebration and gangsta flare, one can only hope that Def Jam allows them to pursue their vision. The Roots suffer for their continuing efforts of keeping music and innovation, the essential foundation of hip-hop, alive and that’s unfortunate. Yet another sign o’ the times from a world of uncertainty.

Letters From A Tapehead

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Rather Ripped for the June Series

Sonic Youth

Rather Ripped
Released 6.13.06

Sonic Nurse
Released 6.8.04

Murray Street
Released 6.25.02

Rating: 3.75 out of 4

A month or two ago, I picked up a copy of Sonic Youth’s Rather Ripped during my lunch break. Intrigued by the DIY, Crass-based cover, not to mention the weird title, I wondered if this album was some sort of return to the sonic seeds that had long since germinated into their twenty-five year young career. Back when “Youth” had some truth to it. But, it wound up being the third in a series of SY albums that basically states, “Yes, friends...our best years may be behind us, but we still have a lot to offer.” Think of this series as a postscript, possibly an addendum, to an otherwise solid and ballsy avant-legacy that is now content in making music for music’s sake. It’s like they’ve found their inner-McCartney.

Rather Ripped, 2002’s Murray Street and 2004’s Sonic Nurse, have worked to further Sonic Youth from the experimental noise jams that they’re typically known for, their last foray into that world of chaotic static and hyper-stylized beat poetry being 2000’s NYC Ghosts & Flowers. The feedback still sits mightily alongside their melodies as they pay their respects to it and all the dissonant gifts it’s bestowed them, but remarkably the most prominent aspects of their latest releases have been the guitar work. The fret play found on these last three records is delicate, intricate and quite beautiful. Not that this is really anything new from Sonic Youth, (the solo that breaks out during Goo’s “The Disappearer” still gives me chills), but it does seem to present itself more consistently now as their device.

So the “June Series,” being that all three records came out every June for the last 4 years, begins with Murray Street, which is a nod both to the location of the studio space they’ve recorded in for many years. It also X’ed the spot for a rogue 9/11 airplane engine. The notable addition of Jim O’Rourke, who contributed an instrument or two in NYC Ghosts & Flowers, brought considerable depth to the Television-like jams that occur most notably in “Rain On Tin” and “Sympathy for the Strawberry,” the latter having a 3 minute intro before the vocals actually begin. Dipping a toe in the water with “The Empty Page” and “Disconnection Notice,” singer/guitarist Thurston Moore’s first couple tracks, you already sense a departure for them in terms of sound. It’s not an epic journey by any stretch, Lee Renaldo’s “Karen Revisited” weighs in with some thick sonic gasp and whine for a seven minute outro and Kim Gordon’s “Plastic Sun” is a quick marriage of off-key guitar strings and vocal chords, but accessibility does seem more probable for them.

“Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style” is a rather surreal and cryptic straight-ahead, strum heavy rocker that comes off like some sort of scene obit. It either serves to suggest the impending irrelevance that may befall Moore & Band, or as a poetic pat on the back to rock’s elders for beginning and ending for the sake of rock n’ roll.

”I am dead by the beauty of strangers/In horror my eye-head transforms them
Into smiling beautific roommates /From dust to dust they create rock and roll”

This track reeks with a sense of nostalgia and maybe some curiosity about the mortality of Sonic Youth’s being and future existence.

Sonic Nurse, at first, seems like the inconsequential middle kid that follows its older brother’s example too closely. It continues to delve into SY’s preoccupation with guitar strings, light feedback and mellow output, but the album seems very formulaic, following Murray Street’s sequencing a bit too closely. Sometimes it even seems bored. The paint-by-numbers “Pattern Recognition” and the sleepy “Unmade Bed” and “Dripping Dream” fail to make much of an impression despite Nurse’s later tracks improving the mix a bit. In fact, it’s a rare case where the last half of the album makes more sense.

“Mariah Carey & The Arthur Doyle Hand Cream,” (later changed to “Kim Gordon & The Arthur Doyle Hand Cream” due to law & order blah blah blah), is the bad idea, needlessly fucking up the album’s already uncertain momentum with excessive grit and grime while filling the “Plastic Sun” spot.

Things improve with “Stones” and “Dude Ranch Nurse,” the point where the band suddenly seems interested in the fact that they’re making an album. “Stones” picks up the tempo while “Dude Ranch Nurse,” my favorite track on the album, makes an emotional investment through some beautiful six-string intermingling and harmonics.

Lee Renaldo, refusing to completely abandon his prosaic and desperate odes to whatever the fuck he’s talking about, adds some eerie feedback and nervous energy with “Paper Cup Exit.”

The album’s last two songs, “I Love You Golden Blue” and “Peace Attack,” are softly rendered ditties that probably shouldn’t have been sequenced together. “Golden Blue” opens with a slow uproar of ambient feedback and rolls into a slow jam while Gordon crackles her way through the song. “Peace Attack” has Moore reemploying the slow jams that occupied most of “Rain On Tin,” closing out the album with too much subtlety.

But, the series finds its footing in Rather Ripped.

Despite Jim O’Rourke’s absence this time around, Sonic Youth manage to gain a depth that had not necessarily eluded them previously but definitely comes off much more naturally. Maybe “less is more” holds weight.

Starting things off with the high tempo and sublimely raw “Neena” and “Incinerate,” SY exhibit some beautiful string play and percussion. Thurston Moore’s “Do You Believe In Rapture?” adds some innovation to the mix, utilizing guitar harmonics as the song’s base. Percussion and feedback enter the picture in spots but only to carry the bridge and the outro to fruition. For inventiveness alone, it’s probably the strongest track on the album.

“Sleepin’ Around” and “What A Waste” keep the upbeat guitar work and percussion in full swing and then Kim Gordon finds some lovely melody in “Jams Run Free,” despite her voice being rather challenged in that area. She also finds in Lee Renaldo’s “Rats” a great platform for some very exceptional and funk-laden bass work. Renaldo keeps his desperate vocalizations intact, while Moore and Steve Shelley work in some jazz-influenced syncopation.

The rock half of the album is calmed by “Turquoise Boy,” which erupts into a high-intensity noise jam at the song’s center. “Lights Out” is an inconsequential piece of mid-tempo filler that still boasts some solid guitar work. High and dissonant notes are plucked on “The Neutral” and then “Sympathy For the Strawberry”’s long intro is revisited for “Pink Steam,” which hits some heavy and emotional strings before Thurston Moore sings his piece.

“Or,” the album’s closer, lightly thunders along as Moore sings through sporadic strings. The song fades to a close and the series is finished.

Rather Ripped, by itself, stands out as remarkable proof that the best years aren’t necessarily behind Sonic Youth. It’s easily one of the best records of their career. As a third installment to this series, Rather Ripped is essentially the culmination of their previous efforts, sequenced nicely into twelve tracks that allow their departure from the overtly esoteric to stand strongly with their more avant material.

For any new listener, I would definitely go back and dig into their past for Daydream Nation and Goo especially. In the meantime, this series awaits to enthrall. If they decided to end it all tomorrow, they’d be leaving on a good note.

Letters From A Tapehead

New Selections — DEAFKIDS, Marisa Anderson, Circuit des Yeux, Moaning, Here Lies Man

Some new and not-so-new selections for June.  DEAFKIDS: " Espiral da Loucura " (via Rarely Unable /  Bandcamp ) Via Ra...