Saturday, July 21, 2007

Still got that PMA…

Bad Brains
Build A Nation
Released 6.25.07

Rating: 7 out of 10

It’s 25 years since the release of the Bad Brains’ ROIR debut, and there still hasn’t been a hardcore/punk band that’s surpassed their might. I know I just pissed off a bunch of people with that statement, but I truly don’t give a shit. A million Warped Tours don’t amount to ANYTHING next to these guys, no matter what Alternative Press would have you believe. Every riff those bands milk for all they’re worth? They didn’t write ‘em. They weren’t blessed them during mind-altering run-ins with Krylon. They got those riffs from the Bad Brains, who have seemingly resigned themselves to be one of the most underrated bands of all time, and have basically watched all the credit due them roll right past and get slapped onto lesser punk rawk acts like they were Simple Plan stickers.

Aside from being able to play harder and faster than your crappy band, the Bad Brains have always stood out as a preaching machine. Being Rastafarians, many of their songs have been odes to Jah and, consequently, many of their albums have been peppered with reggae. Also, they’re probably the coolest “positive” band you’ve ever heard, always rocking that “PMA” (Positive Mental Attitude) and trying to infect audiences with a decent amount of spirituality and a feeling of togetherness. Build A Nation, their first album in 12 years, has no lack of that.

The Beastie BoysAdam “MCA” Yauch, a wagging-tongued Bad Brains fanatic, assumed roll of producer for Build A Nation, which is more or less a return to the ROIR sound of yore, but with more reggae. 1995’s God Of Love, though not terrible, didn’t really deliver on their energy and slacked badly on the rock end. That being the case, Build A Nation was a surprising listen as it really doesn’t differ too much from their debut, though HR seems to have run out of things to sing about.

If any religious service began with something like “Give Thanks And Praises,” I’d make sure I was the first one in the pew every Sunday morning. Take a note Kirk Cameron: You want people to convert? Start playing shit like this and God will look cool. At least, he’ll look cooler than He does now with people like you leading His cause.

I digress…

“Jah People Make the World Go Round” thunders in, Darryl Jenifer’s perfectly muddled and raw bass line making a huge impact on the track. The short and sweet “Pure Love,” belongs to Dr. Know as he expertly solos through the song’s opening and then throws down the heavy chops. “Let There Be Angels (Just Like You)” and “Universal Peace” are probably the best tracks on the album, providing a midway block of hardcore perfection.

“Send You No Flowers,” a track that was present on the Black Dots LP, the first ACTUAL recording sessions for the Bad Brains in 1979 (released on Caroline Records in 1996 if you’re interested, it’s awesome), is reconceived for Build A Nation, sounding NOTHING like the original. Being a track that was never officially released, I guess HR and Co. felt like digging it out of obscurity, but changing it completely. Or, they just liked the title and decided to pin it onto another song. Either way, it’s a good track.

As far as the reggae is concerned, it’s competent and enjoyable. Does it represent the full range and ability of the Bad Brains? Sort of, but not completely. The thing to love about the Bad Brains is the energy with which they hit you upside the head and their amazing frontman. HR has one of the best voices to ever grace any microphone. Coupled with his loud and raw backdrop, HR creates a sound unmistakable and distinguished enough that it properly separates the fakes from the real deal. Fronting reggae, he sounds like any Rasta vocalist and his charismatic presence doesn’t really get through. “Natty Dreadlocks ‘pon the Mountain Top” is one of the better reggae tracks. Comparatively, “Jah Love,” sounds too machined. This sort of leads me to the album’s big detractor.

Aside from HR being a little too in love with echo effects and repeating his lines a bit too much, Yauch’s treatment of the material is rather sanitary. In fact, it’s too fucking sanitary. Jenifer’s bass line is the only aspect of this album that still carries the grit in which the ROIR sessions so gloriously put on display. Earl Hudson’s drum sound is too pristine and Dr. Know’s guitar is almost hidden behind the bass. The playing, for the most part, is on point. But, without the grime, it feels incomplete. It’s amazing that lo-tech production got more out of this band than a big money studio.

But, Build A Nation is a welcome return to form from a band that, thankfully, refuses to quit. They may never be what they were 25 years ago, but they can still play harder and faster than your crappy band.

Letters From A Tapehead

Thursday, July 12, 2007

300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Review…

The White Stripes
Icky Thump
Warner Bros.
Released 6.19.07

Rating: 8 out of 10

I’ll admit I was surprised earlier this year when I discovered that there was a new White Stripes album on the way. After Get Behind Me Satan more or less capitalized on Elephant’s fairly successful attempts at trying to expand Jack White’s sing/song worth, (he added a low end), but hadn’t really surpassed its predecessor, one could only assume that Jack had ran out of places to go. Early reception of the album may as well have stated that it was the greatest thing to emerge from a studio since…well, fuck I wasn’t alive that long ago. But, as people ACTUALLY listened, they could tell that Jack was struggling a bit. Meg White hadn’t grown out of that snare/crash/snare/crash K-hole that she’s been stuck in since this group gained any notoriety, and despite expanding a little on the instrument front, the album really didn’t go anywhere. It wasn’t bad, but it was nowhere the masterpiece the salivating critics claimed it to be, nor was it an improvement on Elephant.

Then The Raconteurs fairly cemented the assumption that The Stripes had had it as Jack merrily pranced into the new pussy and happily added a rhythm guitar, bass and a REAL drummer to the mix. It had to have been a different world for him and I don’t believe for a second that he didn’t consider giving up on The Stripes after getting his dick wet with new possibilities.

But, I guess old pussy has wisdom, even if it can’t drum.

So enter Icky Thump, sixth album from Jack and Meg, first recorded for Warner Bros. The responses have been good since the album’s release, but certainly not the red hot reception Get Behind Me Satan garnered, which baffles the shit out of me considering Icky Thump buries that record. Icky Thump succeeds because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Interesting considering that it’s their most crafted record, having taken them about three weeks to record in a real studio. And, unlike Get Behind Me Satan, the extra instruments (trumpet in one instance) blend so well that they don’t really distract from what's going on or sound like a thickening agent added to layer the sometimes thin guitar/crash cymbal formula. They’ve found a way to make themselves interesting again and I applaud ‘em.

“Icky Thump” is almost a low tempo variation on “Seven Nation Army,” but it revels in high-distorto string play, hitting blues notes amid Meg’s familiar cymbal blasts. The strum-heavy “Bone Broke” (Holy shit, Meg found the hi-hat!) and hypertensive static of “Little Cream Soda” follow suit, both emitting high doses of energy and blues-born gems like: “Well every highway that I go down seems to be longer than the last one that I knew about…oh well..

The Corky Robbins-penned track, “Conquest,” adds some sense to the gringo matadors on the front cover, providing some Flamenco riffs and Latin trumpet. Dig the trumpet/guitar duel. Continuing the ethnic theme, folk/spoken-word medley “Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn” & “St. Andrew (This Battle Is In The Air)” is carried by the steady hum of bagpipes.

“300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues” hits all the right notes with me, even lyrically when Jack quietly states, “I’m breaking my teeth off/trying to bite my lip.” The song explodes periodically into heavy distortion, but I think the song’s at its best when its pensively crawling along amid some intermingling acoustic riffs. Another somewhat mellow high point is “A Martyr For My Love For You.” An organ provides the song’s low end, Ray Manzarek-style kinda, but Jack, once again, wins the song over with the right riff.

I was also quite won over by “Catch Hell Blues,” where Jack borrows a section of a song from Fugazi and slides the hell out of it. It sounds damn near blues authentic, considering that gringo matadors are throwing it down. “Rag & Bone,” a playful exchange between Jack & Meg where they assume the respective rolls of junk collectors, bangs out familiar blues riffs, but manages to make it work without sounding too overdone.

“You Don’t Know What Love Is” and the Michel Gondry-inspired, “I’m Slowly Turning Into You” are the album’s thumps, the latter song having been written around a video that Gondry shot. But, they’re not bad. They just don’t seem to put out the vitality that the rest of the album embraces.

If and when things get too complicated, tear it down and start over. Not that The Stripes didn’t continue to try and experiment instrumentally, but Icky Thump’s purpose was to essentially bring it all back to the primary elements and play some rock n’ roll. And, I think it’s the most cohesive album they’ve put together in a while. In the album’s closing track, “Effect And Cause,” Jack sings,”Well in every complicated situation of human relation/Making sense of it all takes a whole lot of concentration.” In this instance, I think it was just a case of old pussy having wisdom…

…even if it couldn’t drum.

Letters From A Tapehead

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