Monday, July 18, 2016

What I've Been Listening To















Half time

I really don't keep this up so good, do I?

So it's the half-year mark and time to reflect on what i've listened to so far this year.

This is going to be super incomplete, but here are some of the records I'm really excited about this year, in the order I remembered they existed.

1. Beyonce, Lemonade. I didn't listen to Beyonce at all prior to this. I mean, I liked her hits fine, but I don't fuck with pop music and she makes pop music. And then this comes. Granted, I don't love all of it, but "Hold Up," "Sorry," "Sandcastles," hell, even "All Night" are brilliant songs.

2. Jessy Lanza, Oh No. A pop album, but a pop album on Burial's label, so it maintains a nice edge.

3. Anderson Paak, Malibu. Soulful hip-hop that has kept me going this year.

4. Ivy Sole, Eden. A nice heartfelt rap album by a female MC.

5. J-Zone, Fish-N-Grits. Funky beats and funny rhymes calling out rap nostalgia.

6. Andy Stott, Too Many Voices.

7. Schoolboy Q, Blank Face

8. Mary Lattimore, After the Dam

9. Juliana Barwick, Will

10. Nothing, Tired of Tomorrow

11. Kvelertak, Nattesferd

12. PJ Harvey, The Hope Six Demolition Project


Monday, June 27, 2016

Shabazz Palaces Review

Shabazz Palaces
Live At Third Man Records
Third Man Records, 2016
Originally Posted on RapReviews.com

I’ve always found live hip-hop to be an iffy proposition. I’ve been to some amazing shows, but too often it is a guy shouting into a microphone over a backing track. There’s not much room for improvisation or spontaneity, which are two key components of a good live show. A recent Travis Scott performance on the Jimmy Kimmel show illustrates the worst-case scenario (https://youtu.be/66TRwDUeyB4). He is shouting along to a recording of the song, not even bothering to pretend he’s rapping. Maybe I need to see Shabazz Palaces live to change my mind. Their “Live At Third Man Records” is definitely a strong argument in favor of live hip-hop.

One thing that sets Shabazz off from many hip-hop acts (the Roots excluded) is that it isn’t just a rapper and a guy on his laptop. Tendai Maraire plays congos and drums and provides  backing vocal while Ishmael Butler raps between twiddling knobs and playing a drum pad. This allows them more room to improvise and go off script than a DJ only armed with the backing track. Also, their music isn’t built around samples or hooks, which means Butler isn’t having to rap along to a recording of someone else singing. It also doesn’t hurt that their music is nebulous, spacey, and more focused on sustaining a vibe than on pumping up a crowd or playing hits.

The tracks are mostly drawn from the Palaces’ two studio albums, especially 2014’s “Lese Majesty.”  The duo isn’t afraid to build out the intros of the songs, to change up the lyrics and to take song in new directions. At best, the songs here have a warmth and energy that isn’t always present on their studio albums. “Forerunner Foray,” for example, has a sense of urgency that I don’t get from the version on “Lese Majesty.”  Ditto the version of “Free Press and Curl” here. It abandons the intimacy and delicacy of the studio version, turning it into a party song.

There are also times when things get muddy and messy. Shabazz Palaces’ music is dense, and that denseness can come off as chaotic in the live setting. There are times where it feels like Butler is struggling to juggle rapping and programming. You can hear him lose his breath or lose his line as he fights with his laptop or drum machine. That is one downside to having a performer also doing programming - drum machines and laptops lack the elegance of a guitar or drum, and don’t work as well as live instruments.


As with all live albums, “Live At Third Man Records” loses something in its translation from live performance to digital document. It is still a worthy entry into the small collection of good live hip-hop albums. It may not be as great an experience as seeing Shabazz Palaces live, but it is a worthy substitute.

Detroit's Son Review

Guilty Simpson
Detroit's Son
Stones Throw, 2015
Originally Posted on RapReviews.com

Detroit rapper Guilty Simpson is like the Arnold Schwarzenegger of rap. He is incredibly effective at being a badass, but not the most versatile or emotive of performers. He doesn’t sing and he doesn’t do features with R&B divas. That might sound limiting, but in the hands of the right producer, Simpson can drop fire. He’s responsible for at least two of my favorite rap songs of all time (“Coroner’s Music” and “Pigs.”) He’s found the right partner on “Detroit’s Son” in Aussie producer Katalyst, who is part of the Quakers crew. In fact, “Detroit’s Son” may well be his strongest release to date.

“Detroit’s Son” has a similar feel to Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s 2014 album “PiƱata.” It’s tough as nails rhymes over warped funk samples, with the rapper and the producer actually collaborating. Simpson spent time in Australia with Katalyst, and the face time they spent together pays off. They have the kind of chemistry that is hard to obtain if you are just Skyping and exchanging files in the cloud.

Much of “Detroit’s Son” is Simpson giving tough guy raps over menacing beats. He starts off on “R.I.P.,” rapping “The bigger the yap, the bigger the slap” while Katalyst lays down a beat that sounds like a race car warming up. Katalyst manages to make funk guitars sound threatening on “Blunts In the Air” one of several tracks dedicated to the sweet leaf. “The D” is as cold and unfriendly as the city it is about. 

“Rhyme 101” might be the best example of Guilty in grimey mode. The beat is funky but punishing, and Guilty spews venomous bars:

“Call this style pub crawl
Cuz you can get shot from bars
Hot shit pop from cars
Drive by
I’m an animal I I 
Swear to get my share I enjoy the air up here”

Guilty is so good at being a villain that it is easy to forget that from day one that has only been a part of his rap persona. One of his earlier tracks was the Dilla-produced “Man’s World” (https://youtu.be/VEDBFzDnIRM) about the tortured relationship he had with his father. (“I’m sorry about the bruise on your face, you understand? I still love you, I’m still you’re old man.”) One of Guilty’s talents is the way he can rap about the harsh realities of life without it coming off as maudlin or pandering. “Ghetto” is a great example of this. It starts out your standard cautionary tale about life in the ghetto, but what Guilty is really rapping about is how our own behaviors and thinking can trap us.

“Fam had a gun and he died with it
Barrel still cold
Thirty years old with his brains shot over what he owed
Some say over what he told
Some say over what he sold
Whatever
Still left the pros cold like the winter weather
Still shows in the hood we don’t stick together
Killers mask up like ‘we’ll stick whoever’
Wish I could say they do it to live better
But really
They rob you with the clippers
Then turn and give it to a stripper”

The title track, “Smoking,” and “Say What?” all offer more cheerful beats and rhymes, which adds variety and makes the harder songs hit that much harder. There are a couple moments on the album where Guilty’s blunt flow doesn’t totally connect, but those are few and far between. When I first heard Simpson ten years ago, he seemed like the antidote to mediocre backpack rappers. Nowadays, he sounds like a soldier doing his part to preserve a type of hip-hop that feels almost like an endangered species. “Detroit’s Son” is proof that Guilty Simpson is far from done, and that you don’t need to be able to sing hooks in order to be a compelling rapper.


EV Zepplin Review

EV Zepplin 
S/T
Reviewed by Patrick Taylor

EV Zepplin are Chuck Inglish of Cool Kids fame and Blended Babies. Blended Babies are a production duo who have done work for Freddie Gibbs, Anderson Paak, Chance the Rapper, and Ab-Soul, among others. They are also incredibly prolific. If my count is correct, this album is the second album they’ve put out in April, and comes after six EPs released in the past 11 months. That doesn’t even count the tracks they’ve produced for other artists, or Blended Babies member Jonathan Keller’s solo project.

Blended Babies’ take a musical approach to hip-hop, combining elements of rock, R&B, and electronica. Two of their recent projects have been with singers (an EP with Anderson Paak and an album with indie/R&B artist Jake Barker). They are more songwriters than beat makers, and the songs on “EV Zepplin” all feature as much singing as rapping. 

Not that the rapping gets short shrift. Besides Inglish, Alex Wiley, Caleb James, Boldy James, Asher Roth, A$ton Mathews, and Drew Smith all provide bars. The surprise for me was Asher Roth, a rapper I had written off after the frat rap of “I Love College” seven years ago. He reinvented himself as a more psychedelic rapper on 2014’s “RetroHash,” and he continues on that tip here, rapping about tripping on “Hang Up,” and offering some blunted menace on “Gun.” 

The album is at its best when it is riding a blunted groove. Songs like “Scenic Route,” “Hang Ups,” the reggae-inflected “What I Want,” and “Over Much.” are highlights, offering up a hazy combination of piano, guitar, and banging drums. Sometimes Blended Babies’ bombast misfires. Opener “We On” combines buttrock guitars with lame sex lyrics, and the result is best avoided. 

Lyrically, Ev Zepplin sticks to getting high and bragging. Things get romantic on “Re-Creating” and “What I Want,” although both tracks are more about how the woman can please the man rather than vice-versa. The lyrics may lack depth, but they are delivered with skill, and you can tell that the MCs were having a good time recording this. “I’m rhyming like I’m Gryffindor, you rhyming like you Hufflepuff,” raps Asher Roth on “Gun,” which gives you a sense of where the rappers are at. 


Ev Zepplin may have nothing to do with the classic rock band that inspires their name, but it is a well-executed dose of psychedelic rap. Inglish has found worthy collaborators both in the Blended Babies and the MCs and singers that round this album out. 

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Prince

Like most human beings with functioning souls, I was sad to hear that Prince died. More because he was too young to die and seemed to be having a bit of a renaissance, putting out albums, touring, and writing a memoir. His current output may not have set the world on fire, but he had such an amazing run in the 80s-mid 90s that he could have never released anything else and it would have been enough.

I loved 1999 and Purple Rain, and I owned both cassettes. Well, I owned 1999 and my sister owned Purple Rain. I have yet to go to a wedding where "Kiss" isn't played. He was incredible. More than that, he challenged a lot of stereotypes. He was a black man who rocked out AND got funky. He had gay women in his band, and he championed female artists. He was hyper sexual and yet wore heels and frills and sang in a falsetto. He was a powerful role model to have in the conservative, homophobic, and racist 80s. He showed a lot of kids a different view of masculinity. And like the Beatles, EVERYONE likes at least one Prince song.

New Music by Old People

I've been listening to two recent albums by musicians who have been around a while.

First is Bob Mould's newest album Patch the Sky. This is the third album he's made since his return to loud guitars, working with two-thirds of Superchunk. I didn't love the first two albums, but this one is resonating with me. My issue with Mould's music is that he can get kind of cheesy, but he's tampering that down here. A lot of this album has to do with his relationship ending and his father dying, and there are some great songs. My favorite so far is "The End of Things," about a break up with the great line "A graduation/Or a gradual decay." It's exciting to hear someone using their skills as a musician to tackle more grown up emotions.

I also got PJ Harvey's new album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, about a redevelopment project in Washington DC. The lyrics to some of the songs are a little clumsy (see all the "justs" in the opener), but I'm into it.

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As an aside, when I was looking up videos of PJ Harvey, I came across this clip of her playing "Dress" live ten years ago. Just her looking amazing and rocking out with only a drummer.

The Replacements

I saw the documentary "Color Me Obsessed" this week, about the Minneapolis legends The Replacements. What was interesting about the doc was how much their mythology sort of capsized the band. The thing everyone remembers about the Replacements is what drunken fuck ups they were. They were frequently wasted on stage, often to the point of being unable to play. An aura of chaos followed the band, the kind of chaos you usually associate with hardcore junkie artists like Iggy Pop or G.G. Allin, although it seems like the 'Mats were mostly into caseloads of beer rather than drugs. The documentary mentioned that, but also mentioned how sad and frustrating it was to see a band with so much potential consistently squander it. Bob Stinson, the drunkenest, most fucked upenest member, was booted in '86 for being too much of a fuck up, and managed to drink and drug himself to death by 35.

The Replacements are also the ultimate cautionary tale for any punk band trying to grow up. Their genius lay in straddling the line between clever and stupid, and when they went for a grown-up sound on their later albums, they lost much of the smart-ass charm that had made them great in the first place. Not unlike Husker Du, they went from being a scrappy punk band to being another boring modern rock act.

 I was never into the Replacements during their existence from 1979-1991. They were a little too rock for my tastes as a younger listener, and their later modern rock incarnation didn't appeal to me either. It's only as I've gotten older than I've come to appreciate them, although I don't own any of their album. I briefly owned 1987's "Pleased to Meet Me," but have since sold it. However, I've been revisiting them a lot lately. They appeal much more to me now.

Their performance of "Bastards of Young" on SNL in 1985 shows a lot of their appeal, and a lot of their problem. It's great in part because it is a shambolic, drunken mess, but it is also a drunken, shambolic mess that got them banned from the show.


What a mess by mmr421

One of my favorite songs by them is "Can't Hardly Wait." , only not the neutered version that appears on "Pleased to Meet Me." It's much better live, or in the "Tim" outtake, which maintains a rawness that got lost in the studio recording. The lyrics are also different. In the official studio version, there are some key lines changed, and the song seems to be about the weariness of touring. The "Tim" version makes it seem like it is about suicide. My favorite line is "I'll be sad in heaven/If I can't find a hole in the gate/Stand on the top of this scummy water tower/Screaming I can't hardly wait/'Til it's over."



Friday, April 01, 2016

How to Ruin A Record Label

I just read Larry Livermore's How to Ru(i)n A Record Label, which details his experience starting, leaving, and watching the demise of Lookout Records.

I came to the Bay Area in 1993, and got into local punk that year. I saw Green Day at Slim's in San Francisco right after Dookie hit but before they blew up. I was an exciting time for music and the scene, even if I was a good three years too late. Lookout was the epicenter of it. They had Green Day, Operation Ivy, Tiger Trap, Crimpshrine, and a host of other local punk bands. Plus, their shabby aesthetic and low prices made it seem like a label run by and for the kids.

Both Green Day and Op Ivy became huge sellers for them. I think they were used to selling thousands of copies, and those bands were selling hundreds of thousands of copies. It infused the label with a lot of money, and they struggled to find a path forward. What struck me reading the book was how short-lived this all was. The label started in 1987, and was effectively done by 2005, although the writing was on the wall sooner, and they officially closed much later.

I've read Chris Applegren's description of how he ran the label into the ground after Larry Livermore bailed in the late 90s. Applegren basically thought that since Green Day went on to become bajillionaires with some serious promotion, any other band should be able to become bajillionaires with the same level of promotion. What they missed was that Green Day was lightning in a bottle, ie not the kind of thing that is likely to come along again. Also, most of the commercially successful punk bands sounded nothing like the shabby pop-punk Lookout! was putting out. The Epitaph sound was much more prevalent as the 90s closed - think Blink 182 or Sum 41.  The band used royalty payments to pay bills, thus stiffing bands, thus losing their catalogue as Green Day and Op Ivy took their records to other labels.

I felt a sense of loss when the label closed, but looking back it seems kind of inevitable. The Lookout! sound was very specific to a time and place. They put out East Bay pop punk records, or East Coast bands that sounded like East Bay pop punk. Their few excursions into weirder punk (Neurosis, Filth) were anomalies. Their attempts to branch out into bands like the Donnas and the Pattern weren't successful. By 1999 pop punk was done and so the label. I have a lot of respect and admiration for what they did, and I love some of those records, but I'm not surprised that it folded. I know Molly Neuman is still in the industry. I'm not sure what the rest of them are up to.

Friday, March 25, 2016

RIP Phife

Phife Dawg, aka Malik Taylor, died this week at 47.

Tribe Called Quest's The Low End Theory is one of my favorite albums of all time. It got me into hip-hop in a big way. It got me into jazz. I have listened to it regularly since I first purchased it in 1992ish. Midnight Marauders was another album I loved, if not as much. I haven't revisited the rest of their catalogue. Maybe now I should.

RIP to the funky diabetic.

Kelela/R&B

I reviewed R&B singer Kelela's last EP on RapReviews last week. 

I've been digging a lot of the alt R&B that's out there - SZA, the Internet, etc. I have never been much into regular R&B, so I'm happy there are artists approaching the genre from a perspective I can appreciate. I don't know if I don't like regular R&B because it is too "black" or too pop-oriented, or if it is just that the musical/emotional notes it tries to hit don't resonate with me. Kelela's music is R&B from a dance perspective. It reminds me a little of how Bjork would team up with cool producers and make music.





I also loved Letta's Testimony, which I reviewed a while back.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Fluisteraars

Another favorite album of 2016 (although it came out at the end of 2016) is the Dutch band Fluisteraars sophomore album Luwte. They are a melodic black metal band that are epic, intense, and sorrowful. Good music for bad times.



Anderson Paak

One of my favorite albums in recent months is Anderson Paak's Malibu. I had first heard him on Dre's Compton, where Paak was one of the highlights. He does a combination of soul, hip-hop, and rock that works really well. His lyrics are full of love and pain. "When I look at my tree I see leaves missing," He sings on "The Season/Carry Me." "Generations of harsh living and addiction."




It's an album that manages to capture the edge of hip-hop but smooth it out with soul without being cheesy. It's about pain and trauma but also hopeful. In short, the perfect record for 2016.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Music for the ages

I've been having dance parties with my 3-year-old daughter a lot recently. It's one of our favorite activities. A lot of my music curation now comes down to finding music that she might like that I might not hate. Her top jams are "For the First Time In Forever" and "Let It Go" from Frozen, although she loves the whole soundtrack (except the scary non-singing parts). We also introduced her to the Sound of Music and Annie, and "Shake It Off" has become a staple. Recently I dug through some Beatles songs on Spotify to find some that might be especially good for a toddler. I came up with "Good Day Sunshine," "Here Comes the Sun," and "Ticket to Ride."

The Beatles broke up over fifty years ago. I wonder how long their music will continue to resonate to people, and what that will be like. This idea of commercial recorded popular music is relatively new, and I am curious how it will go down in history. I mean, people still love classical music and songs from hundreds of years ago, but you don't hear The St. Petersburg Symphony's 1867 recording of "Waltz of the Sugarplum Fairies." Will the rock music my parents grew up with start to sound dated and run out of favor at some point? Will kids still be getting turned on to Zepplin and Pink Floyd and The Clash and Operation Ivy and Tribe Called Quest 50 years from now?

This has been deep thoughts from an old man.

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