Until then, it's my duty to let you know about some of the music you should be listening to, and as always we begin with a bit of hip-hop.
To be able to hear a hip-hop album with the kind of attitude that doesn't sound like it was formed during yesterday's board meeting or is the fantasy of a high mucky-muck ad exec almost seems like a dream unfulfilled in the 21st century. But then I would be wrong, for the 21st century so far has provided rap fans with the kind of music worth waiting for. In an era when an advance leak can make or break an album two weeks before its official release, no one has to wait for release day. Because of this, new music is considered old a week after its release. Hip-hop music needs someone who is worth the anticipation, someone who you want to be able to see live because you know they'll rock it right. Peel it back, and reveal the wound. Nomi, DJ Deetalx, and BenZilla are the group known as Power Struggle, and they are the healers for a generation who are suffering from bullshit-itis. Hearts & Minds (self-released) is the album that will definitely be on my Best Of 2008 list at the end of the year, and I'll tell you why.
Nomi is an MC, period. This is a guy who writes lyrics and stories very well, where you hear the guy and you're visualizing everything as accurate as he wants you to see them. He speaks about the youth and the troubles they face, and how regardless of your skin tone we have all struggled at one time or another, and for a lot of us we will always struggle due to the unseen powers that manipulate the game pieces. For Nomi, he also speaks from a Filipino perspective, and much of the music of Power Struggle is not about wanting worldwide Filipino dominance, but a need to find unity amongst one another and a sense of identity and strength within the system that doesn't know one olive skin from the other. He speaks on a social, political, and economic level, a demand for equality and respect. By touching on these themes, and doing lyrics that are direct and to the point, many will listen and be able to appreciate it from their point of view while understanding what it means to be a Filipino living in America. The first half of the album is called Hearts, and most of it is on that solid boom bap. There are moments when Nomi goes off in the same fashion as Slug does, where you'll hear a bit of humor but a lot of stories about pride and honor. The first half of the album is done by BenZilla, and it has that 90's flavor where everything sounds just right, with the kind of loops and samples that are there not for familiarity, but to capture the right feeling. It's musical communication between producer and MC, and songs like "Workers Will Win" and "Deporting The Pilgrim" are solid enough to be used as examples on how to make the right kind of rap songs. My favorite song during the first half of the album is "Komrades", which features DJ Todda, Geo Logic of Blue Scholars, I Self Divine, and Saico of Kasamas, where they take on the "one for all and all for one" philosophy and take it to a new level. The last part of the song, done in Tagalog, is one of the most deepest things I've heard in some time, and one can't help but be affected by it.
The second half of the album, the Minds portion, is very much heady, a mindfuck, hell let's come up with every mental metaphor and place them in this paragraph and it will all fit. Instead of the traditional boom bap, the five tracks of the Minds section is more adventurous and experimental, not unlike Nomi's other project, Kill The Vultures. This part of the album was produced by DJ Deetalx, where abstract piano melodies are mixed with serious low-end frequencies, steel guitar samples, and at times rhythms that are close-to non-existent. If Hearts has an undeniable classic groove to it, Minds is the future of hip-hop, the moments slowly approaching to the inevitable "Lesson 6" where hip-hop continues on with the adventurous spirit that many forgot had ever existed. "Sometimes Rappin' Ain't Enough" begins with a distorted bass solo which could easily make things sound like a thrash metal orgy, but it is layered with a bossa nova beat and ends up sounding like the kind of progressive rock you like to listen to because you know one of those freaky albums has a funky sample. There's a few lines here where it sounds like he really went deep into that 3am zone, where somehow ones sense of clarity is crystal clear, where one can have an epiphany that will stick to you forever:
In the meantime I celebrate every waking hour
Playing wooden guitars and singing off-key hymns
At what point did the liquor lose its sour
To annoint the tension that tumbles within
The women that I felt that left the next morning
Ones that stayed and saved to keep the baby
Late night laughs injected with serotonin
Open homes when you're half way to crazy
We are poor people, but we'll always have each other
Pull our talent, and we'll always have a friend
An old friend said when the revolution happens
Will you rise or run, run, run...
Suddenly, the struggles for community unity becomes a struggle for personal sanity, or as that Group Home song once said, it makes one want to bust but you have to maintain, to try to keep head above water when its too easy to to damage to others or ones self. It's the reality of know what you have and doing the best with it, even if you seek for the betterment of others. Deetalx's production is worthy in itself, as the search for the light described in Nomi's lyrics is accurately analyzed and heightened by his music.
Nomi dedicates the album to all Filipino people in America and around the world, and says to the ones that have painted themselves any other color but their own in order to feel accepted, the door is always open for you to come back home. Hearts & Minds is an album about the soul of (a) people, the legacy of struggles from the homeland to new lands, and how power throughout the centuries have been misinterpreted by many as greed, when at times it's anything but. Those who have been silenced or ignored are often the ones with the loudest voices, and as a wordsmith Nomi is someone who speaks with volume, in volumes, in the same way Wise Intelligent, Chuck D., Brother J, KRS-One, and Gift Of Gab have done.
(Hearts & Minds is available from CDBaby.)
How about this to promote yourself as an MC, to say that you are about to embark on your career by bringing your life experience, truth, emotion, and fun to music? How many rappers of the last 15 years can admit to not only saying this, but actually doing it? Very few. For some, life experience means "keeping it real", which is a part of being truthful, although the best storytellers are the ones who not only tell stories, but tell tales. Emotion, it seems anytime someone puts themselves into their music, it's seen as soft or "anything other than". Fun? Oh, that must mean the guy is group is a joke, right, because you can't keep it real if you're actually throwing jokes and making fun of yourself? Holy shit, what are people going to think of me? Cire Mayo is that guy who is admitting he can be truthful, fun, and still shed light on the life he has lived so far, without regret or a need to alter his delivery sound. The Succession (Listen Recovery) is very much the next level of hip-hop, specifically NYC hip-hop, which the moral hip-hop majority would like to say is dead and almost non-existent. Yet when you hear "Survive", you hear the kind of drum machines, piano, and synths that may bring to mind the classic sounds of Mobb Deep, Nas and Fat Joe, and I'm talking bloody chainsaw-era Fat Joe.
What Cire Mayo does with it is bring everyone from the past into the picture, and let's everyone know that despite a bit of fear, just hand me the mic and I will get live, which he does for the duration of the album's 14 songs. While raised in California, Cire's flows goes back to the days of Freestyle Fellowship and Pharcyde where you showed respect for the East but spoke with a West Coast outlook. He handles the street level rhymes without fear or flaws, and yet knows how to offer up something with a touch of soul, as he does with "You Keep Tellin' Me", Add to that the fact that he has a major hand in the production, and you have someone who literally knows his music inside and out, and how to make it sound good. In "Thank You", he acknowledges the good and bad things in his life, those who made him the person and MC he is today:
My family, my enemies, those who feed off my positive energy
For saving my life when they were shooting, for each and everyone of you I'm rooting
Whether or not we on the same page, I'm thankful for everyone who rocks the stage
For those who came before me, for the ability to lyrically express my story
I'm thankful for J-Wiz, I'm thankful for parents who took the time to raise their kids
Thankful for hope and change, and when I don't have a dollar I still got some change
It's something you don't hear in a marketplace where everyone is drunk and getting lost in the club, Cire basically says there is life out there and life is meant for living. There's a time and place for fun, and he talks about that too, but it seems he knows his position in life and wants to be able to be effective without wasting too much time. The Succession is more than just an effective title, it's an honest statement on what he is doing as the torch is passed on to him, acknowledgement of the continuation of rap music as an artform through his perspective.
(The Succession is available from CDBaby.)
8bit electronic music has not swept the world over just yet, but Pixelh8 continues on with his cool lo-fi upgrades with a brand new album, The Boy With The Digital Heart (Hidden Youth). As he did with previous work, Pixelh8 takes all of those great sounds from 8bit video games and rather than just place well worn drum loops over video game themes, he takes those sounds and creates brand new songs, and the end result is beyond what anyone could imagine. In songs like "Meet Me In The Arcade", "We Cna All See Rainbows", and "Chocolate Milk", it's as if we entered 1985 instead of 2008, and those familiar sounds are flipped and turned inside out for modern day madness.
On one hand, they sound like long lost video games from dreams long gone. On the other hand, those 8bit sounds continue to show its influence in modern day hip-hop and electronic music, partly because those Japanese programmers knew what they were doing way back when. Now, that technology can be created and recreated into new and interesting things, and Pixehl8 is an artist who proves you can make new from the old and still have it sound like the future.
(The Boy With The Digital Heart is available from CDBaby.)
The title of Marys Brother's album is Basic Circuitry, and the cover art features a legend about what the album is about ("basic circuitry from the vacuum tube to electric control circuits, including instructive experiments"). What is it about? It's about using electronics and using the best of the old and the new to create the electronic equivalent of a beat tape. It sounds like one of those long lost electronic albums of the late 70's and early 80's, with occasional hints of distorted beats and "found sound" thrown in for color and atmosphere. You could nod your head and gyrate to it, and perhaps it's best to do so, but this is one of those albums that you want to concentrate on in order for you to take it all in.
Marys Brother is the creation of Peter Bartlein, and one can tell he put a lot of hard work and determination into creating this. With a total of 24 tracks, Basic Circuitry is the ingredient book for what can make a quality album, an electronic music album with depth and composition. "Robot Says What?" is a song that should get a lot of exposure, with its unique textures and voices before it moves into a pulsating groove and synth melody and a bit of that fwack with that metallic high end that might make all b-boys and b-girls twitch with delight. There's a moment in the song that sounds a bit like hearing raindrops underwater, which might sound impossible but not when it comes to audio composition. It then moves into "Doppler Shift", and a shift it is as you hear voices communication backwards in the evening as water and sounds from the Middle East come in, perhaps a war time melody, or maybe... a war crime melody.
The main thing about the album is that it sounds fun, creative fun at that, one that isn't just thrown out there for the hell of it. There's a lot of nuggets and nugetre worth holding on to and peeling to reveal more juicy morsels, and perhaps with a bit of movement on your part you could continue on with the circuitry he has installed. Creative fun at that.
(Basic Circuitry is available from CDBaby.)
Who would think up a name like Lips & Ribs, and in truth, what does that exactly mean? With the Pacific Northwest you never know, especially with you see a cover of detached animal heads playced on hunky, oil bodybuilders. Is the musical muscle that masculine, or is it just someone fucking with your head? Perhaps the latter, but that's good.
Call it elaborate electroniic hijinx, but if the title of Battle In Nagoya (self-released) sounds like an obscure Neo-Geo video game, then imagine if that video game had a soundtrack. This would be it, where things sound like one adventure leading into the next. But unlike some video game music, this has more of a human side which helps give this music its soul. You want to master each and every pattern in order to find new doors, in the hopes that a new adventure will lead to new music, and Lips & Ribs do just that. I wonder if they are able to enhance this further in a live setting. If this was something edible, this would be nuts.
(Battle In Nagoya is available from CDBaby.)
For those who think rock is making a comeback, I salute you. Crispy and crungry aggressive rock has never left us, but one listen to the radio (that is for those who dare peak into the wasteland of the audio airwaves) and one wonders what kind of hellish world this is, with alleged rappers and celebrity "singers" making people believe that this is what good music is. Let's move to another spectrum. Imagine if Robert Smith of The Cure was the singer for The Buzzcocks, with oceans of distorted guitar clogging up the aural arteries. This is the brutal strength of Built By Snow's brand of pop punk, one that doesn't come off fake or lame, as they show on their self-titled 7-song EP, Noise.
These guys do not sound like Nirvana, I want to say this right now, but what Nirvana did was spawn a lot of stupid bands who looked for them for fashion tips and heard their music as a way to be cool. Built By Snow's attitude on this EP show that it's not about cool, but rather about putting out some incredible music with a lot of passion without having to cater to the lowest common denominator. Considering how the industry game is a free for all, anything and everything is up for grabs, and what this band can grab for is a chance to be heard with their style of intense music that is up there with the likes of The Hives. It's ballsy, and while it might be a cliche in today's odd marketplace, it seems balls are necessary in 2008. Get to kicking.
(Noise is available from CDBaby.)
Hunters, Run! have been around for awhile, and their new album, Forgotten Souvenirs Of The Modern Age (Battle Standard Recordings) is a nice mixture of pop punk, with the vengeance needed and a lot of pop craft that makes it accessible.
It has a good edge to it, with vocals that will bring to mind the best of Social Distortion, Husker Du, and to some degree Scream. But other than it being accessible and good, there wasn't much I could grab onto. The title track and "War During Lifetime" were alright, but things started to get a bit boring by the second half of the album, and I ran out of a need to hear more (although I did). I think the vocals were just "eh", while the music is the reason you want to become a believer. Maybe they should become 65daysofstatic and just do instrumentals.
(Forgotten Souvenirs Of The Modern Age is available from .)
I'm all about exploring the different worlds of jazz, and I enjoy it when someone takes it into their hands and comes up with something of value to me. I had a lot of hope for One Love (Flat Nine) by Taeko, a vocalist born and raised just outside of Kyoto, Japan and now living in the United States. I like her choice of songs and her passion to sing, but her accent is quite strong and at times it gets in the way of these songs. I'm talking about songs like "Dindi", "Trav'lin Light", "People Make The World Go Round" (done in a unique arrangement), and "It Could Happen To You", all of which has been a number of times by people over the years, but they lack the kind of power that these songs deserves. It's not the voice, I like the voice a lot, but I'd like to hear her more refined.
Accents are normally not an issue, and perhaps if she had did these songs in Japanese I would have preferred them. She's no Monday Michiru or bird, that's for sure, but she does have something. I'd like to hear her again in a year or two, and perhaps that bit of something will come to the surface.
(One Love is available from CDBaby.)
The album cover is simple: an illustration of Richard Boulger playing the trumpet as his melodies become a part of the air, creating smoke within the city's skyscrapers, eyes shut and totally into what he's playing, all in shades of blue. It's simple, low key even, but after playing "The Eternal One", the song which opens Boulger's Blues Twilight (b-1 music), you may find yourself with your eyes closed and coming up with incredible visions for his music.
One of his biggest influences on the trumpet is jazz legend Freddie Hubbard, and on the cover he says that he is very happy and honored to be a witness to a great trumpet player, and while that might seem like one buddy trying to help another, there's truth in being a witness to something great. Boulger's playing goes back to when jazz felt revolutionary, when players were going to war not with each other, but for the sake of keeping jazz music alive, that late 60's Blue Note vibe, or the kind of excitement Cannonball Adderley was presenting on his early 70's Capitol sides, but on the sax. What I hear is a musician who is easily one of the best trumpet players around, where you feel each emotion he plays and you want to go with him for the duration, especially in tracks like "For Souls Past", "Miss Sarah", and "Perceptions". This isn't smooth jazz, thank you, but rather someone who loves what he plays, the music he plays, and being able to do that with an incredible set of musicians, for this album they include Victor Jones (drums), Dennis Irwin (bass), David Schnitter (tenor and soprano saxes), Anthony Wonsey (piano), Kris Jensen (tenor sax, flute), and John Hicks (piano). There's a togetherness with these songs and how they are played, and how they relate to each other, how it all vibes the right way with Boulger edging each of them on and in turn they help him to get to where he need to be with each song. What also makes this album work extremely well is the engineering from John Roper, and by Boulger producing the sessions he was able to accurately put together the kind of music he hears and wants to display for everyone else to listen to. Much credit goes to Roper for his sharp ear and knowing how to place everything in the studio to create the kind of recording that should be submitted for a Grammy nomination next year, it is that good
Mr. Hubbard calls Mr. Boulger's album "truly inspirational", and Boulger learned from the best. He takes on the lessons and craft that Hubbard taught him, and with the confidence in his playing, moves forward without waiting for a signal to go. Boulger has been on his way, keep an ear out for this guy or you'll miss great jazz for this generation.
(Blues Twilight is available from CDBaby.)