Rap music comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors, we... let me rewind for a brief moment... most of us know this. To the non hip-hop listening public, the music is everything that is evil about the world. If people went out of their way to take the time to truly listen to the MC's, DJ's, and producers out there, they would realize that it's not as one-dimensional as they assume it is. Even if you are a longtime fan and or supporter, you're probably jaded and wonder if there's ever going to be something that will make you feel proud of the music again. If you are aware of the group Dumhi, you know that they are strong as a unit, and equally moving when handling their own projects and collaborations. Haj is a component of the Dumhi way of life, and his new project is an example of how to extend yourself to the old and the new while making it clear that you are into this music.
Yoga At Home, Volume 1 (Dumhi Productions) is an EP (8 vocalized tracks plus its instrumental counterpoints) compiled from the crates of Haj, complete with a meditation record used as the guide for the path he creates. It opens up with one of the most passionate hip-hop songs I've heard in quite a while, a collaboration with Sadat X that happens to be "The Yoga At Home Theme Song". I saw the name and I figured that he's going to drop some serious knowledge, as he always does. He does this, but instead it comes off like a diary entry no one is ever to post to know, it's so personal and revealing that it's hard to believe one would admit something to close to them in a public song. Sadat X talks about who he is not only as a rapper, but as a man of the world. His passage about how he was introduced to smoking weed from his dad is something you rarely, if ever, hear in any song, and one can almost visualize the passage of time and the passing of the torch from father to son, it's very moving and to have Haj bless the track in this manner is amazing.
Haj will hopefully move forward and continue to work with many MC's both old and new, but on this EP he gets a chance to work with Doap Nixon, Von Pea, Jermiside, Reef The Lost Cauze, Che Grand, Soulbrotha, Trek Life, Random and Kay of The Foundation. Each of them present themselves on the uphill slope in their game, they haven't reached the peak but what they're doing to get there will leave you wanting to get deep into their individual catalogs. They get serious, but it's still fun, and they all hold true to a party vibe that has become a part of the Dumhi philosophy. One can hear that Haj has the utmost respect for each of these rappers, and the rappers are showing respect for a producer who is gaining a following for his hard work and determination. The spoken meditation samples link the album together, and by taking in the breathing exercises, one will be able to reach hip-hop nirvana. Well, maybe there is no approachable peak but Haj too is on the uphill direction towards it and it's his commitment to the music that makes Yoga At Home a statement that all producers should take hints from.
(Yoga At Home, Volume 1 can be purchased directly from Haj via MySpace.)
The opening track, "Seconds Out", begins with a Latin vibe that might have paved the way for what to expect on Mosaic's Unsaid, Undone (Snack) but instead it's a brief taste of what one can find in their musical trick bag. This quintet (Mark Merella on drums, David Font on percussion, Larry Melton on bass, Matt Belzer on winds, and Ned Judy on keyboards) pay thrilling jazz that takes on the intensity of bebop, the best qualities of smoothed out jazz from the 70's, and other derivatives of jazz and turn it into something that is very much their moniker.
Their love of worldly sounds can be heard in each of the songs, and it's nice to hear them pushing each other with and within each song, the drive is there throughout. "Knew One", "Hikaru's Dance", and "Under The Sun" are each a display of fine musicianship, and even something as laid back as "Knew One" can be a thrill to listen to as it goes on. The reason why this music sounds almost perfect is due to the countless artists each musician has played with and/or backed up over the years, there is a sense of clarity and purpose. Yet with that clarity and purpose they open the door of opportunity and let things come as they may. Don't think of something as watered down as the Yellowjackets, think more along the lines of McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, or the late Michael Brecker. Their version of Wayne Shorter's "Sightseeing" does the song justice and even as it clocks in at close to ten minutes, it's still not enough. Everyone in Mosaic is so caught up with the song and with each other that it's obvious they were having an incredible time in the studio.
(Unsaid, Undone is available from CDBaby.)
D-Sisive is far from being a newbie, even though some hip-hop fans may not be familiar with him or his music. Hailing from Toronto, he has been doing his thing for over ten years and has gained a respectable buzz for his brand of hip-hop. If it's a genuine sense of artistry that you seek, you're going to find it on his new EP The Book (Urbnet). The guy has a keen sense of writing and knows how to get it across by putting it across over tight knit instrumentals. He speaks to his spiritual guide ("Up"), geniuses ("Brian Wilson"), and isn't afraid to poke fun at himself and others who still view hip-hop by caucasians as one-dimensional ("ThisIsWhatItSoundsLikeWhenWhiteboysListenToHipHop"). He packs a lot of emotional punch in his songs but he's not what one would call an emo-rapper (whatever that means), instead you have someone who has mastered his craft of storytelling to get him to the level he's at now. If pushed to a corner, he'll make it out and represent himself and the music with the kind of respect fake MC's dream of having.
As an EP, it's a mini-dose of the goodness that D-Sisive is capable of supplying. A number of artists on the indie side have been flriting with the EP format with great results (Coolzey is a perfect example), and he is able to pull out as much as possible while making listeners want and demand more. They'll get more... next time.
(The Book is available from URBNET Records.)
Can pop music be anymore "crafty"? I tend to use that word a lot when I hear something that sounds clever, enough to where I feel the artist is trying to do something that is different from everyone else trying to satisfy their pop music needs. What exactly does "clever" mean in terms of music? To me it means smart, something done with thought and intelligence, it's not just the passing of a template. Crafty and clever are words I can use for The Campbell Apartment, a trio who have the best elements of Weezer and Foo Fighters (and maybe a bit of Built To Spill) and purposely bring fans into their world to enjoy. Insomniac's Almanac (Blacktop) is an album full of short but wonderful stories about friends who are in our systems ("DNA"), enough to where our eyes are red and sore ("Addicted To MySpace"), and feeling that perhaps love needs to be a bit more intimate ("Long Distance Relationship (Is A Four Letter Word)").
"St. Louis" is the kind of love song whose references are probably obscure to a lot of people, but the sentiment and slight cliches are fitting and it helps establish Ari Vais (vocals, guitars, keyboards), Dan Haag (bass, vocals), and Dave Harman (drums, vocals) as musicians who know how to reach peaks and valleys with their music. When it comes to good pop and rock'n'roll, eventually it leads to a mention of The Beatles but in their case they seem to capture more of Paul McCartney's spirit of the 1970's than anything the fab four made. What I also liked is how songs that were less than two minutes aren't mere interludes, but are brief songs that are a part of the album's full program and are meant to be consumed as such.
By calling The Campbell Apartment crafty and clever, does that mean they're too smart to receive radio airplay? Not at all, in fact have you listened to the radio lately? It needs more original bands like The Campbell Apartment, whose album could be this decade's Rumours if they wanted it to be. Instead I think they're happy with it being this generation's Insomniac's Almanac and are willing to take it as far as they can (and I hope they do).
(Insomniac's Almanac is available through CDBaby.)
Restiform Bodies are a part of the Anticon collective, and as with anything they've released over the years, the music is unpredictable, as it should be. You may know Bomarr Monk and Telephone Jim Jesus and in fact you may very well know Restiform Bodies, but even if you memorized everything they've done, it still doesn't begin to describe the sheer power of TV Loves You Back (Anticon).
In this case, their mixture of hip-hop, pop, rock, soul, and electronic music, along with a fearless need to take things to unknown regions makes the album a mandatory listen. While they sound nothing like them, the variety they bring into their music is not unlike cLOUDDEAD or Reaching Quiet. It would be easy to say "hip-hop is their core" but when you listen to "Consumer Culture Wave" it's the furthest thing from hip-hop. Or perhaps it's more hip-hop than you think. The swagger is very much there, but it's like someone injecting viruses and cures in one's pores, resulting in mean ticks and twitches, each one different from the previous one. To the outsider, their music may sound like twisted puzzles that need a bit of deciphering to figure out, but the abstract qualities that may bring the listener in will result in something that has more style than something that proclaims it has style. "Bobby Trendy Addendum" has the same kind of flavor one would normally expect from a Lil' Wayne or Clipse track, and yet whether you call it a need to not mock or a passion to present themselves as funky music loving geeks, you're hearing something that you're either going to get or scratch your head wondering "what's the deal?" It's random sounds and influences coming in from all directions, creating the kind of music they love. It's Restiform Bodies, and it's probably better than what you listened to on your way to work.
(TV Loves You Back will be released on September 30th and will be available directly from Anticon.com.)
Oldmanwinter is a decent name for a band, funny even, but that's the only thing I found decent about their album An Artic Circle (Headphone Treats.)
They are an indie rock band with good songs, but they didn't do anything for me that would make me want to listen to their interpretations many times over.
They do their sing, move into the chorus, sing la-di da-di da over and over, and that was it.
That's not to say that it's all bad, but again I could not find myself wanting to enjoy this for long durations.
In fact, as you can tell I am trying to make this review longer by turning each sentence into separate paragraphs.
Even that is not working for me.
(An Artic Circle is available through CDBaby.)
Open up the Sunday newspaper and you might believe that Avril Lavigne is actually a punk princess. Even she knows she isn't, so fuck her and the doughnut box she brought in. If you want some decent punk rock, seek out Balls (Chicken Ranch), the new album by a band who are proud to be named Yuppie Pricks.
The group take a bit of the Dead Kennedy's prowess with slivers of The Dehumanizers to offer a ruthless collection of I-don't-really-give-a-fuck songs. On the surface, it seems that while a lot of bands are trying to take the best of what the 80's may have offered, Yuppie Pricks poke fun at the excess of the decade and go back and discover why punk bands were doing the kind of music they were doing in the first place.
Some punk purists may not like their melodic sense, because "Fraternity Days" could easily become an anthem in the next Seth Rogen movie, but even Rogen would probably want to salute songs like "Fuck You, I'm Rich", "Donkey SHow", and "PRICK4LIFE". The band hold up and deliver those riffs with strength, and they do it while not taking themselves too seriously. Makes one wish Avril Lavigne was this good. Then again on second thought...
(Balls is available directly from Chicken Ranch Records.)
I've been amazed at what the Labeless Illtelligence crew have done in the last few years, be it Cas Uno, Ams Uno, The If?, or Vocab. They represent themselves in a manner that demands to be heard, absorbed, and appreciated, and they have found someone who takes that type of commitment.
He goes by the name of Esh The Monolith, and he wants to fuck up the notion of what an MC should or needs to be. The guy has lyrics for days, has the kind of flow that is neither annoying or boring, he knows how to battle your wit and win each and every time, and make you feel drained even if all you did was listen to his words. In "Stimulate" he tells people that he is not someone who is in this merely to copy the next man, it's about being original and defining your own career as an artist. In other tracks he explains the song in a very articulate manner, then blows up words, lines, and verses in front of you without caring for the damage caused. If you want someone as eccentric as the title of the album indicates, listen to "Anti Cymbal Monkey Movement" and hear him speaking about getting out of the basement, traveling to outer space and keeping you in a crazed daze of amazement (that's some strange shit). Esh doesn't float in the air all the time, most of it is very grounded but if you're not paying attention you'll find yourself starting the song again. The reason you'll want to listen to him closely is that he comes off with so many different references and sly jokes that you might think he's saying shit for the sake of saying shit. Once you figure out the method to his madness, you realize that he's less eccentric and more about being an original artist with a lot of ideas to share. He's funny when he wants to be, displays the smart ass role when he needs to, but Esh is truly someone who wasn't afraid to get to the other level of the game and find a home.
(The A.D.D.ventures Of An E.ccentric S.uper H.ero is available directly from Labeless Illtelligence.)
Dig deep into the reasons why a lot of today's music (arguably) sucks and it often leads to one factor: people aren't playing instruments anymore. One argument goes on to say that the only way you'll see and hear people playing instruments is at church, where the musicians of tomorrow are thrilling places of prayer. It comes as a surprise that the great people at Daptone Records are getting in touch with their gospel side. Any of us who are active record collectors know that there is a funky side to black gospel, especially on some of those obscure 45's we cherish so much. Perhaps it's not really a surprise, but then one listen to Como Now: The Voices Of Panola Co., Mississippi (Daptone) may make you move a few steps back for one big reason: it's fairly low-key compared to what they've released over the years.
Como Now takes the listener to Mt. Mariah Church for a spiritual (re)awakening, where gospel music has never left their minds and hearts. Even if you are not a religious person, you can't help but admire their devotion upon hearing tracks like "Jesus Builds A Fence Around Me" (as performed by Della Daniels and Ester Mae Smith), "I Cant' Afford To Let My Saviour Down" (Rev. Robert Walker), "Somebody Here Needs You Lord" (Mary Moore). These songs are immediate, it doesn't hide any emotion whatsoever, you are hearing the voices, the joy and pain from those who simply want to live peacefully in a world that can often feel like a haven of confusion. With all of these songs recorded in a church, it still feels like those independent 45's and LP's one can find at any thrift store in any town or city, complete with the feel of analog. Regardless of the recording techniques, it's an album that shows perhaps what is truly missing in a lot of today's music. It's not just the spiritual side, but there's a certain sense of power in the music that seems to be fading away (at least in a mainstream sense) and it takes a small church in a small town in Mississippi to prove that you don't have to be affected in order to make effective music.
(Como Now will be released on August 19th and can be pre-ordered directly from Daptone Records.)
Singer/songwriters are in dire need these days, or at least the ones that should be heard aren't. Aviary Ghost are a duo who create the kind of masterful pop that makes you wish Coldplay were not doing as well as they are. Memory Is A Hallway is a somewhat genteel piece of work that you immediately want to take on and share with everyone (in a legitimate sense). Imagine a low-key Tears For Fears with a bit of toad the wet sprocket and you have a hint of the great melange that you hear on this album. "The Hollow" is one of my favorite songs on here, beginning with a mid-tempo pace before switching immediately into a different vibe and carrying itself as if you were supposed to know that. There are a lot of unexpected and pleasant turns on this album, and I found myself caught in their amazing labryinth of fun. Wow!
(Memory Is A Hallway is available from CDBaby.)
For whatever reason I thought of The Police and Jane's Addiction when I first heard System and Station, but when one considers their Idaho roots (they're now based in Portland) it's understandable. Indie rock comes in a lot of varieties, and one wants to expect music that rips you in your face without an apology. A Nation Of Actors (Latest Flame) has the right kind of velocity to kick you right in the schnitts while taking their cues from some of the great rock, punk, and indie bands of the past.
It seems these guys have been moving themselves into more of a melodic vibe, although there is an obvious abrasiveness that will keep people there throughout the duration of the album. It was also recorded very well by none other than Larry Crane at Jackpot! Studios in Portland, some of you studioheads will know him as the founder of the great Tape Op magazine. He was able to get a great sound from the band and on the recording, anyone who is a bit familiar with Crane but wasn't sure where to start, begin here. Great songwriting, very good musicianship, and tight songs that you'll want to remember, that's what A Nation of Actors is all about. I dare you to find something just as good.
(A Nation Of Actors will be released on CD on August 19th, and on vinyl on September 30th. For more information, head over to Latest Flame Records.)
With a name like Funky Mustard I guess I expected something to be funky, on the one, with uncontrolled groove. With a title like Jazza Mostaza (Moosepie) I expected something jazzy, maybe something with a CTI-vibe circa 1974 or 1975. Instead what I got is a laid back instrumental band playing the kind of music one would expect to hear at a jam band festival, and that's not a bad thing at all.
They call themselves "alternative jazz" and I guess it depends on what perspective of "alternative" you take when listening to Funky Mustard. It's a bit more contemporary and rock/pop formatted than something typically jazz, but what would be considered "typical jazz" in 2008? Exactly. If Chicago (as in the band) were a young band making the rounds today and they didn't bother with singing, they probably would come up with the kind of music one hears here. The horn section is tight, the synthesizers are not too dominant (in fact I would say they are quite tasteful), and the organization/arrangements offer a chance for people to hear how in-tune they are with the music and with each other as musicians. "Technicolored" could easily be used as the background in a surfing or sailing movie, but this isn't Yacht Rock, nor is this free jazz or something too far from the norm. It's accessible, and yet you can quite pinpoint what it is that you like about them, but you do. I hope these guys will continue exploring as they are now. Fans of The Necks, The Strato Ensemble, and Supersilent will apppreciate their prowess.
(Jazza Mostaza is available from CDBaby.)
Bring in as many influences as you can but try not to make it sloppy or have it reach a level of dreck. Bark Hide and Horn aren't about the dreck, as they prove in National Road (Boy Hardy). This Portland, Oregon band seems to have done their share of thrifting and digging, for it feels like the kind of music one would create after absorbing a lot of different sounds (in this case from indie rock to blues and a bit of pop complete with celestial bells) and wanting to make it sound good. One might be taken aback at first with "This Abdomen Has Flown", with a bunch of white guys singing about being free from slavery, but as the song goes on you realize they're trying to touch on the corruption of slavery with various ethnic sounds thrown in the mix for good measure. "Treasure Of The Everglades" sounds like Jeff Tweedy if he had hung out with Harry Nilsson during the "Cats In The Cradle" sessions. The album goes all over the place and yet it's still cohesive, very well orchestrated and produced.
One source called the band folk rock, which I don't think is correct. They do play acoustic instruments but that doesn't necessarily make them folk. Instead what the band have done is to create a musical soundtrack for a travelogue of someone who wants to observe the world in his own unique way. Because of this, Bark Hide and Horn end up doing the same with their own music, and it may move audiences to travel along with them, not just for this album but for all future projects.
(National Road is available from CDBaby.)
...AND NOW, THE HAWAIIAN MUSIC CORNER
John Keawe, like a lot of musicians born and/or raised during the dawn of rock'n'roll, was someone who had rock'n'roll dreams. As a kid living on the Big Island, he eventually fell in love with the guitar and made a commitment to play the instrument. Life experiences lead him to want to learn the guitar style of his home, which is of course ki ho'alu, or slack key guitar. In time he would learn from the best and eventually develop a sound that would take him around the world and give him recognition. The release of Hawai'i Island... Is My Home (Homestead Productions) shows his love of ki ho'alu while showing that knack to try out unique arrangements in his instrumentals that are generally found on the more adventurous rock albums.
Five of the 13 tracks are vocalized by Keawe himself, with "Ku'u Hoa'aloha" talking about a special friend of his, while the title track is an endearing piece about the place he knows and love. On many slack key albums you often hear the guitarist go into a number of unique directions. Sometimes they'll play Hawaiian standards, other times they will play cover versions which reveal a bit about the kind of music that was a part of their upbringing. On this album, the instrumentals are Keawe originals and you get a sense that he not only knows how to play well, but also has a deep respect for the stories he is trying to express in the music, such as the anthemic "Faces Of Pele" or the innocence of "Keiki Time", which one can imagine hearing at any Hawaiian park on a Saturday afternoon at 4:30, where kids will play as hard as they can knowing that they only have about an hour or so left before mom calls you in for dinner. Or in this case, not even caring about time. "Safe Passage" could easily be for the worker hoping to get home on the freeway in one piece, or for the navigators of Polynesia who trusted the stars in the sky to get them from point A to point B. Or perhaps an instrumental guide for all of us, hoping we'll make it through in one piece. The beautiful "Pahinui" is in honor of the late and great Gabby Pahinui and for those who continue to remember his music and spirit, it's a song that will give you instant chicken skin with the right amount of sweet playing Pops and his sons are known for.
As with anything Hawaiian, these songs are much more than songs, but are a dialogue and a chart of our history, to mark down what has happened, what's happening, and what's to come. Sometimes the stories are hopeful, while others are subtle signs of things changing. The hope is that one will be able to carry these stories on to the next generation and the one after that, and help continue the passing of the torch. The album represents Keawe's home and roots, but for any of us who are kama'aina, it represents us as a whole and the roots we continue to hold on to even as times change and life goes on. Home indeed.
(Hawai'i Island...Is My Home is available directly from JohnKeawe.com.)
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