Aloha, and welcome to the 201st edition of The Run-Off Groove. John Book is the author of what you are reading, so please make yourself at home but make sure to put your soda cans or bottles in the recycle bin. Thanks. Last week I celebrated my 200th column... by myself. Yeah, in the words of Cappadonna it was a by-myself-meeting, but not that kind of meeting if you know what I mean. For those who are confused and have no idea what I mean, you're thinking "how come John always has to start off his columns with some kind of baggage that I don't even care about? I'm not going to be tested, so why do I have to make the..."
You know what, bra? You want the column? Column it is. 201, let's go.
Anytime The Roots release a new album, it leads to heavy discussion among fans and haters who are ready to bash anything and everything the group releases. Let me begin by saying this: Rising Down (Def Jam) is a different album by The Roots. I mean different in the sense that it's not Do You Want More?!!!?!?, Things Fall Apart, Phrenology, The Tipping Point, or Game Theory. This is a completely different beast, and if you're someone who has figured out The Roots plan of execution, then you might say that this should be their "off" album, the one where it's less about what the fans think and more about what they wanted to do at the time.
If you listen to the songs casually, the musical pace goes all over the place, to the point where it's a bit scatterbrain. This pace is deliberate and perhaps it's a response to not only what hip-hop is today, but how the world is. A lot of different influences and elements are around us, and it's hard to figure out what's right or wrong, good or bad, and it always seems that the bad or crap finds its way to the surface. Or as the last jazz musician Artie Shaw once said: "No matter how carefully and assiduously and how deeply you bury shit, the American public will find it and buy it in large quantity." Like Spongebob Squarepants and humans who dress up just like him, The Roots have been on a mission. Even if the word "integrity" seems to be almost (keyword: "almost") out of style, if not non-existent, the group are here for hip-hop, or as Common puts it so well in "The Show":
I remember the show, like Doug E., where people quiet was ugly
Yellin' "get money", now we showin' we dummy
Still doin' shows where the spots be bummin'
Roaches in the dressing room, I'm thinking of a better room
Maybe the upper, where my people won't suffer
The leather gets tougher, we drive like a trucker through the night
For every wrong, making two rights
And use mics to reach new heights, the blue lights
Follow, I guess it's the cit' of Chicago
That make me want to mess with my tomorrow
In these borrowed days, the rhyme and the mind that pays
The world is a show, you define your stage
1, 2, it's live so you can't undo
No sleep, 'cause then your dreams won't come true
And everyone's like a bra that we run through
Each venue, this ain't go stop so we just go continue
Every song on the album does not sound like what came before, and at times it seems songs end abruptly or too early. The song titles give slight hints over the subject matter: "I Can't Help It", "I Will Not Apologize", "Singing Man", "Unwritten", "Lost Desire". The album itself begins with a phone conversation with members of the group that leads to a huge argument about how their careers up to 1994, and the fact that Love?uest allowed anyone outside of their circle to hear this is amazing. This is the kind of private moment that most people should never hear, and as cryptic as ?uest can be in his writings, this is probably the most revealing he has been (at least on an album). It could be the hip-hop equivalent of that infamous Troggs tape, and maybe it also represents how strongly people are either talking about, defending, or complaining about today's hip-hop. Everyone yelling and no one really making a point, it's just volume for the sake of being loud. On the lyrical side, this is easily some of Black Thought's best work, not only lyrically but one can sense sentence and verse structure, along with how he plays with words and lines, it's not just rhyme after rhyme after rhyme. Even when he and the others on the album are playing around and slyly mocking the current state of rap music, he does so in a manner that you know he's poking people in the eye but they don't know it yet. Listeners will think "yeah, he's conforming" but he's not. Far from it. His words are biblical scriptures in the vein of Rakim, and spoken like the guy downtown who has the loudest voice speaking what he believes in, and Black Thought speaks what he believes, whether it's condemning everything that everyone else condemns ("75 Bars") or putting your fist up in the air for a bit of self-pride ("Get Busy").
There are stories of failure and disappointments here, but not in an obvious manner. With help from Common, Dice Raw, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Peedi Peedi, Truck North, Porn, and the almighty return of Malik B., it sounds like nothing more than a group of friends shooting the shit in a basement, sharing their hopes and dreams, likes and dislikes, it truly goes back to the metaphorical roots of things when rap music was simply a dialogue amongst your main man down the street and the cool ladies you like to talk with at the corner store. It truly has that feel to it, but not an old school feel. People for the last year are quick to talk about how hip-hop is dead. Rising Down's world seems to take place in the future when hip-hop has long been forgotten, only the diehards shine a light to it like 65 year old kids dusting off their 45's one last time for the doo-wop reunion show at the local high school. If we are truly beyond the tipping point, if we have figured out the game theory, then this album is a display of the rise and fall. The album's first true song is the title track, but the last song is "Rising Up". Just like Game Theory, there is a bit of optimism if you stick to those hopes and dreams, and they do so with Wale and Chrisette Michele. The mood of the song sounds like one you'd hear at the family picnic, and in this case it sounds like an ode to the go-go of D.C., but if you listen to the drums and percussion real good it's as if ?uest is trying to create a bell-less (or muted) "Mardi Gras". Maybe it's just me.
Inbetween the fall and its eventual rise is the discussion about where it's been, where it is now, and what's to come. As Pink Floyd once said, "everything under the sun is in tune/but the sun is eclipse by the moon", and it seems The Roots are certain that this music and community is looking at the eclipse. Rising Down perhaps represents waiting impatiently for the sunless Saturdays to disappear, thus making this the perfect Sunday morning album. E ku'u morning dew.
(Rising Down is available from CD Universe.)
When it comes to punk and hardcore, fans hold true to their favorite bands and albums for life. A group can split up and become prog rock, one of them may join a cult or have a sex change, but 15 to 20 years later someone will say "oh, I remember when I was bloated at Willie's practice shed. That band ROCKED!" That's the power of punk, and there is still a punk community that could care less about appropriated T-shirts on sale at Target right now. It wasn't even about a dream or big arena and massive success. It was about coming out with a 7" record to sell a few copies at shows, maybe silk screen T-shirts so you can earn enough to split amongst the band so you can each buy yourselves a Filet-O-Fish and maybe, just maybe, have change to buy a 6-pack of your favorite local brew.
Bum Kon out of Denver probably had that outlook, like every other local punk band: make a record, create a bit of organized chaos during shows, get drunk (unless you're Straight Edge) and then do it all over again. Drunken Sex Sucks Drunken Sex Sucks (Smooch/MaximumRockNRoll) consists of music from their first and only 7" record, and for years fans had to deal with that. But during the sessions that produced the record, they recorded a lot of songs that were meant for an album but the group split up before that ever happened. The photos of the band inside the CD booklet is like countless other punk bands across the U.S. and the world: playing in the basement, a VFW Hall, or any place that was willing to open a small room to a bunch of punks for a few hundred dollars ("just as long as you clean up and don't damage shit"). Like a number of hardcore bands, Bum Kon were good and anyone who is into short and bitter songs about getting drunk, lack of money, no job, boredom, fear of being drafted (it was the Reagan-era, after all), and also having a sense of humor will love this stuff. It sounds local, but anyone can appreciate the power, anger, and alleged disgust over anything and everything. It wasn't just playing loud, distorted guitars over fast rhythms, but maybe that's all it was, a complete "fuck you" attitude and being able to play and be coherent also helps too. With songs like "Gay Rodeo", "Reagan Sucks", "Nancy Reagan Fashion Show", "and "Wasted Mind", they were going to say what was on their minds and not care what anyone thought, because their community of friends either agreed with them or were open to listening to new ideas.
Even as someone who hasn't been involved in my local punk scene for years, I still can feel the energy Bum Kon were trying to create. The Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, and Black Flag were bands that were more than just rebellious music, it was a way to find people who were like you and in time a way to find yourself. This was music you had to seek yourself, it wasn't going to be at the mall or even at your local head shop, you had to really want music like this, and this album is a document of a group that was and one that Colorado punks will always remember. Had the music on this album been released in 1983, it probably would have been on a number of best of lists.
(On a side note, one of the members of Bum Kon would eventually move on to another band I was a huge fan of, Duh, who were also label mates with fellow Donut heads Warlock Pinchers (check your Boner Records discography, folks). On top of that, some of the photos inside the booklet were taken by Patrick Barber, who was once in a great band called Expatriate and would eventually move to Seattle and get involved with the music scene as a journalist, artist, and founder of a few record labels, including Apraxia Records, a label that would feature a Crut album in their discography. He was also the art director for a publication I also wrote for, the late but great The Rocket. I could also talk about a great band called Stymie but I've gone beyond my boundary.)
(Drunken Sex Sucks is available directly from Smooch Records.)
The hype machine says that Everything Is Alive (Lujo) by Pomegranates is "experimental pop", but it depends on what experimental means to you. Originally I thought the band were lead by a female vocalist and was ready to say that the group were able to combine abrasive playing with a bit of a feminine touch, but right there that sounds corny. Then I looked at the liner notes and noticed there were no ladies in this group. I thus freak.
It's not really experimental or really adventurous, but what it is (at least to my ears) is crafty. Before "alternative" music became "alternative", some would call it college music, something a bit more grown-up than the usual b.s. one would hear on the radio but filled with the kind of adventure and musicality one would expect as you were making "next level" moves. To me they sound like all of the bands today's hip groups are trying to be, but unfiltered, with bits of The Buzzcocks, Treepeople and Let's Active. The guitar sound can be boxey at times but that's enough to pull me in and listen for the duration, especially with such powerhouses as "Late Night Television", "The Uncanny Terrace Treeclimber", and "Whom/Who" (free MP3). If you give this a casual listen, you might miss all the little things this group squeeze in to ever second of their collective being. Very digable.
(Everything Is Alive will be available directly from Lujo Records.)
It's great to look at an album cover, see the band name and wonder "what the hell is this?" Some might say it will lead to "I hope this rocks" but that has been happening since the dawn of (name band here). I'm looking at the cover of Deliver This Creature (El Marko) by a group calling themselves mr. Gnome and I have no idea what I'm going to get into. Their bio rattles off some of the genres they include in their music, but I stop there, I don't want to know anymore, but I'm warmed up to expect a bit of everything. The album begins with an electric guitar, and at the 9 second mark I'm hearing the faint voice of a lady. It's dreamy, like Norah Jones with a babydoll dress, and at this stage I'm not sure what to expect. At the 46 second point the guitars are driven up and I immediately think of Polly Jean Harvey. The execution and balance between the fine and the rugged is met, but then at the 1:28 point I hear a Bjork-ish or Alanis Morisette-like wail. It rocks, and I love the start-stop-start vamps midway into the song. There are a few psychedelic drones, as if someone is turning the crank by hand and delivering the audio seeds to be planted in the mind, and one wants to just create Satanic hand gestures and rock almighty. Then things get interesting.
Vocalist/guitarist Nicole Barille has the kind of voice that might seem unusual at first, but give it a few listens and eventually you'll warm up to her style of singing. It's not just gentle whispers, because the moment you expect her to stay calm she'll scream, curdle, and puke out each word. With lyrics such as rabbit lives up in my head/wake to find that I've been dead/times it hops from side to side/times it picks a place to hide/rabbit seeping in my brain/wishing things would stay the same/slowly we become alive/me and rabbit now decide (from "Rabbit"), this is not something you are able to listen to one time and put away. Some songs are filled with metaphor and vivid imagery, but as is the case with "Silhouette", it's a song of love that doesn't need to get complex to make its point. Barille's lead vocals are not only impressive, but it's great when she multi-layers too, creating an incredible wall that might make people remember the strengthen and power that Siouxsie Sioux provides.
Drummer Sam Meister is her partner in crime, and with a group that's only two members, the focus is more direct. His drumming will be loved by anyone who loves a solid drum sound, the entire album is a drum fest and hearing just that and an electric guitar is a voyage back to the days of rocking out all alone in your bedroom. They do include a few other elements into their music, as Meister plays piano and brings in a few friends to add in different elements, but the sound of mr. Gnome is very much about the union between Meister and Barille. Some might immediately compare them to The White Stripes, and I think the openness of the music allows those comparisons to happen but their brand of gut-busting rock is their own, and there are thousands of duos out there who rock out with just guitar and drums. mr. Gnome just happen to have the chops, and well written songs that will keep people coming back for more. One of the more effective moments of the album happens in "Night Of The Crickets", where all you hear are the words "ding dong" repeated over and over. It becomes an instrument in itself, a meditative tool that helps drive the song's message home, even if its actual meaning may be the subject of discussion (is it really about nature and crickets, or something to do with human nature?)
Deliver This Creature is a creature indeed, but one that you want to take care of and bring to its proper destination. It's a very exciting album that brings to mind the greatness of what music can and should be today if you just put your mind to it, or make an effort to find something as moving as this.
(Deliver This Creature will be released on May 6th and will be available directly from El Marko Records.)
Bridges and Powerlines are a four man band who love their pop as much as their rock, and do it with a nod to the synth-happy new wave sound of the late 70's and early 80's, but with the guitar power of The Alarm. With Ghost Types (Citybird), these guys should be the soundtrack for anyone who looks forward to the future but are afraid to leave the innocence behind. In other words, it's youthful yet mature, these guys aren't about pulling pranks or being idiots in their music. The keyword in the previous sentence is "mature", for these guys have the kind of sensibility that belongs in bands who have been at it for ten years and going, or imagine Weezer if they didn't end up doing bullshit music like "Beverly Hills".
Bridges and Powerlines are a group for people who seek adventure in their music, those who want and demand forward movement. A lot of songs on this album are destined to be anthems, such as "The Golden Age" and perhaps it will represent those who will remember these years as their golden era.
(Ghost Types is available directly from Citybird Records. MP3's can be purchased through eMusic .)
There's a question that I want to bring up in this review: how come people hate 9th Wonder? Are people jealous because his productions are nice, simple yet effective? Because he adds in the kind of soul that, once again, shows what is lacking in today's so-called R&B? Or because his haters aren't working as hard as him?
You know what? 9th Wonder haters are going to be surfacing once again with the release of The Formula (Duck Down), which teams him up with Buckshot, known for years as the voice of Black Moon. Buckshot has never had a problem with dropping lyrics and wisdom, especially over obscure soul and funk tracks, so the union here is perfect from the start. Tracks like "Be Cool", "Just Display", and "Here We Go" are bangers from beginning to end, and on Buckshot's side he shows the continued growth in his writing and as for his rhyming style, he's older but still has the attitude and swagger that made him the man among his fans. Talib Kweli and Tyler Woods show up to help out in "Whassup With U?", but it's very much about 9th's beats and Buckshot's rhymes.
As much as I don't want to complain about a project like this, there's just something missing in this chemical equation. 9th's beats are as good as they always are, Buckshot shows once again why he is a hip-hop legend, but there's no interactivity between the two. Buckshot will drop a verse, and then you'll hear a vocal sample as the chorus, but that's it, it feels empty. I would have done some turntable work or hired a DJ to do a bit of scratching, anything to fill the void that some of these songs have. Some of the beats themselves seem to lack a bit of low-end, I definitely hear the high-end. I state this because one listens to Buckshot's vocals and there's a bit of warmth in the tone, and when mixed with 9th's instrumentals it doesn't sound uniform. I would expect this from MP3's, but not something on compact disc.
I'm not saying the album is a disaster, I'm nitpicking at the audio quality because I expect better from these two, especially in a collaborative effort. If you're a Buckshot fan, pick this up and buy doubles so you can give this to friends. 9th Wonder's beats I've never had a problem with, I always like what he puts into his craft, but the sound quality of the instrumentals is lacking the mmph that is evident in his previous work, be it Edgar Allen Floe, Braille, or even Little Brother. Hell, listen to his track on the new Erykah Badu; now that's quality, quality that pops up only here and there on The Formula.
(The Formula is available directly from Duckdown.com.)
Eliot Lipp's The Outside (Mush) is definitely music with access to the inside, and it's some pretty good electronica with an emphasis on melody and incredible basslines. In other words, these are fully developed songs and not synth blasts (although I like that too).
There are a few things this album reminds me of. Some of the songs sound like early to mid-80's soundtrack albums, a mixture between Harold Faltermeyer and Paul Hardcastle. Whereas their sounds may have been incidental, Lipp's music takes a lead and keeps on running without stopping, as if Giorgio Moroder went into the studio with these guys and said "we need to take it this way". You can hear some of these influences in the title track, where one can almost visualize movie credits and a scene of someone being arrested for wanting to bring on some Turkish hashish onto a plane.
Other times, these songs sound like enhanced 8-bit productions. When I say enhanced, what I mean is if Prince was playing with NES, VIC 20, and a Gameboy instead of proper synths, but still had that same level of soulfulness, it probably would sound a lot like Eliot Lipp, who seems to take the lo-fi sound and brings it to the next level. It's great when he adds in a bit of techno and hip-hop influences, "The Machine And The Wind" grooves on a down tempo vibe as distant Malcolm McLaren chops and slices are placed over a synthesized orchestra. Imagine China-era Art Of Noise with ZTT-era Aon and you get a sense of one of his styles. "Beyond The City" could easily be mistaken for something off of Moby's new album, same can be said for "See What It's About", which is a well known break treated with the kind of keyboard work that Monk Hughes or Malik Flowers would be proud to jam over.
The Outside has a feel that's not unlike some of Money Mark's early solo work, where the songs were done with a plan in mind or on the spot, all with a spirit that simply says "this is my music and this is what I love to do, take it or leave it." Whether he continues on with solo projects or moves on to collaborate with others, I can see this guy becoming an influence for the next generation of music creators.
(The Outside is available from CD Universe.)
Streetlight Music (Granola Funk is album #4 from Foul Mouth Jerk, a rapper out of North Carolina (Asheville to be exact) who shows he has the skills that are comparable to many of his contemporaries. The album has a nice NY hip-hop feel to it, and that comes through this guy's love of not only running his voice to the mic, but a true love for rhyming, and it's nice to hear it. He has a number of people rhyming on the album with him, including MURS, El Da Sensei, Breeze Evaflowin, and Masta Ace, who can be heard in Smalltown USA (free MP3 download), but it's Foul Mouth Jerk is the center of attention as he speaks about being the authority, the core, the main reason you buy his albums in the first place. It's a solid CD from start to finish, recorded and mixed very well, and it's worthy of being placed in any hip-hop collection.
(Streetlight Music is available directly from the official Foul Mouth Jerk MySpace page.)
The last we heard from Grant Peeples, he showed off his brand of Americana with a political bite yet with a sense of humor that showed a bit of optimism. On It's Later Than You Think (self-released), a lot has changed in his world, and in truth our world, for the optimistic fellow of a few years ago now sees the world differently, or perhaps the world has changed so much that we now have to reprogram how to live and interact.
In "Sunshine State" (streaming MP3), a song that talks about (in the words of Homer Simpson) America's wang, Peeples talks about the pleasure of a place where everyone seems to escape, only because these days there's nowhere to go. He takes sarcastic pride in a state with a golf course for every man and woman, and of course everybody thought it was some kinda joke/when we said it ain't over till your brother counts the votes/but eight years later they're still blowing smoke/it's what you call a State Steal. "OD Holton, 1979" (streaming MP3) should be a fond look back at the good times, but instead Peeples looks at the Iranian hostage situation of 1979 as the beginning of the end, a pre-cursor to everything that is very much a part of our world today.
"Grant's Talkin' Blues" (streaming MP3) has him speaking as he plays his guitar, and it has him rattling off a few things that are on his mind, particularly the state of things in the United States and what might be contributing to its perceived downfall:
Hip-hop, NASCAR, American Idol
iPod's, porn stars and virtual battles
Immediate gratification hummed a collective groan
Promenading thru shopping malls while there was a war going on
We’d been duped and screwed by unscrupulous minions
Who gave away the store and stole the elections
They started that war under false pretenses
Then abandoned justice and those poor soldiers in the trenches
I was shocked to hear the hip-hop reference, especially when joined up with something as hideous as American Idol but one can see this as an outsider's view, but I had to figuratively step back and think. Hip-hop in 2008 is perceived as music that is nothing more than "immediate gratification", no one wants to dig deeper and find something better, of substance, even though it exists. Peeples doesn't bombard you with puzzles or complex metaphors, he's a realist and sees things as they are. One of the more darker songs is the opening track, "Pitiful Little Town" (streaming MP3), which touches on what many people across the U.S. feel as corporate businesses try to take over every piece of land in order to plug it up with another Wal-Mart and Walgreen's, getting rid of history, culture, and families who struggle to keep home in the heart, only to face the reality that nothing is affordable, and that nothing lasts forever.
If Dr. John played an acoustic guitar instead of playing the piano, he probably would be akin to Grant Peeples, someone who sings and plays with the kind of emotion that will make it feel as if he's writing about your experiences. Times are tough and It's Later Than You Think cuts to the chase by telling its listeners that it's too late, perhaps things are beyond repair. The human condition, for those who remember how to think without relying on an external hard drive, tells us there has to be better. This is a singer/songwriter whose work needs to be heard and with luck there will be people open enough to take his music and words to heart (for those who remember what the heart is.)
(It's Later Than You Think is available from CDBaby.)
I also review books and audio equipment. I'll also review soft drinks, why not? You can get in contact with me through my MySpace page.
The Crut MySpace page does feature songs from the past, plus a few recent projects. You can also purchase a number of MP3's through Snocap, so take a listen and show support. I'm also open to doing collaborations, and May will be the start of a few collaborations I hope will come to fruition. I could go on, but head on over to the page and be updated there.