Saturday, December 24, 2005

more catch-up

Slim Thug, Already Platinum - There's rap artists that it's acceptable and common for white critics to treat as cross-over material and discuss extensively (e.g., this year, The Game - for his Dr. Dre pedigree, mostly - and Kanye West), who comprise a very small amount of the hip-hop released yearly in the US, and then there's everyone else. Unless you're, say, Kelefa Sanneh (who makes sure that the New York Times, of all sources, stays on top of the likes of D4L while ostensible music encyclopedia allmusic can't even be bothered to review their album), covering the vast number of unpedigreed, decidedly unlovable and frequently simple-minded rappers claiming the national scene for themselves proves beyond most mainstream publications.

Shed a tear, then, for Slim Thug's label debut. The title indicates that he peronally couldn't care less; the man's already been paid, as he often reiterates. Indeed, money is Slim's main theme, and he brings naked commercialism to the forefront in a way that few rappers can best for sheer, undisguised greed, and without any platitudes about supporting his block or the necessity of hustling either. "I got something on my neck worth more than yo house, I got something in my yard worth more than yo spouse," claims Slim on "I Ain't Heard Of That (Remix ft. Bun B)," which has to be one of the most awesome boasts of the year. The disk's other main motif is Slim's Houston pedigree, a great thing to have in the year when the scene - already familiar to me and thousands of other Texas kids (in Austin, on Hot 93.3, which did a pretty good job of playing regional artists) - suddenly blew up and gave Mike Jones, Lil' Flip, et al. the national spotlight. (Slim has beef with Flip, incidentally, but he's a far more accomplished rapper.)

Like most rap albums, Already Platinum is far too long and needs to be cut, especially because Slim's range (aptly summarized by as "the intertwined lyrical themes of I'm Awesome and I'm Rich, sometimes dipping into I'll Kill You or I Don't Care About Women") can be wearyingly small. Musically, Platinum is largely given over to typically weird beats from the Neptunes, who only connect with the rest of humanity about 1/3 of the time, plus some other remainders (including a bizarre Bootsy Collins tribute from Jazze Pha on "Everybody Loves A Pimp," all goofy vocal boasts and burbling bass). Guest spots are few, although there are repeated shout-outs to Pimp C (the other half of UGK, in jail for aggravated assault, although you'd never know that he'd committed any form of transgression from the repeated cries of "Free Pimp C!") and a welcome visit from the South's most charismatic representative, T.I. (Inevitably, Thug's posse - Boyz N Blue - make an appearance, with promises of a group album to come.) When this album gets its swagger on (as in the killer back-to-back coupling of "I Ain't Heard Of That" and "Click Clack"), there's little from 2005 that's more fun.

Richard Hawley, Coles Corner - Ho-hum, another accomplished album by a polished singer-songwriter who can do shuffling country ("I Sleep Alone"), 50s doo-wop as sung by sad old men ("Hotel Room"), and Scott Walker-esque string-fuelled slow-burn drama ("The Ocean") equally well. Hawley - whose voice sounds misleadingly old, and who did time in Pulp, oddly enough - has mastered the by-now classic formulas of certain kinds of songwriting and doesn't fuck with them; it's the kind of work that's easier to admire for its craft than really get into. It's also a drinking album; the opening title track has Hawley preparing to go "downtown where there's music," only to have his night go downhill from there. He keeps himself awake by playing laments like "I Sleep Alone," degenerating finally into total incoherence on instrumental closer "Last Orders," which is just a piano playing some C-major chords through a haze of reverb and basic floating synths, presumably while Hawley is off puking somewhere. Well, we've all had nights like that. I like the sweep of the opening "Coles Corner," but the rest of it is kind of an unrelieved (if undeniably well-assembled) drag. Your mileage may vary, depending on how much you like songwriting formulas to be respected.

The Clientele, Strange Geometry - Speaking of songwriting formulas...The Clientele's command of hazy atmosphere makes it hard, at first listen, to tell which of their songs are stronger than others, since they're all so damn similar. Repeated spins have led me to cut about 1/3 of the album, because I need hooks more than I need simple plaintive tunefulness. Highlights: the classic verse-chorus execution of opener "Since K Got Over Me," raising (if not fulfilling) the intriguing idea of a Britpop Kafka adaptation, the ethereal floating choir intro to "K" (probably the best intro to anything this year), the swooping string hook on "When I Came Home From The Party." Like Belle & Sebastian, it's wimpy-seeming music with a considerable amount of bitterness, sarcasm and alcohol swimming around; the songwriting isn't quite there always (particularly as the album passes the halfway point), but the sound is fully formed.

Vitalic, OK Cowboy - I always get excited when I hear the words "new Daft Punk" tossed around, but this is more Homework than Discovery, and listening to Homework has always kinda seemed like, well, work to me. OK Cowboy is all poker-faced synths and disturbingly vocodered-to-death vocals; I prefer my dance music goofier and looser, though I do like the screeching vocals (I guess - it's kind of hard to tell, what with all the processing) on "Newman," and the nihilistic drive-fast-die-young-leave-a-good-looking-corpse vocals of "My Friend Dario." Otherwise, I'm not feelin' it particularly.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

catch-up: Antony & The Johnsons

Antony & The Johnsons, I Am A Bird Now - now that I've finally gotten over the shock of his voice and listened to the goddamn album, it's not bad. Gracefully arranged strings interact with warm and lulling piano chords and unobtrusive drums; it's decent cabaret music with a strong gay sensibility. But the boy isn't Rufus Wainwright (but Rufus must know something I don't, since he's a huge fan and shows up here). What's the big deal here? Antony's nice enough, and I guess if I listened to his lyrics closely enough I'd pick up on all the latent transgression, but sentiments like the album-opening "Hope there's someone waiting for me when I die" seem more universal than anything. The album is OK background music, but I'm not picking up on what's so special.

catch-up: Babyshambles

Babyshambles, Down In Albion - while not quite Third/Sister Lovers, Babyshambles' debut is a portrait of a band so bruised it's surprise they kept it together long enough to record even this. A mess of an album, this isn't for anyone who wasn't enamored of the Libertines when they first emerged; at an hour, it more than stretches patience. Listen to Up The Bracket again, noticing the confidence and verve with which the band tightly barrels through their songs, making nary a misstep; then listen to this, a shambolic array of songs in various levels of arrangement which frequently begin with someonen quietly messing around on an amp, or even less. The arrangements seem to have been decided upon just before recording, with no rehearsal; one fears that Pete Doherty has been surrounded by sycophants who pander to his conceit of being another blinding troubling genius whose decisions must never be challenged.

Though it's messy, Down In Albion is a fascinating listen for fans: Doherty constantly trashes the legacy (such as it is) of the Libertines in the lyrics. "Don't look back into the motherfucking sun," he proclaims, twisting the name of their well-regarded comeback single; there's also "What Katie Did Next," the unauthorized sequel to the Libertines song, and "Up The Morning," a not-so-subtle shot back at their first album title. Opener "La Belle Et La Bete" has Doherty singing about getting coked-up with an affectingly off-key, frail Kate Moss backing him; it's both vulnerable and brash, and it's fascinating. It's followed by "Fuck Forever," one of the few moments when the whole band gets it together and throws out a growling anthem. The album comes together sporadically from that point onwards, and fans should find a lot of interest. Now it's Carl Barat's turn to fire back.