Saturday, January 13, 2007

more remainders: Asobi Seksu, Junior Boys, Beck

Asobi Seksu, Citrus - Never did get into that whole shoegaze thing - most of Ride's Nowhere strikes me as interchangeable sludge, and it took me six months of off-and-on listening to actually start enjoying My Bloody Valentine's Loveless - so forgive me if I'm less than the ideal audience for this stuff. There's plenty to suck(er) the novelty crowd in — lead vocals in both English and Japanese — but, to these ears, this album goes downhill from its Britpop first half to its meandering finish. At the start we get "Strawberries," which has a guitar riff and badass organ and all the fixings, and "Thursday," which has a little atmospheric drift at the start before launching straight in 1995 radio territory. Then we start getting cuter song titles ("Pink Cloud Tracing Paper"), and perfectly acceptable songs with 3 minutes of storm-und-drang reverb and fuzziness tacked on to them ("Red Sea"). Most of these songs have sections that I like, but surrounded by "atmosphere"; this is the stuff that makes me wish I still had an iPod, so I could produce my own version of the album and dispose of the rest, but just cutting stuff from iTunes forever seems somehow immoral. I don't really like this album, but I feel vaguely bad about that; still, some of the first half refuses to leave me alone.

Junior Boys, So This Is Goodbye - Fuck the sophomore slump; most follow-ups these days seem to improve on their overhyped predecessors (this, TV On The Radio, and The Shins all leap to mind). Last Exit was good for a few tracks, and sounded great on shuffle, but it was too sparse and monochromatic a thing to listen to all the way through without severe exasperation setting in (it was kind of like - sorry kids - Beck's Sea Change that way). It takes about a minute of opening track "Double Shadow" to show that things have changed. First there's the opening gambit; it's just 3 different octaves of A, over and over, plus a pulsing drum and the usual hushed vocals, then a few A chords chopped out over and over. Slightly over a minute in, though, actual synth string harmonies kick in, a gross luxury the old Junior Boys would never have permitted themselves. They also never before had upbeat and downbeat tracks or any kind of real sequencing; it was one mood, straight-ahead. So This Is Goodbye is alternately more aggressive and more actively reclusive, and musically richer. And it's also perfect synth-pop.

Beck, The Information - Just as I give up on him, he pops back up with his first decent performance this millennium. Guero opened with the surefire Big Dumb Riff of "E-Pro"; "Elevator Music" starts with a count-off, a groove, and no real melody or hook until about a minute, and the first half of the album that follows is as strong as anything he's ever done, full of weird clattering background sounds, morose vocals, and rich instrumentation amidst some of Beck's best formalist pop songs yet. The whole thing peaks with "Nausea," one of the best songs of the year, and the only time Beck's had any urgency in his voice of late. By the time "Dark Star" kicks off with a slowed-down count-off, diminishing returns set in (although do stick around for "Movie Theme," a worthy enough b-side to Radiohead's "Motion Picture Soundtrack"); it's purposeful enough (the last song samples track 3, "Cellphone's Dead"), but less consistently rewarding. The Onion AV Club got it right: "Whereas the disappointing Guero sounded like a weak attempt to reprise every genre-confusing musical approach Beck has ever taken, the much more satisfying The Information plays like a successful attempt at the same goal." But that doesn't mean that we aren't finally having fun again. Finally.

Monday, January 08, 2007

mostly hip-hop: Plan B, Ghostface Killah, Girl Talk, Clipse...and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy

Plan B, Who Needs Actions When You Got Words - "You best ban TV if you want me to stop/cuz I'm so heavily influenced by the things that I watch," announces Ben Drew two tracks into his debut. "It ain't just Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs/It's Irreversible, Baise-Moi, City Of God." It ain't just movies either: a few seconds later, he decides, "Let me do what Nas did and tell this shit in reverse." Plan B is the first British rapper I've heard who actually approximates American style: the accent is thick, and the fact that Drew also writes his guitar backgrounds and sings the choruses is unusual, but the constant stream of references and straightforward raps (he does both storytelling and general threats of violence) are still closer to American storytellers than The Streets or Dizzee Rascal. And I realize that, by bringing up those two reference points as my only other knowledge of British hip-hop, I'm making it obvious that I've never listened to the allegedly seminal Run The Road grime compilations, but you know what? I don't care. My thirst for diversity will only run so far.

Drew is an undeniably dextrous, skilled rapper, even if he's a little too eager to draw attention to his sources. He's also almost completely humorless and unusually moralistic, not just opposed to crack but even marijuana (apparently it made him lazy in middle school and he had to quit). His songs can be divided into two main themes: Drugs/Promiscuous Sex Are Bad ("Dead And Buried") and, oddly, Religious Fundamentalism Is Bad ("I Don't Hate You," the nearly unlistenable "Tough Love," which chronicles an honor killing). While his conviction and flow suck you in, his relentless gloom eventually gets to you: the closest thing to a joke on here comes when the matter-of-fact approach is almost ridiculously insensitive: "There's nothing more pathetic than a cry for help/either you do or you don't wanna kill yourself," as he explains on "Mama." True, but still...Right now, Plan B is the Darren Aronofsky of rap, circa Requiem For A Dream: too talented to ignore, too one-note to completely endorse. Wait and see.

Ghostface Killah, Fishscale - How white am I? So white that I have no idea what the fuck Ghostface is saying most of the time. According to pretty much every advocate I've talked to, Ghostface is a master "storyteller," whose raps unfold detailed verite chronicles of the crack-selling lifestyle: too bad his ghetto vocabulary and thick voice mean I don't know what's going on most of the time. I feel guilty, but the often crackerjack hooks here only get me so far, uneager for repeated listens. Exceptions are confined to the back half: "Beauty Jackson," whose J Dilla hook leads into a brief story about a busstop flirtation that may or may not even have had a real basis; "Whip You With A Strap," another J Dilla joint about Ghostface's childhood; "Back Like That," as much for its soulful Ne-Yo refrain as anything; "Be Easy," a club banger interchangeable with a bunch of other dumb songs with great hooks; and "Underwater," probably the only good rap about a dream I've ever heard. But Fishscale is long, dense, and not really something I feel like making the effort for. Sorry; feel free to smugly inform me that it's my loss.

Girl Talk, Night Ripper - There's been a lot of cyber-ink spilled on this mash-up-to-end-all-mash-ups already, so I just want to make three brief notes:

1) Gillis chops up the pop songs way more than the rap songs: the rap vocal hooks are resilient enough to stick around for up to a whole minute while micro-diced drum breaks and guitar riffs swirl around them.

2) This album's greatest contribution is to make hip-hop palatable for people who still think it's all monotonous, one-note shouting best left on its own radio station (these are generally the same people who say they got bored with hip-hop after Public Enemy, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest). Every now and then, Gillis contrasts a rap song (generally something these listeners might otherwise find inaccessible) with something that most people would consider warm and nostalgic: the Ying Yang Twins' "Wait (The Whisper Song)" vs. The Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony," the Notorious B.I.G. vs. Elton John's "Tiny Dancer," etc. It works wonders, reminding us that rap's bellicose lyrics and tone are misleading: this is party music that'll generate nostalgia years from now, as much as (or more so than) mediocre middle-school hits from when we were all too young to know better.

3) You don't need to know where all or even most of the songs are taken from to enjoy them: the first few listens, it's inevitable to get distracted by all the sources, and how could you not thrill to hearing Neutral Milk Hotel vs. the Ying Yang Twins? But what's even better is that, after enough listens, that thrill wears off, to be replaced by enjoyment of how hooky and endlessly ingratiating it all is. This isn't one of the year's top 10, but it may be the only album that plays equally well among music geeks and people who could care less.

Clipse, Hell Hath No Fury - Late-breaking, unexpected triumph as the hype for once pays off: this really is the rap album of the year, and even if it doesn't sport the absolute, no-questions Song Of The Decade (that'd be Kanye's "Gone"), it's still more consistent than Mr. West's slightly-too-sprawled-out productions. He's still the visionary, but this is taut and unignorable. Hilariously, people can't seem to agree on whether or not the Clipse are "storytellers" (and that word, applied to everyone from Clipse to the Decemberists, really needs to go away: in the sense it's being applied, not even Ulysses would count, it seems). Pitchfork claims that "Pusha, remains star and stylist, brazenly dishing on minor details like his sunglasses ("Louis V Millionaires to kill the glare") while injecting a malevolent, almost maniacal intensity to his verses." The exact same kind of detail is noted by The Onion's AV Club as merely "bragging about watches, cars, and other high-end luxury items." Let's make up our damn minds people.

On the one hand, the Clipse are funny in a malevolent kind of way: "The black Martha Stewart/let me show you how to do it," they crow about making crack. They say all the right things, but their thin, reedy voices suggest that they're the XTC of crack rap: conviction is less prevalent than technical excellence. Ten years ago, you suspect, they would have been easily happy to be straight-up gangstas; they're just polishing their skills on whatever subject matter is at hand. On the other hand, you have the all-Neptunes-produced tracks: musically, it's the Kill The Moonlight of rap, with very few obvious instruments (there's probably more pitch-bending than actual recorded tracks) and every decision standing out the more for it. The analogy holds down to the track list: 11 taut tracks, and a longer, tension-relieving final track in a gentler mode. (Relative: "Nightmares" is about moral guilt and the constant fear of being killed, but still.) Fantastic from either end.

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, The Letting Go -It's weird to follow critical reaction to each Will Oldham album post-I See A Darkness: it's as if Oldham was Bowie in '91, Darkness was the last high water-mark of Scary Monsters, and each album was striving to reach his indisputable masterpiece. I haven't kept up with the quest, having merely checked in with last year's ramshackle, unnecessarily attenuated and goofy Superwolf. But The Letting Go really may be his best album since Darkness, or at least it's almost as good, albeit calmer and nearly twice as long, making its impact understandably more diffuse. Engineered and mixed with greater clarity than Darkness' purposeful slackness, The Letting Go opens, shockingly, with a full-blown string quartet intro, indicating that this album is considerably more disciplined than the weird scattered energy Oldham frequently brings to his work. But this isn't a sterile clean-up job; it's a full-blooded product whose lyrical themes (sex, death, etc.) are the norm for him. Still, it's undeniable that the album basically splits into the elegiac and carefully arranged, and the Other (the faux-blues of "Cold & Wet," the terrifying ritual sacrifice or whatever-the-fuck of "The Seedling"), and that the album could use a little more of the latter, especially towards the end; "God's Small Song" and the untitled closer are really too slack and messy to stretch this album out to the end; they're Superwolf outtakes in spirit. Most of this is remarkably comforting without being sappy; perfect late-night music.