Monday, November 27, 2006

What Jay-Z Is Trying To Do

I can't see it coming down my eyes so I have to make the songs suck

Jay-Z is a pretty bad CEO and a pretty great self-marketer. What other explanation is there for letting two of the year's absolute best albums (Game Theory and Fishscale) fall by the chart wayside and yet churning out near-platinum first-week sales for his own "comeback" album, by general consensus both the year's worst rap record (Idlewild had almost four decent tracks, Kingdom Come has about two) and biggest disappointment in any genre. Musically, even Rick Ross outclassed him just by keeping it simple and dirty. And by not hiring Chris Martin. Fuck, Rick Ross even outclassed him lyrically just for not saying "30 is the new 20." It's especially depressing since 2006 is the best year for hip-hop since. . . 2003, the year Jay supposedly retired. The now-acknowledged greatest MC of all time is certainly missed when talents as diverse as Ghostface, T.I., The Roots, Rhymefest, the promising Lupe Fiasco, Chamillionaire, and even bullshitters Rick Ross and The Game have all made honorable-to-great records using their ears. If comparing Kingdom Come to Idlewild is harsh, well, the only thing separating one delusion from the other is 800,000 units or so. But Jay is just as unaware of his audience as Andre 3000 at this point. What Jay thinks is that he's crossed over to what Status Ain't Hood calls the "James Blunt/Rascal Flatts" crowd when he's really just a made legend resting on his made name, made hype, made reputation and simply forgot the made album. Or did he forget how to rap? I'm honestly worried that three years of boardrooms and water-treading cameos has left the man without a relevant word in his rhyming dictionary; even the relatively high points of Kingdom Come, "Do You Wanna Ride?" and "Oh My God," get by on John Legend's gorgeous hook and Just Blaze's raucous cut-up "Whipping Post" stabs respectively. Where Kingdom Come succeeds is how Jay intended it: as a huge, marketed multimedia event. For starters, he got his opening-week sales that he pushed "Show Me What You Got" like he felt it deserved. But by cultivating his own mass popularity, he lived up to the image he wanted too: Superman come back from the dead, the little old man that could. Even Jay's weaker albums got by on persona, simply by becoming everything he wanted to at the time. To wit, a little flowchart of Jay's self-made mythology from album-to-album:

Reasonable Doubt (1996) - Not as great all the way through as everyone pretends. But certainly as street. He dove into his self-patented, oft-imitated "thug gone mainstream" shtick by slicking up his drug deals with Mary J. Blige ("Can't Knock The Hustle"). He grabbed Biggie just before he died for the eternal credibility the album's no doubt retained ("Brooklyn's Finest," the best track, thanks to the Biggie-Jay trade-offs and relentless player piano). But just as he turned '80s basslines onto thug-love hits with Foxy Brown ("Ain't No Nigga"), he kept his credibility intact by sampling Nas on "Dead Presidents II" philosophizing on "D'evils" and freestyling on "22 Twos." B+

In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (1997) - Jay's first ripoff, that is, if you hate Puff Daddy-era R&B syrup. I do. Babyface's "(Always Be My) Sunshine" is the only classic here. Jay succeeds a little prematurely as the loverman he painted himself to be on Mariah Carey's "Heartbreaker." I prefer him as the whore of "Girls, Girls, Girls." B-

Vol. 2. . . Hard Knock Life (1998) - Hits, hits, hits. Jay knows how to make 'em, and I'm not gonna knock 'em. This is his first acknowledgement of the pop world or anything crossover. For one thing, he's got musical ideas (sampling Annie and making 3 mil off it??) and hooks ("Nigga What, Nigga Who" clatters unstoppably, while "Can I Get A. . . ." pretty much invented the "bounce"). Jay as hook-crafting chart-topper, complete with the filler that mars such pop takeovers. Almost there. B

Vol. 3. . . The Life And Times Of S. Carter (1999) - No one remembers it now, but this was considered Jay's peak at the time. Reviews were excellent, and didn't carry the weight of "is he the greatest rapper in the world or not?" that the overrated Reasonable Doubt and The Black Album will now be remembered as, despite the tracks that seriously weigh them down. Nor was Jay trying to be the greatest rapper, or even the most popular. Vol. 3 remains his best because here he was Jay the entertainer, cranking out, yeah, an enormous hit ("Big Pimpin'"), but mostly just a flawless collection of memorable beats, hooks and verses, one after another. Some were exotic ("Hova Song"), some relaxing ("Things That You Do"), some playfully murderous ("So Ghetto") or triumphantly shallow ("Do It Again"), with even a hard battle ("It's Hot [Some Like It Hot]") or gangsta cut ("Watch Me," "Come And Get Me") thrown in. Even both the hidden tracks are fun. Stylish, widescreen, and cinematic without ever getting a complex about it, except on "Dope Man," featuring MTV News' Serena Altschul on a fun-hubristic media indictment that pretends Jay was ever as threatening as Eminem was to White America. Comparable to LL Cool J at his Mama Said Knock You Out peak, only less hungry and more melodically satisfying, this is the album where Jay was everything to everyone, pop to street, serious to hilarious, and everything he claimed to be: J-Hova. One of the five most entertaining rap records ever made. A+

The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000) - Not at all bad, which goes double since it's a posse album, Jay shores up his pimp and hustler cred again after one too many Mariah cameos. Memphis Bleek, Beanie Sigel, Scarface, Snoop, R. Kelly and Freeway all help out, none of them at all bad (except for maybe the always tasteless Snoop, who usually remains cool, but comes off like a creep on "Stick 2 The Script"), but none excellent or outshining the star of the "familia." Remembered as a flop, it still got 4 stars in Rolling Stone and has possibly Jay's best collection of beats ever. I call it his blaxploitation record, doing ugly things here and there that even his smug charm can't paint over, from "Parking Lot Pimpin'" to aligning his own allegations with (yuck) R. Kelly's on "Guilty 'Til Proven Innocent." He has fun with concepts though, like getting hit on by his friend's sister ("Soon You'll Understand"), bitching about his deadbeat father ("") or teaching clowns who call 1-900-Hustler on the riotous track of the same name. The beats are as tough as the boasts on "Change The Game" and "Streets Is Talking" and downright epic on the "Intro." Even the "pop" material like "Parking Lot Pimpin'" sounds grimy. More vividly gangsta than anything on Reasonable Doubt except "Brooklyn's Finest." A-

The Blueprint (2001) If you haven't yet figured out that I'm warmer to Jay's pop material, his credibility album is where me and the hiphop heads can meet halfway. The best rhymes and beats of his career all in one greatly accessible place, on display for both the heads who couldn't wait to hear him obilterate Nas on "Takeover" and the Z100 gum-smackers who hum "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" on the school bus. Except for the astonishing, Doors-sampling "Takeover," the post-Timbaland bubblegum-exotica of "Jigga That Nigga" and Eminem's dramatically orchestrated "Renegade," every damn track juxtaposes a gorgeous soul sample, usually chipmunked, and only a boring stretch of mush like "Song Cry" towards the end threatens to sink the masterpiece, before the Eminem track brings it back up. "Izzo," the hilarious "Girls, Girls, Girls" and the "take-em-to-church" "Heart Of The City" have Jay's best showmanship ever, not to mention the undeniable "Takeover," which proves beef doesn't have to be humorless. The Source gave it 5 mics and for once I don't disagree. A

Unplugged (2001) - Here, Jay takes that showmanship and makes his hiphop masterstroke an flesh and blood as an alternative masterstroke for people who shit their pants for live band hiphop and love The Roots. I wish it had more Vol. 3 but I'm not gonna argue with what he included (except for "Song Cry"): "Takeover," complete with Mobb Deep and Nas "samples" and ad-libs, "Izzo" snapping from lounge-jazz to its pop form, a medley of the best Doubt-Vol. 1-Vol. 2 hits (dig ?uestlove's right hand wrecking "Jigga What, Jigga Who"), and special guests Jaguar Wright and Mary J. Blige tearing "Heart Of The City" and "Can't Knock The Hustle" to shreds. Easily the best live album in hiphop history, and one of the best in rock history. His Che Guevara shirt for the taping tops the persona off: Jay-Z as full-blown rock star. A

The Blueprint 2: The Gift And The Curse (2002) - Not as bad as the singles, filler and reviews would have you believe. Yes, this is Jay as Bonoesque epic blowhard, the Jay who blandly covers Tupac ("Bonnie And Clyde '03") and samples a famous Biggie verse for a song called "A Dream." And as Bob Christgau noted, he settles for Paul Anka's "My Way" when Sinatra's wouldn't clear. Lennie Kravitz ruins one otherwise decent track. Even Jay himself felt the need to boil it down to one disc after the fact. But the tracks you don't know will certainly improve your memory. Try Just Blaze "and the Blazettes'" amazing "Hovi Baby," built around stutter-step electro synths in 5/4 time(!) or the Big Boi-augmented Dirty South nod "Poppin' Tags." B

The Black Album (2003) - You think he would've learned his lesson but Jay went even more epic after people didn't take Blueprint 2 seriously. Here he threatens to quit and looks back on his life with better results than the last album, even though the uninspired half turns out to be unforgivably lazy. Half the masterpiece everyone thinks it all is. When he's on, he cranks out "99 Problems," my nomination for Song of the Decade, which rocks harder than most rock, slams harder than most hiphop, and rhymes smarter and funnier than either. The Kanye-assisted "Lucifer," sexy "My 1st Song," creeping "Moment of Clarity," anthemic "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" and even the showoffy "What More Can I Say?" and "Encore" could pass for a great album if they weren't weighed down by a handful of not just filler, but some of Jay's worst tracks ever. "Justify My Thug" samples an awful Madonna song for a worse Jay-Z one, "Change Clothes" is tied with "Excuse Me Miss" as his worst Pharrell contribution ever, and the cringe-worthy "December 4th" is Jay irritatingly wallowing in his own legend. Portends Kingdom Come more than we thought in retrospect, with some truly lazy rhymes. How anyone could've thought this a complete epitaph is beyond me, no wonder he came back. B+

Kingdom Come (2006) - As I've said before, pretty much worthless, even though it fits into Jay's grand personality scheme as some kind of triumphant reborn Superman bullshit. He's made songs this bad before, but never so many in one place. This is one of those records like Hootie And The Blowfish's Fairweather Johnson or Sarah Mclachlan's Mirrorball that did huge on Billboard just by the coattails of the artist's clout, with barely a speck of self-consciousness to relieve the banal, or even a real hit to justify the ubiquity. Both of those artists subsequently sank for good after that last gasp of sales, and I hope Jay gets a second chance after everyone who bought this realizes how duped they were. His punishment will be the miniscule sales to follow for that real comeback album. C

I didn't count the R. Kelly partner-ups or the Linkin Park pseudo-mashup because they barely repaid my attention once. They're mediocre and harmless, legitimately tossed-off and treated as such by Jay himself. Kingdom Come is only offensive because of the great weight placed on it, and because Jay himself seems to take it seriously, as he was right to do since it's making money. Maybe I'll find a couple more likable tracks in retrospect. Or maybe he'll stay in the boardroom.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Seven Deadly Singles #35: Everyday I'm Hustlin' (What It Do)

Phonies folly, masters rest on their lazy, but earned, laurels. Yep, sounds like a round of assholes this week. And not a one bigger than Rick Ross.

LCD Soundsystem - "45:33"

James Murphy is a phony the way Scott Storch is a phony. His pedigree is mastering the butt-simple and never-transcendent. His bread and butter is glomming onto realized talents to get his DFA name out and set the stage for his so-called anticipated records. He isn't half-bad, but he is painfully basic. One reason his teaming up with Nike to create a repetitive 45-minute exercise track was an excellent idea is because it's an excellent admission of his limits. No one wants to admit that the first LCD Soundsystem full-length was exactly like this: a long stretch of barely decorated bloop-and-squirt synth and midtempo 808 drums that sounded like lazy disco, dusted with some hipster touches like his Talking Heads-ish spoken delivery and vinyl-nerd name-dropping to separate it from, oh, your average FruityLoops user. The difference is that here he doesn't pretend 45 minutes of his music isn't exactly the same all the way through. Exercising is robotic, monotonous and moving but unchanging. Ergo, "45:33" sounds like an exercise machine, and Murphy gets points for not programming it to look smarter than whoever's using it. If I worked out on any kind of a regular basis, I could see myself playing all 45:33 of this twice. After all, the guy's easier to take as a musclehead than a hipster. B

Nas - "Hip-Hop Is Dead"
Ghostface - "Ghost Is Back"

One trend in hiphop that I'm starting to fucking hate is sampling beats that were already beats. Yeah, it's always nice to throw in an "Apache" or "Peter Piper" to show your history, as Nas did brilliantly with the former on 2002's still-badass "Made You Look"
and Missy Elliott proved herself a visionary by screwing around with the latter on 2003's masterful "Work It." But those songs did something different besides just cloning the original, they were more like Terminator clones that added some crazy cyborg muscle to the original human skeletons. In 2006, Jay-Z and The Game both ride Public Enemy beats from 1988 dusted off by Just Blaze, who apparently just discovered Nation of Millions and had his mind blown and style tainted.'s no better just because he's been claiming old school since Black Eyed Peas were a (ha!) backpacker outfit. Somehow he convinced Nas to rhyme over the same song he already sampled ("In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," baby), worse this time, about how hip-hop is dead. I don't know if he gets the joke, he certainly never got any of Jay-Z's, when he resorted to phrases like "Gay-Z" and "Cock-a-Fella Records" in that long-squashed beef. So if Nas' enthusiasm and raw talent far outshines his intelligence, like his hero KRS-One, he's barely exhibiting even those on a track that's supposed to point out how dead and relying on dilettantes like his peers are. Instead, he sinks to their level. It's kind of sad the eternal underdog can't even outclass Jay-Z at his most vulnerable these days.
Ghostface already made mincemeat of both of them months ago with Fishscale, a tougher, more consistent album than (sorry) anything Jay or Nas have ever in their lives released. So it's kind of mean for him to release another album this coming December just to kick sand in their old fart faces. But he manages anyway. "Ghost Is Back" is conceived as more of a re-up mixtape-type beat-jack rather than a Diddyesque resting-on-laurels-while-claiming-old-school one. He picks a classy beat, from Eric B. & Rakim's "Know The Ledge," and just runs with it, with a charmingly small-scale basement freestyle sounding run. End rhyme: "blubber/Ruben Studdard." Nas should be so lucky to be a slave to page in his rhyme book. "Dead": C; "Back": B+

The Shins - "Phantom Limb"

Grows on you, though late Garden State converts should be warned, it will not "change your life." Miraculously, this relaxed and unpretentious soft-rocker does kind of garner "New Slang"'s timeless quality, though it may just be James Mercer's songwriting is stuck is in the paisley-era again, backtracking from some Kinks-y mod flirtations ("Fighting In A Sack," "Turn A Square") on 2003's great Chutes Too Narrow, which sold a significant portion of its 400,000 copies to late Garden State converts, whom it had nothing to do with. A step back, yes, both qualitatively (the dreamy production's starting to veer towards dangerous U2-level reverberations) and artistically (bye bye, upfront songfulness, hello navelgazing), yet not boring. Actually, quite pleasant. If only I could say the same for all of Wincing The Night Away. A-

Clipse - "Wamp Wamp (What It Do)"

Good thing Pharrell went back to his roots here, since "Money Maker" was stale as ever, and for that matter so was Fly Or Die. So he keeps his annoying-ass, alien-faced, trucker-hatted falsett-no outta here and helps these mixtape kings develop a semi-catchphrase with fun trashcan-bangings and plinking steel drums. Actually evocative of Jamaican street corners, which means Pharrell's slowly getting his sense of texture back. Pusha T and Malice earn their "pyrex" and "dro"-centric dealer boasts with coolly detached charisma. If only Kingdom Come was this laid-back and laborless. A-

The Killers - "Bones"

I'll focus on the song rather than what a dick Brandon Flowers is. But just allow me this one bullshit quote: "Don't you wanna go with me/don't you wanna feel my bones." For all his industrial-theater synths and trash-compactor guitar crunches, this song sounds more like a cross between Springsteen's Tunnel of Love and "Jessie's Girl," both of which, sadly, are better. Flowers used to have hooks for his self-involved pseudo-anthems, now he just piles up chorus upon chorus hoping that Meat Loaf will notice and sue. I don't blame him; Sam's Town could use the publicity. Tim Burton, however, who directed the video for this, is better off without. D

Rick Ross - "Hustlin'"

Rick Ross is a pig, plain and simple. Like any other crack rapper with dreams, he wants his criminality validated but he doesn't work for it one bit. He rhymes words with themselves. He twists words until they barely fit, but doesn't have the charm to pull off the wordplay of say, Snoop. Instead the aural effect is like him sucking in his stomach to wear too-small pants just for a quick Source cover photo just before they pop off. His flow is sloppy and lazy; he leaves plenty of room in his stanzas for total emptiness, which means his beats are lower-budget than his hos, of whom "feeds steroids to strengthen [his] chickens." But, Christ, is he good at dumb. This is one of those theoretically awful songs like "My Humps" that you start out playing for all your friends over and over because you're in disbelief of what a joke he doesn't know he is. That is, until you start craving it. Say it with me now: "everyday I'm hustlin'/everyday I'm hustlin'. . . ." ad nauseum. Sounds like "you're getting verrrrry sleepy" after awhile. And then you're under his power. Hustlin', hustlin', hustle--hustlin', hustlin, hustle. . . . F--I mean, A-

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


ha ha ha.

in homage to three crazy years, ol' frothy's greatest hits: - RICK SAVES THE CHILDREN - RICK SAVES SCIENCE - RICK SAVES WOMEN - LEWIS BLACK VS. RICK VS. WMDS

and my personal favorite.... - RICK VS. "THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS"

lollerskates @ santy

Monday, November 13, 2006

Jay-Z: 2006's Worst Rap Album?

Shut up, shut up, shut up.

I'm not gonna mince words like the hiphop blogs trying to find something nice to say about Kingdom Come or button my lip like Status Ain't Hood. Kingdom Come fucking sucks, end of story. "99 Problems" was the perfect capper on a hardly perfect but almost never embarassing career, and in three busy business years for Def Jam, if I didn't expect Jay-Z to come up with something as epochal, I at least trusted him to phone in something still worth putting out. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The first bad sign was "Show Me What You Got," which I wrote off safely as one of those mixtape-type "singles" that no one seriously believes will get to MTV and just sort of whet people's appetites for an album. Wrong again: there Jay was, racing cars on MTV to a lame instrumental Just Blaze jacked from Public Enemy and making even that look boring. Then came the news Jay would be soliciting a contribution from Chris Martin. That could be interesting. Wrong, wrong, so wrong it is unbelievable. Mr. Paltrow didn't even go the piano syrup route, he took like, fucking Dre synths and badly echoed slow-thud-drums, far out of his own territory into just an embarassing mess. I mean, Coldplay's violently bowed "Politik" is more gangsta. But this song's called "Beach Chair," which apparently evoked to him some kind of muddy 80s synth-mix. Bad earnest rock singer.

At the end of the day, this muddle is all Jay's fault. There's not a quotable rhyme anywhere on the entire cd, and most of the music is worth attacking. I think the title tune was conceived as some kind of triumphant "I'm-back" thing like Run-DMC's "Down With The King" and he couldn't even manage that. The closest he comes to a decent heads-up jam is Just Blaze's "Oh My God" which coincidentally evokes Coldplay's "Politik" but doesn't sound (ouch) quite as violent. The other decent song is the Erykah Badu/Tribe Called Quest-flavored "Lost Ones," which tries to be conscious over a hazy, rolling piano figure and doesn't altogether suck. But the only Actual Good Song, the one I'll play over and over, is the damn-smooth "Do U Wanna Ride?" which is almost entirely John Legend's fault, spoiling Jay's utter cluelessness throughout the rest of the album. A Beyonce appearance that sounds like a B'Day knockoff? Of course. An overly clubby second half that was done better on (double ouch) Diddy's new Press Play? Gulp. A muddled, "serious" Katrina song featuring Ne-Yo near record's end that feels totally inconsequential and uninspired when it should be urgent and affecting? Produced by Dr. Dre, the reigning king of conscious rap? Man, what a fucking failure.

At least Diddy admits his laziness. Jay may be hard at work overcharging African concertgoers for their own Water For Life proceeds and lunching with Pete Wentz but he's definitely fucking dead to the music, even though most of his influences should be right in front of him. I mean, did he learn nothing about success from his buddy Kanye? What a missed opportunity, assuming it had to be an opportunity at all. But don't think old rival Nas isn't jumping on this shit-music trend himself. He might've just upped the ante by entrusting with his first single and letting him sample "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" again. Who samples the same song twice? But that's another rant for another disappointing 2006 rap record to be. In the meantime, until Kingdom Come is officially brought into the world on Nov. 21, let's hope Jay considers abortion before he gives birth to his first true red-headed stepchild that can't be blamed on R. Kelly.

Kingdom Come: C

Wussy: The Best Unheard Band of 2006?

Ass Ponys: the only band name worse than Wussy

The Ass Ponys aren't for me. At least the only Ass Ponys record I own, Electric Rock Music, isn't. I got it off Amazon for a penny plus shipping, and concluded from its initial look that it was one of those college-alt albums that never went anywhere, with an educated guess towards alt-country. With song titles like "Peanut '93" and "Little Bastard" and album art featuring cute veggie sculptures, it seemed destined for 90s alt cutout bins even before I experienced Chuck Cleaver's 1994 voice, described by Rob Sheffield as "the sound of Neil Young getting felt up by a gorilla in a high wind" and actually worse. So I'm not sure I'll be checking out the also-recommended Some Stupid With A Flare Gun, which Amazon has used for $4.99, but maybe I'll skim through Lohio over Thanksgiving break, which I can borrow from my dad.

Why do I care about anything by these 90s has-beens, much less another record? Because I'd love to call Funeral Dress, the excellent debut record from Cleaver's new band, Wussy, anything but a fluke. Dress is one of those modestly perfect singer-songwriter albums like Rhett Miller's The Instigator or Spoon's Kill The Moonlight that just reveals itself over a dozen or more listens as something you'll want to keep playing after a dozen listens. Its arsenal is small and simplistic compared to this age of Sam's Towns and Black Parades: perfect turn of phrase after perfect turn of phrase, a hook worth revisiting on every track, song structures and arrangments that vary but not drastically, running time under an hour. But it does all of that. And even though Cleaver's voice has improved in the eleven years since Electric Rock Music, it's hardly as proficient as Britt Daniel's or as gorgeous as Rhett Miller's, so co-frontperson Lisa Walker helps dilute his sandpapery talents to a level resembling something like ear candy. Sometimes she sings his tunes; the quietly strange "Humanbrained Horse" reads with a weirdness as unmistakable to his signature as Michael Stipe's or Tom Waits', in which Walker pays a dime's admission to see if the title sideshow star is smarter than her. That's definitely not how Brandon Flowers would portray feelings of inadequacy. But most of the album's lyrics are simpler than that, even when they're Chuck's: "Airborne" succeeds as a breakup song where so many emo bands fail, because he sanely puts you in the picture: "something from the 'yours' pile/shattered on the floor tile/and you went off like Frankenstein." His big love song shares that rugged simplicity. The "Yellow Cotton Dress" he claims, is "beautiful no doubt/but it becomes a motherfucker when you fill it out." And that one has appropriately joyous music exploding out from under it, like The Arcade Fire with more fireworks.

Walker more than holds her own, though. Her sweet voice is expected to make typical trouble-in-paradise remarks like "it wasn't meant the way you took it," and longing pleas for a "free ride out of this place" on the back of a dream guy's "Motorcycle." But what about "I found a bullet while you were out finding God?" These minitaure shards of the unsettling keep a simple three-chord garage-country album from getting too safe, even when it piles on the sweetness of melodica, harmonica and xylophone. It's a coup that's way more formal than Ass Ponys' "electric rock music," which sounded more like a jam band with a Neil Young fetish filtered through some weird Afghan Whigs-type grunge castoff. These guys resemble Imperial Teen dragged through rural Ohio dirt. They're almost never fast, even on a token "rock" song like "Funeral Dress" that prefers to crunch it out like a PJ Harvey dirge instead. But if simplicity and sincerity and songcraft don't do it for you, try the hooks. "Motorcycle" and "Crooked" are founded on heavenly trad-rock choruses, while "Conversation Lags" is a beautiful drone that begins sparse and ends gorgeous, with Walker's cooing harmonies layered more with each successive, nearly wordless refrain. But it's the melodica-hooked "Soak It Up" that takes three tried-and-true chords and carries the album to its strongest and simplest peak. The best rock album of 2006, one so good that it actually hails from the tail-end of 2005, where it was criminally ignored, including by me. But while 2006's actual best rock record, Be Your Own Pet, gets by on enthusiasm and rush, Funeral Dress is a notch higher on songcraft and heart. And they're even working on a new one, slated for 2007. Get on the bandwagon now, so you can say you knew 'em first.

Funeral Dress: A

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

I Didn't Attend CMJ, But I Did Listen To A Fuckload Of Sonic Youth

Kim Gordon in the conservatory with the axe

The week in review:

1. Kevin "Starving" Federline's debut album as a rapper, Playing With Fire, receives the following praises:
"1 out of 5 stars" - Rolling Stone
"F" - Entertainment Weekly
Divorce with no custody of either child or room for appeal with an airtight prenup - Britney Spears

2. The democrats fucking destroy. And yet. Joe Lieberman. What a show, ladies and gentlemen, what a show.

3. CMJ Fest means a whole lot of Decemberists, Clipse, Deerhoof, Rapture, Knife, Hot Chip, and whatother commodities I am missing.

4. I still can't decide where I stand on Rather Ripped, the few-months-old new record, so-called return to form (from where?), and 40 billionth album from an act who along with a handful of others (Sleater-Kinney, Luna, The Dismemberment Plan, Old 97's) might as well be my favorite band. The first thing I noticed when I heard Ripped was how much it sounded exactly like the only slightly less acclaimed Sonic Nurse which garnered alot of damn good reviews in 2004 but not a whole lot of overpoweringly championing ones. Both records have a muted production that's somewhere between lo-fi screech and subtle polish, absent from 2002's upfront and in-your-face spacejam Murray Street, which remains only SY's second-most hippie-ish record (Washing Machine takes that honor). Both records put alot of emphasis on Steve Shelley's new flat forward drive thing. That means nothing fancy. Just layers and layers of straight, linear tracks with jamming that fits neatly into five-and-six minute increments. The noises are softer. The beat poetry is kept to a minimum. Kim Gordon doesn't freak the fuck out about underwear or tomatoes.

But the second thing I noticed on Rather Ripped was the rather melodic twin-guitar lead that breaks up "Incinerate" into shiny happy pieces, and the chief difference between Nurse and Ripped became known: shorter songs, less noise-drone and more Velvets/Yo La song-drone. It ain't poppy, so that's not where I'm leading. But it's definitely. . . navelgazing. I mean, what other SY record could a "rather melodic twin-guitar lead" fit onto? Or a certainly Velvetsy three-minute ballad like the gorgeously droll "Do You Believe In Rapture?" so understated it could be a mature Beat Happening if it didn't keep from sucking so well. And even though Nurse's lead single was another ballad ("Unmade Bed") and one of its standout tracks was flat-out pretty (Gordon's sedate "I Love You Golden Blue," a better concert opener than you'd expect), both of those do the we-noise, burn-out thing whereas "Rapture" just pulls the plug before the next track begins. Is that really the future of Sonic Youth? I mean, I can see why people hated A Thousand Leaves (SY's second-most challenging and first-most rewarding record, hands-down) and NYC Ghosts And Flowers (the most challenging, and to the Pitchfork set, unlistenable. . . spoken-word Lee Ranaldo and beatnik Kim Gordon, so 1995). I can also see why Murray Street and Sonic Nurse, both more straight, both also great, were hailed as "return(s) to form." What I can't see is why Rather Ripped has been called by some, mostly non-music publications like Time and Newsweek, SY's best record of their entire career. Because it's their most normal? Or because it's the least Sonic Youth-like, a quality that kept them from that honor when Leaves bowed in 1998, or Daydream Nation, their "real" undisputable masterpiece ten years earlier.

I leave this with a big maybe. Sonic Nurse took me a good six months and one fantastic live show to end up in my top three 2004 records, and a technicality is that 2004 sucked for music. Rather Ripped has stalled at an A-minus in the upper-middle of my 2006 A-list in about four months of satisfying but not very enthusiastic plays. And I don't rush to listen to it to sate my SY cravings the way I do with a dozen other of their titles when I'm in the mood. But I expect it to eventually. Sonic Youth is a grower band if there ever was one. Every one of their albums except for maybe Daydream Nation and Dirty, sounds like nothing special, if not utter shit, on first listen, and the band has no truly great qualities to look out for initially. Their bassist is barely noticeable as a bassist. Her singing is tuneless when she sings and borderline-retarded when she recites. The guitar players make some impressive sounds but their "riffs" are often monosyllabic note patterns beholden to their strange tunings. The drummer plays straight midtempo 4/4 enough to make a drum machine sound like the Allman Brothers. Several of their records devolve into just sound effects when there seems to be nothing else to do. These are all charges from the melody police, who can listen to Ray LaMontagne and fuck off, really. The accusations that they make horrible noise don't explain their decade-plus major label contract or why a Sonic Youth freak like myself can't stand, say, AIDS Wolf or Boredoms, or even Mogwai or Godspeed! You Black Emperor. All of the above traits make for intensely subtle, suprisingly enduring music that peels away layer upon layer with every listen and even makes for hummable most of the time you get to the tenth play, unlike the boring noisewhores and "post-rock" acts I named. The irritants just become fun quirks, especially Kim Gordon's, which mark their albums like signposts. In fact, once Rather Ripped is ingrained in my brain enough (in about two months I presume), I can't wait to play Kim Gordon Bingo with it: Find the song that mentions underwear. Find the song about an ironically fetishized pop-culture icon that fixates on a Mariah Carey or Karen Carpenter the way Andy Warhol fixated on Brillo pads or Marilyn Monroe. Hmm. OK, it's a small bingo board. But my point is that Sonic Youth's trying quirks can be as fun as any other A-list indie-rockers', like Yo La Tengo's insistence on a throbbing, ten-minute-plus organ jam near the end of each album (and don't even get me started on their underwhelming new record), or that dog.'s talent for finding spots to allow Petra Haden to overdub totally superfluous violin (no wonder Colin Meloy recruited her).

Rather Ripped: A- (For the time being. I am not joking, expect an A by 2007. Every other Sonic Youth album has only improved over time for me in the exact same fashion. No I do not make these allowances of patience for any other so-called art band except Radiohead, and they're far more immediate by comparison.)

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Seven Deadly Singles #34: Lips of a Wolf

Yes, it’s that time of year again in which everything sucks and our only new pop revelation dares us to deport her. Can’t we deport Fergie or Hinder instead? I hear Gitmo’s got some openings.

Lupe Fiasco - "Kick, Push"

The swelling orchestral jazz swings at a lively pace over wonderfully old-school production. The hook marches "kick, push, kick, push, kick, push, coast" like Kanye's "Jesus Walks" even if it's both less majestic and less enduring. But Fiasco's in a proud tradition of new Chicago conscious rap, following the underrated Rhymefest and the established Kanye and Common, so I'd hate to steal his moment by comparing to him a giant like say, Jay-Z, who would've owned this beat way better than he owns his current mess. Much has been made of Fiasco's lyrical genius, which here amounts to an adorably miniature vignette about a skateboarding kid painted as some kind of rebel, who falls in love with the female version of the same thing. Cute, but strange. And while Fiasco's getting obvious touts for his lyrical talent, he's also getting a lot of accusations I can't deny that he's not very fun to listen to. A spark that I predict will give way to bigger explosions that the purists can pretend were never as good as this. B

Hinder - "Lips of an Angel"

Old news: A band who disdains everything on the charts makes a grassroots following of rockist philistines in red states and ends up in Billboard's top ten without "compromising" their sound with anything new/original/interesting/well-done. 3 Doors Down did it in 2000 to offer uncomfortable Godsmack fans an alternative to Eminem/OutKast/Nelly/Mystikal/Destiny's Child; Nickelback in 2001 for Pink/Missy Elliott/Jay-Z/Coldplay/Alicia Keys. So if 2006's chart reign by T.I./Nelly Furtado/Christina Aguilera/Justin Timberlake/Beyonce/Gnarls Barkley was in need of some white-bread overproduced rock crashing, Hinder's just the perfect batch of no-ones to do it. One reason they're rich is because they suck; Stone Temple Pilots lasted too long with only medium-sized hits, sometimes actually good or inspired, to pull off a takeover this massive and faceless. Gavin Rossdale was also too sexy and obscurantist to do an alt-crap ballad like "Lips of an Angel." Hinder is like Lifehouse: one-hit wonders with a singer who boasted about not listening to anyone else's music so as to not taint his flamingly original style. At least the other guys scored a "How You Remind Me" or "Kryptonite." That would be too compromising for these hacks, who owe more to Whitesnake than Pearl Jam. I mistook them for softies until I saw their badass album cover (cleavage, how provocative) or heard their other single, which recalls the nowhere-rock of Puddle of Mudd and promises better sex with an angry partner. Buckcherry revived this stuff better, but no one's come close to the wit or riffs of Aerosmith and AC/DC even still. D-

Jay-Z - "Show Me What You Got"

Raise your hand if you wanted to see the King of New York rise up from the dead, after his ultimate epitaph "99 Problems," to interpolate Flavor Flav over horns Public Enemy already used and shout quotables like "Give the drummer some/I already gave the summer some" and "I'm the Michael Jordan of recording/you might wanna fall back from [can't think of anything that rhymes, dammit]. . . recording [ouch]." I thought not. Jay's worst single makes previous worsts "Change Clothes" and "Justify My Thug" sound like "Cry Me A River" and "Into The Groove(y)," and not just because it's a lame comeback that no one asked for even after three years of Def Jam bizzing, but because it sounds like someone who's actually forgotten how to rap. The only thing Jay's the Michael Jordan of in 2006 is playing ironically overpriced shows for "charity" in Africa. Why does he apologize at the beginning? Is he aware of the falloff to follow? D+

Gwen Stefani - "Wind It Up"
TV On The Radio - "Wolf Like Me"

I'm gonna piss off the blogosphere now by comparing the focus cut from one of 2006's most acclaimed, and hideously overrated, records, with the focus cut from a record that is already being hailed as completely and total batsh*t. For one thing, both have an intro that features unnecessary a capella yodeling from a vocalist who doesn't deserve listeners who will put up with it. Tunde Adebimpe has less soul (and range) than Jack White, which no one wants to admit, and if Stefani has always been more renowned for her hooks than her range, neither of which is really apparent in "Wind It Up," a Neptunes pastiche so bad it makes "Monkey Maker" sound like "Shake Ya Ass." It should be noted that both songs feature extarordinary understanding of bass and percussion, with creeping fuzz bass and manic hi-hat seizures on "Wolf Like Me" and something like "Maneater" meets bad grime on "Wind It Up," with strange synth bass and Pharrell's usually hypnotic clicks and clacks. The lyrics on both tracks are the final straw though, as I can't decide which is worse: "Feel me/completer down to my core/open my heart/and let it bleed onto yours," intoned like a moaning zombie (sadly not howled like a werewolf a la the late Warren Zevon, who had way better jokes) ,or "You've got to open up, and let it all in/But see, once it gets in, the poppin' begins," rapped so awkwardly that Fergie wants to change bridges. And yeah, even Fergie had better metaphors, not to mention better jokes. Both: C-

Fergie - "Fergalicious"

Okay, maybe not. I'd prefer not to scrutinize a track called "Fergalicious," but if I have to, I'd counterdescribe it as "Fergadisgusting." is not a choice guest rapper (or producer) even though these two spawns of Satan have actually crafted fun singles in the past. This isn't one, except for Ferg's implication at a possible Nelly Furtado feud ("I ain't promiscuous"), which would be way more fun than actually listening to either Fergie or Nelly Furtado. As for her rapping, let's say in the Thanksgiving spirit that I'm thankful that bodies deteriorate and Fergie's "talents" aren't going to keep her afloat much longer. 2016 Playboy comeback pictorial yes. D+

Lady Sovereign - "Love Me Or Hate Me"

The S-O-V is nothing if not endearingly simple: all synth blips and 808s are on the four, all opinions go as follows: "if you love me then/thank youuuuu/if you hate me then/f*ck youuuuu." That's the hook, the one that follows every dare to have her deported cuz she's English. Other claims: "I can't sing," "I don't have the biggest breasteses/but I write all the bestestes," "It's officially the biggest midget in the game," "I'm fat/I need a diet," "I got hairy armpits" "I've never had my nails done." And she portrays all of the above as not only charming, but as boasts. A role model. A-

Note: Seven Deadly Singles was my weekly feature for the Beacon at William Paterson University and went on hiatus until this edition. It will now appear in this blog biweekly as Seven Deadly Singles and in the Pioneer Times as Kiss Out The Jams. Every column I dispatch seven recent singles with an analysis and a grade.