Tuesday, November 27, 2007

November 07 review round-up

Reviews today from the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury, mainstream daily newspapers where I do a weekly consumer guide review column.

In alphabetical order, we have: Federation, Jay-Z, Kevin Michaels, Ghislain Poirier, Prefuse 73, Seal, Sigur Ros, Spiral Beach, Wintersleep, Neil Young.

Not appearing here, but that ran in the paper are: Band of Horses, Bishop Allen, Buck 65, Duran Duran, the Inhabitants, the Most Serene Republic, Sadies, Shaggy, Siouxie, and Peanut Butter Wolf. Different reviews of Buck 65, Bishop Allen, Duran Duran and Siouxie ran in either Eye Weekly or Magnet; those will be posted here shortly. If you work with any of these artists and need a clipping, let me know.

Federation – It’s Whateva (Reprise/Warner)

Now that Timbaland, the Neptunes and Kanye West are all firmly entrenched in the mainstream—where they walk a fine line between gleeful subversion and tired old tricks for the highest pop bidder—there’s a void waiting to be filled by the next great American hip-hop producer who can take things to the next level. So far the safe money should be on Rick Rock, the architect of San Francisco’s hyphy scene and the puppetmaster behind Federation.

The three MCs here are entirely disposable jokers who are too stupid to be offensive; thankfully, that also means they’re easy to ignore, leaving the listener to instead focus on the fat synths, rubbery bass and ominous beats that signify the hyphy sound. Rock only stumbles when he tries to be commercial, like on the sappy Snoop Dogg track “Happy I Met You”; he does, however, pull off some solid electro soul balladry on “When I Was Your Man” and even some shockingly convincing metal crossover on “Black Roses,” featuring Blink 182 drummer Travis Barker.

Rock is the true star here; as for the Federation themselves—well, whateva. (November 1, 2007)

Jay-Z – American Gangster (Roc-a-fella/Universal)

Now that he’s the richest man in hip-hop—as well as president and CEO of DefJam Records—Jay-Z is nothing if not a shrewd marketer. Linking himself to the streetwise story of Harlem heroin kingpin Frank Lucas is undoubtedly a bid to bolster the gangster persona of this now-respectable mainstream MC. This is not the soundtrack to the new star-studded Lucas biopic of the same title, though Jay-Z claims that each song is based on a scene from the film; snippets of dialogue can be heard throughout.

The story of Lucas—much like most of the less cartoonish aspects of gangsta rap—argues that criminal culture is one of the only options for impoverished African-Americans to buy into the American dream. Whether this is still relevant 50 years after the beginning of desegregation is subject for debate. But in an era when corporate cronyism and outright deception are government policy, the glorification of gangster culture as a metaphor for American life—found everywhere from The Sopranos and The Wire to The Clipse and 50 Cent—is more timely than ever.

In returning to this subject matter, Jay-Z pens some of his more memorable lines in years, particularly when he gets into the “genesis of the nemesis,” recalling his broken home and Brooklyn youth. But he also embodies the nihilism inherent in Bush-era America, where every criminal is quick to absolve himself of responsibility. Everything can be rationalized as being a product of the environment.

For starters, Jay-Z is not ready to be a scapegoat in the ghetto language debates sparked by the Don Imus incident earlier this year. He’s unrepentant for the self-loathing that his language reflects back to his own community—and others, as the Imus confusion pointed out. “I missed that part/ Where it stopped being about Imus/ What do my lyrics got to do with this sh*t?” he asks, like an innocent bystander, not the cultural icon he is. “Are you saying what I’m spittin’/ is worse than these celebutantes showing they kitten? You kiddin’… / Let’s stop the bullsh*tting/ ‘til we all without sin/ let’s quit the pulpit-ing.”

Right—so unless everyone is without sin, we all might as well go on sinning. It’s a thought echoed by MC David Banner, who has openly attacked America’s black leadership—especially Al Sharpton—for not solving every problem that faces black youth today, essentially arguing that the persistence of racism in America is the fault of the previous generation. Banner wrote in a statement: “This life we are continuing to live was handed to us by the people before us who didn’t do much to clean it up.” Ghetto life is what it is—it’s not the kids’ fault. Blame it on the parents.

Jay-Z takes this and runs with it: “We ain’t thugs for the sake of being thugs/ nobody do that where we grew up, nigga, duh… / You ain’t gimme forty acres and a mule/ so I got my Glock 40, now I’m cool/ And if Al Sharpton is speakin’ for me/ somebody get him the word/ and tell him I remove the curses/ if he can tell me our schools gon’ be perfect/ When Jena Six don’t exist/ tell him that’s when I’ll stop sayin’ ‘bitch.’”

When trying to tie in his own story with that of Lucas, Jay-Z backfires a bit when he goes on an anti-snitching screed on “No Hook”; after all, Lucas only served 12 years of his 70-year sentence—many believe it’s because Lucas himself started talking to police. Just like any gangster, Jay-Z doesn’t have any trouble stretching the truth to his own ends. (November 8, 2007)

Kevin Michaels – s/t (Downtown/Warner)

This might sound familiar: a cocksure Italian/African-American who plays a mean guitar and wants to mix up his rock and R&B with a spine-tingling falsetto. For young Philadelphia singer Kevin Michael, the comparisons with Prince stop there: instead of being a one-man show, he employs a small army of co-writers and collaborators, and much of this debut album doesn’t rise above pedestrian songs along the lines of “Liquid Lava Love” and “Hood Buzzin’,” despite guests such as Q-Tip and Lupe Fiasco. Michaels’ lyrics are at times downright embarrassing: “Rent is racked up and my toilet is backed up/ Damn, wish I could flush the drama away.”

Yet he does show plenty of promise, mainly because of his elastic voice, which shows all of the range of his labelmate Cee-Lo of Gnarls Barkley. And he also boasts two great singles, “We All Want the Same Thing” and “It Don’t Make Any Difference To Me”; each of them appears here twice, once in highly produced pop version with a guest MC, and then again as a low-key acoustic number. It’s too bad all his talent goes into those two songs. Next time out we’ll be expecting a lot more. (November 1, 2007)

Ghislain Poirier – No Ground Under (Ninja Tune/Outside)

The term “urban music” has always been a bizarre, unnecessary code word for hip-hop and R&B. Other than the weird racial politics behind this, it’s a waste of a perfectly good descriptor. Montreal’s Ghislain Poirier makes music that speaks directly to the multicultural urban experience, where harsh electronics punctuate the daily rhythm, where speaker-rattling bass is the one sound that unites all. Poirier’s vision of urban paradise is where Brazilian baile funk meets UK “grime” hip-hop meets Jamaican dancehall with Arabic and East Asian melodies on top.

Poirier has never had a problem concocting compelling instrumental narratives, but as a safeguard here he lines up a wealth of obscure MCs to toast on top, including Toronto’s nerdcore Abdominal, Quebec’s joual jokers Omnikrom and Chicago dancehall king Zulu.

No Ground Under is his first release on a reputable international label—a chance for him to give back to the globalized beats he borrows. Soon enough, however, the world will be borrowing from him. (November 15, 2007)

Prefuse 73 – Preparations (Warp/Fusion 3)

In his work as Prefuse 73, Guillermo Scott Herren always came across like an ADD kid who took meticulous delight in splicing up hip-hop and jazz samples, re-arranging them into itchy and glitchy compositions that gave you the jitters. In his considerably more pastoral alterego of Savath + Savalas, Herren makes ambient Spanish folk music that fades into the background all too easily.

On Preparations, however, Herren happily marries the lush arrangements of his other project onto the sliced and diced beats that are the trademark of Prefuse 73. This results in a captivating tension, where beauty proves eternally elusive as Herren continually pulls a bait-and-swith with the rhythm, yanking the carpet out from underneath. It’s no coincidence that tracks are given titles like “Aborted Hug” and “Spaced + Dissonant.” There are times when it sounds like someone turning a radio dial in rhythm—is that necessarily a bad thing?

While his earlier recordings were certainly innovative, this is the first time Herren sounds like he’s finding his own voice as a composer.

And as a bonus to fans, instead of recycling the leftovers into separately sold EPs—as he usually does—they’re included here on a bonus disc devoid of any beats at all, which is a lovely, light dessert after such a dense main course. (November 15, 2007)

Seal – System (Warner)

This suave Grammy magnet clings to the 90s formula that made him a global superstar: Euro pop with techno underpinnings elevated by the occasional folk flourish and Seal’s soulful voice, which promises assurance and salvation in a cold, heartless world. You can’t argue with his System, which even at its most maudlin still stands tall over anything else you’re going to hear in the drugstore aisles. Celebrity watchers will delight in the “Wedding Day” duet with his supermodel wife Heidi Klum, but nothing here tops the opening track, “If It’s In My Mind It’s On My Face,” where the eternally glum and scarfaced singer takes the weight of the world off Bono’s back and carries it himself. It’s overwrought and heavy-handed and has the cheap disco pulse of a World Cup anthem, but only a singer of Seal’s depth could begin to pull it off. (November 22, 2007)

Sigur Ros – Hvarf/Heim (XL)

Icelandic band Sigur Ros never do things normally—like sing in a language they didn’t make up themselves, for starters. Chock it up to their contrarian nature that these two EPs are not the soundtrack to their new concert film, which bears the similar title Heima. The movie was shot during their first-ever full tour of Iceland, where every show was free: from a crowd of 25,000 in Reykjavik to small community halls in remote outposts. During that tour, Sigur Ros played acoustically for the first time ever, which led to the decision to release an EP of that material, accompanied by an electric EP of b-sides and re-recordings of early material.

While the film sounds fascinating, the not-quite-a-soundtrack isn’t exactly essential for anyone but hardcore fans. Sigur Ros music is already sparse, haunting and gorgeous—playing it acoustically doesn’t prove to be revelatory. Likewise, the b-sides—which date from 1995 to 2002—slipped through the quality filter of their full-length albums for a reason; some of this is the most heavy-handed material the normally delicate band has ever made. Save your money for a movie ticket. (November 22, 2007)

Spiral Beach – Ball (Sparks Music)

As we all know, graduating from adolescence is daunting and scary. Toronto’s Spiral Beach hadn’t finished high school when they recorded the exuberant pop of their first album; now that they’re a bit older, the world isn’t as colourful and joyous as it first appeared. The carefree, almost cartoonish nature of early material is replaced with ghosts, black eyes and beasts; the sci-fi vibe remains, and each member’s instrumental prowess gives even the weaker material inventive twists. Despite their talent, Ball falls short of their considerable potential. No worries, though—there’s lots of time. (November 15, 2007)

Wintersleep – Welcome to the Night Sky (Labwork/Sonic Unyon)

Are the 90s over yet? Wintersleep don’t seem to think so. Thankfully, the Halifax quintet have moved on from being moodier Pearl Jam disciples and have started to mine Radiohead’s The Bends—while vocalist Paul Murphy is bearing a remarkable resemblance to Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, with shades of Peter Gabriel on the slightly Celtic alt-rock of “Weighty Ghost.” Thankfully, Wintersleep are more melodic than other crass imitators, and the rhythm section of Loel Campbell and Mike Bigelow—both can often be found moonlighting in Holy Fuck—are several steps above many of their peers. There’s a great band in here somewhere with a voice of its own, though that’s still at least one album away. (November 8, 2007)

Neil Young – Chrome Dreams II (Warner)

It’s hard to believe that someone as prolific as Neil Young still has hours of unreleased material in his vaults—especially considering the dubious quality of many of his official releases. This album is somewhere in between.

Though it features mostly new material—much of which is instantly forgettable—the title is a nod to a 1977 album that Young recorded and scrapped, releasing some salvaged tracks (“Like a Hurricane” and “Pocahontas” among them) on other albums. Don’t bother looking for any kind of thematic thread, however—the title is merely a red herring for geeky fans.

The single reason most of his disciples are excited about this is the presence of “Ordinary People,” a song that dates back to 1988. It’s notable only because it led Young out of the wilderness of much of his 80s output, acting as a bridge into the career renaissance that was 1989’s Freedom.

The 18-minute song is a by-the-numbers portrait of a crumbling consumerist American dream, but Young’s scorching guitar solos—there’s one after each of the nine verses—speak more about paranoia, collapse and frustration than anything he expresses in the actual lyrics. They also explain why he would shortly embark on a mutual love affair with Sonic Youth and the grunge generation.

But even this song is a mixed success: the structure is monotonous, the groove is plodding, and the horn section is a wasteful distraction. No wonder he kept it in the vaults; there are several similar tracks on Freedom—both lyrically and musically—that are far superior.

You have to be a major Neil Young geek to appreciate Chrome Dreams II. Anyone else with the strange urge to buy a new Neil Young album should stick with the 1971 Massey Hall concert released earlier this year. (November 1, 2007)

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