Articles

  • CD Review: Kendrick Lamar - good Kid, m.A.A.d city

    16 jan. 2013, 3h11m

    good kid, m.A.A.d city is a concept album dealing with cycles of violence, the recklessness of youth, and the possibility of redemption. It seems to a good deal less cynical than Section.80, though it deals with some of the same topics. If Section.80 is an urban dystopia born of Reaganomics, the world of GKMC at least offers redemption in the form of family and spirtuality.

    That may sound hokey but it really works. The emotional honesty of the storytelling is the big strength of the album, from the energetic rush of young Kendrick racing through traffic to get laid in Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter, to the tremble in his voice when he's jacked in m.A.A.d city to the belligerent teen prostitute who tells Kendrick not to dare speak for her on the album's tear-jerking centerpiece, Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst

    GKMC is a rap opera that tells the story of a young man immersed in street culture, but it's also a comment on the culture of hip-hop and the use of Compton as a symbol for an anarchic landscape that's very dangerous and very "real.""K-dot" is extremely self-aware, and the sex-and-violence fueled path he treads is illuminated by a thread of redemption (the record starts with a prayer). As "the music of being young and dumb" thrusts Kendrick out onto the streets, the songs are interrupted with clips of his mother telling him to bring her van back and reminding us it's a school night.

    These clips are reminiscent of a previous generation of gangsta rap, when albums like The Chronic and Doggystyle were peppered with little interludes, most of them quite funny. While Lamar's little video clips (the album is presented as a "short film") are not without humor, they're a little more involved and move the story along, giving it a very true-to-life feel.

    GKMC is a gangsta rap album, but it's also a cautionary tale. The characters are desperately trying to grab a piece of the pie, quick to drown their sorrows in alcohol and prone to violent outbursts. Needless to say, this does not end well. But instead of just blowing this off as "a Compton thang," Lamar examines it from a lot of angles, showing, for example, how a normally sober, spirtual kid can end up a criminal (The Art of Peer Pressure). The record has an unmistakable basis in Christian morality ("Where your sword at?/Hand on the cross and swear that", Kendrick raps on Compton), but there seems to be a lot of insecurity and anxiety around whether this is enough to survive the mean streets of Compton.

    The metaphors are constantly mixed, and the narrative goes back and forth, and this seems to be intentional -- we start with a prayer, we end in the real world with Kendrick running out the door again. The most interesting spiritual moment on the album, where an old lady preaches at them in the middle of a gang fight and presumably baptizes them on the spot, is preluded with Kendrick rapping "you dying of thirst/so hop in that water/and pray that it works," a line that recalls the decadent desperation of Swimming Pools (Drank) (extended version)

    The production seems to follow the same path, sometimes loud and full of bragadaccio, sometimes quiet and unsure, sometimes just simple and smooth to highlight the lyrics. Often the soundscape is used for the purpose of storytelling, as in "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst," where a rapper is shot in the middle of a sentence. Compare the vicious use of gunshots as percussion in the old days; this is a lot more true to life, a lot less cynical, and it makes heightens the awareness of mortality that is the songs's dramatic effect.

    Having MC Eiht and Dr. Dre, two of Compton's most famous rappers, on the album ties GKMC into the tradition of the west-coast gansta-rap as well as allowing some older voices to speak to Kendrick's themes. MC Eiht's cold acceptance of laced blunts and drive-bys in response to Kendrick's frantic verses (on "m.A.A.d city") is very effective, and Dr. Dre's familiar cadence in "Compton" reminds us why the city was such a big deal in the first place.

    Overall, this album represents an ambitious project that is very effective. The hooks are catchy, Kendrick's voice is amazingly versatile, and the deeper themes hold up well to repeated listens. My rating: 8/10.
  • Top Ten Albums of the 00s

    1 jan. 2010, 3h04m

    Originally I had intended to do a more elaborate thing, but it's late and I'm tired, so I'm going to close 2009 with a simple list of my personal favorites from the last ten years, and a short blurb about each.

    10) 604 (Ladytron)

    A quite intriguing record, and I still don't think Ladytron has topped it. Definitely the herald of a new thing in electronic music.

    9) Gorillaz (Gorillaz)

    This thing still makes me want to get up and dance. Great for a party, or just hanging about the house.

    8) Sung Tongs (Animal Collective)

    Though still incredibly bizarre, this seems to me to be their most accessible album. Also their most solid. It has a haunting, delightful atmosphere that just leaves one wanting more.

    7) Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? (The Unicorns)

    Many of the members of the Unicorns went on to bigger and better things, but this album still gets to me. Very raw and raucous, playful and powerful, silly and sublime.

    6) The Moldy Peaches (The Moldy Peaches)

    These guys are on "indefinite hiatus," which makes me very very sad. An excellent record; the most fun one can safely have with a CD player.

    5) You Are The Quarry (Morrissey)

    Morrissey's big comeback. Still a really solid album. I love that this album starts out with a song that goes "In America...where the president is never black, female, or gay..." It's been an eventful decade, I guess.

    4) Blueberry Boat (The Fiery Furnaces)

    No amount of gushing on my part can communicate how awesome the Fiery Furnaces are. I mean that. Go listen for yourself; I'm lost for words.

    3) Trees Outside The Academy (Thurston Moore)

    This one has sentimental value because I didn't even know it existed until I received a copy of it in the mail (from my girlfriend, who was out of town at the time), despite being a longtime Sonic Youth fan. A great record. Thurston Moore needs to do more solo stuff.

    2) Amethyst Rock Star (Saul Williams)

    I used to be a big hip-hop fan, but lately I haven't listened to much but the classics - Run-DMC, BDP, Digital Underground and Public Enemy. Saul Williams is the one major exception. I simply cannot get enough of this guy. Poet, philosopher, and preacher, his songs are topical and spiritual, both universal and immediately socially relevant, hardcore yet unapologetically intelligent. If you think hip-hop is a dying art, do yourself a favor: get this album. It's a harsh but needed Heimlich maneuver to a genre that's choking on its own vomit.

    1) Ghosts I-IV (Nine Inch Nails)

    My favorite non-jazz instrumental record. A beautiful piece of music. But I already talked about that in an earlier journal, so I'll cut this short.

    Happy new year! Feel free to add your personal favorites in the comments.
  • Third - Comeback of the year

    7 mai 2008, 0h14m

    I must admit I was a little anxious when I heard Portishead was making a long-awaited comeback this year. It had been over a decade since their self-titled album, which I had not enjoyed nearly as much as their debut. Would it be the same band? Would the eerie energy and beauty of Dummy be diluted with time? Was trip-hop or downtempo or whatever you want to call it even relevant anymore? And so on.

    It's always difficult for a band to find their niche again after a long hiatus from recording, but in this case I think the effort is right on the spot. Third is a fresh look at the old sound. It shows the band's growth but it is immediately recognizable. After hearing the opening track, Silence, I immediately thought: "Oh, yeah. That's what I've been missing since the 90s."

    Very little filled the void that Portishead left when they stopped recording in 1997. Maybe that's just my personal taste, though - with the exception of Hooverphonic and Massive Attack, I generally don't listen to much music of this particular ilk. Usually I find it dull and repetitive. But the beats are compelling, and Beth Gibbons's voice is simply haunting. There's nothing quite like it. MA's Mezzanine was very good, but IMO it didn't stand up to Portishead's S/T, let alone Dummy.

    I like this one a lot. It's compelling, subtle, and just jazzy enough for a rainy afternoon. It's not exactly a tour de force for this band, but that's okay - it leaves them somewhere to go.

    On a final note, I want to mention the unique promotional gimmick that last.fm tried - putting up the tracks for an album by a major artist before the actually release date (I believe this was on April 21, and the album was officially released on the 28th). Apparently it was really good for Last.fm, as it drew a lot of people who hadn't been here before. And it hasn't hurt Portishead's popularity either - they've got seven tracks in Last.fm's Top 20 this week. Same thing happened the week Ghosts I-IV was released; it's refreshing to see something other than Radiohead in those charts... :/

    Anyway, if you haven't given this album a try yet, you should. A great introduction to the band and a must-have for old fans.

    My Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Nine Inch Nails: Finally, enough of a good thing.

    19 mars 2008, 2h45m

    Trent Reznor's musical output has always been innovative, daring, and sometimes quite surprising, but it has not until recently been frequent or consistent. After the ground-breaking Pretty Hate Machine and the incredibly energetic EP Broken, followed by the crossover hit The Downward Spiral, Reznor was relatively silent for five years. Sure, there were numerous remix projects and quite a few soundtrack appearances (don't get me wrong, Nine Inch Nails covering Joy Division is just about the coolest thing that happened in the 90s), but we didn't have a purposeful, solid album with the graceful artistry of TDS until 1999's ambitious (dare I say epic?) The Fragile.

    After that, it was another dry spell. The Fragile was followed by Things Falling Apart, a notable effort but still little more than a remix album, not even on the earlier tear-everything-apart-and-rebuild-it-through-a-mess-of-distortion scale of Fixed and Further Down the Spiral. After that followed the (arguably) forgettable With Teeth, and I wondered what exactly would become of the sound that had so amazed me when I first sat down and listened to TDS as an impressionable teenager.

    Year Zero changed all of that. Here was fresh, exciting new stuff from Reznor, with all the youthful energy of PHM combined with the lessons learned from the meandering experimentalism of WT. Not only was I struck by the growth of Reznor's own sound, but upon repeated listens I was continually impressed by his innate understand of the growth of musical styles around him. Here was a dash of punk anger, a sampling of hip-hop attitude, a healthy dose of heavy synth-dance beats, all rolled into a package uniquely his own. YZ basically succeeded in expressing everything Reznor had been trying to get across aesthetically for the past decade or so. This was the first really good Nine Inch Nails album in a long time (I don't mean to disparage the others. They were great listens. But they weren't anything eye-opening or surprising. Some will say that Trent is not "back," because he "never left," but that's bullshit semantics; we can at least agree that he went out on the porch to smoke a cigarette and think things through)

    The pattern I laid out above suggests another long lull to follow, but in less than a year since YZ, NIN has released another remix album (no comment; to be honest, I've been listening to so much lately that I haven't had time to fully absorb Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D) and then, earlier this month (yes, I do have a point) Ghosts I-IV.

    I suppose I should address the innovation of the method of release (creative commons, $5 legal downloads directly from www.nin.com, skipping the record companies and going directly to fans), but I've ranted about that elsewhere. I will say that I like the .pdf file with album art and liner notes with each track. One of my bitches about buying things on iTunes (and maybe it's different now, I haven't been on the store in a while), was paying money for an album and getting no liner notes, artwork or, really, anything, except once in a while a mediocre bonus track or two. I think all the artwork for this album is incredible and really enhanced the overall experience. I'm not sure if In Rainbows and The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! were released the same way, but I hope future direct-release albums will be.

    Anyway, to get on to the music itself: I love it. I love the minimalism especially. It's an intriguing counterpoint to YZ, for one thing; on YZ Reznor explores a completely new range of vocal styles and on Ghosts he strips the vocals away and concentrates on the music. The use of numbers instead of track names adds to the effect. Again, minimalism is the key. Nothing is overwrought, nothing goes too far. Every track gives the beat a chance to grow and live, to explain its full environment, then leaves it behind and moves on to the next world. It's an incredible journey, and if you have the luxury of being able to spend nearly two hours listening to an album, I can't think of a better album to spend them on.

    I could go on to attempt to describe the songs themselves, but I might as well be dancing to architecture, as they say. I will say this: 21 Ghosts III makes me want to dance. 8 Ghosts I makes me want to break stuff. 12 Ghosts II makes me want to cry. 27 Ghosts III scares the shit out of me. I don't know why.

    So what might the future hold? Reznor talks about these 36 songs as if they're merely the tip of the creative iceberg:

    "I've been considering and wanting to make this kind of record for years, but by its very nature it wouldn't have made sense until this point. This collection of music is the result of working from a very visual perspective - dressing imagined locations and scenarios with sound and texture; a soundtrack for daydreams. I'm very pleased with the result and the ability to present it directly to you without interference. I hope you enjoy the first four volumes of Ghosts."

    (qtd from www.nin.com)

    "I hope you enjoy the first four volumes of Ghosts" gives me reason to believe he may be thinking of more along this same line. If so, I couldn't be more pleased. In any case, I think we're in for a bit of a NIN Renaissance, if you will; a great time to be a fan.

    My Rating: 10 out of 10.
  • Control - First Impressions

    12 mars 2008, 5h47m

    Last night I watched Control, the film about Ian Curtis and Joy Division based on Deborah Curtis's biography, Touching from a Distance. Here are some thoughts, in no particular order:

    It looks great. Director Anton Corbijn seems to have a feel for the environment of Manchester in the mid-70s (Of course, this is coming from someone born in Connecticut in the late 70s, so I could be way off. In any case, it looked how I expected it to look from photos I've seen). Cinematically it's very minimalist and quite intense. Corbijn is able to slip in a lot of moments from famous photographs without being too obvious or "clever."

    The sound is very intense. A lot has been said against the use of silence in this film, but I think it works very well. Control creeps along at a very quiet, moody pace (with a few moments of wry humor), so that the more dramatic moments at the end seem very loud. And of course it makes a nice contrast for the songs. There is a great selection of music from Joy Division's influences, of course, from Roxy Music to the Sex Pistols to David Bowie (I particularly liked the way Warszawa, the song the band took their original name from, was played very subtly under one scene). Most of the actual Joy Division songs are performed by the actors, with the exception of the recorded version of Love Will Tear Us Apart being played over one scene.

    I had mixed feelings about Sam Riley. I felt he was a very good actor and he seemed to understand his subject. At moments, he really looked the part and was very believable. Some of the seizure scenes were absolutely haunting. But I felt a lot of the mystery and soul behind Curtis's personality was missing. This could be due to the fact that the film takes his struggle with depression as a given, rather than examining it dramatically. And, of course, his voice did not match up to Curtis's. I didn't expect it too, though. And his singing is most certainly better than the Killers rendition of Shadowplay that (dis)graced the soundtrack.

    Another actor I thought was great was Toby Kebbell, who played Rob Gretton. His performance was solid and quite funny, and he stole just about every scene he was in.

    I thought the end was tasteful while still being devastating. I think the choice to show Deborah go into the house but not show the body. Anybody who read Deborah Curtis's book knows what is going to happen as soon as Ian puts The Idiot on the turntable, and this staging was much more effective than anything graphic would have been.

    All in all, I'd say it's a damn good film. Recommended for new fans and old alike. I already knew this story, but I was still weeping at the end. Kudos to Anton Corbijn.
  • Feel-Good Hit of the Winter

    4 mars 2008, 22h16m

    It's been about a month since Made in the Dark, the latest effort from Hot Chip came out, and I just can't get enough of it. From the bouncy, sarcastically-hip beats of Shake a Fist and Ready for the Floor to the mellow/romantic tones of In the Privacy of Our Love, the album is playful, fun, intelligent, and infectious. This has been my music for driving lately, as it always puts me in a good mood.

    Some might attack this album as being unbalanced and unfocused, but I think after a few listens, it gives a very complete feel. It has the versatility of their earlier records, but it also has the feel of a complete journey. I wasn't crazy about this band at first - I liked Coming on Strong a lot, but it was forgettable, and by the time The Warning came out, I wasn't paying attention anymore...but this one is really good. I'm really eager to see what they do next.

    My Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • I'm Impressed

    15 août 2007, 2h17m

    After twenty years of excellent music, as one of the most prolific bands out there, it's hard to imagine how They Might Be Giants can keep impressing listeners. It's hard to top such quirky and enjoyable recordings as Lincoln, Apollo 18, and Mink Car. I was a litle bit afraid of cracking open The Else and finding it was as spotty and uninspired as The Spine. However, I find myself pleased to declare with the opening track: I'm Impressed.

    Unlike some of their recent recordings, this is a very solid record, with interlaced themes and a concise feel. It's moody, but in that playful way that made Mink Car so loveable. "Take Out the Trash" and "Careful What You Pack" work great as witty breakup songs, and "Upside Down Frown," "Climbing the Walls," and "Shadow Government" play up a self-indulgent bad mood. The Giants always have an uncanny ability to be dark and light at the same time.

    Lots of people expressed qualms about The Dust Brothers producing, but I think they did wonders for the band's sound. As satisfying as this album is for longtime listeners, they do some entirely new things instrumentally. The long, winding, unstructured "With the Dark" is unlike anything I've ever heard from the Johns. And if it's too weird for you, there's the old standbys with catchy choruses like "Withered Hope" and "Feign Amnesia."

    All in all, another great disc from a great band. Also comes with a bonus disc - "Cast Your Pod to the Wind" - full of highlights from podcasts. "Why Did You Grow a Beard?" is my personal favorite, but there are some other greats.

    My Rating: 7 of 10.
  • Rock and Roll Needed to Be Saved, But You Guys Took Too Long

    1 août 2006, 19h43m

    Lately I've been wary of comeback albums - Mission of Burma's comeback was a huge disappointment, and Gang of Four's new record was simply re-recordings of old songs. Depeche Mode's latest is an exception, but they've been making records this whole time (just no one noticed), so it doesn't really count as a comeback). So I was pleased that the new release from the New York Dolls, Someday It Will Please Us to Remember Even This rocks so hard.

    Even though they're really really old, their old shenanigans still come through. "Running Around" and "Gotta Get Away from Tommy" have that nostalgic feel, while songs like "Maimed Happiness" have matured and have almost a blues feel. Johansen's quirky wit still shines through - "Dance Like a Monkey" is a very funny attack on the resurgance of the concept intelligent design. The insert has a little comic strip that is simply hilarious.

    The timing is excellent. The record serves as a rock-history lesson to fans of retro bands such as The Libertines, The White Stripes and The Strokes: The New York Dolls did it first, and they did it best. Definitely recommended to old fans of the Dolls or anyone who's just getting into them.

    My Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • All Bark and No Bite

    23 jui. 2006, 21h14m

    I've been trying to like the new Dogg Pound album Cali Iz Active. I really have. I'm not sure why; perhaps just meaningless nostalgia.

    Before I go further, let me state that I am not a hip-hop fan. For a brief moment in high school, when Dr. Dre left NWA and started making crossover hits, and all the white boys in the suburbs realized the funk-inspired rap of The Chronic was a lot more entertaining at their pot parties then the depressed mumblings of Ten, I was. I bought into "G-Funk," and I loved Dr. Dre, Warren G, Snoop Dogg, and the Dogg Pound. Then I started listening to George Clinton firsthand, and I moved on. But I digress.

    I haven't been listening to hip-hop for a while, not because I disrepect the genre as a whole, but because what I've been exposed to has been disappointing. The mainstream is pretty much polluted with unoriginal crap (yes, "Gold Digga" rhymes with "Broke Nigga," good one, let's move on). So I'm probably the wrong one to write a review. But when I heard about the Dogg Pound reuniting, I had high hopes. Surely Kurupt and Daz can do no wrong, especially with the aid of Snoop and other G-Funk Era standbys such as Rage and RBX?

    Sadly, Cali Iz Active iz no Dogg Food. If it's receiving rave reviews, that is (IMHO) simply becuase nothing interesting is going on in mainstream rap right now. For an album that blatantly hails the return of the West Coast, it doesn't sound very Californian. I think they were better when they were hating on the East Coast and worked with only other West Coast artists, which (again, IMHO) was where it was all at at the time. There are elements of crunk in a few tracks, which is understandable, but I find myself pining for the old-school funky-smooth style.

    The beats are elementary and rather boring, with a few exceptions. The vocals, for the most part, sound more like lists of words that rhyme than the elegant lyrics Kurupt and Daz used to concoct. The saving grace is the presence of Snoop, and even he seems to be phoning it in. And I love RBX, but I much preferred him crafting the Islamic apolcalypse of The RBX Files than talking about how he goes "Hard on a Hoe." The Lady of Rage is a welcome guest, but then I've never heard Rage lay down a bad track.

    Could it be the Dogg Pound can't record an entertaining album without Dre? It remains to be seen. I'll definitely check out the next album, but for the moment, it seems these doggs have been neutered.

    My Rating: 3 out of 10.
  • Cex in the City

    17 jui. 2006, 4h51m

    I've been listening to Cex - Actual Fucking a bit over the last two weeks, and I find I still have mixed feelings about it.

    On the one hand, it is nice to see Kidwell forge into some new territory. This is a far cry from the bizarre cross between hip-hop and house music he's been making for the last few years. But one wonders if this new style is relevant - the pretentious, meandering vocals and low-key instrumental sections are lacking in the one quality that makes Cex so entertaining and dynamic: his witty lyrics and catchy, clever hooks.

    The other way to look at it is to take the whole thing as a piece of satire. Kidwell's music has always been highly referential and he has occasionally attacked his counterparts explicitly, so each new artistic persona he takes on is bound to be a little tounge-in-cheek. Thus, if Tall, Dark, and Handcuffed is a send-up of The Slim Shady LP, this latest album is a send-up of Feel Good Lost.

    The question is whether it really fits in Cex's catalogue as anything but a clever novelty. I don't find it nearly as enjoyable as Being Ridden or Maryland Mansions, but, if I understand what he's trying to do here, the timing is, as always with Kidwell, impeccable. My Rating: 7 out of 10.