Monday, June 10, 2013

Mobb Deep: 20 Years Of Infamy

I didn't listen to much hip hop in the mid-to-late 90's (too busy listening to Portishead, Tricky and Massive Attack - all indebted to hip hop) so the Infamous Mobb passed me by on the first go round. In the end, it was a mistake that led me to them. After seeing the compulsively watchable 8 Mile starring Eminem, I decided to order the soundtrack from the BMG Club (a relic of the CD Era). Must've filled in the wrong number, though, because I ended up with More Music From 8 Mile, a supplementary disc featuring some of the older songs used in the movie. Rather than send it back, I gave it a listen. Most of it was very good but I was magnetically attracted by two cuts that had grimy, distorted beats and rappers who sounded like real New Yorkers: Prodigy and Havoc, the duo that is Mobb Deep.

When I caught the line "Rock you in your face/Stab your brain with your nosebone," I knew I needed more. I delved in and found a whole cosmology. Welcome to the 41st Side of QB - 41st St. in Queensbridge - where the wolves shoot out the streetlights, deal crack and put an ice pick in your neck: a film noir setting where the streets are always wet - rain and blood - and thugs are always scheming. I grew up in 70's NYC but P and Hav were BORN into that mess, the Ford To City: Drop Dead era, and the soundtrack they provide is perfect for walking the sidewalks of the Rotten Apple.

Hip Hop fans are some of the toughest critics and there's a constant debate about when or if Mobb Deep fell off and if or when they ever got back on top. In a 20 year career, ups and downs are to be expected but I find good stuff on most of their albums. If you add in Prodigy's best solo albums (H.N.I.C. And Return Of The Mac), their catalog adds up to one of the major discographies in rap music. After a tentative debut, Juvenile Hell, they made The Infamous in 1995 and it is one of the true classics of the genre. The line quoted above comes from Shook Ones Pt. II, a mission-statement of a track with sharp beats underscoring a crackly haze of synth strings, piano and rich bass. The rhymes are artful but put you right in it: "When the slugs penetrate you feel a burning sensation/getting closer to God in a tight situation." Donald Goines would have lined up at The Tunnel to catch a piece of this.

If anything, the next album, Hell On Earth, brought the Mobb's game up. More Trife Life is pure storytelling, a Raymond Chandler tale of getting caught up in the worst way ("She said don't sweat it he don't got the top lock"), told over a frightful combination of dubbed out bass'n'snare, synth and something creaking. Overall, the beats are even tighter and the rhymes are spiced with more self-reflection. Havoc is their secret weapon behind the boards, a deeply musical in-house producer whose beats are often the best on their albums. This was proved beyond a shadow of a doubt by Murda Muzik, which contained Quiet Storm, one of Hav's most inspired creations. Haunting strings, glassy piano, dead simple drums and a pulse provided by a complete re-contextualization of the iconic White Lines bassline forge not so much a song but a whole environment. The chorus is a statement of purpose: "Cause it's the real shit, shit to make'em feel shit" and at their best Mobb Deep always delivers on it. Prodigy's H.N.I.C., with classic single Keep It Thoro, followed quickly and they seemed unstoppable.

Infamy from 2002 changed things up with it's second single, Hey Love (Anything), which featured the smooth R'n'B stylings of 112. Some fans complained but the song was a hit and helped set the template for the rap songs with sung hooks that dominated the radio over the next few years. Prodigy's sickle cell disease was flaring up at the time and he sometimes sounds subdued on Infamy and its follow-up, Amerikaz Nightmare, their weakest album. The biggest let down was the production, which often sounds plastic and doesn't blend well with their voices. Even the song titles (one is called Real Niggaz, another Real Gangstaz) hint that they were feeling played out. Throw Your Hands (In The Air), with assists from Talib Kweli and Kanye West is a solid cut, however.

In 2005 they signed with Queens compatriot 50 Cent's G-Unit label and put out Blood Money, which found little love but to my ears was nearly a return to form. Put'Em In Their Place has a swagger straight out of the Studebaker era and Prodigy sounds healthy and hungry: "Yo, I was schooled by the hood, raised by the wolves/Trained by the pain, adopted by guerillas." Unfortunately, one of the best beats was wasted on the fairly reprehensible Backstage Pass - I can't make any excuses for a lyric about recognizing a groupie from behind. Not really what we signed up for back in 96. But Creep sported an inventive groove and, like the organ-driven Pearly Gates, featured the best verses from Fiddy since Get Rich Or Die Trying. Strangely enough, Prodigy's lyric on Pearly Gates "Tell the Boss Man we got beef/And tell his only son I'm a see him when I see him," and "We don't give a fuck about that religious bullshit" proved more controversial than his own frankly misogynistic bullshit. Go figure.

Prodigy's Return Of The Mac came in 2007. This full-album collaboration with producer Alchemist featured almost no guests and narrowed the lyrical focus to straight up New York noir. It's one of the best hip hop albums of the 2000's and the future looked rosy at the time. Chaos, never far from the Mobb Deep circle, soon intruded, however, and Prodigy went to jail for three years on a weapons charge. While momentum has been somewhat hard to regain since his release, a number of strong singles and EP's (The Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson EP, Waterboarding/Street Lights, and Black Cocaine) helped get Prodigy and Mobb Deep back into the game. The Bumpy Johnson EP, expanded into an album, was especially good. Stronger, featuring a devastating Nina Simone sample, was a love song to NYC and celebrated Prodigy's triumph over many forms of adversity. Definitely worth the download.

Prodigy drops Albert Einstein, another collaboration with Alchemist, on June 11 and, after a distracting Twitter beef between Prodigy and Havoc in 2012, they reconciled and began work on their first album since 2006. They're also going out on a 20th Anniversary Tour, which touches down in New York on June 20th and July 17th. Even with all the vicissitudes of Mobb Deep's career, they are a New York City legend and I'm not passing up the chance to see them in July. Hell, I even signed up for the meet and greet! So here's your assignment: what would you ask Prodigy and Havoc if you had a moment with them? Leave your ideas in the comments and I'll be sure to report back after the show.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Great Expectations

The more rapturous the reception to an album, the more devoted the fans for a band, the greater the expectations for any subsequent release. Here are four recent releases that were confronted with this obstacle.

The Strokes - Comedown Machine After a brief period of incomprehension, I fell head over heels for Angles, the last album from the former saviors of NYC rock - in fact, it's now my favorite of theirs after Is This It?, their instant-classic debut. The energy, the intricate but not dispassionate guitars, the precise work of the rhythm section, the heart-on-sleeve vocals of Julian Casablancas, and the overall mixture of gloss and scuzz made for a thrilling listen. Many complained about the band's supposed 80's fixation on Angles, but while the the sonics of the late new wave era were evident, The Strokes use of sophisticated chord sequences and counterpoint-riddled melodies make for a far deeper musical experience than that surface would suggest.

So my expectations were high for Comedown Machine, not because I'm still desperately waiting for Is This It? Or Angles redux, but because I just wanted another great album, no matter what it sounded like. And Comedown Machine delivers, and at almost as consistently a high level as Angles. It has a similar combination of ballsy rockers and keyboard-heavy songs, and features about as many of complex arrangements and clever production details, not to mention jaw-dropping guitar solos from Nick Valensi. Like Angles, it's a very witty album with a great sense of fun. While there have been hints of a tortured process in the studio and tensions between band members, if they were giving any interviews they might suggest that their fans lighten up.

Many have dismissed Comedown Machine and Angles as essentially Casablancas solo albums. The other guys must be bringing something to the table, however, as I found Phrazes For The Young, his actual solo album, an unsatisfying listen. Other complaints have centered around Casablancas's use of falsetto (which doesn't bother listeners of the wretched Passion Pit). While its true that the vocals on something like Chances make Casablancas sound lost and lonely, I take that as the feeling of the song not an incompetent vocal performance. As for comparing One Way Trigger, the first single, with A-Ha's Take On Me, it's the same issue of surface versus depth. While the Strokes take some of the spiky style and romantic sweep from the Norwegians, the melody is entirely different and the little rocket of a guitar interlude that starts at 1:30 could only come from Valensi and his six-string partner, Albert Hammond, Jr.

I'm not going to tell anyone what to like, but I hope people will give Comedown Machine (and Angles) a listen with an open mind, whether they're fans of The Strokes or not.

Iron & Wine - Ghost On Ghost Sam Beam's project is another case of early work being held so dear that any alteration in the formula is met with a sense of near betrayal. The fact is, Beam has been building on his original recipe of strummed nylon strings and hushed vocals for almost a decade now and his latest only continues that trajectory. One major difference between Ghost On Ghost and predecessors Kiss Each Other Clean and The Shepherd's Dog is the use of crack session musicians like Tony Garnier and Brian Blade. But this is no slick anonymous effort; the sound is lush, evocative, and completely distinctive. There are horns and strings, an increased (and sometimes raucous) jazz influence and always the sense that Beam is doing exactly what he wants to do.

Just like every other Iron & Wine record, all the sounds are in support of brilliantly crafted, enigmatic songs that demonstrate Beam's deep engagement with American and British folk traditions. When performed solo, these songs prove that Beam is developing one of the richest song catalogs of the current century. Even though there are moments of darkness and sorrow on Ghost On Ghost, overall the mood is lighter than the last album, which, while never surrendering completely, had a creeping bitterness similar to that evinced by Van Morrison on Hard Nose The Highway. While Beam's essential mellow-ness has always benefited from a slight edge, he sounds like he's in a good place on Ghost On Ghost and I'm happy to join him there.

Mount Kimbie - Cold Spring Fault Less Youth The first album by the duo of Dominic Maker and Kai Campos, Crooks & Lovers (2010), was one of the best electronic records of recent years, harking back to the IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) of the 90's delivered by artists like Aphex Twin and Autechre. In some ways it was almost chamber music, featuring pieces that were abstract and unconventionally structured. It wasn't hard to imagine something like Before I Move Off in the concert hall rather than the club. With so much electronic music becoming almost entirely beat-driven, Mount Kimbie was a bright spot.

They still are, but that brightness is slightly dimmed to my ears, as Cold Spring Fault Less Youth is a far more conventional record. While their command of texture and production remains firm, and this is a gorgeous sounding record with a great sense of color and space, these are mostly very definite songs instead of compositions. There are verses and choruses, more prominent vocals (with the stentorian King Krule on two tracks) and abounding 4/4 rhythms. While the end result is not a turn-off like when lovable eccentrics Efterklang went pop, I do find myself searching for more to get interested in while I'm listening. It might be that a series of deconstructive remixes will reveal the heart of these tracks - I'll be sure to keep my ears open.

John Fogerty - Wrote A Song For Everyone How many living legends still regularly stride across the rock'n'roll stage? It's a pretty short list but John Fogerty is definitely on it. As the leader of Creedence Clearwater Revival he helmed a band that put out seven albums in four years, with at least five of them being stone classics. As a songwriter, he duked it out with Lennon & McCartney for the top spot on the charts. Proud Mary alone has been covered over 100 times. He was also a dynamic performer who proved his ridiculous guitar chops on Creedence's last tour, when they played as a trio following the departure of genius rhythm guitarist Tom Fogerty. Fogerty plays both lead and rhythm with a command and fury that's hard to understand when just listening - I'd like to see video! 

In any case, by the time CCR atomized, Fogerty's place in the pantheon was assured. I grew up a fan and have remained one ever since. My wife can tell you that I was playing a tape I made of favorites when it was deeply unfashionable to do so. This new project has him working up new versions of some of his classics with a hand-picked cast of partners. It's been in the works for a while, and while my expectations were as low as mentions of the Foo Fighters and Kid Rock could make them, I wasn't prepared for the train wreck result. The worst thing is that many of Fogerty's own vocals are mannered and the guitar playing is completely pedestrian. The two new songs he eked out are filled with cliches. One, Mystic River, even has a bridge that takes enough from Black Water by the Doobie Brothers that it might be actionable. You'd think someone who was sued for plagiarizing his own songs - as wrong as that was - would strive to be more original.

As for the guests, is his taste really this bad? Besides the Foos & the Kid, he chooses to work with Jennifer Hudson, Zac Brown and mostly other mediocrities. How about Lucinda Williams, Wilco or Jonathan Wilson - artists who are on the same level? I'll say no more except if you love Creedence, NEVER listen to this album.

P.S. I'll let those who thought Daft Punk's Homework was really all that weigh in on whether their latest, Random Access Memories, is a culmination of what they stood for, or a rejection of those principles.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Jace Clayton's Call To Conversation

At the end of his liner notes for The Julius Eastman Memory Depot, Jace Clayton (also known as DJ/Rupture) writes "I interpret the open-ended irreverent nature of Eastman's legacy as a call to conversation. Reverence can be a form of forgetting." No doubt, but I don't think an excess of reverence is the problem where Julius Eastman's music is concerned - just plain forgetting is more like it. It's easier to forget a gay African-American composer than to do the work of expanding the catalog of avant garde composers to make him fit in.

Fact is, with titles like Evil N****r and Gay Guerrilla, both included here, he may never fit in. But on the basis of Clayton's terrific, powerful album, he certainly belongs in the canon of great New York composers at the very least. Now, anyone familiar with Clayton's multifarious works as DJ/Rupture (and every music lover should be), would not need to read the liner notes to know that he might not play things entirely straight.

So it's no surprise that the blistering and precise pianos of David Friend and Emily Manzo are at times treated like a subtext for electronic processing of all sorts, but it's all so expertly and seamlessly done that it never seems to detract from Eastman's original conception. Also, Clayton's studio skills are evident from the first notes of the album, such does the sound of the piano leap out of the speakers, with a crystalline 3D reality rarely captured on recordings.

Although Eastman employed repeated notes in both the pieces here, there is nothing minimalist about these compositions. In fact, they have as much stormy drama as a late romantic piano sonata. The titles add to that drama - Eastman was a master contextualizer in the mold of Marcel Duchamp - but it is intrinsic to the writing, and the fact that he builds it out of such small increments is remarkable. He also had a wicked sense of humor, naming another of his surviving works If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich?

Clayton has his sardonic side as well and lets it fly with the short piece that ends the record, his own composition entitled Callback from the American Society of Eastman Supporters. It takes the form of a rejection letter from the (fictional, as far as I can tell) Society, turning down "James" for a job with the Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner. Beautifully spoken and sung by Arooj Aftab, with a sumptuous background of piano phrases and plucked strings, it's a haunting and thought-provoking conclusion. "The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner is an equal opportunity employer," the lyrics tell us, "All candidates will be considered regardless of age, regardless of name, regardless of race, regardless of color, regardless of creed and disability, sexual orientation, political affiliation, regardless..."

Jace Clayton's remarkable album, his first under his own name, puts all equal opportunity listeners in the employ of Julius Eastman's memory. I plan to clock the necessary hours for this new job and my first task will be to tell you not to stop here. Read up on Eastman's remarkable life and then head over to Spotify to listen to Unjust Malaise, a comprehensive overview of his works, recorded at various concerts under his direction. Trust me, it won't feel like work.

This Just In (sort of): Like everyone else, I get behind on my podcasts and was sorry to learn that DJ/Rupture's last Mudd Up show on WFMU was this past February. Each episode showcases a phantasmagorical array of music from around the world, ranging from electronica, both abstract and dance oriented, to Cumbia, African and Carribean sounds from all nations, and cutting edge sonics from Brooklyn and beyond. Rupture and his regular compatriots Chief Boima and Lamine Fofana are not content to sit around waiting to hear what the record labels send them - they are often in the field, buying CD-R's from cabdrivers and scouring markets and clubs for something new. 

Listen to a few shows and you too will get chills when you hear the words "Another Mudd Up exclusive." The episodes never fail to educate and fascinate and I save almost all of them. Mudd Up was no ordinary radio show and it leaves an absence in our airwaves that is not likely to be filled. The only benefit is that now I'll have a chance to catch up on all the episodes filling up my iTunes and Clayton will have more time to make records like the one reviewed above.

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