Sunday, July 21, 2013

Live Wire (Week of Legends, Part 1)

Photo by Jan Audun Uretsky


My week of legendary music began with the extremely venerable ensemble known as the New York Philharmonic as I was invited to a picnic to see one of their concerts in Central Park. While the company and chow were grand, we left at intermission as it was bloody hot, the amplified sound was of gramophone quality, and, having endured Dvorak's cello concerto, there was no way I was submitting to Tchaikovsky. Kudos to Alan Gilbert and the group in any case, at least for getting New Yorkers to gather in such a glorious setting.

Next night was when the week really took off, with the mighty Wire taking the stage at Bowery Ballroom. While I've been a fan since hearing Map Ref 41N 93W on Warner's Troublemakers loss leader (remember those?), I've never seen them live. Even so, I tried not to expend much effort imagining what the concert would be like. Based on what I've heard, either of two main incarnations could show up: the tight, straight-ahead performers of songs, or the confrontational, high-concept art project. In the latter form, they are perfectly capable of playing one chord for half an hour just to see how many people are left in the room when they've finished. I have the utmost respect for them as artists and musicians so I just decided to be open to whatever they had in mind.

There was an opening set by Bear In Heaven, one of those inexplicably acclaimed Brooklyn bands that gives that whole idea a bad name. Not terrible, just OK, with a distinctive (if derivative) sound but not one memorable song. Although they had fans in the audience, they didn't overstay their welcome and the hyper-efficient Bowery staff soon had the stage ready for Wire. Colin Newman (guitar/vocals), Graham Lewis (bass/vocals), Matthew Simms (guitar), and Robert Gray (drums) took their positions without ceremony and launched into Marooned from their 35 year old second album, Chairs Missing.

From the first notes, it was obvious we were in the presence of masters, the types of musicians who play with ease and comfort no matter how complex or ferocious the sounds become. It was also immediately obvious that they were not going to present themselves as conquering heroes but rather just as a band, and an extremely vital one at that. This was reflected in their set list, which included eight songs from Change Becomes Us, released earlier this year, and six other songs (including two brand new numbers) from the current millennium. They are obviously fully engaged with their latest material and there was no hint of any nostalgia, which was fine with me as I certainly didn't go to relive my youth.

Watching them play, I couldn't help thinking of Buddy Holly - and not just because of Newman's heavy black glasses. It is Holly who is widely credited with cementing the two-guitars-bass-drums line up, which remains a common template to this day. I wondered what Holly would think of this hypnotic, driving music - music which uses his building blocks but is completely devoid of the country, blues and jazz influences which dominated his songs. There is some common ground in the hint of British folk they both employ and watching the brutal version of Oh Boy! that he played on Ed Sullivan makes me think he might relate! In any case, seeing their music take shape in front of me I was once again amazed at the protean nature of Holly's quartet.

Terse strumming from Newman initiated many of the songs, joined by colorful patterns from Simms, melodic ostinatos from Lewis, and Gray's ultra-precise drumming. Newman sang most of the songs but both he and Lewis employ a similar vibrato-free approach, putting over the melodies and lyrics with a minimum of elaboration. These elements seem to have infinite permutations and Wire has found an astonishing number of them in their long career - and they seem in no chance of running out.

Of course, today's musicians are not limited to the instruments they have on stage. Simms's guitar was often treated and occasionally seemed to be triggering some other electronic instrument. Newman had an iPad on a stand next to him that was also creating sonic atmospheres on some songs. He also used the device as a lyrical TelePrompTer, which seemed to bother some members of the audience. Look - they guy is 58 years old, has written dozens of songs, some of them quite wordy, so I have no problem with it. I actually found his dismissive swipe to the next page of lyrics quite endearing and well in character.

Speaking of age, I always say that rock & roll keeps you young - if it doesn't kill you first - and so it is with Wire. They seemed to never run out of steam, right through to the end of the second encore, a lengthy, noisy version of Pink Flag. Perhaps newest member Simms, who's in his late 20's, as given them a new lease on life. He's a terrific presence on stage, often bobbing his head like a fan and never throwing any typical shapes despite the violence he sometimes visited on his instrument. He also acts as a fully-operational member on Change Becomes Us and is just a great addition to the band.

If I had one complaint it would be that Graham Lewis only sang one song, the marvelous Re-Invent Your Second Wheel from the new album. He's in many ways their secret weapon, a great lyricist and a singer whose husky croon is a nice contrast to Newman's slightly more acerbic voice. But what a fantastic show by a band that seems to be on quite a roll since founding guitarist Bruce Gilbert left in 2004. I won't say "here's to another 37 years of Wire," as that seems improbable, but I do look forward much more great music in the years ahead. Viva Wire!

If you're a Vine user, follow AnEarful for six second videos of the concert experience and other moving pictures.

Next time: We visit with Mobb Deep.


Monday, July 15, 2013

Il Mondo Musica Italiana

Five Stormy Six Albums, One Sensations' Fix Compilation and
that Recommended Records Sampler

In my first year of college I befriended Marc, an admitted acid-head who often had a gimlet for breakfast before class, and who turned out to be one of those musical gurus who seem to come along at just the right time. It was he who insisted I buy The Idiot and Lust For Life at a time when they were both out of print and thoroughly discredited. On one shopping trip he placed an interesting package in my hands, a double album set sheathed in heavy plastic, with hand-applied glitter spelling out the title: Recommended Records Sampler.

Recommended Records was an early indie founded by Chris Cutler, drummer for such avant rock mainstays as Henry Cow, Art Bears and Peter Blegvad. The Sampler consisted of newly commissioned tracks from the likes of Faust, The Residents, The Homosexuals, Univers Zero, Robert Wyatt, et al. One of the distinguishing features of the collection was the fact that it spread its net wider than the usual US/UK/Germany axis and included groups and musicians from France, Algeria, Belgium and Italy. The variety of sounds was equally diverse and made for fascinating listening. My plan was to follow up on the stuff that I found most interesting but in those pre-flat earth days this proved harder than I thought.

One of my favorite tracks was called Reparto Novita by an Italian group called Stormy Six. The song began with suspended organ chords and Nick Mason-style tom-toms accompanying a portentous melody sung in Italian. About a minute in, the drums begin playing at a molasses-slow tempo, which picks up when a biting guitar comes in, playing a liquid riff that's more prog than punk. The bass is brick hard and about halfway through joins the guitar to develop a brittle funk section. The song is through-composed with no verse/chorus structure and was obviously the product of a sophisticated ensemble. It reminded me a little of King Crimson and I needed to hear more.

It just so happened that later that year my family was taking what would be the last of our big group trips, a ski holiday in Courmayeur, a resort in the Italian Alps. We were flying in and out of Milan and would have a little time to explore the city on both ends of the trip. As excited as I was by the prospect of my first big-mountain skiing, I was nearly as excited about hitting a record store and scoring some more Stormy Six. Somehow I researched a couple of stores and made my way to them only to be met with blank stares that needed no translation. I had the same experience on subsequent trips to Italy in 1986 and 1988. (I did manage to pick up loads of obscure Ennio Morricone and an album by Tomografia Assiale Computerizzata on one of these trips. It's so avant that the garde is still no longer in sight - only slightly more musical than an actual CAT scan).

In the following years, I would occasionally listen to Reparto Novita and fruitlessly search the internet for signs of Stormy Six. Then, earlier this year, my heart skipped a beat as I read through one of the extensive updates from Downtown Music Gallery: There was a Stormy Six five-CD set on offer, collecting all of their albums from 1975 to 1982. As I read the description I wasn't entirely convinced that I would like all their work, but I had to get my hands on Al Volo, their last record and the one that contains Reparto Novita. The albums were not available individually and the set was on the pricy side but Amazon came to the rescue with a much cheaper deal and soon I was holding in my hands more music from Stormy Six. It had only taken 31 years, and ironically was via the agency of Warner Music Italia. Bravo, major labels!

After their earliest psychedelic years (they opened for the Stones in 1967), Stormy Six were founding members of the Rock In Opposition collective and sometimes, especially on Un Biglietto Del Tram and Cliche + Pinocchio Bazaar, the first albums in the set, that opposition is all you hear. They sound anti-melody, anti-groove, anti-pleasure. Let's just say they take themselves very seriously, blending folk and classical music in a manner similar to Penguin Café Orchestra, but without the puckish wit. As the albums continue, a sardonic humor starts to come through along with that increasing prog-rock sound, and the music grows more accessible.

Al Volo is definitely their crowning achievement and a record any art-rock devotee should hear. The opening cut, Non si sa dove stare, is driven by an almost electronic pulse from the bass, coruscating guitar, well-deployed synths, and an apocalyptic sense of purpose, setting the tone for an assured, distinctive group of songs that still sounds like very little else. It was well worth the wait, and I'm glad to have some of the earlier albums to fill in the blanks of their artistic development. While the band did reconvene in 1993 for a performance (released as a live album, Un Concerto), they are essentially dormant at this late date. However, my acquisition of the Stormy Six Original Album Series has set off the discovery of more Italian avant garde music in a way that doesn't feel coincidental.

On a business trip to Austin I was flipping through the discs at End Of An Ear, a large well-curated music store, when I heard a heavenly sound. It was a little Kraut, a little prog and flowed so delightfully on clouds of analog synths and propulsively strummed guitars that I beelined to the counter and asked what it was. "Sensations' Fix," I was told, and that it was a reissue/compilation that had come out in 2012. I bought their last copy and found that the song I loved, Fragments Of Light, was no fluke. Further listening revealed many wonders of exploratory music, from noodling guitar and keyboard soundscapes to fully-fledged rock jams with drums and vocals, to proto-ambient atmospheres. It's a little reminiscent of Goblin, a more prominent Italian band known for their soundtracks to Dario Argento shockers, but without the malevolence and occasional tackiness. It also brings to mind sun-drenched Kraut-folk like This Morning by Gila, or some of Popol Vuh's cheerier work for Werner Herzog. It's a sound I don't tire of easily.

The collection, called Music Is Painting In The Air (1974-77), was expertly organized and beautifully packaged by the folks at RVNG Intl., with the help of main protagonist Franco Falsini. Strangely enough, it's kind of an alternative history for a band that doesn't really have a history. Twelve of the tracks are previously unreleased, and the rest appear in different versions than the ones released on Polydor in the 1970's. Also, strange is the fact that many of the recordings were made during Falsini's time in Alexandria, VA. The European flavor is loud and clear, though, and whatever the circuitous path this fantastic music took on its way to release, I am so happy to have it.

Perhaps it was last year's fantastic album of Fausto Romitelli's music by Talea Ensemble that primed me for this Italian invasion, but I already had slightly more awareness of 20th century Italian classical music, with Luciano Berio, Giacinto Scelsi and Salvatore Sciarrino never far from my radar. Whatever the cause, it happened again a few weeks ago when I was perusing some of the people I follow on This Is My Jam and noticed enraptured comments for a post featuring music by Luciano Cilio. Who? I listened and fell in line with the enraptured.

The piece, Primo quadro della conscenza, drifts in on delicate guitar, soon joined by single piano notes, and then a violin and cello. It's slightly somber yet not melancholy with intertwined female voices, singing wordlessly (shades of Edda Del'Orso), lending a searching air. At a point of dissonant climax, the music reverts to its opening delicacy, with the piano assuming the lead role for two or three minutes of lush arpeggiated exploration a la Satie. The whole piece was gorgeous, a natural link between some of the early folk-tinged Stormy Six songs, Morricone's quieter pieces, and the more rigorously composed classical music mentioned above. This was obviously a major talent - why hadn't I heard of him? Well, the fact that he committed suicide in 1983 at the age of 33 and only released one album during his short life may be a contributing factor. And the fact that the album, Dialoghi del presente (1977) is completely out of print and that the expanded 2004 reissue, Dell'Universo assente, was limited to 500 copies, doesn't help either.

Those facts also made further investigation after discovering him nearly as frustrating as my search for Stormy Six back in the 1980's. But of course, now I have YouTube and was able to quickly assemble a playlist of seven tracks from the two albums. Now I can listen to Cilio's music every day - and I keep the tab open in my Chrome at work so I do exactly that. It's a wonderful way to start the day and it satisfies my need to give Cilio's work the life it should have had were he able to continue his own. I hope you'll do the same and also explore some of the other Italian music I mention. Now I will say arrivederci and ask what am I still missing?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Best of 2013 (So Far)

Bowie's back on top.
Typically, I'm the first person up in my house, getting up at about 5:00am to move the car, make the coffee, pack the lunches and clear the sink. I often catch up on favorite podcasts (like Soundcheck, Studio 360 or Sound Opinions) as I make these rounds but the morning of January 8th was different. I swiped open my iPhone to find a link cryptically shared by a friend of mine who lives in France. It seemed to be a new video by David Bowie - or about him - but I couldn't be quite sure. I broke from routine by tackling the sink first with the iPhone propped on the shelf in front of me, pressing "play" before turning on the water. My first thought was that the video for Where Are We Now? was a brilliant parody, that the need for new material from the Thin White Duke had inspired the internet to spew forth something that would cruelly taunt us fans. A minute into listening to the gorgeous, elegiac ballad and watching the intriguing visuals I knew: it was simply too good to be anything but the real thing. I could scarcely contain my elation at hearing something new from one of my heroes.

I also felt this was a good omen for the music of 2013 and that has been borne out by one great record after another. I'll attempt to corral it all in a preliminary Top Ten (which could become a Top 20 by year's end) and a few other lists.

1. David Bowie - The Next Day Here's why.

2. Kanye West - Yeezus Another masterpiece.

3. Jenny O. - Automechanic Great songs, great singing, deal sealed by Jonathan Wilson's brilliant production.

4. Jon Hopkins - Immunity Composer and producer Hopkins first came to my attention in 2010 as a collaborator on Small Craft On A Milk Sea, Brian Eno's finest record in many a year. Investigating further turned up some ok but not particularly characterful collections of electronic and ambient sounds. So my ears were open if not exactly primed when Hopkins appeared on Soundcheck earlier this year. His performance of Open Eye Signal quickly had me at full attention: Thick slabs of artfully arranged sounds welded to a groove of tectonic proportions built a composition that drew me in and engaged me completely. The rest of the album maintains the promise of Open Eye Signal, from glitchy tracks like Collider to the intimate ambient of Abandon Window and the title track. Electronic album of the year.

5. Jace Clayton - The Julius Eastman Memory Depot I would be mourning the death of Mudd Up much more if not for this dazzling record, which firmly establishes Clayton as a major proponent and participant in the avant garde.

6. Parquet Courts - Light Up Gold It was great to hear Greg Kot revise his already high opinion of this endearing record. At first he had focused on the "ramshackle vibe" and "casual surface" but further listening revealed the craftsmanship behind the songs on this "supremely well-done record." I don't usually quote other reviewers, but I really couldn't have said it better myself. Great stuff with a real New York attitude. Think it's as easy as it sounds? Fuggedaboutit. I can't wait to see them in concert again.

7. Daniel Wohl - Corps Exquis Based on the company he keeps in the new music scene in NYC and elsewhere, it was only a matter of time before I ran into Daniel Wohl's music, and based on the bracingly original and stunningly beautiful sounds on his debut album, I'm glad it didn't take any longer for me to get acquainted. Corps Exquis, performed to a tee by the quintet Transit and featuring valuable assistance from Julia Holter, Aaron Roche and So Percussion, is actually the soundtrack to a video and performance piece but stands completely, entrancingly, on its own. The melding and merging of electronics and acoustic instruments sounds so uncannily inevitable in the nine compositions that the mind ceases to worry what is making which sound. This is also richly affecting music that touches on a variety of emotional colors. Don't wait for the show to come to your town - just get this album.

8. Wire - Change Becomes Us Post-punks never die, they just get smarter.

9. Mystical Weapons - Mystical Weapons In which Sean Lennon and drummer Greg Saunier (of Deerhoof) prove that the vision of Miles Davis's electric period was never about virtuosity (although they are both virtuosic musicians), but rather a musique-concrete-esque coming together of improvised sounds and textures. Seeing them in concert was like witnessing telepathy. One thing they get right that a lot of similar freak-outs don't is dynamic range. Lennon and Saunier seem to think more like co-composers than co-improvisers, resulting in a record that is consistently more rewarding with each listen. Lennon's wandering career is such that this could easily be a one-off but that's fine - it's hard to imagine them bettering it.

10. Chance The Rapper - Acid Rap This free mixtape is an ambitious, sprawling, and almost cinematic collection from 20 year old Chancelor Bennett. Caught between adolescence and adulthood, he raps in a reedy voice about falling in love, falling into bad habits and missing his mom's cocoa butter kisses. He sometimes sings lines and his signature sound is a little shriek that can convey frustration, joy or anger. There's a rhythmic flexibility to Chance's flow that meshes perfectly with the jazz-based grooves on some of the songs. There are plenty of guests on Acid Rap but Chance is in full command and I predict a bright future for this brave and intelligent new voice.

Bubbling Under

Rock-Type Stuff: Both Comedown Machine by The Strokes and Ghost On Ghost by Iron & Wine received a lot of blowback but I like them both and return to their wells of emotion and musical ingenuity often.

Amok by Thom Yorke's Atoms For Peace sounded much as expected - terrific - but I can't help feeling that this material is going to really take off onstage. I've got tickets for one of their shows at Barclay's Center so I'll find out in September.

The Mavericks are back with In Time - and dare I say "better than ever"? The sheer sound and power of these master musicians and the makes it easy to overlook the moon/spoon/June lyrics and (Call Me) When You Get To Heaven brings a new operatic flavor to the picture.

Amor De Dias returned with a second album, The House At Sea, and it's just as gorgeous as the last one. Any year with something new from Alasdair MacLean is a good year.

Pere Ubu secured their legendary status for their first three records alone but they occasionally pull together and put out something new that proves the continuing relevance - and edginess - of their approach. Lady From Shanghai is an uncompromising example.

Disclosure is the duo of Guy and Howard Lawrence, brothers who seem to have absorbed practically everything about the last 20 years of dance music - and they're only in their early 20's - and figured how to refresh and revive it on Settle, their debut full-length. When A Fire Starts To Burn is the standout track and an instant classic floor-filler, but no one at your party will complain if you just leave the whole album on.

Hip Hop: Jonwayne has been on my radar since 2012's Quakers collection. Passing Fancies is merely the best of the quirky songs he's been releasing on cassette over the last couple of years. Can't wait for his official debut.

Prodigy & Alchemist's Albert Einstein is great, if not quite at the level of Return Of The Mac. Essential 2013 hip hop.

If Pusha-T can maintain the level of Numbers On The Boards for a whole solo album, we might stop wondering when the next Clipse album is coming out.

Jazz: I probably keep up with new jazz the least of all the kinds of music I listen to. If there were more records as bold, expansive and thrilling as Without A Net from the nearly 80-year-old Wayne Shorter, that would change in a heartbeat. Recorded at several live performances and featuring several compositions from his past as well as Pegasus, a new work performed with Imani Winds, Shorter and his blazing quartet splash around on stage like whales in a bathtub - its joyful but you feel disaster could be around the corner. It's called "without a net" for a reason.

Classical: The world of Brooklyn Rider produced two great albums so far this year: A Walking Fire, which features Bela Bartok's Third Quartet bookended by contemporary gypsy music and a new composition from violinist Colin Jacobson; and Recursions, the wonderfully wide solo debut by violist Nicolas Cords.

Benjamin Britten's centennial has produced one new classic recording amidst all the reissues and repackages: Britten Songs by tenor Ian Bostridge, accompanied by the piano of Sir Antonio Pappano, and, on five songs, guitarist Xuefei Yang. It's sublime.

Out Of The Past: Speaking of reissues, Light In The Attic has packaged Bobby Whitlock's first two solo albums as Where There's A Will There's A Way and it burns. Anyone who has been moved by his vocals on Derek & The Dominoes tracks will want to dive into his emotionally profligate way with a song. Big, bold arrangements performed by an all-star cast (Harrison, Clapton, etc.). 

Another great label, Strut, has done something of a public service by exhuming the work of Romanian progressives, Rodion G.A. A touch of Krautrock, a touch of psych - it get's better with every listen. Thankfully The Lost Tapes are lost no more!

The wonders of the Miles Davis Bootleg series continue with volume two, Live In Europe 1969, which features a line-up that never recorded in the studio. Four concerts, one on DVD, and you won't want to miss a note.

Finally, more Hendrix is on sale. Again. But fortunately, People, Hell & Angels is as fresh and energetic as Valleys of Neptune was slack and rehashed. The remixing might be slightly aggressive but it's great to hear his guitar jump out and transform the air around you. Supposedly, this is the last new collection of studio material. I assume that means that the Experience Hendrix folks will be concentrating on live recordings, so I'll put my vote in for a professionally mixed release of the storming set at Randall's Island in 1970.

What 2013 releases are still in rotation around your way?

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Form IS Content

"Die Mauern steh'n/sprachlos und kalt, im Winde/klirren die Fahnen."

"With those other bums that rap/They nothin' like this/They wish upon stars that their bars can get/Similar burn as us, who had a run like this?"

"In a French-ass restaurant/Hurry up with my damn croissants."

Three quotes from three different records all making a splash right about now: Ian Bostridge singing Benjamin Britten songs, Prodigy & Alchemist's Albert Einstein, and Kanye West's Yeezus. In all three cases, there are a lot of words set to music, and in all three cases, depending on the moment, you can take the words seriously, with a grain of salt, or as just part of the sounds. In short, it's the return of the perennial form vs. content debate and from my point of view, form always trumps content - in fact, in many cases the form IS the content.

Britten Songs, by tenor Ian Bostridge, with accompaniment by pianist Sir Antonio Pappano and (on five songs) guitarist Xuefei Yang, is a supremely intelligent collection of songs by the 20th century's greatest Btitish composer. In part a celebration of Britten's centennial, the five song cycles included span his career from 1940 to 1969 and showcase his remarkably consistent approach to setting songs. Britten always seems to engage with the words of the poems he chooses, but the listener may ignore them as the results delight the ear and the emotions with melodies by turns haunting, spiky, questioning, wistful, and charming.

Bostridge has been singing Britten songs since the start of his career and he inhabits these songs completely. Such is his conjuring of mood that it seems only appropriate that his doctorate from Cambridge was earned by a thesis on witchcraft. He is ably assisted by Sir Antonio, whose playing is always lucid and dynamic without ever stealing the spotlight. Yang is equally transparent on the guitar in the sweet miniatures of the Songs from the Chinese. Fortunately, Britten is far too sophisticated to fall prey to any Oriental clichés in these pieces and they end the album delightfully.

I'm sure there will be many new releases and reissues commemorating Britten's 100th but this basically perfect record may stand at the top of the heap. And, while there are some evocative words in the poems of Hardy, Hölderlin, Michelangelo, etc., you don't have to read them to enjoy the record - which is fortunate as most download services do not provide the liner notes.

Prodigy is, of course, one half of the legendary duo Mobb Deep, and he has been on a tear since his release from prison in 2011, releasing three albums, at least as many mixtapes, as well as a variety of Mobb Deep singles and guest appearances. He's currently on an international tour in honor of Mobb Deep's 20th anniversary. His jail sentence for a weapons charge in 2008 especially stung as it was not long after the release of both Return Of The Mac (a full album collaboration with producer The Alchemist and one of his finest records) and H.N.I.C. Part 2 (also very good). One of the things that made Mac so great was how tightly focused it was, with nearly every song featuring beats redolent of 70's soul and Blaxploitation soundtracks, and lyrics dwelling on the gangster life from all angles.

The connection between Prodigy, the ultimate New Yorker, and The Alchemist (out of Beverly Hills) goes back to 1999 and Mobb Deep's platinum-selling Murda Muzik album. They are both hip hop lifers and obviously simpatico so the announcement (relentlessly promoted on social media) of a new joint album was welcome and Albert Einstein, while perhaps not at the heights of Return Of The Mac, does not disappoint.

Alchemist's sounds are dazzling, constructing a kaleidoscopic array of spine tingling backgrounds to challenge Prodigy to bring his A game. Just like pretty much every rap album, not every line is a deathless classic (like the boilerplate boasting quoted above), however Prodigy has a hypnotic flow that pulls you in. It's like a con-man's seductive patter and especially effective when he's painting a specific picture as on the chorus of YNT: "Got 16 on the hip/Pretty little things in the whip/'Bout to take a ride, get lit/Episodes of some young hustlers, we thuggin'."

There are plenty of memorable couplets on Albert Einstein, however, and it never ceases to amaze how Prodigy comes up with new ways of describing his noir surroundings: "Morning of the day, evening of the killer kids/City of the gods, money stack pyramids," from Death Sentence, or "I am - slippery when wet off that 'maldehyde/Smoke a Dutch full of dust, pull a homi-," from Give Em Hell. In that second quote, check out how he cuts off the second syllable of "homicide," denying the ear of the expected rhyme - then he uses the word "side" in the next line, twisting the knife. Dylan does stuff like that.

When it all comes together, as on the album's masterpiece Confessions, all the power and promise of the Mobb Deep ethos is brilliantly present. The song is a straight-up tale of  score-settling, with perfectly chosen details that put us in the scene: a hip hop first-person shooter. The song begins with Prodigy hitting the street and being told the guy he's looking for is up the block, "hot-boxing" with a woman wearing a cheap red weave. He spots the car and: "I saw his radio lights through the rear tint/I stepped in front of the car so he could see the hit/The look on his face was priceless/The bitch's micro braids caught fire when the fifth/Put pieces of her wig on the seats in the back/Now there's weed smoke pouring out the bullet hole glass." Raymond Chandler himself would tip his fedora.

Unlike last year's guest-laden H.N.I.C. III, which was simultaneously too focused on chart success and too lazy to satisfy the true fans, Albert Einstein is a fantastic album, putting Prodigy squarely on top of the rap game, a remarkable achievement for someone celebrating his 20th anniversary in the biz. Much kudos due to Alchemist for once again bringing out the best in this New York legend.

Speaking of legends, if Kanye West didn't exist, we would have had to invent him. Since his debut a decade ago, West has been cutting a wide swath though the airwaves, music sales, tabloids, and even the hard news world (remember "George Bush don't like black people"?). Selling millions of records and concert tickets, pissing off millions of people (especially Taylor Swift fans), and dazzling critics and listeners alike with music that fascinates even when he stumbles, there is no one on pop culture quite like him.

Fortunately, Yeezus is not one of the stumbles but rather one of the most startling albums of his career. One of the engines of Kanye's production (and one of his fatal flaws) is his constant demand for approval, necessary to fuel his distressingly large ego. The ego is still there, but the need for approval may finally be waning. Perhaps the fact that his last album, the outrageously good My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (the Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) of hip hop), failed to make a dent at the Grammys has led him to make a record that doesn't give a good goddam what anyone thinks.

The overall sound is sleekly brutal, with serrated synths abutting tinny samples, like a smash cut from Technicolor to Super-8, and distorted screams popping up in more than one song. The consistency of Yeezus is even more remarkable when you consider that each song features a dozen writers and recordings made at half as many studios in NYC, Paris, Jamaica, California and England. Part of that is no doubt due to the final polish provided by Rick Rubin, who reportedly helped Kanye chip away at excess to perfect the record, like the old adage about sculpting an elephant.

Just as on his previous albums, there are some highly visible collaborators (who knew Daft Punk could swing like that?), but the blend is tighter and sounds more a product of one mind than his earlier work. Tellingly, Yeezus is West's shortest record, at 40 minutes a full 36 minutes shorter than Late Registration. That concision does not extend to the lyrics, however - a sometimes bewildering splatter-punk spray of aggression, self-pity, jokes and boasts. You could quote many lines that make Kanye look like an ass, but the overall impression is one of complexity, ambivalence, depth, often couched in a scabrous cynicism.

Kanye is as capable as David Bowie at creating personae to communicate through - and there are many on Yeezus - but if you take the essence of the words at face value, you get a very clear sense of a man on the brink of fatherhood and fearfully observing the current state of race, class, and personal relations - and finding them all wanting. His world is one in which self-absorbed, hedonistic African Americans squander the advances of the civil rights era, men and women screw each other over for money and celebrity, and white people get rich off imprisoning black people. It's not a pretty picture and Kanye paints it with the abandon of an abstract expressionist.

The album's high point is Blood On The Leaves, a harrowing conflation of the great anti-lynching song Strange Fruit with tales of broken hearts, broken promises, and dangerous obsessions. Lest you dismiss the use of the classic song as being disrespectful, consider the fact that not so long ago engaging in an interracial romance (as Kanye himself has), or even "reckless eyeballing," could get a black man strung up.

There is light in the darkness, however, as the brilliantly sequenced album ends with Bound 2, Kanye's version of a love song in which he describes a passionate affair developing into a long term romance, with encouragement from none other than The Gap Band's own baby-making crooner, Charlie Wilson. Besides Wilson, many of the hooks on Yeezus are gorgeously sung by Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, continuing another unlikely partnership that no one thought would last. In fact, the microcosm of his relationship with Vernon might hold the most hope for all the areas Kanye is so worried about: seeing the indie rocker and the megastar, the black man and the white man working together so fruitfully would inspire anyone to believe that not only can we all get along, but we can benefit greatly from our connections with other people.

Dissertations could be written (Rap Genius already has a head start) on all the references and elements, both musical and lyrical, that combine together to make Yeezus so good. I'll just say that it is well worth your time to delve into another masterpiece from Kanye West - you may get uncomfortable, or even angry, but indifference is not an option.

All three of these records may have words that leave you cold or that may defy comprehension, even in translation, but they are all landmarks in their areas that demand familiarity. Get to know them soon.

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