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5 Music Reviews

by dave heaton

El-P, Sunrise Over Bklyn 10" (Thirsty Ear)

El-P's one-song 10" single Sunrise Over Brklyn features The Blue Series Continuum, a gang of NYC jazz players who have all appeared on Thirsty Ear's Blue Series recordings: Guilermo E. Brown, Roy Campbell, Daniel Carter, William Parker, Matthew Shipp, and Steve Swell. The Blue Series is all about mixing jazz with other genres (hip-hop and various strains of electronic music, mostly), and this release is no exception. Yet it's not at all what you'd expect if you're a fan of either El-P or the Blue Series. This is not El-P rhyming over jazz; nor is it an overt combination of the two genres. Instead this is a jazz composition written by El-P, with him producing and adding subtle (very subtle) hip-hop touches here and there. There's something really brave about a hip-hop producer and MC writing a jazz piece and getting some of the best jazz musicians in America to play on it. But as unexpected as that sounds, it's a beautiful, really stunning piece of music. El-P attempts to capture the feeling of witnessing the sun rise over Brooklyn in music, and succeeds. The song slowly opens up in a glimmering, pretty way, yet there's also a sense of barely contained frenzy underneath it all, some serious weight below the surface. Such an on-fire first single makes El-P's upcoming full-length Blue Series album the album I look most forward to hearing as the year goes on.

Jeffrey Lewis with Jack Lewis and Anders Griffen, It's the Ones Who've Cracked That the Light Shines Through (Rough Trade)

On his second album It's the Ones Who've Cracked That the Light Shines Through, singer-songwriter/comic book artist Jeffrey Lewis, often noted as a compadre of the Moldy Peaches and the so-called "antifolk" scene of NYC, has a high-speed, humorous-yet-sincere, self-referential take on acoustic folk music that's reminiscent of the approach Atom and His Package takes to punk-rock, if less shrill. In other words, he's the guy who'll take that time somebody came up to him at a show and said something odd to him and turn it into a clever, slightly bratty song that'll stick in your head for a while. He's a bit much when he sticks too closely to his daily life ("I Saw a Hippie Girl on 8th Ave", "No LSD tonight"), but when he looks at life through a more imaginative lens the album truly takes off. The opening track "Back When I Was 4" starts as a straightforward look back at his youth but gets increasingly surreal, and more touching, as it proceeds. Songs like "Gold" ("When I got to the Golden City/most of the gold was gone") and "You Don't Have to Be a Scientist to Do Experiments on Your Own Heart" are dream-like tales that have the insight and creative freedom of poems yet sound like traditional folk music. The more Lewis opens his songs to the ambiguous side of life, the more his songs are both funny and emotionally affecting.

Mirah YomTov Zeitlyn/Ginger Brooks Takahashi & Friends, Songs From the Black Moutain Music Project (K)

A collaboration that came from the two deciding to hang out in the mountains and record some songs together, Mirah YomTov Zeitlyn and Ginger Brooks Takahasi's Songs From the Black Mountain Music Project is a brief album that has both the "American roots music" feeling you might expect from an album recorded in the mountains and the eclectic, free-and-open sense of creativity you'd expect from an album recorded in this particular location. In the 1930s-50s, Black Mountain, NC was the home to Black Mountain College, a haven for innovative artists and intellectuals (people like Josef Albers, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg). In that spirit, Songs fromů is quite playful in nature; most of the songs are instrumentals that find the duo carelessly playing around with not just guitars but various odd-sounding percussion instruments and who knows what else. The six songs with vocals are pretty, melodic songs that gleefully jump and mix pop music genres, from the proper, theatrical-sounding "The Party" to the banjo-led country-gospel tune "Life You Love" to the gorgeous, early-morning folk song "While We Have the Sun" to "Oh! September," a bright singalong with doo-wop echoes and loveably sloppy trumpet that serves as sort-of theme song for the affair ("let's make a song on the 8-track tonight"). If the word "project" in the title makes you think this will be all dry and serious, think again. This is a delightful set of songs from free-spirited, talented pop musicians.

Mark Ronson, Here Comes the Fuzz (Elektra)

Everybody wants to be a star these days, and it's clear from producer/DJ Mark Ronson's record-in-hand pose on the cover of his debut album Here Comes the Fuzz and the way he kicks off the album with a lame "look at me, I can rap too" self-referential intro, plus the fact that nearly all of the MCs on the album mention him by name in their rhymes, that this album is set up to make him one. A popular NYC club DJ who has produced songs by Sean Paul, Nikka Costa, Jimmy Fallon and others (whose also young, handsome, and white), Ronson seems so set for MTV super-stardom that I instinctively want to dislike him. He's got looks, style, and an assortment of talented friends; Here Comes the Fuzz features a different vocalist or group on each track, including Nappy Roots, Ghostface Killah, Mos Def, M.O.P., Sean Paul, Q-Tip and others. Hating Mark Ronson as the next hot thing would be easy, if the tracks he produces weren't indeed blazing hot. The best songs here are absolutely on fire, uniting a thick, bass-heavy hip-hop groove with rock guitars and distinctly dance-oriented rhythms and beats in a way that's both infectious and unique. His approach to hip-hop tracks is to throw in any style that sounds good, whether it's a groove that's totally disco ("High"), a sample of a rock song ("On the Run" bites Lenny Kravitz's "Always on the Run"), or Latin jazz touches ("Tomorrow"). He's not even afraid of attempting some kind of neo-slacker-soul song with Rivers Cuomo of Weezer on lead vocals ("I Suck"); I'm not sure that song really works, but it is brave. The courage to play around with combinations and collaborations really works for him, as does his ear for what will make people want to dance. Tracks like "Ooh Wee" (featuring Ghostface Killah, Nate Dogg, and Trife), "High" (featuring Aya, plus ?uestlove of the Roots on drums), and "On the Run," with the red-hot pairing of Mos Def and M.O.P., will light up dance floors, car stereos and your desire for something fresh at the same time. The downside of Here Comes the Fuzz is that for every track that really works like those do, there's another one or two where the vocalist sounds unenthusiastic or the lyrics are completely mundane. The R&B ballad "She's Got Me" featuring Daniel Merriweather is a bland paint-by-numbers affair, as is Sean Paul & Tweet's "International Affair." "Diduntdidunt" features rhymes by Saigon that could have been written while he was asleep, and there's a couple of rock-rap collaborations (the title track, featuring Freeway and Nikka Costa, and "Bout to Get Ugly," featuring Rhymefest and Anthony Hamilton) that have worthwhile pieces but feel awkwardly forced together. All of that unevenness makes Here Comes the Fuzz really dissatisfying overall, even though some of these tracks will deservedly be blowing up the radio and dance floors for the rest of the year. Ronson has talents to match his ambitions, though, and when Here Comes the Fuzz works, it really works.

You're Still Young at Heart (Shelflife)

Shelflife Records and Matinee Recordings, two of the best independent labels devoted to pop songcraft in this fair nation, both hit their 50th release this summer, and to celebrate both released albums with musicians from the label covering songs by other musicians from the label. Matinee 50, reviewed last issue, was a splendid collection of snazzy, pretty, and well-crafted pop songs; so is the Shelflife celebration, You're Still Young at Heart, though the music is stylistically a bit different. You're Still Young at Heart is the perfect title for a Shelflife compilation, as the label sometimes feels like a tribute to the characteristics of imagination, generosity and sweetness that all-too-many adults are ready to forget about. The 19 bands represented here-generally speaking, a grab-bag of "in love with the 80s for the sake of songwriting, not nostalgia" synth-pop groups and delicate folk-pop groups-all are pros at writing melodic songs that are pretty yet not just surfaces. Song after song, from Daydream Cycle's drop-dead-beautiful cover of The Shermans' "Lousy Judge of Character" to River's late-night, lonely take on The Arrogants' melancholy "Lovesick," is filled with genuine emotion. These are songs that are truthful enough about heartbreak and infatuation and so on to make the hairs on your arms stand at attention, yet they're also as stylish and infectious as you want pop songs to be. The songs range from some of the earliest Shelflife releases (by people like One Night Suzan, The Crooner, Johnny Dee, and Club 8) to the most recent (Charming, Phoebe Quest, The Shermans). In the cases where I'm familiar with the original songs, the covers are reverential but too much so, finding the right balance between the personalities of the original musicians and the interpreters. And above all else, You're Still Young at Heart is as fun as a celebration should be. Happy anniversary Shelflife, may you last forever.

Issue 15, September 2003


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