9 Music Reviews
by dave heaton
Cub Country, Stay Poor/Stay Happy (Future Farmer)
"I'm driving down your old street/for the tenth time today," Cub Country's Jeremy Chatelain sings to an ex-love over a lone guitar at the very start of his album Stay Poor/Stay Happy. The image of him driving around singing his heart out captures exactly the feeling of the album; in the album's best moments ("Leaving the Bar," the 8-minute "59 Grand," the gorgeous album closer "The Sun"), Chatelain strips away all artifice and gets to the heart of the matter, perfectly capturing feelings of love, loss, devastation, and hope against the odds. Generally speaking, the more stripped-down songs are emotionally the most powerful, though songs where Chatelain and band rock up their melodies and emotions in a country-ish sort of way aren't so bad either. Chatelain's songs do not jump out and immediately grab you, and don't reach for innovation. Instead Stay Poor/Stay Happy humbly probes into human hearts and pulls out something occasionally sad but just as often beautiful.
Dreamend, As If By Ghosts... (Graveface Records)
Throughout their album As If By Ghosts..., Dreamend beautifully combines intimate, graceful pop melodies with open-ended space-rock. The album begins with a pretty, heart-baring pop song, but listen to the dreamy guitars gently weaving a cloud in the background...by the song's end they're going to take over, and explode into a pulse-pounding, noisy expression of frustration at the failure of words to communicate our feelings. Where words fail Dreamend, they use their instruments to build emotional atmospheric moodpieces that are sometimes intensely gentle and sometimes even more intensely explosive, and always perfectly expressive of hard-to-articulate feelings. The songs' lyrics are filled with unanswered questions and statements of doubt - "I don't know just where you are," "Now I can't know just how to go," "I don't know anymore," - and the impressionistic but controlled music echoes the questions with soundscapes that are endlessly enigmatic. Music that can tap so pointedly into the unknown is unmatchable to me - so many try but so few succeed. With packaging that itself makes the album a curio (with an old family photo on the front, ghostly figures in the snow on the back, and a torn-out page from a book inside) and music that is spooky and inspiring at the same time, As If By Ghosts... is one of the most spellbinding albums to pass my way in recent months.
DJ Krush, Jaku (Red Ink/Sony)
DJ Krush's Jaku opens with a song called "Still Island" which feels like the imagined score to a spy movie or a disaster flick. Shuuzan Morita plays the shakuhachi (a kind of flute?) while Krush builds music that has a continual sense of impending doom. The sense of horror lurks much further in the background on most of Jaku, though the sense of the music as accompaniment to an unfilmed movie remains. The bulk of the album is given over to Krush's attempts to use hip-hop rhythms and cinematic electronics to reach a peaceful yet slightly ominous mood. He successfully gets into that zone - one that's meditative but also theatrical - but rarely breaks loose from it. In other words, this is a concept album that sticks so closely to the concept you're likely to be lulled off to sleep at times. Two DefJux MCs break in to keep listeners alert: a laidback Mr. Lif gives a sci-fi rap on "Nosferatu," and Aesop Rock (who by his very nature is sci-fi) takes things in a more intese and surreal direction on "Kill Switch." Their presence is appreciated by me, not because Krush needs them to overshadow shortcomings - for he is a skilled DJ who capably builds a world around your ears - but because without them Jaku would feel a bit too new-age for my taste, a bit too Pure Moods.
Jean Grae, This Week (Babygrande)
"I'm hearing words spoken when I'm turning off the lights/feeling hands choking my neck provoking me to fight..." Jean Grae captures inner turmoil better than anyone, and if her second full-length This Week isn't as caustic and gothic as some of the tracks on last year's Bootleg of the Bootleg EP, her words still get under your skin. What's especially remarkable about this album's songs like "Going Crazy" is how she taps into feelings of depression and fear in a realistic way, without getting theatrical about it (ala Eminem), yet always retains a sense of humor about it too. And she rhymes just as intelligently about other affairs of the human heart and brain, like love; check out the beautiful 9th Wonder-produced "Supa Luv," and the song after it (which seems to be missing from the title list on the CD) And above all else, she's a battle rapper's battle rapper, with one of the sharpest tongues around. Though This Week sets her against slightly more commercial beats than in the past, it isn't enough to cloud her skills, which are immense. There's a reason Talib Kweli and the Roots each use her to casually kill a verse on their respective new albums (or that the latter group also reportedly asked her to join). Sensitive, complex, and sharp as a knife, Jean Grae can't be overrated as an MC. This Week might not be the perfect display of her skills, but it's dynamite nonetheless. The album's introduction refers to Jean Grae being "back for the first time"; hopefully this album will help ensure she won't need to re-introduce herself for her next one.
IsWhat?!, You Figure It Out... (Hyena Records)
The Cincinnati-based hip-hop group IsWhat?!'s sound is pure energy; they aim for and achieve the loose improvised feeling of jazz. IsWhat?!'s three members are a gifted jazz bassist, an equally gifted saxophonist/flutist and an MC who, when he's not delivering philosophical rhymes in a pointed but loose manner, beatboxes like it's a natural thing, not a gimmick. Everything about Iswhat?! feels natural, actually - it seems like a natural thing for them to so casually blend intelligent hip-hop with timeless jazz melodies and styles (including three Mingus tunes). Drummer Hamid Drake joins in here and there, as does turntablist John Doe, both adding to the heady mix. You Figure It Out is the name of the album; it's an obvious nod to the freshness of what they're doing, how it's likely to cause head-scratching. But really I'd be surprised if people found IsWhat?! to be confusing. They tie together jazz and hip-hop as if they're part of the same thing, and they are. It's hard to imagine jazz or hip-hop fans not getting what they're doing, as they're so firmly in tune with the perspectives and styles of both. You Figure It Out's eschewing of genres is exhilarating, made all the more so by how skillfully they play, rhyme and put it all together.
Little Darla Has a Treat For You v. 22 (Darla)
Darla Records embraces their California-ness: Check out the Oceanside cover painting and the map of Native California in the liner notes to Little Darla Has a Treat For You, v. 22, the Indian Summer 2004 edition of their compilation series. The music on the CD is, generally speaking, as bright and dreamy as one might imagine California to be...but hey, these bands are from all over the world. "Fresh Sounds From Around the Corner and Around the Globe," is the subtitle to this series, and this edition lives up to that billing as well as any of them. Beginning with a glow (an Auburn Lull album track) and ending with a bang (a rare song from Crispy Amublance), the songs traverse disparate ground but have something in common: quality. Some of the highlights come from gorgeous, dreamy songs that fall along the pop/electronic axis, from groups like Entre Rios, The Cansecos, Freezepop, Manual with Syntaks, and The Russian Futurists. Others come from countrified-pop musicians who fill their songs with raw emotion without ignoring atmosphere (Pale Horse and Rider, Lowlights) or from spellbinding pop singers (Mascott, Arco, Mus), one of whom (The Naysayer) takes on a ditty by one of the great philosophers of our time, Mr. Rogers (you think I'm kidding but I'm not). But all of them are melodic, engaging, and more rewarding than what you're likely to hear on your average label comp (or god forbid, on the radio). With Little Darla...v22 you have an enjoyable hour-plus of exciting music, most of which you've never heard before. What's better than that?
If the title of Ovum Recordings' new compilation album - Ovum: The Fall Collection - rubs me the wrong way, it's because I have found the music of Josh Wink, Ovum's co-founder and creator of this compilation, to too often favor fashion over substance. In regards to this collection, those fears are partially justified. There are tracks that present a slick, not especially distinct sound or style without going anywhere interesting, and too many tracks for my taste that hover in a vauge, new-agey state of nothingness, doing nothing exciting and sounding a bit 'adult contemporary'. But the CD also keeps things varied, mixing dance grooves with more mellow atmospheric tracks, and includes several tracks that are infectious (Alexkid's "On My Mind") energetic (Steve Bug's "House") or unique (Yann Fontaine's "Hand in Hand") enough to make the CD worth your while. Also, it's structured in such a way that it slowly evolves from a meditative afternoon into a late-night party; a series of tracks near the end would set the dance floor on fire and knock any style or fashion concerns out of your head.
The Roots, The Tipping Point (Geffen)
The Roots's 1999 album Things Fall Apart and 2002 album Phrenology - their fourth and fifth studio albums - were both big, grand statements, epics where they pushed their music forward in new directions. The buzz around their latest album The Tipping Point was that it was another big step forward; stories emerged of day-long improvisation sessions with ample guest musicians. And the title itself, taken from the Malcolm Gladwell book of the same name, seems to set up The Tipping Point as a concept album or setting-off point of some kind. So the actual album has been a bit of a head-scratcher, if only because it is surprisingly typical, a solid album that shows off the Roots' talents without taking them anywhere new. Time has demonstrated to me, though, that the album is only disappointing because the group kept setting the bar higher, and focusing to much on the everyday-ness of it will make you miss out on some of the album's pleasures. Most importantly, The Tipping Point is a rhymefest centered around one MC - it's first and foremost a showcase for Black Thought. His rhymes throughout are the reason to listen to and celebrate The Tipping Point. He's set on the highest pillar on two tracks that seem to exist only to show off his skills: "Web," a sparse track with him rhyming fast over drums, and "Boom!," where he drops a killer verse and then offers astounding verses that imitate the styles, voices, and words of Big Daddy Kane and Kool G. Rap. But the whole album is a portfolio defense of Black Thought as best living MC. I'm not saying he deserves that title, necessarily, but The Tipping Point is a strong argument in that direction. It might not have the cross-genre experiments of Phrenology or the scale or significance of Things Fall Apart, but Black Thought's rhymes give it fire.
Wolf Eyes, Burned Mind (Sub Pop)
Live Wolf Eyes set the stage on fire, attacking their gadgets and whatnots with heavy metal thunder. To be plainer about it, these guys are crazy. I mean, really nuts. We're talking about a band where one of the members decided to "play" a medieval mace as an instrument and ending up gashing his head open. They're nuts. Or as Thurston Moore puts it, they play "total ass blasting fuck noise for a generation spooked shitless." Anyway... live they're riveting, but who listens to this stuff at home? I mean, really? I know there's people that do it but it's interesting to me, imagining somebody sitting at home on a Sunday morning, reading the paper while an ear-splitting wall of noise rises from the radio, like a warehouse full of amplifiers all bursting forth with feedback at the same time. Oh and with a guy growling about murder somewhere underneath. On the one hand I have a lot of respect for Wolf Eyes' total assault on conventions and conformity, but on the other hand I can't listen Burned Mind for more than a couple minutes. Consider me an old man or bourgeois or whatever, but it's unbearable. I also find it hard to take an album with songs called "Stabbed in the Face," "Urine Burn" or "Black Vomit" very seriously. I know they get a kick out of being scary, but really..."Urine Burn"? That has to be the punchline to something, right?