Kings Without a Crown

Jay-Z and Kanye West’s collaborative album as  “The Throne” will survive buoyed on the lofty expectations and reputations of the people that made it. Watch The Throne is not a good album. In fact, it’s not a halfway decent album. It’s microwaved hip-hop for an audience that expects something oven-baked. 

Unsurprisingly, the production is real swing-for-the-fences, bombastic stuff. From the triumphant horns of “Lift Off” to the skitter stop beats and violins of “Welcome To The Jungle”, there’s little room for subtlety. There’s an exception or two, notably “No Church In The Wild” It prowls, propelled by the all-star performance by Odd Future crooner Frank Ocean. There’s underlying menace in the hazy synths and fuzzy bass thumps. Yes, the album sounds huge, the performances are not.  Still, it’s remarkable to listen to a record by artists that are renowned for their wordplay, and to find so few that are memorable. So much vanishes into the ether here. There’s not one track that really has a truly great hook. 

There’s no better example than the first single, “Otis”. Kanye’s usually the master of sample re-appropriation. Here, he just abandons it completely. It’s a simple slice-and-dice of “Try A Little Tenderness” with few flourishes, leaving the rapid-fire verses between the two rappers to sound like a mixtape castoff. This off-the-cuff approach works well on rock records, but given the scope of the production on the rest of the record, it’s lazy.  

That’s alarming, considering Kanye’s track record. ‘Kanye the Artist’ is an entirely different person than ‘Kanye the Superstar’. In public, he can come off as angry and self-absorbed. In the studio, no one pays as close attention to detail and nuance as him. His productions are usually thick, densely layered compositions. There’s not that same feeling here with this material. He’s abandoned that approach to placate Jay-Z, who all too often hides behind his braggadocio and expensive beats. He hasn’t been the same rapper since his 2006 return. To ape from the sports metaphors he so often uses, he’s like late-period Griffey. A fine athlete when he’s healthy, but he’s no longer the kid with sweet swing. Given the right track, the right collaborator, and the right frame of mind, the flashes of brilliance spark, reminding listeners that the old man still has game. Not enough to last an entire season, though. 

Make no mistake, Jay-Z and Kanye West are two of the past decade’s most important artists. Jay was untouchable during his initial 1996-2003 run, and that’s before Kanye got rolling with arguably the best five-album streak of any hip-hop artist. West has always been a big picture guy, preferring to make albums over hit singles and a bunch of filler. It’s art. Jay-Z is a guy that values commerce over art. Age has shifted his viewpoint. He’ll always only have one foot in the pool. Ultimately, what Watch The Throne shows two people with major ideological differences attempting to unite with one vision – and failing. 

Somewhere Between The Sleeves

“Horses” is not the best record Patti Smith has ever made. It’s one of rock and roll’s best opening acts, but it’s dwarfed her career with it’s gigantism. That album cover, those opening lines. Great moments, sure, but not everything.

“Radio Ethiopia”, her 1976 follow-up, is almost never mentioned. Where its predecessor bridges the logical gap from artist-as-poet plus rock and roll star, the follow up ditches the first half of that equation and shoots straight for affectation. The result – something way more raucous and virile.

It’s pretty clear from the get-go. The woman that opened her first record with the line “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” opens the second with the exuberant “Ask the Angels”. Chunky chords, a firm low end and wild guitars are a ways away from the slow-burn intensity of tracks like “Gloria”. But that’s not the only difference.

“Pissing In a River” is frighteningly E-Street, predating future collaborator Bruce Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” sound two years ahead of time. The hallmarks are there – dramatic piano, penetrating organ and downright cinematic soloing. Smith’s performance, her voice cresting with each wave, only adds to the intensity.

There’s a lot to like here: “Poppies” is a narcotic ballad with some of Smith’s most curious lyrics: “Everything is soakin’ and spread with butter.” The title track is a full ten minute auditory assault where Smith attacks primal drums and a scribbly guitars with imitable swagger. She glides across the mess with conviction, leaving no doubt, it’s a noise rock track, but with the added lyrical curiosities (sample: “When I See Brancusi/His Eyes Searching Out The Infinite Abstract Spaces”), it ends up being a satisfying experiment.

Side two unveils the album’s best moment – the riotous “Pumping (My Heart)”. It’s a masterful three minutes of seventies New York City punk. The keys are carnal, guitars oscillate furiously and Smith is in full howl mode. As the song hurls towards its climax, Smith keeps shouting “Total abandon!” It’s a perfect phrase to encapsulate the entire record. It’s an artist acting on instinct instead of playing to popular sensibilities. It’s wild, ugly and not an easy listen. Perhaps that’s why it’s been forgotten over time. Most people prefer to spare themselves the difficulty.

Patti Smith never cared to begin with.

‘The King of Limbs’ is a stretch

Few rock and roll bands these days elicit a global response to their every move. Sure, the world has progenitors like Lady Gaga, but there’s not a collective that captures our imagination these days. Except for one. Radiohead.

Through the years, they’ve gone from alt-rock afterthoughts to oh-no-maybe-not’s and evolved into unparalleled innovators of their craft. Whether it’s the man-machine tumble of OK Computer, or the heartbreaking disconnect of Kid A, Radiohead has made records that stand not only as critical achievements, but as unmatched classics.

Since then? They’ve stopped. It can be argued that they haven’t made anything nearly as impressive in over a decade. Amnesiac, released in the summer of 2001 is more or less a sister record to its predecessor, with songs recorded in the same sessions. It’s spotty at best. 2003’s Hail to the Thief was a return to guitar rock, but meandered and has left a small imprint. Four years later, there was “In Rainbows,” released with a week’s notice through a “pay what you want” system that shocked a fractured music industry. While the songwriting is strong, it suffered from flat production and lazy sequencing.

Radiohead’s albums are drenched in ambiguity and have always been geared by subtlety. They are not a group that cares much about hooks or riffs these days, as they did with 1995’s The Bends. Instead, they live in the abstract: grooves and textures. Friday’s release of The King of Limbs drives that home. Unfortunately, it’s colorless.

The album’s opener, “Bloom,” begins with a distant piano loop that melts into a series of blips and drum hits. Thom Yorke’s recognizable croon follows, but the song doesn’t seem to DO much. There’s a desire to hear this it build and crescendo, but the song refuses, staying firmly in the middle. And this is the problem with so much of the album’s material. It plays too much to the center and not enough to the extremes that Radiohead has excelled at. “Morning Mr. Magpie and “Feral” suffer from this same fate. “Little by Little” apes their OK Computer-era sound, but it sounds awkward, nestled in a collection of dour material.

Of course, there’s things to like with each of their releases. “Lotus Flower” is a slinky lead single powered by a gorgeous Yorke falsetto. “Codex,” a haunting piano ballad, is treated with care. The vocals are to the front, atmospheric loops sprinkled throughout, with a tasteful horn and string accompaniment to usher it forward. It concludes as a great addition to their catalog.

Still, Radiohead sounds bored. While it’s fair to assume that a band of their caliber has reached the point in its career where they’ve done everything they could have imagined musically, they must now face the challenge of keeping it interesting. Both for themselves and their listeners. This may very well be Radiohead reaching middle age. It may be painful, but they’ve got the drive to continue. It’s just now time for them to step outside of the realm of possibility and capture listeners imaginations once more.

As if you needed more reasons to listen to Neko Case’s beautiful voice

You may recognize Neko Case’s voice from the Canadian indie-pop band The New Pornographers, but this isn’t run-of-the-mill indie-pop. Middle Cyclone is filled with intellectual, complex and engaging alternative pop music. Each listen allows you to peel back another layer.

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With a tinge of alt-country and a heaping spoonful of Memphis soul (think Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins’ Rabbit Fur Coat or Cat Power’s The Greatest), this is a crowd-pleaser from beginning to end. Her voice is strong, flexible and mature. Case could never be a pop star, but she has the pipes of a true professional.

Middle Cyclone is jangly enough to be pleasant without being too sweet. The highlight of the album is the multi-layered instrumentation. Case incorporates everything from acoustic instruments (guitar, banjo, cello) to synths and a toy music box. The variety allows her to create a truly diverse yet coherent collection of songs. The range of different sounds allow for each song to have its own vibe. Ubiquitous vocal harmonies on the album make it warm and inviting. Thoughtful lyrics take this album from just good musically to great overall.

The album takes the listener on an auditory ride. It takes some unexpected turns. The mood sometimes changes quickly, from lighthearted (“I’m an Animal”) to weighty (“Prison Girls”) and satirical (“People Got A Lotta Nerve”) to melancholy (“Polar Nettles”). Each track could find itself nestled into very different mix CDs.

Most of the songs are short and always leave the listener in want of more. The best tracks are the opener, “This Tornado Loves You,” a driving non-traditional love song; “Magpie to the Morning,” a cautionary, sultry summer song and “I’m an Animal” with its prominent percussion and simplicity. The album closes with a thirty-minute field recording of crickets, peepers and other natural sounds. Such sounds are often associated with the coming of spring and summer. Although it seems frivolous to use so much time on the track, perhaps Neko Case is conveying the message that this long winter has come to an end. Fittingly, Middle Cyclone is the perfect soundtrack for the end of our winter hibernation.

Neko Case – People Got A Lot of Nerve (MP3, via Stereogum)

Subtle – ExitingARM {Lex, 2008}

50058exitingarm.jpgEver since the first Themselves record came barreling onto my radar like a Soviet torpedo back in ’99, I have been in awe of Doseone and Jel’s creative look at what hip hop music is, and what it can be.

With the new record by the group Subtle, titled ExitingARM, they’ve finally put me on the floor. Subtle has always tiptoed the melodic, free association edge of hip hop and experimental music as a whole since their debut in 2002 with the Seasons EP’s (later to be put together as Earthsick).This time, they’ve made somethingfinally accessible to the rest of the musical world. The Subtle Six have created their “pop” record (much like cLOUDDEAD’s “pop album” ten) – and let me say, that it works VERY well.

The record begins with the title track, with melodies created by Doseone and Dax Pierson. They instantly grab you and bring you on their continued journey. For those uninitiated, the Subtle records are a story of the travels of a character named Hour Hero Yes. Hour Hero is an everyman of sorts, both an aspiring poet and emcee. This album, according to the always eccentric Doseone, is the final chapter of Hour Hero’s journey. Here, he’s battling the Ungodz and Dr. Moonorgun. The group is just like their name, subtle, so to truly understand the venture of Hour Hero, this record and its predecessors must be revisited again and again to get an idea of the larger story.

The next blatantly noticeable puzzle piece of ExitingARM is Jel’s bone-crushing MPC reaching out of your speakers and slamming your head down (on beat, of course) into whatever happens to be the nearest surface. The rest of the Six join in to create a magical world of beautifully crafted melody. The pace slows a bit on Day Dangerous to let the experience really sink in and the record starts to show just how melodic and perfectly accessible Subtle has become.

After building the pace back a bit on ‘The No’, Jel’s trademark “hand of slam” returns on ‘Sick Soft Perfection’ and along for the ride is a synth line that not even Devo themselves could have dreamed of. The record continues to traverse through an incredible melodic path throughout the middle tracks. The meat and potatoes of this experience are highlighted with slightly more subdued subwoofer-rattling grooves from Jel, Alexander Kort’s entrancing cello as well as doseone and Dax’s melodic, cryptic harmonies.

The album ends with a pair of mellower tracks, ‘Wanted Found’ and ‘Providence’. On both of these tracks Subtle’s past returns. They have a great feeling of some of the highest points of their more abrasive (but equally amazing) debut, A New White. Both tracks give me the chills like my first listens of ‘Red, White and Blonde’, ‘F.K.O. (Fuck Kelly Osbourne)’ and ‘She’. The structures of these two new tracks have a dark, cold feel that will give even the baddest, burliest dude you know the shivers.

In addition to the album, Doseone has created a companion web site to this album to aide in the listener’s journey with Hour Hero. The site at first glance looks like the clusterfuck of a bedroom that M.C. Escher and Ivan Albright’s mythical love child must have. As you venture through this site, you find that the “finger of opportunity” begins to show up and by clicking on a character or place of interest, doseone’s nasal voice will begin reading a poem aiding one’s understanding of Yes’s venture against the Ungodz and Dr.Moonorgun. I believe this is by far one of the strongest companions to a record in a long time. Especially with the heavy metaphor and strange associations of Doseone’s lyrics, the site can truly help a listener appreciate this compelling tale just as much as the music can.

9.8/10

Subtle – Exiting Arm (mp3)

Atmosphere – “When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint that Shit Gold” (2008, Rhymesayers)

Atmosphere – “When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint that Shit Gold”

Minneapolis’s Atmosphere has been a mainstay of underground hip hop since Overcast! showed up in ’97 – and later, with their major God Loves Ugly in 2002. Since the success of that major label release, Atmosphere has been on a roller coaster of cutting-edge lyricism and production, but also some major disappointments. The last 2 records, Seven’s Travels and You Can’t Imagine All the Fun We’re Having, just didn’t succeed in the same honest, self-aware form that the previous records thrived on. For Slug and Ant, 2008 is different. After their stunning free “full length” (and I use that loosely) Strictly Leakage the Minnesota duo have released their biggest step forward since the glory days of Slug howling, “Fuck you, Lucy!”

The duo’s new album, When Life Gives you Lemons… is a grimy piano and funk bathed ride through the bowels of drug abuse and womanizing (as well as some empathizing). Slug’s introspective lyrics work well backed with Ant’s new found love of old school funk and piano jams. Atmosphere seem to have regained their stride.
Where Strictly Leakage was a pavement cracking “fuck you, I rhyme better” look at the hip hop culture, “When Life Gives You Lemons…” brings Slug’s insecurities and apparent fascination into the drug culture to the forefront.

With a very mellow start, “Like the Rest of Us” and “Puppets” set the tone for the record. Beginning with Ant’s heavy piano backing, Slug beautifully weaves his way through the drug life making great use of every day occurrences playing into the human experience. The use of “she showed me outside as she gave me a cigarette” regarding a conversation with an expectant mother which makes me remember the gold ol’ days of Slug reminiscing about the woman with the tattooed hands back on Lucy Ford.

The record then takes a sharp, but welcome turn to the slightly more aggressive “Shoulda Know” marking the record’s halfway mark. Here Sluggo continues his exploration of drugs and Ant brings the heavily distorted bass line crunching along. The upward swing continues smoothly through the second half of the or the record peaking at “Can’t Break” with El-P-like space beats. Slug goes back to the tried-and-true stories of growing up while living in a perpetual fucked up state. He lays down his best crack at an over-serious drawn out line of “I fear/and I want/ but I can’t break away” but keeps the record moving at a solid pace. The record finally culminates with a pair of “updated” Lucy Ford-esque tracks. Both are solid tracks but nothing to write home about although our narrator’s storytelling still cannot falter even spending more time on his tried and true exploration of a kid growing into hip hop on “In Her Music Box”.

Now with all of the pros, unfortunately the record does have its shortcomings. Although I have always enjoyed Slug’s story-oriented emceeing, the subject matter has been visited before and probably will be visited again. It seems that some of his fascinations (drugs, women, and growing up) have yet to be fully explored. The continuation of his exploration of these matters seems to have lost some of it’s freshness, but still works in this thawed from the freezer adventure. On a more positive note, Ant’s production has never been better. I have been skeptical of Ant since the sub-par effort on Felt 2: A Tribute to Lisa Bonet, but his talents truly shine on this effort. The man whips his balls out for all to see on tracks like “Guarantees” and “Your Glass House” showing off his talents using a Buck 65 guitar strum and a bass heavy synth pad. Seeing the step from the box of his patented bass and the movement style is welcome and very successful.

Atmosphere has crafted a great addition to their legendary catalogue and even with a few stumbling points in Slug’s rhymes, the boys from the land of ice and snow have made one hell of a jump on 2008 and have resurrected Rhymesayers back into the upper echelon of the underground. 8.1/10

Atmosphere – Your Glass House(mp3)

-Joey Zittnan 5.5.08