Archive for September, 2009

Sparklehorse + Fennesz – In the Fishtank 15 (Konkurrent) LP

Sparklehorse + Fennesz - In the Fishtank 15

Sparklehorse + Fennesz - In the Fishtank 15

The early career of Christian Fennesz was positively littered with collaborative releases – of varying quality. A few years ago, Fennesz announced that he was going to start being a lot more choosy about collaborations, mainly concentrating on FennO’berg, his trio with Jim O’Rourke and Peter “Pita” Rehberg.

Rather confusingly, there have been no new FennO’berg albums since that time but Fennesz has gone on tour with Faith No More vocalist Mike Patton (an artist whose good intentions do little to mask his lack of talent) and has also appeared on an album by a rather nondescript indie rock act called Sparklehorse.*

You might be forgiven for greeting the news of a full-on Sparklehorse + Fennesz release with a copious yawn. But if you took the time to give said release a fair listen, well you’d be taking back that yawn pretty quickly, mister.

In the Fishtank 15 is the latest entry in the Konkurrent label’s series of collaborative releases, which has previously paired up Low with the Dirty Three and Tortoise with The Ex. It’s basically a document of Fennesz jamming in the studio with Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous and it really is surprisingly satisfying.

Things do not start off promisingly. Early on in the opening track (“Music Box of Snakes”) you can clearly hear Linkous fiddling with a delay pedal – usually the first sign of a clueless rock guitarist trying to be “experimental”. Things pick up pretty quickly though and Linkous ends up acquitting himself rather well – in spite of the fact that the whole session takes place in Fennesz’s abstract/electronic realm and barely strays into Linkous’s world of singers and songwriters.

In fact, if there’s a weak link here, it’s Fennesz’s guitar playing. Don’t take that the wrong way, Fennesz is an excellent guitarist – with a strong tone and a lovely melodic sensibility – but he does tend towards always playing the same kind of thing. There are a number of moments on this release where he sounds like he’s about to burst into his own classic tune “Codeine”, most obviously on “Christian’s Guitar Piece”.

And to be honest, the best parts of the whole record are the bits where Linkous’s voice makes an appearance, as on “Goodnight Sweetheart” and “If My Heart”. Listening to these tracks should be pretty humbling stuff for any Fennesz fans who’d written Linkous off as a mere indie rock hack. Maybe Sparklehorse isn’t so bad after all!

The vinyl version of In the Fishtank 15 is available for pre-order from Insound.

(*To be fair, there have been some pretty great Fennesz collab’s in recent years, perhaps most notably 2008’s Fennesz Brandlmayr Dafeldecker 2CD.)

September 9, 2009 at 9:00 am 2 comments

Black Moon – Diggin’ in dah Vaults (Wreck) CD

Black Moon - Diggin' in dah Vaults

Black Moon - Diggin' in dah Vaults

Black Moon’s Enta da Stage is the mighty Woebot‘s favourite ’90s rap record, so you know these guys are worth the time of day. Enta da Stage certainly makes an impression – it must be one of the darkest hip-hop albums ever released.

Early on, Black Moon had some sort of association with Mobb Deep. Both crews certainly espoused a similarly bleak worldview but whereas Mobb Deep wrapped this worldview in all sorts of half-baked Social Darwinist rhetoric, Black Moon seemed to simply accept their harsh ‘90s reality, no questions asked. They weren’t interested in self-justification – which somehow made them even scarier.

Diggin’ in dah Vaults is a compilation of singles, B-sides and outtakes, released some time after the Black Moon crew’s 1995 break-up (they later reformed but never quite managed to recapture their initial spark of inspiration). For the most part, it reprises songs from Enta da Stage, adding lusher production and more sophisticated, melodic emceeing.

While Enta da Stage is a devastatingly effective statement of intent, lead emcee Buckshot and producer Evil Dee both reached peak form on these later tracks. Buckshot’s voice had, by this point, taken on a unique, insinuating rasp and a lilting singsong cadence. Evil Dee, meanwhile, was draping woozy, menacing soundscapes over crisp, minimal beats.

“Buck ’em Down (Remix)” is exemplary – replacing the original version’s stark, staccato sound with something at once breathlessly psychedelic and utterly merciless. “Ack Like U Want It (DJ Evil Dee Remix)” and “Murder MCs”, meanwhile, are prowling, deep and subtly dissonant.

This is nasty, nasty but utterly seductive stuff. It’s hard not to feel like a voyeur listening to these tales of inner-city brutality. It’s also hard to shake the feeling that you might be the next victim.

And yet Diggin’ in dah Vaults is a deeply rewarding listen. In the final analysis, it seems like a heartfelt attempt to find some oblique kind of beauty in the midst of incredibly dark circumstances.

Looks like you can buy Diggin’ in dah Vaults from Amazon.

September 7, 2009 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

Richard Youngs – Beyond the Valley of Ultrahits (Sonic Oyster) CDR

Richard Youngs - Beyond the Valley of Ultrahits

Richard Youngs - Beyond the Valley of Ultrahits

Richard Youngs is surely one the United Kingdom’s most under-appreciated musical artists. Even appearing on the front cover of The Wire magazine a few years back didn’t seem to boost his profile all that much.

Youngs’ music ranges the gamut from acoustic singer-songwriter rock to no-holds-barred free-form noise. Whatever mode he’s working in though, Youngs always gives something fundamentally uplifting to whatever listeners he may have.

Beyond the Valley of Ultrahits is hardly the most significant entry in his sizeable discography. A CDR released in a tiny run, …Ultrahits was apparently recorded as a goof, when a friend dared Youngs to record a straightforward pop album.

Youngs took the dare but the results give the impression he didn’t take it too seriously. This is a distinctly imperfect album that sounds like it was recorded very, very quickly indeed. The electronic backings are rather generic, the songs are mostly quite rudimentary and the vocal harmonies are often shaky.

But there are more serious problems with …Ultrahits. Firstly, it’s slightly disturbing that this is Richard Youngs’ idea of a straightforward pop album. In fact, it’s not really a pop album at all – it’s a quirky indie rock album. Has indie rock achieved such cultural hegemony that even an artist of Youngs’ range can’t see past it?

Perhaps, though, what we really have here is just another Richard Youngs album. That’s a problem too – his folky tones and sincerely mystical lyrics just don’t sound right over faux-R&B beats. Real pop stars simply don’t write vegan cookbooks, do they?

Having said all this, the wrongness of ...Ultrahits – it’s awkward, ragged imperfection – is also the album’s charm; its saving grace. If you can get past your preconceptions about what Youngs was supposed to achieve, the results are actually quite beguiling. And many of the songs are simply beautiful.

“A Storm of Light Ignites My Heart” is a particularly lovely anthem to the night sky. The shuffling back-beat might seem a little uncharacteristic but don’t be fooled – this is Youngs at his ecstatic best. “Collapsing Stars” is great too. Based around a naggingly familiar sample loop (Lali Puna? Pluramon?), it’s lilting folk-song melody is totally at odds with the concept of the album but utterly perfect for Youngs’ voice.

So, out of all this imperfection, all this wrongness, comes one of 2009’s most winning albums. Sadly, as a limited run CDR, Beyond the Valley of Ultrahits is – by all accounts – waaay out of print.

September 5, 2009 at 9:00 am 2 comments

Antipop Consortium – Fluorescent Black (Big Dada) 2LP

Antipop Consortium - Fluorescent Black

Antipop Consortium - Fluorescent Black

The power that received opinion continues to have over music criticism is really incredible. You’d think the Internet would have caused unconventional and iconoclastic viewpoints to proliferate. In fact, the Web has merely provided more efficient ways for narrow-minded dogmas to gain utter hegemony over the critical discourse. The major print publications and Web portals can  pigeonhole an artist on Monday and by the end of the week, the whole blogosphere is parroting the party line.

This is more than mere consensus building – it’s the reconfiguration of musical reality from the ground up. Case in point: post-rap pioneers Antipop Consortium. Over the course of two albums, APC proved themselves to be one of the most inventive, exciting and downright funny groups working in any genre. But because of their association with experimental music and the deathly unfashionable indie rap movement of the early ’00s, APC have found themselves universally branded as po-faced pedallers of fun-free obscuritanism.

Here’s where the reconfiguration of reality comes in. Just about anything you’ll read about APC will tell you that their songs don’t have hooks. In fact, at least half of their tracks have choruses that range from pretty catchy to maddeningly memorable. Perhaps that’s what you get for calling yourselves “Antipop Consortium”. Still, this case really goes to show how people will toe the critical line in the face of massive contradictory evidence.

Antipop called it a day six years ago. The crew’s individual members went on to pursue a range of rather unsatisfactory projects before deciding to reform a year-or-so ago. The upshot of this most welcome reformation is APC’s third album, Fluorescent Black. So is the magic still there?

Well Fluorescent Black is certainly Antipop’s weakest full-length. It’s a sprawling, uneven affair that can’t decide whether to settle on the spooky experimentalism of Tragic Epilogue or the avant-party vibe of Arrhythmia. It contains some pretty major misfires too, including a few highly jarring bursts of heavy rock instrumentation and a slightly embarrassing cameo from Roots Manuva – who just can’t keep up with Beans, Sayyid and Priest’s galloping rhyme-flows.

But when Fluorescent Black is good, man is it ever great! On the whole, it works best when going way out on a limb. The descriptively named “Timpani” consists of little more a kettle drum loop, a few dark atmospherics and some seriously munted vocal samples.  Oh and an italo disco outro. “Get Lite”, meanwhile, is based around some dizzying synth arrpeggios and more-than-usually breathless rhyming. It’ll make you lite headed.

Antipop’s LPs tend to be growers. Fluorescent Black could easily end up being one of the albums of the year. Don’t listen to the critical consensus, this is some serious fun!

Fluorescent Black will be released by Big Dada on September 29th.

September 3, 2009 at 6:02 pm 2 comments

Sneefler!

You didn't think you were going to get away without gazing upon her beauty, did you?

You didn't think you were going to get away without gazing upon her beauty, did you?

connect_icut – “The Roxie Music”

September 3, 2009 at 12:30 pm 7 comments

Big L – Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous (Columbia) LP

Big L - Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous

Big L - Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous

And where – you might be forgiven for asking – is the hip-hop? Well, first of all, we try not to call it “hip-hop” too much around here. Hip-hop is an aerobics class you can take at some yuppie gym. What we’re talking about here is rhyming, emceeing… rapping. And few have rapped better than the legendary Big L.

Big L was arguably the most talented emcee in producer Diamond D’s perennially (commercially) underachieving Digging in the Creates posse (D.I.T.C.) He first came to the rap world’s attention with a guest spot on “Represent”, the stand-out cut from Runaway Slave, Showbiz & AG’s classic 1992 album. On this track, L fairly bursts into life: “Yo, on the mic is Big L, that brother who kicks flav’, God/Known for sending garbage emcees to the graveyard.”

While L’s considerable talent was immediately obvious to anyone who heard the opening lines of “Represent”, he didn’t get to release his own solo album until 1995 – right at the tail end of hardcore hip-hop’s early-’90s golden age. Sadly, Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous ended up being his only proper full-length release – he died in 1999, leaving the follow-up uncompleted.

What’s so great about Big L, then? Well, to really understand that, you first have to look at what’s not so great about Big L. The thing is, perhaps more than any other emcee, Big L represents the central conundrum of rap music: how can such ugly sentiments be expressed so beautifully? On “Da Graveyard” L spits: “I make a duck shed much tears/I buck queers/I don’t have it all upstairs/But who the fuck cares?”

So, the sentiments expressed on Lifestylez… are ugly, even by the standards of mid-’90s rap. In particular, L’s homophobia is utterly rancid and unforgivable. He rhymes about his professed love of murdering homosexuals on just about every cut – to the point that it gets a little ridiculous.

And it’s that very ridiculousness that contains the seed of Big L’s salvation. See, while the gritty street tales of Lifestylez… go out of their way to “represent the real”, as all hardcore hip-hop lyrics must, L had a tendency to blow things way, way out of proportion. At one point, does he really rap about killing his own momma for small change?

Big L instinctively understood that emceeing is all about elevating boastfulness to a high art. Unlike a lot of emcees, though, he also understood that you have to make that shit funny and – above all – musical. “M.V.P.” may just be the high-water mark of funny, musical boasting in rap music: “In a street brawl I strike men/Quicker than lightning/You seen what happened in my last fight, friend?/A’ight then!”

“Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous” is not only the album’s title track, it’s also the perfect summation of Big L’s lyrical aesthetic, containing classic couplets like “Yo, I admit I’m a sucker/A low down dirty, sneaky, double crossin’, connivin’  muthafucka/Breakin’ in cribs with a crow bar/I wasn’t poor, I was po’/I couldn’t afford the O.R.” and “Some say I’m ruthless, some say I’m grim/Once a brother done broke into my house and I robbed him!”

Like all D.I.T.C. releases, this album has fantastic beats – eerie, inventive and dangerously funky. But it’s Big L’s prodigious lyrical talent and his ability to charm the listener against all odds that make Lifestylez… such a stand-out classic.

It’s hard not to feel that the ruthless, homophobic psycho Big L portrayed in his lyrics was merely the creation of a very smart artist, who new how to play up to the very specific demands of hardcore hip-hop’s core audience, while subtly subverting those same demands with wit and sly self deprecation.

On other albums from this period, the token “conscious” track can sound very contrived. But the conscious  single from this album, “Street Struck”, sounds incredibly heartfelt. Knowing that L had two brothers who did time in prison puts real emotional weight behind lines like: “I’ve seen a lot of my peers/Give up their careers/For some fast money/They could have been boxers, ball players or rap singers/Instead they bank robbers and crack slingers/Hey yo, they used to be legit kids/Now they corrupt/They had dreams but gave ’em up/’Cos they street struck .”

Big L’s death was a pretty sorry affair. In fact, the story of L’s demise reads like one of his own sick jokes. He was shot and killed in an apparently senseless incident – a tragic crime that remains unsolved to this day. The best the cops could figure it, he was killed as revenge for something one of his brothers did in jail.

Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous seems to be in circulation as a vinyl LP, which you can obtain via Discogs marketplace.

September 1, 2009 at 9:00 am 1 comment

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