The recent debate between David Longstreth of Dirty Projectors and Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes, on the state of indie rock, brought to the public’s eye an issue I’ve been grappling with for a little while. In an age of such discontent, even a radical moderate such as myself can find some solace in the sometimes-disproportionate anger of politically-conscious hip hop. Continue reading Beats, rhymes, and the radical centre
Damon Albarn founded Gorillaz with his then-friend Jamie Hewlett in order to escape the fame being the frontman of Blur had conferred upon him. This cartoonish, animated side-project ended up being far bigger than Blur, breaking America and topping charts like no album of British social vignettes ever could. Loosely hip-hop but also shot through with a mass-market pop appeal, the music of Gorillaz developed from the scratchy, scrawny sketches of the eponymous debut, to the sophisticated, grown-up pop of Plastic Beach—but only via the squelchy soul of Demon Days. Continue reading Demon days of dead planets and doom
Thanks to @stkizzle and his accidentally bequeathed music collection, I’m slowly finding my way round alternative hip-hop, and not a minute too soon. With Kanye West’s stock at an all-time high—tell me, honestly, who thought he’d bounce back after Taylor Swift-gate?—now seems like a good moment to deflate his ego a little, with the suggestion that his couture rapping isn’t as hyperliterate as he thinks.
The first albums to whose charms I have succumbed is Madvillain‘s Madvillainy; it is as far away as you can get from the traditional gangland.
Madvillainy is all about the many masks and guises of MF DOOM; fittingly, the album evokes comparisons with the dark underbelly of Alan Moore‘s Watchmen. There are snitches of film dialogue from a bygone era; everyone’s either sitting on park benches peering out from behind newspapers, or committing dastardly deeds while dressed up as supervillains. It’s comic, but it’s not comic. DOOM’s rapping style is distinctive and punchy; it modulates between a sandpapered rasp and a treacle-sticky flow of inventive rhymes and disparate references. Behind him, Madlib‘s beats are Dilla-smooth, and interspersed with snippets of jazz standards that crackle off the vinyl (and are cryptically attributed to Yesterday’s New Quintet—a purely fictitious device). There’s a thick fug of weed-smoke hanging over the record, from which creep occasional pulses of bass.
“Pan it, can’t understand it, ban it;
The underhanded ranted, planned it and left him stranded;
The best, any who profess will be remanded.”
On “Money Folder” (above), over a tricksy breakbeat and a synthesised approximation of a double-bass, the pair treat us to every trick in their book. A brief snatch of repurposed narration, then we’re launched into the main attraction, with DOOM relentlessly spitting rhyme, and Madlib finding time to fit in a conspicuous jazz breakdown. Disembodied piano chords rise to the top of the mix, painfully slowly, practically inviting the fade-out which eventually follows, leading into a lengthier, chopped-and-screwed passage of narration, pieced together from different films and, who knows, different eras. It’s a mesmerising composition; a shadowy world reminiscent of the one dreamt up on DJ Shadow’s seminal Endtroducing…; and a showcase for one of the most exciting rappers of all time.
So tomorrow is the Rapture (not the NY dance punk outfit), supposedly. In celebration of this ‘fact’, I bring you…
Strobe lights, street lights…”
In short, “All of the lights; all of the lights“.
What a stunning roll call of the good and the great Mr. West manages to assemble on this bolshy, intergalactic number. Star-studded it may be, but everyone still knows to bow down to Yeezy. Even when he’s battling restraining orders and visitation rights.
(It turns out there was no room for energy-saving lights in the MBDTF branch of Homebase.)
Knock-out classic from 1973, as used in J Dilla’s masterful “Stop”.
There’s a haunting tone to that guitar twang which sets the scene at the start, which then gets subsumed into Warwick’s lovesick vocals and the soaring string arrangement. Later on, the guitar returns, transformed into a brittle solo instrument, perfectly mirroring the anguish in Warwick’s voice.
The other thing you notice is the drums, which could themselves have appeared on a Dilla track. There is a viscous quality to them, which suggests they might be rolling off the beat when in fact they remain totally in the pocket.
Have I missed you? Greatly. Have I abandoned you depuis longtemps? Too right. Have I been selling my wares on Twitter and Tumblr like a woman of the night? Sadly, yes. Am I back here for good? Let’s hope so.
Enough of the rhetoric. I’ve cherry-picked seven fine albums from the first quarter of this year, and given them a brief bit of spiel extolling my love for them. Oh, and they’re kind of in an order of preference, which, I can assure you, was a challenge.
1. Transference – Spoon. In which the masters of concision pretended to loosen up a little, making a work of carefully considered ragged beauty. From the hesitant organ drone pulsing through opener “Before Destruction”, to the distant, measured funk of “Nobody Gets Me But You”, Transference makes every hyped lo-fi band seem overly amateur in their efforts – Jim Eno and Britt Daniel have laboured night and day to give their latest baby the kind of off-the-cuff aesthetic that only painstaking production can really pull off. Songs end abruptly, mid-phrase; Britt Daniel’s vocals are warped and garbled to heighten our disorientation. It’s an exercise in melancholy as art form.
2. Contra – Vampire Weekend. Gone are the campus tales of fun and frolicking that was the backdrop to my first year at university. In their stead are a range of musically ambitious, lyrically sophisticated compositions that are undoubtedly a bit less fun, but substantially more far-reaching. This, as I wrote previously, is about Ivy League graduates going out into the real world and discovering how out-of-touch they are. It’s there in the wistful, nostalgic tone of “Taxi Cab” and “Diplomat’s Son”; at the same time, Contra also has its fair share of zany pop moments, in the riotous early Police ska-punk of “Cousins” and the typeface-referencing “Holiday”. Contra is probably a superior creation to Vampire Weekend, even if it’s a bit less immediate and catchy.
3. Sisterworld – Liars. Not since their début have Liars made an album so song-focused as this, their self-confessed L.A. record. Sisterworld is sinister and twisted, and boasts the kind of gothic creepiness even Nick Cave shies away from nowadays. It’s scary stuff, especially when frontman Angus Andrew screams “AND THEN KILL THEM ALL!” in the middle of “Scarecrows On A Killer Slant”. Elsewhere, the three-piece explore tight, muscular grooves (which go all motorik on “Proud Evolution”), and then suddenly veer into hazy near-instrumentals like “Drip”. Sisterworld reminds me of a more focused cousin of Deerhunter’s excellent Microcastle, albeit with the shoegazey moments being interspersed more evenly through the record, as opposed to being clumped together in the middle. Throughout, Liars display their usual dark humour that can make the listener wince, and then grin with wild, untamed delight.
4. Plastic Beach – Gorillaz. Possibly the finest Gorillaz album yet – though Demon Days set the bar very high last time round. The tenuous narrative arc is now quite removed from the music (preferring instead to manifest itself through the packaging, the online experience, and every other marketing avenue Albarn/Hewlett/EMI can explore), and the songs are probably all the better for it. Albarn hasn’t made such a startling variety of great pop music for a very long time – at least, not in one single artistic endeavour – and the breadth and depth of Plastic Beach is startling. On “White Flag”, he crosses extremely authentic Arabic orchestral arrangements with 8-bit grime; standout track “Sweepstakes” pits a multi-tracked Mos Def against polyrhythmic vibes and brass. You couldn’t make this stuff up. The only real mis-step is on 80s-synth-pop-by-numbers “On Melancholy Hill”, but even this has its charms, I suppose. The jury’s out on whether Plastic Beach does better when Albarn sings, or when he gets his Rolodex out. For me, I think the two sides of Gorillaz’ craft are now so utterly complete that it doesn’t really matter. This is the kind of intelligent pop music that reassures the chequebooks of EMI bigwigs, and also appeases music critics who were a bit suspicious of Albarn’s doubtless artistic largesse. I’ve said this a lot, but he’s a true polymath, and the proof is plain to see on Plastic Beach.
5. One Life Stand – Hot Chip. One criticism levelled at this fourth album from the south London electro-geeks is that it’s too saccharine; too lovestruck. To me, that’s a strength, not a failing. Yes, the in-jokes were dead funny on their previous three albums (“I’m sick of motherfuckers tryna tell me that they’re down with Prince” was one particularly witty lyric), but this time round, Hot Chip have finally realised that they are the true inheritors of our long heritage of great songwriters – to the list that includes Paul McCartney and Robert Wyatt, we can now append the names Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor. One Life Stand is built around a middle triplet of songs that are, yes, slushy, but that shouldn’t take away from their undoubted beauty and heartfelt emotion. They write great love songs, and they just so happen to perform them with predominantly electronic instruments. Why should that be so irreconcilable? And why don’t more bands use steel drums to such great effect?!
6. There Is Love In You – Four Tet. Not an album of dance music per se, but certainly an album of music you can tap your feet to, and swivel about in your office chair. The last album I said that about was Battles’ Mirrored, and indeed, Kieran Hebden’s long-awaited fifth LP shares with that album a sense of playfulness and joy at the primal essence of being alive, and connected to technology in a totally organic way. There Is Love In You practically bounces through your headphones, so enraptured is it with the thrill of existence.
7. Field Music (Measure) – Field Music. If you go on hiatus because you feel your music probably has too limited an audience, it’s generally considered surprising to return with a 70-minute double album that decants late period Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin and Steely Dan into a heady cocktail. Nonetheless, this is what the brothers Brewis have chosen to do, and, happily Measure just about pulls it off, bearing testament to their vaulting ambition and artistic integrity. There are definitely weaker bits (the final quarter is overly bucolic and pastoral, if I’m being picky), but when Field Music shift into the correct gear on Measure, they really are at the top of their (admittedly niche) game. Songs like “All You’d Ever Need To Say” and “The Wheels Are In Place” are taut and structurally complex, and yet still fit into miraculously brief passages of time. The musicianship is unparalleled, the vocal harmonies are typically glistening, and it’s wonderful to have them back.
Sounding like a cross between “Night Fever” and the Knight Rider theme tune, the lead single for the forthcoming Gorillaz album, Plastic Beach, is a seriously catchy slice of music. “Stylo”, as it is titled, is also a star-studded affair, boasting some fairly unhinged wailing from a chap called Bobby Womack, and a rap at the end that appears to be telephoned in by Mos Def. And, despite my rather cynical tone, I rather like it.
Damon Albarn treads very gently over “Stylo”. Yes, the first verse is occupied by his wistful mumblings, but beyond that, it really sounds nothing like any of his previous work. It doesn’t even resemble a Gorillaz song. Entirely synthetic in its instrumentation, “Stylo” is a one-idea song that’s probably as addictive as crystal meth, and, let’s hope, not too representative of the album as a whole. Much as I’m enjoying it, I refuse to believe Albarn would seriously contemplate making a whole album of similar material – more likely, “Stylo” is a palate cleanser before Plastic Beach makes its entrance, replete with substantially more weirdness.
I say all this, and then I hear Bobby Womack literally crawling through my speakers with his deranged intrusions, and I think this song is utterly brilliant and terrifying at the same time.