Hard-Knock He-Men


The local heroes of Def Jam’s Hard Knock Life tour (Jay-Z, DMX, Method Man, and Redman, from Brooklyn, Yonkers, Staten Island, and Newark, respectively) currently have the Hot 97 chart locked up tighter than, well, Puffy. Wednesday night at the Meadowlands, DJ Clue crammed in the rest of the playlist between sets; all that was missing was the Western Beef ads.

The Hard Knockers have a string of singles good enough to transcend the contradictions of their supermacho posturing, to leap over the gap between “thug life” and “keeping it real,” roughly as wide as a doorway in the Bronx. While a month ago 41 bullets might have been the basis for a funny skit on one of their CDs, now it leaves them speechless. Cartoon gangstas have no way to respond to a real crime, except, as Redman would say, to “rock the fuck out.”

Superfriends Method Man and Redman kicked off the show together, trading manic verses. While Method kept jumping into the crowd, Redman could have climbed up from it, stomping and yapping with an easy humor that cracked his partner’s straight-faced facade. After a delirious encore in which they floated above the floor seats on wires, Method landed first, laughed warmly at his flailing friend, and caught him in a bear hug.

DMX was all business, from his shaved head through his coarse jumpsuit to his greasy, black work boots. A hip-hop throat singer, he rattled off syllables without breaking his growl, filling the room with sad, cautionary rants about violence and abandonment that were more weary than glamorizing. “How many been in hard times?” he asked. “How many in hard times now?” He prayed for his wife, but still macked about leaving women “with no dough but plenty of back pain.”

After a set that powerful, it was hard to love a playa like Jay-Z. He let the crowd do the work for him, strutting and pouting as cheers gave way to ecstatic sing-alongs. His breakthrough record Vol. 2 . . . Hard Knock Life layers a cheesy confection of sex, cars, and guns over buzzing, jerking grooves, but the cavernous space flattened both the music’s depth and Jay’s crisp delivery. The audience ate it up nonetheless, joining him in recognition of an undeniable sound. Turn on your radio; it’s probably playing right now. — Josh Goldfein

Return of the Repressed

Founder of Ann Arbor’s Interdimensional Transmissions label, Brendan M. Gillen is a prime mover on the pan-global neo-electro network. Spinning an in-store DJ set at Mondo Kim’s on February 26, Gillen showcased his impressive interdisciplinary scholarship in synthesized music history, encompassing Dinosaur L.’s art-disco, Pierre Henry, and the implausibly exciting Visage B-side “Frequency 7.” The following night, Gillen played live as Ectomorph, headlining the one-off party Input at Planet 28.

Although a handful went the whole retro-futurist hog (one woman sported a kind of tiara-with-antennae apparatus), most of the audience were dressed-down, nonaligned hipsters looking for the next sonic convulsion. As a candidate, electro’s primary appeal is that it’s funkier than contemporary techno— its syncopated Roland 808 bass lines and intricate percussion twist your torso, make you bump’n’flex. Traditionally shunned by Detroit techno aesthetes, electro’s lewd low end is crucial— along with its sheer bootyquake impact, the booming 808 reconnects techno and hip hop.

That said, Ectomorph is hardly ghetto music. Unlike Miami bass, there’s no rapid-fire rapping about ass’n’titties; the only vocal element takes the form of Gillen and partner Erica hectoring the audience through a cheap Kmart megaphone. And Ectomorph classics like “The Haunting” are as skeletal and severe as today’s minimalist techno. Call it “abstract booty” or “intelligent bass”: melody is limited to one-
finger synth-motifs that needle through the cochlea to tickle the innermost recesses of your brain; the textural palette comprises myriad subtle shades of ice and rubber; dub reverb gives the music a crumbly-round-the-edges organic quality that compares favorably with the clinical dessication of most electro.

Input also featured PAs from two outfits affiliated to the Spelunk label, plus local DJs. Chromatix— a duo so fresh-faced it seemed like the music might conceivably be their 12th grade
project— pumped the bass capably. Antfactor deployed an outmoded synth to weave a set of sleekly sinister robofunk, while DJ John Selway maintained the old skool ’80s vibe with Telex/
Yello ­style Eurodisco, Latin freestyle, and the existentialist hi-NRG of New Order’s “Blue Monday,” showing that nouveau electro at its best
represents the return of techno’s repressed: melody, vocals, funk, and fun. — Simon Reynolds

Version 3.0

The third, and some would say weakest, incarnation of the 30-year-old Allman Brothers Band stepped up to the plate last Thursday for the first of an 18-show residency at the Beacon Theatre. They are survivors, of course (hey, aren’t we all?)— especially the leaner and less mean Gregg Allman, said to be off mood enhancers two years and cigarettes six days. Gone are the great slide guitarist Warren Haynes and fatback bassist Allen Woody; the two rumored losers of a longtime volume war have been replaced by the jazzier and more lyrically inclined Jack Pearson and Oteil Burbridge, respectively.

“Good times don’t go away,” sang Dickie Betts in “Good Times,” so “don’t lock your heart in yesterday.” In spite of the founding guitarist’s white lie, the blues-heavy, growling-Gregg first set had “yesterday” scrawled all over it. Except for some three-guitar counterpoint during “I’m Not Crying,” it was ABB-by-the-numbers, at least until the final tune. Introduced by Betts as the byproduct of ’40s bebop, the brand new “JJ’s Alley” was bop filtered through a Grateful Dead space jam, and suggested a new mode the rest of the show only hinted at delivering.

At the apex of the Allmans’ pyramidal onstage configuration is percussionist Marc Quinones, positioned above drummers Jaimoe and Butch Trucks, with the other four band members arranged like linebackers at stage level. At their best, the Allmans coalesce into a firebreathing piece of heavy machinery with an intensity that smacks equally of brute metal force and lilting African beats. But only isolated moments of the rarely performed “Les Brers” jazz wank and the “Dreams” encore broached this zone. Even the blacklit mushroom iconography and nostalgic slide show seemed to work harder than usual to hit the perfect pleasure pitch of repetition with a difference. The similarity of subsequent set lists indicate that Allmans 3.0 are, for now at least, concentrating harder on getting it down than making it strange. — Richard Gehr

Uptempo Ruler

“Y’all want a piano feature?” Donald Harrison asked the Iridium crowd last Wednesday. Pregnant pause, then a reply: “Later, man. More horn right now.” It was less of a cut against keyboardist Andrew Adair than a testament to the saxophonist’s chops. Harrison had just opened with a nod to Bird, and after coolly “Koko”-ing the theme, he galloped away with the vim of a Preakness winner. Bar lines were leapt over, blues shouts bellowed, orthodoxies trifled with. Many players roll through a tune or two before firing on all cylinders, but the 38-year-old N’awlins native was cranked from the get-go. So, sure, let the pianist stroll a bit.

Actually that audience dude wasn’t grasping the way the group fueled the boss’s fire. On the surface, the foursome’s mainstream demeanor has its conventions. But despite his neocon persona, Harrison’s moves are a bit more rad. His “nouveau swing” concept is an acknowledgment of regionalism, incorporating Caribbean cadences and Crescent City backbeats. And if everyone’s not a fire feeder— especially drummer John Lamkin and bassist Vincente Archer— it just don’t work. So collectivism boils under the surface, making Adair’s phunky phrases crucial to Harrison’s bust-outs. On Wednesday the synergy was most obvious during their Meters cover. Riff tunes aren’t supposed to be all that complex. But with Lamkin hustling like a union of Zigaboo and Elvin, “Cissy Strut” took on the anything-goes ardor of “Chasin’ the Trane.”

On his Banned in New York, Greg Osby demonstrates the thrills a club date can provide. Harrison’s new Free To Be hints at such heights, but the gig was a dazzler of full Banned proportions. “We are of these times. We like Bob Marley,” said the leader before snaking into “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise.” Harrison knew it would be cheese to put a real skank on it. So nuance ruled, and a stream of tricky-assed riddims shored a sprawl of solo flights. Whether or not they’re Jah men is up for debate. But they were jammin’, and they hoped we like jammin’, too. — Jim Macnie


Having waited the better part of a decade to punch the clock for his 15 minutes of fame, Shawn Mullins seems awfully unsure about how he wants to count off those precious seconds. One minute, he’s a bargain-
basement Don Henley, the next, a member of the Indigo Girls’ male auxiliary. At first blush, such addlement makes the thirtyish Southerner seem like a total write-off— but in those moments between mask fittings, it’s possible to discern flashes of talent that, while hardly unique, might extend his shelf life just a tad.

Mullins differs from most queuers on the “two hits or less” line in that his moment in the sun— the teen-dissipation lament “Lullaby”— isn’t actually among his better offerings. On the other hand, it’s the only one catchy enough to quiet the chattering of the immediate-gratification seekers who filled Irving Plaza on Friday night. That’s too bad, since the few interludes when Mullins banished his band— caricatures who could convert “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” into a Pontiac commercial— left the most lasting impression.

When not strumming coffeehouse stylee, the studiously grunged singer-songwriter mines the only vein of ’70s pop culture that hasn’t yet been exhausted— the sensitive, vaguely rocked-up sorta stuff that occupied the bottom of the bill on countless editions of Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. Visions of Poco and the Michael Stanley Band danced in many heads. His inexplicable devotion to Me Decade schlock aside, it’s clear that Mullins has some good instincts: Covering James McMurtry’s “Candyland” proves that he knows a powerful song when he hears one, while the as-yet-unrecorded dirge “Lonesome, I Know You Too Well” indicates that he’s capable of tossing one off himself. Still, for a guy who sings so much about how wild and untamed a spirit he is, Mullins really ought to do something— breakdance, stick one of those trick arrows through his head, or simply pink-slip the hacks— to back it up. The clock is ticking. — David Sprague