The year’s beginning strong—the five archival albums recommended below are the kind of stuff that always rises to the surface during the post-Christmas lull. And I can already slate three or four April releases for this slot next time.
MC Paul Barman
It’s Very Stimulating
His foil-wrapped condom turns out to be Chanukah gelt, his sex objects of choice are male one time, and though he thinks “L.L. Cool J and Canibus are both fantastic,” for five rhymes in 18 minutes he owes neither. Primordially whiny, nerdy, merry, and Jewish, his flow bubbles with complex rhymes: “dressed to kill”/”testicle,” “pooper hole”/”Super Bowl,” “hunter-gatherer”/”cunter-latherer,” let us not forget “explained that/Jane Pratt,” and many more! And thanks to Prince Paul, his jokes will be funny next week. A MINUS
Belle and Sebastian
It’s their 1996 U.K. debut, done cheap back when school was the main thing they knew. So they made up songs idealizing the yearnings of every sexually confused young person who ever sat alone in a lunchroom humming a Chills song. Soaring wistfully above a misery recollected from something like last week, Stuart Murdoch clearly believes these kids are superior beings. But he’s so nonconfrontational in his elitism that only a jock wouldn’t root for them. A MINUS
The Robert Cray Band
Heavy Picks—The Robert Cray Band Collection
You want proof of greatness, stick with Strong Persuader. You couldn’t care less, this expedient survey documents his staying power as a songman. The opener literally cuts to the chase: He’s just gotten to Chicago with a dime to his name, which he invests in a number on a phone booth wall. A MINUS
Forget the Prince and Marvin stuff—this deeply brave and pretentious record signifies like a cross between lesser Tricky and Sly’s Riot Goin’ On. Accepting his deficiencies in the tune-and-hook department, he leads from strength, a feel for bass more disquieting than bootalicious. His lyrical focus is the social as spiritual, which he ponders honestly and seriously and sometimes bravely, as on the unjudgmental, unsentimental “The Line,” in which a young black man lays out the reasons he’s ready to die—leaving the listener to wonder why the fuck he should have to think about it. So the pecs and pubes of the video are a feint, one of many; although the music can be sexy and funky and fun and woman-centered, that’s just part of the sonic concept. Which is unique. Play it five years from now, when the follow-up comes out, and you’ll recognize it instantly. A MINUS
Last one was the great Ghostface album, which Wu fans didn’t notice because they were up to their necks in mystical shit. Now that obscurantism is out of style again, his vocal clarity, verbal dexterity, and narrative facility push the collective pleasure button. They earn it, too—”One” is hookier and “Deck’s Beat” funkier than anything on Ironman. Still, only “Child’s Play”—kiddie nostalgia whose corny shtick Ghostface defeats with details that could come from a notebook—approaches the documentary coherence of “260,” “Camay,” or “All That I Got Is You.” In effect, it’s another Wu mood record. But this time the mood is all vocal clarity, verbal dexterity, and narrative facility. Plus perhaps the long hard look RZA took at Wu Wear’s profit profile. A MINUS
Hope Is Important
Unaccustomed as I am to quoting NME, I can resist neither “a flight of stairs falling down a flight of stairs” nor “what Fugazi would sound like if they ate meat.” Punk foursome from Glasgow—sometimes lyrical, sometimes heavy, mostly headlong, less confused than the people they write to and about. Almost as catchy as Green Day, who were (are?) cuter. I sincerely suggest they conceive a video for “A Film for the Future” or “You Don’t Have the Heart” that makes good-natured fun of ‘N Sync—or, failing that, Oasis. There’s still time. A MINUS
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
(Ninja Tune import)
Although Public Enemy and De La Soul saved Eric San from 10 years of piano lessons, by now he’s about as hip hop as Christian Marclay, or at best the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Unlike Shadow, the only other DJ who’s constructed a cut-and-scratch album of so much general interest, he has no groove to undercut—his grooves are ancillary to his jokes like everything else. Grant his complex little pieces the concentration they demand and you’re sure to chuckle. Sometimes you may even marvel at how tenderly he mixes ingenuity and humility. But don’t expect your ass to follow. B PLUS
The Real Hip-Hop: Best of D&D Studios Vol. 1
The main thing undergrounders mean by “real” is Hold That Tune, a/k/a/ Hook Junkies Keep Out. Though this ethos dates officially to Mother Bronx, its immediate forebear is these mid-’90s productions of Premier and his lessers. On choice singles from a singles music, the warm feelings hip hop heads cherish for M.O.P., the Lost Boyz, Smif-N-Wessum, and Showbiz & AG can be shared by us hook users. An excess of celebrity similes is counterbalanced by gangsta talk as unmitigated metaphor. Competitive world, hip hop. It could kill ya. A MINUS
United Kingdom of Punk: The Hardcore Years
“Perhaps I’m not too clever, perhaps I’m not too bright,” yowls Mensi on the debut single from the Angelic Upstarts, who at least I’ve heard before. Four of these circa-1980 bands are on Oi!—The Album, two are on Carry On Oi!, here’s the good ol’ Anti-Nowhere League, and that’s it—Stateside, these yobs were lucky to see the inside of an import store. None are clever and none bright, at least not so’s they’ll tell you about it, because where in American hardcore us-against-them is about age, in Britain it flouts class in all its manifestations—not just money, but manners, education, culture. So above all they’re rude—the Pistols, the Clash, and Generation X are limp-wristed art wankers by comparison. The rant can get tedious—a song called “Free Speech for the Dumb” ought to be smarter. But 20 years after we sussed that British fascism looks more like a middle-aged housewife than a boot boy downing pints at a football match, these antieverything anthems prove that anyone who pegged them as a menace wasn’t clever or bright either. A MINUS
The Lost Tapes
Live Muddys are flooding the market on multiple labels, with differences in quality slighter than they want you to know, but real nonetheless. What makes this well-recorded two-venue combo the choicest has more to do with sound, repertoire, and intangibles of commitment than with changing casts of axeslingers and harmonicats—the big man’s basic slide is always what stands out in his bands anyway. Here he is in 1970, reasserting his distance from the just-deceased Leonard Chess’s rock dreams—an old-fashioned artist returning to his legendary strengths. By Pablo’s 1972 Paris disc he’s gotten just slightly complacent; by Just a Memory’s 1977 Montreal gig, which has better but more familiar songs, he’s relaxed into a seigneurial blues entertainer. Here he still has something to prove—or find out. B PLUS
The Dismemberment Plan
Emergency and I
Hardcore’s gotten confusing for oldsters; in these post-Fugazi days, a lot of it sounds like jazz. But it sure beats the folk-rock that used to sound like jazz. This D.C. unit convened in 1993 and made this third album on Interscope’s dime during the merger mess. The only way they’re punk anymore is that there aren’t very many of them and that none of them seems to be playing a keyboard even though most of them can. What they are instead is a much rarer thing, no matter what Ron Sexsmith and Richard Buckner pretend—thoughtful, quirky, mercurial young adults skilled at transforming doubt into music. Tracking his feelings through irregular structures and jumpy rhythms, Travis Morrison is always lyrical, even celebratory—full of regrets like many honest men, never ever a sad sack. A MINUS
(The Right Stuff)
Rarely have more black singers I dislike been gathered in one place. Billy Eckstine and Arthur Prysock, Lena Horne and Carmen McRae, Nina Simone and Sarah Vaughan, Lou Rawls and Nancy Wilson, Bobby Short and Sammy Davis Jr.—the grand and the genteel, the expressionistic and the arty, the smarmy and the pop pop pop. But after dozens upon dozens of hi-fi “lounge” comps, at least three of which I tried my damnedest to get through, they all do justice to old songs worth hearing. It’s a credible, likable, and enjoyable rendering of the pseudosophistication young ginheads have been promoting since the second coming of Esquivel. The secret is that they all sound comfortable in their bodies, even Short and Horne, which is not something I’d ever say about Esquivel or most ginheads. And comfort, ladies and gents, is supposed to be what lounging is about. A MINUS
Dud of the Month
The Smashing Pumpkins
Machina/The Machines of God
Galloping into the wasteland just in time to save the world from an onslaught of meaningless pop comes a genuine Rock Band caterwauling tunefully about Things That Matter: the death of God, the rain that falls on everyone, “a boy and a girl, simple yes but eternal always,” and, most significant of all, hearing one’s “favourite song” on the radio. Makes sense that at this moment in history Al Gore’s spiritual megrims seem so much more fascinating than Billy Corgan’s—Gore might actually affect our lives. But what can it mean that his vocal cadences are sexier? C PLUS
Additional Consumer News
HONORABLE MENTION: Warren Zevon, Life’ll Kill Ya (Artemis): and before that it’ll nickel-and-dime ya a little besides (“Life’ll Kill Ya,” “Ourselves to Know”); United Kingdom of Punk 2 (Music Club): live tracks, demos, and now obscure gems from the first golden era (999, “Homicide”; the Lurkers, “Cyanide”); Muddy Waters, Hoochie Coochie Man (Just a Memory import): Montreal 1977—the old man shows off his second drawer and takes some standards to school (“Kansas City,” “Nine Below Zero”); Lil Wayne, Tha Block Is Hot (Cash Money/Universal): tough-guyisms so steeped in convention they disappear into the bounce (“Drop It Like It’s Hot,” “Tha Block Is Hot,” “F*** Tha World”); East River Pipe, The Gasoline Age (Merge): road songs for insomniacs just driving around (“Down 42nd Street to the Light,” “Cybercar”); Etta James, Heart of a Woman (Private Music): torching cocktail cool (“My Old Flame,” “I Only Have Eyes for You”); U-God, Golden Arms Redemption (Wu-Tang): nothing special as a rapper, so sometimes he sings even worse—but unflappably, which is the point (“Hungry,” “Night the City Cried”); Mariah Carey, Rainbow (Columbia): not a “real” r&b thrush, but good enough to fake it (“Heartbreaker,” “Crybaby”); Juvenile, Tha G-Code (Cash Money/Universal): celebrating an old pop reliable—new money (“A Million and One Things,” “U Understand”); Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, The Real Deal: Greatest Hits Volume 2 (Epic/Legacy): shameless reshuffle though it is, it maintains a nice caught-in-the-act feel for a good hour (“Love Struck Baby,” “Leave My Girl Alone [Live]”); Foo Fighters, There Is Nothing Left to Lose (RCA/Roswell): sound there, context vanished (“Stacked Actor,” “Generator”); Rakim, The Master (Universal): the classicism that had better be its own reward (“Strong Island,” “When I B on Tha Mic”); Strength Magazine Presents Subtext (London/Strength): W.C.U.W.A. (Aceyalone, “Rappers, Rappers, Rappers 12 for 10”; Del the Funkee Homosapien, “Cyberpunks”); Static-X, Wisconsin Death Trip (Warner Bros.): horrorshow abuse in living stereo—they mean it, man (“I’m With Stupid,” “Wisconsin Death Trip”); the Promise Ring, Very Emergency (Jade Tree): finding the tuneful poetry in a moment when most punks are well-meaning dorks going through a phase (“Happiness Is All the Rage,” “Living Around”).
CHOICE CUTS: The Dismemberment Plan, “The Ice of Boston” (Nowcore!: The Punk Rock Evolution, K-Tel); B.G., “Intro (Big Tymers)” (Chopper City in the Ghetto, Cash Money/Universal); Mariah Carey, “Fantasy [Featuring ODB]” (#1’s, Columbia); Juvenile, “HA,” “Intro” (400 Degreez, Cash Money/Universal).
DUDS: Anthrax, Attack of the Killer A’s (Beyond); Hot Boys, Guerrilla Warfare (Cash Money/Universal); Richard Leo Johnson, Fingertip Ship (Retro Blue); Korn, Issues (Epic/Immortal); Staind, Dysfunction (Flip/Elektra); Vanessa Williams, Greatest Hits: The First Ten Years (Mercury).
ADDRESSES: Artemis Records, 130 Fifth Avenue, NYC 10011; Blind Pig, Box 2344, San Francisco CA 94126; Cold Front, c/o K-Tel International, 2605 Fernbrook Lane North, Minneapolis MN 55447; DeSoto, PO Box 76780, Washington DC 20012; Jade Tree, 2310 Kennwynn Road, Wilmington DE 19810; Just a Memory, 5455 Rue Paré, Suite 101, Montreal PQ Canada H4P 1P7; Matador, 625 Broadway 12th Floor, NYC 10012; Merge, Box 1235, Chapel Hill NC 27514; Music Club, c/o Koch, 2 Tri-Harbor Court, Port Washington NY 11050; Ninja Tune, 1751 Richardson, Suite 6109, Montreal PQ Canada H3K 1G6; Odeon, PO Box 1162, NYC 10159-1162; WordSound, 129 North 11 Street, Brooklyn NY 11215.