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Nova Scotian fringe rapper Richard Terfry’s version of old-school harks back to 1957, before rock ‘n’ roll itself, but he’s never sounded more hip-hop in his life. “1957” is also the lead track on Situation, his ninth full-length as Buck 65, and supplies a concept wherein Terfry aims to dovetail rock ‘n’ roll’s beginnings with the Beat Generation’s. The first admitted concept album by one of alt-rap’s alt-est suggests a history lesson, but it actually nails the spirit of a much later age: 1987, with Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys collapsing the culture around them into neat, danceable references, and “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” and “We Didn’t Start the Fire” throwing zeitgeists onto the shovel like fossil fuel.
Terfry evokes that era but sticks to North America’s most aggressive pre-1960s source material: Bettie Page and bondage porn, Che Guevara and true-crime tales.
Like most indie upstarts with a proclivity for jabberwock, Terfry’s earliest efforts were thin and nerdy language exercises that slowly gained resonance and depth around 2002. Grandiosity followed, with surprisingly digestible results that left him half-represented for his first real U.S. press as a Tom Waits or Beck journeyman. So the obnoxious, repetitive choruses that earmark Situation are back-to-basics moves meant to paint over the Tortoise jam sessions and French spoken word of 2005’s nearly rapless Secret House Against the World. Unlike when status-conscious rappers like Nas or Common venture into the wilderness, Terfry doesn’t seem frightened back into his comfort zone by unwilling fans. His cobblestone growl still confounds rap purists by neither trying to agitate them or play to their interest, and Situation won’t change that. He still introduces raccoons into his narratives if they’ll rhyme with backrooms.
You have to go all the way back to 2002’s Square to hear another Buck album in which the ambition is strictly confined to the words. The production here is mostly squelch-funk throwbacks and sizzled drum loops from before his Juno Awards, bedecked with a pinwheel array of scratchy sound effects. There’s no aspiration toward singing or live-band fusions, only repeated-phrase hooks born from wordplay (“Watch the birdie/Wash the dirty”), vague boasts (“You’re goin’ down”), and retro-rap (“Dang diggy dang a-dang a-dang diggy diggy”). The result is less linear than 2003’s story-rich Talkin’ Honky Blues, which centered itself around a riverbed so as not to lose its way. Instead, the jumbled sound bites on orgasm addicts and Ginsberg disavow connective logic in an attempt to condense an era entire, and as such there’s overflow. But from the pulp copper noir “Spread ‘Em” to the burning-rubber gangster chase “The Rebel,” Situation is no slump even if it lacks that center. More importantly, it establishes the man as one of the only underground rappers truly interested in creating a changeling oeuvre à la R.E.M. or Sonic Youth—not just willing but clearly able to conceptualize anew when a less imaginative arc of his career has run its course.
Buck 65 plays Bowery Ballroom November 18, boweryballroom.com