1997: Camp Lo - Uptown Saturday Night
Hip-hop is forward-looking by design. While rappers constantly utilize samples culled from obscure 1970s soul classics, mainstream rap rarely features dudes spitting hot, nostalgic verses. Since its inception, hip-hop has been all about the here and now, about current status and living in the interminable moment. Apparently Camp Lo never got the memo. On Uptown Saturday Night -- a nostalgia-laced record right down to the Cosby-movie-cribbing title -- Lo members Geechi Suede and Sonny Cheeba succeed at using the past to further a clear, cool musical statement; for the same reason, however, they sometimes fall oddly flat.
Uptown was released in 1997, around the time that Wu-Tang Forever came out and jokers like Mace and Puff Daddy ruled the hip-hop airwaves; Camp Lo fell somewhere in-between. Although labels like No Limit put out some grit, most of the harder gangsta rap had yet to become truly mainstream. It was the perfect time for a record like Uptown, with its near total lack of profanity and softish, inoffensive sound. It's not surprising that "Coolie High" became a radio hit, with its Janet Jackson sample and sexxxy-smooth lyrics; of course, as is often the case, it's one of the album's weakest songs. Much more successful are jams like "Swing," which revels in hard knocks and delivers a few funny, pithy lines -- like the one about "Forrest Gump niggas with shades and S-curls" -- over a strong, shuffling beat.
About the beats: Uptown's biggest strength is undoubtedly its production. Ski, hot off his work on Jay-Z's stellar breakout Reasonable Doubt, provides the backing tracks for all but one song, and the results are mostly extraordinary. The songs, like those on Doubt, are fluid and organic, though a bit more staccato, a bit more concise. "Krystal Karrington" opens the record with a terse, booming bass line that evokes a sort of tension unfortunately absent on the rest of the record -- an edgy red herring on an otherwise laid-back record.
The rest of Uptown is staunchly focused in its nostalgia -- nearly every sample used here originated sometime between 1970 and 1980. Even the record's cover is a visual homage to a painting portrayed on a Marvin Gaye album jacket and in the opening credits to Good Times. When it comes to time and place, Camp Lo ain't messing around.
The lyrics follow suit. Much of the time, they deliver the sort of nonsensical word associations one might expect to read in George Clinton's personal diary. Lines like "Above the aquapool/ Hovercrafts teleport my lubricant/ Golden axe, who's the drunken monk/ Uno delegate" pepper the album, and although their weirdness threatens to drag some songs down, Suede and Cheeba's unique tone and rapid-fire delivery somehow keep them afloat. At times it's as if the pair care more about the actual sound of their lyrics than the ideas behind them. In this respect, one could draw the line to The Beats, although Cheeba and Suede might remain dubious about the comparison. It is clear their allegiance lies a decade or two later, with Clinton, Sly Stone, and the other weirdo funksters of the 70s.
Their insistence on remaining committed to such a narrow musical framework ultimately keeps Uptown Saturday Night from reaching true classic status. While the album is mainly creative and enjoyable, it suffers from an over-utilization of the same old musical and lyrical clichés. Thus, Camp Lo's experiment in time and place becomes somewhat self-defeating: what initially seemed like something fresh and different becomes dangerously close to self-parody by the end of the record. That Cheeba and Suede would go on to guest on Will Smith's Big Willie Style is entirely beside the point, but it belies another limitation of Uptown, which is its general mildness. On the other hand, in a famously fast and forward-looking genre, sometimes a time machine is a wonderful thing to have.
1. Krystal Karrington
2. Luchini AKA This is It
3. Park Joint
4. B-Side to Hollywood
5. Killin' Em Softly
7. Black Connection
9. Rockin' It AKA Spanish Harlem
10. Say Word
11. Negro League
12. Nicky Barnes AKA It's Alright
13. Black Nostaljack AKA Come On
14. Coolie High
15. Sparkle [Mr. Midnight Mix]
1989: Nirvana - Bleach [Deluxe Edition]
Nirvana is often accredited with single-handedly mainstreaming the paradoxically titled "alternative" genre, a style and attitude that would go on to define the direction of rock music for the next two decades. Between the hyperbolic praise lavished upon them by the great mass of rock dilettantes and the dismissive accusations of plagiarism from the cognoscenti, it's easy to see why Nirvana's legacy has remained so controversial in spite of almost universal popular acclaim. Twenty years after the release of their full-length debut and fifteen after Kurt Cobain's suicide, I feel like we're finally approaching a place where we can look past Nirvana as Gen X zeitgeist, Nirvana as cautionary tale for the media-age, and Nirvana as megalithic cultural phenomenon to objectively assess Nirvana as an honest-to-goodness rock band.
Bleach is often regarded as something of a footnote to Nirvana's rather spare catalogue (or more appropriately, as “the CD with ‘About a Girl’ on it”). I remember hearing it for the first time and not quite knowing how to make heads or tails of the plodding audio-sludge drooling out my speakers. The instantly memorable hooks, the cathartically explosive choruses -- both seemed completely subsumed beneath abrasive, dirge-like melodies and on-the-cheap production. Hell, the aforementioned “About a Girl” sounded like it made its way onto the record by accident. Bleach is alternately praised and criticized as being Nirvana's most authentically “grunge” album, Cobain himself claiming it was shaped under pressure from both his label and the Seattle grunge scene to play “rock music.” Looking back with the power of hindsight, however, the differences between Bleach and mega-breakthrough Nevermind feel almost cosmetic. Although heavier and rougher than its more melodic counterpart, Bleach was already steeped in the loud/quiet dynamics they so famously copped from The Pixies, and more importantly, it had some freaking great songs.
“Love Buzz” fashions a repetitive, hypnotic bass lick into the backbone of an unexpectedly sprightly rocker. The more bottom-heavy but equally energetic “Negative Creep” features one of Cobain's roughest vocal deliveries. Along with “School,” the song highlights Cobain's juvenile sense of humor, an aspect of Nirvana's music that's too often overshadowed by the tragic circumstances of his death. Great songs such as these are easy to lose, however, amid the preponderance of heavy-for-heavy's sake tracks, especially on the record's second half. And while “School” and “About a Girl” show Cobain hitting his stride as a singer, much of his vocal work lacks the pathos that characterized his later efforts.
Sub Pop's 20th anniversary remaster ups the sound quality and throws a light on some of the album's more unique moments. It also includes a previously unreleased live recording from 1990. Although not necessarily essential listening, it is a nice bonus, especially for the early version of “Sappy” (a.k.a. “Verse-Chorus-Verse,” a.k.a. “the secret track from No Alternative”).
At the end of the day, Bleach is still the weakest of the band's full-length albums, but there's enough good stuff to merit a spin. The best moments point to a band that was already straining against the Led Zepplin-meets-The Melvins aesthetic dominating the Seattle scene. And while I'm sure that the success of their sophomore album came as a shock to many, the seeds of its brilliance were here all along, waiting to be unearthed by anyone daring enough to sift through the sludge.
2. Floyd the Barber
3. About a Girl
5. Love Buzz
6. Paper Cuts
7. Negative Creep
9. Swap Meet
10. Mr. Moustache
12. Big Cheese
14. Intro (live)
15. School (live)
16. Floyd the Barber (live)
17. Dive (live)
18. Love Buzz (live)
19. Spank Thru (live)
20. Molly's Lips (live)
21. Sappy (live)
22. Scoff (live)
23. About a Girl (live)
24. Been a Son (live)
25. Blew (live)
1994: Dirty Three - Sad and Dangerous
At one point or another in our lives, we’ve all known what it feels like to be possessed. By anger, by sex, by that elusive thing called “the moment.” And in the case of Sad & Dangerous, we see what it’s like to be possessed by the possessed -- in this case, an improvisational trio of guys hailing from the colony of criminals and armed with a distorted fiddle and one of the most effective rhythm sections in all of indie rock. Shit, did I just call Dirty Three “effective”? Let me correct myself with something more hyperbolic and appropriate. Urgent? Gorgeously aggressive? Anyway.
Music this immediate can’t be practiced, it simply demands to be played. It is “on the spot.” It is a spirit. It is a series of moods, strung together. And it is, in fact, very, very dirty. Gritty, covered in static, played by instruments that have been artfully damaged to sound less cookie-cutter, more unidentifiable-noise. The songs are imperfect. They go from completely frantic ("Short Break") to languid and meandering ("Kim’s Dirt"). At their best, they lull you in only to leave you pummeled by the hypnotic combination of beauty and violence ("Jim’s Dog"). They undoubtedly form a debut album -- a haphazard set of building blocks -- stacked fragilely, ready to knock and be knocked over; the forms not based on any precedent, and never to be repeated again.
If my words sound rushed or tacked together, there’s a reason. This isn’t thinking music, it’s feeling music. Any attempt to analyze songs like these is surely to leave someone in a conundrum. In fact, I find myself in a bit of one now. But just stating the “what is” of this case ignores the actual core of Sad and Dangerous -- that eerie feeling that you’ve become completely possessed by some uncontrollable force beyond yourself. If it feels a little scary, a little foreign, or a little overwhelming, if you feel a little uncomfortable or outside yourself, well then, I imagine it's done it’s job quite well.
1. Kim's Dirt
2. Killy Kundane
4. Devil in the Hole
5. Jim's Dog
6. Short Break
7. Turk Reprise
8. You Were a Bum Dream
9. Warren's Waltz
1997: Charles Gocher - Pint Sized Spartacus
Charles Gocher’s premature death in 2007 signaled the immediate demise of Sun City Girls, the end of the trio’s mercurial 20-odd year run through the world of Bollywood covers, graveyard improvisation, sex cults, and esoterica. After all, Gocher was a honorary Bishop -- an adopted brother of Alan and Sir Richard in all but law -- so the idea of continuing without him was unthinkable. He was more than a drummer and occasional vocalist; he was an irreplaceable part of the Sun City engine, a bespectacled, sharply-dressed man forcing the methodologies of poetry and visual art between the grooves of limited-edition vinyl records. The blood brothers have since continued their respective solo careers and toured in tribute to brother Gocher, stripping down the group’s core to acoustic normality and showing Gocher’s film work in the background -- again, it seems the man’s vision was always inaccessible and dedicated regardless of medium.
Pint Sized Spartacus is Gocher’s only solo outing. Released in 1997, a year after the Girls peaked with the double-double of 330,003 Crossdressers From Beyond the Rig Veda and Dante’s Disneyland Inferno, this unfortunately scarce record happily rests as a more personal extension of the latter, an ode to odd sounds, feverish journal writing, and a fetish for telling stories from beyond. Gocher’s spoken tales are set out like an extended radio play, not unlike the anonymous vignettes scattered around the songs on Sublime Frequencies compilations, backed by a range of musicians clinically weaving together free-improv and the lightest of jazz. What resulted from the sessions is an album of wonderful, fractured indulgence -- this is a work at the deepest end of the Sun City Girls catalogue, a terrifying prospect for the well-meaning but flawed individuals who dare not dig deeper than Torch of the Mystics. Words are whispered and shrieked inches from the listener’s ear; sometimes we’re presented with singing, though only rarely. Shadowed by impressively reserved instrumentation -- flickers, creaks, plucks, beats, drones -- Gocher is in his element amidst all this chaos, weaving anecdotes of organized and unorganized crime, poetic dirges, God, unpleasantness, geography, legends, and slavery. Themes eclectic for no other reason than being a welcome option, such is the Sun City Girls philosophy.
Writing shortly after Charles’ long battle with cancer was lost, Alan Bishop stated that he’d never encountered anyone properly qualified to judge Gocher. While I’m certainly in no position to change his perspective, this record’s rich and consistently vivid literary nature makes it a pleasure to write about, though admittedly in a way that largely dodges objectivity. Pint Sized Spartacus is an album to soak in, then, not one to analyze. Its stories impact osmotically, long after you’ve stopped listening. It is a monument to the nightmares of psychiatrists and potential biographers of the vocalist, a red rag to those who threaten even a decent level of understanding. Or perhaps, when all else is ignored, it’s simply a man ranting manically over weird noises.
This is not a difficult album; it is an impossible album. Such an admission is necessary in feeling any sort of joy at all. And while those familiar with the more celebrated Sun City Girls releases will fall into this place more comfortably, the manipulation of sound and language on Pint Sized Spartacus could only be understood fully in the mind of its creator. It’s perhaps fair to assume that even those closest to Gocher at the time could never grasp it all. Twenty listens in and I find myself more lost than when I began, trapped in a concrete labyrinth crafted by a man somewhere between a shriveled beatnik and a history teacher, the light dimming around me and the walls slowly closing in. This is a record for the jaded folk around us who’re tired of being able to understand everything they’re presented with, who long for the days of childlike wonder. Occasionally clawing at nothing but thin air is more satisfying, my friend, so don’t feel frustrated. Expectations of closure are to be disregarded at the door.
3. Wanting Things
5. The Debate of One Splintered Soul
6. His Evil Twin Brother Within
7. Parting the Sea of Tranquility
8. Speak Easy and Forever Hold Your Piece
9. A Constructive Illusion
10. Johnny "the Brain" Torrio: Attorney at Law
11. Dissappearing in a Sea of Unbridled Personification
12. Hymn for Kali Ma
13. Sea of Samsara
14. The Sound of One Cross Walking
15. Flying on Scissored Wings
16. Crucified at the Crossroads Between Shovel and Sky
17. Angelo & Bessie
2004: On - Your Naked Ghost Comes Back at Night
I usually appreciate ambient music as an appetizer rather than a main course. Artists like Chicago's Colorlist, for example, make wonderful use of ambient textures in their succulent analogue and electronic weddings, but if you remove those textures from the sort of compositional frameworks found in most genres, you're left with a style that can easily slip into background-music territory. The ambient-electro act On succeed in some regards, but still fall into many of ambient music's typical trappings.
Your Naked Ghost Comes Back at Night is a collaboration between Chicago percussionist Steven Hess, French composer Sylvain Chauveau, and Norwegian producer Helge Stern, working here for the last time under his moniker Deathprod. Hess and Chauveau wrote and recorded the album using analogue equipment, then handed it off to Stern to remix. Stern's production work is commendable; he preserves a hushed tone through each composition, blurs the distinctions between where Hess ends and Chauveau begins, and textures each track with subtle electronic glitches. So acutely does Stern make his presence felt that I would have assumed this to be an entirely digital work if not for the press release. The dominance of Stern's mix might also contribute to a certain flatness that pervades the album. I imagine that some elements -- Hess' thundering percussion, Chauveau's prepared guitar sound effects -- might have shown more dynamic range in their original form.
As they are, these compositions evoke barren, wind-swept plains, the kind of place where you could hear distant echoes of crying in the night. Only the title track, with its trilling guitar motif (Or is it piano? The remixing renders some of the instrumentation ambiguous), betrays any hints of warmth. The stillness and invariance of each piece make even the most minuscule embellishment ring out as a shot, like the tiny pin-pricks of guitar noise amid the rumble and hum of “Erotique” or the percussive droplets that hammer down with increasing regularity throughout “In the Forest of the Night.” Only the longest tracks (“Façade” at 12 minutes and “The Lonesome Poetry of Mark Rothko” at 17) seem to completely wear out their welcome, exhausting their meager range and the listener's patience well before their runtime is complete.
My problems with Your Naked Ghost… are the problems that I have with ambient music in general: that for all of the latitude in instrumentation and approach the genre allows, the end products usually wind up sounding kind of the same. The sinusoidal rhythms lead to a somewhat predictable development and, quite bluntly, get boring. But if there's something that I can say for On (and probably for ambient artists in general), it's that they force you to be still and focus on the object in ways that our instant gratification generation is no longer used to. The rewards of Your Naked Ghost Comes Back at Night are of a peculiarly esoteric sort, but they are there for those with the patience to find them.
1. Your Naked Ghost Comes Back at Night and Flies Around My Bed
3. Too Many Demons Still Haunt This Land
4. Oh Run Slowly
6. In the Forest of the Night
7. The Lonesome Poetry of Mark Rothko
2000: Songs: Ohia - Ghost Tropic
I don't know who it was or how it happened, but someone, some time ago, broke Jason Molina's heart. Listen to any of his records released under the now-retired Songs: Ohia moniker, and this fact becomes painfully and unmistakably clear. Molina makes no bones about the crushing sense of loss and longing that informs his songs; rather, he embraces it as his musical raison d'etre. With it, he builds songs up and breaks them down; he puts them together and, on Ghost Tropic, he blows them all apart.
Released in late 2000, it's difficult not to view the sparse, haunting Ghost Tropic as the centerpiece of a musical trilogy of sorts, beginning with the tough, resonant The Lioness (also released in 2000) and concluding with 2002's brilliant, gospel-informed Didn't It Rain. Easily the best three records of Molina's career thus far, taken together they form a heartbreaking anthology of love and loss like no other. Plenty musicians of our day have pontificated on the nature of that most pervasive and familiar of human quandaries, but few have done so with as much consistent gumption as Molina. And it is Ghost Tropic that holds the dubious distinction of being the bleakest of the bleak: while the cuts and bruises of Lioness were still fresh, raw -- painful but not yet insidious -- and the songs on Didn't It Rain carry a certain calm acceptance about them, Ghost Tropic finds Molina smack in the midst of a goddamn monster of a darkness.
The music on Ghost Tropic is scant, vaporous, barely there. I called it "sparse" above; really, that doesn't come close. Impatient listeners might initially write the album off as painfully slow, wearisome even -- and it is, at points. More often, though, its exactness only enhances the delicate, intensely crafted nature of the songs emerging from the belly of this beast. There is a peculiar sort of deconstruction at work here that informs the entirety of the record. "Lightning Risked It All" opens the album with a literal thud, a muted guitar providing a deliberate, stifled rhythm while a second guitar rings out some awkward harmonics, which someone -- Molina or guest Alasdair Roberts -- manipulates in real time by de- and re-tuning the instrument's strings. "It's not a generous world," Molina posits. "It is a separate world." The net effect is one of spooky isolation. It is no stretch to call Ghost Tropic Molina's most experimental recording, and in hindsight, it is an enlightening listen. While his newer work under the Magnolia Electric Co. moniker is far and large first-rate, that band's straightforward rock 'n' roll groove leaves little room for the sort of haunted atmospherics heard here.
Not only are these songs pared down musically, but lyrically, this is Molina's most terse offering to date. "I once had all the words/ I forgot all the words," he laments on the brutal, shuffling "The Body Burns Away." An uncharacteristically Latin-influenced rhythm guides the song through its chilling climax, in which Molina vigorously repeats the song's nihilistic title in an apparent attempt to convince himself of the futility of love and, well, everything else. The body burns away, and all that is left is the specter of loss; there is nothing concrete, no words at all. Later, on the calm, funereal "No Limit On The Words," it is simply "I will say nothing." If it isn't clear yet, I shall now enlighten you: this, pals, ain't music for the faint of spirit. Dark is one thing, but this is bitter and unyielding. It is music perhaps best understood in the context of a particularly dark and vicious winter or the dry, punishing heat of some harsh, unwelcoming desert.
All this is not to say that Ghost Tropic is an unpleasant listen. Its songs are inventive and actually very pretty, and beneath the hardened exterior of each slow-burner lies a subtle but definite tinge of hope and redemption. That theme would eventually be realized more tangibly on the aforementioned Didn't It Rain, with its buoyant opening line, "No matter how dark the storm gets overhead/ They say someone's watching from the calm at the edge." Here, it exists in amoebic form: in the resolutely indecipherable imagery of "Not Just A Ghost's Heart," with its equation of love to oceanic navigation ("Her curve's the whole coast"), and in the staid, desperate plea of "Work it out with me" in the marathon closer "Incantation."
But those moments of apparent optimism are few and far between on a record like Ghost Tropic. Even if you haven't heard it, you know the type. It is a relatively well-worn concept: the somber, self-loathing, "love-can-and-probably-will-kill-you" masterpiece. Neil Young's On The Beach comes to mind, as does Leonard Cohen's Songs Of Love And Hate (although those records possess an alleviatory dry humor largely missing from Ghost Tropic). Upon listening to any of these albums, some might wonder: why the need for such ostensibly aimless misery for the sake of music, for the sake of Art? Is this not just pain for pain's sake? Are Jason Molina and, by extension, all those who seek out and enjoy the bleakness of a record like Ghost Tropic nothing more than a herd of selfish, grief-seeking masochists? Well, maybe. But really, probably not. Put bluntly, and with an unavoidable degree of cliché, Molina expresses how we all feel from time to time. Forget smilin' on your brother and loving one another right now: this is music by, for, and about you and me. It is incredibly, unapologetically human, for better or for worse.
1. Lightning Risked It All
2. The Body Burned Away
3. No Limits on the Words
4. Ghost Tropic
5. Ocean's Nerves
6. Not Just a Ghost's Heart
7. Ghost Tropic