1970: Curtis Mayfield - Curtis
Curtis Mayfield kicked off his debut album, Curtis, with a string of racial epithets aimed dead-on at no one in particular. He had America in his crosshairs. From the crumbling inner-cities to the finely manicured suburbs -- black and white, those both privileged and down on their luck – Mayfield wanted to garner the attention of the masses. And over the 40-odd minutes that followed, he would dissect and explore the deep-seated sentiments of injustice, poverty, and revolution that were afflicting this country in 1970.
The opening track is "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to Go." It's eight minutes of fire and brimstone -- a pessimistic caveat to a generation left jaded by the failures that followed the promise and ultimate decline of the ’60s, a rallying cry to the ignorant. Mayfield comes out swinging right from the start, bolstered by the absolute might of his backing band. A chugging funk guitar dances with a percussion setup bent on polyrhythm, consistent only in its sporadic deviations. But Curtis ends up digging us out of the dark, psychedelic "Hell" and greets us, rather abruptly, with a swell of heavenly harps on "Other Side of Town," a lonely ballad about the hopelessness that comes with being penniless. Without rushing, he relays the despair of what the poorly informed might refer to as "the underprivileged."
But he reassures us that there's still beauty worth fighting for on tracks like "Makings of You" and "Miss Black America." They soar due to the work of Riley Hampton and Gary Slabo, who share production credits with Mayfield, and can be thanked for the album's abundance of string arrangements. They took Henry Mancini to the streets, mixed in Mayfield's Chicago soul and shook well. Those strings manage to evoke a grab-bag of emotions, from skittering paranoia to absolute bliss, not to mention the eerie calm that can envelop a city in the dead of night. The expert horn section is nothing short of inspired as well, and they're used to their full potential on cuts such as "Wild and Free." Though the harp may seem like Mayfield's ace-in-the-hole, the horns keep the songs on their toes: that brass force continually provides balance to the vocal's slight falsetto, which might come off as wispy if Mayfield weren't so confident.
One could make the argument that Curtis hinges on two tracks. One of them is "Move On Up," the 9-minute expedition that doesn't need an introduction (especially since a certain Mr. West slowed it down to right a few wrongs and help him write some song). The other is "We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue." It's a beautifully structured catharsis, plucked from the bowels of Curtis Mayfield's soul. It starts off slow, with intention, but before long the band drives into a fury of drumming and blasting horns, only to ease back out over a sprinkling harp, as if the digression was just a bad dream. It's a perfect display of the album's duality, as gliding soul meets the hard-hitting funk that would later be refined on the ghetto symphony Superfly.
By all counts, Curtis got the ball rolling for a new type of socially conscious R&B and soul. It took black music beyond Hitsville, USA and gave it a set of principles, which Mayfield had already hinted at in his earlier work with The Impressions. The importance of his message sometimes overshadows the density of the actual music. Curtis is a lush, thick record that not only supports a healthy dose of social commentary, but also embraces the listener in a distinctive, velvety swathe that, until then, was foreign to soul records.
1979: Rodriguez - Cold Fact
Usually, the best a “forgotten” artist can hope for is to be slowly discovered by proceeding generations. With a little luck, the right taste-making crate digger might stumble across a lost treasure and start talking it up. Maybe Hip Band will talk about what an influence said artist is on their new album. The bloggers will blog, the music journalists will shower praise, and the artist and his/her records will achieve a tiny fraction of the success that, for what ever reason, eluded them in the first place.
A less common scenario involves your records achieving cult status in South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia, treasured by a reverent fan-base, while your person is hailed as a revolutionary-slash-messiah. Outrageous rumors circulate: he’s stopped putting out albums ‘cause he killed himself after being jailed for the murder of his wife; he’s died of a heroin overdose; he was electrocuted on stage. Or the best: he committed suicide on stage, either by setting himself on fire or by blowing his brains out.
The latter, slightly rarer situation, is the exact one Detroit folk-rocker Sixto Diaz Rodriguez found himself in in the early ‘90s when, after living a settled life since the early ‘80s, his daughter discovered his legendary status in South Africa through a fan site. His profile was starting to grow in America, and now Light in the Attic (who’ve also delivered stellar reissues from the likes of Noel Ellis, Betty Davis, Karen Dalton, and The Free Design) has re-released his debut, Cold Fact, with expanded liner notes detailing his whole bizarre ascendancy.
While the whole thing might seem a bit underwhelming considering its godhead status with some, Cold Fact is a pretty killer album, even when you remove its strange story. Opener “Sugar Man” channels the same seedy, narcotic vibe as Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman,” and if it weren’t for lyrics like “Silver magic ships you carry/ Jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane,” one might mistake it for some misplaced Donovan B-side. “Only Good For Conversation” follows, bearing more than a little similarity to fellow Motor City rockers like The Amboy Dukes, Frijid Pink, Grand Funk Railroad, and the Bob Seger System. The track's stomping, fuzz-laden approach momentarily erases the careening strings and space sounds that proceeded it, but “Crucify Your Mind” returns things to a trippier place, with gutiarist/producer Dennis Coffey and a band of soul legends (including some members of the esteemed Funk Brothers) providing a supple backdrop for Rodriguez’s truly menacing lyrics. The harsh realities of inner city life are contrasted against the glossy but fading dream of the Woodstock era: “Was it huntsman or a player/ That made you pay the cost/ That now assumes relaxed position/ And prositutes your loss.”
“This Is Not A Song It’s An Outburst: Or the Establishment Blues” could be heard as a send-up of Dylan’s stream of consciousness rambles if it didn’t seem so damn earnest. Rodriguez spits lines like “Adultery plays the kitchen, bigot cops non-fiction/ The little man gets shafted, sons and daughters get drafted” with dramatic, street-level conviction. “Hate Street Dialogue” offers the middle finger to the dreamy San Fran scene, while tunes like “Forget It” and “Like Janis” showcase the bitter, near-punk snarl just underneath Rodriguez’s clear, tuneful vocals. “I Wonder” addresses sexual jealousy over a shuffling Motown bass line, its bouncy, sweet melody creating a perfectly uneasy juxtaposition as he sings about war and slut girlfriends. “Gommorah (A Nursery Rhyme)” blends a busted blues rattle with a terrifically creepy children’s choir that backs up the chorus, then we're treated to a bit of just barely out-of- key “America the Beautiful” on the way out.
“Rich Folks Hoax” and “Inner City Blues” (not a Gaye cover) address the social unrest of Detroit, and the bitter, malicious bent of the lyric contrasts nicely with the hopeful stride of civil rights-era soul, which clearly influenced the sound of the album. “Jane S. Piddy” ends things with a casual shrug of the shoulders. “I saw my reflection in my father’s final tears/ The Wind was slowly melting, San Francisco disappears/ Acid heads, unmade beds, and you Woodward world queers,” Rodriguez intones, seeming more content to sound bad-ass than poignant, but then follows with a mournful refrain of “I know you’re lonely.” The struggle between tenderness and machismo, or the attempt to find one in the other, shades the album, and in the end, Rodriguez resorts to a tiny bit of spoken word: “Thanks for your time/ And you can thank me for mine/ And after that’s said/ Forget it,” siding, at least for now, on the role of steal-eyed realist.
It was that last line, South African myths would report, that Rodriguez delivered just before he blew his brains out on stage. And while it’s true that he never did so, it’s not hard to imagine why one might suppose he could. Cold Fact sounds like the work of a guy who might decide it’s all pretty worthless. But it also sounds like a guy who isn’t entirely sold on the idea. “Bag it, man,” the album ends. “Okay.”
1989: Miracle Legion - Me and Mr. Ray
There's an episode of the classic Nickelodeon TV show The Adventures of Pete and Pete, in which the younger brother Pete becomes strangely fascinated with a song he hears being played in a garage by a mysterious band. Following this encounter, the band inexplicably disappears off the face of the earth, leaving Pete to recall the song from memory -- by no means an easy task for the young, red-haired iconoclast. The real tragedy is that if Pete had even a slight acquaintance with 1980s indie pop, he might have recognized Mark Mulcahy, lead singer of the show's house band, Polaris, and former frontman of Miracle Legion. After making the connection, Pete could've drawn from the plethora of sweet, jangly pop tunes from Miracle Legion's discography. Perhaps with a bit of luck, he would've discovered their masterpiece, Me and Mr. Ray. But sadly, Pete knew nothing of the Miracle Legion, and the best he could do was muster up a cover rendition of the song with a little help from the quirky locals of Wellsville.
Starting out in 1984, Miracle Legion released a few EPs with little fanfare before signing to Rough Trade in 1987. During this three-year period, they garnered minor college radio success, but were always dogged by lazy, cursory comparisons to R.E.M. Ostensibly, these comparisons might seem valid, but contrasting Stipe and Mulcahy's approach to songcraft paints a wildly divergent picture. It wasn't until Me and Mr. Ray, their third proper full-length, that Miracle Legion started to chart new directions and shake erroneous associations. From opening track "The Ladies From Town," it's obvious that Mr. Ray is a more idiosyncratic and experimental endeavor, though it doesn't end up straying too far from the pop hooks the band were so good at.
In lieu of jangly, electric guitars, the majority of the album favors pristine acoustic arrangements and playfully abstract lyrics, often bolstered with equally youthful and capricious instrumentation. Even more, the rhythm section seems much further subdued ("You're The One Lee"), even disappearing altogether at points ("Old & New"). Through conscious effort, Mulcahy's songwriting is in the forefront, resulting in newfound sense of immediacy. You can't help but give Me and Mr. Ray your full attention as it shifts from fast-paced folk songs like "The Ladies From Town" to dark, slow-burning ballads like "Pull The Wagon," which acts as the album's centerpiece and is arguably the most complex and bleak song Miracle Legion ever penned.
Lyrically, the album is somewhat ambiguous, never making it clear whether Mulcahy is writing about fictional characters or from personal experience. His songs shift perspective in terms of location and time, further confusing anyone attempting to make direct interpretations. What is clear, however, is a common thread of loss and rumination over the nature of human relationships, what comes before and after, and the burden of their having existed in the first place. This is driven home in the beautiful and softened closer, "Gigantic Transatlantic Trunk Call," which stands as an emotive highpoint in Mulcahy's career.
The Miracle Legion seems to be another band lost to time, even to their much more exposed side-project, Polaris. Such oversight is tragic, in the same way it was tragic when little Pete couldn't recall the song that moved him so deeply. Fortunately for those willing to look, Me and Mr. Ray remains a unique, palatable, and affecting experience .
1984: The Replacements - Let It Be
[Note: This review is intended as a friendly rebuttal to [David Brusie’s exaltation of Tim->http://tinymixtapes.com/The-Replacements].]
When discussing The Replacements, I am fond of quoting Robert Christgau, the Dean of American Rock Critics, who, in his original A+ review of Let It Be, wrote: “Bands like this don’t have roots, or principles either, they just have stuff they like.” Now, throughout his long and inspiring career, Christgau has been guilty of portentous idiocy from time to time (Bossanova is the best Pixies album?), but when he’s right, he’s right, and Let It Be is the ‘Mats’ indisputable masterpiece. There are those, however, who call it “scattershot” and dismiss Paul Westerberg’s jumbling of sensitive balladry and sloppy kitsch as bratty self-sabotage. These detractors tend to prefer 1985’s Tim, the band’s Sire debut, which contains 11 competently-played, easily-digestible pop songs that all sound as though they actually belong on the same record. But it was precisely this earlier mess that defined The Replacements; they were just kids in a garage, pinching Ted Nugent riffs and singing about drugs and dicks, occasionally tossing off something beautiful and pretending not to realize it. Their jokes had just as much soul as their art --- when Westerberg sang “Gary’s got a boner/ Gary’s got a soft-on,” he meant it.
Three records in, it took guts for these guys -- who had started off in Minneapolis circa 1979 as slightly-tuneful hardcore punkers -- to betray any hint of sincerity, maturity, or ambition, lest the devoted fan lose his bearings. Of course, they had never let that sort of thing bother them; The Replacements were legendary for antagonizing their audiences with almost Kaufman-esque cruelty. At a gig in, say, Nashville, the band was likely to play fast and loud until only punks remained, at which point they would dust off the country moves. Ho ho. Slashed amps and tipped vans were not uncommon.
It was a given that Let It Be was going to cost The Replacements a fair slice of their original fanbase. If the songs hadn’t been worth a damn, that might’ve been the end right there. Still, I imagine scores of arty-farty R.E.M. disciples buying the record for Peter Buck’s solo on “I Will Dare,” straining to stick it out at least through Side A, then frisbeeing the thing against a wall before collapsing back into the safe, reliable arms of jangle-pop.
Describing this album as scattershot hardly does it justice. Not once does it settle into a certain groove, musically or otherwise, for two songs in a row. The folky shuffle of “I Will Dare” gives way to the sweetly punkish “Favorite Thing,” before “We’re Coming Out” completely eclipses the band’s first four years of hardcore. Only The Replacements would have sandwiched the bleary-eyed jazz-pop of “Androgynous” between “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” and a shambolic (and underrated) cover of KISS’s “Black Diamond.” George Martin has been quoted as saying he always wanted to trim The White Album down to one LP. Just think, if The Beatles had taken his advice and had been four boozy Midwesterners born from 1959-66 who shared a penchant for The New York Dolls and The Stones, The White Album would have sounded something like Let It Be. (That made no sense, I know, but it was fun to write.)
As for the copping of the Fab Four’s title, it was the ‘Mats’ canny way of making a brazen grab at classic-rock status and simultaneously admitting they’d never make it. But, true to form, they weren’t giving themselves enough credit. And I think they knew it, even then.
1992: The Mighty Mighty Bosstones - More Noise and Other Disturbances
Rock scenes don’t usually have a single saxophone-based band, but in the ’90s, Boston had two. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ pugnacious, goofy ska-rock was the polar opposite of the subtle, dangerous Morphine, but they both regularly sold out the Middle East in Central Square, and they both had modest radio hits.
The Bosstones, of course, also had a major hit -- 1997's “The Impression That I Get” -- but in ’92, they were only known primarily in Boston and Cambridge. That year saw the release of More Noise and Other Disturbances, the band’s second record and their first to downplay ska in favor of hard rock and punk. The horns/distortion combination was new at the time, and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones became credited with inventing the genre thereafter known as “ska-core” (a term cemented on the band’s covers EP, Ska-Core, The Devil and More).
It’s tempting to write off The Bosstones as a ’90s novelty, but the band’s best work -- including Disturbances and Question The Answers -- holds up surprisingly well. Though their punchy horns and dirty distortion acted as their calling card, it was only window dressing to the feisty but structured songs. “Awfully Quiet,” the leadoff track from More Noise and Other Disturbances, is as close as the band got to a thesis statement. “I like noise, that’s why I’m living where I am/ I like the noise and confusion of traffic jam,” says singer Dicky Barrett in the song’s first five seconds. The rest of the record supports this sentiment, from the raucous “Doctor D” (about the band’s rehearsal space below the titular doctor’s office) to “Guns And The Young,” whose refrain, “57 Magnum/ 9-millimeter handgun/ AK-47, and an uzi submachine gun,” is at first quietly chanted and then screamed.
Underneath this bombast, however, are the melodies that make these songs go down easy. “Where’d You Go” became a hit, and with good reason. It’s one of the band’s catchiest songs, and despite an angsty narrative -- the protagonist audibly shuts his car door and walks into his house, only to discover he’s been dumped -- the track is straight-up fun. Same goes for “It Can’t Hurt,” which starts with a peppy horn phrase and slips into the rumbling, punchy ska-pop that the band would later make famous.
There are a few missteps, such as the cringe-inducing “Bad In Plaid,” in which Barrett explains his band’s fashion choices. But it’s interesting to hear such a polished, digestible sound on an indie punk label, and even more interesting to hear a band on the verge of fame. Their next record, 1993’s Don’t Know How To Party, was on major label Mercury, and its successor Question The Answers would find the Bosstones at their most tuneful and focused. The rest of their story is typical rock fodder -- a huge hit, a disappointing follow-up, a casually announced hiatus, and periodic reunions.
At their peak, however, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones were the sound of pure pleasure, of giddily representing an also-ran city, of giving a shit in an age of grunge-induced stupor. More Noise and Other Disturbances’ final track is the epic “They Came To Boston,” in which a Hub lifer complains about the city's tourists and college students. The track includes a lyric that sums up the band perfectly: “I was here before they came, I’ll be here long after/ Don’t want to swear, but it seems clear that I’m gonna have to/ Awww, fuck.” The Mighty Mighty Bosstones treated organized chaos as an obligation, not a choice, a way to serve their city.
2001: Jay-Z - The Blueprint
On September 11, 2001, the 21st century was born on some great and horrendous, fire and brimstone shit; to the mother of all terrorist attacks and to a father who could not fix what was too real. The world watched as the great Western ideal (read: liberty) took a devastating blow. America watched as its chickens came home to roost, all in the name of martyrdom and 70 virgins. And New York City watched as its own famed skyline burned. The heavens may have been silent (per John Updike), but the king of the charred apple was restless. So he presented us with a gift to assuage this seemingly omnipresent and omniscient curse -- a soundtrack for our newly conceived post-postmodern world. But, really, a blueprint that would become as ubiquitous as it was soulful, and as essential as it was bellicose. The ruler was back, just when he was most needed.
Jay-Z, it would turn out, was the perfect character to lead us into such uncharted territory -- sublime in cinemascope (“nightmare ballet”) but jarringly muted (an endless, collective gasp). Equally gifted and flawed, guilty and innocent, innovative and nostalgic, Jigga and Mr. Carter, Hova and man, his artistic career was at a crossroads on some real Viktor Turner Liminality shit. With two too many volumes of exhausted, generic productions that failed to capture either the hard knocks or times of one S. Carter, the fall was complete. A sundry of belled and whistled Jermaine Dupri and Irv Gotti beats do not a distinctly-NYC DJ Premier sparse, ambient sample make. Far too many nepotistic Roc overtures and undercutting guest appearances will also cramp an artist like Jay-Z. Seven Memphis Bleek appearances on The Dynasty, really!? But in a post-Biggie/Pac world, it was much easier to forgive one of hip-hop’s remaining -- even if fallen -- geniuses, especially when he provided essential, much needed catharsis. So Jay-Z (again) rose on cathartic “pity and terror” (per Aristotle), which he gifted to America via his timely masterpiece, The Blueprint.
What better place is there to express and abandon pity, sorrow, and regret than Church? Jay-Z did just that, as he says on “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)": let’s "take ‘em to Church." To be accurate, it was Jay-Z’s stable of Roc producers, particularly Kanye West and Just Blaze (who would each become household names via their work on The Blueprint) who took ‘em to Church by infusing the album with vintage soul samples that had been largely abandoned in the world of hip-hop. As Exclaim magazine's Del F. Cowie explains, this “distinctive take on using sped-up soul vocal samples, a technique notably used by Wu-Tang Clan’s the RZA, proved influential, spawning a host of imitators. In the process, the reign of the digitally cold keyboard-driven production style was dislodged as the predominant sound emanating from hip-hop’s birthplace.” This “Laputan” style of production, with one inward eye on the soul and one skyward eye on the past, is best showcased on both West’s aforementioned “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)” and Blaze’s “Song Cry.” Each producer subsumes disparate techniques and influences, but share the crucial quality of poignant heartache in their aesthetics. And, even more crucially in 2001, the “Heart of the City” became the Twin Towers (there “Ain’t No Love” in terrorism), and the “Song” did not “Cry” alone, for America wept as well.
But what happens after a Nation has shed its last tear? You fight -- for yourself, your neighbor, your country, and your ideals. This pugnacity is precisely the spirit that Jay-Z conveys throughout The Blueprint. Stripped away is the corroding armor, the sub-par guest spots and the tedious Roc-inspired boasts. What’s left is an exposed Jay-Z: hustla’, battler, renegade; you can feel the streets pulsating through every bar. Nowhere is Jay-Z’s reign of terror more obvious than on "Takeover," the caustic dis-track. Over a strident bass line, a baleful vocal sample, and a guitar riff, Jay-Z attacks his rivals, most notably Nas, for accusing him of hip-hop’s most heinous sin: homosexuality. (“H to the izzo, M to the izzo”): “Went from Nasty Nas to Esco’s trash/ Had a spark when you started, but now you’re just garbage/ Fell from top-ten to not mentioned at all/ ‘till your bodyguard’s ‘Oochie Wally’ verse better than yours.” His boastful menacing constitutes most of the album, from his pithy “Sure I do” retort, to a questioning “You don’t know what you do to me” Blaze sample, to his meta-apostolic rants on “Hola Hovita;” this is an artist at his most vulnerable and therefore egotistical (read: defence mechanism). Jay-Z did (read: fought) what America was not yet prepared to do.
The album winds down with the disparate, Eminem-assisted “Renegade,” on which Jay-Z, like a victorious presidential candidate, recounts his escape from a nature-less and nurture-less past: “My pops left me an orphan, my momma wasn’t home/ Could not stress to me I wasn’t grown; ‘specially on nights/ I brought somethin’ home to quiet the stomach rumblings/ My demeanor: thirty years my senior/ My childhood didn’t mean much, only raisin green up/ Raisin’ my fingers to critics; raisin’ my head to the sky/ Big I did it, multi before I die.” A sincere and imaginative culmination, The Blueprint is Jay-Z's best album. He largely leaves behind the tired world of Mafioso-influenced raps and production that dominated his other great album, Reasonable Doubt, creating his own style and sound. He thereby escapes the immense shadow of his friend, Biggie Smalls.
The Blueprint is not only Jay-Z’s greatest album, it's also among the most important American albums of this century. It defined the era. Jay-Z always had a golden ear for progressive production, having popularized the Neptune sound and Timbo’s Eastern-influenced beats; he has an equally clever and biting tongue, but on The Blueprint, he outdid himself in all areas, positing new sounds and ideas that still dominate hip-hop and pop music today. While it's true that art cannot fight a war or physically heal wounds, it can mimic and personify the world that birthed it for all to see, remember, and ultimately learn from -- in this case, pity with terror, healing after hellfire, and wisdom from war. When his music, city, and country fell, Jay-Z and America rose together. In the end, that is the everlasting blueprint of America as a nation and the dream it birthed.