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.
1967: Otis Redding - Live in Europe
Pretty much every review of a live album references the fact that live albums usually suck. If the review is positive, it will go on about how the album in question validates the format and works toward conveying the energy, force, and gravitas of the performer. Sadly, this review is no different. I tried, believe me. But the fact remains, you can spin Otis Redding’s studio efforts all you want. You’ll be rewarded with some of the hottest R&B and soul ever recorded, top notch Stax/Volt production, and the clarity only a closed door and good mics can offer. But you won’t find anything that touches the raw sex, forceful delivery, and balls-out, go-for-broke showmanship presented on Live in Europe.
When you listen to this album, it’s best you turn it up loud. Really fucking loud. You can bet they performed it loud. You can bet Otis was belting these jams out at top volume. You can hear it. You can hear it in the way the band breaks up just a bit in all the right places. You can hear while practically tasting the sweat. Punk rock made a hullabaloo about breaking down the barrier between audience and performer, but Live in Europe proved that long before the safety pins and bondage pants blurred the barriers. Artists like Redding weren’t just obscuring the line; they were arguing it never even existed. This isn’t mere pop music. This is communion between crowd and band, between those baring their soul and those witnessing it. This is testifier and testify-ee mixing it up.
Booker T. and his magnificent MG’s provide the backbone here, their fine tuned playing offering the perfect combination of tightly constructed rhythms and loose, joyful abandon. Takes on the Stones (“I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”) and The Beatles (“Daytripper”) rock, yeah, that’s right, rock harder than the originals, tapping into some sort of primal force that both bands eventually appropriated (my jab isn’t intended to downplay any of the historical or artistic significance of said artists. Otis isn’t bigger than Jesus -- I’m just stating a fact, man).
Of course, Otis’ originals crackle here, too. Opener “Respect” blasts out the door, as the crowd spells out O-T-I-S-R-E-D-D-I-N-G in fevered anticipation. I have this theory that there are plenty of good songs with okay bass lines, but the truly greatest songs are made by the effectiveness of their bass lines, and by that logic, “Respect” is hands-down one of the greatest songs ever written. Otis growls, shouts, and claws his way through the song, his last few stanzas a breathless mess of unleashed aggression. In true Stax style, the band wastes no time breaking into “Can’t Turn You Loose,” which rumbles on the strength of it’s choogling organ and the brisk pace of the snare hits. “I know you think I’m gonna stop now/ I ain’t gonna stop,” Otis barks over the break, and the crowd explodes into a sea of whistles, cheers, and shouts as the band roars back in. “Keep the groove going,” he intones, and the crowd becomes percussion, clapping in time with the steady slam of the band.
“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” follows, and, shit, I know I’m getting worked up now, but it’s so lovely, so beautiful, so heartbreaking and gorgeous that writing about it feels silly. Dancing about architecture and all that jazz. It’s simply breathtaking. The most hardened of hearts has to soften just a bit as Otis croons over guitarist Steve Cropper’s immaculate guitar-work. Every child who expresses interest in the guitar should be forced to listen to this song over and over again, and have their Guitar World subscriptions revoked, and maybe over time things will begin to change for the better.
The band launches directly into “My Girl.” While a whole bunch of fuss is made of the comparison between the Motown and Stax sounds, Otis’ take on the song shows just how much the two labels benefited from each other. It’s the sweetest thing on the album, and the brass crescendo on the chorus propels the band into a take on Sam Cooke’s classic “Shake.” Here, over an ass-shaking drum beat, Otis gets the crowd gyrating into a frenzy. Side two finds Otis and the MG’s take on the aforementioned Anglo classics, as well as a version of “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)” and “These Arms of Mine.” Ever the performer, Otis leads the band through a pile-driving finale with “Try A Little Tenderness,” undoubtedly leaving every knee in the house weak.
The 10 songs on Live in Europe fly by. The band is all business, and before the stunned audience even has a chance to realize what’s happening, Otis and crew are done and gone. This was the last recording Otis released alive, and while every positive review of an album released just before the artists death mentions its eerie status as a career-definer, well, this review is no different.
2006: Mise en Abyme - Do You Hear The Hum
Depending on who’s using the phrase, “experimental music” can mean just about anything. Critics describe many well-received albums -- Sunset Rubdown’s Random Spirit Lover, Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam, Deerhunter’s Cryptograms -- as being “experimental” in some form or another. But just as frequently, the adjective bears a negative connotation – it can be used to describe incoherent noise music or even your friend’s embarrassingly self-conscious garage band stylings. But the term shouldn’t be an all-inconclusive musical canopy. To be successful, experimental music, like any type of art, must be internally coherent. Even John Cage abided by his own set of rules.
Enter Mise en Abyme’s Do You Hear The Hum. The Portland, OR-based band's third album is neither as good as the best experimental music nor as bad as the worst. Glimmering with potential, but often eclectic to a fault, Hum frustrates as much as it satisfies. Translated from French, the band’s name refers to the artistic effect of reproducing an image infinitely – as when placing something between two facing mirrors. Their murky, distorted dissonance certainly strives for the Nietzschean abyss of aesthetic conception that only great art can reach, but for the most part Hum stays firmly in the finite here and now.
The album’s high points come when Mise en Abyme keep their egos in check. Opening track “Omphalos” is an infectious, nearly wordless techno exercise that uses a heavy, discordant bassline to compel foot tapping, similar to the best German techno-pop. Glass-shattering guitar riffs, hip-hop inspired scratches, and looped clips generate a memorable rhythmic density, but the song doesn’t try to be anything more than a catchy, if slightly weird, blurb of electronica. At this, it succeeds brilliantly.
On “Tourist,” the band again uses a mangled bassline melody as the foundation for a captivating resonance. Eschewing vocals, Mise en Abyme realize a level of enigmatic complexity akin to Portishead; however, like “Omphalos,” "Tourist" is an experiment only in a specific genre. A dark anthem for those who prefer shadowy alleys to brightly lit streets, it’s also a song that you need to close your eyes to listen to, one that demands your full attention. Guitar dalliances float above drums and spooky minor notes. It’s music as haunting and suggestive as a nightmare.
If only Mise en Abyme showed restraint throughout the whole album. What the band needs is what Danish film director Lars Von Trier provided fellow director Jorgan Leith in the movie The Five Obstructions: namely, well, obstructions. Great art, whatever the medium, requires restrictions. Too often, Mise en Abyme forgo the internal coherency of “Omphalos” and “Tourist” for haphazard cross-genre mash-ups. In these instances, the band mistakes novelty for artistry. Experimentalism doesn’t give musicians license to be sloppy.
“Wool Gathering” exemplifies this. The song begins as a soft, reflective ballad and then devolves into clanging, techno disharmony. In “Hypnagogue,” a forgettable pop-techno soundtrack plays beneath half-spoken, half-sung vocals that sound like a bad Nick Cave impersonation. The band throws in a horde of random, unidentifiable sounds, but this paltry attempt at abstraction only makes the song’s failings more obvious. The song's lyrics are the self-aware, faux-symbolist poetry of a college freshman; disconnected phrases such as “collapsing with the weight of language” and “towering roosters swallow houses” are less profound than distractingly indulgent. Mise en Abyme are better when they let their music do the talking.
“Extruder,” the second-to-last track, reveals another problem with Hum: the sheer annoyance factor. Again, the lyrics are little more than a list of images (“he pulls down on your leather umbrella”), and while this work's on some albums, such as Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights, in Hum's case it just grates Coupled with the song’s distorted, metallic beat, listening to "Extruder" is like flying in coach with a screaming baby next to you.
Mise en Abyme clearly have talent, but they are too often arty for their own good. Because of this, Do You Hear the Hum mingles in mediocrity when it could have resided in the sublime. There are few songs that jump out at you, but they only solidify the album as a moody, messy blob, offset by scattered highlights. The songs don’t flow organically because Mise en Abyme try to create abstract music for every musical taste. Instead of doing one genre well, they do many genres tolerably, but the whole point of experimental music is that it will only appeal to a small section of listeners. Abstract music can’t be a populist art. As a result, Hum is an experiment with a failed hypothesis. Mise en Abyme need to decide who they want to be and who they want their audience to be before they will ever become more than fledgling potential.
1989: Gorilla Biscuits - Start Today
I spent years treating my NY/NJ straight-edge hardcore roots like a zit that lingered in the middle of my nose, even as I desperately tried to leave my teens behind. From 1988 to around 1993, it wasn't just the music I listened to -- it was my life. Then I got to college and learned a couple of contextual details about the music I loved. Straight-edge hardcore was, in the grand scheme of things, over and done with when Minor Threat broke up in 1985, and the New York scene I'd come up in was generally viewed as a bunch of Johnny-come-latelys with an overabundance of tough-guy posing and a shortfall in musical inventiveness. As I became steeped in earlier, more groundbreaking generations of punk rock, as well as more mind-broadening genres such as funk, reggae, and jazz, I found myself starting to sell off, hide, or try to explain away my Agnostic Front, Sick of It All, and Youth of Today records.
What a pretentious douche-clown I was. I should have stood proudly by my wild-eyed, youthful passion for hardcore, and am belatedly doing so now. Sure, the scene eventually became extremely narrow-minded and formulaic. But in its heyday, New York hardcore was every bit as vital and combustive as any other punk era. Its songs may have been a bit too preachy and specific to the time to warrant inclusion on, say, a Rhino punk box, but to the kids who heard it at the time, the music had a life-changing impact.
No single hardcore band of the late-’80s captured our imagination and spirit as profoundly as Gorilla Biscuits. Their sole album Start Today hit me and my friends with such a wallop that we listened to nothing else for six months after its release -- except maybe albums we'd heard might sound like it. From the opening trumpet line, heralding the impending guitar blast of “New Direction,” to the gloriously melodic choruses, to the title track's harmonica solo -- Hardcore Harmonica Solo!!! -- Start Today sounded like nothing we'd ever heard before.
Perhaps the album's most distinguishing feature was its overwhelming positivity, which was evident throughout, despite the tense, rapidly shouted verses and crunchy, muscular-but-never-harsh guitars. While the vocals alternated between rhythmic barking and sing-songy refrains, singer Anthony “Civ” Civocelli never sounded scoldingly angry (as Ian MacKaye certainly did in Minor Threat), overly preachy (like Ray Cappo in Youth of Today), or violent-natured (as Raybeez of Warzone occasionally came off). Even as a teen, I found it ironic that our parents had strong reservations about us listening to such aggressive-sounding music when, in fact, its lyrical content was so clearly constructive, especially when compared to vapid pop hits of the era like -- what was big in ’89? Milli Vanilli? The Escape Club? Roxette?
The songs covered a wide range of topics, all relating to self-improvement through very specific means: not being channel-surfing couch potatoes, shunning racists, showing gratitude and appreciation to our friends, expressing ourselves in ways that avoid insulting others ("I can't believe the things we say/ A cutting word can ruin days!”), reserving judgment until we hear all sides to a story, and going veggie out of affection for our pets (“My true compassion is for all living things/ And not just the ones that are cute!”). Sure, you can say these sound like sentiments from “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” but to a group of teenagers surrounded by a pop culture intent on selling us one thing or another, it meant a lot to hear songs that seemed sincerely intended to help us understand the world we lived in and navigate it in ways we could be proud of.
My friends and I were lucky enough to catch Gorilla Biscuits in 1990, and it was a day I'll never forget. They played just about every song in their arsenal, and it was one of the most fun shows I've ever seen. They had a new song, “Distance,” an impressive pop-leaning tune that explored some interesting lyrical terrain, but was unfortunately never recorded. The demo versions circulating the internet these days remain our only taste of the fruitful direction the band might have gone if they'd held it together a little longer. They started to crumble in 1990 when songwriter/guitarist Walter Schreifels formed Quicksand, a side project that soon became a full-time gig and scored a few minor alternative-rock-era hits. The rest of the band reformed in the mid-’90s under the moniker Civ, which also had a couple of chart hits (one of which was in a Nissan ad), but it just wasn't the same.
As it stands, along with an ’87 demo 7-inch and an early EP, Start Today is the official document of the era-defining inspiration that was Gorilla Biscuits. It's only 20 minutes long, but it stands the test of time, and I'm no longer ashamed to admit it.
2008: The Lines - Memory Span
There were no slow news days for the music media in the 1970s. The stories seemed to write themselves: overdoses, self-imposed exiles, curses of popular culture on prime-time television, scenes conceived from nothing. And those stories said nothing of the music itself, which was being torn to shreds and rewritten on every dirty street corner from Berlin to Los Angeles. That in mind, when listening to the gruff -- though well-executed -- guitar pop of The Lines (not to be confused with the more recent Wolverhampton band of the same name), it’s no wonder the band flew under the radar. Lacking the rhythmic urge of The Jam, the three-chord absurdity of The Kinks, the lyrical quips of Buzzcocks, and any sort of punk ferocity, The Lines were so obscured from radio success that any semblance of cool, rebellion, or, in spite of themselves, fame entirely eluded them. Yet as their selected, career compilation Memory Span attests, The Lines were a solid band.
Expertly sequenced, Memory Span is a depiction of growth. In fine detail, it sketches The Lines as they transform from a punky garage band to purveyors of urgent, unpredictable rock music drenched in atmospherics and elaborate funk rhythms. The compilation begins with a collection of early singles that, despite their scrappy under-production, ring with potential. With sly riffing, melodic vocals, and bounding beats, songs like “White Night,” “Not Through Windows,” and “Uneasy Affair” toggle between off-kilter power and budding poetics. Still, it isn’t until The Lines abandon traditional song structures on their 1980 singles that they truly discover their element. “Nerve Pylon” displays a rich melodic range that hearkens back to such pop-rock luminaries as The Left Banke and The Zombies. “Over the Brow” trumps everything before it with a maniacal melding of Middle Eastern melodies, droning brass, and a dub-style rhythmic pulse. These songs, glistening with catchiness and intrigue, set the tone for the remainder of the compilation, which includes high points “Part II” and “Old Town.” The former possesses a minimalist, head-trip groove that echo-plays with distant guitar squelches. “Old Town” is Memory Span’s most rhythmically dynamic track in its melding of tribal beats with a slow, dooming dirge.
As interesting as Memory Span's sonic emergence is, the album still has a few growing pains. “Background,” with its bubbling, bounding backbeat, fails to ignite, and “House of Cracks” is an overwrought take on the devices that make so many of The Lines’ 1980s output work. Yet to dissect this compilation track for track would be missing the point. Instead, if Memory Span is digested as a documentary, a log of what went right and wrong in the lifetime of a wholly under-regarded band, then you’re sure to be rewarded.
1978: Big Star - Third/Sister Lovers
To label Third/Sister Lovers as Big Star’s masterpiece would be misguided. The album doesn't mark the point at which the band perfected their sound (that ship had sailed) or chose to make any sort of definitive statement (except maybe: “Fuck this”). Nor is it technically an album; in fact, Big Star was not even technically a band at the time of Third/Sister Lovers' conception.
Recording sessions began at Memphis’ Ardent Studios in the winter of 1974, when Alex Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens were all that remained of the band's original lineup -- founding guitarist/vocalist Chris Bell had dropped out in ’72 when Big Star’s debut, #1 Record, failed to achieve the slightest bit of commercial success, and bassist Andy Hummel quit two years later, after Radio City. Produced by Jim Dickinson, the ’74 sessions featured an impressive guest list of local talent that included guitarist Steve Cropper, drummer Richard Rosebrough, and vocalist Lisa Aldridge (Chilton’s then-girlfriend). The end result, all but vomited upon by Stax Records, didn’t see the light of day until 1978, when it was put out by PVC as Third. Since then, the album's been hot-potato'd from label to label, appearing in various forms under various titles. In 1992, Rykodisc released what is still widely recognized as the definitive edition, with a whopping 19 tracks -- most of what was laid down -- though Chilton and Stephens couldn’t agree on the proper sequencing.
Big Star had always undercut their classicist pop with a strange and deliberate darkness of tone, but their first two efforts still might have coughed up a few hits if not for the poor distribution and marketing -- the result of Ardent’s strained relationship with Stax and Columbia. On Third, however, that thread was cut, as Chilton fully embraced the weirdness his songs had only hinted at previously. Listening to this record, it’s easy to image him as an alien being, studying earthly notions of melody and songcraft from some distant galaxy, attempting to emulate us and failing beautifully.
“I want to white OUT!!!” gasps Chilton on “Kizza Me,” the first of the two demented rave-ups that kick off Third. Upside-down piano flourishes collide with sputtering, throbbing guitar riffs; everything swirls and heaves before boiling over into total madness. The bitter, hilarious “Thank You Friends” matches that whacked-out energy and ups the ante by adding a full backing gospel choir. Chilton knocks off a fucked-up Christmas carol (“Jesus Christ”), a chilling cover of The Velvets’ “Femme Fatale” and a psychotic Who-style anthem (“You Can’t Have Me”), all the while sounding like he’s one sniff, toke, or swig away from pulling a Skip Spence.
“Kangaroo” is a smoldering ballad that sounds somewhere between the muted, melancholic pop of White Album-era George Harrison and the pyretic intensity of Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop.” Over a bed of open-tuned guitars, unearthly feedback, and seemingly random cowbell thwacks, Chilton slurs his way through a series of eerie yet poignant reminiscences: “I first saw you/ You had on blue jeans/ Your eyes couldn’t hide anything/ I saw you leaving.” In the Ryko liner notes, Dickinson recalls that “Kangaroo is really where the record started to work. Alex defiantly played it for me [and said], ‘If you want to be a producer, do something with this.’”
Third documents Alex Chilton’s choice to stop making choices, to follow his whims and fascinations to whatever end. I’ve yet to familiarize myself with any of his post-Big Star material, but as I understand it, he never again created anything that could be construed as an attempt to sell out or give in. How could he? He’d already seen the edge, and you can’t come back from that.