With occasional reflection on the perpetual absurdity/intrigue of life and society in general.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

The Optical Files #91: Hüsker Dü - Candy Apple Grey (1986)


When I wrote about Flip Your Wig last time, I had no idea the random number generator would give me the opportunity to round off my Hüsker Dü coverage so soon! Candle Apple Grey finds the band signing to a major label, cleaning up their production, & continuing to diversify their sound. It also shows the first clear signs of the schism between Hart & Mould--at times it sounds like a pair of competing EPs rather than an LP by a unified band. 

Grant has said that in retrospect, it was a damaging moment in their relationship when the label chose 2 of his songs ("Don't Want to Know If You Are Lonely" & "Sorry Somehow") as the album singles. I can understand how this would be awkward for both of them in terms of power dynamics, no matter whose song was chosen--the decision of whose voice to amplify was being taken away from them & viewed through a capitalist lens. It just so happens, however, that in addition to being the most radio-friendly, those are also the 2 best songs on the album. The open chords & descending vocal melody of "Sorry Somehow" sounds a lot like fellow Minnesotans The Replacements, but "Don't Want to Know If You Are Lonely," with its shimmering, loving detachment & stop-start chorus, manages to sound characteristically Hüsker Dü while still standing apart from their catalog.

I have to be honest though: aside from those 2 singles, the album is rough going. Grant is in melodic mode here, while Bob is more confrontational, but it only works sometimes. The album's centerpiece is made of 2 eclectic Mould originals (the only time the album doesn't alternate between the 2 songwriters): "Too Far Down" is a searing, naked attempt to capture depression over an austere acoustic guitar. "Hardly Getting Over It" also makes use of acoustics, but here it's in the service of a polished radio rock sound with lots of sus chords. Bob sings in a breathy, emotional semi-whisper instead of his usual throaty bellow.

After Hart's piano ballad "No Promise Have I Made" turns into a blizzard of cymbal washes & pained howls until the drums enter to propel the song into its unresolved fadeout, the album closes on "All This I've Done For You," a Mould tune that comes closest to the classic Hüsker Dü sound: Bob's hammer-on guitar melodies, Grant's rapid-fire snare fills, & the 2 dueting on the main vocal. It's like a last hurrah of the band sounding like a band.

I don't love this album. It exists at the nexus of 3 events: the band signing to the majors, the songwriting starting to deteriorate, Bob & Grant's relationship starting to fracture. I don't know how all of those events influenced each other, but it seems pretty obvious that they are connected. The band would limp along for another year or so, but as much as it pains me to say it (& as much as the high points of this album make it easy to forget it), one of the greatest punk bands of all time went out with a whimper.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The Optical Files #90: Hüsker Dü - Flip Your Wig (1985)


I'm not sure I stand by what I wrote earlier this year about New Day Rising being the weakest of Hüsker Dü's SST era. Yes, that album is frontloaded & has more throwaway tracks than Flip Your Wig. New Day Rising has 6 stone-cold, inarguable classics; this one has 7. But for some reason I can't explain, on any given day I'd usually rather toss on New Day Rising than Flip Your Wig. The result is that I've heard this album significantly fewer times--was there a chance it still had some surprises in store for me?

Hüsker Dü convinced SST to let them self-produce like they did back in the Everything Falls Apart days, but the sound is not noticeably different from what Spot was doing for them. (There's certainly not as big a leap as there was from this to their major-label followup.) One thing that's evident, especially on the Mould songs, is his tendency to bury his vocals, a stylistic choice that started on New Day Rising & continues to this day in his solo career. Other than that, the bass is just as hollow, the guitars are just as trebly, the drums are just as reverbed as they always were--in other words, the production is perfect for this band.

In a similar ratio to last time, Hart gets 5 songs here (4 if you discount the throwaway 46-second joke "The Baby Song), compared to Mould's 9. But half the classics on here belong to Grant: the chaotic love song "Every Everything," the tranquil love song "Green Eyes," with a '60s pop-inspired wordless middle 8, & the nostalgia-embracing ode to growing up without growing old, "Flexible Flyer." The only Hart song that doesn't hit is "Keep Hanging On," where a fine lyric isn't well-served by a rough-throated, less than melodic vocal delivery.

Mould's "Games" suffers a similar fate, with an awkward verse melody & uninspired bridge. The lyrics are fantastic, though, on a topic that Mould has written many songs about. From what I can gather, he is a guy who had to be convinced as a youngster that he wasn't better off just living in his head. Adding in the complexity of being gay & closeted until his 30s, you can understand the push & pull of the exciting world on one hand & the safety of his interiority on the other. Another Mould song that falls a little flat is the repetitive, almost meditative "Find Me," which is lyrically a less successful version of "Chartered Trips" from Zen Arcade.

The Mould songs that succeed, though, succeed wildly. The irrepressibly melodic title track, the ebullient poppy "Makes No Sense At All," the corrosive but joyful "Private Plane," & the album's best song, "Divide and Conquer." Over a deceptively triumphant guitar melody, Mould moans his frustrations about the suburbizing of America & the rot it's caused to our communal spirit. Maybe it's glibly anti-modernist, maybe it's "old man yells at cloud," but goddammit I can't help but thrash about & sing along.

So yeah: this album is better sequenced than New Day Rising, & the average level of songwriting is just a smidge better. The highs might not be quite as high (do I prefer "Celebrated Summer" over "Divide and Conquer"? please don't make me choose), but the lows aren't as low. Of course, when you're talking about those 2 albums, it's like comparing Michelangelo's David to his Pietà. It's probably better to just concede that they are 2 stunning, epochal works of art & if you must rank them, just flip a damn coin.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

The Optical Files #89: The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Axis: Bold As Love (1967)


For those of you who have read my previous writeups on Jimi Hendrix albums, I want to make this promise right up front: I will not use this space to talk any more shit about Noel Redding. Everybody knows how I feel by now, so I will discuss neither his deficiencies as a bass player, band member, nor songwriter. That means I will not touch on "She's So Fine," which is so, so fine by me.

Put a gun to my head & I'll probably choose this as my favorite of the 3 Jimi Hendrix Experience albums. While I've already discussed how Electric Ladyland is the most important to me historically, I think that Axis on the whole has better songs. While the followup would blossom into a full psychedelic flower, this sophomore effort is still approached like a pop album, & I think that's to its benefit. There's no 13-plus minute freakouts here--the longest song is "If 6 Was 9" at a relatively lean 5 & a half. When done right, I love the craft of the 3-minute pop song, & Jimi fires off several of them here without sacrificing his fiery rock instincts: "Spanish Castle Magic," "Wait Until Tomorrow," "Little Wing," "You Got Me Floatin'" & "Castles Made of Sand" all do miraculously sophisticated rocking while remaining hooky & not outlasting the 3-minute AM radio barrier. The pacing & sequencing is perfect for a pop album too, with the furious rocking of "You Got Me Floatin'" transitioning to the wry resignation of "Castles Made of Sand" with its backmasked solos.

My formative adolescent Hendrix years coincided with my discovery of science fiction, & knowing Jimi was a fan of the genre as well, I always loved when his music incorporated SF concepts. They're frontloaded here, with the opening noise track leading into the smoky jazz number "Up From the Skies," where Jimi imagines an alien's perspective on planet Earth over delicate brushwork from Mitch. Then again, the gorgeous "One Rainy Wish" (in my opinion the loveliest ballad Jimi ever wrote) & the finale "Bold As Love" are both redolent of fantasy--I was reminded of David Lindsay's transcendental sword & planet affair A Voyage to Arcturus.

Apparently, Hendrix often described musical moods in terms of colors. I always noticed his lyrics were full of those descriptions, but this album seems fixated on a journey through colors. We travel from the aggressive multitracked guitars evoking "battlegrounds red & brown" of "Spanish Castle Magic" to 2 different gardens: one golden in "Wait Until Tomorrow," & one green in "Castles Made of Sand." Sunset's "sleepy red glow" in "You Got Me Floatin'" gives way to a dream of gold, rose, misty blue & lilac in "One Rainy Wish." Finally we arrive at "Bold as Love," where several different colors are coded emotions, personified as warriors, monarchs, or possibly gods. I don't know if this color scheme is deliberate, but it demonstrates the kind of connection & depth that artistry like Jimi's can provoke in a listener. I'm so glad I found Jimi back when I did.

Friday, June 24, 2022

The Optical Files #88: The Streets - A Grand Don't Come For Free (2004)


I lost track of what Mike Skinner was doing after this album, but this relisten made me want to catch back up with his work as The Streets, because I just love what he did here. I think it's generally agreed upon that Original Pirate Material is his iconic album, but A Grand Don't Come For Free captivated me more then. The production might have been more innovative on the debut, but the follow-up's mixture of cinematic beats & ambitious concept was right up my alley. I had friends from London at the time who told me that my interest in this album had to do with the life of a "geezer" seeming exotic to me, & that might be true to an extent. But no matter what I came for, I know I stayed for the storytelling.

The brilliance of A Grand Don't Come For Free is that its existence as a slacker concept album, almost a rock-opera parody, does not stop it from having real emotional heft, from the gentle piano & commonplace romance of "Could Well Be In" to the tranquil acoustic guitars & ascending strings of the devastating "Dry Your Eyes" to the triumphant turnaround of the final track. The album is a philosophical testament to how events that seem earthshattering (losing money, losing a girlfriend, losing a friendship) are usually just steps on the journey--the world keeps turning, there are more joys & sorrows around the corner.

In the opening moments of the album its big dramatic movie score orchestra foreshadows a catastrophe, & we are then treated to a litany of relatively minor annoyances: a failure to return a rented DVD, insufficient funds at the ATM, a dead phone battery. Then we learn at the end of the song that Mike has lost £1000, which is the conflict propelling the rest of the story forward. Subsequent songs display a mastery of pace & storytelling--like a mystery author, he mixes in enough mundane details that you don't know which will be important later on (like his broken television) & which are simply there to add color to the world. Comical transitions like the warm, appreciative "Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way" leading into the clattering "Get Out Of My House" don't overpower the genuine feelings like "Blinded by the Lights" with the immersive loneliness of a situation many listeners can relate to: losing track of your friends in a crowded club having just taken drugs, the off-kilter synth pulses evoking the paranoia & creeping unease of gradually discovering you're more fucked up than you thought.

Another comic juxtaposition of music to subject matter occurs in "What Is He Thinking," with suspenseful mystery music scoring an unspoken conversation about the provenance of a jacket. As in the opening track, this seemingly low-stakes conflict culminates in a revelation of significant import. One of the album's themes seems to be how you never know which of life's myriad minor vexations will turn into something momentous until it's too late. Another authorial interest seems to be communication: technology (phones & texting), misunderstandings, silence speaking louder than words. Pretty much everything that happens in the story is the result of poor communication--mechanical, emotional or both.

Apparently Mike Skinner has toyed with the idea of making a film, and based on the storytelling displayed in this album, I would love to see it. History has shown that this isn't the iconic Streets album, nor is it a direction he continued in with his music. It's a curious little artistic detour, but an utterly compelling one.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

The Optical Files #87: The Clash - Super Black Market Clash (1993)


As I indicated when I wrote about From Here To Eternity, reissues of Clash material outside the canonical studio albums tend to be a bit of a mess. For instance, this disc claims to be a replacement for the previous B-sides & rarities collection, Black Market Clash (published as a 10" in 1980). However, it leaves out 3 songs from the compilation it's supposed to replace: there's no "Capital Radio One," no "Armagideon Time," no "Bankrobber." It could be argued that these songs were already available on The Clash on Broadway--but so is almost everything else included here, so why bother with an additional compilation at all, unless the goal is to make us spend more money? Yes, record companies are greedy, what else is new, right? But if you're already going to spread everything across multiple releases, why not sequence them a little more mindfully? Like pretty much any single-disc Clash compilation that covers their whole career up until Combat Rock (the complete ignoring of the Cut the Crap era is a topic for another day), this one is frontloaded with punk rock & backloaded with dance remixes & dub versions. Why not leave the original Black Market Clash alone & instead assemble a 2-disc rarities collection--1 covering up to the Cost of Living EP, & 1 starting with "Bankrobber."

Speaking of the Cost of Living EP, a major reason to get this CD was the inclusion of that record's 2 key songs: "Groovy Times" & "Gates of the West." The former with its Dylanesque harmonica & the latter with its exuberant ode to New York City, are pivotal in the band's transition from the Give 'Em Enough Rope sound to the London Calling sound. Important early songs like "1977" & "The City of the Dead" are represented here as well, along with more minor tracks like the bouncy instrumental "Listen" & "The Prisoner," with its odd, atonal guitar solo. Later in the album we get cool stuff like "First Night Back in London," which together with the expected dub elements has clattering industrial touches that make it not quite like anything else the band ever recorded.

It's the Clash, so obviously this CD is full of good shit & it's not a waste of time. Personally, I'd like a Clash disc I can pop in when I'm in the mood for dub versions not found on Sandinista!, & another for when I'm in the mood for Clash rockers not found on any of the studio albums. Just because a CD like this is a good listen doesn't mean it's necessary.

Monday, June 20, 2022

The Optical Files #86: Public Enemy - He Got Game (1998)


I can't be the only one who got took. Concurrently with this album, there was another soundtrack CD released with an almost identical cover, this one consisting of nothing but orchestral pieces by Aaron Copland. Yeah, I bought the wrong one at first. Nothing wrong with Aaron Copland, but it's disappointing when you pop in a CD expecting to hear a Public Enemy album & you get classical music instead. Anyway, when I got the right disc in my player, the first thing I heard was a violin beat that sounded like it really wanted to be RZA. Chuck brought some street-level aggression to his mic presence & they even got Masta Killa to accentuate that Wu sound--it didn't work, because MK basically sleepwalks through his verse & it sounds intentionally mixed to be difficult to hear.

Starting the album on a sub-Wu Tang note is telling of the fact that PE seem to be foundering at the end of the '90s. The group that spent the whole prior decade relentlessly innovating found themselves playing catchup, & both Chuck & the Bomb Squad attempt with hit & miss success to keep up with the times. Flav is the only one who seemingly makes no concession to modernity--Flav will always sound like Flav. That's a mixed blessing, because on this record it gives us the cringey dancefloor misfire "Shake Your Booty." (If I'm reading the liner notes correctly, that song was entirely written by Rampage with no input from Flav.) I always liked the Buffalo Springfield-sampling title track, which has a mellow exhaustedness to it. Chuck isn't offering solutions at the moment, he has a keen understanding of what's wrong with the world but sounds too tired & resigned to do anything about it. It's a feeling I can relate to in 2022. But title track aside, the early part of the album is rough going.

Things start to pick up with "Is Your God A Dog," where producer Abnormal uses an awkward drum beat (snare on the "and" of 2) with MIDI horns that somehow combine into a distinctive & sinister sound. Then "House of the Rising Son" offers a variation on the classic PE sound, with a layered sample collage complete with sound effect drops over a funky midtempo drum loop--all buried under a prominent sub bass track to bring it into the modern era. The James Bond theme-sampling "Game Face" is an interesting track, mostly a heavily coded ego trip song. Again, unless I'm reading the liner notes wrong, the song was entirely written by Smoothe da Hustler? The flow and wordplay on Chuck's verse sounds much more like Smoothe than Chuck, but I didn't know Chuck was in the habit of spitting other people's words.

On the last 5 tracks this album really picks up, focusing on the themes (which I assume are themes in the film too, though I haven't seen it) of the sports industry & how it exploits Black players. Starting with "Politics of the Sneaker Pimps," where Chuck uses a different voice to signify that he's performing a character over an austere G-Wiz beat, & continuing through the sinister yet triumphant ascending string progression of "What You Need is Jesus," the sneering "Super Agent" & culminating in the hard rock-inflected "Go Cat Go," this section is like a mini-concept album. I should add that "Go Cat Go" is produced by electronic musicians Jack Dangers of Meat Beat Manifesto & Danny Saber of Black Grape, the only time on the album PE reaches outside the Bomb Squad stable for production, & it's massive. The title might be a sly Elvis Presley reference, perfect for a song that critiques a capitalist entertainment field whose white businessmen suck the blood from Black creativity & labor.

Off the top of my head, I can't think of an album quite as backloaded as this one. Usually the problem is the other way around--artists put the best songs toward the beginning so as not to lose short-attention-span listeners. It's an interesting approach, waiting until the end to really zero in on the album's themes. Perhaps on subsequent listens it all comes together, but guess what? I'm one of those short-attention-span listeners, & the lackluster 1st half prevented me from really putting the time in. Next time just make it an EP, guys.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

The Optical Files #85: Hella - Hold Your Horse Is (2002)


Adolescence is a time of trying on identities, of figuring out what kind of person you want to be through trial & error. For teenage music nerds, there a few forks in the road where you figure out exactly what kind of adult music nerd you want to be. When my buddy Leo introduced me to Hella in 11th grade, I found myself at one of those forks: I was going to try the identity of Incredibly Strange Music lover on for size.

For those of you who don't know, Incredibly Strange Music lovers delight in seeking out the oddest, most outré, avant-garde, outsider musical offerings in existence. It should not be assumed that this kind of music nerd values bizarreness over enjoyment; it is the very degree of bizarreness that determines their enjoyment. Although I like plenty of music that might be considered freaky & challenging by the hoi palloi (e.g. late Coltrane, grindcore, etc.), I never really went down that road. If I had, Hold Your Horse Is would have been the first step. As it stands, Hella is a delightful little detour that I don't regret taking.

Finding out about Hella from Leo in the cafeteria hallway next to the pillars at lunch was like being whispered a coded message by a co-conspirator. The fact that I could walk into Tower Records & purchase this...thing...somehow made it feel even more surreal. When I popped it in, after the glitchy 43-second electronic intro, I was greeted with a blast of guitar & drum grandstanding that didn't let up for the album's 33 remaining minutes. At this stage, Hella was an instrumental duo--just a guitarist & a drummer. The guitarist, Spencer Seim, plays lots of circular fingerpicking figures on angular chords, sweetened by frequent slides & tremolo picking. His trebly tone, with just a touch of crunch, accentuates the absence of a bassist. The drummer, Zach Hill, is fond of tom rolls but punctuates everything with plenty of snare, making judicious use of his cymbals. As a teenage drummer, I was first & foremost fascinated by the drum work here. (Zach Hill went on to drum & co-produce for the much better-known Death Grips.) Sometimes the guitar slows down, but the drums are never less than furious. The best adjective to describe this music is churning. There is a loopy circularity to it, as if both musicians are grinding their instruments to dust with a mortar & pestle. It's admirable that they can maintain this feeling despite a mathrock-esque commitment to inconsistent time signatures. Every once in a while, a groove will scrape itself out in a friendly meter, like the last minute of "Been a Long Time Cousin," but these are eyes of the storm & the hurricane quickly takes back over.

Among my little high school crew that worshiped this album, the highlight was "1-800-Ghost-Dance," with its half-time drum groove & lyrical hammer-ons that dissolve into & out of skronky free-jazz insanity. In retrospect, the standout track is "Brown Metal," if only for its distinctiveness compared to the other songs. The drum production is murkier, there's less snare & more cymbals, some electronics (or at least heavily processed guitar) sneak in, & the 2nd half is ironically the most conventional rock & roll section on the whole album--if you can look past the gradual ritardando that grinds everything to a halt.

Hold Your Horse Is is a great album. I had a lot of fun listening to it today, & it triggered some buried feelings & images from my high school years. The fact that it didn't propel me into a lifetime of seeking out Incredibly Strange Music says more about me than it does about the album. I know I could start introducing more Incredibly Strange Music into my regular listening--who knows, maybe I will--but it will never be the same as if I'd chosen that fork in the road back in high school. "Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back."

Thursday, June 16, 2022

The Optical Files #84: Jeff Buckley - Grace (1994)


Another mid-'90s album, another artist who only managed to leave us 1 studio album before being taken way too soon. The most striking thing about Jeff Buckley for those first hearing him is his voice. It's evident from the opening seconds of the album, when you hear that keening wail fade in at the start of "Mojo Pin" & realize it's coming from a human throat. Jeff's vocal technique was magnificent: a round, full chest voice with a dramatic delivery, a versatile falsetto & jazz-inflected phrasing. Granted, sometimes he comes a little close to ridiculousness with his attempts to be emotive, but his sincerity & conviction keep him on the right side of the self-parody line.

But Jeff was more than just a voice: the songwriting here is consistently impressive, from the complex chord progression in the title track's pre-chorus to the tricky rhythms of "So Real" to the classy, unobtrusive string arrangements (by Karl Berger) on songs like "Last Goodbye." The original songs here have a dreamy, romantic mood without losing their rock & roll energy. The atmosphere is so pervasive that the bass-driven, sludgier hard rock of the late-album "Eternal Life" feels incongruous, despite the songcraft being up to the album's overall standard.

Furthermore, Jeff was more than just a voice & a songwriter: he was no slouch on the guitar either. From delicate picked figures to distorted squawks & squeals, his playing runs the gamut but is never less than interesting. It's natural to praise the guy whose name is on the album cover, but I'd be remiss if I didn't point out the solid work of his bandmates, bassist Mick Grondahl (who kills it on "Last Goodbye") & drummer Matt Johnson (whose best work is on "Dream Brother"). Rounding out the creative team is producer Andy Wallace, whose work here is subtle but appreciated. I enjoy this kind of drum production: it's halfway between the splashy reverb & obnoxiously tuned toms of '80s arena rock & the skeletal dryness of grunge. Details like Gary Lucas's processed seagull-sounding "magical guitarness" (as it's credited in the liner notes) of "Mojo Pin" add to the gauzy atmosphere. The guitar being mic'ed at the sound hole in addition to amp/line in (not sure which) adds an extra maraca-like percussive element to the rhythm guitar on "Last Goodbye," which echoed when the tambourine comes in. Then on "Lilac Wine" when the band enters after the sparse intro, the phasers & brushwork turn it into the smoky jazz ballad that song always wants to be.

Speaking of "Lilac Wine," I haven't yet discussed the 3 covers--or really standards. The album's most famous song is its version of "Hallelujah," which I used to love & still really enjoy, although Jeff leaves out the most affecting verse from Cohen's original: "Even though it all went wrong, I'll stand before the lord of song/With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah." Similarly, though Jeff does a great job with "Lilac Wine," it will never stand up to Nina Simone's version. These days, my favorite of the non-originals here is "Corpus Christi Carol," where Jeff employs his impressive falsetto on a spacious yet intimate trip back in time via jewel box of mysterious medieval beauty. I close my eyes & get Arthurian vistas.

This is one of those albums where I can't really add anything to the general consensus. I hope I've done a good job at least pointing out specific things I like instead of "y'all, this album is really good." But like, y'all, this album is really good. You should check it out if you haven't.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

The Optical Files #83: Big L - Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous (1995)


Recently when I wrote about C-Rayz Walz, I coined (or at least think I coined) the term "punchline inflation": "It makes me wonder if the most mindblowing bars of today will look simplistic in 20 years, & what punchlines will sound like then. Is there an upper limit to lyrical complexity?" I got interested enough to make a social media post asking what is the oldest bar that would still go hard (i.e. not get you laughed out of the cypher) today. The artist who came up most frequently in people's replies was Big L. (Noted, none of the Big L bars people suggested were older than Phife's 1991 "bust a nut inside your eye to show you where I come from," but I digress.) Certainly L's lyricism resonates with people today, & he has a reputation as one of the major innovators of punchline rap, but does his work really hold up that well?

In a career cut heartbreakingly short at age 24, Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous was the only studio album L got to release in his lifetime. Realizing that he was barely 21 when he recorded this album, you have to marvel at how self-assured he sounds here, & how developed his style is. (For comparison, Jay-Z was 5 years older & sounds way less confident in his feature on this album.) The question of where L might have taken his talent is unavoidable--we know a little bit from his unfinished later work like The Big Picture, suggesting that he would expand further into storytelling joints & more conceptual songs. But it's still an open question, & I can't really fault the immaturity displayed in some lyrics here because he was still in the prime of his growth as a young artist.

Big L's writing could be complex, but it's very easy to describe. He relies on multisyllable rhymes--usually 2 or 3, sometimes as many as 4, but very seldom does he rhyme single syllables. He uses internal rhyme at least once every few bars: a common technique is to repeat a rhyme pair twice in the 1st line of a couplet, then once to punctuate the end of the 2nd line: "I'm known to have a hottie open, I keep the shotty smokin'/Front & get half the bones in your body broken." He doesn't use much of the elaborate wordplay & brainy double entendres favored by punchline rappers who followed in his wake: L's impressiveness is all about unexpected & creative rhyme pairs. This might get boring were it not for his effortless delivery--it sounds as if he's hardly trying, & that's captivating to listen to. 

Well-versed hiphop heads might realize that the above description could just as easily be written about L's mentor Lord Finesse, & that's true. It's why I've never fully been able to give L his props as an innovator because I've been aware that what he did was more of a refinement of Finesse's style than something wholly original. But, again, any originality score needs to be graded on a curve given how young the cat was.

Finesse himself is all over this album, of course, because in the early '90s, DITC was the crew any hardcore NYC lyricist dreamed about being down with, & DITC producers Finesse, Buckwild & Showbiz handle almost all the beats here. The result is a unified, bass-heavy boom-bap sound with swinging drums & hooky sample chops. In this type of beat the rhythmic pocket is easy to find, & L mostly sticks to it, switching between 2 or 3 flows per song, including a quick triplet patter that he was nimble-tongued enough to pull off (though not all his collaborators were, including young grasshopper Jay-Z). The downside of this sonic consistency, though, is that tracks have a tendency to blur together as the album goes on. None of the beats really stand out--a recognizable sample here, a slightly different feel there. When one does stand out, it's sometimes for the wrong reasons, like the incongruous, more old-school sounding uptempo "No Endz, No Skinz," which features the distasteful bar "A girl asked me for a ring & I put one around her whole eye." That's not the only time L brags about beating up women, & you can't really take any of it seriously (remember, he was still best known for his horrorcore "Devil's Son" single), but it's hard not to cringe when 3 of his collaborators on "8 Iz Enuff" brag about gaybashing. Some of these potholes in his subject matter are smoothed over by more conceptual songs like the cautionary "Street Struck," the anti-cop "Fed Up With the Bullshit," & even "I Don't Understand It," which bemoans the current state of the rap industry & criticizes emcees for being inauthentic--although the latter song has kind of a confused message: are the sellouts he's targeting supposed to be successful or not?

Ultimately, Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous is a work by a spectacularly talented young man who still had a lot of growing up to do. Yes, it's weird to hear a rapper who died by the gun brag about gunplay, the same as when I hear Pop Smoke or King Von boast about how untouchable they are on the streets. There's a good chance Big L would have outgrown some of the foolishness had he lived. Instead, we get yet another document of a fierce talent taken from us too soon, & a whole novel's worth of questions about what might have been.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

The Optical Files #82: Japan - Quiet Life (1979)


I recognize that most people reading this have never heard of this record or band, but Quiet Life is one of my favorite albums of all time. I'll have difficulty articulating exactly why, but I think I can start with its tonal integrity. Everything about the album contributes to a vaguely sinister, nocturnal atmosphere. The clean, white background of the album cover is evoked in the futuristic coldness of the synths that drive every song. David Sylvian's baritone vocals are somehow sexy, tortured & sneering at the same time, seducing you into his world while disdaining you for wanting to come--Bowie in Labyrinth vibes. There's even a song called "Halloween"! This all combines to create my nominee for spookiest album ever that's not really trying to be spooky.

It's also the most cyberpunk album ever that's not trying to be cyberpunk, & with good reason: the term hadn't been codified yet. It was just a style & philosophy that naturally evolved in any kind of forward-thinking art being made in the late '70s/early '80s. I discovered this album in high school around the time I was diving deep into cyberpunk, & the interests dovetailed perfectly. Of course there are the synths themselves: flashy futuristic textures that conceal an underlying grimness. Of course there's the fusion of human & machine implied by the combination of natural & synthetic sounds. Of course, The Velvet Underground was a major influence on the cyberpunk movement, with William Gibson even titling a novel after "All Tomorrow's Parties," the Velvets song that Japan cover here. (We'll ignore that the cover is probably my least favorite song on the record.) Specifically, the layered keys, pads & choirs in "Despair" reminded me of some of the music from the video game Deus Ex. There are other cyberpunk elements too, like the Cold War anxieties in the lyrics of "Halloween," "Despair"'s references to "the artists of tomorrow" who live "in pleasant despair," the curious Orientalism present in "A Foreign Place," "Life in Tokyo," & the band name itself--not to mention more subtly in the compositions, like the pentatonic guitar & piano figures of "The Other Side of Life."

Speaking of film comparisons, every song here is palpably cinematic & conjures rich visuals for me. Close your eyes when "Despair" is playing & the muted drum machine, funereal piano & saxophone flourishes will show you a scene of someone driving at night through a rainy city, unsure of where they're going except that it's better than going home. The well-orchestrated strings of "In Vogue" have a similar effect. I've listened to this album in all weather conditions & I can verify that it's perfect for rain, perfect for snow, perfect for fog, & best after dark.

Musically, the album's star is bassist Mick Karn, whose instrument is mixed right up front & who is always doing something interesting, from the funky slaps of the title track to the atonal stabs of "Fall in Love With Me" to the hollow, spacey loops of "All Tomorrow's Parties." I've always suspected that John Taylor's flashy funk bass playing in Duran Duran is directly inspired by Karn's work--he's just as amazing in Japan's previous album Obscure Alternatives & even more quirky in the followup Gentlemen Prefer Polaroids. I like those records, but there's something about Quiet Life that just hits that sweet spot for me. This album lives rent-free in some darkly glamorous corner of my disreputable brain, plugged in & glowing & waiting for night to fall.

Friday, June 10, 2022

The Optical Files #81: Wu-Tang Clan - 8 Diagrams (2007)


8 Diagrams is one of the newest albums on this list, released right near the end of my CD-buying heyday, but back when I still had the attention span to give a fresh CD an abundance of chances to work its way into my brain. That's exactly what I did with 8 Diagrams: I left it in my car's CD player & let it work its magic on me. As a result of this listening style (which I'm trying to bring back with this blog series), I think of 8 Diagrams as a misunderstood album. Revisiting it was rewarding, since I found an album that was even more interesting than I remembered.

The usual dig (amplified by Raekwon himself) is that the production here lacks power & grit. I can't argue with that--very little ruckus is brought over this album's 63 minutes. What replaces it, though, is a murky, nocturnal mood, often minimalist, with unusual sound textures like the wailing guitars & atonal orchestra stabs of "Unpredictable"; the sparse drums & sinister guitar arpeggios (played by RZA himself) on "Gun Will Go," switching to a trebly high-passed skank for the final verse; the weird pitch bends of "Weak Spot"; or the white noise, whistling & questing bass of RZA's loping solo NGE screed "Sunlight."

RZA produced 12 out of 14 tracks, & the ones by other beatmakers are chosen to match the mood: Easy Mo Bee's darkly beautiful "Take It Back" could have easily come from RZA's album sessions. Wu protege Mathematics, on the other hand, contributes the album's weakest beat with "Stick Me For My Riches," which is overpowered by weirdly loud 808 hi-hats. (Seriously, once you key into those hi-hats it's like you can't hear anything else.) The emcees deliver desultory verses on the overlong song, with only a chorus by Gerald Alston providing a bright spot.

The old-school Wu sound does peek its head out here & there, particularly with the movie score-esque orchestrals of "Rushing Elephants," which finds Rae intoning a relieved "back to the formula," but I'm more captivated by the successes of the new approach, like the waterfall bassline & heavily flanged guitar chords of "Windmill," complete with leads by John Frusciante. The wordless chanted bassline of "Wolves" is like a night howl, with synths, handclaps & spaghetti western horns propelling it forward. Sadly we get 2 homophobic slurs on this track, from U-God & Masta Killa. Thankfully, Meth kicks what might be the best verse on the album, which is no surprise since this is the kind of beat he excels on.

The album's 1st single, the Beatles-sampling "The Heart Gently Weeps," is quite frankly a mess. Erykah Badu does a nice job with the hook, John Frusciante & George Harrison's son Dhani can't be faulted for their guitar work, but the verses are mostly about beating people up, & I struggle to understand how they connect to the song's concept & hook. It feels like the song wasn't very well thought through, & Ghost's big f-slur doesn't help matters.

Speaking of Ghostface, it's well-known that he & RZA were feuding at this time, so Ghost only gets 3 verses on the whole album. Most of the other members get 6 verses each, except U-God with 5, Rae with 7, & Meth with 8. The worst part is that Ghost got left off the ODB tribute "Life Changes" (Ghost claims he was never sent the music), which is a real shame because the otherwise moving elegy feels incomplete. I think Dirty's death 3 years prior is a major reason this album sounds the way it does. There is a sense of loss & emptiness to its sparse arrangements & its lyrical preoccupations (compare "C.R.E.A.M." to "Stick Me For My Riches.") Even the title is a direct reference to the group having lost a member. So I can't blame Rae, or anyone else, for wanting that old Wu-Tang sound back, but this album finds RZA at his most adventurous & genuinely mournful. It's a detour, but a fruitful one, even if the members didn't quite realize it at the time.

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

The Optical Files #80: Fat Joe - Jealous Ones Still Envy (J.O.S.E.) (2001)


Honestly I was surprised by how well I remembered this album. I didn't think of it as a record I knew particularly well, but I must have gone through a phase where I listened to it a whole lot, because literally every song triggered those little recall bells in some spot buried in my brain from 20 years ago. This is Joe completing his transition from DITC backpacker to pop star; you can still detect his grimy street roots breaking through the smooth sheen. It's also Joe fresh from losing Pun, his most significant discovery, but aside from the intro (I think it's a classy move to open the album with a plainspoken Pun tribute) & a few moments on "Still Real," there's not much mourning happening here. Instead, we get a solid album's worth of gritty beats full of ominous pianos & strings, & a prime example of early 2000s hyper-macho, radio-ready gangsta rap.

Joe was never the most impressive emcee, but he intimately understands his own limitations. He doesn't try to pull off intricate lyrics (at least, not since Pun passed) or tricky vocal rhythms. He also understands his strengths: straightforward flows, less concerned with rhythmic pocket than knocking you on the head with booming declarations; Joe sounds credible making the kind of tough-guy threats that could easily come off corny in another rapper's mouth. But Joe's most important strength is not as a rapper but rather as an executive producer: he has a great ear for beats & a keen sense of whom to collaborate with.

Although only 1 producer handles multiple tracks (Buckwild with album highlights "My Lifestyle" & "Still Real"), the record has a surprisingly unified sound. In my review of the comparable Kool G Rap album The Giancana Story, I wrote:
"This is quintessential early 2000s New York street rap, post-boombap--samples were out, MIDI was in. (A lot of this was by necessity, as music publishers were cracking down on sample clearance.) [...] The overall feel is noisy, aggressive, thickly textured beats, but with a lot of polish, if you like that sort of thing." 

Even though it shares 4 producers with GiancanaJ.O.S.E. has no such problem. The reason probably has to do with label politics (I don't know to what extent Rawkus let G Rap choose his own beats) & budget. Either way, we get Alchemist bringing filtered keys & punchy drums to "Definition of a Don"; Psycho Les lacing the title track with eerie chords & a creative drum pattern (lacking a kick on the downbeat, creating a distinctively Beatnuts-y off-kilter feel); & Cool & Dre with the epic orchestrals of the hard-ass Buju Banton feature "King of N.Y." Sadly, since we all know I'm full of VA pride, Bink! does not impress here. The bubbling synths of "Get the Hell On With That" are way too polished & goofy, not to mention that most of the verses are devoted to slut-shaming. Ludacris contributes a reliably solid guest verse, but other than that it's the album's only real skip.

One thing I appreciate about gangsta rap from my era is that, for the most part, they kept the violence & sex separate. Like on this album: we get songs about shooting people up, & songs about honeys, but usually the 2 stay separate. Nowadays all bets are off--street rappers are fond of threatening to shoot you up & then f**k your b***h, which I don't understand because if I were to murder someone, sex would be the last thing on my mind. (Busta Rhymes does do this here on the "We Thuggin'" remix: "Get my rocks off, that's when I'm quick to knock your block off/& hold a gat when I'm fuckin' and never take my socks off," but that's the exception.)

Nonetheless, what we do get a lot of in songs like "Opposites Attract (What They Like)," "We Thuggin'" & "What's Luv?" is objectification of women. One of the first lines in "What's Luv?" pretty much sums it up: "Girl, you get me aroused how you look in my eye/But you talk too much, man, you're ruinin' my high." Women in Joe's world are to be seen & not heard, which might seem odd given how much Remy Ma there is on this album (she has verses on 3 songs & does the hook on an additional 1), but there is an unspoken understanding that there are 2 types of women. Remy is one type--the type whose mind is to be valued & whose perspective is to be respected. The unnamed club girls of "We Thuggin'" represent the other type of women--those who are valuable only for their visual appearance & as sex objects. The difference between the 2 is not made explicit, but we can make some inferences: Remy's aggressive rap flow & violent rhetoric are coded as masculine, which gives her value in this macho world. The overall rejection of femininity as something without value might seem to clash with the casual f-slur Joe drops in "Murder Rap," but in recent years Joe has become an unlikely advocate for LGBTQ+ individuals in hiphop. ("Murder Rap" is also the song where he claims to be "the cause of dope fiends getting AIDS infections," which is a bizarre thing to brag about, so I have a lot of questions.)

Fat Joe has always been a better businessman than rapper. In 2001, he saw his moment & took it: J.O.S.E. was & remains his only platinum-selling album, although he seems to find a way to pull off a huge radio single every decade or so. But on this album's "Still Real," the obligatory "thugs have feelings too" track, I do appreciate the chorus line "to get where I'm going to." The line suggests that his story, & by extension ours, is not finished, that progress is ongoing & eternal. Like how after over a decade of not-much-to-speak-of, he & Remy slapped us with "All the Way Up" & suddenly ended up in the spotlight again. Don't count the dude out. This isn't anywhere close to being the best album of its era, but it's probably Fat Joe's best album--even though I like his early DITC stuff too. For fin de siècle mainstream gangsta rap, you could do a lot worse.

Monday, June 6, 2022

The Optical Files #79: The Beatles - Abbey Road (1969)


I can't be certain, but it's possible that I've listened to Abbey Road more times than any other Beatles album. I discovered this one young, through my parents, who especially loved "Maxwell's Silver Hammer." (Why did they think that song was so hilarious? They couldn't listen to it without laughing. Boomer humor is weird.) As often happens, I got burnt out on this album after my teenage years, so I haven't sat down & listened to it in full for a long time. In all honesty, I wasn't really looking forward to it. What new insights could I possibly have about Abbey Road?

Well, 1st off, side 2 is superior. I'm not sure I knew what to make of the big medley in childhood, but today I recognize it as a masterpiece of shifting keys & moods. Unlike a lot of bloated 16-minute progressive rock efforts, every section is incredibly hooky & could have been a single on its own. Yet as opposed to, say, Green Day's song suites on American Idiot, this isn't just a sequence of 3-minute pop songs stitched together. The sections interact with one another, themes & instruments float in & out of the mix & return later--the most obvious is the "You Never Give Me Your Money" reprise in "Carry That Weight," but there are others. The medley is also buoyed by John, Paul & George's lovely 3-part vocal harmonies, which begin it & end it, adding Ringo for the finale. Speaking of Ringo, it also contains some of his best drum work--of course there's the solo in "The End," but also check the fills in "She Came In Through the Bathroom Window." The solo section where the 3 guitarists trade 2-bar licks right near the end is magnificent too, & manifests the personalities of each player: Paul fixates on jagged blues figures, George plays elegant glissandos, & John seems mostly interested in spewing out noise.

Side 2 is huge, but side 1 is no slouch either. "Oh! Darling" with its '50s doo-wop shuffle & throat-shredding wails from Paul set the stage for "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," which I can only describe as proto-doom metal. Seriously, this entire song--including the jazzy midsection & abrupt, oops-we-ran-out-of-tape ending--could have easily been written by Black Sabbath a year or 2 later. The medley isn't the only time these songs communicate with one another--I love how "I Want You"'s arpeggios are answered in "Because," & the way the Moog lines in "Maxwell" return in "Here Comes the Sun" (I've heard that song a bajillion times & I've never really noticed how lovely the Moog figures are).

Of course, I can't write about a Beatles album without fawning over Paul's bass playing. Now that I can hear it over my parents' guffaws, when I listen to "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" I zero in on the tasty bass runs, & that's keeping it relatively simple by Paul's standards. By the time we get to "Sun King," ironically a Lennon composition, Paul is officially playing "lead bass," & when the record slams into "Mean Mr. Mustard," I can't think of a nastier, more blown-out distorted bass tone from any record of this vintage, & I say that as the highest of compliments.

Finally, a word about George: are "Something" & "Here Comes the Sun" the 2 best Harrison compositions the Beatles ever recorded? Probably, though perhaps "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" gives them a run for their money. You can hear George's creative energy just bursting forward--though I don't think he was quite as repressed by the band as apocrypha would have you believe. Either way, the band dissolved & we got All Things Must Pass, so everything is right with the world.

Saturday, June 4, 2022

The Optical Files #78: The Clash - Sandinista! (1980)

Sadly, I don't think I have anything to say about the whole of Sandinista! (don't forget the exclamation point) that hasn't already been said a thousand times. The album is undeniably bloated--even the Clash admitted that. If London Calling represented the band's expansive & experimental instincts finely tuned to produce a masterpiece, then Sandinista! is the result of those instincts running unchecked--songs spewing forth from the high-powered factory machinery too fast for anyone to quality-inspect everything on the conveyor belt.

You'll be hard-pressed to find a Clash fan who would dispute that "Something About England," "Somebody Got Murdered," "One More Time," "Police On My Back," "Washington Bullets" & "Charlie Don't Surf" are among the best songs that the band ever recorded. Add to that my personal jams like "Hitsville U.K.," "Rebel Waltz," "Up In Heaven (Not Only Here)," "Corner Soul," "The Sound of Sinners," & "Lose This Skin," we can easily assemble the proverbial choice-cuts LP with a consistency approaching London Calling's, just a little weirder.

One-upping the already generous sonic variety of their previous record, the band used this one to explore even more genres. The most conspicuous one is rap (album opener "The Magnificent Seven" & "Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice)", but they also dip their toes in disco ("Ivan Meets G.I. Joe"), jazz ("Look Here"), gospel ("The Sound of Sinners"), calypso ("Let's Go Crazy"), & something vaguely akin to zydeco ("Lose This Skin"). One reason for the sonic sprawl is the band having partially relocated to New York, & the album continues an Americanized (& globalized) trajectory that would find its logical end in the more concise Combat Rock. In this regard, tracks like "Ivan Meets G.I. Joe" & "Charlie Don't Surf" sound like rehearsals for "Rock the Casbah" & "Straight to Hell," respectively.

Speaking of which, the punk rock lens on geopolitics was one of the major factors that drew me to the Clash in the first place, & Sandinista! boasts some of their best material in this vein. For my money, "Washington Bullets" is the major album masterpiece. Over a deceptively cheerful, marimba-driven instrumental (recalling the band's previous-album fixation on the Bo Diddley beat with tracks like "Hateful" & "Rudie Can't Fail"), Joe cleverly repurposes the name of the D.C. NBA team to mount a critique of the US imperialist practice of arming oppressive regimes against leftist uprisings. The song's main subject is Nicaragua's Sandinista rebellion, but the 3rd verse zooms out to condemn imperialist interference worldwide: "If you can find an Afghan rebel that the Moscow bullets missed/Ask him what he thinks of voting communist/Ask the Dalai Lama in the hills of Tibet/"How many monks did the Chinese get?"/In a wartorn swamp, stop any mercenary/Check the British bullets in his armory." The song is a brilliant interrogation of the global interconnectedness of politics & warmongering--one of the crown jewels in Joe Strummer's lyrical catalog.

Because of its sprawling length (making it nearly impossible to absorb in 1 sitting), some of its arcane subjects, & its generally maligned reputation, Sandinista! has a certain mystique around it that the rest of the Clash albums don't. I think of it sort of like graduate school for Clash fans: after you've absorbed all the other studio albums, plus Super Black Market Clash & some of the more significant bootlegs, then maybe you're ready to assay Sandinista!. The old cliche is that there's a really great single LP's worth of songs hiding among a triple LP's worth of jetsam. You can see my picks for a single LP above, but it's hard to argue that the remixes, covers, dub versions, & assorted weirdo interludes don't add to the aforementioned mystique. It's easy to armchair quarterback an album like this, but in reality I wouldn't have it any other way.

Thursday, June 2, 2022

The Optical Files #77: Bob Dylan - Desire (1976)


Dylan always had a thing for story songs--he would sprinkle a few in each of his albums, but he never focused on them until the followup to his mid-career masterpiece Blood on the Tracks. For Desire, Dylan brought out an entire album of story songs. Even the few songs that aren't strictly narrative (the 3-track run of "Mozambique," "One More Cup of Coffee" & "Oh, Sister") still have a strong sense of place & atmosphere, rounding out the settings for the other songs, adding to the overall impression of a rakish, picaresque travelogue. Probably because of the collaboration with Jacques Levy, who specialized in the theater, this is certainly the most dramatic album Dylan ever put together.

The opener "Hurricane" is an example of a genre familiar to Bob Dylan: the plainspoken, "singing journalist" ripped-from-the-headlines protest song. (Well, plainspoken aside from the '70s jive talk he throws in, including an ill-advised use of the n-word.) From "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" to "Who Killed Davey Moore?" Dylan used to be the best in the world at this type of thing (apart from maybe Phil Ochs). The thing is, he hadn't written such a song in a long time, & in fact it was pretty much the only one of the entire 1970s. Even more amazing, the song was a hit, reaching #33 on the Billboard Hot 100. If Ruben Carter's story affected Dylan enough to make him reach back into his topical ballad bag & do something he hadn't done in a decade, the results were gratifying: the song's success led to Carter getting a new trial & ultimately exonerated. Don't let anybody tell you art can't help save the world.

But even on "Hurricane," the violin hits you before the lyrics do. Violinist Scarlet Rivera is the most noticeable of the 2 major backup players on this record; her haunting playing appears on every track & is a big part of the album's distinctive sound. The other MVP is Emmylou Harris, whose backing vocals are mixed almost equal to Dylan's on songs like "Mozambique" & "Oh, Sister," as well as the choruses of "One More Cup of Coffee," "Black Diamond Bay," & more.

In some ways, "Hurricane" feels like a real-world prologue before we dive into Desire's fantasy worlds. If that's the case, "Isis" is the true opener, a piano-led blues shuffle that tells the western-tinged adventure story of an unsuccessful grave robbing that leads a new groom to recommit to his marriage. The comparatively short & simplistic "Mozambique" follows, & here we start to see a slightly troubling tendency of this album to romanticize "exotic" locales like southern Africa, Mexico ("Romance in Durango") & possibly the Caribbean ("Black Diamond Bay"). I recognize that these themes are important for the louche, globetrotting mood of the album, & it doesn't get really harmful, but it still doesn't sit entirely right with me.

Speaking of Dylan's cringe tendencies, closer "Sara" is a mixed bag. On one hand, it's the most intimate glimpse into his private life that Dylan ever offered his audience. On the other hand, Dylan's always had a problem with being condescending toward women who fall short of his idealized standards, & calling his ex things like "sweet virgin angel" & "mystical wife" does not help in that regard. Gratefully, those sentiments are confined to the choruses, while the verses are just well-chosen images & narrative details that the listener is invited to make sense of.

"Black Diamond Bay" is one of the weaker tracks here--I think "Lily, Rosemary & the Jack of Hearts" from Blood on the Tracks does everything that tune tries to do just a little better. I'm also not a fan of the overlong, mobster-lionizing "Joey." But all in all, Dylan never made another album that sounds anything like this. Between the mysteriousness of "Isis" & "One More Cup of Coffee" & the radio-friendly justice fire of "Hurricane," there is a certain ineffable magic here.

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

The Optical Files #76: Scarface - The Diary (1994)


After the sprawling, heavily-weeded excess of The World Is Yours, Scarface wisely dialed it back, & in doing so ended up pendulum swinging for his followup. The Diary is almost stupidly singleminded: half an hour shorter than its predecessor, with no skits, only 3 interludes adding up to 3.5 minutes total, & only a single feature song. We don't even get J. Prince's usual spoken intro. What we do get as a result of this streamlined attitude is the most consistently hard-hitting production Face ever boasted, & the most effortless listen of his entire catalog to date.

Though I like to think of this album as the beginning of modern Scarface, his subject matter on this album is as simplified as the other elements. After the mood-setting instrumental intro, we get 4 songs in a row that consist mainly of pugnacious murder threats. The 5th song, "I Seen a Man Die," is also about murder but from another angle: the psychic toll that all this killing takes on the people who commit & are affected by it. With a relaxed yet chilling delivery, Face examines cycles of violence & the cold realities of death over a church organ-led instrumental punctuated by sinister reverbed vibraslap, like the everpresent danger of a rattlesnake lurking just off the narrow path. 

The brilliant "I Seen a Man Die" turns out to be the fulcrum of the album, because in the back half the subject matter diversifies & we get Face's reliable sex rhymes ("One," "Goin' Down"), a sociological takedown of moral guardians who try to blame the world's problems on gangsta rap ("Hand of the Dead Body"), a wild-out freestyle ("The Diary"), &...well, everything that's on Face's mind ("Mind Playin' Tricks '94"). Our guides through all of this are the production team of N.O. Joe, Mike Dean, & Scarface himself, some combination of which produce every song on the album. Their constant presence gives the album sonic consistency: you know you're getting Dean's trademark thick bass (often played in a slap style & sometimes heavily wah-wah'ed as in "Goin' Down"), layered guitars & dry, funky drums. Every track is impeccable musically, but if I had to pick highlights they'd be the shivery strings of "Hand of the Dead Body," which accentuate the rock-solid flows of Scarface & Ice Cube; the audacious "99 Luftballoons" sample in "Goin' Down"; & "Mind Playin' Tricks '94" whose iconic original beat is updated without being disrespected--this is how you do a remake!

This isn't a perfect album by any means. When you're going for short & sweet, every track has to hit as hard as possible, & I'm not quite sure what purpose songs like "Jesse James" serve aside from being funky, elastic grooves. But the album is short, sharp, shocking, & it leaves you wanting more. Add that to some of the best conceptual songs Face ever graced us with ("I Seen a Man Die," "Hand of the Dead Body"), & even if it's not as lyrically profound on the whole as some of his other albums, this is Face firing on all cylinders & creating an absolute classic.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

The Optical Files #75: Beck - Odelay (1996)


Like a lot of people, my real introduction to Beck was this album. I had heard "Loser," of course, but I'd never delved into Mellow Gold or any of the (less accessible) albums before it. When I discovered Odelay (his first major label release), it made some kind of weird sense that threaded the needle of my '90s kid slacker appetites, my love of rap, & my retro Bob Dylan obsession. Beck owes a lot to Dylan both lyrically & musically: "Ramshackle" could be a lost Dylan tune, & there is a direct hat tip with the sample of Them's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" cover that appears on "Jack-Ass." That was actually my first favorite song on this album, with its heavily processed xylophone & languid pace giving me instant nostalgia.

There are pitfalls to writing lyrics like '60s Dylan, though: it's really easy to generate complete gibberish that way. Beck seems more into Dada-esque absurdity than Dylan's careful poetics--you can't convince me that "Heads are hanging from the garbageman trees/Mouthwash, jukebox, gasoline" has a deep meaning to it, but it sure sounds cool--though there is a respectable amount of thought put into the lyrics beyond just a thrillride of language.

The cut-&-paste ethos of the lyrics is echoed in the collage artwork: cowboys, eastern mysticism, wildlife, cartoons, ads, forgotten movie stills, all the detritus of a disposable pop culture landscape wheatpasted together in a booklet that dares you to make sense of it. Of course, this aesthetic continues in the musical approach Beck & the Dust Brothers (well-known Beastie Boys producers) employ. Much has been made of the genre-hopping: psychedelia, Americana, rap, lounge music, grunge & about 8 or 10 other genres are mixed throughout the album like smoking mad scientist beakers. But what interests me more than the genre-bending is Beck's rock-solid songwriting, ear for melody, & musicianship (he plays no fewer than 16 instruments over the album's course). From the folky chord progression of "Lord Only Knows" (again, heavily Dylanesque) that ascends into a deceptive cadence, to the balance of unusual percussion on the Revolver-esque "New Pollution" to the Sonic Youth noise rock of "Minus," Beck's always got another songwriting trick up his sleeve, & there's an offhanded joyfulness in the virtuosity he displays.

"Where It's At" might be the best-known song on this album, & I admire the way it pays tribute to hiphop without coming off as either appropriation or parody. Beck mixes '60s hepcat jive talk with his mixed-media poetics & loose, imperfect but authentically felt guitar solos (both acoustic & electric), all over a beat anchored by a funky organ & smooth horns. Beck is probably the best rap artist who has never claimed to be a rap artist.

Truth be told, while I respect the hell out of him, I've never been the biggest Beck fan. I love his restless creativity, his intelligence & restraint (mixed with the right about of idiocy & bombast), his seemingly genuine lack of fucks to give about his music's commercial appeal or lack thereof. I've heard most of his albums, & there are songs I love from all of them. For some reason, Odelay is the only one that ever truly clicked as an album. Then again, I'm only 36, so I haven't entered my crusty old music nerd Beck phase quite yet. Ask me again in 5 years & I'll probably tell you Stereopathetic Soul Manure is the pinnacle of human achievement.

Friday, May 27, 2022

The Optical Files #74: Blackalicious - Blazing Arrow (2002)


Blackalicious's followup to Nia was a refinement of that album's formula, doubling down on what worked, scaling back what didn't, & trying some new things along the way. As the group's stock was rising in the alternative hiphop world, they were able to reach out to guests like Questlove (when did he stop spelling his name with a ?), Gil Scott-Heron & even Zack de la Rocha. There's more of (almost) everything here: more live instruments (half the album is driven by live playing rather than sample chops), more ambitious, evolving compositions like "Nowhere Fast" (co-produced by Questlove), & even more extravagant rhyme schemes & relentless multisyllable sorcery from Gift of Gab. What there's less of: no real storytelling joints (though "Nowhere Fast" comes close), & less emphasis on ego trip tracks. Other than the 1-2 punch of "Paragraph President" into "It's Going Down," the braggadocious songs are hard to come by, as Gift seems more interested in being artsy than eating emcees for breakfast.

Consequently, this album owes a greater debt to poetry than their last record. Saul Williams makes a fiery guest appearance on the 10-minute epic "Release Part 1, 2 & 3," & there are spoken word, or spoken word-inspired, interludes peppered throughout the album. The lyrical topics are typically varied. Gift offers up another piece, like "Sleep" from Nia, in warm appreciation of the magic in everyday living: the nostalgic-sounding "Make You Feel That Way." "Purest Love" has a confessional autobiographical 1st verse, buoyed by lovely, delicate jazz flute by Karl Denson.

Speaking of which, "Purest Love," along with gospel-inflected opener "Bow & Fire," "First in Flight," "4000 Miles," the anti-war Ben Harper collaboration "Brain Washers," & "Aural Pleasure" are full of live instrumentation & as smooth & soulful as anything on Nia. But fear not: composer Chief Xcel still flexes his DJ muscles, both on the turntables & on the sampler. My favorite of the boom-bappier beats here is the swaggering funk of "It's Going Down," complete with skank guitars & wordless vocal chops. On the subject of chops, guest DJ Cut Chemist shows up for "Chemical Calisthenics," the followup to "Alphabet Aerobics" which one-ups the previous song's accelerando with start-stop tempo & meter changes.

Even though this album is technically better than Nia, I spent more time with that one & so it has more nostalgia value for me. While there's at least 1 misfire on Nia ("Cliff Hanger,") I can't find anything truly wrong with Blazing Arrow, but it's missing a tiny bit of the magic the previous album had. This one is great but, warts & all, I'll take the debut.