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

Thursday, December 1, 2022

The Optical Files: An Autopsy

That's a wrap, friends. 166 entries covering 170 albums (4 of the entries cover multiple records) in 330 days, with a total of 117,238 words (including this postscript)--enough for a 350-page book. 

What did I learn? Honestly, my biggest takeaway was proving to myself that I could actually follow through on something like this. I've never undertaken a writing project with such frequent & regular deadlines before. I basically devoted an entire year to this, publishing a writeup every other day, without fail. I never missed a day or took 1 off, even when I got married! There is 1, & only 1, album I did not have time to listen to & so I wrote about it from memory. Luckily I had given that album a full, mindful listen within the last 2 years. No, I'm not going to tell you what album it was. See if you can guess!

The original idea was to listen to the CDs with as few distractions as possible. The idea was that I wanted to cultivate the kind of attention span I had when I first listened to them. I pretty quickly recognized that a lot of that was nostalgia goggles; I really didn't spend that much time back in the day listening with my eyes closed in unbroken attention. Same as today, I listened to a lot of music while driving, playing video games, etc. So over the course of this project, I became a bit looser with that rule. While I still forbade myself from reading anything except the album's liner notes (not looking at my phone was a constant challenge) I found myself gravitating toward simple video games undemanding on the intellect. I have always found that that sort of thing actually helps me to listen more deeply.

This project served as a reminder of how very few female artists I listened to in my youth. Of the 166 CDs I wrote about in this series, only 5 are by solo female performers (MC Lyte, Gwen Stefani (x2), Queen Latifah, & Erykah Badu). This is a pretty rotten ratio & if an adolescent today told me that his music was 97% by men, I would tell him that he had a pretty major blind spot & he should diversify his listening. I have certainly done so since then, but that will never change the fact that the music that was foundational for me, & the artists (& writers, & filmmakers) whom I developed those important early parasocial relationships with, were overwhelmingly male. Research has shown that a media diet with diverse voices--even fictional characters--can have the same effect on empathy & tolerance as a diverse group of friends. Please remember this with respect to the children in your life.

Now for the stats:

Most frequent artist: Bob Dylan (17) & KRS-One (13)
Oldest album: John Fahey - The Legend of Blind Joe Death (partly from 1959)
Newest album: Ice Cube - Raw Footage (August 2008)
Longest entry: Kris Kristofferson - The Essential Kris Kristofferson (1343 words)
Shortest entry: Heavy D. & the Boyz - Big Tyme (366 words)

Now for the Optical Files Awards!

Best CD overall: Stevie Wonder - Songs in the Key of Life
Most welcome rediscovery: Erykah Badu - Mama's Gun
CD I'll probably never play again: Definitive Jux Presents: The Juk(i)ebox
Best packaging: Radiohead - Kid A
Best live album: Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Live at the Fillmore East
Best compilation: Buzzcocks - Singles Going Steady
Most unnecessary compilation: Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits
Why the fuck did I spend money on this: Haystak - Crackavelli

Thanks for coming with me on this journey & I'll see you the next time I decide to do something dumb like this.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

The Optical Files #166: Scarface - Mr. Scarface is Back (1991)

The same year Geto Boys dropped We Can't Be Stopped, which for better or for worse is their signature album, Scarface decided to ride that momentum to a solo career. With Face carrying the entire album with zero features (not to be confused with Z-Ro features), & taking an active role in the production side as well, Mr. Scarface is Back feels like a 1-man effort, setting the stage for the insular journeys into the psyche that his solo albums would increasingly become. This aggressively solo-dolo approach suggests that, despite the way he is credited on the album cover, Face Mob wanted to create something distinctive outside of the group atmosphere. There is a greater emphasis on storytelling here--almost every song has at least an element of narrative--but still, it shouldn't have surprised anyone that the songwriting approach is pretty reminiscent of the Geto Boys. 

I've written before about how Scarface's solo career tended to ping-pong between sprawling, multifaceted albums & minimalist to-the-point projects. At 45 minutes, & with no features, Mr. Scarface is Back is the latter. Still, he manages to cover a fair amount of ground in terms of both style & subject matter. You can hear a lot of his career's common topics being developed here. More generally, this is the album where Face realized he didn't need to yell 100% of the time to be a compelling deliverer of gangsta shit. His reliable, albeit absurd, sex boasts show up on "The Pimp," where he uses a laid-back flow that shows up again on the mortality musing "A Minute to Pray and a Second to Die." "Diary of a Madman" sets the stage for the psychological headtrips he specialized in later like "The Wall," & he even speaks glowingly about adopting the son of his dead opp (!) on "Good Girl Gone Bad."

The best song here, & in my opinion one of Face's best ever, is another conceptual track: the short album closer "I'm Dead." He narrates from the perspective of an innocent drive-by bystander who gradually realizes over the course of the day that he's dead. Driven by an infectious funky organ loop, Face's narrator speaks plainly about the situation, unfolding details that shore up the banality of everyday tragedy. The casual delivery makes the story more chilling than all the graphic sound & fury of a song like "Born Killer."

The CD packaging is cheap, in classic Rap-A-Lot style, with a blank insert & no liner notes to speak of. There are no production credits for the individual songs, but the internet tells me that Crazy C, Bido & Doug King worked on the beats in addition to Scarface himself. Sometimes the album feels like a breakbeat library, with classic much-sampled loops like "Impeach the President," "Funky Drummer," "I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby," "Synthetic Substitution" & "The Payback" all making appearances. The crate-digging doesn't go particularly deep, but that doesn't matter. Even if you've heard these loops a thousand times (& you have), Scarface sounds so damn confident & convincing over them that you can't help but be swept along. I mean, we don't really listen to gangsta rap for wholly original ideas anyway, right? It's all about presentation, which Scarface pulls off with aplomb. The fact that he manages some unique perspectives along the way in songs like "I'm Dead" & "A Minute to Pray..." just proves, if any proof were needed, that he's one of the all-time greats.

& that's it! My final Optical Files CD writeup. This has been fun, exhaustive, & a little exhausting. Stay tuned in the next few days for one last post to wrap everything up. Thanks for sticking with me!

Friday, November 25, 2022

The Optical Files #165: 2Pac - Loyal to the Game (2004)

I don't know what exactly went on behind the scenes that resulted in Eminem getting the job of producing the 6th posthumous 2Pac album. The liner notes contain statements by both Afeni Shakur & Em himself about how it's all done for the love, for the sake of Pac's spirit, without desire for remuneration, & otherwise for the best possible reasons. I have no doubt that this is partially true, but I also have no doubt that Eminem being the best-selling rap artist at the time, & everything associated with his name turning to commercial gold, also had something to do with it. There's nothing wrong with these circumstances in theory; the problem is that Eminem's production style is ill-suited to Tupac's acapellas. Listen Marshall, I don't care how much Pac influenced you, or how much you wish you had been able to meet & collaborate with him while he was alive, the fact is that your styles just don't work together. The result is little more than a failed experiment & the least essential entry in an already-marginal posthumous catalogue.

I have major reservations about the ethics of posthumous albums in general, but if you absolutely must release one, there are 3 approaches you can take: (1) take the archival approach & release the original recordings, hewing as close as possible to what might have been the deceased artist's original intention; (2) hire producers whose styles match the artist's, preferably producers they collaborated with while alive (like DJ Quik whose title song remix is the highlight here, despite being a bonus track); or (3) make some beats & do whatever it takes to squeeze the vocals around them, integrity be damned. That's how we get the sped-up vocals on tracks like the Elton John-sampling "Ghetto Gospel" & especially "Crooked N***a Too," where Pac sounds almost unrecognizable. It's not quite chipmunk levels, but it doesn't sound like Tupac either. It's this sort of thing that makes it obvious that the whole thing was a vanity project for Eminem, albeit one that he was able to convince Afeni he was doing for altruistic reasons. Why else would he put his own nasal warble on the hook to the opening track "Soldier Like Me"? Eminem is a lot of things, but he's not a singer. There's also the necromantic puppetry of chopping up vocal samples to make Pac appear to say things like "G-Unit in this muthafucka" & "drop that shit, Em!" Save that shit for the mixtape--sticking your hand up a dead man's ass & making him say your name on something branded as an official 2Pac release is distasteful & pathetic.

It doesn't matter what you think about Eminem as a beatmaker (I happen to think he catches lightning in a bottle every once in a while, like "Patiently Waiting" or Nas's "The Cross"), but it's difficult to argue with the fact that his style & Pac's are almost diametrically opposed. Eminem's sparse, skeletal beats with oddly syncopated accents complement a rapper with a rhythmically precise, busy flow like his own. 2Pac, on the other hand, leaves a lot of space in his bars, relying on interplay with a thickly-textured, funky instrumental. The 2 approaches only really come together on the title track, of which the best thing you can say it that it is unoffensive, at least until Lloyd Banks steps in & saves the whole song. Luckily, the album ends on its highest note, the DJ Quik remix of "Loyal to the Game," which uses a much slower tempo & Quik's trademark percussion & clean sine-wave synths. Quik himself also spits a contender for best verse on the whole album. Hey--any chance we can get a full 2Pac remix album by Quik?

As I said above, the only way this album makes sense is as a vanity project for Eminem. These songs remained unreleased this long for a reason. Pac isn't saying anything particularly novel or exciting here, but if they had just released the original mixes, it would at least have some integrity as a 2Pac project. Instead, we get a literal Frankenstein's monster of an album: dead parts chopped up, recombined & reanimated into something misshapen, lurching around at the behest of an egomaniacal mad scientist.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

The Optical Files #164: The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Are You Experienced (1967)

It's evident from a listen to Are You Experienced (which for some reason lacks a question mark in its title) that many of the important elements were present in Jimi's sound from the very beginning. Whether because of uncertainty about their chops, or producer Chas Chandler's pop-oriented caution, the Experience wasn't yet recording 15-minute epics like they would on Electric Ladyland, but everything else about their artistry seemed to arrive fully-formed on this debut. The multi-tracked guitars, the drugged-out virtuosity, & the splendid (if a bit gimmicky) use of the stereo space. Unfortunately my CD, like every CD version of this album available from the '90s onward, adds a bunch of ill-fitting bonus tracks that make it a sub-optimal listening "experience," compared to the clean brevity of the original LP.

In my writeup on the Ultimate Experience compilation, I wrote that I was fascinated as a kid by the way Jimi's vocals & guitar sounded like wholly different entities. It's obvious here that from the very beginning, studio Experience & live Experience were 2 different beasts. True, Jimi could play rhythm & lead parts at the same time, but in the studio there was no need to. There are at least 3 layers of guitars on songs like "Love or Confusion," each sounding distinct from the next with its own dialed-in tone; Hendrix's future engineer of choice Eddie Kramer made full use of the studio tools at his disposal. On "The Wind Cries Mary" & "Are You Experienced?" (which restores the album title's missing question mark), Jimi actually solos against himself, weaving the patterns together like a luxurious Persian rug. It would have been fascinating to witness these sessions. My understanding is that Jimi typically recorded basic guitar tracks 1st, then added vocals, then went back for guitar overdubs as many times as necessary until he got what he wanted. The result is a vocal approach that separates itself wholly from the hands that are playing the leads--& a lead with its own autonomous identity, a force of nature choosing the medium of electric guitar to communicate with us primitive humans.

As I mentioned earlier, the longest song here is the 6.5 minutes of "Third Stone from the Sun," which starts with a jazz swing before settling into a hard rock groove & subsequently spinning off into a sound-effect-heavy psychedelic freakout, with Jimi's often spoken-word lyrics threading the needle between UFO & DTF: "Your mysterious mountains I wish to see closer/May I land my kinky machine?" The album-closing (or what should be the closer, anyway) title track is also expansive, to the degree that it can be in under 4 minutes, with a trippy coda where the music fades out & back in, which feels like a rehearsal for the same trick done with more impact on Axis: Bold as Love.

It's a gorgeous ending, the last few seconds of guitar like a blood rush to the head after a particularly potent bong rip, making you wonder momentarily if there's another wave coming. What should follow this is the rich silence of empty vinyl, maybe with a slight repetitive click as the needle jumps in the runout groove. Instead, what follows after a few seconds is the driving funk of "Stone Free." I have nothing against "Stone Free," but it does not belong here. I've written before about the '90s obsession with justifying the CD format by filling as much of it as possible, whether or not it made sense for the album contained thereon, but in this particularly egregious case it threatens to ruin the entire listen. It doesn't help that at least 2 of the added tracks, "51st Anniversary" & the dull-as-dishwater "Highway Chile," are the closest Jimi ever came to putting out duds.

Of the 3 Jimi Hendrix Experience album, Are You Experienced is the one I've spent the least time with. I used to think it was the album itself, but now I'm not so sure. I think it might be because the mood-spoiling bonus tracks always turned me off. Had my first exposure to the album been the vinyl version, or a CD version duplicating it, I wonder if I would have been as wowed as everybody else was back in 1967? The CD as it's existed since the 1990s doesn't allow me that chance, & I can't help but feel a bit robbed.

Monday, November 21, 2022

The Optical Files #163: Nas - Untitled (2008)

Since I tend to think of Untitled as one of the newer Nas albums, it surprised me when I realized that it is now as old as Illmatic was when it dropped. I remember buying it on release day along with David Banner's The Greatest Story Ever Told. It took a few spins for the Banner album to lose its luster, but I felt like the Nas got more interesting with each listen. To this day, it think it's his most underrated album & a masterpiece of conscious rap.

Nas was always bracketed together with the political rappers because of his intellect & his pro-Black lens, even though his perspective was always that of street poet more than political activist. On Untitled you can hear the development of his political education, as he discusses the legacy of colonialism on "America," the tactics of the right-wing media (complete with insistent imagery around eyes & the act of seeing) on "Sly Fox," mixed feelings about Black capitalism on "We're Not Alone," & ambivalence about having suburban white fans who aren't really down for the cause on "Testify." It might have something to do with Nas hanging out with stic.man from dead prez, who is credited with co-writing 3 songs on the album, including 2 of the ones I just mentioned, & if the rumors are to be believed, had a hand in writing more as well. The ghostwriting rumors also implicate Jay Electronica, & I have to be honest, when you hear Nas rapping about UFOs & Freemasons, it's easy to believe that Jay Elec had something to do with it. At the very least, he's credited with producing the album opener "Queens Get the Money," a drumless piano loop with an abrupt change that sounds very Act I & sets the tone for Nas's most serious, politically-minded album to date. Even the album's 1 song about women, "Fried Chicken," is less sexual and more about comparing the Black woman's resilience to soul food: "Created by southern black women to serve massa' guest." Like the rest of the album, it's a complex song that reveals more with each listen.

Of course, releasing the record untitled was not Nasir's first choice. When he wanted to call it N-word-with-the-hard-R, Def Jam publicly supported him but behind the scenes there was a lot of pressure to change the title. He speaks directly to this controversy on the single "Hero" ("no matter what the CD called, I'm unbeatable y'all"), but the 2 tracks that have that word in their titles are more directly related to the theme. Both "N.I.*.*.E.R. (The Slave and the Master)" & "Y'all My Ni**as," in different ways, problematize the word & all it represents, although the conclusion might seem as glib as it is elegant: "if it offends you, it's meant to. It's that simple."

Album closer "Black President" became something of an anthem for me around the time of Obama's election. Nas saw everything coming: that Obama's charisma would sweep him into office, the huge racist backlash he would incur, the lip service he would pay to progressive Black causes without actually doing much: "will he keep it way real, every innocent ni**a in jail gets out on appeal/When he wins, will he really care still?" It certainly didn't take a Nastradamus to predict how everything would go down, but when I look back on myself as a 22 year-old caught up in the excitement of a historic dog & pony show, Nasir Jones was the lone voice of reason warning me to temper my expectations.

Nas always had the decency to keep his albums relatively short. With the exception of the double-disc Street's Disciple, since the dawn of the 21st century they've all been under an hour, with a few in the sub-40 minute range. It's a good thing, too, since his albums are so lyrically dense that anything longer than an hour would be exhausting. Even in a dense catalog, Untitled is particularly unforgiving, throwing concept after complex conceit in your direction without giving you much time to catch up. All those multiple listens I gave it back then were justified, & revisiting it was a pleasure. As his last 3 albums have proven, Nas might have a slump here or there but you never know when he'll come back swinging. Untitled is top-tier. 

Saturday, November 19, 2022

The Optical Files #162: Bob Dylan - Live 1966 (1998)

This album, the official title of which (The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert) is a mouthful, first came to my attention when my high school band director described a legendary Dylan bootleg where he responds to being heckled for "going electric" by telling his band to "play fucking loud" before tearing into "Like a Rolling Stone." It's one of the most famous & widely circulated bootlegs, certainly in Dylan-dom, maybe in all of popular music, & in the spirit of bootlegging, I obtained a few tracks through file sharing. Many years later, toward the end of my Bob Dylan CD-buying days but when I was still feeling like a completist, I purchased the official release of the concert. Setting aside this set's legendary status, as a listening experience it's just okay. By bootleg standards, the quality is fair to good, but by live album standards it's pretty poor. Lots of plosives pop in the mic, the acoustic guitar is thin, the band mix is heavy on the treble, & the lower end sounds muffled. Moreover, Dylan sounds uncomfortable delivering some of the songs, putting emphasis on odd syllables (like "you" in the chorus of "Mr. Tambourine Man") & just generally sounding strained a lot of the time--not to mention how he fills the overlong performances on Disc 1 with meandering harmonica solos that go nowhere.

By all accounts this is a pretty standard Dylan show for this period: an acoustic set followed by an electric set, with 4 songs from the soon-to-be-released Blonde on Blonde album in the mix. As usual, we get some different arrangements from the recorded versions, but aside from a splendid full-band rendering of "I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)," nothing is too inspired. An acoustic version of "Visions of Johanna" strips the song down to a vulnerable vocal, but I think that tune needs the rest of the band to give it its teeth. After you hear the uptempo "Ballad of a Thin Man" on Before the Flood, any version played slower--like this one & even the original studio version--just sounds like the thin man is trying to ford a river of molasses. "One Too Many Mornings," one of his most subtly heartrending songs, is given a full-band treatment here that does no justice to the hushed pre-dawn spareness of the original. The 1 song you can't get anywhere else, disc 2 opener "Tell Me, Momma," is lackluster. Apparently Dylan played it in every show on this tour, then never played it live again & never recorded a studio version. I think I have a pretty good idea as to why.

The mythic status of this bootleg plays up the narrative that Dylan got booed everywhere he went for plugging in his guitar, but the recording itself doesn't really bear that out. To my ears, both sets sound very warmly appreciated by the audience. You can hear a little grumbling here & there leading up to the famous "Judas" moment, but the roar of applause is much louder. Not to mention, "Maggie's Farm" was a year & 2 albums ago--I know information moved slower back then, but you would think these Brits would have had enough time to be shocked by the evolution of Dylan's style. 

Aside from "I Don't Believe You," I can think of a better live version of every song here. There is a certain raw exuberance that comes through, but nothing, again, that you can't find elsewhere. But if nothing else, Live 1966 is proof that vital historical documents don't always translate into pleasant listens.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

The Optical Files #161: Radiohead - Amnesiac (2001)

Radiohead used to be a constant in my music listening, but aside from this series, I barely play them anymore. Perhaps I burned myself out on the first 6 records as a teenager & young adult--I remember feeling jaded on the band as early as 2006. Part of it was certainly not wanting to be perceived as one of those Radiohead fans. Part of it was In Rainbows not working for me & I just sort of fell off the train. I don't think I'm going to fire back up my fandom as major as it was in the early 2000s, but revisiting these albums for this series has been fun because they 100% hold up. Turns out, I had pretty good taste back then.

Amnesiac was the newest Radiohead album at the time I got into them, so it was the 1st one I discovered (along with The Bends). My mother bought me the deluxe edition as a Christmas gift. It came in a hardback book like the one pictured on the cover, with extra art, but I got sick (from eating too many sweets perhaps?) at the Christmas party that year & threw up on the book. It never cleaned up right so I ended up tossing it, although Radiohead would probably have approved of the vomit-stained version.

I never understood the criticism that this album feels like like Kid A part 2. I suppose I kind of get that for a band who had until that point changed so drastically with each record, this seemed like a relatively minor evolution that was tantamount to standing still. It is true that the 2 albums were recorded during the same sessions, but that doesn't make Amnesiac a collection of Kid A outtakes. The albums have distinct tones: Kid A is a dinner party on a lonely glacier that turns unruly when the guests have too much to drink; Amnesiac is the bleary eyed cleanup the morning after. 

As for the "they sound alike" argument: yes, the overall approach is similar, with its murky sonic stew full of bleeping & blurping samples. But where is Kid A's version of "Pyramid Song," the huge piano ballad with the sweeping string arrangement? Show me anything on Kid A as avant-garde as "Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors," with its degraded tape-loop drum machine & robotic treated spoken-word vocals. Where is Kid A's New Orleans jazz funeral dirge like "Life in a Glasshouse"? That last song was the 1st one that really drew me in, back before I had the CD. Its mixture of elements was unlike anything I had heard, & it's even better in album context as an epic closer. I still think it's my favorite song on the record.

My major dig on this album back then was that "Dollars and Cents" sounds too similar to "Knives Out." Today, I half-agree with my younger self. Both songs have a similar bossa nova shuffle, but where the latter is driven by its shifting lead guitar figure, the former is bass-centric. Hearing the live version on I Might Be Wrong helped me realize this distinction. Aside from that, every song on this relatively short album sounds unique & adventurous. Even on an album that could be seen as an afterthought, the band is pushing their sound into new territory. These songs are the farthest thing from castoffs.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

The Optical Files #160: KRS-One - I Got Next (1997)

KRS-One was on fire in the mid-'90s, following up the twin triumphs of Return of the Boom Bap & his self-titled album with his most successful record ever: the gold-selling, top 10-charting I Got Next, which was buoyed by the single "Step Into a World (Rapture's Delight)." But this album is not of a piece with its 2 predecessors, largely because it's missing DJ Premier, who brought them a fresh, irrepressible sound. Instead, KRS himself handles the bulk of the production (over half the proper songs), & it's his reliable brand of bassy, hard-hitting chops. Domingo shows up with his usual cinematic strings on "The MC," & Showbiz has more orchestrals for us on "A Friend." There's nothing wrong with the beats here, but it can't help but feel a little empty after Preemo's contributions to the last 2 records.

"I Got Next - Neva Hadda Gun" is about how you should stay armed to protect yourself from jackers. A few songs later in "Step Into a World," he cautions: "Steady packin' a gat as if something's gonna happen/But it doesn't, they wind up shootin' they cousin." From encouraging his listeners to "visualize wealth & put yourselves in the picture" to acting skeptical of money, from "Sound of Da Police" to discussing "A Friend" with whom he could be "cruising in the trooper car," the album is full of little contradictions like that, & I can't help but feel like it lacks focus. This brings me to my next, & last, point about KRS-One--one of my biggest influences as an artist & a listener, & a tricky conversation to have.

A Facebook friend commented on one of my previous KRS writeups & asked why I had not referenced his defense of Afrika Bambaataa. I told him that I have a lot of KRS to cover in this series (11 albums!), & I was saving it for the last one. Well, it's the last one! & it just so happens that my thoughts on that dovetail with my thoughts on this album. So here we go: KRS-One's name has been mud in certain progressive hiphop circles since 2016, when he appeared on Drink Champs & said, in reference to Afrika Bambaataa's child molestation allegations, "I don't give a fuck." He later backpedaled a little & said that he didn't mean that he didn't care if Bambaataa molested kids, but that he didn't care about unsubstantiated rumors. Setting aside everything that's wrong with that statement (the idea that all hearsay is created equal, for one thing, as well as the multiple corroborators & witnesses that make it disingenuous to call these reports unsubstantiated), I'm willing to grant, at least for the sake of argument, the most charitable interpretation of those words. What bothered me even more than the extemporaneous podcast soundbyte was what he said in another interview 2 months later: "This is what hiphop has to understand. Some of us are infallible. Some of us are going to have to be untouchable or our entire culture is going to fall."

Excuse me? Kris wants us to treat Bambaataa as infallible? This is completely at odds with his recorded stances on religion. He spent many years of his career preaching about what a mistake it is to blindly follow any faith--that is, until he became Christian. In 10 years he went from "If your slave master wasn't a Christian, you wouldn't be a Christian" to making a whole ass gospel rap album. But neither of these supports the idea of treating a human being--any human being--as infallible. Not to mention, as a student of history, Kris has to know what happens when movements stop holding their leaders accountable.

But this is nothing new for him. It's the same strategy that lets him be pro-gun one minute, anti-gun the next, & ambivalent about guns a few minutes later. The same strategy that lets him argue in favor of reparations in his book, & then write another chapter arguing against them. That's why he is so drawn to the study of metaphysics, because it deals with questions that will never have answers. But the reality is that there are lots of people for whom the truth value of "Bambaataa molested kids" is not a theoretical idea to be played with. As much as he says "show me the evidence & I will definitely have justice done," he doesn't want to know for sure. The existence of uncertainty is what allows him to treat it as an intellectual exercise rather than reckoning with the pain & trauma caused by the person he's defending. When your thought experiments disregard real people's suffering, I don't care who you think is infallible.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

The Optical Files #159: Bob Dylan - Blonde on Blonde (1966)

Blonde on Blonde is the final album of Bob Dylan's mid-'60s run, after he "went electric" with the twin powerhouses of Bringing it All Back Home & Highway 61 Revisited, & before he stripped his sound to rootsy simplicity with John Wesley Harding. Although only a year had passed since Highway 61, this Dylan seems noticeably more mature, less exuberant & more world-weary, more in control of his craft. But even as there is more confidence in the songwriting, there is less confidence in Dylan's own point of view. The out-of-focus cover photo shows an artist trying to swim through the indulgences of rock stardom (I believe the album title is meant to be taken literally), the pressures of being declared a prophet by the public, the mounting need to top his own era-defining output, & just plain being 25 years old for fuck's sake. The result is an expansive (at 72 minutes, the 1st double LP in popular music history) album that amplifies both the best & worst habits of Dylan's artistry.

If you were anywhere near me in 2016 when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for his "contributions to American song," you know that I think conflating songwriting & poetry does a disservice to both art forms. That said, the best claim Dylan has to being a poet can be found in Blonde on Blonde's side 1 highlight "Visions of Johanna." What begins as a nocturnal portrait of disaffected young people in a hushed loft apartment becomes a comparison between 2 lovers, & eventually, between 2 states of mind: the idealized & the real. Over a reluctantly active bassline & bluesy lead guitar vamps that delicately stay out of the lyrics' way, Dylan describes Louise--who represents the thing that reminds you just enough of what you want but cannot have--with the heartstopping line "the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face." "Visions of Johanna" is one of Dylan's most gorgeous songs & the 1st time he really achieved that balance between the conceptual & the personal.

But--but--despite being a lyrical triumph, "Visions of Johanna" is still predicated on Dylan's objectifying tendency to use women as symbols. There's nothing wrong with this in theory, but when it permeates a whole record, to the point where it even colors the album title itself, you start to wonder if it interferes with Dylan's ability to treat women as, you know, people. The arrogance that Dylan must have shown in relationships is evident in 2 companion pieces here, "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)" & "Most Likely You Go Your Way & I'll Go Mine." Again, the musical arrangements are exciting, from the snare rolls in the former's extravagant chorus to the latter's staccato horns. But this double-header of underestimating women rehashes several of the same sentiments. Compare the former song's "I couldn't see how you could know me, but you said you knew me & I believed you did" with the latter's "You say you told me that you wanna hold me but you know you're not that strong." Dylan's seeming self-image (too complex to know, too heavy to hold) seeks to turn egotism into a positive trait compared to his lover whom he paints as dishonest & frail, not knowing her own mind.

Which brings me to--sigh--"Just Like a Woman." I have to confess that I used to really love this song as a kid. Maybe it was my 1st favorite Dylan song. I liked it for its shuffling rhythm, for the interplay between the nylon-string lead guitar & Al Kooper's gentle organ, because the harmonica part was one I could play, & because of Dylan's use of rhyme. But it didn't take long into adulthood (I believe I was younger than Bob was when he wrote it) to understand that the lyrics are absolute garbage. They come across as a rebuke of female trickery; when she's getting her way, she acts like a grown woman, but when challenged she turns into a petulant child--he even refers to her as "Baby." She's too immature, the song implies, to handle the pressure of adult relationships. This feels like a whole lot of projection. (Also there's a "my drugs are better than yours" subplot with his friendship with "Queen Mary" & her amphetamines making her "like all the rest.") To the charge that the song isn't about womanhood as a whole but rather about a specific woman: Dylan doesn't operate that way. He can't resist generalizing & universalizing. It's what he does.

Musically, Blonde on Blonde is maybe less adventurous than the previous 2 records, but more polished & confident. Lyrically, Dylan hit a sweet spot where his opaque moments felt less pretentious & his straightforward moments felt less bland. There's no denying that this is a major achievement, & I still spin it quite often--& individual songs even more so. But I don't think there's another album where Dylan's hangups about women are quite so blatant, & once you tune in it becomes impossible to ignore.

Friday, November 11, 2022

The Optical Files #158: John Prine - The Missing Years (1991)

The Missing Years was the first of 3 Prine albums to be labeled with the term "comeback record." Setting aside the fact that it's reductive to talk about a career as deep as Prine's in those terms, it is true that 5 years had passed since German Afternoons which, despite having the live favorite "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness," was a bit lackluster. On the other hand, The Missing Years was a continuation of the furrow Prine had been plowing ever since going independent in 1984: a polished country sound with a Nashville sheen, a preponderance of songs about romantic love, lots of writing collaborations, interspersed with the rootsier solo Prine compositions we all know & love. I'll be honest: this isn't my favorite version of John Prine. But compared to its Oh Boy label predecessors, the songcraft on The Missing Years is a cut above, & there are a few absolute classics that make it essential.

The album's calling cards are the big roots rockers like opener "Picture Show" & "Take a Look At My Heart," assisted by Tom Petty & Bruce Springsteen respectively. We also get a swanky, horn-heavy arrangement of the Beck & Frizzell song "I Want to Be With You Always," the strutting electric blues of "Great Rain," & the lovely "Unlonely" featuring Bonnie Raitt. But despite the overall quality of the plugged-in songs (almost all of which have co-writers), for me the soul of this album is in the sparser acoustic numbers. It's in those tunes, mostly written by Prine alone, that the off-kilter magic of his worldview & wry humor find their fullest expression. "All the Best" is an exhausted love song, balancing a desire to wish an ex-lover well with the unavoidable pain of feeling cast aside. (Conceptually it's the flipside of the good-naturedly bitter "Take a Look At My Heart.") More mixed relationship emotions are found in "Everybody Wants to Feel Like You," where Prine wonders why his lover doesn't make him feel desired & pursued the way he does her.

But the album saves its twin knockouts for the final 2 songs. "Everything Is Cool" starts with a typical Prine fingerpicked guitar figure before changing in to a warped, atonal version of same. The lyrics begin with the narrator trying unsuccessfully to convince the listener & himself that "everything is cool" after being dumped (we've all done this, right?), before it combusts into the kind of visionary intensity that is pure Prine: "I saw a hundred thousand blackbirds flying through the sky/They seemed to form a teardrop from a black-haired angel's eye/The tears fell all around me & washed my sins away/Now everything is cool, everything's okay." 

The sort-of title track "Jesus: The Missing Years" closes the album, & finds Prine again accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. As a spoken-word piece interrupted by sung choruses, it anticipates the following album's masterpiece "Lake Marie." Through his peculiar cracked lens, Prine imagines the life of Jesus between ages 12 & 30 if he lived in the modern world: swimming pool orgies & Italy, psychedelic freakouts with the Beatles & Stones, assorted globetrotting adventures that bring him full-circle only to find his home empty. The song culminates in Jesus questioning his entire purpose with a devastating image: "I'm a human corkscrew & all my wine is blood." The song, like "The Sins of Memphisto" from earlier in the album, asks how we maintain our humanity in the confusing, increasingly alienating modern world. Personally, I love this side of Prine, but the more simple & pure love songs like "Unlonely" are gorgeous too. Prine is that rare songwriter who's able to make cynicism romantic & make pure romanticism cool. While not his most consistent album, The Missing Years gives you plenty of both.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

The Optical Files #157: Wu-Tang Clan - Wu-Tang Forever (1997)

The 2nd half of the '90s was the era of the rap double album. They came in 3 different flavors: sprawling (Biggie's Life After Death), repetitive (2Pac's All Eyez On Me), & bloated (Scarface's My Homies). The 2-disc sophomore effort from the Wu-Tang Clan (probably the era's most anticipated hiphop release) has elements of all 3. I know I sound like a short-attention-span having broken record when I declare that any album over 60 minutes is too long, but usually these albums invite comparisons to their lean & mean predecessors. For what it's worth, I think Enter the Wu-Tang is pretty much a flawless album. So is Liquid Swords. Wu-Tang Forever is longer than both of them combined, so it can't help but sag bit under its own weight.

Looking back, the entire Wu-Tang concept was the kind of unlikely melange that only a bunch of truly eccentric artist brains can produce. After all, what do devout 5% Nation ideology & Shaw Brothers kung fu movies have in common? The answer is that the NGE posits the Black man as "Asiatic" in origin, but it could just as well be because those were 2 things that a bunch of inner-city NY kids growing up in the '70s would have been exposed to. It's the ultimate testament to the Wu's artistic integrity that everything they threw at you, however incongruous, all somehow ended up making sense. Though not as self-consciously cinematic as Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, this album is all about worldbuilding. But aside from the intro where Poppa Wu gives a straightforward primer on the beliefs of the Nation of Gods & Earths, the album does not hold your hand. With their inside jokes, private slang & insular references, the emcees throw so much content at you (especially the noun-heavy styles of Rae & Ghost), daring you to keep up. But rather than being daunted, you are attracted by the allusive style, because the world these guys live in seems so damn interesting.

This immersion is only deepened by RZA's production. Although he has added more instruments than appeared on the debut album (he seems especially enamored by orchestral strings; almost every track has them in one form or another), the production remains skeletal & cold. The album's strokes of genius tend to be the most eccentric parts, like the seemingly random pitch-shifting of the King Floyd sample in "For Heaven's Sake."

All of the emcees are reliably dope here, but special honors have to go to Ghostface, who was on a creative tear & really coming into his own following the success of Ironman, but still using the pocket flow he would begin to burst out of on Supreme Clientele--on this album we get the best of both worlds. (Even though I've never understood why he switches the vibe so abruptly on "The Projects" from the sociopolitical woes of living broke to sex boasts out of nowhere.) I also want to highlight U-God, nobody's favorite Wu member, who stepped the hell up on this album & spits what might be the 2 best verses of his career on "It's Yourz" & "Impossible."

In some ways, RZA emerges on this album as the voice of the group as well as its sound. He appears on the intro to disc 2, throwing one of the album's many jabs against "n****s tryna take hiphop & make that shit R&B." I think it's pretty clear that all the invective against the pop-rap sound is merely performative. Method Man had collaborated with Mary J. Blige, & both Tical Enter the Wu-Tang had gone platinum. You don't move that many units without having fans in the mainstream, & indeed one of RZA's major achievements was taking the rugged sound of underground rap & making it palatable to pop audiences. Indeed, given everything I've described, the fact that this album went double-platinum & is still the group's best-selling record is kind of bizarre. They were the right group for the time & it was the right time for the group. This is not to denigrate the hard work they put in, but I've always looked at the Wu as lightning in a bottle. Like the Beatles, the combination of such a massively talented group with a milieu ready for their sound is one of those precise, irreplicable alchemies. Their rarity makes them that much more special.

Monday, November 7, 2022

The Optical Files #156: KRS-One - Return of the Boom Bap (1993)

Even though Kris's 1st album released under his own name arrived only a year after the final BDP album, Sex and Violence, it feels like a new era, largely because of production. Where the previous record was murky & gritty, Return of the Boom Bap is bright & shiny, dare I say radio-ready. (This should not be interpreted as a diss to Sex and Violence; if you read the linked writeup, you know I think it sounds better than this one overall.) 

A big part of this change in sound is thanks to Kris having linked up with DJ Premier, who produces 6 of the album's 14 tracks. Preemo's inimitable sound (which I discussed at length in my writeup of Gang Starr's The Ownerz) is all over this record, from the sample-collage opener "KRS-One Attacks" to the walking bass & skittering jazz piano of "Mortal Thought." Still, while he produces a plurality of the tracks, it wouldn't be fair to say that Premier's sound dominates this record, because KRS himself provides some of the best instrumentals of his career as a producers, like the unorthodox fully-acapella vocal layers of "Uh Oh" (a cautionary street tale & spiritual successor to Edutainment's "Love's Gonna Get'cha"), or the playground chants of "Black Cop." That latter song is underappreciated, because it tends to get overshadowed by album centerpiece "Sound of da Police," a viciously funky Showbiz production that has rightfully gone down in history as hiphop's most iconic anti-cop anthem. "Black Cop," though, is just as good, & narrows its focus to specifically target African-American police officers as race traitors.

KRS-One albums, of which I have written about many in this series, with still 1 more to go, can vary in quality depending on a few different factors. 2 important ones are sequencing & lyrical topics. Kris balances his subject matter exceptionally well here, with pure ego-trip lyrical workouts (the title track, "Mortal Thought," "Mad Crew"), sociopolitical screeds (the aforementioned anti-cop duo, "Higher Level") & musings about the state of hiphop ("Outta Here," "I Can't Wake Up," "Stop Frontin'") getting more or less equal time. Kris uses his reggae-style delivery to great effect here; the emcee (who comes by it honestly thanks to his father being from Trinidad) switches effortlessly between AAVE & Caribbean patois on almost every song, sometimes multiple times. I've always enjoyed that side of Kris & I wonder what it would sound like if he decided to make a full-on dancehall album, Heavy D-style.

Of all the metaphysical deep dives that Kris has done, Preemo's horn-laden album closer "Higher Level" is perhaps the most incisive. A razor-sharp & clear-eyed critique of American Christofascism, it is bursting with quotables, like "People have more respect for a holy book/Than they do for a cow on a meathook," & the pithy, devastating "I don't want a god who blesses America." 

I was grateful to revisit this one, because in my head it goes down as an album with a few absolute classics but slightly less consistent than its self-titled followup. After this relisten, I'm happy to say that I really can't choose between the 2. The only thing I'm certain of is that Kris was on an absolute hot streak during the '90s. Next time (& the last time) I'll be writing about KRS will be to discuss I Got Next, an album I never really connected with, & I'm excited to see if a reevaluation with 2022 ears will keep the run going.

Saturday, November 5, 2022

The Optical Files #155: Bubba Sparxxx - Dark Days, Bright Nights (2001)

For the recording industry, Bubba Sparxxx was not so much an artist as he was a proof of concept. His success signaled that Eminem was not a fluke, that the Vanilla Ice curse had been lifted. Surely excited about the prospect of marketing another caucasian emcee to the masses, when Jimmy Iovine, the same exec who pushed Slim Shady, happened upon Bubba's independent release, titled Dark Days, Bright Nights in 2000, he heard something that he could sell. Interscope recruited hitmakers Organized Noize & Timbaland to rejigger the indie release into a major-label debut & capitalize on the newfound viability of white rappers in the mainstream.

I know that Bubba felt deeply ambivalent about all this. Like I wrote in reference to Haystak, white rappers spend a lot of time thinking about our whiteness. To the extent that it hinders our acceptance in Black spaces, it's generally unwise to mention (unless you're Haystak) lest we come off as entitled culture vultures. To the extent that it helps, it confers a responsibility both to use that privilege productively & to prove that we can hang, irrespective of race. Like anything else involving race, there's a tension between the need to emphasize that it shouldn't matter while admitting that it does. In short, white emcees are disproportionately likely to rap with chips on our shoulders.

Let us not bury the lede, though: Bubba can, & always could, rap his fucking ass off, with a sharp delivery & a gift for novel & casually poetic turns of phrase. He makes extended use of 2, 3, or even 4-syllable rhyme pairs, & his pocket flow is usually metrically consistent. He will frequently string his bars together by using the rhyme that ended the previous line to begin the next one ("But until that day, y'all in deep doo-doo/I never once saw you crank it 'cuz I just leap through you/What you need to do is just admit you love me.") Bubba certainly didn't invent this technique, but he uses it so often that I think of it as a trademark.

The 2001 Interscope release titled Dark Days, Bright Nights is a bit of a fix-up Frankenstein. Half of the album survives from the original, with the 9 tracks produced by Timbo & ONP having been added for the major-label version. Of course the heavy hitter here is "Ugly," which is envisioned by Tim as a companion piece to Missy Elliot's "Get Ur Freak On," with its tremolo guitar picking & wordless choral vocals. ONP gets in a few classics too, like "All the Same" with its lazy blues guitar & Sleepy Brown's inimitable croon, & they pull out their trademark horns for "Bubba Sparxxx." A few of the Fat Shan beats that survive from the indie release stand toe-to-toe with the bigger-name producers, like the moody title track & "Well Water" with its (ironically) Timbaland-esque percussion.

The choice of Timbo & ONP to shepherd Bubba's major-label debut should clue us in to something, if it wasn't already obvious: Bubba Sparxxx is not only the 1st white rapper to be sold to the mainstream post-Eminem; he is the 1st mainstream white rapper ever to be marketed specifically to Southerners. Given the '90s Southern rap ascendancy, it was only a matter of time. The album packaging, with its chain-link license plate frame layout, racing stripes, camo & lottery scratchers, appeals specifically to "white trash" Southerners, but Bubba's lyrics are more complex. On at least 2 songs (the title track & "All the Same"), he explicitly describes his intention to bring white & Black Southerners together with his music: "All that blood we shed will do nothing but serve their purpose/So let's unite these bright nights & dark days, then see who nervous." Recognizing this, & seeing how Bubba referenced his own race less & less as his career progressed, we can make some assumptions about how he felt about being marketed as the Great White-Trash Hope.

The reason I always tended to spin this CD less frequently than Deliverance is because, frankly, Bubba sounds a bit immature here. He always had a talent for deeper discourse, but on this record he mostly reserves it for the title track & "Well Water." This is a good-time party record, with no fewer than 4 songs aimed directly at the dancefloor. Also, knowing what I know about him & his struggles with sobriety, it's difficult to listen to bars like "I ain't good for shit but drinking, do some rapping in between." Still, though I might not reach for it as often as Deliverance (or even his pair of Colt Ford-assisted comeback albums, Pain Management & Made on McCosh Mill Road), Dark Days, Bright Nights is a fascinating historical document of a time when putting major-label money behind a white rapper was still a throw of the dice--specifically the fuzzy ones from the rearview mirror of an F-150.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

The Optical Files #154: Goodie Mob - Soul Food (1995)

It's hard to talk about Goodie Mob without talking about Outkast. The 2 best known groups to emerge from the Dungeon Family always included each other in their projects, & both were blessed in the early days with production by the great Organized Noize. Since Outkast achieved a much greater level of visibility & popular success, Goodie Mob are in the unfortunate position of always being compared to them. This is both unfortunate & unavoidable--unfortunate because sonically & conceptually the group displays little of the freewheeling left-field weirdness of Outkast, & is more comparable to hardcore contemporaries from other parts of the South like UGK or 8Ball & MJG; unavoidable because ONP is such a versatile powerhouse production team that the fact that they fully produced both Soul Food & Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik is a major part of their legacy.

Compared to Outkast's colorful sense of fun, Soul Food is a dark album. ONP's bold horn arrangements are nowhere to be found on this album--it's all sparse drum loops & murky keys. The overall feeling is of nocturnal contemplation, & with its conventional textures the album feels more "classically hiphop," for lack of a better term, than the Outkast debut. That's not to say that this album is inferior in any way--the ONP signatures come through loud & clear in little touches like the squealing melodica chops of "Sesame Street," Sleepy Brown's inimitable vocals in the title track, & "Cell Therapy"'s dusty, baroque main loop.

The emcees are equally important components in the sonic spell this album casts, & vocally, Goodie Mob has a lot of variety to offer. No disrespect to Big Gipp & T-Mo, but I've always found Khujo & Cee-Lo to be the most interesting members to listen to. In some ways, the 2 are opposites. Khujo has a booming, authoritative voice (I'll once again invoke the name of MJG) & his syllables land hard on the beat. Future pop star Cee-Lo, on the other hand, uses a high-pitched melodic tone, & his flow seems to dance over the beat, alighting like a grasshopper & then frolicking away again. While the other 2 emcees are somewhere in the middle, those 2 limn the group's dichotomy--light & heavy, airy & moody, day & night.

One thing I've always admired about this album is that Goodie Mob never just rap to rap. Every song is about something--usually a sociopolitical topic, like collective strength & the danger of self-loathing in the Black community in "Live At the O.M.N.I.," or the hood & poverty reminiscences of "Sesame Street." True to their Southern roots, they have a habit of twining together the sociopolitical & the spiritual, as in the meaning-of-life meditation "I Didn't Ask To Come," or the soul-sickness of paranoia that comes with confinement in "Cell Therapy." The album is true to its title--equally concerned with earthly survival & ethereal sustenance, & a comprehensive celebration of Blackness. But in this case, it's maybe even more interesting to notice what the Goodie Mob members don't rap about. This album is unmistakably hardcore & nobody would question its gangsta, but the group never demeans women or glorifies gunplay. Not once. Show me another street rap album from this era you can say the same for.

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

The Optical Files #153: Arrested Development - 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days In the Life Of... (1992)

I don't think Arrested Development gets the credit they deserve for being pioneers of the conscious end of Southern rap. In fact, I don't think the conscious end of Southern rap gets the exposure it deserves period. You can hear the influence of 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days In the Life Of... in eccentric Southern hiphop acts from Outkast to CunninLynguists to Little Brother & even Jay Electronica. Dropping in 1992, this album can be seen as the last gasp of conscious rap in the mainstream before it was fully overshadowed by gangsta shit (a trend Speech has a lot to say about); a slighty late-arrival Southern-fried alternative to the NYC eclecticism of A Tribe Called Quest & De La Soul. In fact, Prince Paul's sample-collage production style for the latter group is echoed here, although occasionally the group (who is credited as a whole for producing every track) leans more toward a Bomb Squad-esque noisiness. With their genre-blending, funky foundation & identity as a musical collective with a charismatic leader, Arrested Development would probably prefer comparisons to Sly & the Family Stone, whose songs they sample on at least 3 tracks here. However you slice it, this is a unique record with seemingly endless replay value.

Speech's sharp critiques of the gangsta lifestyle don't just come in obvious forms like "People Everyday." They are also woven into the album's trio of ebullient love songs ("U," "Natural" & "Dawn of the Dreads") as well as the essential humility of "Give a Man a Fish," in which the group pledges to keep their day jobs (like DJ Headliner's barber hustle) rather than sacrifice their art to commercial concerns.

Aquatic imagery abounds on the album, from the closer "Washed Away," which uses shoreline erosion as a symbol for Black assimilation, to "Fishin' 4 Religion," where the world is a vast ocean full of little-understood religious practices in the form of sea life, to the personal favorite "Raining Revolution." This latter song, along with "Children Play With Earth," exemplifies the Afrocentric philosophy that appreciates the natural world in opposition to the white bourgeois's attempts to devalue/mitigate it.

The spiritual centerpiece of this album is also its biggest hit: "Tennessee," which folds together all the album's themes Afrocentric ancestor-consciousness, anti-modernity, skepticism of the gangsta lifestyle & the historicity of natural spaces. Far from presenting himself as a spiritual guru, however, Speech acknowledges the limits of his perspective: "Ask those trees for all their wisdom/They tell me my ears are so young." Don't get me wrong: I love gangsta rap, always have, & probably always will. I don't subscribe to the idea that the more nihilistic forms of hiphop signal the downfall of society. But I do think we were in a better place as a culture back when Speech & Eshe were sharing the airwaves with Snoop & Dre. To echo the harmonious Afrocentrism that Arrested Development preaches: all we ever wanted was balance.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

The Optical Files #152: Deltron 3030 - The Instrumentals (2001)

Gather 'round & let me tell you of a time before Youtube. A time before you could type "earl sweatshirt type beat" into a search bar & have a few thousand quality instrumentals at your fingertips. File sharing was unreliable & there were lots of fakes & mislabeled MP3s floating around. If you wanted beats, your options were limited, & they all involved spending money, time, or both. The instrumental rap CD is a dying (dead?) form, but it once served a vital purpose. It was always a good idea to have a few on hand to write to, freestyle on, vibe with in the background, or if you just wanted to hear the intricacies of production without an emcee's voice getting in the way. I used Deltron 3030 - The Instrumentals for all 4 of these purposes, but I was mainly interested in the latter. Deltron 3030 (the one with the vocals) was an important record for me for a lot of reasons. I'm pretty sure it was the first hiphop concept album I encountered--certainly the first I fully bought into because at the time (early high school) I was discovering cyberpunk & enamored with dystopian science fiction all while my rap obsession was deepening. It was also the first rap album I can remember where I was absolutely floored by the production. I mean, I was already a fan of guys like RZA, Preemo, DJ Shadow & Pete Rock (the first Petestrumentals was my other instrumental rap CD of choice) but Dan the Automator's work as part of Deltron 3030 was something special. The cinematic scope, the left-field weirdness, the genre-blending, the seamless blend of samples with organic instruments, & the overall musicality made it stand out from the pack, & it's those elements that make it a worthwhile listen even today, after its original purpose is no longer strictly necessary.

I'll admit that part of what motivated me to buy this CD was that, though I appreciate Del & think he is a great lyricist, I've never been a fan of his voice. The production on Deltron 3030 is so magnificent that I sometimes felt like his oddball warbling was getting in the way. The album opener "3030" (the instrumental album shuffles the song order but the opener is the same on both versions) is as good an example as any. After beginning its verses with guitar glissandos & flutes over a wandering bass, it adds wordless choirs into an unusually-timed 12-bar buildup before the orchestral brass explodes into the chorus. There's epic openers, & then there's this shit. Although the structure isn't avant-garde (like all the tracks on here it's pretty much verse-chorus-verse), it has a lot more harmonic movement & variety than your run-of-the-mill rap beat. That's the beauty of the Automator's vision here: the musical sophistication strains at the bounds of genre while the dusty drum loops & funky grooves keep it 100% hiphop.

(On a side note, I think that was my beef with the followup project Gorillaz, which grew out of Damon Albarn's collaborations with Del & Dan on this album. Gorillaz's huge commercial success had a lot to do with the distance it seemed to put between itself & hiphop. It was the kind of thing that white girls in high school praised because it was "more sophisticated than just rap" without realizing how racist that sounded.)

In fairness, not every track here stands on its own. A few of the more unadorned rap throwdowns like "Positive Contact" sound a bit empty without an emcee. That's the trap of listening to rap instrumentals: savvy producers always leave sonic space for a rapper's voice, & sometimes you can't help but think about how much better this would sound with somebody flowing on it. This isn't a problem on tracks like "Madness," a showcase for the album's other VIP whom I haven't talked about yet: turntablist Kid Koala, who turns in a scratched horn solo of the type he showed a brilliance for on his solo album Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. "Things You Can Do" is another beat that stands strong without a rapper, thanks to its reedy melodica (Albarn's contribution as well as on "Time Keeps On Slipping") & the rhythmic contrast of the sped-up Poppy Family sample with the thumping drum loop. The sinister decaying synths of "Upgrade" & "Virus" capture the nocturnal cyberpunk atmosphere that "Mastermind" balances with more conventional movie-score ambitions.

This CD was a joy to revisit, in large part because it's outlived its original purpose. This listen made me want to revisit the original album, & also check out their long-delayed 2013 followup Event 2. Like a past-its-prime android retrofitted for a new task, it's proved itself surprisingly useful in this uncertain future. I can't help but notice that, unlike a lot of SF authors who thought things would happen way too quickly (flying cars & moon colonies by 1997!) Del & co. seem to be about a millennium too generous--at this rate, I wouldn't be surprised if all the things they predicted for 3030 came to pass by 2030. Hiphop ahead of the curve once again.

Friday, October 28, 2022

The Optical Files #151: Radiohead - I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings (2001)

I was excited in 2001 to hear Radiohead's live album. I had never seen them in concert (that wouldn't happen until the Hail To the Thief tour 2 summers later), & having exhausted their first 5 studio albums, I was craving new Radiohead material. Once I got my hands on it, I was a bit baffled by what I had heard, but today I think I understand that I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings was never meant to be a comprehensive live album, but rather a document of what their show was like at this stage (like how Rush used to do it). As Radiohead's music grew beyond the limitations of the 5-piece rock band, it became more difficult to translate to live performance. How could they do justice to songs built on EDM & ambient elements without losing their rock-band essence? I Might Be Wrong, a selection of live performances of songs from Kid A & Amnesiac (the band's least guitar-driven records), shows how they threaded that needle, while reminding us of the essential roles played by some of the less celebrated band members.

For instance, bassist Colin Greenwood proves how valuable he is as the driving force of songs like "The National Anthem," "I Might Be Wrong," & "Dollars and Cents." He is also responsible for the lovely counter-melody of "Morning Bell" while Jonny & Ed (whose backing vocals are at the same level as Thom's leads) play competing angular guitar chords in a throwback to the band's old 3-guitar days.

It's also interesting to hear how hard the live engineers had to work to capture the sounds of the records, from Thom's reverb-drenched vocal mic on "I Might Be Wrong" (where he sways back & forth so the lyrics seem to drift in & out of comprehensibility), to the various filters applied to Phil Selway's drumkit to approximate the drum machines on the studio versions of "Idioteque" & "Everything In Its Right Place." That latter song is the most impressive achievement on the record, with the live sampling & manipulation of the vocals (I think by Jonny?) that turns into an extended outro vamp, all while Colin's solid bassline holds down the fort.

It's worth noting that there are songs from the duo of studio albums this selection pulls from that would be rather easy to recreate in concert--like "How to Disappear Completely" or "Knives Out"--that have been left off in favor of totally novel arrangements like the pulsing synths & sound effects of "Like Spinning Plates" transformed into a "Pyramid Song"-esque piano ballad. The emphasis here is on hypnotic grooves reminiscent of minimalist music, like the band is challenging themselves to make these moods fit with their live presentation. On the whole, it works stunningly well.

There was one brand new (at the time) song here: "True Love Waits," which was a live staple that finally got the studio treatment a full 15 years later on A Moon Shaped Pool in an electric piano arrangement rather than the solo acoustic guitar version heard here. As far as I'm concerned, the studio version completely supplants the live one, thanks to Thom's awful habit of singing sharp, which seems more egregious when there are fewer instruments to cover it (see the live acoustic version of "Creep" from the My Iron Lung EP).

I almost never throw I Might Be Wrong into the player anymore. It's a fine representation of their live sound, but with the possible exception of "Like Spinning Plates," there's not really anything here you can't get from the studio versions of these songs. But as a historical document & exemplar of their fealty to their music's thornier elements in a concert context--especially since it's the only live album they ever officially released--it is nothing short of essential.