Tuesday, April 30, 2013

BYG Actuel 01: Don Cherry - "Mu" First Part

If the Festival Actuel is any indication, the founders of BYG intended their Actuel imprint and their brand as a whole to represent forward-thinking global music in any genre, with free jazz being the particular focus. Had financial mismanagement and the insane overreaching that came with holding such a gigantic festival so soon after the label’s founding not tanked BYG, it is not unreasonable to believe that BYG Actuel could have become one of the avant-grade musical leaders on the European continent. With these lofty ambitions, the first Actuel release had to set the tone and the standard of quality for the albums ahead and draw attention to the brand new subsidiary label. A minor public relations coup resulting from signing an established artist was certainly a helpful bonus as well. The label got all of this with “Mu” First Part, the first of two duo albums by Ornette Coleman Quartet alums Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Spray Cans Vol. 011: Att Will - "Just Another Day in Compton"

Att Will - "Just Another Day in Compton" (Big City Records, 1993)

Although sampling is one of the most brilliant musical innovations of the last several decades, it does present two major problems. One is someone taking an extremely popular song and essentially lifting it wholesale without alteration in order to fuel a chart hit for yourself (call it the Diddy method). The other is the reuse of the same samples over and over again. There are many instances where this isn’t a problem, such as Leon Haywood’s “I Wanna Do Something Freaky to You” being used to create two very different songs in Dr. Dre’s “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” and Redman’s “Rockafella,” but more often than not, cats reusing samples that have already been used memorably before is not a good idea. Roy Ayers’ catalog is an embarrassment of riches, and “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” is both one of his best songs. In 1990, Grand Puba sampled the song for arguably the best song his group Brand Nubian ever made: “Wake Up (Reprise in the Sunshine).” Some other artists, including Common, Mary J. Blige, and Mos Def have made songs with an “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” sample since and these songs have been mostly effective, but now that it’s been over twenty years since Brand Nubian completely owned that sample, hearing it in a new song is frustrating. It shows that artists are either ignorant of hip-hop’s history (as might have been the case when it showed up on Flatbush Zombies’ occasionally great first mixtape last year) or they’re just lazy (as in the case of “Sunshine” from Sadat X & A.G.’s collaborative album from last year).[1]

There are a handful of samples that will never ever get old for me. If I was to make a very short list of these samples, Kool and the Gang’s “Summer Madness” would probably come in at #1. DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s “Summertime,” Mad Skillz’ “Get Your Groove on,” Big Pun’s “You Ain’t a Killer,” Gang Starr’s “DJ Premier in Deep Concentration.” I could keep listing great songs that use prominent sample from “Summer Madness,” and that’s not even counting the interpolations, such as its appearance near the end of Summer Suite by the Last Electro-Acoustic Space Jazz & Percussion Ensemble, one of Madlib’s many Yesterdays New Quintet offshoot groups. So when I was scouring the internet for obscure funky west coast hip-hop a while back and clicked on Att Will’s “Just Another Day in Compton” and heard that familiar rising sunny synth line, I was sold.

Tree - ''Devotion''

In spite of the generally very positive reviews, I somehow still haven’t listened to Chicago native Tree’s Sunday School project. Really all I knew about Tree was that he describes his music as “soul trap,” and that the features on his upcoming Sunday School II mixtape include Danny Brown and Roc Marciano, which is more than enough to get me to eagerly await its May 15 release date. With his new single “Devotion,” Tree has made it clear that Sunday School II will be worth checking out for more than just features. The beat is coproduced by B!NK of The Blueprint fame and follows that record’s soul sample-template with a healthy amount of grit replacing The Blueprint’s blinding gloss.

Soul is the right word to describe Tree’s voice. It sounds like every word he raps causes him pain, and when he’s rapping about working through life’s bullshit to get to the point where he has a functional rap career, his past and present tribulations are audible throughout. The first Sunday School mixtape just got prioritized in my queue of records to listen to, and I will not be missing his set when he rolls through Pitchfork this year.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Review: Ghostface Killah & Adrian Younge - Twelve Reasons to Die

Since Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele dropped in 2000 and essentially closed the book on the Wu-Tang Clan’s near-unimpeachable nineties run, there have been only a handful of serious landmarks in the Wu-Tang catalog: Masta Killa’s No Said Date in 2004, Ghostface’s Fishscale in 2006, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II in 2009.[1] With the latter, Raekwon knocked Ghostface out of the top spot in the Wu-Tang pantheon, and since then Ghostface has been spinning his wheels a bit, releasing the ill-advised but amazingly titled R&B project Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City, the good but undercooked Apollo Kids, the tossed off Ghost/Rae/Meth collaboration Wu-Massacre, and the painfully generic Wu-Block with the LOX’s Sheek Louch. On Twelve Reasons to Die, Ghostface is reenergized and focused, and he sounds hungry again for the first time since Fishscale. Ghost has given the Clan their fourth landmark album of their second decade.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Spray Cans Vol. 010: Wu-Syndicate - "Bust a Slug"

Wu-Syndicate - "Bust a Slug" (Wu-Tang Records, 1999)

In my recent post on the Wu-Tang Clan and live instrumentation I wrote briefly about The Swarm, the first of three Wu-Tang Killa Bees compilations the illustrated the Wu brand’s diminishing returns in the late nineties and early 2000s.[1] There are some throwaways throughout The Swarm’s sixteen songs, but for the most part it’s a great introduction to many of the Killa Bees. Some of the artists who provided these highlights (The Beggaz, Ruthless Bastards) never got the chance to put out albums due to financial mismanagement at Wu-Tang Records, while others (Black Knights of the North Star, A.I.G.) never lived up to their potential on subsequent releases. None of the new artists featured on the record sounded like they could ever surpass the Clan, but a few of them carved out effective careers of their own, although some of these careers were extremely brief.

Wu-Syndicate fits this latter description exactly. The group self-released one single under the name Crhyme Syndicate in 1996, but it unsurprisingly didn’t get much attention.[2] Somehow, this 12” found its way into the hands of the RZA, who signed them to Wu-Tang Records in time to include the b-side “Where Wuz Heaven” on The Swarm. Produced by DJ Devastator, “Where Wuz Heaven” is a great slice of ghetto life story song with a plaintive guitar sample, a ghostly soul vocal sample on the chorus, and great rapping from Myalansky.[3] The group changed its name to Wu-Syndicate, presumably as a way of helping it get more attention by making its affiliation with the Clan more explicit.[4]

“Where Wuz Heaven” appeared two more times, first as the a-side on the first single credited to Wu-Syndicate and again as the seventh song on the group’s self-titled debut album, released on Wu-Tang Records in 1999. Wu-Syndicate is a good artifact of nineties New York street rap, but the group struggles in a few respects. First and most importantly, the group never fully transcends its direct influences. DJ Devastator, who handles most of the album’s production,[5] is so indebted to RZA and Havoc that his beats lack personality on many of the tracks, even when his production is quite good. Myalansky, Joe Mafia, and Napoleon (who isn’t listed on the album cover but is part of the group) are all good MCs, but like most of the second-string Killa Bees they don’t quite have the personality or distinct enough personalities to anchor a whole album. As a result, the album’s eighteen songs blend together after a while. When a Wu-Syndicate song pops up on shuffle, I almost never skip it, but when I put on the whole album it’s far too easy to tune it out. The second half of the album suffers more than the first by default, since Wu-Syndicate fatigue isn’t really a problem until after “Where Wuz Heaven” passes around the album’s midpoint. Still, there’s one extremely bright spot near the end of the album that demands attention even if you’ve lost interest in what Wu-Syndicate is serving up: “Bust a Slug,” the album’s second single.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Brief History of the Wu-Tang Clan and Live Instrumentation

On Tuesday, Soul Temple Records will be releasing Twelve Reasons to Die, the new collaborative album by Ghostface Killah and producer/multi-instrumentalist Adrian Younge.[1] The record’s been streaming for nearly a week now, and it’s great. It’s definitely the best Ghostface album since Fishscale, and I’m tempted to go back even further and place it third behind only Supreme Clientele and Ironman. I’ll be putting up a review of the record later this week, but in the meantime, I thought I’d look back at the Wu-Tang Clan’s previous endeavors with bands and live instrumentation.

When the Clan first came on the scene in 1993, RZA’s warped sample-based beats were a big part of their appeal. The dust and grit of old records was a palpable part of their grimy sound. Throughout the initial run of Wu-Tang solo albums, RZA gradually refined this sound, culminating in the cinematic Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and Liquid Swords and the soulful Ironman. When it came time for the Clan to reform like Voltron for their second group album in 1997, RZA had begun moving away from this strictly sample-based sound. Most of the album’s twenty-seven songs have samples, but quite a few of them are spiced with keyboards. Notably, “Reunited,” the first song on the album (after the extended opening skit that is “Wu-Revolution”) is built almost entirely from some incredible live violin.

James Blake - "Retrograde"

I’m not really a James Blake fan. I tried pretty hard to get into his self-titled first album, but I didn’t find much in his post-dubstep (or whatever you want to call it) sound that was appealing to me. The biggest hurdle for me was Blake’s voice, which is one of those ghostly indie rock white guy voices that I just can’t get behind (see also Justin Vernon on the second Bon Iver record). I would have ignored his second album Overgrown entirely had I not seen RZA and Brian Eno’s names among the list of collaborators. Upon listening to Overgrown a few times, I can safely say that I’m still not a fan of Blake’s music and I really don’t like his voice, with one huge exception. Listening to first single “Retrograde” through headphones on a rainy morning while not in a great mood, I got completely sucked in to James Blake’s world. The song is sonically beautiful but lyrically dark, building slowly from the most minimal of instrumentation (drum machine claps and a lone piano note) and one wordless vocal track up to gorgeous synths and three layers of Blake vocal tracks. It’s a beautiful song, and for my money the best of Blake’s still short career.

“Voyeur” is pretty good too, for many of the same reasons that “Retrograde” is the best song on the record. Outside of these two tracks, I could really take or leave Overgrown, although that could very well change in the months between now and list-making season at the end of the year.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

BYG Actuel 00: Jazzactuel Intro

ESP-Disk is the best and most important free jazz label of all time. While larger labels like Atlantic, Blue Note and Impulse! dabbled in the fresh musical territory that was free jazz in the mid-sixties, ESP-Disk was the first record company to really devote itself to this music.[1] Albert Ayler, Marion Brown, Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra, Patty Waters, Milford Graves, Paul Bley, Ornette Coleman, Henry Grimes, Frank Wright, Gato Barbieri, and the New York Art Quartet all put out some of their defining material on the label. Artists maintained complete artistic control of their ESP discs, making it one of the best outlets for avant-garde musicians in spite of the label’s spotty history of actually paying its artists.

Other great labels followed ESP-Disk’s example in the late sixties and into the seventies. India Navigation, Flying Dutchman, Delmark, and Black Saint cropped up in the states to handle the rapidly multiplying number of free players in a musical environment that was openly hostile toward free jazz. In Europe musicians started their own labels, including FMP and Incus, to release their radical explorations of free improvisation’s outer edges.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Review: Ohbliv & Dil Withers - Split Tape

I listen to a lot of beat tapes by hip-hop and electronic producers. These differ from full-fledged instrumental hip-hop projects that followed in the wake of DJ Shadow’s landmark Endtroducing… in that they are not constructed as albums, but rather a collection of short beats that don’t change too much throughout their runtime. Rappers could take a beat from one of these tapes, loop it, and probably make a pretty good song. So as much as I like listening to beat tapes by artists like Knxwledge., Lytesho!, Suhnraw, and Mndsgn, they don’t frequently make much of a long term impact on me as a listener.

Unlike Flying Lotus, Madlib, Oh No, Oddisee, Teebs, and others who craft beat projects that flow as albums and demand further listening, the majority of good beat tape producers make projects that are enjoyable to listen to, but don’t lodge themselves in your brain. They follow a common format: an ill sample or two, fuzzy drums, and maybe some electronic textures to fill out the sample. This is repeated ten to forty times for the length of the tape. After a listen or two, they can be returned to the internet ether. The same happens when I listen to obscure hardcore punk records from the eighties. The greats like Black Flag, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, and Germs built musical identities that stood out from the majority of hardcore bands who hedged too closely to hardcore orthodoxy. A lot of these mid-level hardcore bands made good music but most of them blend together and don’t warrant much repeated listening.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Queens of the Stone Age - "My God is the Sun"

It’s kind of hard to believe that Era Vulgaris is 6 years old. It didn’t initially make the same great impression that Songs for the Deaf and Lullabies to Paralyze did, but it has aged really well since 2007. There really isn’t a weak track on the record (“Turnin’ on the Screw” and “3’s & 7’s” rank among Queens of the Stone Age’s best), and the album really cemented the band’s place as one of the most consistent rock bands of the last few decades. Put their entire catalog on shuffle and you’re unlikely to skip a single track.

Finally, Queens of the Stone Age has released the first single from their new album …Like Clockwork, titled “My God is the Sun.” The good news is that it sounds like a Queens in the Stone Age song, which means it’s inevitably very good. Josh Homme’s guitar work remains as gritty and distinct as ever, and Dave Grohl’s return to drum duties gives the song a bigfoot stomp that wasn’t quite there on the two albums QOTSA recorded with Joey Castillo. It’s unlikely that this will be one of the best songs on the record unless QOTSA really dropped the ball this time around, but as it stands, very good isn’t quite good enough for the best hard rock band of the 2000s. Still, this is one of my most anticipated albums of the year, and I trust Homme and company wont disappoint.

Track below the jump.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Spray Cans Vol. 009: Schoolly D - "P.S.K.-What Does it Mean?" b/w "Gucci Time"

Schoolly D - "P.S.K.-What Does It Mean?" b/w "Gucci Time" (Schoolly-D Records, 1985)

In my intro to the Spray Cans series, I said that I wanted to create a hip-hop analogue to Nuggets. While most of the songs on Nuggets barely sold but were great enough that they deserved to be rescued from obscurity, others were singles that hit #1 on the Billboard charts (such as “Louie, Louie”) but that hadn’t achieved the respect or attention that they deserved, hence my choice to cover a single from Fiend’s Gold-selling album There’s One in Every Family in Vol. 008. On the other hand, some of the artists that found themselves on Nuggets, such as the 13th Floor Elevators, didn’t sell many records when they were active but their subsequent influence far outstripped their initial success. This week’s artist Schoolly D falls into this latter camp. While many people probably know him best these days for rapping on the intro song for Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Schoolly D is a hip-hop legend who arguably recorded the first gangsta rap song ever with “P.S.K.-What Does it Mean?” in 1985.

Cannibal Ox Has Lost the Stroll of Galactus

I listened to The Cold Vein again this morning. Even after listening to it for years, it hasn’t lost any of its power. It’s an astonishingly great record, one of the best of the last decade. So when Cannibal Ox announced late last year that they were finally recording a follow-up after an eleven year hiatus, it was impossible not to get excited. That is, until El-P made it clear that he wouldn’t be involved in any way. Vast Aire and Vordul Mega are incredible MCs, but The Cold Vein would not have been the album it was without El-P’s spooky post-apocalyptic sci-fi beats. In lieu of El-P, Can Ox hooked up with some guy named Bill Cosmiq, who produced all three songs on their new Gotham maxi-single.

On “Gotham (Ox City),” Vordul seems tired, although Vast Aire doesn’t sound vocally different than he did a decade ago. Vast kicks off his verse on “Gases in Hell (Inhale),” a solo song billed as a Cannibal Ox song, with lyrics from “Iron Galaxy,” helpfully reminding everyone that he’s not the rapper he once was. The weak hook isn’t helping matters either. Weird references to 30 Rock have replaced Vast’s old comic book fixation. Saying that he’s bigger than Grizz and Dotcom is nowhere near as cool as saying that he’s got the stroll of Galactus, now he’s planet swallowing. Vordul is still great lyrically, but his energy level is painfully low on “Psalm 82.” Bill Cosmiq beats are pretty good, but El-P’s were so much better that these new songs can’t help but seem weak by comparison. The cinematic vibe and the palpable paranoia are gone, replaced with boilerplate (but again, still pretty good) underground rap beats. If this is what we can expect from the rest of the album, then it’ll be an unfortunate footnote on their otherwise great career as group.[1]

For comparison, here are some of the highlights from The Cold Vein.

[1] I can’t emphasize enough that I’m talking about Cannibal Ox as a group rather than their solo careers. While both put out very good solo debuts, they paled in comparison to The Cold Vein and their subsequent output has been forgettable.

Spray Cans Vol. 008: Fiend - "Big Timer"

Fiend - "Big Timer" (No Limit Records, 1998)

No Limit Records’ late nineties success was so all-consuming and their rise was so rapid that it’s kind of amazing that they aren’t talked about more. The label released its first album, Master P’s lackluster Get Away Clean, in 1991, and developed a regional following around its home base of New Orleans in the years following. Despite becoming Louisiana’s premier hip-hop label, No Limit struggled to break through nationally. Then 1996 rolled around, and Master P’s Ice Cream Man went Platinum. A few months later, Silkk the Shocker’s debut hit #6 on the hip-hop/R&B charts, but the rest of the No Limit stable was still inactive or commercially unsuccessful. 1997 was a marked improvement for the label, as TRU, Steady Mobb’n, Mia X, and Mr. Serv-On released high charting albums on the label. Three major successes toward the end of that year pushed No Limit firmly into the mainstream consciousness. First, No Limit made its first foray into film with I’m Bout It, and the accompanying soundtrack featuring most of the label’s artists debuted at #1 on the Billboard hip-hop/R&B chart and quickly went Platinum. Master P followed this up with Ghetto D. With the singles “I Miss My Homies” and “Make ‘Em Say Uhh!,” the album hit #1 on the Billboard Top 200 chart and went Platinum three times over. Soon after, Mystikal, No Limit’s greatest rapper, put out his debut with the label.

In 1998, No Limit quadrupled their output, putting out twenty-three albums, almost all of which went Gold or Platinum. After his defection from Death Row, Snoop Dogg signed to No Limit that year, bringing further publicity and sales to the suddenly inescapable label. They dropped down to fifteen albums in 1999, but their popularity was so high that even the terminally off-beat Silkk the Shocker was able to debut at #1 with his third album. In spite of this continued success, the seams began showing. I’m Bout It was such an unexpected success that Master P and No Limit tried to expand their empire further into film, toys, books, and sports management. Due to poor business practices and lack of resources, most of these endeavors failed almost immediately.[1] Mystikal’s contract expired in ’99 and he immediately jumped ship to Jive Records. The label’s production team Beats by the Pound had been responsible for nearly every hit single and great album track that the label had released up to that point, but they too left the label amid disputes over money. The label stretched itself too thin and quickly lost its ability to sustain itself. Only five No Limit albums came out in 2000. Outside of Master P, Snoop Dogg was the label’s biggest remaining star, but he fled the sinking ship once he fulfilled his contract that year. P hurriedly signed a bunch of new artists, including future underground stoner rap star Curren$y, but they proved unable to develop new artists. Even novelty hits by P’s son Lil’ Romeo couldn’t save the label, and No Limit quietly folded in 2003.

Review: The Delfonics - Adrian Younge Presents the Delfonics

A ton of artists have been trying to recreate the sounds of classic sixties and seventies soul over the last fifteen years or so. Their success rate has been low. A few—Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Charles Bradley,[1] and Myron & E—have managed to tap into that old sound in a way that allows them to create songs in that style that sound fresh and vibrant and new. Most artists who try to do this end up making stale songs that rehash the former glories of other artists. They miss some crucial quality that great classic soul has, making soulless music that is soul in name only. On the soundtrack to Black Dynamite (2009), Adrian Younge fell into the former category, but since then he has moved from the strict template of soul revivalism with mixed results. In his episode of Noisey’s web series Crate Diggers, he says of Something About April, his album with his group Venice Dawn, that “it’s supposed to be a kind of record that a record collector would find and want to sample and make music off of.” Younge isn’t trying to exactly recreate the sounds of the past, he tries to create old style music through the lens of a hip-hop head in the present. All of his music sounds slightly out of time as a result. The Venice Dawn project clearly bears out this goal, but the results too often sound stiff and forced, the work of an artist with tremendous potential who hadn’t yet figured out how to best translate his sonic ideas into music.

Hooking up with William Hart, lead singer and primary songwriter from the Delfonics, has proven to be the missing link for Younge. Aside from 1999’s forgettable Forever New, the Delfonics haven’t been much of a going concern since they released their last album on Philly Groove, Alive & Kicking, in 1974. The group found new life in the nineties as their songs were sampled hundreds of times by hip-hop artists.[2] It is appropriate then that Adrian Younge Presents the Delfonics has an audible hip-hop influence. Instead of attempting to recreate the string-laden sound of classic Delfonics records, Younge and Hart opt for a stripped-down cinematic break-heavy sound that works like gangbusters. Opener “Stop and Look (And You Have Found Love)” is almost entirely comprised of an ominous bass line and drum rolls tailor made for beatmakers to sample. The same is true of the knocking drums of side two opener “Stand Up,” and the skittering snare of “Just Love.” “Stand Up” features the longest break on the album, and it’s practically begging for a RZA or a Madlib to chop it up. “Lover’s Melody” and “Enemies,” with their dark mood and evocative vibe that are heavily indebted to Ennio Morricone, could function as classic Wu-Tang songs. “Enemies” has such a Wu-Tang indebted sound that it’s actually being reused on Younge’s upcoming collaboration with Ghostface Killah. “Lost Without You” is a gorgeous slice of light psychedelic soul that ends with a gospel chorus that immediately reminded me of the closing tracks on the Gorillaz’s Demon Days. The album ends perfectly with “Life Never Ends,” one of the only songs on the album to feature strings. The song reaches back to a period before the Delfonics were active, recalling the proto-psychedelic pop of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, another appropriately cinematic influence. Hart’s voice remains as powerful as ever, and his distinctive falsetto keeps this album firmly rooted in the Delfonics lineage even though it’s such a sonic departure for the group.

Even without strings, Younge is adept at recreating the classic Delfonics vibe, especially on the great “I Can’t Cry No More.” This one song aside, the songs that try to reproduce the old Delfonics tend to be among the weakest on the album, and “Silently” and “Party’s Over” don’t quite come together as well as the rest of the record. Thankfully, these songs are surrounded by everything that is great on this album, and the songs are short enough that it isn’t a bother to wait through them for the album’s real gems. Even with the couple of duds on this album, break specialists will find a lot to love in Adrian Younge Presents the Delfonics. Shooting an old group’s sound through his own cinematic hip-hop sensibility has given Younge the focus he needed to make an album in the style of the European soundtrack composers and psychedelic soul artists that he idolizes without sounding so calculated and forced.[3]

Songs after the jump.