2004, 06-03 MF Doom & Madlib are Madvillian, Brian Wilson, The Fiery Furnaces and The Streets

MF Doom & Madlib are Madvillian
Brian Wilson
The Fiery Furnaces
The Streets
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MF Doom & Madlib are Madvillian: Madvilliany

Last time, I reviewed the Ghostface Killah album, which apparently is "gangsta rap" - lyrics about bitchez and poppin caps and sellin drugs and whatever. But MF DOOM, on the other hand, sounds like a serious gangster. He's got this voice that sounds like he is serious about getting rich and powerful. Like he is educated enough to understand how to game the system and get away with it. Like if he did pop a cap in your ass - first of all, he would never do it, he'd have one of his men do it - it would be strictly business. And then, he likes to find other ways of handling troublemakers than shooting them - too many bodies means too many questions. And indeed, the entire concept of the album is simple: MF DOOM and Madlib are Madvillain - a Supervillain.

Really, a supervillain is just the nerdier version of a gangster, right? And this album tends to get pretty nerdy at times. Namedrops: "Dick Dastardly and Muttley", "pi", "Starfleet", "'Yoga flame!', 'Yoga fire!', 'hahahah! Yatta!'", "are you pondering what I'm pondering?" and in fact his own name is a reference to Marvel's Dr. Doom (the MF stands for "Metal Face"), and while this album was being made, he refused to be photographed without his Dr. Doom-esque mask on. He also has a song called "ALL CAPS" that reminds you that MF DOOM is in fact, spelled with all caps. There's also a song called "America's Most Blunted" which discusses the positive side to smoking weed, which ends with a short pro-marijuajuana [sic] PSA. Really, nerdy rappers (do the Beastie Boys count?) have been getting the same kind of respect that Christian rock bands have been getting. So it's good to see that it can be done without being annoying, and produce good music.

The other thing is that this album is fun to listen to. It's incredibly smooth, sounds good, and the lyrics are rewarding to listen to even if you don't own any Marvel comics. There are clips from old TV/radio shows talking about supervillians, and the rough, analog sounding beats makes you feel like you're listening to old Johnny Quest or something like that. So many of the beats sound like old melodramatic 60s music scores for cartoons or spy movies.

If there is a problem with this album, it's that sometimes it's got kind of the same gray dull feeling you get sometimes watching too many old cartoons on TV late at night. Still, despite this, it's one of the better hip-hop albums that have been on this list. Buy it if you are into it.

Daniel Dumille, AKA MF Doom, AKA King Geedorah, AKA Viktor Vaughn, is a man possessed with an insatiable appetite for villainy. Madlib (AKA Lord Quas, AKA...yeah) has a penchant for stacks of old records and big lungfulls of the chronic. Together, they are unstoppable.

Madlib is a consummate DJ of the old, weird school -- if his samples are anything to go by the dude must spend an awful lot of time in the back rooms of record shops, flipping through the melting cardboard bins under the sink next to the roach repellent. I heard some Frank Zappa in there, and he builds one track (the spectacular "Strange Ways") out of a riff from a Gentle Giant song, which is in one end of geeky and out the other side. There's educational records, radio serials, Street Fighter samples, and the defining sample that knits the album together, a very white man explaining the appeal of the Villain in pop culture. Madlib is a master of texture -- everything here is sticky, warped, warbly, spongy, off-kilter. Rarely is there just one layer of samples at work. Check "Fancy Clown", where the beat is made of a soul record chopped mercifully to pieces and stapled to a weird, punishing bassline, interlaced with snatches of a sped-up phone conversation and (for no earthy reason) the sound of children playing. This track is notable also for being perhaps the first instance in hip-hop history of an MC calling himself out, as Viktor Vaughn threatens to pound Doom's mask in for stealing his girl.

Doom has a genius for free-association, and his favorite trick as an MC is to get stuck for lines at a time on one polysyllabic rhyme and to see where it leads him. He's got a weird, underhanded sense of humor and a gift for memorable one-liners, which means that even when he's talking about nothing in particular you don't get bored. (Check it: "Doom: are you pondering what I'm pondering? Yes - but why would the darn thing be wandering? She's just a foundling, barely worth fondling. My posse's on Broadway like 'Mama, I want to sing.'") He sounds like nobody else; his delivery isn't flashy but it's steady as a rock, and the memorable lines just...well...flow. His fat-cheeked mush-mouthing makes complex shit sound seamless and easy, and that's the mark of an artist.

It's almost hard to point out high and low points in an album so stylistically unified. Madlib keeps things moving with such aplomb that the end of the album almost comes as a surprise -- you've lost forty minutes and you don't know where they went. I can't even object to the stoner anthem "America's Most Blunted", because counterintuitively enough Madlib is on particularly sharp form during that one, scratching and shuffling samples at lightning speed. And as tributes to weed goes it is pretty damn poetic. The stoned-out rambling of "Shadows Of Tomorrow" is slightly more objectionable, though. I'd bet a few pennies that Stephen has already made fun of this one, so I won't point out how relieved I am that Madlib (showing up here as himself and pitch-shifted as Lord Quas) knows which way time goes.

Also, while I give props to Madvillain for inviting relatively unknown underground MCs to guest on this album, they do come off as a little outclassed. (I will not comment on Doom's singing, by the way. It is what it is, and somehow it works, and I will not back that up with logic.)

The final point that has to be addressed is that the high point of the album, "Strange Ways", is the only one in which Doom raps about something halfway politically or socially relevant. You wouldn't think given how level-headed (read stoned) Doom's usual approach is that he could convey that much anger in his tone, but he does. And I would really have liked to hear more in that vein. As it is the general impression you get from this album is two consummate performers having fun and showing off, which is why even though there's way more here in terms of sheer skill and complexity than there is on "A Grand Don't Come For Free", that one is the better album. You gotta have heart to go with your abilities, and the half-assed mysticism of "Shadows Of Tomorrow" doesn't cut it.

Still, well worth a buy.

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Brian Wilson: Smile

Poor Brian Wilson. He makes a great album, and then starts becoming increasingly paranoid, jealous of Phil Spector, and now the rest of his band doesn't like his new album. That's fine, he'll wait 25 years and then release it. In the meantime (since he fortunately did not succeed in burning the tapes), partial versions of the tracks appeared on Beach Boys rarity material released later, and fans put these together to make their own version of Smile. This version has completed versions of many of the songs done by Brian Wilson and his current touring band, including a version of Good Vibrations with the intended lyrics (which are better, by the way).

The album starts off with a choir/church acapella track called "Our Prayer", which sounds pretty much like the Beach Boys in choir practice, and switches to a doo-wop non-song, creating a 2 minute long overture of sorts before moving to the album's first song, the infamous "Surf's Up". There are strange sounds abound, like "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow", which is cheesy overdriven guitars, ambulance sounds, and wacky slide whistle. Incidentally, this apparently won the Best Rock Recording or something like that at the Grammys, but it's not quite that impressive.

The majority of the tracks are all strung together, mimicing the recording technique used to compose "Good Vibrations" - record different parts and then splice them together like a musical collage. Today this is incredibly simple to do and is overdone with ProTools, a.k.a. the devil, but it was revolutionary back then. The album flows very smoothly from Brian Wilson song to Brian Wilson song. These are all "Brian Wilson" songs, with a kind of cheery optimism and classic Beach Boys-style vocal melodies, but with a serious kind of view. Really, if the Flaming Lips were cheesy 60s pop stars, they would sound exactly like this.

The biggest problem I have with this album is that the original recordings were so much better. The original recordings were coated with a dark haze that went contrary to the optimistic songs, and while these recordings are good, it sounds almost like a modern cover of an old song. The songs were also a lot slower, and just a lot less happy. Really it sounds as though they went through and "Beach Boys-ified" it.

I definitely think this is something you should buy, especially if you have any love for the Beach Boys at all. But if you can, definitely burn the old versions of the track.

Confession #1: I don't like the Beach Boys.

Confession #2: This album is so cheerful that I think I may have had an allergic reaction whilst listening to it. One should not be made to review things inimical to one's core beliefs.

Before I get into this I want to say that the inclusion of this album on the list is another reason I think Pitchfork is kind of loopy. Brian Wilson is easily the oldest artist on the 2004 list, and to my knowledge he's the only one who was given an entire orchestra and vocal choir to play with. I don't see whatever Sting crapped out in 2004 on here, do you? Aging artists with massive budgets who make pleasant, happy music are usually excluded from indie-rock top tens for a reason, y'know. The whole indie part, right? This man was being hailed as a tortured genius by the popular media before a lot of the artists on the list had even been born.

Hmm... maybe if I just keep whining I can get out of writing this review entirely...

OK. If you've heard the beach boys you know what this album sounds like. Hell, you might have already heard this album, in bootleg form. Subtract the audio experimentation and add heaps and heaps of shiny production values.

Brian Wilson is an american original and nobody writes music like him. I understand that. But it's unusual for a pop artist to be making vital work at his age, and...well, he's not. He put out a solo album of newer material in 2004 as well and it's nowhere to be seen. This stuff was all written forty years ago, further complicating its presence on this list. Really the only issues we should be discussing here are the orchestration, which is beautiful if sugary, and the production, which is glossy to the point of overkill. And that's that. We should be happy that he survived his bout with mental illness and has come back to public life, but... jeez.

If you were going to buy the album you would've bought it already. It's definitely not for me, though. (Skip.)

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The Fiery Furnaces: Blueberry Boat

So now take the Brian Wilson Smile album, and now take that manner of production and take it to the absolute extreme. This album is full of 8-minute long epics each composed of several different parts, usually without any kind of transistion in between them. A lot of dissonance is usually involved, or uneasy ambience, or just plain banging on shit. These usually result in bizarre narrative epics, ranging from singing about shipping blueberries to a trouble student being treated by a modern social worker turned into a cop.

There's so much here it's hard to digest any single song. Each song has great bits, and then there are really crazy bits, and occasionally it can get annoying. The opening beat of "Quay Cur" is hypnotic, and the majority of the title track "Blueberry Boat" is filled with catchy and interesting bits, from super-overdriven guitar rock to relatively serious piano playing, as well as other instrumental breaks in between the main ballad, culminating in a kind of dissonant perversion of some unknown children's melody. It's like they decided to base their band on "Day in the Life."

But it is very epic, and funny without being too silly, which I think is death for bands that want to exist outside of the They Might Be Giants Sphere of Goofy Bands. They're like 7-minute musicals or operas, kind of akin to the 15-minute Hamlet. It makes it damn near to listen to causually and remember the song order - it's very difficult to register when a new track has begun and one has ended. There's a few songs that are more "normal", though. "Spainolated" is a shorter bit about being in Spain and plays on the "rain in Spain falls mainly on the plains" line. "I Lost My Dog" is an awesome gospel/country song (though that describes the song, it completely belies how it actually sounds) that tells of the narrator's search for their lost, abused dog (who was lost, but is now found), and finally ends at the church (on Wednesday night - the band members are Greek Orthodox), where the dog has "seen the light".

The record gets really hard to listen to, but usually only when the guitarist is doing stupid wah-wah "licks" on a guitar, which make him sound like a complete amateur who is trying to impress people at a party or is in a terrible local "psychedelic blues" band. He often goes off in the wrong key, and instead of sounding interesting like other intentionally off-key parts of the album, just sounds shitty. This is the kind of guitar work that I'm sure makes people sick of guitar solos in the first place. The other thing is that the singer's voice is not entirely suited to this kind of music. There's something too forceful and serious about the delivery, which sounds okay singing about pirates attacking blueberry cargo, but on "I Lost My Dog" she just sounds wrong. It's confusing, because she makes her voice softer in the right place on certain songs, but in other songs she doesn't seem to do this.

This entire album is confusing, but it can be a surreal experience - and I mean the fun kind of surreal, not the super-artsy "I'm so deep" kind of surreal. I mean the kind of surreal where you're listening to something, and what they're saying makes sense on a logical level, but when you listen to it, there's just something wrong that forces the entire thing into a new perspective. It's cool, but after such a long review, I'm sad to say that a lot of it just isn't catchy. So there's a payoff, but I don't know when I'll listen to this again. So I say the safe thing is to burn this. Huge shoutout: The two band members (siblings) are from Chicago, even though they have since moved to New York and go with that, AND they are also Greek Orthodox. So buy their album!

Endlessly polarizing, these folks are. They've even managed to divide my own brain on whether this album is a work of genius or unlistenable crap. There isn't much middle ground.

Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger are a brother and sister team who initially made a name for themselves doing garage-y dirty blues, and got compared to the White Stripes a lot. Then they put this album out, and suddenly they were getting compared to the Who. One wonders about music criticism, sometimes.

The song they have in mind when they make the comparison is "A Quick One While He's Away." This is an 80-minute long album of mini-operas, song-suites that switch directions and styles abruptly and tell long, sometimes poignant, sometimes pointless stories through the medium of pure freaky. Matt Friedberger can still pull a blues solo out of his ass at any given moment (and does, particularly when you least expect it) and also seems to possess the world's largest collection of bizarre keyboard effects. There are moments on this album which sound like rock and roll, moments which sound like musical theatre, moments which sound like out-and-out disco. There are no moments which could be mistaken for the work of another band, though, and that you have to respect. Their lyrics are also entirely one of a kind -- listening to them you feel like they took a bunch of weird rhyming words and built lines around them, kludging them into making sense for the most part but never even approaching a natural rhythm. And yet they're all so entirely evocative, and when they tell stories they tell them naturally, start to middle to finish.

The other thing is that I believe that Matt plays all or nearly all the instruments here, which means that while the keyboard ranges from hyperglycemic to monstrous and the guitar is filthy-good the bass and drums (when they show up) are kinda limp. If you need a groove when you listen to music you're going to throw this disc across the room. Except even that's not strictly speaking true -- the first thirty seconds of the title track grooves your ass off, before you're thrust abruptly into the least funky piece of music I've ever heard. (OK, maybe that's the contrast talking, but jesus.) And then there's "Chief Inspector Blancheflower." Starts up with the claps and the crawling casio, you think you might be in for some more merciful tunefulness, and then it just rapes you. How do you make a guy singing a song about how pathetic he is in schoolyard nyeah-nyeah lilt even more stomach-churning? Double-track his voice and then give the second track the Chipmunks treatment and mix it so far back it only impinges on your unconscious as a general sense of ill-ease and disgust. And then have the crawling casio gradually melt. But if you survive that for three minutes, you get a catchy-as-hell country pop number, followed by... man, I don't know how to describe it. Somehow it all culminates in an echo-licious Elton John vs. Eric Clapton moment, where cheeseball piano duels with an ultrawanky blues solo whilst fighting off periodic out-of-tempo incursions from a horde of ravening synthesizers.

Let me put it to you straight -- these songs are a lot more fun to describe than to listen to, at least for me. My favorite track on the album is by far the most Who-like, to the point of homage ("Chris Michaels".) And I feel bad that that's my favorite track, cause it sells their capabilities short. This band put out one of my favorite albums of 2005, "Rehearsing My Choir," and so I know I'm capable of loving their weird, classically-inflected, strange-chord keyboard humping. But this album is just... well, self-indulgent doesn't even begin to describe it. When you're making music for just yourself it almost goes beyond self-indulgence and becomes artistic bravery.

(We're not going to be reviewing "Rehearsing My Choir" later, by the way, cause P-fork gave it a 5.0. Something about it being hard to listen to. I despair at the world.)

Anyway, yeah. I can listen to about half this album before I start getting the heaves, but I really appreciate the originality at work here. I almost want to wimp out of giving a rating at all... let's just say that I think it belongs up here in the top ten, but I would burn it if I were you.

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The Streets: A Grand Don't Come For Free

Remember the last time you tried to do a bunch of errands in a day, but you were so disorganized that you needed to hurry as fast as you could, but traffic was terrible, people took forever in line, your phone went dead, and you managed to screw up in every way possible? Remember a time in your life where a series of events just battered you down until you felt like you were the piece of gum stuck under life's table and were convinced that all your friends were laughing at you behind your back? That's what this album is about. If you're not familiar with The Streets, it's just one guy, Mike Skinner, who plays normal (usually excellent) hip hop beats, but instead of rapping over them, he kind of just talks in time in a part poetry, part stream-of-consciousness, part conversation kind of way. Then the choruses are usually almost comically amatuerishly sung, but it doesn't sound bad, just unique.

This album is about the character (Mike) and his life following an incident where, during a particularly stressful day, he somehow loses 1000 pounds that was sitting on a box in his house. He goes on to meet a girl, get wasted at a club, unsuccessfully flirting on vacation, and generally having a mildly shitty life, just like the rest of us do sometimes. The best thing about this album is that it doesn't go over the top: it doesn't seem like a story, it just seems like someone's life. That's what Skinner does best, and that's the best thing about The Streets in general: he does stories or discusses something, and he usually does it in a really unique manner, and the way he strings words together is strangely fascinating.

Really, this is less rapping, and more of a monologue set to music. This album really feels like a play - not a musical - and Skinner does a great job of narrating it. I actually had part of this album before I reviewed it, but I never really listened to it much. When I first started reviewing it, it didn't really impress me right away. But when I really started listening to it, I absolutely loved it.

This album is what all good plays are about: character. Through the course of the album, Mike is fleshed out for us on each track, and if you are paying attention to the lyrics, you really get attached to the character. So by the time we get to "Dry Your Eyes", which is a pretty cheesy song, we don't care, and it makes the track very powerful. We care enough to forgive lines like "there are plenty of fish in the sea". This kind of song is usually Top 40 fodder, but with the story behind it, it's fabulous. Even as a stand-alone track it works because Skinner's monologue is real enough that it brings us into the song. The cheesy chord progression (C/Amin7 or something like that) augments the song instead of the song using it as a crutch.

Then on the last track, "Empty Cans", we're shown two different endings, and when you finally get to the album's climax, the whole album comes together. It's the best I've felt about any one of the albums on this entire list so far. Even the little touches are great. He interrupts the verse for the chorus on "Such a Twat" by having the conversation on his cell phone cut out. The argument he has with his girlfriend by himself on "Get Out Of My House" is priceless. The slow progession from pissed at waiting to totally fucked on pills at a club on "Blinded By The Lights" is perfect. He manages to get totally different feels out of the same backbeat on "Empty Cans" The only problem with this album is that you have to really be up on your British->American translation to understand the damn thing without looking at the lyrics. Bastards invented the language and don't speak a goddamn word of it.

This album is powerful, and I really mean that. I can't listen to it that many times without a break. I peeked at Isaac's review, and I agree: this is the first truly excellent album on the list. Also, I can't stop reading or typing words in Skinner's accent for at least an hour after I finish listening to the album. But fuck, buy it quick snap.

It's really hard to stop listening to this album.

Who'd have thought that britain would be where the next great wave of hip-hop artists came from? I guess it makes sense-- I think I can trace a direct line between Joy Division and this sound, via Aphex Twin and the Prodigy. Not that the beats are really the point. Mike Skinner is a storyteller MC in the oldschool vein and this is a little masterpiece, a hip-hop concept album which tells one coherent story, beginning to end. The story is as follows: boy loses money, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds money. It's amazing that this works, and even more amazing that it holds your attention all the way through, but it does. He's just that good. The bonus is that the cockney accent he's putting on isn't even his -- he's from Birmingham. He's playing a character, and that gets him so many extra points.

Might as well discuss the beats, which augment but never distract. There's an admirable diversity of approach here, ranging from grime-style angular beats on "Not Addicted" to acoustic indie rock on "Dry Your Eyes" to jittery britpop on "Fit But You Know It", which could easily have been a pop hit on its own but which works even better as part of the overarching storyline. It's all good stuff, but the crowning achievement of the album in terms of beat, production and structure is the closing track "Empty Cans". It's an eight-minute track composed of two four-minute songs stuck together back to back, songs which are mirror images of each other, a bad ending and a happy ending to the story. The basic beat is the same in both tracks -- it's just variation in the chording in the keyboard and the volume of the strings that changes the color, converting a frigid hate song into a swelling, cathartic and kind of eye-misting resolution to the whole sorry tale. The way the beat develops in this track is the result of the best kind of artistic decision-making -- it's clever, but it has a definite purpose, and you don't notice it until you stop and think. Massive props. And let me tell you, I'm not used to giving massive props to an album that went triple platinum in its home country.

Check out "Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way". It's a hip-hop love song, so of course it has a soul sample as the hook, except you gradually realize it's not a soul sample, it's a pastiche with a live musician, and the lyrics of the sung part have been written specifically to complement the content of the rap. And I really love the content, because I've been in the kind of relationship he describes -- one in which all you do is hang out and do your favorite mindless comfortable non-social activity with your girl (in his case watching TV and smoking up.) And how that's kind of all right, and sometimes that's all you need. I don't think I've ever heard a love song address that specific model. "Blinded By The Lights" is a song about having a bad experience in a club, and the rave-inspired beat is cold and alienating, and the hook recurs again and again, at irregular but rapid intervals... every element of the song is designed to convey the feeling of losing your shit. While I'm on the subject, I really like Skinner's habit of putting a simple, brief chorus in every song. The briefness is key -- it imparts structure without slowing shit down. And it's a very old-school thing to do. Why did Pitchfork bother with the new De La Soul when this carries on their legacy better than they could?

Flaws: "Not Addicted" is entirely tangential to the overarching storyline and screws with the unified voice. I'm not sure if the main character in this song is the same character from the rest of the album, and it just seems out of place here, in terms of beat and structure and tone. Skinner's flow style is kind of unorthodox and elastic -- his rhymes are generally excellent and unforced, and come in interesting places, but he has a bit of a problem with trying to crowbar too many syllables into one line. Mostly that works because of his sheer confidence as a performer, but on "Not Addicted" it stands out. I would've left it out.

Easy buy, and probably the first truly exceptional album on the list.

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