2004, 34-31 Espers, The Futureheads, Califone and De La Soul

The Futureheads
De La Soul
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Espers: Espers

If my Linux analogy at the very beginning of the experiment didn't make it clear: I am a huge nerd. And from my nerdy perspective, "Espers" are an ancient race of people with mystical magical powers, whose powers are harnessed and exploited by a tyrannical evil mad dictator bent on world domination. But if some of you aren't familiar with the intricacies of Final Fantasy VI, this may not be the immediate association that springs to mind. If, however, by some chance you are totally with me, you'll agree that much of this album in fact sounds like music from Final Fantasy.

Espers (the band) is a singer/songwriter band that features soft finger-picked guitar, male/female harmonies, with other instruments thrown in for ambience (e.g. violins, flute, harpsichord), with lyrics and a mysterious style that evoke Ren-faire qualities which suggest that your friend with the dragon statues and healing crystals could totally get into it. Which is why the Final Fantasy comparison is an apt one: many of these tracks could be featured in any one of the games if not for their being in English. In an alternate universe, the melodies and instrumental work would be penned by Nobuo Uematsu and recorded with MIDI sounds on a 4-CD box set that nerds would drool over and pay $150 to import. But instead, in this reality, it instead becomes an indie hit that an entirely different set of nerds can drool over.

There are a few exceptions to this, though. "Riding" is more like a modern take on the old classic rock guitar ballad about "riding all night" with some Radiohead-meets-Santana lead guitar thrown in. "Daughter" sounds more like a Mirah/Belle & Sebastian song with a seriously cool E-bow-sounding tone in the background. The final song, "Travel Mountains," I swear to God is stolen straight from Star Trek from one of those episodes where Kirk battles Spock or some other green alien on a barbaric planet.

This album is pretty good sounding, but it really fails to deliver any excitement, and while the atmosphere is haunting, video games have done better. Burn it. "Flowery Noontide" is the suggested listening track.

I'm going to assume that Stephen took care of all the Final Fantasy jokes and will therefore just focus on the music.

This is very lovely, very soft, very well-orchestrated, very boring music. The songs generally consist of one short, simple theme theme fingerpicked on a pair of acoustic guitars and repeated over and over, embellished with a variety of strings and woodwinds and chimes and the occasional synthesizer or fuzzed-out guitar. It ranges from standard, breathy indie folk to songs that sound almost as if they were lifted from a renaissance-era songbook. When this is executed well, as in "Byss & Abyss", which features an actual change in the main riff near the end of the song, it's very pretty indeed. When it's not, as on the interminable "Hearts & Daggers", one can drift easily off into an irritated slumber.

The sweet, soft male/female vocal interplay is nice, if not spectacular. I've heard the Delgados, to name a random example, pull off similar material with similar vocal stylings much more effectively. I think that's the all-around impression the album leaves me with, in fact: it's nice, but I've heard better in the same vein, no matter how many theremins or string quartets Espers throw at their arrangements. And the fuzz guitar solos they toss in on songs like "Riding" and "Travel Mountains" don't work very well, detracting from the overall lilt of the song without effectively adding teeth.

Then again if I wanted to take a nap in a patch of sunlight or watch the summer sky out the window this is the music I would use to push myself outside the flow of time. The renfest vibe that insinuates itself into the mix occasionally is very cool, and I could see growing to love the best stuff on here, like the ethereally pretty "Daughter", after repeated listenings. But it's not consistent enough to merit owning a copy. Burn it if you need mellowing.

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The Futureheads: The Futureheads

As soon as this album started playing, I did something amazing: I started paying attention. The vocals are clear, the guitar work weaves, juxtaposes, and is really tight, and reminds me of a lot of The Pillows' work. It plays like a goofy version of Franz Ferdinand (somewhere between Hot Hot Heat and Blur) mixed with the unexpected musical turns of On Montreal (though not nearly as drastic). The guitar sounds, vocal effects, and overall production sounds very much like The Police. And only one song on the album is over 3 minutes.

The lyrics are the centerpiece of the album, though. In rock and roll music, there's always a mysteriously fine line: a line between cliche and fresh, playful and cheesy, shallow and deep, clever and stupid. The Futureheads come close to being too goofy, but they structure their words really well and nearly everything they say comes across sounding sincere - and good. What's more is that you can understand what he says.

On "A to B", he says "I ask a question, you make a comment / Impossible to make a comment / I ask a question, you make a comment / Can you say that again, because I didn't catch your comment." On "First Day," the lyrics are really simple, but something about the things they decide to talk about make it slightly askew, like those haunted houses where the floor is slightly tilted but you don't realize it.

The album isn't completely perfect, though. "Stupid and Shallow" is exactly that, and the words just aren't at the same caliber of the rest of the album. Fortunately, it's the shortest song on the album at 1:35. Some of the songs aren't too memorable, either, like "Manray" or "Danger of the Water", but even "Danger of the Water" has a really nice lead part towards the end.

Definitely buy the Futureheads' self-titled album. If you need more convincing, try and get a listen to the opener, "Le Garage".

This has been one of my favorite albums for a long time, so, yeah, might as well try to justify it.

OK, Futureheads = british new wave (early XTC-type) + pop-punk stylings + barbershop quartet.

Is that not enough?

All right. How about that bit in "Carnival Kids" where they stop in the middle of a rip-snorting rock and roll song to do a 1950s root-third-fifth-octave four part vocal harmony and then rip into an almost a capella bridge which gathers momentum and then crashes down on your head with the force of a mighty buffalo?

More? OK, they have a song about French surrealist filmmaker Man Ray on here. And an amazing cover of Kate Bush's "Hounds Of Love". And they have a song that sounds like it's running backwards until the chorus, which turns out to be an ineffably poncy yet military ratatatat prance, followed by a bridge where they break out a cello for about fifteen seconds and cover it with vocal harmonies which defy logical interpretation. (That's "Alms", my favorite thing on the album if I had to choose.)

Yeah. This album is awesome from cover to cover, with only a few slow patches (the meditative but formless "Danger Of The Water", bratty "Stupid And Shallow".) The lyrical content is urgent and deeply felt, covering a wide swathe of urban angst and romantic tension, sincere and never without a barb of bitterness or irony or sadness. The fast, furious riffs are delivered with standard british pick precision, with a particularly fat, flatulent bass tone that ties the whole shebang together.

The question is not so much whether you're going to buy it or not as why you haven't bought it already.

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Califone: Heron King Blues

Oh. Am I supposed to start the review? I got distracted by this paint. Drying.

To tell the truth, I honestly forgot that Califone was on the list for this batch. I thought, "what am I supposed to be listening to? De La Soul, The Futureheads, Espers, and..." and I couldn't figure it out until I looked at the master list. This album is yet another bluegrass-influenced mellow singer/songwriter piece on the top 50, but it is really like a blank space where there should be a blip of an album. It's like those mind erasers from Men In Black set to about 45 minutes. Or one of Douglas Adams' SEP fields: Oh, is there music playing? That's somebody else's problem.

That's not to say Califone is bad by any measure except the "interesting" measure. And they aren't devoid of creativity at all, it's just that the album fails to give me any motivation for putting on its songs a second time. For example, "Trick Bird" has a really hypnotic, tap-your-foot tom drum loop, but if presented with a Winamp playlist, I will never pick "Trick Bird" to play. Nor would I ever bother to load Califone on my iPod except to review it or have some nice relaxing music I don't really have to think about.

Surprisingly enough, there are some highs and lows to the album. "Apple" has just about the most tedious vocal melody I've heard in a while on a recording, which sounds less like he's trying to be emotional and is just embarrassed to be singing in front of a mic. "Trick Bird" on the other hand, has a catchy chorus, and "2 Sisters Drunk on Each Other" breaks the mold with a Pink Floyd style wah-guitar and bass and 80's drum samples and the singer being about as funky as a quiet gruff singer that sounds like he's singing to himself in the corner at a party can be. "Heron King Blues," on the other hand, is just a mish-mosh guitar/electronica jam, and "Outro" has the same effect on me as fingernails on a chalkboard has for most people - TURN OFF THE AMP IF YOU'RE JUST GOING TO IDLY FINGER THE GUITAR.

So if you get a chance, burn Heron King Blues and enjoy the empty space for a while. (WARNING: DO NOT DRIVE OR OPERATE HEAVY MACHINERY WHILE LISTENING TO CALIFONE.)


This album spans the genres, offering up folk, blues, southern rock, psychedelic rambling and even the occasional spasm of white funk. (All that and more is on display in the title track alone, which is also remarkable for being a fifteen-minute song that doesn't stink.) The element that holds it all together is an overwhelming sense of swamp, Instilled by ramshackle and bizarre percussion and an accompanying sonic landscape swimming with faint screeches and plunks and jungle noise. If you were poling your way through an overgrown marsh and passed by some barefoot locals sitting on a log playin' the banjo, and then past a neon-lit floating bar with mutant electric blues seeping out the holes in the siding, and then past George Harrison, and then past a burbling geothermal anomaly possibly fueled by buried toxic waste, and then past Remain In Light-era Talking Heads (presumably in a canoe of some kind), it would sound like this album.

It is a little slow to get started. I found the first two tracks, "Wingbone" and "Trick Bird", too smooth and radio-ready for my tastes, and in fact I was getting all set to dunk this album in the "nice but disposable" bin when the third song began and the sitars creeped in and melody developed to go with the atmosphere and I found myself drawn deeper into the creeper and mud. When Califone aren't pushing their weirdness they're a little safe and a little boring, but their weirdness isn't the kind that challenges -- it intrigues, brings you deeper into the bubbling cauldron of it all, and keeps you interested while the album serenades. And when they're derivative (as in "2 Sisters Drunk On Each Other", which is really blatantly Heads-y) at least they're derivative in high style. The title track is a small masterpiece, drifting easily from idea to and idea and theme to theme and never losing steam. And so many unidentifiable little sounds are scattered throughout the album... you catch snatches of indian flutes, fuzzed out sax, broken mandolins, keys of all stripes, about a hundred different wood and metal things you can whack to make a beat, and more. It rewards close listening but works as background music. It's awesome, basically.

Still I find that I might have to recommend that you burn it rather than buy it. The obstacle here for me is that I really dislike the first two tracks on the CD, and I think that would discourage me from taking it out and playing it as a disc. Far better to be able to skip the outskirts of the swamp and wade right in at the middle... but the good stuff is so good. I'm torn. Maybe a Burn+? Or a Buy, and then shave off the first 2.55 mm?

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De La Soul: The Grind Date

I have to give the album credit: it works like an album and has a couple of overlying themes. One of these themes can be described as such: De La Soul used to be really awesome and is still awesome because they have been making music for so long. Now, as a newcomer to hip-hop, I realize that rappers are supposed to be grandiose and refer to themselves and how awesome they are in their songs, but this album seems to be pushing it. It seems to keep on saying: Remember how awesome De La Soul was? Listen to this famous guy, he remembers De La Soul and how awesome they were! It's about the career, not the album! Now we're going to namedrop all these artists that have been defunct for years (A Tribe Called Quest??).

Now it so happens that I am not in fact too familiar with De La Soul. I have heard one song by them before from my WHPK days, but I liked it more than the stuff on this album. So I did what every responsible researcher should do: look at the Wikipedia page. The explaination of De La Soul goes like this:

"They are best known for their eclectic sampling and quirky, surreal lyrics, and their contributions to the evolution of the jazz rap subgenre."
None of these things are present on the album.

Just some random observations:

  • At some point on "The Future" they are content to just reiterate in a "cool voice" what the sample is singing: "We are singing (Sing it out now!) / you this message (Sendin' you a message y'all)"
  • At the start of "Verbal Clap" they cover, for 5 seconds, a song written by Beavis and Butthead: "Dammit, dammit, bitch, bitch." I swear it was on an episode.
  • X-Box is mentioned twice: "I play the X-Box instead of fuckin' with dice" and "No time for sittin playin X-Box." Which is it??
  • Gets bonus points for possibly the first rap song to rhyme "Carly Simon" (hardly rhymin').
  • Apparently "hip-hop is the only thing that provides jobs for people that don't even love the shit."
  • Flava Flav would make an awesome voice actor for a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, especially a modern version of Top Cat. "Look out, TC, Officer Dipple is headed straight for us!!"
  • I wonder if people listen intently to "Come on Down," where they list off a whole bunch of cities, waiting for their city to come up like schoolchildren waiting to see if their school called off school for snow.

You should skip this album, but instead buy one of De La Soul's older albums. If they want to live in the past, you should humor them.

How desperate does Pitchfork have to be for the return of old-school rap to rank this thing above Cee-Lo? De La Soul were responsible for some of the best hip-hop albums ever released, bar none, but shit, they got old. The flow is limp and the beats range from flat to annoying: why oh why oh why do they feel the need to slap pitch-shifted girl R&B vox all over everything? It's like they gelded the Chipmunks and made 'em go "ooh ooh baby" with the handclaps... how, I don't want to think about...

De La write solid rhymes but they deliver them slowly and ponderously and the thematic content leaves a lot to be desired, hinging as it does on two basic themes: a) we are better than everything new because we've been around longer and b) kids! get a job, go to church, get off the pipe and stop whining! Creepy Bill Cosby parallels abound: they were both brilliant in the 80s and've coasted ever since, they both blame the problems of black youth on a lack of old-fashioned gumption, and apparently they both dig pudding. Listening to middle-aged rappers telling me how much my culture sucks and how I should be out plowing a field and making good is not my idea of a good time, and I don't think socially responsible rap has to be preachy and politically retrograde, and jesus, what the hell was Spike Lee doing introducing the awful, awful get right with god track "Church?" Talk about the has-beens leading the has-beens.

Far and away the best thing about this album is the guest artists, the best of whom easily outshine the De La Soul MCs but almost always drag above-average performances out of them. (Funny how that works, isn't it?) The strongest track on the album is the very last, "Rock Co. Kane Flow", featuring none other than the magnificent MF Doom, who must've brought the abnormally interesting and irregular beat with him -- he makes 'em spit fire to keep up with his mushmouth flow. Ghostface rips up "He Comes", which features a pleasant (if repetitive) philly soul-based groove and ushers in the last and strongest third of the album. The, um, least political third. As opposed to the first third, which features a song about how women will bankrupt you with all their shopping. And then there's track 10, "Come On Down"...and let me tell you, I think you have to be physically dead not to get a smile on your face when loveable ol' crackhead Flava Flav busts out his "Yeeeeeah". Download that song and have five minutes of awesome, even if the producer's attempt to replicate vintage Public Enemy styles in the beat comes off as anemic. You can't make music like that anymore... not since they started enforcing copyright on samples...

Download tracks 10 and 12 but skip the rest of the album hard. There's gotta be a better way to bring old-school back than this.

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