2005, 34-31 Silver Jews, Bloc Party, Beanie Sigel and Konono No.1

Silver Jews
Bloc Party
Beanie Sigel
Konono No.1
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Silver Jews: Tanglewood Numbers

I'd always heard of the Silver Jews but never really heard them. They're one of those permanent fixtures in any kind of hip record store. They're kind of omnipresent; leaf through the 'S' section and they will be there. They seem like an afterthought, too: I've never heard of anyone express some kind of great admiration for this band. So I wasn't too surprised when I played it and thought, "oh hey it's Pavement, but more country." And there's even less reason to be surprised, because the Silver Jews were a side project of one of the members of Pavement that isn't Stephen Malkumus. So this album basically shares all possible flaws and benefits of Pavement, just with a warmer, more soothing voice.

When the album starts out, it sounds like it is coming directly from 1997 with a textbook perfect indie rock song, "Punks In The Beerlight", that is topped off with the excellent line, "I love you to the max". The Silver Jews' style seems to be to flirt with country without ever actually reaching that point. Leading the band is David Berman's distinctive voice. He can be indie droll, soothing, or even approach Mitch Hedberg timbre, like on "Sometimes A Pony Gets Depressed." The tracks are laced with weedly guitar that sounds like a bored college student on a rainy day playing along with his recordings. On "Animal Shapes", the Silver Jews bust out the fiddle, which features country riffs but no country. It's kind of like seeing a tractor do 5 miles an hour down a lonely Portland city street or maybe like finding a Republican in Ann Arbor. It's weird until you realize that the lonely Portland street is next to the city park or that there has to be somebody voting in those Republican booths during the primary. But like the farm tractor, the Silver Jews can be really slow and kind of annoying if you are in a hurry.

The problem with this album is that I can't ever see really liking any of these songs. Sure, there are some great lines, and there are some parts where the instrumental guitar section really works and Berman's voice matches perfectly with the female lead ("The Poor, the Fair and the Good"). But Berman's voice can have a very sedating effect sometimes, and it's very present; at best, it's nice to listen to; at worst, if you're in the wrong mood, it is really annoying. Now I'm being a little tough on this album because I'm reviewing it as a Top 50 Album - it would be better than many other bands' CDs, but I don't find it something that I can really get excited about. There are some lows on the album, too, and the lowest is one called "The Farmer's Hotel", which is one of the dullest ballads I've ever heard, and it also features many really poor and/or pathetic rhymings with the word "Goshen." It's also an odd track on this album. And at 7:03, it's almost 3 minutes longer than any other song on the album.

I'm not exactly sure why this is on the Top 50; if it is a celebration of the return of 90s era indie rock or if it's someone who doesn't like Stephen Malkumus' stuff, or misses Pavement or what. I'm not too impressed by this album, although it does have a lot of pretty strong songwriting on it. It would be interesting to listen to this album to hear all the things the Silver Jews do with fiddles and the choices they make in mixing country stylings with slacker indie rock. Solid burn to the max.

I hate to dis a Portland band, so I'm going to keep this brief. (The album is brief, mercifully - so they deserve leniency.)

When people say they don't like indie music, this is the sort of music they're thinking of. It's clever, but not particularly tight or musically difficult -- the singers can't sing, and don't care -- and the lyrics are "quirky". There are songs with titles like "Sometimes A Pony Gets Depressed". And frankly I could be describing my own band here, but that doesn't mean I have to like it when other people do it. Particularly when they're just a little bit country. Or a lot country. Or sound like the Magnetic Fields doing country (the unfortunately spot-on style parody "How Can I Love You (If You Won't Lie Down)".

...OK, it's not so bad as all that. It's weird enough to keep me interested, and there's a fair bit of genre-hopping (we have jammy, spacey numbers, country rock, jangly britpop.) "Sometimes A Pony Gets Depressed" is spazzy enough to be early XTC. The execrable "K-Hole" is a tribute to Modest Mouse at its most retarded, with space noises. But the rest of it is basically loose country rock with odd pop breaks thrown into the mix. They deserve points for regularly switching up approaches mid-song, but the curveballs they throw aren't particularly curvy, and tend to land with a wet thud. And the lyrics are quite good sometimes (I got stuck in Goshen / and it made me sad...")

There's maybe two tracks on this album that I'd want to hear again, which puts this pretty firmly in skipsville. And to my credit, I wrote this before I found out that Stephen "Douchebag" Malkmus was involved in the project! Yay.

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Bloc Party: Silent Alarm

Even the most inexperienced runner knows that in a race of any decent length, you need to pace yourself in order to do your best. Bloc Party seems to have missed this point. Bloc Party is an indie rock from the aughts, and they have an excellent pop rock sound that sounds like a natural maturation from pop-punk and emo. I know this because I have friends who have undergone the same transition. It's not a bad thing, because they've taken the best ideas from those otherwise bankrupt genres and added other high-energy ideas from other rock genres, and added influence from listening to esoteric or indie rock. Maybe they took a music theory course and decided to add a 7/8 bar here or there. There are a lot of bands like this, and a decent number of them are pretty good. More succinctly, Bloc Party sounds like Franz Ferdinand meets Les Savy Fav.

But back to the race. Bloc Party leaps out of the gate really strong with the opener "Like Eating Glass", which besides betraying them as hopelessly British, shows off their vast potential for songwriting. The hooks are sprinkled throughout the entire song, and they show that they can be exciting without going 50 miles hour and overbearing the listener with pure adreneline. There's no lack of energy, though, especially from the drummer, who, I should point out, is really really excellent. He tends to go the Keith Moon route, hitting as many drums as he can per second, but doing it really really well and in a really tasteful way. I know that recording that kind of drummer can be a real challenge. The producers on this album have decided to go the route of moving the close mic'd drums further up in the mix, which not only gives the drums a cool mechanical sound, but also brings out the natural sound of the drums in an interesting way.

Bloc Party continues to go full force and show no signs of stopping, blowing away the rest of the pack with "Helicopter", is as close to an emo hit as Bloc Party is likely to get, which isn't too far away. There's no whining; the song structure is just similar. They also show that they may have been listening to some Midtown, as well as showing off their skill for starting and stopping on a dime like any pop-punk band should be able to do. Bloc Party makes a brilliant move on "Positive Tension" by leaving this familiar ground behind with a song that starts off with just the basic pieces, and like Magneto summoning bits of iron from around the surrounding area, slowly pulls all the bits together to, finally, at almost the very end of the song, the song transforms into a majestic sculpture, and concludes with a old-school Radiohead-style guitar solo before a 10-second denoument. You never see this kind of song structure, and it's absolutely bloody brilliant. Bloc Party is running as fast as they can, and no one else is even close. "Banquet" is a more traditional song with some good harmonies that remind me of My Hotel Year (now that's an obscure reference). It's not their best, but at this point Bloc Party can afford to slack off a little.

Blue Light gets serious again with "Blue Light", when the singer switches from rock vocals to 80s low whisper vocals. It's an abrupt change, but it sounds good, and the song is constructed very well. It's not quite as catchy as the previous songs, but it's still an excellent song despite this. Now Bloc Party slacks off a little with "She's Hearing Voices". But is he resting up or is he wearing down? No, no, there's a pretty good guitar solo; they must be doing ok.

Suddenly, Bloc Party's side cramps up! His legs are starting to get really stiff, and breating starts to feel sharp. They're trying as hard as they can, but all they can do "This Modern Love", which has really good instrumentation, but they don't have their same flair, and tasteful additions of spoken words just barely saves the track from being completely mediocre. Something's gone wrong. Horribly wrong.

Bloc Party is struggling. They can't keep up the pace anymore. Gone are the wonderful instrumentation, replaced with Walkmen-on-a-bad-day guitar, they've got the hooks, but the same magic that was there with "Like Eating Glass" is gone. It's like Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan compared to Wizards Michael Jordan. Then, on "Price of Gasoline", it's over. Bloc Party slows down to a jog. He's clutching his side, gasping for breath. Gasping, Bloc Party spits out a weak political commentary about the oil industry and rips off nearly the same hook he used in the last song. "So Here We Are" is no better. Bloc Party gets a second chance with an excellent guitar riff and squanders it. We're in bad-version-of-New-Order territory here.

"Luno" is their second wind, but even though they're going good again, it's clear that the race is lost. Finally, Bloc Party decides that puking just isn't worth it and walks to the finsh line with the disappointing and out-of-nowhere tracks "Plans" and "Compliments" which are both lame echoey slow songs that show no sign of the excellent songwriters on the first half of the album. Bloc Party staggers, does some stretches, and gets a lecture from Coach about pacing.

So there you have it: the first half of the album is good, the second half is bad. If that isn't why God invented CD burners, I don't know what is.

Dear Bloc Party,

Let me start by saying that the laundry list of bands to whom you owe royalties - starting at Gang of Four, angling through the Vapors, passing by the Smiths and then working your way up to Nirvana and Blink-182, with a healthy dollop of your near-cousins the Futureheads - it doesn't matter much to me. There's no such thing as original pop music. It ain't your parents that displease me, baby -- except for a little too much pop-punk in the pedigree, it's blue-ribbon all down the line. It's... well. How do I say this gracefully?

You got no personality. And the reason you got no personality is that your singer got no personality. There is a lack of oomph here, a slidiness -- one minute he's chopping off his declarative statements like a bratty new-wave punk, one minute he's growling like nu-metal, one moment paranoid, one moment sensitive, and all without the chops or emotional integrity to back any of it up. Which is a shame, because you have a bitching rhythm section. Ohh, the bass and drums... particularly early on in this album, when you're biting the post-punk more than the pop-punk, there are moments of sheer propulsive brilliance. "Positive Tension", which is mostly bass and drums with cold stabs of keyboard and guitar, features your singer putting on that every-sentence-is-declarative-and-tuneless style worn comfortable by twenty years of spastic british punkers, but manages to work anyway out of sheer hookiness. I couldn't help but bob my head and throw the horns during the outro, a barking back-and-forth wall of sound, until it cut out so your singer could say "so fucking useless", and a classic emo break rolled in and little alarm bells started going off in the back of my head.

That's right, emo. I said it. You're emo. Admit it. You've got the rock and roll look and the indie cred and you're slightly more challenging than the average butter-slick whine-rock band, but you're emo. You aim for the paralyzing paranoia of Joy Division or Radiohead in your opening track, but you miss -- coming from you I can't believe it. And as things wear on you mostly end up talking about girls. Your jams get sillier, your singer's yelping gets harder to take, and you end up sounding far too young and far too easily influenced. Is that really the opening from "Smells Like Teen Spirit" you're using for your verse on "Banquet"? And did you really decide that those four chords would best be served by a two-note vocal melody and some cymbal skittering?

So here's the deal - I like you. I particularly like the way you bang. But I think if we're gonna get together in any serious way you need to do a little growing up. Stop trying to act like all your friends and dig down deep to find who you really are. And stop trying to front -- the first five tracks on this album hog all the songwriting and leave the rest floppy and formless. (I mean, really, "Plans"? Sounds like Interpol and Blink-182 had a child... the obvious Death Cab parallels aside..) You can do better. It's not me, you understand. It's you. (Who's getting skipped.)

Cuddles, Isaac.

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Beanie Sigel: The B.Coming

First, I have to apologize. I got these tracks from... a friend, and as such, I am surprised haven't had any broken, unfinished, or mislabeled albums until now. The version I have is the censored version, it also has random dropouts, and one of the tracks is cut off. This means there are no f***s, s***, p****, p****, n*g***, *it*h, **a*, *****, ****, or references to p**, ******, c****, b*ll**s, bo*ty, kn*ckers, kn*ckers, b*m, or semprini (semprini?).

In any case, Beanie Sigel, from what I can hear, sounds like the kind of rapper that fits right in with my image of early-to-mid-90s hip-hop: "Gotta Have It" sounds like what I think Kid and Play sounds like (no idea if I'm right or not), "Don't Stop" sounds like what I figure Snoop Dogg sounds like. Apparently Sigel has some thing with Jay Z or something, and went to prison, and you know. That gangster stuff. For all that, though, he goes the opposite route from The Game and doesn't make a huge deal of it on every single other line of his lyrics. He's not entirely devoid of narcissistic references (he compares himself to Jimi Hendrix at some point), but it's rap. That would be like rock music without guitars.

The problem with me reviewing this album is that it is entirely uninteresting to me, and not because it's boring, but just that it's not my taste. It certainly seems good; there's a lot of technically excellent rapping on here and it sounds like Top 40 rap but without the manufactured commercial taste. The beats are not exactly novel, but they are very layered in parts, and they're really smooth. Actually, now that I think about it, smooth basically defines this album. It's like you brought some rapper clique to a tasteful lounge bar devoted entirely to picking up chic, cosmopolitan hotties, Smoove B presiding, and the entertainer for the night has noticed the famous rappers in the crowd and asked them to come up on stage to do a few verses, and they decide to have fun with it.

I'm going to give this a buy but that's simply a guess on my part. Throw in the fact that the album had a couple technical flaws, and you have the most unsure rating of this entire project.

After listening to this album I feel kind of silly about being enthusiastic about the Game, who is compared to B. a huge fashion gangster and frankly a bit of a girly man. I felt a sort of avuncular affection for Game, who was obviously overstating his importance in the rap universe and who would probably have ended up collecting figurines in another life. Sigel is authentically scary. The Game is at his best when he's talking about the fine things his riches have bought him. Sigel is at his best talking about how his granddaddy used to drink cough syrup.

This album is laden with soulful, melodic beats, which is a fantastic departure -- soulful, melodic beats with a deft sense of rhythmic tension, too, so on certain tracks you feel as if there's a genuine interplay between the rapper and the beat (something we haven't seen here since Madvillain.) The snares and cymbals here are particularly nifty, rushing in and out and fluttering, subtle and never overpowering-- check out "Gotta Have It", with the oddly offbeat snare pops and swelling gamelan tones. And is that show-off mile-a-minute rapping there Twista? A good, good sign, and the guest verse is seamlessly integrated, which is a pattern that continues through the whole album. I love the little touches -- the Regency piano flutterings and britpop harpsichord on the intro to "Bread and Butter", which flows seamlessly into a minimalist banger that always seems seconds away from lurching into funk but doesn't quite let itself til the hook. And it mirrors the development of the song, which is a track about being played by a woman that somehow doesn't come off as misogynistic. Big points there. The rhythms on this album spiral and split, and there's a thematic cohesion here which suggests to me that a live band may have been involved at some point, which is very welcome indeed. There's no jazz, per se, but there's always a little bit implied in the elasticity of the proceedings, even as big memphis horns and cop-show bombast keep us firmly in the realm of soul and funk. And then there are odd departures, like the last track, "Wanted", which is one third 60s-pop song harpsichord, one third James Brown wailing, and one third gangster drum and bass. The end effect is oddly atmospheric, distant, threatening, and then the hook comes in and it's like the chorus of a Byrds song.

And lo and behold, the thematic content is worth the beats. It's mostly gangster stuff, again, but there's so much more self-knowledge at work here-- there's very little glorification of the lifestyle here. It's more a documentary approach, which makes sense, since Sigel is living it (he recorded this album while out on bail.) He doesn't sound proud of the violence. His outlook is almost apocalyptically gloomy -- literally, in the case of "Lord Have Mercy" -- and he doesn't offer a lot of answers. But he keeps us entertained with dark tales of street violence, dysfunctional relationships and (in the tremendously entertaining "Purple Rain") the joys of Promethazine. He has an endless array of highly entertaining guest artists, who range in their approaches from hardcore to fey to tragic. If I told you to buy the Game's shit, I really have to tell you to buy this. Even my hypocrisy has its limits. There are problems here -- most notably, it's another unfeasibly huge rap album, and things start to sag in the final twenty minutes just from sheer fatigue. And there's not a huge amount of variation in the content or in the beats. But the last track is worth hanging on for. So go for it.

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Konono No.1: Congotronics

I'm surprised it took us this long to get to world music. My partner has said this isn't actually "world music", but you know what? It really sounds like world music, so I'm going to call it that. Konono No. 1's deal is that they go to junkyards and find old musical instruments, some electronic, fix them up, and get together and play music and have a good old time. Absolutely no other band on the list so far has even come close to being as perfect of a band to have a segment on NPR radio about them. As you listen to the album, every second feels like the report has cut away to give the listening audience a taste of this African band that is giving instruments new life and bringing music rich in culture to their culture-rich village. It's so cultural. I can just imagine the journalist reporting with glee that their instruments are made entirely from junk and then describing how they got their start, interspersed with interview clips. And now, a segment about the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Konono No. 1 is, to be fair, very impressive, especially from the natural sounds they get from their salvaged equipment. They sound like your average African-style band, except there is one instrument that sounds like a sampled steel drum mixed with a calliope. However, I cannot rate their composition or songwriting at all because I have zero prior experience with this music. They seem like a fairly skilled band, able to stay together and drumming for around a half hour. This seems to be a recording of a live show, or at least a pieced-together one, and they can play their instruments. The person playing the weird steel-drum sounding instrument seems talented, but the rest of the percussion doesn't seem to be quite so difficult in the least, but the lack of technical prowess exhibited is overcome in good measure by the sheer amount of soul on this recording. This recording really sounds like they are having fun. I bet it would have been a good place to be at, provided there was some like refreshment stands where you could get a bite to eat, and sit down on tarps and drink and have a good time with your friends.

One thing I do have to say, and this seems to apply to many kinds of "world music": enough with the fucking whistle player. I seriously think the whistle is probably the worst musical instrument ever. It seems like whistle players are the people who want to join the band, but are the least skilled members. They want to accept everyone, so they give the guy (it's probably not a girl) a whistle and say "hey, have fun with it, just don't whistle every goddamn second." And of course sometimes they do, but I bet they have someone whose job includes getting them to calm down. The other thing is that, to me, most of the music on this albums sounds exactly the same. And there are only 7 songs on the album. Maybe it's my white male Christian upbringing, but honestly this music sounds like the stuff they play in the drum circle that the smelly annoying hippie on your floor plays in. (Smelly because they've just come from Ultimate practice, and annoying because they insist on making painfully awkward PETA protests and playing their videos of pigs being slaughtered at full fucking blast in the common student area in the Reynolds Club. As if that's going to make me hate bacon or something.)

So, I'm certain that this is on the Top 50 out of some kind of appreciation of this band's ingenuity, but seriously, rewarding people for making cool instruments out of junk belongs on NPR, not on a Top 50 Albums list. None of this music is so incredibly interesting that it is musically superior to any other release of this kind of music in 2005. Knowing this kind of setup, it's probably the case that every purchase of their CD donates to some kind of cause, in which case you should buy it. If not, it's still interesting to listen to, and if African world music is your bag, head down your dormitory hallway and ask your local hippie to let you borrow a copy (you can skip actually making your own copy). Just get out of there before he makes you listen to Phish.

This album is just really difficult to parse. First of all, it's Congolese thumb piano music. I have... limited experience with that genre, at best, so it's kind of hard to evaluate whether it's good Congolese thumb piano music or bad Congolese thumb piano music. Second, it's unlike any other album of Congolese thumb piano music ever released, since they have amps. Homemade amps made largely of car parts. And they recorded it themselves, outdoors, with homemade mics also largely derived from car parts. And in the percussion, in addition to the drums and shakers one would expect, we have, yes, car parts. There are two avenues open to me here -- I can either throw up my hands and give it two big thumbs up based solely on the improbability of this music even existing, or I can evaluate it based on whether I actually enjoy listening to it. Luckily both approaches end up at around the same place.

What this music actually is is a kind of organic acoustic/electric trance music. You could dance to this for hours. The call-and-response vocals are the most overtly african thing about the proceedings. The instrumentation itself is just odd, polyrhythmic, sharp and intense, rolling in and out and never seeming to end. The tracks flow into each other, with samba whistles and fast, diverse percussion pulsing away in the background and the thumb pianos (which sound pretty much exactly like what you'd expect overdriven, mildly distorted thumb pianos to sound like) crafting circular, pentatonic grooves that aren't particularly melodic but serve to drive things forward. It's the insistence of the rhythm that carries the day. The drawback is that while this album is divided into seven tracks for the most part you'd be hard pressed to tell them apart. The thumb piano is not an instrument that allows for a huge diversity of approach and Konono No. 1 aren't really trying to vary their game here, basically appending different shouts and callbacks to similar grooves, experimenting with different ways of recording. (I particularly like the approach used in "Undugi Wele Wele", which is the party track, and has the thumb pianos a little further back in the mix, keeping the treble feedback out of my brain and letting me catch a little bit more of the fantastic burbling percussion.

The reason I think this album is worth a buy (beyond the obvious fact that these guys deserve financial support more than the indiest indie act on this list) is that it's really refreshing to hear electronic music made on a culture's own terms. When one wanders into beat-driven music from china, eastern europe, russia, north africa or wherever one tends to hear that culture's trademark solo instrument/chord structure/style of play superimposed on western techno beats of the cheesiest sort. Bucking that trend and creating your own electronica sound from the ground up deserves tremendous respect. And, respectfully, you can dance your ass off to this and feel good about it.

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