Devendra Banhart: Cripple Crow
|The last time we saw Devendra, he was a very one-dimensional kind of artist - sparse classical guitar-driven singer/songwriter stuff, with each track being well-composed but somewhat lacking in the soul necessary to drive the genre. It was really good, but not amazing. Now on his 2005 album, Devendra has taken his folk truck and taken a hard right turn and started incorporating more traditional song elements in his music. He has a band in some songs, and he plays chords. Some parts he doesn't even play at all. Like all musicians with exceptional talent, it takes a lot of willpower to tone everything down and just keep it simple. You'll never see Steve Vai do this except as a lark. But it's worth a lot in my opinion. Devendra's biggest problem was that he was heavy on talent, but skimped on the song itself, especially for his genre.
The album ends up being a mish-mosh of different genres, but they don't seem like "Devendra-doing-this-genre" or "Devendra-can't-decide-what-he-wants" - Devendra doesn't ape those genres nor does he lean on them as a crutch to provide variety. Every track on the album sounds natural and is coated with his style. Of course, knowing him, that was probably the easy part. One of the things that stays is the sparseness. It's no longer a guy in a room playing a guitar, but each track contains no more on it than is necessary. "Lazy Butterfly" is set against the backdrop of sitars-on-acid like any good drug scene from the 70s (or more likely, a movie about the 70s), and while it fills up the mix, the track doesn't become a wall of sound. The production itself is excellent because it sounds like someone recorded it with an 8-track or a 2-inch reel in the 60s. As much as lo-fi production is an awful crutch for producers with no imagination or artists that aren't very good at their craft (or a necessity for bands with no budget), the style fits him perfectly. It reminds me of an old Carole King album.
However, this album has its flaws; I'm still not completely sold. Devendra focuses more on the song, but as a result he's gone too far in a direction I would prefer he ignore altogether: the blues. Several songs on the album are your basic 12 bar, 3 chord blues. I said earlier that one problem with virtuosos is that they tend to ignore the song as a whole and tend to focus on the individual parts, making the entire song weaker. They've forgotten how to simplify. Sometimes you need to stop trying so hard and just play a song. Unfortunately, there's the blues, which is an attempt to combine simplicity and guitar wankering that takes the worst parts of both. Blues simply repeats the same 12-bar 3-chord forumla, and its depth lies in the guitar skill of the individual player. This effectively combines the monotony of simplicity with the annoyingness of guitar wankery. (Coincidentally, this is about the opposite of jazz, which highlights the individual player, but its depth lies in the composition.) Sure, you can sing a great blues song every once in a while (Red House), but if you entire repetoire is blues, it's boring. It's almost like the limerick of the rock world. Some people try to come at it from every angle possible, but no matter how you try to decorate it, it's like putting hubcaps on a tractor (Stevie Ray Vaughn).
So there's good and bad. There are some really excellent bits, like "When They Come" and "Heard Somebody Say", an anti-war song with the excellent line, "It's simple / We don't wanna kill". The middle of the album is very strong, and even one of the blues numbers is awesome ("Chinese Children"), which goes something like "If I lived in China / I'd have some Chinese children / and if I lived in Russia / I'd have some Chinese children" and so on. (Remember what I said about limericks?)
But there are just so many songs, and there are bound to be boring ones. He also sings in Spanish sometimes, and when he does, it's in one of two ways: either he's singing in Spanish, or he's singing in Spanish and saying "look at me! I'm singing in Spanish! Aren't I just so fucking cultured?". An example is the peculiar "The Beatles", in which he sings "Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are the only Beatles in the world," and then proceeds to sing some wacky song in Spanish. Wacky. Devendra is (or at least, he should be) known for his sense of humor, and the only way to describe it as an indie music version of Randy Newman, like in "Foolin' Around" or the 50s doo-wop of pedophilia in "Little Children" (which should have exchanged titles with "I Feel Like a Child").
Last time I said buy, but mostly because the Ghostface Killa album was not worth buying. However, this album is decidedly better, so I am required by law to instruct you to buy this record.
|Faithful readers will recall that when I reviewed "Rejoicing In The Hands" I expressed my discontent with Mr. Banhart on two fronts -- I wanted him to sing about some more meaningful subjects, but more of his personality into his songwriting, and (as nice as his guitar skills are) I wanted to hear more arrangement, more band-stuff to keep me interested. Obviously he used his long-hair hippie vision to look into the future and to read my review before he started on "Cripple Crow", for lo and behold he has done exactly what I asked him to. I am most pleased. Devendra's indebtedness to a certain Donovan Leitch is also more apparent here, but that don't bother me none -- if you have to listen to someone else's voice to find your own, that's the way it goes.
This album is possessed of a kind of joyful, folky randomness that went out of style decades ago. Tracks like "Chinese Children", which is a blues with lyrics that aren't so much random or dragged-out as purely silly, make one think of Peter, Paul and Mary, or Pete Seeger, or any of those old LPs that your mom played for you when you were small to get her boomer claws in you and make sure even if you grew up to be an executive you'd still smell faintly of patchouli and buy your granola in bulk. The anthemic stomp "Long-Haired Child" is similarly goofy but taps into that historical or archetypal thrust and makes you feel like you're back in the day, singing along with a legend. And then there're songs where Devendra gets serious, which is occasionally excellent ("When They Come", a mellow yet cutting colonial parable) and occasionally unfortunate ("Heard Somebody Say", a boring, piano-driven exercise in Lennonism.) But there are little moments tossed off here and there that say to me that Devendra has embraced the political roots of folk as well as its aesthetic stylings; on "I Feel Like A Child", for instance, which is a silly song with serious jibes at the establishment peppered in slyly. And then there are songs that have an unexpected emotional weight about them, like the opening track "Now That I Know." This one is beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, a fingerpicky folk classic, and you should burn this album to get at it.
Which brings me to why after all my praise you still shouldn't buy it. The two words in question here are "quality" and "control". It's a hugely long album, and if Devendra had cut out about twenty minutes it could've been a classic. The last twenty, particularly. There're a few duds early on, but in general things are strong, inventive, and wonderfully diverse (ranging from gypsy stylings on "Lazy Butterfly" to ridiculous and yet wonderful mariachi antics on "The Beatles.") At around "Chinese Children", though, the album seems to run out of steam and things settle into a rut. Devendra's danger, particularly when he's working with production like this, is that he's talented enough to lapse into adult contemporary banalities which sound sweet but don't amount to much.
So on the whole, for the variety in the production, with flutes and tablas and strings and little lo-fi mutterings weaved in here and there, for the sheer strength of Devendra's voice, guitar and songwriting, and for the excellence of the first two thirds of the album, I'd like to give this one a buy. But...yeah. I'm torn. Buy/burn? Burn+? .... nah. Buy. You can just stop the disc after a certain point.
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Dominik Eulberg: Kreucht and Fleucht
|This a double album, so I'm going to review the two separately: Kruecht: A 70 minute-long rave. Skip.
Fleucht: A better 70 minute-long rave with one really good section. Burn.
|The time has come to discuss the issue of fleucht, and, to a lesser extent, kreucht. Dominik Eulberg has driven his rave-up dump truck onto our lawns and has left behind a big pile of each, and it is up to your brave reviewer to sort through it and see if there's a pony.
My normal reaction to dance-techno like this is "gee, this could use some rap/a melody/some scratching/a few more samples/a little structural variation"... in short, something to give it content, or definition, or a beginning and an end. The point of rave music is that it doesn't end, though, that it just keeps riding from one high to another. This is music that one orders by the foot-yard -- I get a sense that were he not limited by the constraints of the CD format each of these discs could have gone on indefinitely, with kreucht piled on kreucht and fleucht on fleucht until the doomed, dilated dancers drop dead of dehydration. If you'll forgive me. I just don't have the stamina -- I stay hyped for almost exactly a half hour, and then blanch in alarm that there's 130 more minutes of the stuff waiting to give me a headache and uncontrollably twitching limbs. It's not pure breakbeat -- thank god -- which means I can listen to it without becoming spastic. But fleucht particularly is insistent in its demands that you submit to its steamy dancefloor beats. If kreucht und fleucht may be liked to drugs, kreucht is ecstasy -- fleucht is coke.
I don't wish to leave you with the impression that I don't dig it, though. For what it is, this stuff is very strong, flowing seamlessly from one beat to the next, incorporating sounds beyond the usual techno panoply (nice huge booming crashes, bursts of steam, laptop skitterings, a certain sound which I'm always fond of that can be produced a number of ways but sounds like somebody attacking a metal sculpture in a large empty room). Also, there is an undefinable GER-MANity to the whole business which pleases me. As I listen to this music, I can see Eulberg staring at me -- telling me that I will dance -- that this is the time for dancing -- and, particularly on fleucht, that I will dance or he will be forced with the greatest regret to bring out the testicle clamps. I am compelled to move my arms and legs, with an expression of infinite sadness on my face. We dance with the greatest efficiency. The booty-ometer is accurate to .015 nanometers. It is so good. And now we will report to be processed.
Later, in the detention center, I am compelled to think about the nature of kreucht and fleucht. Kreucht is cooler, more spare, more inclined to Matmos-y beat experimentation, digital scratching and vocal samples, but less insistently danceable. It can sneak up on you -- there are messages embedded somewhere in there, secret messages, translated oddly but spoken with clear amused indifference by a woman who is probably achingly pretty if you could but decode her mocking remarks and find your way back to her. Fleucht wants none of this romantic nonsense and is simply concerned with making you dance your ass off, the teasingly blank face of Kreucht replaced with a sneer. Perhaps this is nonsense -- perhaps I read too much about music produced probably by the Fleucht-O-Matic 5000 while Eulberg (who is probably not even German, given my track record with these things) is out in the strasse giving puppies cold, emotionless stares. The distinction between kreucht and fleucht, a distinction which I have spent these empty months pondering, is probably just a handful of BPM. But oh lor', does it make you want to move that thing. It is like a burning in your soul. For it is like caffeine, and makes me silly, but my god, I wouldn't want to own it. It makes me want to do aerobics, and we can't have that. And also without the insistent high-speed beats of Fleucht it's hard to keep my attention focused -- and so I would probably end up spinning the instant-gratification disc exclusively whilst Kreucht wandered off, unloved.
But... I cannot tear myself away. I feel Eulberg's dead eyes upon me. And I know that even now, safely spirited away to Brussels and reunited with my lost family, I will never be truly free of him. I will stay awake long into the night, staring into the mirror. And slowly, I will begin to dance.
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Keith Fullerton Whitman: Multiples
|Ah, our first "brilliant artist with too much analog equipment, too much time, and too little imagination" album of 2005. It doesn't surprise me that these artists are so popular. This is one genre which will, with certainty never catch on, and are therefore guaranteed to be liked by the hipster scene, creating what amounts to a permanent shibboleth of hipster taste. Can you see the inner beauty of droning loops of electronically altered music? Or do you think that it's just some guy who was so in love with his keyboard patch or reverb module that he didn't think to bother to compose music? Plus, it's really easy to write reviews for - just get all emotional and contemplative (possibly high) and write a whole bunch of nonsense about how beautiful and amazing our world is until you feel certain that the Pulitzer for Most Beautiful Music Review is yours.
Whitman, fortunately is not quite so insulting as Basinski or Johann, if only because he does not have the balls to repeat a single phrase for an hour and call it good. (Oh, but it's Art, alright.) The first half of the album is basically the guy playing with his toys: the first two tracks sound like a misguided "Spooky Halloween Sounds" done with a Korg or something, then on "Stereo Music For Serge Modular Prototye - Part Two" he tests out just how annoying he can make the THX "The Audience is Now Deaf" sound. Then, on "Stereo... Part Three", he managed to record him in love with the crazy sounds one of his machines makes. Then comes what I consider to be the turning point: "Stereo Music For Yamaha Disklavier Prototype, Electric Guitar, And Computer" (yes, all the titles are this pretentious and idiotic; they seem to be the names of his precious equipment) is basically a piano loop, but it swells and it decrescendos, and other instruments come in and out of the mix. At 10 minutes long, especially, it's still bad, but you start to get the sense that what he wants to do is make good music, but he is unable to do so for whatever reason.
Then, on track 6 (fuck those names), he does something amazing - he keeps the loops, but he has dynamics. A keyboard loop of chords drones over a (tasteful) drumbeat, other parts come in and then out again, and halfway through the song, the entire song has changed into an organ bit that sounds like 2 bars of a Bach piece looped. By the end of the song, several more parts have been added and subtracted. Ladies and gentleman, this song has been composed, not constructed.
I should stop and note why this is not as good as Bach: Bach's music was deep. Very deep. In addition, it was beautiful - some of Bach's melodies are in my opinion some of the best ever made. Also Bach is easily listenable to the casual listener - they can tune out the music and focus on whatever they are doing. Is this starting to sound familiar? That's right: it's almost the textbook definition of ambient music as given by Brian Eno (the artist that is to ambient music as Weezer is to emo). I think the fundamental point that most ambient artists miss today is that it takes work to create something that is ambient but yet provides the listener with depth when listened to more closely. Gimmicks just don't cut it.
So to sum up, this music isn't great. But it does have a sense of dynamic that comes with treating this kind of music as music and not just something cool and artsy you can bullshit about. However, it seems like it mihgt be the case that he only had 20 minutes worth of music and bullshitted the rest of the album. Skip this album, but it's a respectable skip for overcoming my incredibly low expectations for an album with song titles like "Stereo Music For Acoustic Guitar, Bucla Music Box 100, Hp Model 236 Oscillator, Electric Guitar, And Computer - Part Two".
|I am nonplussed by this recording.
We are presented with a series of eight pieces entitled "Stereo Music For...", with instruments ranging from acoustic guitar to Dysklavie to hi-hat in the ellipse. If I were feeling catty I'd call the "music" aspect into question, since the early tracks in particular are formless soundscapes built out of loops and recording artifacts (Whitman likes to play with 'booming', the feedback that happens when certain frequencies resonate in the room and overwhelm other sounds.) There is, however, a genuine progression here from emptiness to form and by the time the last two tracks roll around we are dealing with music that is minimalist and loop-driven but has enough variation and structure to hold the interest of a listener for whom simple texture isn't enough.
I should mention that this is music that needs to be listened to attentively an in environments without a lot of ambient noise. The first tracks in particular rely heavily on dynamic variation and a certain clarity of sound which is impressive and can be lost if you're not listening with decent reproduction quality. (Although they do occasionally beg the "could I do this just as well if I had this man's equipment?" question, particularly on the wall-of-sound synth wash that is Track 3.) It is fun to listen to the synth squirts and ripples of the "Serge Modular Pr" tracks, but compositionally I feel as if they rely a bit too heavily on their medium to the expense of actual musicality, except on Track 4, which is muscular and features a plodding bass thud that stalks forward and back across the soundscape like an electronic mammoth.
The later tracks evince an almost Glass-ian ear for minimalist composition on top of a dramatic but understated sense of texture. Track 5 is like what the M83 album should've been- propulsive and swelling but never manipulative. And it just gets better after that, until you forget that you're listening to a heavily conceptual album and the music just becomes enjoyable on its own merits. Which begs the question of why this album was presented this way, and in particular whether the conceit - a slow evolution of formlessness into complexity - actually works. The way the album is structured, as a slow upward curve, puts a lot of pressure on the final track to put a capper on the whole thing and sum up the artistic statement. What the final track in fact does is to include a looping artifact in its main loop-- a little clip/click where the loop begins and ends, which is obviously kept intentionally but which manifests as an ultrasonic squeak. This makes me very unhappy indeed and renders the climax of the album largely unlistenable. The track before, driven mostly by a looped motif on acoustic guitar with synth swells and stings, is very pleasant but doesn't deliver the climax that the first part of the album demands. What one is left with is the impression of a progression from nothingness to a sort of mundane orderliness, which as a conceptual trope leaves a lot to be desired. And having presented itself as an artistic piece rather than as a simple music album "Multiples" demands to be evaluated (and discarded) on that level.
So as pleasant as it is sometimes, I'm going to recommend that you skip this, because it fails to deliver on its promise.
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The Game: The Documentary
|After reviewing the Young Jeezy album, I started thinking that maybe the reason I hated it so much was just because I have some kind of irrational hatred toward "the gangster rap" as it were. I'm relieved to say that I think isn't true, because I don't hate The Documentary by The Game, although there are too many ambiguous nouns with definite articles for my taste. The Game is apparently famous for his feud with 50 Cent, although I've never actually heard of him. He's also one of Dr. Dre's proteges - although I think there about 43 of those at last count - and The Game will absolutely not let you forget this fact.
The Documentary, at least musically, is apparently what they call G-funk (Wikipedia tells me this)? I don't know. If I had to describe it in my own words, I would say it is bass-heavy, slow and smooth beats that have defined what people in loud cars leaning all the way back in the driver's seat are listening to. The album goes over all the familiar ground - The Game is a real gangsta who got shot, bitches, The Game is here to stay, hos, The Game was Dr. Dre's protege, poppin' caps, lovin' your sweet lady, how sexually virulent The Game is, sex, having a child, and how awesome the Game is. If I had one major problem with this album, it would be the severe amounts of repetition on the album. How many times do we have to hear The Game shamelessly attempting to ride Dr. Dre's coattails? At the very least, the message is made loud and clear, like political talking points from the White House. The Game is the rebirth of Dre, and has had a rough life on the west side (it is also the first time in a long time that I have heard someone other than a white suburban youth age 16-25 say "West Siyyyyyde!").
The Documentary is also quite aptly named, as it seems a simple chronicling of The Game's rise... to power! He hasn't quite ridden with kings, but Dr. Dre seems to be enough to satisfy The Game. At some point, on a particularly good track, he gets more specific about the history of his rap schedule than a report on the Kennedy assassination. He also insists on mentioning his connection to NWA, repeating titles of famous NWA songs, and compares his own music to NWA's. The Game is not NWA. NWA had a song called "Fuck the Police". The Game's most interesting song is called "Church For Thugs", and the closest he gets to controversial is when he talks about Haitians at some point. NWA is to The Game as The Game is to Eminem. Speaking of whom, Eminem makes an appearance that surprised me, but only me, because he mentions Marshall about 17 times, and they are both one of Dre's students. Despite the stupid pitch-shifted intro, the song is pretty good, and shows just how different Eminem's style of hip-hop is from artists like The Game or Kanye West or really almost any other rapper that I know of.
So is this album worth it? This album has a lot of high points, like the sentimental "Start From Scratch", the sappy-yet-not-pushing-it "Higher", which has an excellent sample, the title track, "The Documentary", which has an excellent opening bit with kids arguing like adult racial stereotypes in an imagined gas station. The first music track, "Westside Story" is pretty good, but it's the beginning of more of the same, so you really only need one track like it. Pick "Hate it or Love It", "Put You on the Game", etc. The music is pretty decent, and there's some interesting things to hear about for those listening to the lyrics. I'm going to give the album the benefit of the doubt and say buy it.
We were worried about this week's batch, and this album was part of the reason - not more goddamn gangster rap, please? Not more posturing, not more guns and blow? The fact that I like this album, which is self-consciously gangster to the very core, anyway is a testament to Game's mic skills and the sheer depth of production and guest talent that he's drawn into this album. It's listenable, it's interesting, it's funny, and while the Game may not be the most likable son of a bitch ever to roll out of Compton he has some endearing habits that almost make up for his flaws.
Game is marked out by his obsessions -- in another life, I think this dude could've been a nerd of immense proportions, because the degree to which he obsesses over the finest details of rap history, gangster culture and (particularly) his wardrobe is nothing short of monomaniacal. Game name-checks Dr. Dre on nearly every track on this album, and some songs (particularly the hilarious "No More Fun And Games") are basically laundry lists of every MC who he works with, admires, has beef with or just happened to think of in passing. His perspective on what he is and what he's doing is profoundly socio-historical, oddly -- he sees himself as the public face of the resurgence of L.A. hip-hop, the restoration to the limelight of a dynasty that goes back to N.W.A. and the birth of gangster rap. His status as a member of G-Unit, his relationship with New York rap and his rivalry with 50 Cent for the attentions of Dre... the first couple of tracks on this album read like a crash course on the state of contemporary hip-hop. And he is very clear about the details, his gangster lean, his jesus piece, his vintage Nikes (how often do you hear a man who raps about war and crime and gangbanging spit a verse about how he's distracted with trying not to scuff his shoes?) He's not religious, but he needs canary yellow diamonds in his cross -- he claims to have been the first to have put hydraulics on a low-rider -- and so on. He himself is a pretty decent guy, as hardasses go, who loves his wife, loves his son, ain't no racist, and cares for his community. There's a streak of misogyny running through his rhymes that's kind of alarming, if sadly typical, but it's defused by the sweetness of the last three tracks. (Is it a rule that gangster rap albums have to end with love songs?)
Now the beats... the beats are just outstanding. Varied, propulsive, threatening, hearkening back to west coast tracks of years past, funky when appropriate, with sung hooks that never fail to hook. You got "Hate It or Love It", which samples an old soul track and namechecks Eric B and Rakim -- you got "Don't Need Your Love", which comes to us courtesy of Kanye West if I read those pitch-shifted vocal noodlings in the background correctly, and is simultaneously old-school and modern -- and the martial beat of "Put You On The Game", which start-stops and stutters its way past with pure gangster ferocity. Many different producers are at work here (incuding Eminem, who does a guest verse on "We Ain't" which makes up for the standard Em doomed-carnival beat. I swear to god he thinks he invented minor chords.) That guest spot actually reminds us that even though Game is a lot better than he could be as a rapper he's not one of the greats -- he's not dexterous enough, not creative enough. But he's solid, and what he lacks in variety of content he makes up for in clarity, smoothness, and intensity. His ability to tell you what he wants you to know isn't limited by rhythm or rhyme. He can get it all in there effortlessly. And he has a sense of humor... there's a moment on "Higher" which made me burst out laughing, and which I'm not going to spoil for you, but it takes a certain wit to change out your hook just to get in a dis.
So let this be proof that I don't mind if you just talk about crime, bling, and rap, as long as you do it well and there's some fundamental intelligence behind it: buy this sucker. Game occasionally rhymes "bitch" with "bitch" and you could get alcohol poisoning taking a shot every time he says "Dre" but there's plenty good on here, and miracle of miracles it's consistent. No horrible tracks on a seventy-minute rap album. Smells like classic to me.
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