2004, 42-39 DJ Rupture, Les Savy Fav, The Walkmen and Cee-Lo

DJ Rupture
Les Savy Fav
The Walkmen
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DJ Rupture: Special Gunpowder

The first thing I noticed about Special Gunpowder is that it is very interesting - and I don't mean that in the backhanded comment kind of way. It's a mish-mosh of electronic ambience, spoken-word, rastafarian rap and just plain weird. I also have to admit, that like the Cee-Lo album, I am throughly unqualified to do this review, as I am not well versed in this kind of music.

The album starts off with an "overture": "Overture: Watermelon City," which has an excellently acid-jazz style loop behind a spoken-word track that is part-beatnik and part-woman-bitching-about-her-apartment, and better than anything Maureen ever came up with (Diet Coke??). At once the album has three things going for it so far: it's coherent, it's not pretentious, and it's interesting. Not that coherent is really necessary, but most tracks it is. I was a little worried going into the next song, because the Rastafarian style is not really my thing, but I have to say that it's better than anything Bob Marley but out. But then again, I have the ultra-radical opinion that Bob Marley sucks.

The album simply oozes style while managing to stay different on every track. "Leech Wisdom" is a repetitive but nice mix of percussion, ambient piano, and a glitch loop, and really succeeds in small part to its length. It's nice to know that someone knows that they don't need that loop going for longer than 2:30 unless you're DJing a rave or something. Otherwise it moves from "music" to "techno" - and the difference is that you listen to music, and do other things while you listen to techno. "No Heathen" is another song with the rapping style I'm not fond of - it all just mushes together - but it has a nice loop that reminded me of "Flat Beats."

From there it moves to a mariachi-style song called "Musquito," which, to be honest, kinda makes me sick. But the rest of the album is just as eclectic, and the real triumph of the album is how DJ Rupture pulls it all together with the same feeling - that feeling that it's a late Saturday morning in the middle of the summer in an apartment without air conditioning. The "overture" really works as such as you listen to the album; you can clearly imagine all of these songs being played somewhere in that apartment complex. And, hey, maybe your neighbor goes crazy too.

"Book That Can't Be Opened at Either End" sounds exactly like Bill Cosby going crazy and tearing apart his apartment searching for Puddin' Pops. The next song, "Dem Nuh Know Me," sounds just like Cookie Monster rapping in French. I can only assume he's saying "Dem nuh know me eat all the cookieeeeee". There's a song called "Osaka-ku Memory Depot," and I live in Osaka-ku but did not know about any memory depot. I do know I hear music like the Jamaican-style numbers all the time in Amemura, though. "Taqaism" is an unfortunate low, sounding like someone put a beat over your neighbor's violin practice. But maybe that fits in with the theme. It picks up again with "Can't Stop It," a very catchy tune, and our folk music from last time shows up again in "Mole in the Ground."

Buy it, for being a fine acheivement. This album is all over the map, but it's like Google Earth where you zoom out enough and you see the Earth repeated four times, but all those little red tags are now all clustered together. But if you're like me and you aren't into the music you hear Japanese high school potheads really like, then burn it.

I liked me this one. An awful lot. I don't think I've ever heard a hip-hop album so consciously international.

Rupture hops all over the dang world stylistically, stopping in the UK, japan, the middle east, africa, the caribbean and latin america, and bringing it all back to the US, east and west coast. He nails the new sound of British hip-hop, minimal industrial beats and shreds of synth noise, on "No Heathen" -- does a Nobukazu Takemura-esque shattered electronica turn on "Osaka-ku Memory Depot" (and a brief Cornelius impression on "Leaves"), and pulls out a full-fledged latin number underpinned by west african percussion, of all things, on "Musquito". It's easy to get lost listening to this album: one minute you're listening to an onimous, creeping, weirdly fuzzed-out french-language rap that seems to come from nowhere on earth ("Je Suis le Peuple Sans Visage") and the next you're grooving along to comforting west-coast style beats and loose rhymes that could've come off the Quannum Spectrum comp. It's a trip. And then the album closes out with "Mole In The Ground", a straight-up banjo bluegrass song with no electronic tweaking whatsoever. It's a beautiful tune, but where the fuck did it come from?

That's DJ Rupture's greatest strength -- he understands that the best electronic music is like a hyped-up mixtape, overturning genre boundaries left and right and shoving all kinds of weirdness together and making it work. Does it matter that "Mole In The Ground" is about as far away from hip-hop as it's possible to get? Nope. It has the same lyrical repetition the rest of the album has, and some deep keyboard bass. So it fits. (Reminds me, in fact, of the underrated Canadian electronica/hip-hop/video art collective Bran Van 3000, who shoehorned rap and country and pop together on their albums and made it all flow seamlessly.)

If there's a weakness to the album (besides occasionally uninspired turns by guest MCs, some of whom don't rise beyond the level of pleasant but unintelligible background noise) it's that Rupture's execution doesn't always measure up to his ideas. Some of the longer songs become repetitive and most lack the dynamic range and willingness to change up the basic elements of the beat that mark out the very best DJs. Nothing on here lives up musically to the promise of the opening track, a spoken-word ode to urban Philadelphia and watermelon scored with tense shuffling beats and overlapping clouds of saxophone noise, but it's an awfully high mark to hit.

So... yeah. If you like electronica or instrumental hip-hop at all, buy it. If not, burn it, and you might develop the taste.

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Les Savy Fav: Inches

The name Les Savy Fav sounds to me like it should be a band of incredible pretention. Maybe it's a band like Xiu Xiu, or maybe it's a bunch of actual Frenchmen making silly French punk. Turns out I was not quite right, but at least in the ballpark. Les Savy Fav are a group of the new hipster generation rock - not quite emo, not quite "indie" (whatever that means), showing a slightly hardcore side. What Les Savy Fav have over most of these new bands is that they don't sing with that horribly affected accent that sounds like The Get Up Kids and is instantly recognizable at any DIY show at the Moose lodge or commandeered coffee shop. Instead, they have stereo doubled vocals that aren't quite talking and aren't quite singing. Here, the entire band is almost like a big drum set - inflection and rhythm are everything, and it has a lead guitar in the background. This drum set also has chimes.

It really works well in some parts, and when it works well it often sounds like Les Savy Fav is the heir to At The Drive In. But other times it fails as the vocals meander and futilely jab away at the song. I had issues with the mixing of the song. In a band where being tight and punchy is such a priority, the bass is kept in the background on most songs, and on some songs the vocals are pretty far up in the mix but the lead singer's voice isn't strong enough to warrant such a decision.

I also don't know what to make of the lyrics. Sometimes they seem like catchy, clever phrases, and other times the same lyrics seem to me like cheesy lines from a high school band. Examples: "wake me up if we get to heaven / let me sleep if we go to hell", "knowing how the world works is not knowing how to work the world"; maybe they come close to the "line between widsom and shit." OK, I feel stupid writing that, so I just decided that the lyrics leave something to be desired. They also explore the intricacies of Carly Simon: "you're so vain / you probably don't think this song is about you". Gosh, I am vain!

There are some good spots - "Meet Me in the Dollar Bin" encapsulates the whole album, and is a good opening track. "Yawn, Yawn, Yawn" is easily the album's best song, with lyrics that are both good and hold interest for the listener. But it's also a really really long album with 17 tracks, including a really silly submarine radio play about some captain who lets his crew die and gets beheaded. It's not very interesting at all, and mostly sounds like some college kids' podcast.

I've seen so many bands like this come through my town, and played with them too, and with an album 17 tracks long it all starts to sound like sludge after no repetiton, and you just want the band to stop playing so you can get on stage and play or watch your friends you came to see play. That being said, it's still got some pretty solid rock'n'roll, so burn it for those road trips where you need something loud. Also buy it if you own 2 or more At the Drive In records.

So this is a singles collection, which often means big abrupt changes in style as the band develops year by year. I was kind of hoping that would happen here -- not that their chosen style isn't a good one, but I'd be interested in seeing what else they could pull off. As it was, even though they impressed me in a lot of ways I got bored after the first five songs and never really recovered.

Les Savy Fav are an arty rock band that smells like New York and sweat -- you can see them tearing a stage up if you close your eyes. They sound like a more punky Dismemberment Plan, and also like the Rapture now and again, particularly in the first songs on the album, and there's the odd conscious nod to bands like Bauhaus and Sonic Youth. I get the impression that the tracklist on this album is actually tracing the band backward through its career, as the recording quality and complexity of guitar effects and composition gets steadily less as the album progresses. So the earlier/later on the album stuff is heartfelt and occasionally interesting but unremarkable, and the more recent stuff is slick, noisy and dancepunky. I bet they kick astronomical amounts of ass live, and there are certain moods where I would just float away on some of the more atmospheric and trippy cuts like "Hello Halo, Goodbye Glands." But this isn't music that you're supposed to listen to on your headphones. You want to be dancing to this in a room full of people with sweat dripping down your back.

One thing that does stand out is that the lyrics are consistently clever and engaging and they're delivered with deranged fervor. It's hard to pick out a specific example of brilliance -- it's more that with this kind of music you expect the words to be dumb as a matter of course, and here they never ever are.

I could see buying this, since you get an awful lot of music for your buck and this strikes me as the kind of stuff that could really suck you in on repeated listenings. But it's not groundbreaking, and I can't see being in a mood to listen to it an awful lot, so I will go with: Burn it.

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The Walkmen: Bows + Arrows

I have to hand it to the Walkmen. These guys had a vision: loud wall of sound with an energetic Bob Dylan passionately crooning lyrics. And he made it happen. I saw them open for Death Cab for Cutie, and the lead singer's face was red every song as he belted into the mic. He's like a new, mellower Henry Rollins. Unfortunately this album seems to be less about the energy and more about the wall of sound and crooning.

The album starts with a dirge, "What's in It for Me," which, despite its tempo, has a compelling melody. The next song, "The Rat" (I think it's one of their singles), keeps thigs going with an excellent pop tune - energetic, catchy, and a well-timed breakdown. But the album slows down there, because I can't really remember many of the tracks and have to listen to them. "Little House of Savages" has some really innovative drumming and the verse is almost bluesy, and it shares a common trait with the good tracks of the album - it loses the continuously strumming wall-of-sound guitar in exchange for different chords during other parts of the song. "New Year's Eve" is remarkable because it's not just a good piece of music, but it drops most of the Walkmen's trademarks - it's mostly piano, with the guitar pushed way back in the mix and playing a sparser part, and the frontman loses the Dylanness. But the rest of the songs all seem the same - "The North Pole" is like a rejected version of "The Rat" and "138th Street" has some interesting lyrics but the music is mostly a droning guitar with what sounds like a cheesy Zoom 505 reverb effect.

Burn it, because unless you're new to The Walkmen, there's nothing new here to see. If you are new to The Walkmen, get another one of their albums.

I almost want to excuse myself from reviewing this one, cause I owned this album and sold it, and since I discarded it I don't see how I could tell you not to. Maybe I'll spend my time telling you why you should go out and get the album they cut before this, "Everyone Who Used To Like Me Is Gone."

The Walkmen are worth listening to because they...well...they sound like if you took Bob Dylan and plugged him bodily into a big amp and stuck him in a big empty room with a broken piano and a phalanx of thundering, chiming guitars. Their recordings are always awash in this magnificent room echo which they fill with drunken stomps, massive drones, lusty swooping vocals and even sometimes straightforward rock and roll. When they bring in string samples, as they do occasionally, it sounds like they're being played on an old AM radio about fifteen feet away from the mic. The point I'm trying to make here is they got style coming out of their ears, and a sound all their own. The problem is that their songwriting isn't as consistently interesting as their sound. Too many songs on "Bows & Arrows" just don't go anywhere -- the Walkmen are great at tense-and-release swelling and receding drones, as on "No Christmas While I'm Talking", but it doesn't work when that's all there is to the song. No payoff, no resolution, no bridge, no chorus. Their most propulsive songs, like "Little House Of Savages", often have great driving riffs that they play into the ground until it's headache time. I want to shout, "You get such a great sound out of your guitars -- why don't you play more than two chords?"

The Walkmen are at their best, in my opinion, when they break out the piano and play the kind of stomp-along rags that can handle the smeary drones that their vocalist favors. The sad thing about Bows and Arrows is that for the most part they've moved away from that kind of songwriting, with the exception of "New Year's Eve", which is a beautifully mellow throwback with an almost 1950s tropicalia feel. (Part of my bias here is that their grade school cafeteria piano makes such beautiful sounds.) The other problem with Bows & Arrows as it compares to their earlier work is that the lyrics seem to have lost something -- there's not a song on here that's memorable just for the words, which is a great disappointment after the occasional incisiveness of "Everyone".

So skip Bows and Arrows and pick up that one instead. It's got little boys in flat caps smoking on the cover.

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Cee-Lo: Cee-Lo Green is the Soul Machine

Oh man, am I in over my head. I am so very not qualified to review this album at all. The first thing I thought was, "Skee-Lo?? Did he finally acheive his dream of being a baller? Did he in fact call his girl as he promised so many times?" My experience with hip-hop is limited to a few Biz Markie and Run DMC songs, The Beastie Boys, background radio in convenience stores, Japanese hip-hop, nerdy white rap, the Outcast album with "Hey Ya" on it, and stuff my girlfriend usually shuts off when I walk in the room. And You'z a Ho. (HOOOO)

But this album wasn't quite as painful as my girlfriend would have me believe. The album title proudly proclaims that Cee-Lo Green is in fact the Soul Machine. And the truth is that Cee-Lo is a very, very talented rapper. I don't even hate all hip-hop or R&B related music. However, I prefer stuff that is interesting to listen to - maybe it's got a very complex lyrical structure or the lyrics say a lot of things in interesting ways, or maybe it's (actually) funny or maybe it's got a catchy melody. What I don't like are what I call "bitchez'n'ho'z" rap, which maybe have some rap and maybe some R&B elements, but the rap parts don't particularly stand out and have some extraordinarily annoying chorus - the kind that is catchy, but it's mediocre so when you get it in your head you want to shoot yourself because it's not that fun having it in your head, but it's not bad, either, so it's not even ironically funny. Most modern pop music falls into this category. I listen to these kind of songs and I just hear "bitchez'n'ho'z" over and over again.

Cee-Lo has some of these songs on his album, but you can usually spot them by the ones marked "feat." and then some other artist hoping to either lend their fame or latch onto Cee-Lo's. Surprisingly, the one with Ludacris is actually a lot of fun. His solo ones are a lot more interesting. Some of these tracks are more like hip-hop poetry. It reminds me of a place that Fetla used to play called The Heartland Cafe. I heard a lot of good poetry there, and some good readers, but they usually weren't the same people. Tiny hippie girls with dreds and layers and buttons would get up and freestyle, which was entertaining whether they were good or not. However, it definitely led me to loathe the certain class of liberal that frequented the place. But I digress. "I Am Selling Soul" and "Sometimes" are the most like this, and at the risk of looking like a huge tool, I think "Sometimes" is the best track on the album. There's also a really funny "rap battle" song that overuses gun shot samples called "Glockapella," and I'm not sure if Cee-Lo is making a mockery of the rap-gang-wars or is just playing along tongue-in-cheek. But Cee-Lo definitely seems like a cool guy.

Q (to Cee-Lo): What don't you do?
C: Fuck around!
I'm not going to try and really rate this. I can tell you I personally would chop up the album and take the half of it that doesn't sound like every single song I hear on B96 and listen to the rest of it, thus firmly earning the rank of burn it. But maybe that's just my ignorance of the genre. So, I am going to go ahead and say that this is an album most people will want to buy. It's good enough that I'm willing to forgive Cee-Lo for permeating my office environment with his croons of "Craaaaaaazy!"

Oh, fuck. I fell in love with this album forty-five seconds in. How am I supposed to be objective about it? It's got that lovely Andre 3000 cultured soul-man southern hip-hop feel to it, and Cee-Lo's flow is pleasant, light and precise. I dig his voice, which is raspy but bright and quick with a touch of Louis Armstrong blatt. The lyrics are mostly upbeat and funny when they're not, solid and sometimes sparkling. This is basically a look-at-me-I'm-awesome concept album, with tongue only slightly in cheek: the boy has the talent to live up to his constant self-praise, and given that self-praise is the oldest and most hackneyed subject in hip-hop he avoids cliche admirably. Mostly because he manages not to take himself seriously even as he gives himself avalanches of props.

As is usually the case on albums like this the quality of the production isn't consistent from one song to another. The beats are excellent up until "The One" and "My Kind Of People", which both suffer from cheesy drums and boring guitar lines. Then things right themselves abruptly on "Childz Play", which gets around me completely by being a show-off rap in 3/4. Even if it does throw light on some of Cee-Lo's flaws as an MC (his timing ain't perfect and because of his accent his long-a vowels absorb the words around them in such a way that if he reels off a string of long-a words it sounds like he's going "nyeah nyeah nyeah nyeah".) Things flow smoothly from there on, from the philly soul of "All Day Love Affair", with its ridiculous but lovable string swells, through the fantastic electric harpsichord on "Evening News" and the hilarious aggro rap of "Scrap Metal." Then there's "Glockapella," which might be the simplest approach to hip-hop feuding I've ever heard: "I will invest four minutes exactly for everyone who had the audacity to attack me", he says, and spends the allotted time ripping anything that moves. He is cute when he growls, but it gets old, and the beat uses sampled gunshots, which was passe ten years ago and annoys more than intimidates. From there on the album starts to drag-- but that's the nature of these things. You can't put out a hip-hop album that's less than an hour long, even if that means shoveling filler into the tracklist.

Cee-lo is great and his guest artists are solid. It woulda been a better album if he'd cut about 20 minutes out of it, but still: damn. If you like hip-hop, buy it. If you don't, burn it and see.

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