Day Thirty: Lindsey Buckingham – Gift of Screws

Reprise Records ■ 512970-1

Released September 16, 2008
Produced and Mixed by Lindsey Buckingham
(“Gift of Screws” and “Wait for You” co-produced by Rob Cavallo; “Wait for You” mixed by Mark Needham
Engineered by Lindsey Buckingham, Ken Allardyce, and Mark Needham
Mastered by Bernie Grundman/Bernie Grundman Mastering

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Great Day
  2. Time Precious Time
  3. Did You Miss Me
  4. Wait for You
  5. Love Runs Deeper
  1. Bel Air Rain
  2. The Right Place to Fade
  3. Gift of Screws
  4. Underground
  5. Treason

I’m a bit conflicted here. In a few weeks or months, we’ll run into Fleetwood Mac proper. We won’t see any Green or any Welch (I have none of the former, as I haven’t gotten around to it, and only a CD of the latter), and so the focus will, obviously, be Buckingham/Nicks-era Fleetwood. The focal point will be for me (as ever), Buckingham. So, then: do I address my thoughts on Lindsey’s musical place in my world now, or save it for then? How could I split it, were I to do both? Should I just give in and repeat information, but write it differently when I get there? I’m honestly not sure. I think the best approach is to go ahead and provide the background that establishes why I even have this album, which ties into all of that. So, pardon me for a moment while I briefly delve into my interactions with the last era of Fleetwood Mac.

I grew up on the kind of radio station termed “classic rock”, though a fair amount of contemporary popular music also filtered in via school and my own personal clock/radio. I was also around for the brief resurgences of the Mac in the place of Clinton’s usage of “Don’t Stop”, as well as it’s mild re-phrasing for use in a commercial. That melody was ingrained there, but “Rhiannon”, “The Chain”, “Gold Dust Woman”–those all got planted in my head early on, too. But sometime in college, for reasons I can’t claim to recall, I picked up a cheap copy of Tusk (which is likely to make its appearance here on the aforementioned future date). It’s a double LP, so I’d often just start it going and go about my business in the dorm or apartment. At some point, something clicked and I started hearing the scattered set of uncharacteristic and generally odd songs, which I learned were the work of Lindsey.

I started branching out from there–I went back to the prior two albums, Fleetwood Mac and of course Rumours, but I was still enamoured of Tusk. When my time at Borders eventually ran into the brief test marketing of vinyl, it was 2008. Largely, I was unfamiliar with the material placed in front of me–I knew names, but I’d yet to listen to Whiskeytown or The Black Keys or Drive-By Truckers. I did pick up more familiar titles, or at least familiar artists, as they showed up, and one of those was Gift of Screws. I think I was most intrigued by the attached sticker: this was not only a 180g audiophile pressing, it was also listed as including an “audiophile CD” made from the uncompressed master plating for the record. I’m often a sucker for an included CD, as it does everything I want from a piece of purchased, physical music. Download codes are nice, but I hate burning a CD for car listening, and like having a real one. It’s a compromise, as the CD ends up showing in a paper sleeve most of the time, and then sits in my car forever instead (that’s where the Gift of Screws one is right now, actually). Still, it was enough to push me into the purchase.

I hadn’t listened to any of Buckingham’s “official” solo recordings yet (plenty of Tusk is divided out into distinct feelings of “Buckingham” songs, “McVie” songs, and “Nicks” songs–even if there was some collaboration still occurring), so this was my introduction to it. Tusk taught me Lindsey can be intensely catchy, but very weird. So, when I first played this album back, I got a bit of a surprise. I did actually work it into the Borders overhead music at the time, over which I exercised as much control as I could, leading to some really odd moments–though far worse when we hit closing time and I switched completely to my own music, disregarding whether the store sold it, or even could sell it, occasionally to the chagrin of coworkers.

It was a mild shock to start listening to Gift of Screws, then, as the first thing you hear sounds like some of his Tusk work, but only for a moment–half-dead, muted percussion and his voice–but then his guitar…holy cow. Even if you only know him for Fleetwood Mac, you can hear his sound when he starts playing in “Great Day”, but it has so many fewer sounds behind it, it’s nothing but acoustic nylon strings in brilliant clarity and absolute beauty. It sounds as though it will just be intermittent, playing only between his vocal lines, but after he finishes the first verse, his playing takes its hold, using simpler, more evenly spaced licks behind the echoing overdubs of his own voice as the chorus. But it isn’t just left after that, as a tightly wound solo peels from the obscene heights back downward to rejoin the song. And then a pecking, rhythmic melody takes over, before shifting back to the chorus, which slowly turns from “It was a great day, great day” to “It wasn’t such a great day”, before a blistering, absurdly rapid solo closes the entire song out–completely beyond the tempo of the rest, yet perfectly placed.

The second song is one that has caused some issues in the past. When I put this album into the overhead, as well as the first time I played it for my father, “Time Precious Time” left a bad taste in many mouths. It’s an oddly constructed song: a faint, rapid finger-picked melody opens the song, not stopping for anything and seeming to hit more notes than you can imagine a single hand doing–so long as you’re an amateur or non-player, at least. Lindsey sings quietly, low, over it, but then he hits the chorus, and his voice reaches out, singing “Time, precious, time, precious..” as his guitar opens up as much as his voice, layered in a few times to create an absolute waterfall of beautiful notes. The sheer abundance of sound in all of this–despite only being his voice and guitar(s)–is overwhelming as any kind of background music, and blurs and blends too much to sound anything but repetitive and annoying. It needs to be sat and listened to, where its beauty instead becomes jaw-dropping, not just for the skill on display, but for the way it all fits together and sounds so wonderfully separated and clear. Don’t listen to this song while talking to someone, or in any way that lets it just sort of fade in and out of your awareness–it will annoy you, and unjustly so.

The first track to feature any other musicians, “Did You Miss Me” brings in the talents of Lindsey’s drummer, Walfredo Reyes. Lindsey’s guitar is calmer, melodic, but focus more on full chords. Reyes puts in a beat and sound vaguely reminiscent of the more subdued efforts of 80s pop, but without the huge or gated drums that so identify (and often date, for good or ill) those recordings. There’s a breathy quality to Lindsey’s verses that fits in with the tenor of the album as a whole, the feeling of weary backward looks, of, in maturity, looking back at the world and life. Losing the breathiness–which almost sounds as if it is sung through cupped hands or otherwise mildly and inexpertly “amplified” for effect–the chorus is more plaintive and stronger, as is the bridge that follows it the second time around. There’s a sense of emotion, but of a kind that is drained and resigned in most respects–except on the final repetitions of the chorus, where that earlier plaintiveness seems to long for an answer to that central question. The solo is similarly at ease, and only appears in time to fade out.

The sound shifts quite noticeably with the opening lick of “Wait for You”, with a distorted and clearly electric sound to Buckingham’s guitar, which bends in just the right way, the way that makes you feel it. Mick Fleetwood and John McVie are actually his rhythm section for the song and mostly give it a simple backing, that bending lick really occupying the driver’s seat for the verses. Almost tinged with a bit of phase, his voice has a kind of kind leer–if you can imagine such a thing–to it. When the chorus hits, the leer suggested by that bend and his voice is suddenly gone, replaced with a bigger sound, and a brighter feeling, his playing turning more open and clean, a stronger pattern from Mick keeping the energy of that chorus at its heights. It’s interesting in the context of the album’s overall tenor: it gives it that sunny, backward-look that the verses don’t seem to carry, like it’s the soundtrack to play over sunlit (perhaps rose-tinted) memories, even as it describes a future action. I have a deep and abiding love for Buckingham’s choruses, and this is no exception, even bringing out the very quiet, small modulation of the vibrato his voice takes on for long-held notes. The solo he burns out is more in the verse’s style, bending and twisting with a wink instead of a cheerful smile.

There’s a dichotomous approach to the songs on the album; the ones that feature Lindsey in isolation (or at least only playing alongside himself) are more contemplative and open, less “rocking” and more in tune with the sound presented on Under the Skin, his album from two years prior (more on this later, though). “Love Runs Deeper” is from the other side, though: Walfredo rejoins him for the track, and it has that rhythmic bottom end that anchors it, even as his more aggressive guitar already pushes the songs in this direction. The opening chords are reminiscent of those that open the Church’s “Under the Milky Way”, but are quickly swept in another direction, becoming brighter quickly, and his again breathy voice sounds again like it’s coming from somewhere other than where you might expect, though I cannot for the life of me accurately place where–it’s a vague displacement that is tonally fitting, but odd nonetheless. Reyes shies away from the snare and the kick (largely, anyway) for much of the verse, but opens up with the rest of the song in the chorus. While Lindsey’s voice becomes louder and more open (though this time with that same peculiar timbre), Reyes makes more full use of his kit, pounding out at toms that give you the impression that he is turning rapidly, a somewhat Jeff Lynne-esque¹ set of up-down-up-down chords being matched with alternating tom choices, that give a lot of drama to the increased range of the chorus. A slow, meandering solo over the verse melody does what a good solo should: it expands on the mood and tone of the rest of the song, but is followed after another chorus, by an even more virtuosic, expansive one that brings the song to a close.

Side Two opens with a song that in some ways mirrors the opening of Side One: “Bel Air Rain” is another purely solo song (though the writing of “Great Day” also involved Lindsey’s son Will), with the rhythm and melody both defined by a rapidly picked guitar, one that expands on itself and moves from an already rapid and seemingly-complicated line to a layered, brighter, louder one that has the same essential effect as the fully accompanied tracks, yet achieved in an entirely different way, and with an entirely different feeling. A semi-scat ending brings in more shades of Tusk, too.

While I like all of this album a lot and for varying reasons, “The Right Place to Fade” is undoubtedly the crown jewel in an album that’s already great all around. Mixing up the rhythm section, Fleetwood returns, but the bass is provided by one John Pierce. A galloping acoustic comes in alone, overdubbed with a cruising lead electric line, though all of it remains hushed, even the drums of Fleetwood, until the chorus drops its bomb: driving slashes of distorted guitar and the primal drumming of Mick back the clear-throated, passionate but knowing call of, “How long, how long, how long/How long we wait/Waiting for the light that might light our way/Waiting for the right place to fade…” The alliteration and the number of syllables jammed into that chorus after the stretched repetition of its first line catches you up, as does the addition of overdubbed backing vocals that just encourage you to join in. Wild lead lines spiral off in the background, but the drums, the simple distorted chords and Lindsey’s voice are the focal point. The solo that interrupts the latter end sounds like a slowly picked solo from someone learning guitar for just a moment, then shifts without warning or transition into rapid and higher-end, emotive soloing that pierces and then suddenly falls back into an expansion of the song’s primary melody. This song is amazing.

You would think that Fleetwood was responsible for the pounding, animal drums of the title track–and you’d be right. McVie also returns, and the song doesn’t hold for a moment. There’s a vague sense of early rock and roll to the simple and repetitive chord progression that moves the melody on, but the affected, half nasal chorus has a sneer to it, that turns to actual crazed laughter–more shades of Tusk!–that seems uncontrolled, then intentional and musical, but catches another jolt of madness as it ends its run. And it repeats, too, and loses none of this. The song ends with Lindsey calling with his voice and answering with his guitar–if anyone else was doing it, you’d think either the vocalist was appreciating the playing of the guitarist, but here it’s like the song’s constructed object: that feeling of vocal encouragement is part of what we expect in that context, and Lindsey just goes ahead and covers both ends of it himself, managing not to sound like he’s fawning over his own guitar work at the same time. Even if it’d be justified.

The pair of closing sounds are more from the less-rock oriented side of the album’s sound, and both are pure Lindsey: writing, performance, and production all. “Underground” is more uptempo than his other solo tracks, and has less of the drained feeling of prior ones, seeming more optimistic, though still aged–in the wine sense, not the brittled, yellowing one–the playing is simpler again, which almost seems to fit the easier tone. It seems in the songs of near-glissando playing, Buckingham imbues a sort of tension to the songs with the endless finger-picking, which is then left aside here.

“Treason” is a brilliant choice as a closer. Though “alone”, Lindsey does work in some basic drum tracking, and overlays it with a searching voice and simple chord-based acoustics, overdubbing and echoing his vocals with the feeling of a song of final unison, where everyone joins together–and it makes sense. The song, despite the title, is actually named for the final word of its chorus: “Deep down there is freedom/Deep down there will be a reason/At the end of the season/We will rise from this treason”. It’s optimistic, and carries a sense of wisdom, the knowledge that, at the end of all of it, we’ll come out of the betrayals and confusions. The verses tell us he is not there yet himself, but that there’s an understanding in him that this is temporary.

I’ve learned that this album was first proposed in the mid 1990s, but was shelved and picked apart for both solo albums (including Under the Skin, hence my note about returning to the subject) and Fleetwood Mac albums. As such, these recordings date to various times throughout the past two decades, roughly, yet you would never guess that to listen to it. The album is beautiful, weary without being tired, and contemplative and wise, without being condescending or pretentious. When it decides to rock or move quickly, it does exactly that. And, on display as ever, is the care Lindsey puts into his work. The layering of sounds and instruments–especially when no one but him is playing–is intricate but organic, fully functional and only in place to serve the whole. His playing is jaw-dropping, but never feels overly showy, not in solos, nor in moments of less emphatic displays of skill.

It’s a very pretty album, and a very catchy and good one–managing to tamp down the more bizarre and unusual things he did with Tusk (though I’d never suggest that was necessary, as I love those songs dearly) to create an album that could–and should–make sense to just about anyone, given the chance.

¹Jeff Lynne is/was primary songwriter for ELO (Electric Light Orchestra) and has produced many records since, such as Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever and his subsequent album with the Heartbreakers, Into the Great Wide Open. Of course, he was also one of the Traveling Wilburys, and produced both of their albums. He has a very distinct and recognizable, clean, clear, well-produced sound.

  • Next Up: Burning Airlines – ?

Day Twenty-Nine: Brother Ali – Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color

Rhymesayers Entertainment ■ RSE0152-1

Released September 18, 2012
Produced by Jake One

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Letter to My Countrymen
  2. Only Life I Know
  3. Stop the Press
  1. Mourning in America
  2. Gather Round
  3. Work Everyday
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Need a Knot
  2. Won More Hit
  3. Say Amen
  4. Fajr
  1. Namesake
  2. All You Need
  3. My Beloved
  4. Singing This Song
While the big names like the Beach Boys and the Beatles inspired the conversation my father and I had about “alphabetical imbalance” in music collections, I have no good explanation for the imbalance in my rap. I know it’s something less than a favourite genre for a number of people I know (including the above person), but this is almost it for quite a while–and then almost it for good. Electronic music is “worse”–I’ve got three more of those in my entire collection. In any case, we’ve had a semi-glut of late, and I’m not going to apologize for any of those, but I do understand the fact that for many that’s not going to be the most interesting part of all of this. Still, this is my collection, and I went with alphabetical order to avoid any deliberate weight being placed on any genre, artists, or anything else. I feel like this still sounds vaguely apologetic, which I guess it still is, in a way, but the reality is, this shouldn’t be taken as yet another album to skip for the unfamiliar or those who feel they do not like rap (to whom I always say, as I do with comic books, metal, electronic music, silent movies and various other niche genres–“You haven’t read/heard/seen all of them. It’s a medium, and a style, and there’s a lot of variation within, and a lot to take out of them”).
I’ve mentioned Brother Ali plenty already, in that his DJ was responsible for one of the other albums I recently covered, and he even made a few appearances on it. He was the first artist, too, that I really branched out into after Atmosphere got me back into rap. There’s a logical reason for this, in that the production on his actual debut studio album was handled by none other than Atmosphere’s own Ant. However, his style is a lot more traditional as the underground rap scene goes, calling more to mind rappers from the 80s than contemporary “backpacker”, “conscious”, or “emo” rap. Though he has guested with Atmosphere previously (such as on Seven’s Travels, the other album of theirs I have on vinyl–on which he even beatboxes!), Ali has often occupied a place a bit away from the rest, even as I eventually wandered off into Aesop Rock (whose Labor Days or None Shall Pass probably should have also appeared here somewhere–though it would just make the alphabet issue worse) and Sage Francis (Personal Journals will not be appearing on this blog, though it easily could have been). My friend John said Ali’s style reminded him of Public Enemy, which I actually relayed back to Brother Ali himself, who was understandably flattered and told me PE were his heroes growing up (he has worked with Chuck D since then, each appearing on the other’s records since). One of the shows I saw him at was actually one where he opened for Rakim, of the seminal group Eric B. and Rakim (from whom I only have a 12″ single, vinyl-wise), which was an entirely different audience from the one I saw at every other hip-hop show I’ve ever been to.
 Ali has had some troubles with pigeonholing over the years, as you might be able to guess from the album cover above. Yes, he’s white. Yes, he’s an albino. Yes, he’s a Muslim. While all those things inform his identity and a lot of his (often personal) work, it is nothing like all there is to him. This is less than news to those of us who’ve followed his work–he has told his own story over the years, about the end of his first marriage, his son Faheem, his neighbor Dorian, the place he grew up, the way he found Islam, the way he grew up, on and on. To me, this has only ever been a hook to get people to pay attention, generally when they are overwhelmed by the volume of rap available, or when rap is inherently unappealing (or even musically valueless) to them. Let’s just get that established now, though, and move on–it’s nothing to do with the end result, whether we’re talking about his debut Shadows on the Sun (so long as one doesn’t count the cassette-only Rites of Passage), or this album, which is only four months old at time of writing.

Apparently the track “Uncle Sam Goddamn” from The Undisputed Truth (released back in ’07) earned Ali a report with the Department of Homeland Security (!) and that is just one of the strongest indicators of how things changed for him in the years between then and now. Now he has changed his language in many respects, including some I witnessed when seeing him live. He has since said he regrets the anger of “Uncle Sam Goddamn” in some measure–the song being a reference to Nina Simmone’s “Mississippi Goddam”, a song of frustration at the continuing violence despite the Civil Rights movement (the church bombing in Alabama, and the lynching of Medgar Evers), and has been through upheaval in his career and home life, addressing a moment of writer’s block in a song that ended up not appearing on any album (though it is available digitally). In most interviews surrounding this album, Ali has said that he aimed to move away from completely personal material and into more general social and political material–the same idea as “Uncle Sam Goddamn”, but with a different tone. Of course, as is ever the case with him, he addresses all of this in his music anyway.

I was going to split this up into the two “halves” of the album, but he’s said the transition to the “Dreaming in Color” part occurs around the track “Fajr” which closes Side Three, and hardly makes for an even split. There are two bonus tracks with the digital version of the album, included as a download with the LP, which come closer to evening the split as they are both more in the “Dreaming in Color” vein. As this is about the vinyl though, it’s just going to be a straight ahead run-through instead.

Featuring the most unusual guest star is the opening track, “Letter to My Countrymen” which is effectively the album’s mission statement: “This is a letter to my countrymen/Not from a Democrat or a Republican/But one among you that’s why you call me brother/Ain’t scared to tell you we’re in trouble ’cause I love you”. Expanding on the beats Jake One lays–a new sound for Ali, who has been produced by Ant on all his previous endeavours–there are various live players throughout the album, and I’m not going to pretend I know Jake One’s style (or these musicians) enough to be able to tell you where the crossover occurs. A fuzzy bass is not only what the song opens cold with, but what defines it. Ringing bells–of the kind played in music, rather than Hunchback style–punctuate and bring a brighter note to the song, the pealing of hope that Ali has found in a country he was utterly disillusioned with previously. A sampled voice singing coolly, “Sooner or later” is the song’s hook and just adds to the positive message Ali is trying to put forth.

A much harder drum beat, introduced with horns, gives a much stronger edge to “Only Life I Know”, one of the album’s singles (insofar as that term continues to mean anything, anyway). Ali rhymes about the limitations of the lower class in American society–the struggle to move past the restrictions placed by financial and social constraints. A brief soul-esque sample, “It’s my life”, is answered by Ali himself: “the only one that I’ve ever known”, as he himself started in that part of the country. He lists the three major routes available to escape–trying desperately to be a good citizen and crossing your fingers, selling drugs (probably ending in either death or prison), or welfare, where the reaction tends to be condemnation, suspicion and criticism, rather than understanding. It’s a standout track for the album overall, as it hits the generalized territory that Ali is aiming for and does so in a nice, hard track.

“Stop the Press” has warm soul-sampled sounds swirling in to easy, comfortable, relaxed keys. An occasional snare-based beat keeps the song moving, with horns occasionally trying to give the song more force. But really it feels like it’s all about to break out from introduction and into a movie. Ali, though, is using this opportunity to explain everything that has happened since around 2007’s The Undisputed Truth, from the death of fellow Rhymesayers alumni Eyedea (RIP, Mikey), the professional exit of BK-One as his touring DJ, and his discomfort with 2009’s Us (though he makes an allowance for the quality of the two tracks I actually thanked him for in person–“Babygirl” and “Puppy Love”). It’s his chance, he’s said, to explain how this album came to be, and what set him on the path to his change in attitude and focus.

Short of the digital version, the only title track on the album is “Mourning in America”, a track based on a bumping, bass-kick based beat and synth lines that spread evenly for much but occasionally sprinkle in in a style vaguely reminiscent of the lo-fi Casio lines that defined a lot of early 90s gangsta rap. The track is about the endless bloodshed of war, and the idea that innocent death doesn’t reflect well on anyone, regardless of the nobility of intention or actions that lead to it. The video transitions an implied terrorist with a soldier, which upset some people, but was about the idea–not that soldiers are evil, but when someone is directed to kill and innocent civilians are put at risk, the line between the two becomes thin. Indeed, Ali actually shows far more sympathy to the soldiers and what they come home to, which is not a great set of circumstances. The song actually has a short bridge from a choir composed of various voices (including Aby Wolf, who has worked with Doomtree and appeared on BK-One’s Rádio do Canibal, as well as recording her own material). It’s another heavy, thoroughly unhappy track, but this is the portion of the album aligned with that half of the album’s title, and obviously this track makes that most obvious.
Still a little grittier on the end of Jake One’s beat, “Gather Round” uses a loaded guitar lick and a heavily rhythmic track to back Ali’s discussion of the darkness of the world, the innocent death, the trappings of the world–and how the good in the world see this as a time to “Gather ’round”, to come together and fight back against these injustices. He includes an excerpt of Amir Sulaiman’s poem “Danger” performed by Sulaiman, too, that draws the line of justice repeatedly, showing it between all the extremes. Ali also takes this moment to hint at his personal feeling of mis-step in “Uncle Sam Goddamn”–“Couple years ago I made a statement/Can’t think a single Goddamn way to change it”.
Returning to territory that is less dark but no less pessimistic, “Work Everyday” is all tense strings, until it breaks into the looping beat and sample of “Every day every day have to work everyday”. No surprise, then, that the song is about the financial limitations of the working classes. Low pay, limited job availability, the difficulty of managing emergencies and the inability to take time off or have a moment to breathe–but all balanced against the constant act to work within this system, unfair and absurd though it may be. The territory is not far from portions of “Only Life I Know” but manages to distinguish itself, even as it addresses the attitude toward anyone seeking welfare again. He doesn’t avoid a knock against the Tea Party and conservatives (“How absurd is this?/How are so many poor people conservative?”), but explains those rather than leaving it at that.
Sampling UGK’s Bun B, “Need a Knot” is the story of a “hustler” who “ain’t sellin’ cocaine/[He] got a snowshovel”. “I need a knot, whether the bread is for me or not”, Bun B rhymes, as Ali relays this character and expands his territory from cocaine to marijuana and prostitutes. Relaxed and bass and drum machine snare (808, I’d guess) reminiscent of many a classic simple rap beat defines those choruses, but a horn-heavy variation is the order of the day for the verses. As is his knack, Ali hints at the damages these activities cause to those involved outside “himself”, the abuse of prostitutes and the addictions of his customers–it’s reminiscent of “Prince Charming” from Shadows on the Sun in this sense.
A favourite subject of Ali’s, “Won More Hit” is about the exploitation of black americans. An overtly electronic intro turns to a kick-based beat that glitters with 8-bit style keys and other distinctly electronic moments. In totality, Ali covers the move from slaves and the spirituals they sang to find some kind of hope in that situation, on into the assimilation of the blues, jazz, and other black music over the years: “Treat you like a hero and we all gon’ come and see you/In a big fancy theatre dressed in a tuxedo/But we gon’ have to seat you in the kitchen when we feed you/A place this regal doesn’t serve your kind of people”. The kind of “You understand, don’t you?” tone is captured perfectly, as is the willingness to appreciate the emotional expressions of a people consistently left to suffer in spite of that appreciation.
I somehow doubt Ali will ever quite go back to songs like “Champion”, pure braggadocio and withering insults. Still, “Say Amen” is in that vein. While a guitar winds downward over congas to introduce it, the main beat behind it is crunchy, driving guitar riffs and bass-kicks merely accented with snares. the beat just drops over and over, carrying the exact right tone for this kind of song. Ali’s spitting is not quite like it used to be on this subject, as his insults carry a different sensibility than they used to: “Fuck no homo, you a no home owning old grown/Unsigned chump month behind on your car loan”. And he finally comes to the point that I’ve made mention of before: “I ain’t bitter or a backpacker or conscious/Just want ya’ll the fuck out my hear with that nonsense”. considering the variety of limited descriptors applied, it can only be coincidence that he and P.O.S., possibly my two favourite emcees, are both stuck with these ideas and would like to escape them without completely denying their relevance–“I’m more than this”, instead of “I’m not this”.
Considered by Ali to be the start of the “Dreaming in Color” portion of the album, “Fajr” is a reference to one of the daily prayers of Islam, that of the dawn: the moment between darkness and light. Heavy on an organ sound reminiscent of church organs (not a sound foreign to Ali, who was originally raised Christian, and who has used this kind of sound previously on tracks like “Forest Whitiker” on Shadows on the Sun). It begins a sort of quartet of personal songs about important parts of Ali’s life. A choral recitation forms the chorus and ascribes to it the connection to “Lord”, and makes it clear–alongside the verses and their discussions of the philosophy of his understanding of Islam in the context of American culture, including the varying perceptions and the need to prove them wrong, to act rightly because it is the right thing to do.
Ali admits pretty readily to a measure of ignorance when he was offered his Muslim name, being unaware of its origins, and instead associating it with Muhammad Ali specifically–who, of course, did at least get the name in the same fashion and thus from the same origin. He chose the name for this reason, even though it was not the reason it was offered, primarily because of the story he knows and relays in the song “Namesake”: after returning with his 1960 Olympic medal, Muhammad Ali and his friends were refused service in a whites-only restaurant. Ali has alleged that he then threw the medal into the Ohio River, feeling it was worthless if it did nothing to help improve the status of blacks in his homeland. While the accuracy of this story has been debated (including the words of some of Ali’s own friends), it’s one that Brother Ali finds inspiring for its selfless and symbolic nature.
Ali has never been one to shy away from talking about his son, as the very first song on Shadows on the Sun makes clear: That’s when the greatest hits of Donny Hathaway/Got interrupted by a drive-by shooting half a block away/Faheem was in the window/He didn’t get hit though/All praise to Allah…” On The Undisputed Truth, it was just blatant: track 14 is titled “Faheem”, and on Off the Record, the Brother Ali/BK-One mixtape, “Original Prince” is actually performed by Faheem. “All You Need” is his latest message to his son, and much like the hair-raising moments he manages in “Stop the Press”, he tells us the story of what really broke up his original marriage. He has hinted at it, but now he lays it all out, telling Faheem he wants to know him the whole truth of his life, to be open and clear, not to demonize, but to avoid excusing, either. He doesn’t burn, much as he didn’t when telling his ex-wife he was “Walking Away” in a song of the same name, more sad than angry. A slightly sped vocal sample gives the song its title and works with the organ-oriented beat to give it all a sort of hope in spite of its subject matter.
“My Beloved” is a paean to his wife, most of it directed to her, but a good portion extolling her virtues as a human being and a friend and partner to him to listeners as well. The voices of Choklate and Tone Trezure give him a chorus: “Wherever you go/May the good Lord bless your heart and soul/My beloved, my beloved, my beloved/I want you to know/That your love and wisdom touched me so/My beloved, my beloved, my beloved”. His tone softens even more than on previous songs–though not tinged with the sadness of “All You Need”. Not quite as exuberantly happy as “Ear to Ear” on The Undisputed Truth, it’s still a happy song, and at the end is dedicated to more than just his own beloved, but that of others–I’m guessing Jake and perhaps Choklate and Tone. Ali’s primary subject matter has always been dark, but when he turns to the light, it’s inevitably something that really touches you as a listener, more than even the empathy for the dark moments of his life.
There are a lot of parallels to previous songs in the album, with the closer, “Singing This Song”, reminding in some ways of “Victory (Come Forward)” but so much more positive, optimistic, and good-hearted. It’s the sound and the call of the album itself, asking us all to come together and work for good in the world, naming many lost over time–from the famous, like King, Lennon, and Simone, to the less famous, like Eyedea–and some who he still finds inspiring in life, like Chuck D. The album finally closes with a recording of him speaking at a concert: 

“And so if we get anywhere we have to be self-loving enough, to be honest with ourselves, to do some soul-searching. I’m not talking about soul-searching to see what’s inside our soul, we got to find out what the hell happened to our soul. We’ve got to find that shit.I want my humanity back. I want to be a human being again. I don’t want that shit on my conscious soul. I want to live in a fair world. We’ve got to decide to rejoin the human family again. We’re not talking just about this case, we’re not talking about just this issue, we’re talking about whether or not we’re going to be human beings again. Peace.”

There’s one word that sums up Brother Ali in all his career: Honesty. He has always been emphatic about the truth of what he speaks, about the reality of the stories he tells. He has expressed the notion that maybe his fans know more about him than anyone else, but never with a concern or fear, always with a feeling that he needs to be honest and tell the truth in everything he does. There’s a reason he wrote a song called “The Truth Is Here”, made an EP with the same name, and of course an album named The Undisputed Truth (of course, also a reference to the Motown act). Whenever he sounds like his hopes are overly optimistic, the absolute reality of them keeps it from becoming saccharine or ridiculous. Even before he began to emphasize the truth, it was easy to hear in the way he has always rapped, in the way he speaks between songs at shows.
I’ve met Ali a few times, as he has always stopped and talked to fans after shows–every time I saw him (beyond the one time I was rushed out by the person I was with). Known by some for my “Crocodile Dundee hat”, he tells me that when I wear it, it reminds him of Johnny Winter–one of the few musical heroes available to him as an albino, and a man entrenched in the blues, which connected back to the community Ali always felt most included in, even if a bit generationally displaced. He was never anything but humble, patient and understanding. When someone I knew wanted to see him and didn’t get the chance, and I foolishly tried to show him the texts saying so, he gently reminded me his albinism has not done wonders for his sight. When I relayed them and asked if he would talk to this person, he did so happily and graciously, speaking for a few moments to a fan who couldn’t make it. He exudes peace and love, which I like to think would make him a little happy, as I think that’s what he would want to show to people.
  • Next Up: Lindsey Buckinham – Gift of Screws

Day Twenty-Eight: Bronski Beat – The Age of Consent

Columbia Records ■ PC 37062

Released December, 1984
Produced by Mike Thorne

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Why?
  2. It Ain’t Necessarily So
  3. Screaming
  4. No More War
  5. Love and Money
  1. Smalltown Boy
  2. Heatwave
  3. Junk
  4. Need a Man Blues
  5. I Feel Love/Johnny Remember Me

I stumbled into this album for the oddest of reasons. I grew up hearing it on occasion, but was often exhausted by the consistent falsetto singing of Jimmy Somerville, as well as a feeling of a sort of camp that inherently bugged me–to be fair, this also bugged me about parts of Nick Lowe’s Party of One, which my brain has always told me I heard around the same time (along with a few other albums that are all blended in my head from when I was rather young). I can’t tell you exactly why all that is, but it did leave me to ignore the band quite a long time. It was through a link to a list of gay anthems on a forum somewhere that, the name ringing a bell and the context I gained the link from encouraging it, I went and looked up “Smalltown Boy”. I was immediately struck by how familiar I was with the song and wondered why it was I had avoided them so intently: clearly, this was exactly who I thought, as Somerville’s voice is not exactly one you’d mistake for any others. So, off I went to find the album. It was being reissued around that time (on CD, I mean) so I skipped a CD copy I ran into, then couldn’t find it again. While waiting for another to arrive (the reissue was by Edsel/Demon, which means it is highly unlikely to show up here in the States), I picked it up on LP instead when I found a copy.

The album was a hit, of course, mostly riding on the success of the same single I myself recalled so well. It was also the only album from Bronski Beat to feature Somerville on vocals, as he left the band not long after its release. The follow-up album (not counting the compilation/remix album Hundreds & Thousands), Truthdare Doubledare, instead featured vocalist John Jon (aka John Foster), though this lineup didn’t last much longer and also only released the single album.

The album opens with a song that became another single for the group, “Why?” Immediately, we’re faced with the sound that defines the most popular phase of Bronski Beat’s existence: the voice of Jimmy Somerville, not just a falsetto, but a very high and strong one. Completely a cappella, Jimmy sings “Tell me why? Tell me why?” and the sound of glass breaking brings in his bandmates, Steve Bronski (aka Steven Forrest) and Larry Steinbachek, both operating on purely electronic means. A pulsing beat (four-on-the-floor bass kicks and alternating snare hits) and a buzzing electronic melody, occasionally accented by the help of the Uptown Horns. Jimmy questions homophobic behaviour in response to his own natural expressions of love–the source of the song’s central question. “You and me together, fighting for our love” Jimmy eventually sings over a rapid synthetic bassline.

One of the pair of covers on the album follows, the Gershwin song “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from Porgy and Bess. A synthesized bass drops the song down to the clarinet solo from Arno Hecht of the Uptown Horns, and an organ-esque line fills the backing of a relaxed, smoky track. Scatting from Jimmy begins the vocals, as the swinging chorus starts the song. Jimmy gets to play with his voice a bit more in the song, often adding quite a few notes and syllables to just “so” when it ends the lines of the chorus. At the second verse, about Jonah and the whale, he is joined by the Pink Singers for a bit, emphasizing the theatrical origins of the song, though the choir practically overwhelms him. A bit of a solo from the keys is backed by both synthesized strings and real ones–the cellos of Beverly Lauridsen, Jesse Levy, and Mark Shuman. In the next verse, about Moses, the Pink Singers instead hum behind Jimmy, and then join in with him on the chorus, giving a lot of force to the central idea. Originally, the song is used as a hint about the state of racial stratification of society (as the song is copyrighted to 1935), but here is used for similar but different reasons: to hint that maybe, perhaps, “Things that you’re liable/To read in the Bible/It ain’t necessarily so…” with a pretty clear idea of what they are referring to.

Originally a poem and eventually their first song, “Screaming” opens with an echoed drum hit and then a very low-end, slow, dark beat. The origin of the lyrics as non-musical poetry is rather apparent: “My man love my first love/My closetness and pain/My closetness and pain/My lying my deceiving…” The low synthesized lines, very ominous and long-held, are accented by periodic interruptions of higher pitched piano-styled keys and periodic splatters of noisy clatter–echoing drums, and the rumble and rattle of less distinctly musical natures. The song begins to build together, filling what were spacious moments, until Jimmy’s voice rises as high as it goes, passionately expressing his pain and frustration with how he has been forced to live life and survive in a society that does not readily accept him.

While the album is known primarily for its gay themes (the original release contained an etching in the dead space of a phone number for support and information for the gay community in the UK, my own US release has the National Gay Task Force number printed on the inner sleeve, under the ages of consent for homosexual men for various countries–emphasizing the UK’s exceptionally high 21, as compared to almost every other country), Jimmy was not strictly limited to those in his lyrical choices. It’s not difficult to guess what “No More War” is about, and it’s also not too surprising that an inevitably sincere sentiment remains sweetly optimistic and vaguely naïve–at least, with respect to the idea of it occurring. Naturally, though, this isn’t a release from the darker, more somber backings that Steinbachek and Bronski put behind “Screaming”, as this is a distinctly mournful song: low on energy, but heavy with oppressive low-end sound. Jimmy again uses free moments to really stretch his falsetto out and express his feelings for the choices humanity makes–war over the hungry. Skittering noise filters in to the song over his voice and it closes without resolution, as is inescapable in context.

Continuing to explore other dark and more broad themes, “Love and Money” again avoids subtlety in its name and content. A bit more uptempo from the prior tracks, Steinbachek and Bronski work in a similarly bassy track, but one that has synthesized strings to add a brighter strain. Cris Cioe contributes an alto sax solo midway through, with congas from John Folarin hiding in the background. The song is less broken in its hurt than previously, more cynically despairing–absent of hope, resigned to the strength of money as motivator, and its ties to love and lust. Cioe has control of much of the track, even as he and Jimmy trade vocal acrobatics for saxophone heroics.

The up-down, up-down beat that opens “Smalltown Boy” is dark, but has a light, warm synthetic line behind it. But that signature melody, a sort of harp-like synthesizer finally establishes the real tone, sad, lost, and alone. Even as an uptempo drumbeat enters, paired with a higher pitched version of the original low melody, this tone isn’t lost as we’ve had it established so firmly, but it certainly leaves the track far more danceable (if you’re that way inclined). Jimmy sings no words, just ethereal sounds of cooled pain. The hook returns, now over the drumbeat, and is cut short for Jimmy to begin to the story: “You leave in the morning/With everything you own/In a little black case…” While still using his falsetto, he brings a palpable sadness to these lines, the kind that comes from turning sadly away from home that stays home, even if it was never comfortable or perfectly happy. Backed rather than overpowered for the chorus, “Run away, turn away, run away, turn away, run away…” there’s no sense of urgency, or of command or directive, just the sense that this is the conclusion to be drawn, the action to be taken–or rather, that was taken–when parents don’t understand, and abuse from the community makes the whole town impossible. A much brighter, rhythmic melody breaks the sadness for just a moment before the hook brings us back. Shortly after it does, Jimmy repeats the original verse and brings more loss and mourning to the final line. A sort of solo–synthesized–follows as the chorus repeats and fades.

One of the few truly cheerful songs on the album, “Heatwave” is more relaxed in subject matter–it’s about an oncoming heatwave, and that which is associated (including “Tattoos and muscles passion and sweat”). Thudding along as it comes in, there’s a great hook that is kind of like a more square, electronic, piccolo of some sort–synthesized of course, but nothing lost (only gained!) from that. There’s the sound of snapping (played on keyboard!) backing it, and it’s almost as if they are again covering another elder musical track, but it’s an original. Of course, the theatricality is returned by a second rhythmic choice to accompany the snapping: a constant sort of tappedy-tap is none other than just that–the tap shoes of Caroline O’Connor. It’s a clever trick that fits perfectly with the feel of the song. And the crescendo of Jimmy’s voice on the jumping rhythm of the song’s title is something to behold, especially in its smooth clarity. Another standout, even if little could touch “Smalltown Boy”.

Unsurprisingly, Jimmy returns to darker subject matter with “Junk”, which Steinbachek and Bronski open with a faux guitar line that strikes downward in an appealing, catchy sort of way, the rhythm pounded out in the midrange on comfortably electronic keys. Much more surprisingly, Somerville exits his falsetto for the verses of the song, and even the (excellent) chorus. Moments of nonverbal melody do place him back in it, but largely the song is in his normal voice. The rhythm of the chorus, though it can obscure the lyrics, is catchy as all heck: “Eat what you’re given/Eat what you get”, though the song remains relatively oriented toward the darker side of things, describing someone attempting to avoid the “junk” of life–seemingly melding drugs with the dross of popular culture, unwanted but inescapable, and desired anyway. Briefly sampled is a Kibbles ‘n’ Bits commercial, which got them less in trouble with the dog food company than it did the actor who recorded the bit. It emphasizes the relentless commercial nature of US culture in particular, and the junk littering segments of it.

Perhaps most obvious in intent, though more in line with popular kinds of songs (despite the singer’s sex and orientation), “Need a Man Blues” is another of the less generally depressing songs on the album. It’s more personal, in its relation to something that–somewhat paraxodically–most of us experiences: the desire to find love, and sometimes, to just find any love at all, and the intensity of that desire when none is present. The beat is one of the most attractive of the album, with the semi-shuffle of it making it closer to the kind of beat-dominant music from which some of their sound originated: the Hi-NRG modifications of disco, either genre often sounding more like a person singing over a piece of music than as part of it. The thick, fat synthesized bassline of much mid-80s synthpop even appears partway through, competing in volume against Jimmy’s more seemingly-improvisational vocal lines. The end of the rhythm loop in particular captures a sound that I’ve always quite liked: a sort of clapping sound, though, in truth, sounding nothing like hands–more like something inorganic being clapped together. It made a brief appearance, in fact, in my own (abysmal) flirtations with creating electronic music.

The closer for the album is its “epic” track: a cover of Donna Summer’s classic “I Feel Love” (co-written with synth-player and disco producer Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte), which pounds along in the style that became Hi-NRG (at first a derivative of disco, but eventually its own genre, less eccentrically named just “hi-energy” in places other than the US), thumping along in that style I mentioned for the last track: Jimmy and the Pink Singers sing more over the music than as part of it, as they hold notes and maintain a more subdued composure to their vocal than the insistent beat would suggest they might. Briefly interrupting it though it isn’t immediately apparent as “interruption”, is actually a bit derived from John Leyton and the Outlaws ’61 UK hit “Johnny Remember Me”, one of those many songs about dead lovers and remembering them, but one with a guitar that actually gives it country inflections. Curiously appearing here in the midst of a disco hit, reclaiming the song in spite of the (alleged, long denied) homphobic comments of the recently born-again Summers.

While their hit with John (“Hit That Perfect Beat”) is quite engaging and good, the heavy political elements of the Somerville-incarnation of Bronski Beat remain in popular (and my personal) opinion the height for the group. Even when not being explicitly political, comfortably and non-defensively expressing Jimmy’s (and, by proxy, to some extent, the group’s collective) romantic and sexual desires plopped homosexual-written-and-performed music right in everyone’s collective faces and made no apologies, excuses, or elaborate dodges about it. It was just there, right in a hit album. When Jimmy sang his “Need a Man Blues”, it wasn’t “look at me! I want a man!” it was just openly expressing that, well–he did. It was suggested that they felt that it was the equivalent of the way heterosexuality was “rammed down their throats”, so to speak, in the way that many whinge about the LGBT movement doing to this day–which gets into a lot of social discussion that isn’t the purview of this particular blog. My feelings, I think, are readily apparent, so I don’t move away from this as a shield to protect my (non-existent) readership and avoid social politics, so much as a recognition that this is about music–and I’ve addressed how this album is tied into things outside just music. No need to go too much further.

In any case, at the least, do not be foolish and miss out on “Smalltown Boy” (and, preferrably, also “Heatwave”, “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, “Why?”, and “Junk”, with an extra spot for “Screaming” if you want a more beat-esque, stream-of-consciousness-like expression of the sentiments that are most iconic in the album).

  • Next Up: Brother Ali – Mourning in America and Dreaming in Colour

Day Twenty-Seven: David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

RCA Victor ■ LSP-4702

Released June 6, 1972
Produced by Ken Scott and David Bowie

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Five Years
  2. Soul Love
  3. Moonage Daydream
  4. Starman
  5. It Ain’t Easy
  1. Lady Stardust
  2. Star
  3. Hang on to Yourself
  4. Ziggy Stardust
  5. Suffragette City
  6. Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide

While my new records tend to be kept in quite good shape (including the sleeves, though a little seam-splitting from shipped sealed ones is occasionally an issue–but I’m not overly picky most of the time), I have bought some real clunkers, condition-wise, in my used travels. As we go on through my collection, you will eventually start to see black “X”s in the top right corner of sleeves in permanent marker. This may horrify some, but it was really just the “dump stock” for a record store I frequented in high school–mostly a metal/industrial/punk store, so when I was buying some of the stuff I buy, it wasn’t really for their market, and went into that bin. I do recall, actually, my good friend John (see all references to “best friend in high school and college”) picking up a truly dilapidated copy of Who’s Next from those bins (noticeably scratched) becuase it was only $1. This record, I honestly don’t remember where I got. You can see the thing’s been sellotaped (why do none of us have a non-brand-based term for this tape in wide general use? At least this one isn’t pejorative…) around two sides, is suffering some extreme ringwear, and generally just looks well-used. The inner sleeve with lyrics (this particular edition was originally pressed with one–it’s actually the first U.S. press from ’72) is long gone, replaced with a plain white sleeve that has also been taped up, albeit with masking tape.

I do sort of like the used look for an album that I buy almost more because I feel–personally–as though I should have it. Sort of like Abbey Road or Pet Sounds–or most things that show up on almost every “best albums of all time lists”. I’m more likely to listen to it in various expanded, cleaned up forms, as these albums tend to be respected when remastered, and I never was exposed to them as full-length album recordings on vinyl long enough in my youth to get used to the sound. And I’d never replicate my dad’s favourite purchase of all time–speakers that were previously display models, acquired on the cheap and moved around for the last few decades. They do sound pretty fantastic too, for the–uh–record.

As I said, I don’t listen to this album on vinyl much. Actually, truth be told, I don’t listen to this album much. I, like many people I know who have any taste in the “weirder” sides of music, prefer the “Berlin Trilogy” era of Bowie, his “triptych” of albums (Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger) created with Brian Eno in the late ’70s–and I grew up more with the Let’s Dance-ish Bowie, for the nostalgia end of things. It’s not that I don’t like Ziggy (or Hunky Dory, or The Man Who Sold the World, or Aladdin Sane…), I just tend to gravitate toward Low and Station to Station first.

The acknowledged inspiration for this blog, though, is the attempt by a non-music-person (self-described as such) attempting to run through the entirety of the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, leaving semi-daily commentary on each throughout. I say “inspiration”, in that a lot of the writing leaves something to be desired. The writing on this album, for instance, basically accuses the album of failing to be “interesting” or “experimental”, while another blog in the same vein writes it off as “boring” (though at least, rather reasonably, comparing it to Hunky Dory, which was lost in the shuffle at its time of release, to some extent).  Curiously, one also accuses it of not being mainstream–something its #5 chart placement in the U.K. and #10 single (“Starman”) would seemingly have cause to argue with.

And all of that doesn’t really have anything to do with–well, anything but personal expectation. In most regards, this isn’t an “experimental” album: Bowie had redefined himself a few times since he began recording in 1964, having to drop his given family name as a bow to the rising popularity of the Monkees’ own Davey Jones. “Space Oddity” gave him his first hit in ’69, 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World had him in a dress on the cover (at least, in the U.K.–the U.S. beat his homeland to the punch and released it a few months earlier with a weird drawing instead) and is often considered the point at which his albums should be attended to, and of course in 1971, Hunky Dory was released, with songs like “Changes” really marking the start of Bowie as we understand his importance today. So his musical ideas, his willingness to change, his flirtations with androgyny–all established. And, external to Bowie, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had long since established (however loosely) the popular acceptance of “concept albums”.

What Ziggy does establish, however, is Bowie’s intermittent affectation of “alternate identities”: while his look changed often in the preceding years, it was the character of Ziggy Stardust himself that Bowie chose to inhabit and create that changed this from aesthetics to something more. But even that’s secondary: what The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars does is not oversell itself as experimental (in fairness, if you have no reckoning of the title, it sounds more bizarre–but Ziggy is a rockstar, and the Spiders are his band, so it’s actually a pretty normal and to-the-point title), it just comfortably, confidently sells itself as music.

While my copy crackles with the best of them, it actually lacks any locked grooves or major skips (a few prior albums did have some of these, but I’m not trying to be that specific in reviewing my collection), it is most apparent as the album opens: “Five Years” is a quiet track at open, Mick Woodmansey slowly fades in on drums, with a solid and firm but relatively quiet beat, eventually punctuated by a simultaneous chord from guitar and piano (I’d bet on Bowie and Mick Ronson respectively, though I’m not proficient enough to know for sure with studio recordings being what they are). Trevor Bolder’s bass is similarly punctuative, with Ronson’s piano eventually building a more complete melody, as Bowie sings of the coming death of Earth, five years away now. His first slowly comes to the fore, beginning as distant and exaggerated, some lines echoed back to emphasize the space of the track. Strings (arranged by Ronson) eventually add to the song’s growing power and strength. “Smiling and waving and looking so fine/Don’t think you knew you were in this song/And it was cold and it rained so I felt like an actor/And I thought of Ma and I wanted to get back there/Your face, your race, the way that you talk/I kiss you, you’re beautiful, the way that you talk” he sings, his voice growing in passion as the song finally crescendos, Ronson echoing his vocals with the title of the song, professional to Bowie’s growing hysteria, as the strings begin to swirl and the song becomes more chaotic, Bowie eventually screaming the title as he repeats it–and then it shuts down, and we’re left with only a few measures of Woodmansey’s gentle drumming.

“Soul Love” is almost like a new opener after the prologue of “Five Years” (which has been established, in the “story” of the album as effectively a description of just what it claims–the time limit set on the existence of earth, the rest being the story of an attempt to reconcile the world with that fact via Ziggy himself). It’s largely a gentle song, acoustic and building quietly, some bongos and other midrange percussion, hesitant, shy saxophones, until the buildup to the chorus: suddenly we’re faced with the distorted guitar that had hidden in the background, sparkling out for a few quiet notes here and there. Bowie’s voice and the guitar build to a drum fill and then the chorus–“Inspirations have I none/Just to touch the flaming dove/All I have is my love of love/But love is not loving”. All the song’s energy is exerted seemingly at once, and then spent, it relaxes with a brief saxophone solo from Bowie before it restarts the process–but chooses, instead, to follow with a guitar solo that mirrors that sax solo the second time.

The album is basically loaded with songs that will catch your ear, though some might be weird as actual singles–the progression of “Five Years”, for instance. “Moonage Daydream”, however, is a happy fit as a single–which it was. The distorted, dramatic crunch of the opening is only brief, as it backs away to an acoustic that blends into a piano. “Freak out in a moonage daydream, oh yeah”, Bowie suddenly sings, to more of that initial riffing and a pattering tom fill from Woodmansey. Ronson doesn’t quite give in to the acoustic this time though, but keeps his playing a little less apparent than it is for that final choral line. The second time ’round, though, sax another woodwind I couldn’t identify if I tried follow it for an amusing little melodic line that gives way to the far more somber inclusion of another string arrangement. Ronson gets to work in a real guitar solo eventually, introduced by the deliberate echo effect placed on Bowie’s voice. The solo eventually begins to wash out and reverberate back over itself, echoing as if in a cave, giving it a huge sound, though it is overtaken in the outro by strange whistling electronic noises.

The biggest hit for the album, “Starman”, was apparently taken by some as a sequel to “Space Oddity”, which is understandable, as the thrumming low-end of the acoustic strumming of the opening echoes the sound used for that earlier hit. But when Woodmansey bumps the song in, the strength of Bolder’s bassline, alongside the earnest relaxed tone Bowie takes for the verse keeps it in different territory. The pounding piano line that leads to the string-backed chorus and the increased passion of Bowie’s vocal furthers the distance from the somber tonality of “Space Oddity”. When it gives way to an electric lead from Ronson that keeps the strings, it’s even more cheerful–as it should be, the “Starman” of the title is the possible saviour of the world before its end. When Bowie sings that chorus, it’s almost as if he’s got an arm around the listener, and is pointing up at the sky, conveying a sense of awe and camaraderie as he warmly informs us of this hope.

There’s one song on the album not written by Bowie, and it’s “It Ain’t Easy”, which closes Side One. It was written by Ron Davies (not to be confused with Ray Davies of the Kinks). It gives Bowie a chance to pull out the harpsichord (how on earth do I seem to have so many albums with harpsichords? Or was I just not paying any bloody attention and they’re near ubiquitous?) and play along to nothing but the rhythm section–until that huge chorus: the harpsichord drops, an acoustic begins strumming aggressively, a wailing guitar lead, pounding drum beat, and a huge vocal from Bowie. It ends on a pair of leads, one on a slide–all of a kind that isn’t inappropriate for a man who came out of a country family in Tennessee (Davies, that is, of course).

I always look at the tracklist for the latter half of Ziggy and wonder at these songs that occupy Side Two. I can’t seem to imprint those titles in my head. I know they’ll be familiar when I hear them, but can never place them from titles alone. As the piano introduction to “Lady Stardust” began, I knew I’d heard it and felt relaxed. When the drums and Bowie’s vocal starts, with its theatrical bent, holding notes on a light vibrato, his voice opened up, I know I’ve heard it, but then the hint comes: Oh, yes. I know this chorus. I even find it in my head on occasion. In keeping with its actual words (“And he was all right/The band was all together/Yes he was all right/The song went on forever/Yes he was all right/And he was up all night/Really quite paradise/And he sang all night/All night long”) there’s the sense of an eased, discussion of someone at neither a climactic peak nor a downfall, just a moment of established comfort. There are people to watch Ziggy, but there’s not the pressure to maintain a building momentum, just to stay with things in place. And Bowie and the boys sound like this as well, like the moment where a ballad comes out in a show, the kind that eventually was marked by waving lighters.

“Star” also tends to throw me (indeed, as I typed the tracklisting–and yes, I type those, I don’t paste them–I was sure I’d misread/remembered, or someone else had goofed and some tracks were garbled. I sincerely couldn’t remember there was a song named “Star”). Rollicking piano and moving beat define the song–sounds I recognized as soon as I heard them. Bowie and the backing vocals moving to that insistent beat, the pounding piano; they all sound like a call back to a certain period of the prior decade, though the distorted guitar riffing that enters midway through the song keeps it placed firmly in its actual time. Interestingly the guitar lead that marks the brief instrumental passage before the second verse pushes it backward in time just a bit again, though not quite as far–perhaps the late 1960s. And it makes sense again–Ziggy is an established star now, and by the end of the song, a sort of complacency arrives musically, with a more contemporary guitar lead than the previous one.

I was gathering all my usual resources (mostly to avoid making really stupid, avoidable mistakes, if I can) and saw “Hang on to Yourself” described as proto punk and thought this was absurd, but it suddenly clicked. While the handclaps and the subdued vocal of the chorus don’t fit too well with this notion, the semi-surf, rolling riff that opens and permeates the song is actually rather punk-like. Think more Ramones than anything else–the more “bubblegum” end of punk, and it’s actually quite reasonable. The solo is another light one, though a good one. By now Ziggy is being asked by the Spiders to keep a grasp on himself–and stay grounded–for them to keep going, which is hinted by the motion of the song and the final repetitions of “Come on, come on” that slowly fade the song out.

I’m not even going to guess where people place the semi-title track (which is just “Ziggy Stardust”). I was convinced that Hunky Dory had started to outstrip this album with major critics (the kind who reflexively list Sgt. Pepper as the best album ever), but apparently I was deluding myself. I’d think this song is not the most well-regarded of the album (partly because it was not initially released as a single, nor at any point in the album’s life). But that opening guitar lick! I remember being hugely into this song (as well as Hunky Dory‘s “Life on Mars?”) when I first met my aforementioned friend John. He was into punk, and I was getting into Bowie via his singles (though I’d always liked bits and pieces). I was in my horrific moments of “learning” guitar (never really successfully) and this lick always appealed to me, a simple acoustic guitar strumming chords and a heavily riffing electric that turns to a back and forth, higher pitched see-saw then starts backing down to start over–sheer brilliance. Bowie practically eulogizes Ziggy in the song over the more basic rock sound of the song (though in the background Ronson occasionally peels off for wandering noises and guitar harmonics, though quietly). Bowie’s voice suddenly shifts into a creepy tone and moves to the front–both sides of the stereo mix–and Ronson’s electric riffing takes the forefront. It’s not quite heavy in the metal sense, but maybe in the far more metaphorical interpretation from which the sense originated: emotionally weighty. The drum fills that lead into these sections set them up perfectly. And when Ziggy is finally lost to his own messianic self-image, Bowie sings out “When the kids had killed the man, I had to break up the band” passionately, a bit resigned, a bit angry, a bit sad–and we’re back to that opening riff, which eventually is let ring, and we’re left with Bowie’s final words for the song: “Ziggy played guitar…”

One of the more famed songs on the album, often used for its driving riff and its most famous line, “Suffragette City” is probably the heaviest (now in the “metal” sense) song on the album, from the way the guitars roll in, a synth briefly filling out and strengthening the riffs, it doesn’t really stop for a moment. The head-shaking, “Don’t even think about it,” way that Bowie sings the chorus, the words almost slurring together, with big riffs and synth chords behind it gives it a real strength. After the second, it turns to one of the longer solos from Ronson, followed by another repetition of the chorus, piano pounding loudly in the back. “Suffragette city!” Bowie repeats, a nice downward keyboard line answering him and seeming to round the song to a start when everything starts hammering down at the same moment and leads to that moment of brilliant release: “Awwww, wam, bam, thank you ma’am!”

Ending much as it began, with a quiet acoustic, Ziggy‘s final track is “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”. Bowie’s voice is deliberately restrained, even when the acoustic drops and just a thumping kick from Woodmansey leads him through the title of the song: “You’re a rock ‘n’ roll suicide.” After the second occurrence, the rest of the band fully joins in after a nice drum fill, though a quiet one. Horns announce the beginning of Bowie’s second verse. Partway through it, Bowie becomes more passionate, his words becoming less aligned to the beat, taking their own emotional course, using a string arrangement to increase their drama. “You’re not alone!” he begins to yell, and the backing vocals begin to answer him, the horns increasing in frequency, the horns more prominent and consistent, a guitar lead from Ronson entering–and then the strings play one short note for a good beat, and the album ends.

I am often reminded when I start this album that it has an unusual production style, as compared to my memory and understanding of it. It’s very understated and intimate. It’s not quite like a band playing in a small club, it’s too clear and distinct for that. But it’s all mid-range–the drums are never, ever overpowering, though Woodmansey has and plays a clear role, and does it well. Bolder never aggressively steals the show either. Heck, Bowie’s guitars and pianos and Ronson’s often don’t either. It means that even the quieter, more relaxed riffing of “Suffragette City” or “Ziggy Stardust” (as compared to other artists who had long since released plenty of louder music) stand out that much more without having to increase anything. Now, the album did originally say (as does my copy) “TO BE PLAYED AT MAXIMUM VOLUME.” As it happens, my immediate next door neighbor on the side my music room is on is the best friend of a coworker (by complete coincidence). I kept the volume at half for my stereo and left it at that–I don’t need to earn any enemies. Still, the production is largely spare and quiet, without being overly spacious or acutely limited in instrumentation or sound. It’s sparse, yet full; distant, yet intimate. I always appreciate settling in to the album for this reason, though there’s always a jarring moment of confusion, as I expect something…bigger from it. Yet, instead, it creates that “size” from its music, from the performances themselves, rather than the volume or aggression of those performances.

As with Sgt. Pepper, I’m not overly inclined to suggest a downgrade of the album–not by any stretch. It still won’t push itself in as my favourite Bowie album, but I think it’s placement in music history is largely justified. Of course, part of that is the influence of “Starman” and Bowie’s performance of it on Top of the Pops, which inspired at least one artist to appear later in my own collection, nevermind the ones I myself am not familiar with.

On a final, relatively silly note, the crackle was simultaneously pleasingly indicative of a well-loved album and distracting. When the needle lifted on side one, it was oppressively quiet suddenly.

  • Next Up: Bronski Beat – The Age of Consent

Day Twenty-Six: The Boomtown Rats – Mondo Bongo

Columbia Records ■ PC 37062

Released January 24, 1981¹
Produced by Tony Visconti and the Boomtown Rats
Engineered by Chris Porter and Tom Winter
¹Original tracklisting; UK release

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Mood Mambo
  2. Straight Up
  3. This Is My Room
  4. Another Piece of Red
  5. Go Man Go
  6. Under Their Thumb…Is Under My Thumb
  1. Please Don’t Go
  2. The Elephant’s Graveyard
  3. Banana Republic
  4. Don’t Talk to Me
  5. Hurt Hurts
  6. Up All Night

Anyone who knows this album (and let’s be honest, that’s probably zero people I know, and thus zero people reading this) might see something a bit peculiar above. And there is something peculiar. Anyone who has done much research into British music in the 1960s–and it doesn’t take much–will start to see a large volume peculiarities. There was no Yesterday and Today, no Beatles VI, no Who album titled Happy Jack–and the list goes on, and on, and on, and on. Even AC/DC (who were only British by birth, and even then only 3/5 of them) suffered this with the weird melding of the albums T.N.T. and High Voltage, with some tracks from these scattered around, and others lost until the release of the ’74 Jailbreak EP in 1984, four years after the death of Bon Scott in 1980–to say nothing of the more minor fiddlings with the other albums cannibalized to encompass that release. Bewildering re-arrangements and tossed-in-a-blender releases are a hallmark of U.S. releases of artists from other countries, and often done in fashions more like High Voltage, where the title stays the same and nothing else does–the tracklisting, the cover art, even the placement in the chronology of release. This is actually another tiny part of my frustration with blogs setting out to cover 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die: if you are unaware, you may not actually be listening to the recordings you are being directed toward. If you are told to listen to Raw Power in the modern age, chances are you aren’t going to hear David Bowie’s mix, unless you know to seek it out. If you are told to listen to a number of Frank Zappa’s albums with the Mothers of Invention, censoring, strange mixes and other alterations will occur (though you can be forgiven, in that case, for thinking perhaps they are intended in some cases).

The original UK release of Mondo Bongo had a matching first side, but the second varied significantly, as “Don’t Talk to Me” was instead later released as the B-side to “Never in a Million Years” (a single from follow-up album V Deep), “Up All Night” was from V Deep and released as a single, and both “Fall Down” and “Whitehall 1212” appeared on the album instead. In the US, these tracks were released on V Deep (“Whitehall 1212”), and, well, not at all (“Fall Down”). I was aware of these changes by the time I picked this up, but I didn’t really expect to run into the original UK tracklisting at any point. Bob Geldof (writer/vocalist) and Pete Briquette (bassist and occasional co-writer) rearranged the tracks again for the 2005 remaster series, wherein everything went absolutely bonkers, “Straight Up” opening the album and being followed by “The Elephant’s Graveyard”–and more shuffling all the way through². If I didn’t give you any of that background and you decided to listen to this record, you’d have a good chance of finding yourself mightily confused–especially if you were to download or purchase it on CD. If you find something interesting here, keep all that in mind: this listing isn’t hanging around except on used vinyl!

“Mood Mambo” is a peculiar choice for an opener: jittery bongos, a thumping bass kick, and Geldof in his story-telling mode, the beat rapid enough that you aren’t going to mistake that arrangement for a beat poetry session. “I’m in the mood to–” he says, and the band comes in with just backing vocals, singing “Crazy bongo!” as Pete Briquette’s bass enters, with a line that seems vaguely detached from the frenetic bongo playing. The band’s backing vocals continue, as does Geldof telling his story. Short blurts of electronic noise (likely at the hands of the band’s keyboardist, Johnny Fingers) and an echo on Geldof’s lines on occasion keep us floating entirely outside the punk/new wave sound the Rats originated in, or even the less punk realms they’d begun exploring most thoroughly on The Fine Art of Surfacing the year prior. Eventually everything hushes and Geldof whispers, too, but as he says, “You see, they’re in the mood to…” his voice returns to its normal volume, as does the rest of the band. Repetition of the backing lines with Geldof improvising elaborations and nothing but bongos behind them fades the song out.

Actually a clever choice for an opener on the remastered CD, “Straight Up” starts with yo-yoing drums from Simon Crowe and riffs from Gerry Cott and Garry Roberts. Fingers enters in the background on an organ, but after the initial sting of those riffs, the bassline tries to drag the song through a descending spiral, eventually succeeding and taking over the song with a propulsive line that acts as a more distinct backing for Geldof’s vocal. Fingers moves to piano and adds only intermittent force to the rhythm, catching more of the melody as they run into the chorus, where the organ holds and wails, but turns back to a piano that now follows the speeding bassline of Briquette to enforce its rhythm. Synth-inflected keys and varied drum fills mark a brief interlude, before the original bright, strong riff comes back. After the final verse, the song fades on the sounds of the interlude, which runs over Pete’s downward spiraling bass.

Almost absent of any lyrics at all, barring the title, “This Is My Room” is practically an instrumental song. A slow, bell-jingling introduction gives way to a harp-like cascade of electric keys from Fingers that slowly shuffles, gathering its force into a steady beat moved more by bass than melody. On piano again, Fingers drops the odd fluttering melodic line, the song running through a rise a few times with non-verbal vocals from Bob and the rest joining it. A solid chord from the piano is answered by thunder and the song changes, allowing a synthetic line to define it. “This is my room/Oh yeah/This is my room”, Bob sings, over dramatic rolls and rhythmic strumming of guitar. “I can sleep alone/I know how/I stay here on my own/And now/I wake from sleep with little rest/It’s 10 by 9 and in a mess/A window shut but facing west/A worn out rug, an old address/And…/This is my room”. Rolling timpani and emphatic guitar riffs give a huge weight to a simple, descriptive song.

Though I’ve seen it maligned on occasion, I’ve always liked “Another Piece of Red”. Fingers uses a pretty piano intro that morphs briefly into a musical quote that I couldn’t name if I tried (and I tried) but that is often used to “announce” a scene is set in Britain. I’d be quite grateful if anyone can in fact give me a title! [Update: It’s “Rule Britannia”, which I was convinced was the piece in question, but was deflected from when I heard how it starts. Probably should have listened to more of it! Thanks to Liam for this clarification] Anyway: Geldof begins singing about watching Zimbabwe fall from British control in the 1980 elections there that removed Ian Smith. Over nothing but Johnny’s piano, Geldof sings of the slow descent of British imperialism, pausing before the chorus for a rising drum roll from Crowe, and the addition of Briquette on bass for the following verses that list the countries falling away from the British Empire, Crowe contributing a light rhythm.  At the next chorus, the song is returned to just Geldof and Fingers, with the briefest addition of whistling and martial drumming, ending the song with a drum roll crescendo.

Huge drums–timpani in part–and Pete’s bass open “Go Man Go!” with a steady pace, but a very big sound. Fingers adds synthetic keys in a more bright melody that gradually pulls Crowe into a more rock-ish drumbeat. A very up-front-mixed vocal from Geldof (who answers himself in backing vocals) runs the vocals over a rhythm section almost alone, though a whirling organ line from Fingers brings the song to its chorus, which is primarily call-and-answer where the answer is always the title of the song, punctuated by the rhythm section. Synthesizer lines and Geldof’s back-and-forth with himself are expanded a bit in the following verse, later leading to a repetition of the chorus briefly delayed by a saxophone solo from Dr. David Machale (later immortalized in “Dave” on In the Long Grass, though the song was changed to “Rain” in the US, allegedly because some radio executives were concerned a man singing to another might be a bit “too gay”–always good to know the reasons behind those decisions are not irrational so much as stupid). The song ends with a long outro, then a squawk from Machale that Geldof responds to by saying “One more time”, but he earns instead a synthetic sting from Fingers.

Geldof re-arranges and re-works the Stones’ “Under My Thumb” into “Under Their Thumb…Is Under My Thumb”, a thumping beat and a reggae rhythm matched to a great beat from Crowe. An echo on intermittent drum hits and Geldof’s own voice echoes (ahem) the production techniques of the greats of dub. The pace and the peculiar key solo from Fingers keep the song firmly grounded in the Rats’ musical aesthetic though.

A peculiar percussive solo opens “Please Don’t Go” before turning into a more frantic and clear but difficult to separate rhythm motion added to by upward slides from Briquette, though the song breaks into more comfortable territory when Machale’s sax joins and Geldof begins telling another story, backing himself with the title of the song for a second time. While his story-telling is casual, and even his more distinctly sung backing, as well as Machale’s sax are relatively easygoing, Crowe and Briquette thunder onward underneath him, though Crowe’s drumming remains wild and varied, too, further emphasizing its difference from the rest of the song. There’s a momentary relent that allows Briquette to take control, giving Bob the opportunity to sing scat (!) for a few measures. An overlay of electronic keys from Johnny is allowed to shine over it all for just a moment, but the drums regain control, eventually crossfaded into another mechanical and rhythmic sound, which is eventually left in isolation: the tapping of a typewriter.

The biggest single from the album in the U.S. (I believe, at least–this band is not loaded with information around the net, and what’s there is often conflicting, at least in part, and they were never near as big in the U.S. as anywhere else) is “The Elephant’s Graveyard”, which is perhaps the most normally Rats song, with hints of Steve Nieve-y-circa-This Year’s Model³ organ from Fingers, which is followed by a more grand line on piano for a moment. Ever energetic Pete and Simon keep the song moving through either as Geldof sings about Miami, Florida, and Florida’s nature as “retirement state”, balanced against the riots that were incited by the death of Arthur McDuffie there. “Guilty, ’til proven guilty/Isn’t that the law?/Guilty, ’til proven guilty/That’s what we all saw”, goes the chorus–seemingly speaking for the jury that acquitted the accused police officers, but ending by turning it on them for a moment, exiting on calls of “Shame, shame, shame-y shame”.

On the other hand, the more definitive biggest single in the U.K. was “Banana Republic”, Geldof’s acerbic and acidic, but relatively casual description of Ireland, the band’s home country, from which they were banned from performing. A reggae-style bassline, the scratching, palm-muted guitar and the basic drumbeat adding up to the same give the song a rather odd opening, a drum roll seeming to announce the song proper, but instead leading to a repetition, over which Fingers vamps in a more organ-like keyboard line. When the song does begin, it speeds its pace and shifts entirely, to a  more full sound, with even faux accordion moments. The burbling, bubbling Briquette’s bass keeps the sound of the introduction, though, and the near-falsetto backing of the chorus and Bob’s own subdued reading of it–especially contrasted with his emphatic though seemingly jaded and unemotional (in tone, though not word) delivery of the verses. Partway through, Bob’s voice repeats the description of who he thinks controls it all–“The black and blue uniforms/Police and priests” and then echoes into the distance. We come back to the introductory reggae style, which continues of a lengthy outro, slowly breaking down until Briquette is left repeating his part alone at the end.

A very rough guitar and Geldof give a completely different impression of “Hurt Hurts” than the song itself bears out. Crowe’s huge drum sound announce the song’s title with handclaps and more volume and emphasis than the opening of the song. The movement in the pseudo-chorus is full and rhythmic, with an unusually low piano riff defining much of it. The crash and thump of Crowe’s drums, though, is the signature of the song, pounding out under the lightly echoed calls of “Hurt hurts” from Geldof, interestingly outshining the chorus proper as a hook.

Inserted from a b-side for the U.S. release, “Don’t Talk to Me” is perhaps the most “normal” song on the entire album, with Bob doing his best Buddy Holly impersonation (think “oh-ho-ho”), with a nicely backed chorus performed by him with the rest of the band, a load of handclaps and a bit of semi-standard guitar. There’s even a hint of some 60s (surfish) guitar sound, and an actual guitar solo.

“Up All Night” is on loan from another album entirely, though thankfully at least one produced by the same people. It’s also not too far off in sound from the rest of Mondo Bongo, so its appearance isn’t entirely unwelcome. Bass-dominated, the song is almost nothing else, though bongo-based percussion is also present. Guitars are all texture and often not present. Johnny’s fingers are also intermittent at best. The echo on Bob’s answering lines in the chorus are also reminiscent of the peculiar production choices on Mondo Bongo that set it so distinctly apart from its predecessor, The Fine Art of Surfacing. Fingers does get a solo, and the “Say it ain’t so, Joe/Say it ain’t so, Joe-woah-woah-woah/Oh-woah-woah-woah” bridge actually make for a solid ending to the album, even if the changes inherently raise my hackles.

Of course, hiding after this is the “hidden track” “Cheerio”: a very rough, live acoustic guitar backs Geldof through a very short song. “You’d better hurry up and say something/Or else I’m gonna go”, he sings, and the album ends. Ah, wait, no: “Okay./That’s fine by me./Cheerio!” Geldof sings with an angelic chorus of the rest of the band behind him, repeating it to the end of the album.

The Rats are one of my favourite bands. To many, that goes without saying. It shouldn’t be too much a surprise–even in the future, looking at past polls you can see what a volume of their stuff I have as compared to effectively any other artist (and it doesn’t include my double 7″ for “Charmed Lives”, either). I own all six albums on vinyl and CD, and scattered bits and pieces outside of that. They hit my sweet spot, really: a professional, unusual, but pop-oriented band. There’s a sensibility to Geldof’s songwriting that is easily seen in the choice to label a Rats-plus-Geldof-solo compilation Loudmouth, and in songs like his “Great Song of Indifference”, a live take of a first world occupant talking about their callous disinterest in suffering around the world. As with many things Geldof sings and does, there’s no sense that he’s preaching with a fuzzy head or cynicism about the cause: he never pulls punches (though he occasionally plays politics) about what he thinks is important–when he wrote a song about the man who took his wife away from him and later killed himself, it’s neither devoid of sympathy nor maudlin: “What the fuck’s goin’ on inside your head?” Frustrated, angry, but not dismissive, it’s the nature of Bob’s approach to things. He’s jaded and arrogant, but not without awareness of the fact that he’s limited. Matched to his musical sensibilities (steeped in punk, but later let dry out in other genres, most clearly starting with this album), it’s a great mix.

I’ve always thought of Mondo Bongo as “the experimental album”, with their self-titled debut being the most “punk”, A Tonic for the Troops building that sound into their own–often the moment I like most in bands–and The Fine Art of Surfacing putting a finish on it. I’m not left with that opinion changed, but as with every time I listen to one of the last three Rats albums, I’m reminded that I often sell them short. I’d still recommend a few of the others (Tonic, Fine Art) first, but this isn’t the failure some make it out to be.

²If you want specifics:

  1. “Straight Up” – 3:15
  2. “The Elephants Graveyard” – 3:43
  3. “This Is My Room” – 3:35
  4. “Another Piece of Red” – 2:35
  5. “Hurt Hurts” – 3:05
  6. “Please Don’t Go” – 3:34
  7. “Fall Down” – 2:26
  8. “Go Man Go!” – 3:52
  9. “Under Their Thumb” – 2:41
  10. “Banana Republic” – 4:55
  11. “Whitehall 1212” – 3:43
  12. “Mood Mambo” – 4:06
  13. “Cheerio”

³Steve Nieve is and was the keyboardist for Elvis Costello, first with the Attractions and now with whatever the heck he’s calling his band.

Day Twenty-Five: The Blood Brothers – March on Electric Children

Erika Records¹ ■ ER2005

Released February 25, 2002
Produced by Matt B[ayles] and the Blood Brothers
Engineered by Matt B[ayles] (with assistance from Troy T.)
Mastered by Ed B.
¹Licensed from Three-One-G Records

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Birth Skin/Death Leather
  2. Meet Me at the Water Front after the Social
  3. March on Electric Children!
  4. New York Slave
  1. Kiss of the Octopus
  2. Siamese Gun
  3. Mr. Electric Ocean
  4. Junkyard J. Vs. the Skin Army Girlz/High Fives/LA Hives
  5. American Vultures

While I know people who frustratingly cannot seem to get a handle on entire genres like rap or metal, and, like me listening when I was younger, often take that almost as an out-of-hand, automatic cancellation of any interest in listening, there’s another barrier that’s more extreme and more difficult to deal with. There are some artists out there who get the words “difficult” and “uncompromising” thrown at them in an effort to appeal to those who see those as alluring, and sometimes as a means of quiet warning. Anyone who doesn’t already know this band, but knows me is probably filled with dread already. But the object here isn’t to scare people off–certainly, the idea of warning is one I am working with, but I own all the records I own out of interest, and most out of appreciation (and interest is generally just the predecessor of appreciation). I can’t go out blaring records at anyone and everyone, and records in particular are kind of inherently a home-listening format these days. I obviously have friends with turntables, but not many, and not many I visit and hang around the homes of. So, with all that in mind: this wasn’t an album I picked up because it means people will think or hear X, Y, or Z. I picked it up (three times now: the remastered CD from Epitaph, the original CD release from Three One G, and this picture disc) because I like the band and I like their sound–even if, yes, it’s going to be (extremely) grating to some people.

March on Electric Children is the second album The Blood Brothers released, following This Adultery Is Ripe (the only one of their albums not to receive the remastering/reissuing/expanding treatment). Some confuse Rumors Laid Waste for an album, but, of course, it’s actually a collection of their earliest 7″s, splits, unreleased, and compilation tracks. After this, they would hop labels again (this time to Second Nature Recordings), and then again (to V2 Records, who released both of their last albums). They gradually separated out their sound as time went on, from a blur of extremely hardcore-inflected origins into the aggressive but catchier sound of Crimes and Young Machetes.

Unlike some albums of the more abrasive variety, there’s not much confusion with the way the album starts: “Birth Skin/Death Leather” is semi-distant yelled vocals, a short drum beat, circling guitars–eventually expanding to add bass and expand the drums, adding a second vocalist. The distortion of the guitars and the wall of noise fades back to a guitar sound only slightly distant, but skeletal and unusual, though with bouncing bassline underneath it. Riffs open the song back up, thick slashes up and down, but dropping back to a rattling guitar with an insistent bassline that backs “Oh yeah, oh yeah!” from the second vocalist (Johnny Whitney).

“Meet Me at the Water Front after the Social” is a blur on all sides when it starts: the drums running miles ahead of the streaks of blurring guitar, climbing and then running sideways, the introduction of bass shows us the song proper, where each line of the verse is answered with part of the title (“At the waterfront after the social”) on clean guitars over bouncing bass. Cody Votolato’s playing seems like his guitar cannot make up its mind where to go–except that it stops at a moment’s notice to shift into clean, or join the rest of the instruments in pausing. Johnny and the first vocalist we heard (Jordan Blilie) trade lines, answering with the title at the beginning in unison, later repeating each other’s lines after them.

The title track hums with a dancing set of guitar notes that sounds like a cloud of insects, buzzing over the song, even after Jordan, Johnny, drummer Mark Gajadhar, and bassist Morgan Henderson enter. Mark’s drumming hits beats all over the place, as if he can face one direction for no more than a single hit. Morgan thumps only on beat, but pushes a few notes into each burst. Jordan and Johnny trade raspy yells of “Yeah!” in a rise of blurring noise until Cody is left alone to strike out short spurts of guitar alone, which are shortly joined by Mark’s intermittent bassline from earlier. “Boys, girls, suit up–” Johnny sings, “Let’s go!” Jordan yells alongside him, then takes off by himself, speaking lines over a burbling bassline and skittering, palm-muted guitar from Cody, occasionally backed by “Come on, come on, come on!” from Cody to the left and in the distance. The song opens up again, Morgan not pausing for a moment, and the sound of a pick sliding up and down a distorted neck faintly heard over a crush of riffs. Drum rolls and thorns of guitar let Johnny sing a few lines alone, a second repetition expanding Mark’s roll and adding Morgan thudding along below. Cody brings Jordan back with a spray of guitar that turns to riffs held to for a moment, then slid up or down the nect to be held at a new note. “March on, Skin Army soldiers!” the boys yell to close out the song.

With a beat that seems ready for a full hardcore song, Mark opens “New York Slave” with Cody playing a repeated riff that is just enough slower to sound as if it’s moving at a much slower pace, though still quite rapid, even as it backs down to the skeleton of sound that marks the cleaner sound he uses. A brief splash announces the arrival of Whitney and Blilie, and an electronic wash answers their first lines, Mark unrelenting, and Morgan only entering after a moment, as he matches Cody for less constant sound, Johnny singing alone with camp levels of vocal affectation. Jordan gets one of his few moments to just act as the less intelligible or simplistic backer, but the song takes right back off and gives Jordan the spotlight after this, Cody driving with the insistent and repeated riff that opens the song. It seems to joltingly start and stop at the behest of Morgan, though Mark’s relentless energy is met only with Cody’s spidery guitar for a moment, as Mark finally releases his stranglehold on speed, the tempo only a quarter of what it was: Morgan’s bass pulses below Jordan’s dark, discomforting description of a wedding: “The priest’s tongue slips out like a jackal/Every eye in the audience spinning like a drill/The groom plucks a key from the rapture tree/And opens her ribcage like a squealing armoire/Her lungs and liver screaming mercy mercy mercy/While they rearrange the wires in her heart/I now pronounce you smiling like a grave/I now pronounce you a New York Slave!” The last four words are left to be heard alone, as the song enters a sort of breakdown, everyone pounding out the beat, Johnny and Jordan swirling around each other and calling out the title of the song.

Let me pause for a moment as we end side one: this has been a total of ten minutes of music. The slow petering out of side one on vinyl is like a sudden gulp of air, like the fade, not of indiscernible noise, but that of relief from an oppressively dark, nihilistic sensibility that is somehow matched to music that is both appropriately aggressive and jagged, but also catchy and acerbic enough to avoid being absolutely depressing. Should anyone doubt the complexity of this band’s music–I was left with the urge, repeatedly, to give up on trying to describe the sounds I heard. It’s absurd to try to keep up, as they do not let up for a moment–even when there are brief moments like the slowed pace moments of “New York Slave”, they are long for their context but brief in totality. It’s breath-taking less like a moment that makes you gasp or forget you are supposed to breathe, and more like you are fighting for your breaths.

Side Two opens with “Kiss of the Octopus”, which has some of my favourite language in the album: “And the swarm of winged octopi/Fly out under the lid/Of the star studded sky singing/The flock of grinning octopi drop like tears from a varicose thigh singing…”. But the song opens with the vocal call-and-answer that tells you this is going to be one of the strange earworms of the album: “Do you wanna live forever baby? (Fuck yeah!)”–Johnny sings the line, and he and Jordan both answer it, and then they trade. A sample of “The Perfect Drug” and the vibrations of a single guitar note, running in tight repetition to sound like almost like it is just held, but with the modulations that signal it is being picked rapidly, despite not changing. After they sing those first lines I quoted, the song finds more space, but uses it for the disjointed, start-stop drumbeats of Gadjadhar and riffing of Votolato. Cody turns his riff inside out and elongates it, ending it with a slide up into dissonant notes, and the sound is thickened by Morgan’s entrance. Another vocal hook comes in: “Tug, tug, tug/The beard of the octopus/Lick, lick, lick/The kiss of the octopus”, Cody fades out, as does Morgan and then it is just Johnny singing (with Jordan operating much lower) the link to a third hook: “Sweet serum to devour the hours/Sweet serum to sweeten the sour”. The original hook returns, with the monotonic guitar note, Morgan defining the melody, and then jittering, echoed guitar turns the “Sweet serum” hook in another direction, the song gradually gaining chaotic variations that spill over and through each other as the song jumps between them after holding each for only moments, before holding to repetition of one to close out the song.

The western-tinged (!) lick that seems to be three or four times to fast for the sound it evokes, matched by a similar rapidity from Morgan’s bass, held in place by the rim-oriented playing of Gajadhar opens “Siamese Gun”, a song that reminds (in a very, very weird way) of Pink Floyd’s “The Trial”, especially as animated by Gerald Scarfe: dark, cynical, railroading–naturally, exhibited in a trial format. Jordan and Johnny start off in the song over this instrumentation unchanged, but when they start to repeat “Order (Yeah!)/Order (Yeah!)/Order in the court!”, Mark begins to move away from the rim and to the head of his snare, building to the riffing and more normal bass and drum that back the chorus: “Clik clik bang bang/Kiss the Siamese Gun”, which is incredibly catchy, and backs into the brittle, separated sound of the drum-driven, spare guitar sound that backs the most yell-like vocals of Whitney and Blilie, though the sudden bottom end of Morgan’s re entrance on this hyponotic monotone repetition, gives it the weight of a breakdown, and Cody’s guitar now fills the spaces it cut short between riffs previously. But then only brief, distant whines of guitar, intermittent bass and consistent drums back Jordan and Johnny as they become child-like and much quieter in singing, everything pausing for one breath before jumping back into the breakdown-styled riffing. An upward shift in tempo–simple and repeated drum and guitar with their vocals is suddenly cut short for an electronic hum. And then we’re back to the original western-tinged riff, the call for order, and we get to hear the phrase “piano island” that permeates their work (a song title on their first album, the title of the next album). The song explodes again, calling “Let the execution begin!”, and again we hear the catchiest hook: “Clik clik bang bang…” and they repeat “Kiss the Siamese Gun” until Jordan ends the song with the final lines: “You’re on your knees/Choking on the barrel of the Siamese Gun.”

“Mr. Electric Ocean” is the character that opens the album by name in “Birth Skin/Death Leather”, but is now the focus of an entire song. The electric ocean, it should not surprise you to learn, is the personification of electric media and the sheer breadth and depth of its influence and ability to envelop. Dry drum hits and then a jolting bass and guitar repetition start the song, seeming to push toward the most aggressive moments as the verse continues, Morgan’s bass driving, but we are suddenly starting us back at zero, the second run turning to an electronic noise that whirls upward and sets the song off completely, with everyone at full speed and volume, walling off the rest, with only a brief ring from Votolato’s guitar letting the song turn back to its initial approach, this time shifting from it to an almost (almost, mind you) relaxed sound, Johnny tossing his words out casually over an eased riff from Cody. It has the interesting effect of letting the return of full distortion not seem quite so loud or aggressive. But then it breaks for a peculiar guitar lead that wanders up and down the lowest strings casually, Jordan and Johnny carrying the song to a final yelling crescendo.

Bass thumps at the opening of “Junkyard J. vs. the Skin Army Girlz/High Fives/LA Hives”, Jordan speaking quietly with a half-singing approach, transitioning to Johnny’s singing style and the addition of Cody’s confused and seemingly distracted guitar. It opens up and Cody’s attention spans in as the two vocalists scream out the central vocal lines. Cody’s guitar begins hopping and playing around the neck as Jordan informs us we’ve moved to the “High Fives/LA Hives” portion, only to reintroduce Johnny and the original song. A midpoint is defined by a sort of chaos, some instruments sliding to a stop, others attempting to continue, Johnny and Jordan tripping over each other, but electronic noise and the slowed riffs of Votolato break the song into a new territory, the distant sound of waves turning Morgan to simple on-beat thudding as Mark thunders onward, Jordan again singing quietly. Keys and hum wash out the last of the song…

Possibly–no, undoubtedly–the most “difficult” song on the album, “American Vultures” acts as a sort of epilogue to the story March on Electric Children tells. Deliberately dissonant piano “chords” and yelling from Johnny and Jordan open the song, before it turns to Johnny playing more expertly–though muddling the final chords of each line as he and Jordan now sing instead of screaming, though still in their normal style. It’s a very odd piano piece–it’s almost like what you might hear from an elementary school play, which is only emphasized by the melody of the chorus, despite its content: “You’re married to the vultures/Ba ba ba ba ba”. There’s a long pause and we hear the second verse, which functions very like the first. They bring themselves back around to the chorus, and then Johnny closes out the song alone with a twist on the melody and a final line. But the final ending is the beginning: Jordan and Johnny screaming over deliberately horrific piano.

I can’t impress upon you quite how unusual and complicated this album is musically. It’s utterly without remorse for anything it does or says, blasting through a short story the band wrote that they say is about lives based entirely in selfish decisions and the negative consequences thereof. Shallowness as hubris permeates every song, as does the moral judgment (and associated intellectual limitation) of the rather large surroundings of the parts of society defined by shallowness, even working in the lascivious, backward, hypocritical desires that drive that moral judgment. There are no real heroes here, nor is there any prayer or hope for a “happy ending”: even if you feel pity for the protagonist–buried as she is in the clouded, stream-of-consciousness-style lyrics–there’s not enough to gather a sense of anything but sighs and shakes of head by the end. Too much awareness and lucidity in those calls of “Fuck yeah!” in response to the idea of “living forever”, no doubt in reference to media immortality. There’s no sense of duping involved, and even a sense that, whatever pain occurs, it was as a result of decisions made for selfish reasons, at best ignorant, but most likely just defiantly so.

I suppose that all sounds pretentious–and, indeed, it’s very difficult to make stream-of-consciousness sound anything but. But something in the way the Blood Brothers did what they did, there’s too much earnest desire for that. Maybe it’s the balance of five voices, or the energy and passion they brought, or maybe they just know how to write stream-of-consciousness more intentionally than the kind of person who attempts to to “mean something”–there’s a feeling of determined nature for metaphors (the reoccurring image of octopi and tentacles) without the feeling that they sat down at a chalkboard and had a meeting about what symbols to use for what ideas, or built from symbols they wanted to use into a whole idea. And when they use dark, disturbing imagery: it’s just that. It’s not where you stifle a chuckle, nor even where you gasp. And yet, somehow, it’s also not uncomfortable, even as it’s discomforting. It’s just macabre.

In the end, it’s a 24-and-a-half minute (!) piece of album that is brittle and piercing at moments and full and angry at others, never seeming forced, not even when it cannot sit still. More is worked in than you would think from 24 minutes, even if you are familiar with earlier hardcore: the material is more complicated than Black Flag ever set out to be in their early days, or certainly than the Misfits did for Earth A.D./Wolfsblood. Which isn’t a knock against either–they weren’t aiming for anything else at that point. But if that gives you the impression you might know what to expect–I can say that those, at least, give you nothing of the kind.

I realize this music is beyond “not for everyone” and very much into a semi-niche, but the band gained a lot more popularity with the albums that followed, which generally built more on the catchy hooks Johnny is capable of vocally, and an expanded range of instrumentation, past the brutal flurry of sound that defines the majority of this release.

Next Up: The Boomtown Rats – ?

Day Twenty-Four: Blakroc – Blakroc

Blakroc Records ■ BR001-1

Released November 27, 2009
Produced by The Black Keys and Josh Hamilton
Recorded by Josh Hamilton
Executive Produced by Damon Dash

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Coochie
  2. On the Vista
  3. Hard Times
  4. Dollaz & Sense
  5. Why Can’t I Forget Him
  6. Stay off the Fuckin’ Flowers
  1. Ain’t Nothing Like You (Hoochie Coo)
  2. Hope You’re Happy
  3. Tellin’ Me Things
  4. What You Do to Me
  5. Done Did It

I’m always inwardly leaping for joy at moments of silly synchronicity. All kinds of connections just have their sort of appeal to me–it’s that love of crossover, patterns, references, and in-jokes that I can’t resist, if achieved via skill or pure coincidence. That Blakroc’s lone album happens to follow Rádio do Canibal in my collection, alphabetically, is pure coincidence, but it’s kind of an amusing one. It would be clever if it were planned in some way. Largely, though, I’ve left the album alone for reasons similar to the reasons I left Rádio do Canibal alone–it felt like it would end up a mishmash of disjointed sounds due to the “varied guests per track” approach. There’s a seeming human tendency to identify most with the voice in any given musical act, one that means that the vocalist is seen as the star by the majority, regardless of their actual role in creating the music. I don’t know that anyone has actually studied this, but I’m inclined to think it relates to the fact that we all are capable of making noise with throat and mouth, so there’s a base to start the understanding from. In any case, I often swing either way when it comes to voices, sometimes nearly ignoring them, but often clinging to them as much as anyone. It means that albums like these make me kind of wary, even as the idea of them attracts me.

Blakroc is not, and was not, a “group”, so to speak, and is often referred to as a “rock/hip-hop collective”, a bit of a silly term for a group of musicians who collaborated once, briefly, and that’s essentially all. In any case, they are composed (as it were) of the Black Keys (Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney), Ol’ Dirty Bastard, RZA (it’s pronounced rizzuh, basically), and Raekwon from the Wu Tang Clan, Jim Jones (the rapper, not the cult leader) and NOE from Jim Jones’ label ByrdGang, Q-Tip from a Tribe Called Quest, Pharoahe Monch, Ludacris, Billy Danze, Mos Def, and Nicole Wray. They don’t use any sampling, which isn’t unheard of in rap (as I noted earlier, the two are mixed heavily in Atmosphere’s The Family Sign, for instance) but still remains unusual. What is more unusual is for an explicit rock band to be specifically acting as the beat for a set of rappers.

Featuring pre-recored vocals as Ol’ Dirty Bastard had already passed on, “Coochie” opens the CD and vinyl versions of the album (unlike the digital versions at iTunes and Amazon, which lack the track). He’s paired with Ludacris, the two of them opening the song with the vocal hook, which is backed by Auerbach’s plaintive, distant guitar line, and Carney’s economical drum beat, that gives the song a lot of space but doesn’t sacrifice power. ODB and Ludacris both talk about women whose sexual appetites are utterly irresistible to them, and their voices take up all the space Carney leaves, multiplying the speed of the rhythm significantly. Auerbach comes into the goreground for the outro, playing further with the still echoing lead he drops throughout the song.

Somewhat out of character from the rest of the emcees in place, Mos Def appears next on “On the Vista”, rapping about freeing consciousness, abandoning materialism–taking control. Patrick pounds the song into place though, using a floor tom fill to ground the beat. A bassline (uncredited, but based on the photos, most likely the work of Mos Def himself) is the essence of the beat, but Auerbach fills the space between Mos Def’s words with the fuzzy bends and wails he is known for, relenting only to give Mos Def the space to sing out variations on the words “total control” in a knowingly off-key and random sort of way.

NOE’s first appearance on the album is on “Hard Times”, which uses the vocals of Nicole Wray as a sort of sample (though they are apparently live recordings), repeating the title of the song. The Keys have a little bit more dominance and control on the track, perhaps because they have a bass and a piano accompanying them, and Patrick is filling more of the rhythm out on his kit than on the previous tracks. NOE has a style and voice that are reminiscent of Jay-Z (apparently to his detriment in the past), with an ease and confidence that avoids aggression like ODB’s and lets the song maintain its own relaxed pacing.

A semi-traditional hip-hop rhythm from Patrick opens “Dollaz & Sense”, with RZA showing his appreciation for the beat and moves to get his voice in place accompanying before the song opens up. The photos hint that RZA may have played bass on the album as well, and there’s a strong line in place here to suggest that. Wah, echo and a few other effects define Auerbach’s semi-ghostly guitar sound here, but it’s also the first time his voice appears on the album. In the same way Nicole performed the vocal hook for “Hard Times”, Auerbach sings “If it don’t make dollars, then it don’t make sense”, in a fashion that mimics sampling. RZA and Pharaohe Monch have strong rhymes, but ones that sound in delivery and rhythm like they may be the improvisations of skilled emcees–a bit halting, but usually halts are just the sound of quick minds making up brilliant lines to follow.

Breaking from the rap designation of the majority of the album for a moment, Dan, Patrick, and Nicole (who, by the way, performs the female vocal duties on the Black Keys’ Brothers) give us “Why Can’t I Forget Him”, which lets the boys play the part of R&B band, Dan mostly following a bassline and frosting its low end with a fuzzy guitar lead. Patrick puts in one of his most seemingly-programmed beats, played in a fashion that fits more with sampled drum parts than even early R&B beats. Nicole’s voice truly gets to shine, though, overdubbed with herself, but powerful and soulful without being showy–hardly a wonder they all worked together after this. Vibraphone-type keys and isolated and varied forms of Auerbach’s lick back Nicole alone for a brief bridge that just brings more soul to the smoky, hazy feel of the track’s talk of memory.

Creating a real moment of coincidence, Raekwon makes his second appearance in front of me in two days, this time backed by the Keys on “Stay off the Fuckin’ Flowers”. Auerbach’s guitar centers on wandering experimentation and effects, keys and a gentler rhythm from Patrick letting the smooth delivery of Raekwon control the sound of the song, relentlessly in motion though it is. The outro is Auerbach just let go with the guitar meanderings, Raekwon expressing his appreciation.

Mos Def returns on “Ain’t Nothing Like You (Hoochie Coo)”, acting primarily as the vocal hook, answered by a simple “La la la” melody from Auerbach’s voice. Jim Jones, then, gets the verses to rap over, Mos Def getting to give us a number of great variations in his chorus, and Auerbach left to actually perform one of the guitar tracks that actually fills out the entire song.

A nice, fuzzy lead that begins to pace itself and a steady beat gives a great backing for Q-Tip to start out on “Hope You’re Happy”, but when his verse ends, Auerbach opens up, Q-Tip starts the chorus and Nicole Wray gets to answer it–a peak moment for the album in terms of full band sound. Billy Danze comes in with a gravelly, aggressive delivery on the next verse (think Busta Rhymes outside his motormouthed mode). The outro to the song lets Nicole get another moment to really shine.

Sounding tired, broken, and almost pleading, RZA opens “Tellin’ Me Things” almost alone, half-singing, “She just keeps tellin’ me things/Things I don’t wanna hear”. In contrast to the slow burn of the bassline, Patrick lays down an almost disco beat (complete with “pea-soup”!), though a bit more varied. Auerbach plays a sort of spooky, haunting lick. RZA tells us the story of a very odd relationship, managing to compare himself and the “she” in question to Mork and Mindy–even repeating it for emphasis.

Continuing to cycle back through the rappers we were introduced to, “What You Do to Me” brings back Jim Jones and Billy Danze, but starts out with an organ line that gives us Dan in “sample mode” again, with an answer from Nicole Wray. But then he actually breaks out into whole lines instead of just a short hook, and you feel more like Nicole’s voice came out of another song instead of his. Jim Jones’ delivery is relaxed, almost mumbled, though its tempo is nothing of the kind. The organ and Auerbach’s guitar function more rhythmically through the verse, with the organ defining the melody of the chorus he sings, though he continues playing a single chord on beat throughout, always muting it just after it starts. Nicole brings some major power to her performance here, too. Billy Danze brings a shock or aggression and power–again, Busta-style–using even over-dubbed vocals to give an emphasis to his lines. It’s worked well in, even as Dan and Nicole are more in the R&B or blues vein with their sung vocals. There’s actually a long outro (a good minute and a half) of Auerbach actually working in some guitar leads, and Nicole just playing with her voice in the feel of a live bluesy performance. The two complement each other very well indeed, not quite using call and answer, so much as working alongside each other.

The album ends with “Done Did It”, which returns NOE, and lets Dan play a guitar riff that sounds more like it was sampled and chopped in, Patrick using another very hip-hop drum beat with big, boomy kicks. NOE throws a lot more energy at it than the beat or guitar expect, but the thudding, the tambourine rattle, and the descending guitar lick take us right into the chorus for another great vocal from Wray, as she brings the title of the song up and down in pitch with soul. NOE calms his delivery a little on the second verse, and relaxes even more on the third.

This is, in general, an odd sort of album. I’m not sure how much it would appeal to Black Keys fans as a Black Keys project (it’s why I picked it up, and it didn’t satisfy that particular itch, which contributed to its dust-gathering status). But taken, instead, as a constructed hip-hop album that uses a live, recorded band playing new beats designed for this explicit purpose–taking not only that, but specifically a blues-inflected band is actually the recipe for a very interesting sound. It’s a melding of two musical styles that are connected but separated by generations, instead of trying to graft an alternate branch–like rock–to the branch of hip-hop.

I can’t really pass up the opportunity to talk about Michael Carney’s graphic design. It’s true that a retro look is a bit of a fad in album art of late, at least in some circles, but the way it’s done here is just fantastic. In large part, the album itself is pure mystery. That cover tells you next to nothing, resembling, if anything, a lot of the weird, semi-amateur prog rock album covers of the 1970s. Why in the world is their jam (?) hanging off the roofs of a series of tall buildsings? What is Blakroc? And yet, it’s also a stylish piece of work, nicely crafted and framed, so that it seems to fit even the unusual and rather unique sound that lies within it. The back cover doesn’t help much–the tracklisting is placed above and below the moon with the same green and blue drippy covering. No mention is made of the Black Keys anywhere (the emcees present are listed below each song in small print, however). Inside, you have art that mimics the more informative variety of past cover art: a multi-panel set of equally sized black and white studio photos is topped by retro-styled credits and information. It really feels right.

One of the things that bugs me about some instances of musical reactions wandering the “blogosphere” is that there’s the clear notion (or occasional admission) that the listening takes place while doing entirely unrelated things. I’m not the type to insist on focusing on music in general–I’m often listening while doing other things–but this is a time that I definitely stop and focus on listening. I keep the album sleeves in my hand to read along with the lyrics or soak in cover art, or examine credits and details about the album’s production. This was one of the nicest to look at by far, and felt exactly right for the album, even though it is a callback to album art that predates even the earliest rap by a fairly significant amount.

  • Next Up: The Blood Brothers – March on Electric Children