Produced by Anthony “Ant” Davis
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And now we hit on a genre that splits a lot of the people I know distinctly: rap/hip-hop. For the pedants–the genre is most accurately referred to as “rap music” or “hip-hop music”, as “hip-hop” technically refers to the entire subculture (identified by the four primary components: graffiti, rapping, DJing, and breaking). I don’t specify too much here, because there should be no confusion about the fact that I’m referring to music in the context of a blog about records that has “vinyl” in its title and pictures of records all over it. All that established, I know a fair number of people who carry the allergy that I usually see wandering the web in far more vitriolic forms. Admittedly, I cover most of the genres that you see appear under “I listen to all kinds of music, except…” with the possible exception of modern strains of popular country music. I come from the kind of background personally, musically, and so on that doesn’t as often place me in contact with other listeners of rap music. I’m by no means alone, I know at least a few people who listen as I do, but we all tend to shy more toward the “indie” side of hip-hop, of which Atmosphere may well be the godfathers to some extent.
While my youth included living in a culture where hip-hop was achieving cultural penetration and significance, the necessity of rebellion came out in confused fashion for me. I rebelled far more against the generalities of the culture I was in when I hit high school, occasionally using carefully selected definitions of “music” to exclude rap. This is and was not an unusual thing to do in those days, at least, not for those of us who were edging into the heavier side of things. Uncomfortably, this appears to be quite possibly racially motivated for many people (there’s, alas, no shortage of that attitude in the circles of aggressive, rock-based music), but was stacked with varying exceptions for me. Atmosphere, though, on recommendation, broke me out of this. Seven’s Travels, Atmosphere’s 2003 album, was the final breakdown of the aversion for me. It’s the first rap album I purchased on vinyl, and one of the albums I’ve purchased at something other than extreme discount on both CD and vinyl.
I’ve followed Atmosphere with varying intensities since then–the re-relase of the Headshots: Se7en mixtape, and the 2005 album You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having, and even 2008’s When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold were all releases I grabbed as soon as I could. The four volumes of the Sad Clown, Bad Dub series of mixtapes the group released in that period were also semi-immediate purchases. By 2010, when To All My Friends, Blood Makes the Blade Holy: The Atmosphere EPs and, indeed, this very album, I was not paying close attention. Most of the blame for that falls on the second Atmosphere show I went to, around 2006. It’s not that Slug and Ant were off their game–no, it’s that the spotlight was stolen by their opener, P.O.S., who came from the same city (Minneapolis, MN) and started me on my most emphatic (and successful) musical evangelism.
I bought The Family Sign on CD in mid-2011, a few months after it was released. It’s strongly associated with a time frame that I don’t purse associations with, which has left it off to the side for much of the year and a half since then. When Fifth Element, the major indie music store in Minneapolis, offered half off all Rhymesayers Entertainment (RSE) releases this past Christmas, I snapped up the EPs I’d skipped (with one exception, due to a bug in the ordering system) and this album on vinyl. I’ve been sitting on it (and the other releases I grabbed at the time: Brother Ali’s Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color and P.O.S.’s We Don’t Even Live Here) until now–which made it convenient that it was voted for as the release for me to discuss here.
I did spend, as I said, a period of time paying a great deal of attention to Atmosphere. As a result, it was with awareness of the significant changes that I listened to The Family Sign both the first time and today. While When Life Gives You Lemons paved the way for significant changes (inspired in part by some touring choices they began to make), The Family Sign is the absolute culmination of them. When I first saw Atmosphere, Sean “Slug” Daley was rapping with Ant for the first time (who previously did not tour with Slug) and now an entire band playing their tracks live. This was odd, as all albums to that point were recorded as is the most common practice with rap: sampled or otherwise electronically created beats–even the live instrument playing was usually just something previously recorded for an existing song, chopped or restructured (unless the artist in question was lazy, and there’s a glaring example of that one, but it isn’t here). It made for an interesting stage show, too, as it allowed them to shift between full band performance and more standard DJ+emcee (rapper, if you are unfamiliar) performance. Lemons introduced moments of guitar (and synthesizer) playing from Nate Collis, who was the touring guitarist I’d seen them with, as well as various others. Live instrumentation isn’t foreign to rap, but it was foreign to Atmosphere.
The Family Sign, however, moves the band almost entirely into a new realm: the album now references Nate Collis and touring keyboard player Erick Anderson as members of the band, listing their “shout outs”/thanks in the same place as Slug and Ant, with both of them listed before Slug, and Nate listed even before Ant. It changes the musical dynamic of the group entirely. They have had other members in the past–Derek “Spawn/Rek the Heavyweight” Turner was originally a second emcee–but this was a game changer in sound terms. When the record starts with “My Key”, it would be easy to think that what Erick is playing is instead a sample, but when the piano shifts naturally to a different melody and Slug begins quietly sing-songing in, it becomes clear that’s not the case. By the time Nate’s guitar comes strumming in, and his backing vocals (which also began to appear on Lemons, and were used in concert to take the place of vocal samples) follow, you could be forgiven for not recognizing the album as rap at all. Of course, Ant, who publishes under “Ant Turn That Snare Down” with ASCAP, has put together the beat and it carries the dry, solid sound that is his signature (and partly the inspiration for that publishing title).
“The Last to Say” remains the song that sticks with me on the album, both from a year ago and from today, despite the fact that it is only the second track on the album. Lonely howls and oscillating pitches over a solid beat add a downbeat keyboard tune as Slug begins to tell the story of a man raised in an abusive home, which makes a turn suddenly to address the person to whom the song is being sung: the woman who lives with this man, who Slug cannot understand, as she keeps returning to this same man. This is delicate subject matter, especially to speak of with regard to addressing someone trapped in it. But Slug does not fall into the usual trap: he openly questions what motivates these decisions–is she replaying her homelife, too? Is she excusing him as a damaged person not entirely responsible for his actions? Instead he asks her to remember when she left before, states the facts of the abusive behaviour, but captures the entire attitude in the lines that lead to the chorus for the second time: “Please put your shoes and step into that warm weather/Go get yourself a more better forever/Gotta put it down, you gotta leave it/And don’t ever come back again, you’ve gotta mean it/Just tear it all apart and build new/’Cause if you don’t kill him, he’s gonna kill you/You can’t hold hands when they make fists/And I ain’t the first to say this…/But let me be the last to say/Please don’t stay/Let me be the last to say/You won’t be okay”. There’s no condescension, even as there’s incredulity.
The liner notes for the album are scant in general, but Slug does write that “Became” was actually inspired by a poem and a story that inspired that poem. It tells a story that feels interesting from the outset, and only becomes moreso. It does have a few of the awkward verbal constructions Slug can be guilty of on occasion though. It does edge us out of the dark territory of “The Last to Say” and makes room for one of the few musically upbeat numbers on the album, “Just for Show”. The sing-song chorus and the cynical, dismissive tone are some of the last carryovers from Slug’s established approach to writing. The chorus stays clever though, as it repeats at just the right moment to convey the exact sentiment of the entire song: “You don’t really want/You don’t really want me/You don’t really want/You don’t really want me/To go/No you don’t that’s just for show”. For a moment, you think he’s telling the listener they don’t want him as they are claiming, but then it turns at the last moment and confirms the false foundations of that claim. It’s the beginnings of the personal relationship attitudes changing in Slug that becomes apparent as the album progresses.
“She’s Enough” continues the upbeat nature of the prior song, but this time it’s in the lyrics, too. Much like Sims’ “LMG” (we’ll see that in a few months, I guess!), Slug decides to write a song about a woman that isn’t “such a depressing mess”. It’s not an uncommon idea in the rap I do listen to, to be fair, but it’s new for Slug, who has spent years writing about his struggles with his relationship with women in general and in specific. A little more distortion and crunch makes for an exception to the very clean beats and instrumentation on the rest of the album, setting this track apart from a lot of the rest.
“Bad Bad Daddy” is peculiar in general. Slug’s vocals are slightly distant and distorted, echoing back at themselves. It’s reminiscent, in ways, of the Ford One and Ford Two EPs they released many years ago, but it’s backed by textures from Erick and a rather dirty guitar lick from Nate that all stands to back lyrics about a father beyond irresponsible, described by himself in simultaneously jaw-droppingly awful terms and self-justification.
Side Three opens with an odd song for the group, “Who I’ll Never Be”, a beat that sounds as if it’s being played back for microphones to record for the record, and a clean, intricate and acoustic set of guitar playing from Nate that backs a song about a neighboring, quiet, sad songwriter that Slug wants to reach out to, but knows he can’t because it wouldn’t do what he might hope, so he just revels in the sounds he hears through walls he suspects she doesn’t know are so thin.
Side Three stays in the darker groove that defines most of the album, with synthesized keyboards reminiscent of atmospheric 80s synthetic scores and one of the bluesier riffs Nate pulls out, with a more dominant beat than much of the album. “Ain’t Nobody” has a cheerful sound that I believe is a melodica, and one of the catchier choruses (like “The Last to Say” and “Just for Show”, embossed in silver foil on one of the optional sets of cover art–more on that later). The lyrics are much like those of “Millennium Dodo”, in their audible sigh of resigned annoynace, which is continued in the following track, “Your Name Here”, which sounds like it is being written as a sad song of loss, but suddenly begins to sound insincere until it becomes clear that it is exactly that, and more, until it becomes sincere in an entirely different way.
Side Four is possibly the best entire side of the record, opening with the clever and engaging “If You Can Save Me Now, which first sounds like a semi-awkward (Slug is not a singer) ballad, but turns to an Ant beat with Erick and Nate acting more in the semi-sample roles to give it melody. As the song progresses, you find that the kind of saving being sought is not quite what you think–and it turns into something else, and something unexpected. “Something So” and “My Notes” are absolutely beautiful, and “Something So” knows it. “Something So” is dominated by Collis, with Slug’s voice bowing to its sound at the beginning, with Erick’s keys only intermittently appearing, warbling like a theremin as a nice accent to the cool but hopeful guitar lines. Ant’s beat is more reminiscent of a rock band’s, with less intense bass beats and a greater emphasis on light cymbal and woodblock usage. And when you realize what the song is about, what “Something so beautiful” is, it all makes sense that the song would be so special.
“My Notes” ends the album with the last of the embossed lines present. It starts off sounding like an early 70s Tom Waits track, meaning Erick is the one dominating, with a breezy, slow, but warm keyboard line. In the spirit of many of Slug’s closing lyrics, vocals and Atmosphere tracks, his voice seems to gather energy and volume as it goes, half-angry at what is a positive message in a way that seems to almost say, “Look, dummy, I’m telling you something good.” One of the most effective sing-song lines from Slug defines the track, as it is only used to open lines: “As long as I can hit my notes…”
When the album ended, I realized I’d definitely missed something here. The album did not get stunning reviews when it came out–not terrible, but generally middling. I’m not necesarily left with the impression that that is unfair, but certainly that some of these tracks deserve far more attention than the whole album might indicate. Highlights like those last three, or “Who I’ll Never Be” and “The Last to Say”, or “Became” despite its flaws, shouldn’t be left to moulder.
They did record a video for “The Last to Say”, which I’ll include here because it fits a great song well: