Amplified Review

September 5, 2009

d80162l0j8tArtist: Q-Tip

Album: Amplified

Released: November 23, 1999

Label: Arista

I have talked about A Tribe Called Quest Before, and this is a solo effort by one of the group’s three members.  Q-Tip, Kamaal the Abstract, and sometimes referred to as simply “the abstract rapper” followed A Tribe Called Quest’s 1998 breakup with his debut album Amplified a year later.  I use the album as my primary running music, but friends are skeptical as to that use.  I like to groove with my music while running instead of using it to push me forward forcefully, but to each her own.

Amplified personifies Q-Tip’s laid back abstract style masterfully with its cavernous grooves and staccato beats.  The first track “Wait Up” is aptly named, melding Q-Tip’s smooth flow with a faltering drums and jazz-reminiscent piano.  “Higher” takes the groove deeper and shows the rapper’s skill in both abstract material and classic hip hop swagger.  “Breathe and Stop” offers an even trippier and heavier beat, while “Moving With You” takes that confidence to the romantic level.  “Let’s Ride” offers an extremely intelligent jazz guitar riff that underlies Q-Tip’s chill atmosphere and lives up to its name as a cruising song.

The well-travelled hit of the album is “Vivrant Thing,” and is a true and tested hip hop ode to one amazing woman.  As a long time friend of A Tribe Called Quest and Native Tongues, Busta Rymes makes his appearance for “N.T.” a decidedly more intense song than the rest of the album.  “End of Time (ft. Horn) uses a strange fusion beat that makes it very difficult to describe and closes out Amplified on a note of new things to come from Q-Tip.  There’s also a hidden track, but I won’t spoil that surprise completely.

The combination of disjointed beats and the suave flow of Q-Tip are a perfect mix that was never captured on his two later albums, and although both are solid albums, neither one reached the level of Amplified.  Whether he was still coming off his high with A Tribe Called Quest or just on his game, this is one album any Tribe fan should own.

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FolgateArtist: Madness

Album: The Liberty of Norton Folgate

Released: August 18, 2009

Label: Yep Roc

Madness was responsible for filling much of Britain’s billboard charts during the early 1970s to mid 80s.  In fact, they hold the record – along with UB40 – for most weeks spent by a group in the 1980s UK singles charts: 214 weeks.  Arguably one of the greatest ska bands ever, this goofy ensemble was also the author of the international hit “Our House,” which was so popular it inspired a musical by the same name.  The group broke up while recording a new album in 1988 citing artistic differences, but continued to reunite for their Madstock festivals and several other events.  In 1999 they released Johnny the Horse to moderate success.  Then in 2007 Madness announced a new tour and the result of their last two years together is a masterpiece.

The Liberty of Norton Folgate is an intimidating 2-disc testament to the evolution of Madness.  Although still arguably within their 2 Tone style, the album is breaks largely from their old sound and defies easy genre identification.  The Liberty of Norton Folgate begins with an overture almost reminiscent of Mussorgsky, but transitions smoothly into “We Are London.”  That second track pulses with heavy bass and keyboards, punctuated by the horns’ flashing melody.  “We Are London” makes it clear that the band found a new sound, but retained their skill and arguably improved on it.  “Forever young” provides a whisper of the old Madness and moves into “Dust Devil,” which sounds the most like their older work.  Guess what?  It’s their single for the album.  But since being radio friendly is no crime and the group’s former niche, it is carried out with a grace befitting their experience from bludgeoning the radio industry with hits during the 70s and 80s.  However, “Dust Devil” still fits snugly into The Liberty of Norton Folgate along with stranger songs like the title track.

“The Liberty of Norton Folgate” finishes the first disc with an astonishing 10 plus minutes of ska.  Topping the glorious vocals of “On the town” with its sweeping piano, and “Clerkenwell Polka” with it’s insane beat and shouting, the title track of the album is probably the most epic piece of ska ever written.  This is not a word that is generally applied to ska music either, but this track earns it.  Pictures of London streets are painting in Madness’ dark and haunting music.  This is not the madness of youth, but the madness of a wild age and a city of split personality.  Breaking into whistling and a piano having a romp through the song, Madness sings of the freeing effect of the “Technicolor world” most people live in.  The track picks up momentum and carries on its opus into a confrontation of immigration in Britain and the fears of its inhabitants.  Strings and a chorus back up the singer’s description of the conditions immigrants fight through and their need to belong and seek freedom.

As bands grow and mature, especially the more popular ones, the pattern seems to be to write increasingly more contemporary music.  Once that plateau is reached, the group continues to write skillfully, but they succumb to the influence of experience and the almost homogenous synthesis of the vast amounts of music they have come to know and play.  After years of residing within nostalgia and even cover concerts under the band name The Dangermen, Madness have reinvented themselves and produced an album of true craft.

i34867er0apArtist: Yndi Halda

Album: Enjoy Eternal Bliss

Released: Jan 23, 2007

Label: Big Scary Monsters

Yndi Halda is a post-rock group much in the same vein as Explosions in the Sky and Caspian.  The group hails from Canterbury, UK and is characterized by what may be called a more positive thematic than many other post-rock groups.  As opposed to the guitar heavy landscapes of Explosions in the Sky, Yndi Halda paints its panoramas with seas of strings, punctuating their pieces with guitar and banjo among other instruments.

With only four tracks “Enjoy Eternal Bliss” clocks in at an impressive hour and five minutes long.  These aren’t songs you should listen to on a quick drive to get milk, but don’t let the length of the pieces intimidate you.  The album begins quiet and wavering until guitar, drums and a single violin kick in a couple minutes through.  One of the last things this album is, is rushed.  The song gradually picks up momentum as the guitar intensifies into searing high notes and the violin follows the dynamic.  Short pauses in the song keep the force of the music fresh and allows it to gain more power every time it intensifies.

Halfway through the track, the power ends and you are left with only intermittent melodic guitar chords.  The second half of “Dash and Blast” builds in much the same way as the first, but then becomes a driving piece, powered by the drums as well as two guitars trading harmonic pickings.  Finally, a clarinet appears above the wall of music and guides it into a grand chorus that concludes with an expected and welcome quiet guitar outro.

“A Song for Starlit Beaches” features wistful stretches of strings and a banjo, slowly and wistfully being plucked.  The piece assembles more instruments including piano and guitar and moves gradually higher.  The song builds toward several crashing crescendos like an ocean in unfavorable weather, but always avoids becoming a squall.  In between the two thunderous upsurges is a point where only quiet piano guides the work, until a violin takes up a poignant melody before rejoining the other strings as a guitar tears the piece into another culmination.  The track is brought to a close through a reemergence of banjo, which is then joined by a ear-piercing slide guitar and finally the strings.

“Enjoy Eternal Bliss” functions as well as a whole album as it does within the ambitious songs it contains.  Perfect for a rainy morning, or strangely, a bright sunny afternoon, this album is sure to help you reach a pensive state that can break your writer’s block or spur you to take out that instrument you have neglected.

ATCQ-TheLowEndTheoryArtist: A Tribe Called Quest

Album: The Low End Theory

Released: September 4, 1991

Label: Jive

A Tribe Called Quest is: Phife Dawg, Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad.

There is no way I can express the importance of this album sufficiently.  If you like rap, and confess to it, then this album must be sitting on your CD rack at home.  Otherwise it’s like producing the American Dollar without backing it… hey, wait a minute.

Jazz and rap have never been combined so well.  Jurassic 5 even went so far as to name what is in my opinion their best album, “Contact,” after a sample taken from the final track on this A Tribe Called Quest album.  In the 90s when many of the commercially successful tracks were gangsta anthems (Straight Outta Compton, etc.), A Tribe Called Quest prided itself on provided intelligent and abstract lyrics.  In fact, “The Abstract Rapper,” or Q-Tip, has that spirit imbedded in his moniker, referring to their sense of intelligent rhyme.

“Show Business” is about exactly what it sounds like, the struggle for fame, and its downfalls of attaining it.  ATCQ assert that you have to play the game, but make it plain they are above it.  Rapping about the breaks is nothing new and Kurtis Blow was doing it eleven years earlier, but not like this.  “What” strings together a list of questions that illustrate what things would be without, um, other things.  And the answer is: nothing.  ATCQ is all about the love, and this record predates the East Coast – West Coast rivalry that consumed hip hop later on.  It’s about the music and the rhyme, and is often referred to as true hip hop.  As the Abstract Rapper said, “Rap is not pop, if you call it that then stop.”

This is an album that has only increased its appeal with each listen I give it.  If you are an avid rap listener, but are not familiar with “The Low End Theory,” then brace yourself – afterwards you will see throwbacks to this record constantly.  Maybe in albums you have owned for a long time.

Enter the Chicken Review

April 25, 2009

enter-the-chicken1Artist: Buckethead

Album: Enter the Chicken

Released: October 25, 2005

Label: Serjical Strike

 

 

A friend of mine had been listening to Serj Tankian’s “Elect the Dead” album a couple days ago and said he was looking for new music. I immediately handed him this album. “Enter the Chicken” is a collaboration between Buckethead and Serj Tankian (System of a Down) that took place in 2005 – the same year System released their double album finale that was the culmination of the group’s work.

Buckethead probably wrote most of the music on “Enter the Chicken,” but I imagine the work as a whole was pretty well split between Buckethead and Serj Tankian, who produced it on his label Serjical Strike. You may recognize Buckethead from his days with Guns and Roses, which ended when Axl Rose removed him from the band for being “unreliable.” Buckethead often releases upwards of a dozen records a year under various aliases and collaborations, so I doubt Axl Rose’s practice schedule allowed him the freedom he needed. Also featured on the album are vocalists Efrem Shulz from Death by Stereo and Azam Ali of Vas.

The intro track is a quarter minute of Azam Ali singing a hauntingly operatic sample. It transitions straight into “We are One,” which is when Buckethead and Tankian first let loose. The vocals are probably more spastic than any System song, even “Vicinity of Obscenity.” The guitar riffs are also much more heavy and powerful and are punctuated by thundering drums. It’s a little like System, but with the insanity and licks of Buckethead, and an extra dose of violence. This describes most of “Botnus”, “Funbus,” and “The Hand” as well. “Three Fingers” features Efrem Shulz in a sort of rap that grooves as well as the previous tracks tore it up.

“Running from the Light” opens only with Azam Ali’s vocals, and builds from a beautifully subdued song to a showcase for Ali to wield her powerful voice as it was meant to be. “Coma” is Azam Ali’s second chance to really shine, and coupled with “Running from the Light” her voice cuts the mood of the album in half. The song is mesmerizing, from Ali’s vocals, to Tankian’s harmonizing, and finally the quiet melodic guitar of Buckethead. Following is a song that, coming from Buckethead and Tankian, could only be called a pop song – as strange as that may sound. Tankian and Ali have equal parts and alternate between harmonizing and trading off during the verses. Tankian’s reappearance in the album signifies a transition away from Ali’s relatively peaceful songs, and there’s no better way to do that than with ukulele.

“Interlude” has Tankian singing a ditty over a solitary ukulele, and switches immediately into “Funbus,” returning the album to its crazy side, and crossing into heavy metal territory. “The Hand” is a frightening piece, and not only for its brilliance. Ali sings in operatic fashion behind Tankian’s vocals, which are completely insane in both style and lyrical substance. You might feel like you’ve been clubbed with a guitar neck after listening this song, but in a good way. “Nottingham Lace” is Buckethead displayed in all his instrumental glory. Concluding a collaboration that meshed together quite a few strange styles is one of his best instrumental tracks, which is where his songwriting and chops have always looked their best.

Also of note is the 2008 reissue of the album, featuring “Shen Chi” as a bonus track. At least a few of its listeners have declared it “The Ultimate Karate Song.” Chances are you may not have this on your copy, should you choose to purchase one, so here it is (Although the quality is a little poor).  Sadly it’s not a very good representation of the rest of the album.

Palace of Mirrors Review

April 22, 2009

61fjaazdsml_sl500_aa280_2Artist: Estradasphere

Album: Palace of Mirrors

Released: September 19, 2006

Label: The End

 

 

This is an excerpt from Estradasphere’s website and summarizes the group very well:

Estradasphere is a band of multi-instrumentalists from an unlikely variety of musical backgrounds. Timb Harris (violin/trumpet), Jason Schimmel (guitar/banjo/keyboards/vocals), Tim Smolens (upright and electric bass/vocals), Kevin Kmetz (Tsugaru Shamisen/guitar/keyboards), Adam Stacey (accordion/keyboards/clavinet), and Lee Smith (drums/percussion) were trained in disciplines ranging from classical and jazz to metal. This diverse instrumental and stylistic palette enables them to execute a vast array of orchestrations and even forge entirely new genres such as “Bulgarian Surf,” “Romanian Gypsy-Metal,” and “Spaghetti Eastern.”

Essentially the band is capable of playing a ludicrously diverse array of styles, and they do just that, plus create their own.  The group’s original lineup featured John Whooley (saxophone, accordion, vocals) from their early days in Santa Cruz until before their last studio album “Palace of Mirrors.”  Estradasphere became quite popular at clubs in Santa Cruz and their shows took on the bizarre atmosphere of a circus.  Fans were encouraged to come in costume and participate, which spawned a number of exceedingly strange sideshows.  Among them were fire-dancers, book readers, stilt walkers, and finally the infamous Mono Man, who “wore a cape, painted his bare chest with a large M, and proceeded to attempt to kiss people in the audience while pretending to have the disease of the same name” (Wikipedia).

After Whooley left the group they gained the renowned Kevin Kmetz who is one of the greatest shamisen players in Japan.  The next album was “Palace of Mirrors” and clearly fits their genre of “Epic-Cinema-Thon.”  After the intro, the title track begins with epic theatrical flair and continues to grow until it becomes a grand opus of strings, accordion, piano, and trumpet.  The following track, “A Corporate Merger,” starts with a jazzy guitar riff, before accordion, shamisen, and violin kick in and all begin trading themes.  The greatest realization I had from hearing “A Corporate Merger” was that the shamisen fits the song perfectly and matches the violin extremely well.

“The Terrible Beautypower of Meow” displays some really beautiful harmony on the part of Timb Harris.  “Colossal Risk” is even bigger than it sounds, and hits the listener with a musical range from walking bass lines to gloriously discordant trumpet.  “The Unfolding Pause of the threshold” is a psychedelic and heavy ride into a place that probably only Estradasphere has been.  “Smuggled Mutation” is a showcase for Harris’ frenzied violin skills, but also displays some really impressive shamisen, and underlying the whole vaguely bluegrass melody is a heavy metal foundation.  Trust me, it works.

Following the track is a sort of intermission-esque piece called “Six Hands” that seems to be entirely piano and harpsichord.  It is perhaps needed recovery time after the blistering Smuggle Mutation.”  It is very difficult to describe how much ass “Flower Garden of an Evil Man” kicks within the first two or three minutes, but suffice to say it is quite a large amount.  Nearing the end, “Those Who Know…” is the prime example of Kevin Kmetz’s ridiculous skill with the shamisen, and there is a majestic “Palace of Mirrors Reprise.”  Ending it all is “The Return,” which is probably best described as hardcore cinematic gypsy metal to the max.

This video of “Hunger Strike” off “It’ Understood” sums up the Estradasphere experience and is the epitome of their original lineup.  Instead of being intimidated by the length, start watching and you’ll be sucked in.

Actor Review

April 21, 2009

st-vincent-actor-album-art2Artist: St. Vincent

Album: Actor

Released: May 5, 2009

Label: 4AD

 

First of all, I would just like to ask: why hadn’t I heard of this woman until now?!

Apparently her 2007 debut “Marry Me” generated a lot of hype; however, clearly not enough.  I obtained that album in order to hear it in its entirety before listening through her impending release: “Actor.”  The most arresting thing throughout the album by far is Annie Clark’s voice.  I have a feeling she could sing “Over the Rainbow” and put Judy Garland to shame.  At times I began thinking I was listening to one of the incredible singers of the 50s like Ella Fitzgerald, but before I could slip completely into that notion I’d be bowled over by a discordant guitar and/or a sporadic drum break.

Annie Clark’s arrangements are hard to describe mostly because of their strangeness. The oddity of her writing is somewhat inherent, as she combines guitar, strings, various percussion, brass, piano, and the list goes on.  Upon investigation, I found that Clark was a guitarist for Polyphonic Spree, and then in Sufjan Stevens’ touring band.  This is some serious indie cred, but then she played drums, bass, and guitar on “Marry Me,” proving she is a skilled multi-instrumentalist to boot.

Her upcoming record “Actor” has been posted on NPR Music as separate tracks, and all of them are there and free to listeners.  Most of the instruments heard on “Actor” are still played by Clark, but her collaborators include musicians who have played for Sufjan Stevens, Bjork, and Phillip Glass, while her producer has done work for Modest Mouse and Polyphonic Spree.

“Actor” is less dreamy than her debut, although it does contain that wonderful essence on songs like “The Party” and “Just the Same but Brand New.”  “Marrow” is exemplary of the raucous irregular bursts that are especially powerful on “Actor.”  I can imagine that track becoming one of her supreme live songs.  The songs are even more complex and still feature a wealth of different instruments, but are arranged into increasingly byzantine layers.  Her guitar seems to have gained quite the attitude since 2007, so the quieter melodic portions tend to be dominated by piano instead.  All in all, there is just a lot more going on in “Actor.”  The sounds range from raging guitar and walls of noise, to pure heavenly vocals, which are often both present in a single song, as heard in “The Strangers.”

The only real drawback I see for listeners of “Actor” is that it may be too much for some people to take in at first.  If you have that feeling, then I urge you to listen through the whole album before you make any final judgments.  Any suspended criticism will pay off, and you’ll realize what a gem it is.

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