By the Numbers: Fear of A Black Planet by Public Enemy

May 21, 2015

Fear_of_a_Black_PlanetI’ve been meaning to write about one of several songs from one of hip hop’s seminal albums and a big part of my introduction to rap that wasn’t on Top 40 radio.  I recently read a nice piece at Consequence of Sound that ranked all 20 songs on the album from “worst” to best.  You can see their ranking here, which also has links to each song.  I figured I’d do the same since I like to rank all the songs I’ve got in my iTunes library.  Using the one to five scale on iTunes and weighting based on song length, here’s my ranking.

20.  Track 19, Final Count of the Collision Between Us and Them (3 stars).  The shortest track on the album, this instrumental doesn’t pack the punch of some of the other instrumentals on the album.  A simple beat repeated for around 40 seconds winds down into a lone, receding snare.  A little of a laid back vibe to calm you down before you get to one of PE’s most political, fiery and tight songs.

19.  Track 15, Reggie Jax (3 stars).  CoS mentioned this as an homage to reggae.  I’d say more dub if you don’t put the reverb on the drums.  The slowness of the track, and Chuck D’s  matching delivery, is just out of place next to most of the other songs.  The shout out to Ice-T and Geto Boys at the end is also a bit strange given the type of laid back track this is.

18.  Track 4, Incident at 66.6 FM (3 stars).  PE’s version of the hip hop staple, filler “skit” tracks, is high art compared to most hip hop skit tracks and you know exactly where Ice Cube got the idea for some of his tracks on The Predator.  Taking pieces of a Chuck D interview with Alan Colmes, including callers both praising and lambasting the group.  The most ridiculous is a caller (presumably white) who saw them open for the Beastie Boys and complained about their stage show which included two men in uniform with uzis.  This is an odd criticism given the raunchy nature of the Beastie’s stage show at the time.  No song on the album, even the filler tracks (which is saying something), gets less than 3 stars from me.

17. Track 18, War at 33 1/3 (3 stars).  A testament more to the strength of most of the album’s other tracks than the quality of this one. A good beat with a synth (or is it a horn) sample that sounds like it’s being stretched like a rubber band and the usual staccato, brash raps of Chuck D, is not bad.  But it kind of loses a bit of steam in the breakdown and the song’s too short for that to happen.

16. Track 7, Pollywanacraka (3 stars).  Chuck D takes a look at interracial preferences from both the female and male perspectives doing a spoken word take that appears to be a strange homage to Gil Scott Heron.  Strange because the way he elongates syllables that has a lecherous effect.  Like Reggie Jax, the slowness of the track is a bit jarring and for some reason the sing-song “pollywanna” chorus gets on my nerves.

15. Track 17, B Side Wins Again (3 stars).  A guitar riff turns into a solid beat with an old school “clap your hands to the beat” call and some corresponding old school staple rhymes interspersed in Chuck D’s lyrics as well as plenty of Flavor Flav hyping.

14.  Track 12, Fear of A Black Planet (3 stars). “What’s wrong with some color in your family tree” is another song that looks at racial mixing and the concept of racial “purity” that does it better than Pollywanacraka.  Shows off vintage collage soundmaking of The Bomb Squad.

13. Track 6, Meet the G That Killed Me (4 stars).  At only 45 seconds, it’s a bit of a throwaway and the rather outdated view of homosexuality expressed in Chuck D’s first line is regrettable.  The clanging beat and funky bassline make up for it.

12. Track 1, Contract on the World Love Jam (4 stars). Whereas their first album started with the roar of a crowd and an airhorn, the first track on Fear starts off with something rare on a PE album, silence.  And then a solitary guitar that sounds like something that might start off a Pink Floyd album.  Then, you’re in a PE jam.  Bumping beat, screeching sound effects, and sound snippets.  A solid opening track.

11. Track 16, Leave This Off Your Fuckin’ Charts (4 stars).  Give the DJ some.  Terminator X gets a chance to show off his scratchin’ skills tied around several samples including the perfect lyric for a DJ “who needs a band when the beat just goes/shows”.

10.  Track 14, Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man (4 stars).  The Bomb Squad shows off its versatility with basically a house track with a little funk thrown into it that seems to work perfectly with Flava Flav’s less political leaning rhymes and they abide by Flava’s exhortations to “rock that shit homey”.  A great mid-song breakdown as well.

9. Track 8, Anti-Nigger Machine (4 stars).  This track shows off the confidence PE had.  I don’t know of many hip hop tracks that do a solid instrumental track for about 2 minutes and then drop a mad Chuck D verse on you that throws in sirens, a reggae sample and the introduction to the next song in the next minute and a half.

8. Track 3, 911 Is a Joke (4 stars).  Other than Fight The Power, the most recognizable song from the album  and I’ll admit it’s got a classic video.  But we’re just judging songs here and for some reason this song never resonated for me as much as some others on the album.  Like his other track, the beat Flava Flav gets has a party vibe, but the subject matter here is deadly serious.  An indictment of NYC’s 911 service, from the perspective of his community, with some witty takedowns of the EMS (“i call em bodysnatchers/cause they come to fetch ya/with an autopsy ambulance just to dissect ya”).  But for some reason the chorus falls flat for me, which is why it’s probably lower than most people would rate this song.

7. Track 10, Power To the  People (4 stars).  A classical piano flourish and then Chuck D yells “and you thought the beat slowed down” and well, it certainly doesn’t.  One of the fastest tracks on the album and Chuck D’s chant of “power to the people” and “turn it up, turn it loose” are exhortations for revolution.  And kind of like Track 8 in reverse, the last minute is a instrumental breakdown with clipped Flava Flav vocal samples.

6. Track 13, Revolutionary Generation (4 stars).  There’s so much going on in this beat and the fact that it can’t crack the top 5 is truly a testament to the sonic tapestries woven in this album.  So, just a few of the samples in this song: Parliament, Run DMC, Musical Youth, Diana Ross, and Double Dee and Steinski.  A call to “soul sisters” to join the fight and calling out the disrespect experienced by them.

5. Track 9, Burn Hollywood Burn (5 stars).  Two hot guest verses from rap luminaries that keep up with Chuck D, a hook that I irrationally love, and a seething anger palpable even for PE.  Even the outro’s comedy hits home when it’s announced the film the four rappers have in store at the theater is “Driving Miss Daisy”.  There is some irony in Ice Cube’s parting “fuck Hollywood” given some of his roles in mainstream Hollywood, but I have no doubt at the time it was genuine.

4. Track 11, Who Stole The Soul? (5 stars).  A good bit of soul samples (Sly and The Family Stone, James Brown) is apt given the title and the beat drops a few elements to let Chuck D’s lyrics take center stage and then when the chorus comes back it builds back up.  The Bomb Squad sneaks in a Beatles sample (intentional for sure given the subject matter of the song) and even sample themselves (Bring The Noise).  Flava Flav hits his hype notes just right and Chuck D has some great lines like “Like I want to know who/Picked Wilson’s pocket” and “Over here they’ll go after ya to steal your soul/like over there they stole our gold.”

3. Track 5, Welcome To the Terrordome (5 stars). The top 3 songs in this album are the pillars on which the rest of the album hangs and on any given day I might flip flop on my rankings of these tracks. A sample stating “this is a journey…” is a good description of this song; there’s so much to unpack both musically and lyrically. Similar to Fight the Power, the beat pulsates like a living organism with the chorus adding vocal snippets and various guitar stabs and other noises fitting lockstep with the groove. Chuck effortlessly spits lines like “I rope-a-dope the evil/with righteous bobbing and weaving/and let the good get even/c’mon down/but welcome to the terror dome”. And another example of not following convention, the break between Chuck’s second and third verse is almost instantaneous, and not nearly as musically diverse as the bridge between verses 1 and 2. Maybe Chuck said, I’ve got more to say and I’m not waiting for another bridge.

2. Track 20, Fight the Power (5 stars). No argument from me that this isn’t the most culturally important song from the album, and probably in all PE’s catalog, with its iconic video and placement in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Out of the top 3 tracks, it’s the simplest beat. Like I mentioned above, the beat pulsates out of your stereo like a bell ringing and echoing into the atmosphere. You know the chorus and you know the takedowns of Elvis and John Wayne too. Flava Flav is on his A-game, throwing in exclamation points to Chuck’s already pointed rhymes. And then the Bomb Squad take you out on some funky stuff, punctuated with a question about the future of Public Enemy, which is left unanswered in a cut-off quote from Chuck D.

1. Track 2, Brothers Gonna Work It Out (5 stars). It’s the hardest beat on the album, that guitar squabble in the background of the beat works so well and the chorus is even stronger than Fight The Power, in my opinion. That’s why I give this the slightest edge as the best song on this iconic album. It encapsulates everything that PE did so well and it doesn’t let up until it suddenly ends and the next track starts.  Don’t think I need to say any more, here’s the video:

Lightning Bolt, Liturgy, May 3, 2015 @ Echoplex

May 6, 2015

After seeing Dan Deacon get the crowd moving at the Echoplex on Friday, I was back to the same venue to see Lightning Bolt do the same thing. Though the way the bands do it and the way people move is quite different.

I missed the first opener, but got there in time to see Liturgy, a metal band that I’d throw into the “doom/black” variety of metal. There was appropriate riffage and the drummer specialized in high speed bass drum kicks that  led the charge on many of their songs. Lyrics kind of got lost in the noise; the lead singer was soft spoken and didn’t say much beyond announcing the name of the band and a perfunctory thanks when they finished their set.  Their new album was supposed to incorporate some elements not found in the genre, like bells, and sure enough there was one song that featured some prerecorded glockenspiel. It worked for me, the bells were a nice contrast to the dark and heavy guitar and drumming.  The crowd seemed to be into it, with a few enthusiastic young guys flipping the bird at the stage in unison with the music. I guess that’s a sign of respect in this genre? I’m out of my element on that one.

Following a short break it was time for the main attraction, Rhode Island’s Lightning Bolt.  I saw them about 5 years ago and my review gives you a good idea what I saw here in LA.  One difference was that Brian Chippendale was much more talkative.  He greeted the enthusiastic crowd and told a story of how they almost didn’t make it to LA from Oakland when he wanted to pull into a gas station to get a juice and didn’t notice the median and curb and launched their van airborne, over the median, and made it back to asphalt without breaking an axle.  The punchline: the gas station was closed.

All the things I liked about seeing them before was on display again.  Chippendale is a human dynamo on the drums, which contrasts with the stoic Brian Gibson on bass.  One thing they both do is create a cacophony that still finds its way to lock into a groove.  And then pummel that groove to death.  Their new album, Fantasy Empire, has been touted as having more of a metal bent.  A good bit of the set was that new material and there was a lively mosh pit and a lot of headbashing.  I had secured a spot right by the soundboard, so I was safe.  While on record these new songs do sound a bit more “polished”, that polish is smeared all over the place during their live show.  There are waves of rhythm coming at you, and every so often, the wave recedes and allows one of them to breathe and let the other start building the next wave.

They came out for an encore with two ferocious takes on two old songs, Dracula Mountain and Ride the Sky.  The mosh pit reacted in kind and even in my “safe” spot we had a couple bodies come flying into us.  A great end to their set.

Here’s a decent video recapping the performances of both Liturgy and Lightning Bolt (LB starts at 3:04).  I didn’t see the first opener Baby Aspirin DVD (there’s a short bit of them in the video too).

Dan Deacon, Prince Rama, May 1, 2015 @ Echoplex

May 3, 2015

I’ve enjoyed Dan Deacon’s new album, Gliss Riffer, and was excited to see his was making his way out to LA this spring.  I’d seen him two other times and they were fun, intimate shows back in DC.  I wondered whether he would still set up his mass of electronics out on the floor among the crowd or play this set from the Echoplex’s stage.  But before that question could be answered, opener Prince Rama played.

I’ll admit I hadn’t heard of Prince Rama before yesterday afternoon.  I read a few things on them and they definitely seemed to fit into the weird category (their wikipedia page says two of their albums have been high on the New Age charts and they are described as “psych-dance”.  A few songs didn’t particularly change that impression; but at least the songs from their last album in 2012 seemed more on the “dance-y” side of “psych-dance”.  I didn’t take any pictures but here’s a representative sample of what I was seeing.  Lots of day-glo colors, big hair, totally 80s.  I remarked to my friend that I felt like I was at the high school dance in an 80s movie.  The songs were percussion-heavy, big, brash and much more conventional than I expected.  The 80s homage was heavy, but it worked for the most part.  The percussionist went out in the crowd during one song to dance (thank god for preprogramming), the lead singer crowd surfed, and the keyboardist seemed happy doing intermittent wide-eyed googling while dancing in place. It was silly and fun and actually a good complement to Deacon’s set.

20150502_070508464_iOSIt became evident that Dan Deacon would be on the stage, and when the curtain hiding his set up came down, there was still the table with his equipment, though it looked more tidy and there was no green skull. RIP green skull.  He had a series of colorful tapestries behind him, which would later come down and reveal a drum set as he was joined by a drummer and bass guitarist for part of his set.  Deacon’s sound has evolved from its messy and experimental beginnings, so it makes sense that his stage show would too.  But, when an artist has allowed you to be so close, to watch him set up his mess of equipment and be inches away while he performs as the fans go nuts and threaten to knock over all that equipment, a small something gets lost when that’s taken away if you’ve experienced it.

All that said, Deacon still connects and tries to involve his audience, even if he is on the stage.  He gave a shout out to a fan who’d brought, for some reason, a vinyl copy of a Steely Dan record; at one point he separated the crowd into two halves and had us follow the dance moves of two designated choreographers (which kinda worked even though most of us couldn’t see what those people were doing); gave a short speech about what’s happening in Baltimore (he lives in the city); had us all grab hands with the people next to us; and released balloons in the audience during one song and then tried to get people to all pop the balloons at once before starting his next piece.

20150502_074115475_iOSHe’s got a lot more material to draw from now and he played a good bit from the new Gliss Riffer, did several parts of his underrated USA suite from America, and two tracks from Bromst and two of my favorites, Wham City and The Crystal Cat, from Spiderman of the Rings.  Those last two songs, with the chipmunk-styled vocals and music that is just as frenetic, are fabulous live. The newer material, with big, bouncing beats did well in the live context.  The energy of the songs propelled the crowd throughout his over hour-long set; the light show (something I hadn’t experienced at his other shows) upped the party vibe and judging from the sweaty fans leaving afterwards, a good time was had by all.

 

Quick Hit or Miss – Heems, Eat, Pray, Thug

May 2, 2015

A solo album from former Das Racist member, I went in with trepidation as I never particularly got into Heems’ former group. The first song, Sometimes, won me over in a big way. The beat is pretty minimal but still brings the boom and Heems’ wordplay is fantastic. Generally the rest of the album follows that same formula, though there’s definitely parts that drag (Damn, Girl and Suicide by Cop) and the party atmosphere of the opener isn’t there on other songs that focus on serious subjects like his experiences as a brown man in post 9/11 NYC. I’d liken the experience of this album to a less dense (production wise) El-P album. So, I’d recommend this unless 90’s/early 00’s NYC hip hop isn’t your speed.

Here’s opener Sometimes:

Hundred Waters, Moses Sumney, and Natalie Prass, February 13, 2015 @ El Ray Theater

February 22, 2015

This was my first show at the El Rey in Hollywood. It’s a nice room with some impressive chandeliers, and a floor that’s recessed below two small tiers of additional viewing areas. Their beer selection is crap but my wife and I both commented on the nice, handsome bartender who served us said crappy beer.

We went into that recessed floor area to see the first opener, Natalie Prass. From Nashville via Richmond, VA (holla!), Prass played a pleasant set of songs that bobbled between rock and country. She reminded me a little of Jenny Lewis’ solo stuff, maybe a little more poppy. The pop side came out when she played an unexpected (for me, at least) cover of Janet Jackson’s Any Time, Any Place. It’s a B side on one of her singles; it was requisitely funky. Her debut has gotten good reviews, I’d recommend checking it out. For a three band opener, this was really good. I’ll expect to hear more from her.

After she finished, we moved up to the highest “level” and found a nice unobstructed view with a railing to lean on for the next artist, Moses Sumney. A solo act who uses electronics to accompany his terrific voice. He has some pre-programmed backing music but also used a live guitar; and his hands, fingers and mouth to create beats that would get layered on top of other elements, building a musical house from which Moses belted out his songs. He played two new songs that both got positive vibes from the crowd, so be on the look out for new material from him.  After his set, he joined the crowd to see Hundred Waters, as he professed during his set that their album was his favorite of 2014.

We had seen Hundred Waters last year at a church at SXSW. It was a perfect setting for their swirling, slow-build music and lead singer Nicole Miglis’ delicate voice.  This time around, they brought a bigger sound, a more confident Miglis (who seemed a bit nervous during the set we saw at SXSW) and a laser show. It was a different experience for sure, but still a good one.  Miglis’ voice can be Bjork-like in cadence and timbre, which suits the music behind her. I love how their songs can veer in between synth-noodling ala Echoes era Pink Floyd and full on rocking out with big beats in the space of one songs.  Stand outs from their set for me were Down From the Rafters, Out Alee and Cavity. Overall, a really good show by all three bands. Can’t ask for more than that.


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America Rediscovers Missy Elliott

February 3, 2015

Gossip Folks – Missy Elliott (featuring Ludacris) from Under Construction

Besides the Patriots and fans of morbid advertisements, the big winner from the Super Bowl was Missy Elliott. She performed a medley of three of her biggest hits and they sounded as good now as they did back in the early 2000s. Apparently the kids (and everyone else) liked it and sales of those three songs are getting a healthy bump.

There’s plenty of good stuff beyond those hits, and I’d recommend starting with another track from 2002’s Under Construction. Gossip Folks was the second single off the album after the medley-included Work It. It didn’t go quite as high on the charts (#8 versus a lengthy stay at #2), but it’s a damn good song. I think it exemplifies all the best that Missy brought to the table in her prime.

One, great beats (but not sick beats, definitely not sick beats) by Timbaland. Unlike the grime of much East Coast rap in the mid-to-late 90s, his beats are clean, crisp and bouncy. His basic beat here is simple but effective: a double bass bump, a snare hit, and the star of the show, a horn stab that gives the beat a foreign. He layers in more elements in the chorus including a wacky sample from Frankie Smith’s Double Dutch Bus (check out about the halfway point of the song) that creates a nonsensical wordplay for a chorus that would be a headscratcher for most artists but with Missy it just works.

Two, Missy’s flow and sense of humor.  The premise of the song is that people had been talking about Missy (her weight, her sexual preferences, etc.) and the song starts with several people gossiping and ends with those same people wowed by Missy’s performance, but instead of forgiving them, Missy rips them a new one with some funny putdowns and then ends with a request that they buy her new album.  In between, she rides that Timbaland beat with such ease even though she opts for a throaty, raspy delivery and delivers funny and biting verses.  Ludacris joins in for a guest verse and the beat is right in his wheelhouse.

Here’s the video for the song:

Enjoy, hopefully we’ll be seeing some new music from Missy and Timbaland soon.

 

Quick Hit or Miss – The Decemberists, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World

January 22, 2015

Four years have passed since their last album.  Colin Meloy and company return this week with, well, an album that sounds like it could have been released six months after 2011’s The King Is Dead (and apparently some of the songs were written around the time of that last album).  Meaning, there’s not a lot of new ground here.  The Decemberists can spit out good indie pop songs with the melodious voice of Meloy as an anchor; that’s not a knock.  It’s a testament to the band that they can consistently do this.  I’ve been a casual listener to the band; I feel that sometimes I can get bored with them because that consistency can  wear on me.  One thing I enjoyed about this album was that the songs are on the shorter side, especially in the second half of the album.  Despite the title, there doesn’t seem to be any overarching theme to the album from my few listens.

For serious fans of the band, this may be a disappointment, but I enjoyed the album as a collection of mostly upbeat songs with some nice harmonies and pleasant vocals.  I don’t know it’s something I’ll come back to a lot over the year, there’s always a lot of good stuff coming out and I just don’t that this will have staying power for me.

Here’s the first single, Make You Better, which is actually one of the longer songs on the album.

Quick Hit or Miss? – Sleater Kinney, No Cities To Love

January 13, 2015

Something I’m going to try more this year is to give some brief thoughts on new albums as they come out. We’ll see how it goes.

A long awaited return, worth the wait? I think so, as long as you’re not looking for all the rawness of their earlier stuff. The second half seemed harder, with more angry riffs and agitated vocals from Carrie Brownstein that approximate their earlier work. The first half I found more enjoyable, opener Price Tag and No Cities To Love are standouts, with fabulous choruses and riffs that will get your head bobbing and toes tapping. Portions of the first half were downright upbeat in tone that reminded me of YACHT or last year’s Ex Hex album.

I wrote recently about how Beck’s latest album got knocked a bit for being inauthentic because he was not in a “sad” place in life and yet wrote a melancholy album. I wonder if any of those same writers will get on the women of Sleater Kinney at all for writing an album that’s in line with previous efforts while their lives have changed (this might mostly fall on Brownstein for her Portlandia fame) so that the anger is now manufactured.

I’d recommend at least streaming this, it’s a real “album” with a real Side A/B feel and not a stinker in the ten tracks.

Give the Drummer(s) Some!

January 12, 2015
Brian Chippendale's drum kit.

Brian Chippendale’s drum kit.

Take two drummers from bands that don’t follow conventional rock standards, put them in a room together with two drum sets, say GO!, and you get this. Brian Chippendale from Lightning Bolt and Greg Saunier from Deerhoof put out a two track LP of the two playing as a drum duo. There is an accompanying documentary that gives some background on the two. I’ve seen Chippendale live and he’s a manically fast and attacking drummer. Saunier, from clips I’ve seen is equally as forceful but gets there in a more roundabout way with legs and arms moving like an octopuses tentacles.

Drum solos usually aren’t a means to an end, they are sandwiched between the bread of a rock song. That’s why this an interesting listen to me. They mess around with tempo, the individual drums in their kits that they either play in tandem, opposition or somewhere in between. They lock into grooves that then crumble around them and they start building again. I don’t know if the two tracks were recorded sequentially but the second seems a little more complete as a composition and maybe an easier intro for a listener.

I don’t think it’s something for everyone, but if you enjoy percussion or improvisational jazz, I think you should check it out.  You can stream both tracks at the link above.

January 6, 2015

Sunny Afternoon – The Kinks from Face to Face

The Kinks get overlooked or given short shrift when discussing 60s British Invasion bands.  They shouldn’t. They started out belting blues-based rock numbers  with harder edge that equaled anything the early Stones were putting out in their attempts to recreate American blues.  Then, they switched gears and mellowed out and got a bit folky (relatively) with some beautiful songs that have Ray Davies’ personal touch of acerbic lyrical wit that sometimes, when they were hitting all cylinders, out-Beatled the Beatles.  A prime example would be 1966’s Sunny Afternoon.

The song starts off with a lament about how “the taxman’s taken all my dough.”  Released around the same time as the Beatle’s lead song Taxman from Revolver, apparently the tax situation in England was a sore subject for rockers at the time.  However, unlike the Beatles’ song which is written from the perspective of the evil taxman, the Kinks come at it from the angle of the sympathetic taxpayer.  Ok, maybe not so sympathetic.  The next line of the song is “and left me in this stately home/lazing on a sunny afternoon/and I can’t sail my yacht”.  Yeah, maybe sympathetic to Donald Trump but not to much anyone else.

Davies’ singing of the lines dramatically add to the lack of sympathy for our overtaxed gentlemen narrator.  It’s a bit of a hang-dog delivery that is at the same time a bit detached and blessedly unaware of anyone else.  He cries to “help me help me help me sail away” as if this is a mode of transportation everyone should have access to.  He loses more points when he complains about his girlfriend running off to her parents to tell tales “of drunkenness and cruelty.”

Musically, the underlying riff plods along with with Davies’ morose, self-absorbed narrator, but there’s some beautiful harmonizing behind it and in the choruses that is in stark contrast to the ugliness of our “hero” and makes you pine for that sunny summer afternoon that our narrator is left with in the absence of his money.  There’s some country elements I hear in parts, the piano flourishes resemble something you’d imagine walking into an old Western saloon and seeing someone pounding on the keys.

It’s not hard to see how modern English bands like Pulp and Blur are so indebted to the Kinks, and Ray Davies in particular.  Here’s a video of the band performing the song, not surprising that the band would play it in the snow.  Sunny afternoon indeed.


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