Monthly Archives: July 2011
Beck – Sea Change
As its name implies, Sea Change is the biggest departure from the rest of Beck’s catalog and for one reason and one reason alone: he steps out from behind the curtain to reveal a vulnerable man. While many artists get stuck in the habit of only writing about themselves, Beck took the other route, writing about really anything besides himself, even if that “anything” was simply nonsense. Here, he fixes his gaze squarely on his broken relationship with his longtime girlfriend, how he’s been derailed and isn’t sure why, how he’s lost his ballast and is left adrift. It may have been easy to presume that one of the reasons Beck chose not to write directly about himself was that he simply wasn’t sure how. He was always a wordsmith but one who told riddles and spat jokes, not bared his soul. Fortunately, he squashes this assumption throughout Sea Change, his lyrics trimmed and focused, using evocative imagery and surprisingly emotional directness. Listen to how he winds down the chorus on “Guess I’m Doing Fine” (“It’s only lies that I’m living/It’s only tears that I’m crying/It’s only you that I’m losing/Guess I’m doing fine”), trying not to admit to himself the weight of his situation. Throughout, he makes similar admissions, and even if he doesn’t find the answers to his questions, he seems to at least find a bit of solace by the time “Side Of The Road” rolls around.
It’s not just the words that make this album a milestone, though. With the help of Nigel Godrich, Beck crafts a warm, woozy sound that’s grounded in woeful country, British psychedelia and folky singer/songwriterism. As such, it’s full of tense string arrangements (courtesy of his father), resigned keyboards and gloomy harmonies, all of which wrap around his voice and acoustic guitar, both of which sound richer and more soulful than ever. All in all, the album is pitched somewhere between the delicate melancholy of Nick Drake, Serge Gainsbourg’s spooky seductiveness and Bob Dylan, whose emotionally bloodied Blood On The Tracks is one of the more obvious touchstones. Sure, this doesn’t sound too far removed from his work on One Foot In The Grave or Mutations, but he delves deeper here, his songs more nuanced and better-crafted, able to stand up to the psychedelic touches that Godrich adds. Those looking for the mercurial shifts in style and colorful humor of Odelay or Midnite Vultures need not apply—this is a strictly somber affair. But hopefully even those listeners will stick around because Sea Change is one of the great break-up albums ever recorded and a testament to Beck’s musicianship. It may not have been as innovative or influential as some of his other work, but he never made a better record than this.
Beck – Midnite Vultures
Midnite Vultures was touted as Beck’s real follow-up to Odelay, since the loose psych-folk sessions of Mutations were intended to be an aside in his discography. This reading of Vultures gives the impression that it’s another wildly careening, genre-hopping rollercoaster, the way Mellow Gold and Odelay were, yet this doesn’t turn out to be the case. Instead, like Mutations, Vultures focuses only a handful of genres—this time around, it’s soul, funk and rap with a few hints of country for good measure. Before its release, Beck described this record as “a party record with dumb sounds and dumb songs and dumb lyrics,” and on that front, Midnite Vultures succeeds gloriously, which is both its greatest strength and weakness. Surely, this record contains some of Beck’s most clever arrangements, and the music is lively and exciting, with “Debra” and “Get Real Paid” sounding like great, lost Prince tracks. Meanwhile, “Sexx Laws,” with its Southern soul horns and breakbeat drums, is simply one of the best and catchiest songs Beck would ever pen. Vultures also houses some of his funniest lyrics, full of ridiculous come-ons (“Touch my ass if you’re qualified”) and zany character sketches. Because it’s so consistently playful and tightly constructed, it’s a shame that something creeps in that has never appeared before on a Beck album: a sense of parody. Remember, he called these “dumb songs,” and while he clearly put a lot of effort in the music, Vultures sometimes gives off the impression that he’s ridiculing the very party he started. This is nowhere more clear than on “Hollywood Freaks,” which, with its electronically modified vocals and gangsta clichés, manages to nearly crash the momentum built up in the first half. While Beck has certainly poked fun at certain styles of music in the past, the over-the-top caricatures that sometimes appear here are a bit off-putting, even if they sometimes add to the fun like on “Peaches & Cream.” Luckily, the second half of the record helps to distract from this concern, even if the feeling still lingers. There’s enough to keep the album from being one of Beck’s best works, but Midnite Vultures, especially its nearly flawless first half, is still one of the purest rushes he would ever deliver.
Brian Eno – Drums Between The Bells
Poetry and music may seem like natural partners, but they often make a difficult pairing. Sure, beat poets and other rap progenitors had musical backing, but that backing was usually minimal and rhythm-based. So what if you were to match up spoken-word prose with a more textured, abstract soundtrack? Though he’s not the first to try, Brian Eno attempts to answer that question with Drums Between The Bells, his second release under the Warp label. The poet in question is Rick Holland, an acquaintance of Eno’s who has collaborated with him on music since 2003. Holland’s words are ambiguous and impressionistic, often concerning science (namely biology), city living and philosophy. Since the poems often shoot for these intellectual themes, Eno frames these words with suitably pensive backdrops, some of which shuffle along, some of which are moody atmospherics in line with his early ambient work. And though Holland contributes the words for every track, he only contributes his voice to one. The reciting duties are instead doled out to some other of Eno’s acquaintances (primarily women), which helps to give the record some much-needed variety.
Unfortunately, though everything seems to be in order, Drums Between The Bells is a rather scattershot album, haphazardly alternating between wondrous and plain boring. This is no fault of Holland’s, whose words serve their purpose throughout, but rather of Eno’s, whose gift for depth and understatement is frustratingly wasted here. While the music was certainly created to fit the tone of each poem, a number of songs, particularly in the second half, simply feel like he’s phoning it in, while “Sounds Alien” underscores why Eno didn’t make a name for himself as a dance producer. He also pitch-shifts and otherwise manipulates the vocals on many tracks, which occasionally distracts from the words, and sometimes the vocals themselves are at odds with the musical atmosphere, detracting from the striking soundscapes, such as on “A Title.” (One senses Eno knew this because the deluxe edition of Drums comes with a second, instrumental-only disc.) Don’t be fooled, though: when the words and music do sync up, Drums can be a thing of cerebral beauty. The gorgeous and delicate duo “Dreambirds” and “Pour It Out” feel more complex than they are, the way Eno’s best work always does; “The Real”‘s zen-like ambiance strives for transcendence; “Bless This Space” skitters along on an off-kilter jazz groove. But for all these highlights, Drums Between The Bells often feels like little more than a sporadically intriguing lark, one that at least proves Eno is still searching for new creative outlets instead of resting on his laurels.
Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
The Odd Future crew may have been the crossover story of underground rap in 2011, but Shabazz Palaces, it seems, have had no qualms with retaining their cult status. Hailing from Seattle, Shabazz Palaces released a pair of EPs without a single mention of who was behind the adventurous, shifting beats and wordplay. But despite the lack of identity, the lack of interviews, the lack of, well, pretty much anything an artist does to get publicity, acclaim followed the group, both among the music press and serious hip-hop fans. As it turns out, though there are other contributors, Shabazz Palaces is essentially the work of Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler, who was most notably a member of ’90s jazz-rap group Digable Planets. (However, in the world of Shabazz, Butler goes under the pseudonym Palaceer Lazaro.) And without much more hubbub than usual comes their first full-length, Black Up, a complex, enthralling record that makes good on the promise of those earlier EPs.
Upon pressing play—never mind that it’s a rap record—the music takes over, demanding attention with its brooding atmospherics and unpredictable, whip-snap beats. There’s no verse-chorus-verse to be heard here and, aside from some repeated elements, very little discernible structure at all, the music winding whichever way it pleases. There are remnants of Butler’s past work here, but much of this feels fresh, with African tribal drums, dubstep and jazz noodling coexisting harmoniously. For a frame of reference, imagine Company Flow’s sci-fi ambiance and Flying Lotus’ sardine-packed left-field hip-hop filtering through Native Tongues jazz-rap. It’s a dizzying listen, but it never feels indulgent or pretentious, always reeling the listener in rather than keeping you at arm’s length. Listen to how “Are You… Can You… Were You?” sustains its tense rhythm so that a sudden chord change feels revelatory or how “Swerve… The Reeping Of All That Is Worthwhile (Noir Not Withstanding)”‘s crunching beats are offset by soulful vocals courtesy of THEESatisfaction, a pair of women who also call Seattle home. It’s an inventive, exciting production that references the past but always looks toward the future.
Get a handle on the ever-shifting music and that’s when Black Up really opens up, even if the music achievements here dwarf the lyrical ones. Just as the music has a mind of its own, Butler raps with equal formlessness, rarely repeating a flow once he’s moved on to something else, whether that something is a lengthy rhyme scheme or a call-and-response chant. His words are also (nearly) as dense and dexterous as the music itself. While his wordplay is often humorously surreal, Butler tackles a wide range of serious topics, sort of like a Talib Kweli from outer space. He philosophizes on freedom (“Free Press And Curl”), dissects the corrupting power of commercialization (“Youlogy”), recalls a night of lust (“A Treatease Dedicated To The Avian Airess From North East Nubis”), comments on street wisdom (“Are You… Can You… Were You?”) and meditates on music-making (“The King’s New Clothes Were Made By His Own Hands”), all with equal flair and confidence. Despite some memorable lines and chants, none of Black Up has anything that can be really be considered a “hook,” which makes it much less user-friendly than your average rap album. However, the more time spent with the record, the more it gives back, and anyone with even the slightest interest in the potential of hip-hop wouldn’t think to miss it.