Monthly Archives: July 2014
Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty
Ishmael Butler (a.k.a. Palaceer Lazaro) may have filled Black Up with surreal imagery, subtly cutting commentary and pithy insights, but Shabazz Palaces is foremost about music, not words, about Butler and Tendai Maraire’s visionary productions that freely blend styles, live instrumentation and warped samples into something both claustrophobic and humorous. Their follow-up, Lese Majesty, finds them leaning into this side of their personality, crafting a dense, amorphous album of ethereal hip-hop, where Butler’s voice is often used for its sound rather than its content. While he’s still a big presence on Lese Majesty, he’s often relegated to the sidelines, even as the duo head for more quasi-conceptual territory. It’s a strategy that works in spurts. True to form, a lot of the music here is striking and fascinating, adding more electronic and psychedelic elements to Shabazz’ woozy, late-night jazz and R&B. The layered atmospherics of “Forerunner Foray” are indicative of where Butler and Maraire’s heads are at now, with that druggy, fluid flow threading its way throughout the record, from the nitrous blur of “Ishmael” to the similarly fleeting closer “Sonic Myth Map For The Trip Back.” Elsewhere the grinding guitar “Mind Glitch Keytar Theme” charts out new territory, while “They Come In Gold” and the THEESatisfaction-featuring “#Cake” could have easily slipped into Black Up. But it’s “Motion Sickness,” with its sumptuous synth tones and marimba noodling, that’s the best and most substantial track here.
Unsurprisingly, that track is also one of the few to position Butler front and center. And that brings me to the Lese Majesty‘s major flaw: its lack of weight and focus. The 18 tracks here on Lese are ostensibly broken up into seven suites, but it’s impossible to tell just from listening to it—each track bleeds into the next and over half of them clock in at about two minutes or less, meaning nothing sits in one place for long, so the whole album comes across like a shape-shifting DJ set more than a hip-hop record. Normally, this would be fine, but since the productions here are so preoccupied with the wispy, celestial and effects-laden, they sometimes lack a real anchor and can too easily slide right through the listener’s mind. Plus, the short track lengths mean some of the truly transportive instrumentals here, like “Divine Of Form,” barely get going before they disappear into the ether. The beats may be the most compelling thing about Shabazz Palaces, but Butler’s lyrics gave Black Up a heftiness and humanity the alien productions may not have otherwise had, and that’s something simply missing here. Even on the track whose title he lends his name (“Ishmael”), his voice is mostly lost in murky reverb. Fortunately, whenever Butler does get a word in edgewise, the album springs to life, whether it be the unsettling and referential “Solemn Swears,” the playful “#Cake,” or, even something as the “Touch and agree!” refrain in “Noetic Noiromantics.” His voice is otherwise too manipulated to keep tracks like “Colluding Oligarchs” or “Suspicion Of A Shape” from meandering about in their own sonic pool. It’s a disappointment, to be sure, yet even if it doesn’t all hold together, Lese Majesty proves Shabazz Palaces’ restless, creative spirit is as alive as ever, offering its fair share of forward-looking music. In other words, there’s no reason to think that they couldn’t bounce back with something as vital as their debut next time around.
“Weird Al” Yankovic – Mandatory Fun
Being that it’s 2014, let’s take a moment to marvel at Weird Al Yankovic’s career. For over 30 years (!), Al’s not just been a successful comedian but a multi-generational cultural touchstone, a force of giggly glee that somehow transcended the novelty of pop music parody to endure, while other musicians, actors, comics and artists fell by the wayside. Granted, Al hasn’t released masterpiece after masterpiece. Musical comedy is already a hit-or-miss affair, and when you’ve been at it this long, you’re gonna have some stinkers. But considering most people in his field only flirt with success before they dissolve into bar trivia and remember-when lists, his continued presence is downright astonishing. I’m not suggesting his career is based solely on luck or nostaligia—rather, it’s quite the opposite. His 14th record, Mandatory Fun, proves why, in his mid-50s, he’s able to still churn this stuff out and make headlines.
First, it’s important to note his parodies rarely have to do with the songs themselves. Other than the backing track and maybe a rhyming title, the rest can go wherever Al wants it to. This means Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” can be rewritten about a boastful repairman in “Handy,” and Lorde’s spectral “Royals” instead espouses the food preservation and alien-signal deflection benefits of “Foil.” And that’s one of the other keys to Al’s, and Mandatory Fun‘s, success: his mix of absurdism and observational humor. No one else is going to write a song about these things, and the disparity between the pristine pop productions and his mundane subjects propels some unexpectedly funny moments, like when the bombast of Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” juts up against a static slacker protagonist in “Inactive.” Plus, even when he’s playing with material that’s been worked to death elsewhere, like grammar scolding (“Word Crimes”) or privilege (“First World Problems”), there are enough clever spins on the subjects to make them worth the effort.
It’s Al’s original material where things become a bit more iffy. Try as he might, his songwriting just isn’t always particularly memorable, despite their humorous resemblance to the styles he’s skewering. This means that when the jokes aren’t working, like in the pointless college fight anthem “Sports Song” and the Foo Fighters rip “My Own Eyes,” the tracks don’t have a strong musical center to anchor them. But, as always, there are spots where his material comes together. There’s the name-dropping, cowbell-loaded, southern-fried rawk of “Lame Claim To Fame” (“I used the same napkin dispenser as Steve Carell at a Taco Bell!”), and the corporate-jargon satire “Mission Statement” uses warm, CSNY harmonies to enhance the cold business-speak. “First World Problems,” meanwhile, goes all in for a Pixies homage (check the “Debaser” riff that kicks it off) and comes up aces. “Jackson Park Express,” the Cat Stevens/Phil Ochs/Ben Folds-ish voyage that ends the record finale “Jackson Park Express” is stuck in the middle. At 9 minutes, Al’s clearly going for the same over-the-top, “I can’t believe this is still going” territory previously traveled by “Albuquerque” or “Trapped In The Drive-Thru,” and while its tale of an imaginary, escalating relationship has its fair share of laughs, it also can’t quite justify its length. But despite these weaker moments, Mandatory Fun finds Weird Al in fine form. Because at his best, and the highlights here often find him around that level, Al’s music is a glorious, inclusive pop culture celebration, and like the album’s requisite polka cover medley (this one’s called “NOW That’s What I Call Polka!”), it’s mostly a giant, lively party designed to get everyone together to put a big, stupid smile on your face at all costs. For a mission that began in the Cold War-era, I’d say he’s doing okay.