(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Recording review - Bike For Three!, So Much Forever (2014)

Can a true partnership be bigger than Kanye's ego?

Sometimes, it seems like hip hop has become a kind of musical cilantro or bacon. It’s the hipster ingredient to add to any tired or bland project to give it a spark of relevance. Mashed up the other way, pairing a rap delivery with an unexpected backing track (Classical! Country!), the juxtaposition usually serves as an ironic in-joke. It’s not really even clever anymore, and I’ve gotten tired of strained cross-breeding that tries to pass itself off as creativity. Which brings us to Bike For Three!, the unlikely partnership between rapper Buck 65 and electronic producer Greetings From Tuskan (Joëlle Lê). Their story follows a Hollywood anti-pattern; let’s call it “not-meet-cute.” The conceit is that the rapper and the Belgian producer connected on MySpace (cue the endorsement ops), but have never met in person, despite collaborating on two albums now.

Buck 65 has always favored more unusual backing tracks, so Lê’s electronic grooves fall well within his abstract M.O. The surprise is that the two have created a unique fusion that reflects a balanced dynamic between their two worlds. Their latest release, So Much Forever, is no mere gimmicked mashup; it’s outsider hip hop that pushes creative boundaries. Rather than grafting one approach onto the other, these two artists bring each of their own worlds together, and neither one truly dominates. The tracks reflect a mutual respect and openness; together they accomplish things that neither could achieve alone. An album like this stands in direct contrast to a project like Kanye West’s Yeezus. West is a self-proclaimed genius, and while he fished around for ideas to flesh out his creative vision, there was never a doubt that every provocative piece of Yeezus was part of his overarching plan. Bike For Three! is less interested in making their audience prove their love than in challenging one another. Lê’s electro-pop dreaminess makes the tunes float while Buck provides the grounding. His emotional honesty rises to the top, but then her ethereal vocals, mostly in French, can transform the songs to find a more objective perspective.

The give and take keeps either voice from drowning out the other. Buck often syncopates his flow to augment the solid beat of the backing track, but Lê in turn takes his vocals and mutates it into more fodder for the mix. Exotic and solid, organic and electro-mechanical, tight with tension and freely floating – the dynamic balance holds your attention for the whole duration.

The album eases into view with a gentle, ambient track, appropriately titled “Intro”. The calm heartbeat and soft washes provide little preparation for the slick armored sound of the first real song, “Full Moon”, which is built on a foundation of Berlin-style synth pop. The steady pulsation creates a delicious tension. The pair sets up a cool trick they’ll use throughout the whole album, alternating Lê’s softly-echoed feminine vocals with the harder edge of Buck’s tightly wound male bass. The tagline, “Who can sleep, at a time like this,“ repeats, evolving from simple observation to indignant accusation before Lê mutilates her sweetly floating vocal line and moves the song into a more modern glitch electronica.

That caught my ear, but a couple of songs later, “Heart As Hell” sealed the deal. Built on a thoughtful, electro-pop base with tentative brushes of reverberating piano, the initial singing is distant and dreamy, more of a memory than a lead line. Buck’s lyrics are somber and emotionally bare, “I have two hearts and one of them is hard as Hell.” His imagery is beautifully economic, fitting a lot into the tight rhyming runs: “It’s vertigo in reverse/ Devoted and cursed/ It hurts/ Exploded and worse.” A ratcheting drumbeat clicks like the clock ticking away his time. The second verse flowers into a longer series, maintaining flow and rhythm, relentlessly checking off an inventory of dissatisfaction. It culminates in a bitter, “Sometimes the mind is paradise/ And the heart is Hell.” At this point, the production processes Buck’s voice and blends it into the electro substrate. The constant see-saw of “heart” and “hard” creates its own ambiguity. The moodiness ripples across the remaining tracks.

Heart As Hell” proved to be my favorite track, but there are plenty of other strong contenders. The motorik drive and introspective lyrics of “Ethereal Love” make it a standout tune. “Stay Close Until We Reach The End” is also compelling as it builds on a droning start with creepy shards of disquiet as Lê’s chopped and damaged vocals page through a catalog of despair française, “Désillusion/ Fatale/ Tragédie…”. When Buck comes in with his precisely off-kilter delivery, the disturbing quality deepens.

By the time So Much Forever closes on “Outro” and its faster heartbeat, it’s impossible to say which of the two collaborators is figure or ground because the contributions are so interdependent. Bike For Three! may not be as confrontational as Kanye’s Yeezus, but it’s just as strong an artistic statement.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Front Range recommended shows, 4/21

Wednesday, 23 April (Pepsi Center, Denver CO)
Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire's most recent outing, Reflektor (review), saw the band pushing into danceable synth-pop territory, but still the depth that they're known for. And it turned into a great move for the band because the public is ready for an album that spans retro chill funk (title cut) and taut ska grooves ("Awful Sound (Oh, Euridice)"). The group has long been more popular than some of their base would like, but they're still delivering great music.

Saturday, 26 April (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
Local Natives

Speaking of great music, one of my favorite acts from 2009, Local Natives, had a long break before last year's Hummingbird, but their richly layered sound picked up more nuance and shadow. While their studio work is exemplary, their live sound should not be missed.

Saturday, 26 April (Fillmore Auditorium, Denver CO)
The Glitch Mob

The Glitch Mob's Love Death Immortality (review) showed that the electronic band has developed a stronger rhythmic drive. Songs from the new album, like "Skullclub", are perfectly arranged to create a disco rave experience in real life, so be prepared to sink into the insistent beats.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Recording review - Sam Shalabi, Music for Arabs (2014)

Difficult, disorganized, dippy, and defiant

Can a 50-year-old man write anything relevant about Miley Cyrus’ musical and cultural significance? Well, if he has a teenage daughter, he might have enough of a clue to get his bearings. But otherwise he’s stuck with an outsider’s perspective. Sam Shalabi’s new album poses its own related challenge, throwing down a gauntlet for the uninitiated. Although the title, Music for Arabs, might appear to indicate his target audience, that’s just a feint. While Shalabi draws heavily on his Egyptian musical roots, the chaotic experimental approach is actually geared towards fans of “difficult-listening music.” The opening track, “Music for the Egyptians”, begins with a 23 second smoke screen of oddly accented rock ’n’ roll drums before slipping off the rails. The instrumentation, rhythm, and scale runs provide a whiff of Arabic aesthetic, but the breakneck tempo crushes it all together into a cacophony of percussion and frantic notes. It’s more reminiscent of poking sticks into bicycle spokes than music. To be charitable, it could be seen as a kind of commentary on the fast pace of Egyptian urban life, but that’s little comfort. The music eventually becomes a backdrop for a rambling Arabic conversation. I’m not convinced that understanding the language would have made this more interesting. About five and a half minutes in, the speaking stops and the piece turns into an Edgard Varèse style “organized sound” composition. The musical timbres and beats are irregular, but at least I have the rubric to appreciate this a bit more as Shalabi creates a suspenseful, cinematic feel. At 8:50, the piece transitions again, setting up a droning undertone of keyboard wash and wandering synthesized bagpipe melodies before dissolving away.

If “Music for the Egyptians” is quite off-putting, it still offers hints of an attractive musical realm. The second track, “Luxor Dancer”, is a deliberately obtuse artistic statement rather than a serious musical offering. Shalabi gives us 30-odd seconds of bicycle spokes again and then falls into a deconstructed disco parody. Imagine Mr. Hankey from “South Park” belting out, “I want to dance/ I’ve been to France,” in his strained falsetto and you get the idea. By the time a weird southern character drops in to drawl about dancing and his dog, Jenny, it’s impossible to take Shalabi very seriously.

Interestingly enough, though, if the listener can make it past these two formidable hurdles, Music for Arabs grudgingly delivers on the initial expectations. The music becomes less confrontational, tempering the strangeness with more traditional Arabic sounds. The fusion of influences leads to some more intriguing work. “The Wherewithal” starts with a meditative oud riff over a steady beat. Light flashes of distortion hover at the edges, but the mood remains thoughtful as the oud meanders along. As the tremolo picking builds intensity, the fuzzy ambiance comes to dominate and the song evolves into a chaotic Velvet Underground tribute, echoing some of Lou Reed’s guitar work on “European Son”. Shalabi gives himself over to the psychedelic jam approach that he’s favored in his other band, The Shalabi Effect, and it’s very engaging.

The album wraps up with “Music for the Egyptians, Pt. 2”, which counterbalances the opening track. It’s packed with restless melody, tracing a path and then reversing direction only to retrace again. If the first tune gave a sense of modern Egypt, this song makes a strong case for the power of tradition. In an interview with fellow musician Alan Bishop on Forced Exposure, Shalabi described Music for Arabs as “a very playful fuck you to that whole cultural colonialism of the serious musicologist, who sees Arabic music as this happy little palatable ‘entertainment’ for Westerners.” “Music for the Egyptians Part 2” serves as his peace offering to them and to the rest of us for persevering through the first two tracks.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

History lesson - MC Paul Barman, Paullelujah! (2002)

Quirky and clever - erudite juvenalia

Working in the cube-farms of corporate America in 2002, pleasures were hard to come by and distraction was a blessing. I don’t even know where I first came across “Cock Mobster”, but I do remember being gobsmacked. It wasn’t the crudity of the juvenile humor as MC Paul Barman checked off women from his fantasy black book ; it was the mix of cultural references and wicked sharp rhymes. Name checking The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and KRS-One’s “Rappaz R.N. Dainja” in the same verse blew my mind. The combination of audacity and rolling rhymes in lines like “My dandy voice makes the most anti-choice granny’s panties moist” was staggering.

Immediately looking for more, I bought Paullelujah! directly from his web site. Then I found out that Prince Paul (De La Soul) and MF DOOM had produced some of the tracks. It wasn’t until a year or two later that I realized that Barman had provided the brief, but inspired interlude “Meet Cleofis Randolph the Patriarch” for Deltron 3030 (2000). Paullelujah! showed that his quirky delivery and the satisfying linguistic gymnastics were no fluke; the album was packed with more of the same thing that grabbed me in the first place: scatological humor aimed at a 14-year-old audience blended with superior lyrics and a crazy quilt of cultural allusions. Without a doubt, it was a flawed, uneven collection, but I had to respect Barman’s talent as a wordsmith and unbridled creative force.

The opening seconds of Paullelujah! immediately overturn the usual rap stereotypes. Instead of swagger and a heavy beat, Barman drops any pretense of cool and gleefully proclaims, “Check it out, man. It’s the best day of my life! The MC Paul Barman full-length is finally out,” over Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus”, which he shortly hijacks and repurposes to hype the album title. It’s the first of many goofy moments and it does make it harder to take him seriously as a hip hop artist. But what should we expect? A white Jewish kid who graduated from Brown University is hardly likely to pull off a gangsta pose. Instead, Barman follows the age-old advice to write what he knows and that includes everything from literature he picked up in school to the uncomfortable contradictions of self-righteously liberal middle class politics. And mostly being a smartass. So, he skewers the local anarchist bookstore scene after name-checking John Cage and Jeff Koons in “Excuse You” and it’s all of one fabric.

When confronted with the question of cultural appropriation that faces every middle class, Caucasian rapper, Barman has his own unique response. On “Old Paul,” he tackles it head on, first asking “Is it ‘cause I go for the laugh?/ Because I’m not from the Ave? Because I target the fans that you wish you didn’t have?”. It’s a cogent point, hitting at hip hop’s discomfort with white popularity. But he follows up with some soul searching: “Had I made a mockery of a culture, like the Choco Taco?/ Was I to rap as France was to Morocco?/ Was I colon rap colon colon France colon Morocco?” Those lines do it all. They capture humor, racial guilt, a desire to be sensitive and also his geeky self-expression, breaking down the analogy to the format of an SAT question.

Paullelujah! is full of Easter eggs like this. He also manages to shoehorn in palindromes and incorporate a Buckminster Fuller song into “Bleeding Brain Grow”. If anything, Barman is a bit too eager to prove how clever he can be. He is sharp, but he often sacrifices meaning to satisfy a lyrical formula or he’ll drop into lowbrow humor to get a cheap laugh. This gives the album a weird kind of dynamic balance. His twisty rhyming passages demand a lot of attention and often trigger a sense that you know there’s a joke in there somewhere if you can take the time to unfold them. Then, about the time he’s worn you down enough to surrender to his multisyllabic onslaught, he throws a change up like “Burping & Farting.” To some extent, that makes Paullelujah! a novelty album, but it’s one that still stands the test of time; a dozen years after my first listen and I just caught the math mnemonic reference in “PEM Das EFX” from “Excuse You”.

(This review first appeared in Spectrum Culture)