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

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)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Front Range recommended shows, 4/14

It looks like Cervantes is the place this week, but there's still a tough decision: reggae or hip hop? Both of these are old school performers with some strong material. I'll also take a moment to pay respect to Cervantes for being such a fine venue for both reggae and rap. They regularly serve up great acts at the top of their game as well as classic voices.

Wednesday, 16 April (Cervantes Masterpiece, Denver CO)
Pato Banton

I first heard Pato Banton through my interest in the second-wave ska band, The English Beat. By the late '80s, he was showing up on my radar and he had a minor hit with "Don't Sniff Coke". I've always enjoyed his flow and laid back grooves. It's been a long time since I saw him at Reggae on the Rocks (Red Rocks), but I'm glad that he's still active.

Wednesday, 16 April (Cervantes Other Side, Denver CO)
Six Mix-A-Lot

Sure, "Baby Got Back" was a party time anthem back in the early '90s (although I'm partial to Jonathan Coulton's acoustic cover), but Sir Mix-A-Lot was more than just a novelty act. His stage persona always played big on style, attitude, and wit. He's also been a good ambassador for hip hop, finding interesting partnerships with other genres to break down walls.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Concert review - ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, with La Femme, Silver Snakes, and Git Some

3 April 2014 (Summit Music Hall, Denver CO)

Good intentions and all of that... I wanted to make it down to Denver in time to catch all of the acts, but I ran quite late, arriving just in time to catch La Femme's extended soundcheck. I was disappointed to miss Silver Snakes and Git Some, but I wasn't alone; most of crowd showed up sometime during La Femme's frantic set..

032 La Femme
It seemed to take a long time for La Femme to get their monitors and mics correctly set up, but that gave us plenty of time to take in the band members and appreciate each one's unique style, from pseudo-vaquero panache to metrosexual boxer chic. Think Adam Ant, but organized by an ADHD costumer. But the random mix of looks was central to band's artistic sense of theatre: it's not a show unless it's a spectacle. It didn't matter, though, whether the band's appearance aligned because they played in such close formation.

031 La Femme
Back in 2010, I reviewed La Femme's EP, Le Podium # 1, appreciating the way they grafted surf guitar tonality onto new wave. Over the last several years, they've honed that style, pulling in punk and synth pop influences. The blend of reverbed surf twang and synth textures -- call it noir wave -- occasionally recalled bands like The Cure, but generally La Femme was in a class all their own. The dark energy was great and, although almost all the lyrics were in French, everyone could appreciate the side trips into Krautrock trippiness and Velvet Underground psychedelic drone.

011 La Femme
The music worked, but the band's visuals were even better. The front edge of the stage was fenced with keyboards, with only the guitarist going without. His consolation prize accessory was a wonderfully retro theremin. They engaged the audience with stylized dance moves and ironic poses. Frontman Marlon Magnée was chaotically charismatic, whether offering a campy come-ons
to the crowd or sexually assaulting his keyboard. It was crazy fun, but also a little bewildering for some in the audience. Afterwards, I heard someone asking, "What the hell was that?"

024 La Femme
By the time their set ended in a trainwreck celebration of noise and dancing, they had played enough punk thrash to lay the groundwork for Trail of Dead’s set.

092 Trail of Dead
Contradictions are at the heart of what powers …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead. They ambitiously create rich, concept-heavy post-rock albums that are executed with raw punk rock intensity. Their music spans from fragile, wispy psychedelic patterns to peaks of roaring chaos. But the biggest contrast is between the serious, focused tone they find in the studio and the unfiltered range of emotions they bring to the stage. This tour is all the more intriguing because it’s a brief pause before resuming work on a new album that’s scheduled for later this year. With their most recent release being 2012’s Lost Songs, they may have thought it would be hard to motivate a good turn out, so this tour reaches back to what is regarded as the band’s breakout album, Source Tags & Codes.

099 Trail of Dead
After La Femme's wild finale, it didn't take long for roadies to clear their equipment and power up Trail of Dead’s gear. So, after this brief break, the band came out and launched immediately into “It Was There That I Saw You”. The opening vamp passed quickly and they soared into the driving swirl of the song. The dynamics of the album version were preserved, but the band was wired and pounded through the tunes. Conrad Keely seemed to swap out guitars for almost every song and Jason Reece often traded instruments with Jamie Miller, but these transitions never slowed the flow of their performance.

078 Trail of Dead
Even stripped of their studio production nuances – like the ambient crowd sound and free jazz noodling at the end of “Baudelaire” – the tunes lost none of their power or presence. Trail of Dead nailed the punk foundations of the songs and made them as cathartic and moving as ever.

089 Trail of Dead
It was clear that the crowd was intimately familiar with Source Tags & Codes, sometimes feeling torn between singing along and surrendering to the visceral punch of the music. For all the meaning that we imbued these songs with, Keely and Reece were even more invested. They played like they were tapping into their younger selves with the hindsight of all the changes they had seen. The personnel shifts and bulkier configurations of the past seemed to melt away and this four piece group channeled the epic scope of that earlier incarnation. Like guitarist/drummer Miller, bass player Autry Fulbright II has only been with Trail of Dead for three years, but his charismatic presence was a strong part of the stage chemistry. Both men seemed just as committed to these songs as Keely and Reece.

059 Trail of Dead
All too soon, Keely marked the end of the series, noting “This is the last song,” and then he sighed, “It’s a short album.” The wistful sound of “Source Tags & Codes” was perfectly appropriate and it was even shorter without the string coda of the album version. As the final notes faded, the audience seemed drained for a moment before the band kicked into “Mistakes & Regrets” from 1999’s Madonna. It captured the retrospective mood in the wake of Source Tags & Codes and then dismissed it.

115 Trail of Dead
The crowd settled in as Trail of Dead wandered through another five songs from their back catalog, with particularly strong performances on “Catatonic” (Lost Songs) and “Would You Smile Again” (Worlds Apart, 2005). For this latter tune, Reece reached into the crowd, giving people a chance to sing along and participate in the ritual. After wrapping up the main set, they came back out for a single encore, a version of “Richter Scale Madness” from the band’s first album. The nihilistic flail of the tune energized us all for the late night ride home.

More photos on my Flickr.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Recording review - The Men, Tomorrow's Hits (2014)

The retro ooze? You're soaking in it...

Do you believe in coincidence? Most people don’t. We’re hardwired to find patterns and connections and it’s almost impossible for us to accept that those relationships might exist only in our minds. With their latest release, Tomorrow’s Hits, the Men try to overcome our natural instincts. They’d have us ignore the evidence of our ears and entertain the conjecture that, somehow, their immersion into 1970s rock is anything but a retro pose or heartfelt pastiche. They seem to suggest that they’ve never paid any attention to bands like Cheap Trick, Bruce Springsteen or Tom Petty. So, any resemblance is surely just an aural trick.

The thing is that they just about pull it off. Listening to “Settle Me Down”, I can hear a blend of George Harrison and Tom Petty among others, but the longer the song plays, it stands more firmly on its own merits. There’s a lot going on from the opening notes: the bass and guitar aligned in staccato arpeggios, the choppy rhythm guitar, a shimmery touch of slide guitar and an amorphous wash of organ to cement it together. The swaying rhythm of the A section gives a lazy feel to the vocals. The B section balances a surf-guitar tinged darker edge — “But it’s all right that I didn’t see you that night” — with mellow “oohs” and brighter jangle. There’s not a lot of lyrical depth here; the band just repeats a simple set of lines. But the piece has a meditative quality that transcends its musical references. Like their earlier work on Open Your Heart (2012), the clench-release flow of the song is innately satisfying.

Given the band’s punk roots, it’s interesting that the strongest—and hardest to ignore—apparent influence is Bruce Springsteen. The opening chords of “Dark Waltz” suggest “Adam Raised a Cain” crossed with a bit of John Fogerty. “Another Night” feints towards “Because the Night” before changing directions with a Clarence Clemons-style sax riff and a Van Morrison vocal feel. The album closer, “Going Down”, comes from deep within the lo-fi reverberation of the garage, driven by an up-tempo punk energy, but it still finds kinship to Springsteen’s Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (1973).

Tomorrow’s Hits, though, is at its best when the Men indulge their predilection for thrash and attitude. My favorite track, “Different Days”, launches with an adrenaline pulse bass line before dropping into a driving garage rock grind that supports the punk vocals. It reminds me of Team Spirit’s raw garage pop and, like Team Spirit, the Men can pack a lot of angst and ecstasy into the same space (“And I’m waiting for this night to fade/ And I hate being young/ Sick of all this do-or-die/ Don’t they know it’s just suicide? Uh huh”). In the album’s lead single, “Pearly Gates”, the band applies their over-the-top treatment to blues rock. The exuberant chaos and untethered slide guitar suggest Johnny Winter’s cover of “Highway 61 Revisited”.

There’s an obvious irony in calling this collection of retro-toned tunes Tomorrow’s Hits. Sure, musical fashion rolls through its cycle and everything old is new again sooner or later. But I think the point is that bands like the Men have been absorbing all of these classic sounds for so long that this mishmash of lo-fi, raw rock building blocks is their milieu. In that context, the title puts most of its emphasis on sarcastically mocking the idea of “hits”.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)