The crown jewel in Stones Throw Records’ quest to emerge as the Def Jam of spleefy underground urban music, Madvillain’s no-longer-below-the-radar Madvillainy is unquestionably the hip-hop album of the year. As Nas’s recent album occasionally proves (at least during the first disc), concept can be as much an obstacle in the field of rap as it is a virtue, but beatsman Madlib and MC MF Doom thankfully didn’t get the message. Among the most prolific (and least artistically tethered…or least disciplined, if you wanna hate like that) performers in the field, the two had been on a remarkable rampage, collaborating with an entire network of West Coast players and racking up something like 87 albums between the two of them in the last five years or so, virtually none under the same nom de plume.
Sometime last year, Madvillainy leaked during its gestalt period, and though many of Doom’s lyrics still reflected a penetrating alertness and humorous bent, the hazy basement production was so dark and muddled (like a nightmare you only half remember the next morning) that it overpowered everything else. Another near miss, it would seem. Madvillainy v.1.0 detailed the misadventures of an ambivalent superhero, but the beats sounded like goth couture. So when Madvillainy was finally committed to silicon, bolstered with the type of cheap beats you can carry under your arm, it was a minor surprise to discover that the entire undertaking had snapped into a sharp focus you’d think impossible for an album so clearly the result of marathon marijuana sessions.
A nutty collage of old B-movie vocal samples (I peg one of them as being Green Dolphin Street), loops from the Ghosts of Black American Music Past, and nebulous, almost invisible 808 beatitude, suddenly the demented geniuses that were responsible for such diverse anomalies in the staid world of hip-hop as, in one corner, the thickness of Quasimoto’s formidable The Unseen and, in the other, Shades Of Blue (a jazz-purist-baiting anarchist romp through the archives of Blue Note Records), managed to forge a cohesive synthesis.
Many a philosopher have observed that politics exists as a continuum, and what most people consider opposites really meet up at the same point on the curve. Musically speaking, Madvillainy resides on that point. Someone else once wrote how difficult it is to score musical accompaniments in genres that long ago became their own parodies, specifically bass-popping, wah-wah guitar pedal blaxploitation R&B, and not come off as a pastiche. The only way to buck the clichés is to embrace them and shuffle the deck. And Madvillainy resides there, too.
The lo-fi array of effects and clips meticulously arranged by Madlib (a.k.a. Otis Jackson Jr.) come faster than they can be labeled and shelved. The 46-minute album has 22 tracks, only three of them run longer than three minutes, and many shed their skin and pick up new sampler adornments halfway through. Which is just about perfect for the central conceit: that of Doom, wearing a cast-chrome mask that’s halfway between The Punisher and the Phantom of the Paradise and his Feuilladian espionage hijinks. Nearly every song is like a back-alley costume change between midnight rooftop chases: “Meat Grinder” begins with a free-jazz fanfare that sounds like Jack Johnson quoting Mr. Moto, but eventually settles into a spaghetti western showdown in Honolulu (the quickest gunslinger in the Pacific raps: “Hopeless romancer with the dopest flow stanzaz/Yes no? Villain/Metal faced t’Destro guess so still incredible in escrow”); “Rainbow” cuts into its lounge lizard strut vibe with jagged, trumpet-blaring Batman stings; and “Strange Ways” busts a baroque costume ball with a pulsating, highly-compressed confrontational walking bassline.
Still, when Madlib chooses to hold down a notion by the fur on its neck, the results are just as galvanizing. The pensive droning of the title instrument in “Accordion” (which serves as the album’s rules setter, the moment that Doom psychologically centers himself before plunging into the abyss) grows in menace and sadness as the introductory track continues (“Slip like Freudian/Your first and last step/To playin’ yourself like an accordion”), until each loop doubles over on itself, like each time around another key on the side panel is being depressed. And the Legrandiose, piano-pounding, bebopping clip that fuels “Raid” (a collaboration with Medaphor and very possibly the album’s standout cut) is the type of ridiculously perfect symphony in miniature, an authentic headrush of compounding excitement and tension, that makes you want to raid your own collection of vinyl, dropping the needle randomly in a vain attempt to remove the context of the surrounding song. Musically innovative in a way that is nearly impossible to do justice to in print, Madvillainy is a chameleonic masterpiece that alone validates the artistry of sampler culture.
Label: Stones Throw Release Date: December 17, 2004 Buy: Amazon
Review: Guster’s Look Alive Is the Sound of a Band Rejuvenated
Guster’s eighth album buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.3.5
Guster has long been associated with “college rock,” and not without reason. Even though every member of the Boston-based band is now over 40, they still make bright, hyper-polished alt-pop tailor-made for campus radio. The band’s eighth album, Look Alive, adds synths and contemporary production flourishes to their sonic repertoire, but all the hallmarks of their sound remain: winsome melodies, soaring hooks, and tight, immaculate songcraft that combines the best of Britpop, 1960s folk, and post-grunge.
Like most Guster albums, Look Alive has a few duds, a few modest successes, and at least one showstopper—a song that makes you wonder why the band was never more successful. On 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun, that song was “Satellite,” a shimmering power-pop masterpiece that split the difference between the Shins and Neutral Milk Hotel. Here, it’s “Hard Times,” which also happens to be the least Guster-like track on the album. Drenched in Auto-Tune, buzzing synth frequencies, and stadium-ready percussion, the song doesn’t sound anything like “Satellite,” let alone like the band’s output before 2000. Yet, true to form, it’s a remarkable piece of pop. “Sinister systems keep us satisfied/These are hard times,” Ryan Miller wails. It’s a simple statement, but it makes for a stunning chorus, and Miller’s effusive delivery renders it the most cathartic moment on the album.
On “Not for Nothing,” the band ventures into dream-rock territory, surrounding themselves with icy synth textures that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Wild Nothing track, while “Hello Mister Sun” is unabashed bubblegum pop that pays homage to whimsical Paul McCartney tracks like “Penny Lane” and “Good Day Sunshine.” Likewise, the sprightly “Overexcited” bounces along with a spoken-word verse and pounding, piano-centric chorus. While none of these tracks tackle complex themes, they’re playful, infectious, and eminently listenable.
Many of Guster’s best-known songs delve into same subject matter: newfound love, crippling heartache, the pain of being young, restless, and alone. Yet much of Look Alive is more elliptical. “Maybe we’re all criminals and this is just the scene of a crime,” Miller sings ambiguously on “Terrified,” forcing the listener to fill in the blanks. “Summertime” similarly defies easy explanation: Brimming with obscure religious imagery, whispered background vocals, and references to an unspecified war, it follows no logical narrative, instead allowing the track’s mood—a feeling of triumph over some great adversity—to tell the story.
For better and worse, Look Alive’s production mimics the spacious, ‘80s-inspired aesthetic that pervades much of contemporary indie-rock. “Don’t Go” transplants a prototypical Guster melody into a synth-soaked songscape, while the title track seems expressly engineered for Spotify’s Left of Center playlist. Still, the album never feels like the work of aging musicians struggling to stay relevant; it buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.
Label: Nettwerk Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Toro y Moi’s Outer Peace Bends Boundaries with Mixed Results
Chaz Bear’s sixth album as Toro y Moi bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.3.0
Having already concocted brainy dance music under the alter ego Les Sins, chillwave trailblazer, synth-pop alchemist, and psychedelic rock enthusiast Chaz Bear fully embraces the dance floor on Outer Peace, his sixth studio album as Toro y Moi. Pulling from sources as disparate as R&B, tropical house, and trap, the California-based singer bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.
Upon first listen, it seems like Outer Peace colors a rough sketch of a dystopian future where the material is mistaken for the immaterial, technology becomes a gateway to the metaphysical, and fleeting pleasures, prompting ever greater hedonistic pursuits. It doesn’t take long to realize, though, that this dystopia isn’t some future prospect, but the present moment. With lines like “Mystic staring at his phone for oneness,” Bear masterfully defamiliarizes our world, exposing the absurdity of the digital age.
Bear charmingly pairs this oft-heavy subject matter with club-ready grooves. The existential crisis of “Who Am I” is juxtaposed with sweetly pitched-up vocals and a fizzy patchwork of synths. Bear’s playful approach to house music ensures that no amount of existential dread and doom can dampen the mood he creates throughout the album.
Bear’s tinkering, however, isn’t always transportive. The rather vanilla tropical house beat of “Baby Drive It Down” recalls Drake’s dancehall-lite, with a lifeless performance from Bear. His experimentation with trap is at first promising on “Monte Carlo,” with the support of a dreamy pillow of vocal samples, but coming in at two minutes, the track feels one note, lacking any tempo changes or even a bridge, suggesting it was perhaps better fit for an interlude.
The cover of Outer Peace depicts Bear gazing intently at a computer screen, surrounded by instruments in a clean, sterile room. He reportedly created the majority of the album during an unaccompanied two-week retreat off Northern California’s Russian River, and this isolation can be felt throughout. The album’s title represents the remarkable possibility of finding freedom from the outside world by letting loose on the dance floor and experiencing liberation in a crowd of strangers. Bear certainly takes the album there at several points, but in the limited scope and cerebral slant of these too-brief songs, he loses that outer peace.
Label: Carpark Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Joe Jackson’s Fool Is a Concise and Punchy Nostalgia Trip
On Fool, Joe Jackson sounds younger and angrier than he has in years.3.0
Joe Jackson has spent the better part of four decades trying to put some distance between himself and his debut, Look Sharp!, a collection of acerbic new-wave pop songs that earned him the label of “angry young man.” But on his 21st album, Fool, he sounds younger and angrier than he has since 2003’s deliberately retro Volume 4. Maybe it’s a symptom of nostalgia: Fool, after all, is being released almost 40 years to the day after Look Sharp!, accompanied by a tour that promises to draw from Jackson’s entire career.
The album’s first two singles, “Fabulously Absolute” and “Friend Better,” both seem to deliberately rekindle the spirit of 1979: the former with its wiry post-punk guitar and synth riffs, the latter with its snotty vocal cut from the same cloth as early Jackson hits like “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” Even the refrain of the opening track “Big Black Cloud”—“No luck, no money, no sex, no fun”—is torn straight out of the London punk playbook.
Not all of the album calls back so specifically to Jackson’s debut: With its jazz-inflected piano and flute, closing track “Alchemy” is a welcome return to the moody sophisti-pop of 1982’s Night and Day. More often, however, Fool‘s refined pop-rock recalls an amalgamation of styles from Jackson’s “classic” era while also reflecting his late-career maturity. Tracks like the elegiac “Strange Land” marry his long-standing jazz and classical ambitions with his undeniable knack for pop melody in a way that doesn’t shortchange either.
Jackson, though, still hasn’t quite shaken his tendency to overextend himself. The title track is well-played, with some virtuosic runs by longtime bassist Graham Maby, but it also careens from Jackson rapping into a megaphone to a madrigal-like bridge to a synthesized surf guitar solo. The Beatles-esque “Dave” holds together better musically, but its character study of a pure-hearted but simple-minded everyman, who could have something to teach us about slowing down and enjoying life, feels cloying and condescending.
If Fool doesn’t quite measure up to Jackson’s sterling early work, it’s still more concise and punchy than 2015’s Fast Forward and less self-consciously arty than his late-‘80s and ‘90s work. By now, Jackson has surely come to terms with the fact that he’ll never be able to outrun his new wave days; keeping it as just one of the tools in his expansive arsenal is a fine compromise.
Label: earMUSIC Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon