Thursday, 31 July 2014

Eminem - The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (2013)

I've lost track of how many times he's retired, having delivered his final rude word in album form as he looks forward to a solitary life of quiet contemplation and producing albums for Bobby Creekwater and Ca$his, whoever they were, but here we are again. Possibly it's only been the once, but somehow it feels like more.

Relapse, the first - or possibly second - comeback album, turned out to be one of the best things he'd ever recorded, against at least my own expectations, but this one, I just don't know...

I've listened to the album a fair few times but still come back to it without recalling much detail or experiencing any degree of anticipation, and am left on each occasion with a vague impression of eighty minutes of autotuned stadium rap wherein Eminem bangs on about the bitter struggle of being famous, as usual. On close inspection, this impression is actually wrong given that Rick Rubin has produced a few of the tracks here, for what that's worth; and what that's worth probably depends on how hard you're likely to come in your pants at the prospect of Rick Rubin tracks full of rock loops just like what he done for Run DMC back in the good old days when everything was better than it is now. Additionally, Eminem's own production now demonstrates much wider scope than it once did, having long since moved on from those plinky-plonky hip-hop Addams Family themes he kept turning out with all the gated snare and that.

Of course lyrically he continues to amaze, packing each line with the usual layers of echoing themes, puns, uproarious triple metaphors and all that other stuff which so endeared him to middle-class blokes with little round glasses who'd named their kids Jacob and Tamara following a Grauniad article in which some complete cock declared Eminem to be both the new Chaucer and the saviour of white rap. White people had been too embarrassed to rap after Vanilla Ice turned out to be a Republican senator, apparently, so Eminem was literally the first white man ever to rap properly like that Chuck D. The man said.


The problem is that by this point, I actually find it difficult to tell who the fuck he's whining about now. He was always one of the more self-referential rappers, a sort of microphone analogue to comic book twats like Joe Matt drawing comics about their porn addiction, followed by comics about the girlfriend reacting to his comic about porn addiction; but once you move away from mainstream media and lose track of whether Eminem is shagging Mariah Carey or back with wossername, there isn't much of this that makes a lot of sense without meticulously decoding all the metaphors and layered rhymes. At one point he even returns to his preferred easy targets of the old days, the Insane Clown Posse, but I can't tell if he still hates them, or if they turned up at his house with a fucking pie and they're all best buds now. There's too much information here, and whilst it's all lyrically dazzling, the content is obscure, at least aside from the track wherein he apologises to his mum for recording all those horrible songs about her, which if nice in many respects, also makes you wish he'd just been less of a knob in the first place.

The Marshall Mathers LP 2 may be far from his best, although he's yet to record a really bad album; and for all it's faults, at least this one tries, I suppose.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

So Solid Crew - They Don't Know (2001)

This is another one that sort of passed me by at the time, being as it was another four years before I bothered getting internets, and most of my English rap dollars were spent on purchases based on whatever sounded interesting in Hip Hop Connection magazine and what I could find in the shops which didn't cost stupid money. I know I might have gone to clubs or kept an ear tuned to the pirates, but I had a life, and I was a slightly porky late thirties white bloke, and I wasn't about to start listening to Tim fucking Westwood, obviously. I heard this lot when they broke through onto whatever shit station to which the radio at work had been permatuned, and I stood holding the CD in Sainsbury's for a couple of minutes, but fifteen quid seemed a lot.

So Solid never really received much coverage in Hip Hop Connection, or at least not so much as they probably deserved. This was possibly because homegrown rap was then seen as Blade, Rodney P and a few others, great talents who had been at it for decades but who remained very much rooted in the tradition of British rap as something that sounds a bit like whatever DJ Premier was doing in 1992. So Solid Crew didn't really have anything to do with this tradition, and worse still, they were garage MCs. Garage as it stood at the turn of the century had come a long way from house roots, and at least in England seemed to be a weird hybrid of dancehall, drum and bass, and whatever else happened to be laying around at the time. Garage MCs were, generally speaking, mostly utter shite - usually whoever had put the track together would just ask his milkman to drop a few verses, usually comprising the name of artist and track title as written on the label of the record read out loud in a sort of Tim Westwood voice over and over for a few minutes, as with Pied Piper & Unknown MC - who was probably wise to remain unknown:

We're Pied Piper & Unknown MC,
Yes, Pied Piper & Unknown MC.
He's Pied Piper & I'm Unknown MC.
That name again is Pied Piper & Unknown MC.

Brilliant. Anyway, So Solid were thankfully an entirely different kettle of more lyrical and slightly angrier fish, and, if nothing else, at least deserve credit for selling truckloads of English rap by persons who could properly hold a verse together without it sounding like they were angling for a support slot on De La Soul's fiftieth reunion tour. Furthermore, there's probably a case to be made for So Solid having paved the way for the likes of Roll Deep and other grimier types, at least in terms of showing you could put this stuff out and be heard beyond the pirate stations.

Musically, there's not much going on, mostly just mains hum bass and those weird skittery beats with the occasional bit of a dentist's waiting room melody for garnish; but they do a hell of a lot with very few ingredients, creating an immersive experience - if that doesn't sound too far up my own arse - not unlike hearing this stuff on a pirate station without quite knowing what it is. Thankfully, it's not only a million miles from all that Artful Dodger pop wank, but is actually quite hard to pin down in terms of strongly resembling anything else, before or since. My only real criticism is that Megaman sounds like an eighties children's cartoon character, aside from which, I'm genuinely surprised at how good this is, and how fresh it still sounds.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Mex - Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde (2014)

Mex is one of those best kept secrets you always hear about, although he really shouldn't be, and it seems typically ironic that whilst his best work has yet to set any mainstream chart ablaze, you've almost certainly heard him on something at some point given his session and studio work dating back to at least the first version of Wham Rap! by Andrew Ridgeley and the other feller. I myself first encountered the music of Mex when he cropped up on a cassette compilation put out by the Cause For Concern tape label. I hadn't long discovered that whole early eighties DIY tape scene, and I'd dived in with such enthusiasm as to have lost track of what was going on in the world of regular music with its coloured vinyl and Susan Tully dressing up like Boy George. My corner of the ferric oxide universe was a fairly noisy one populated by Cultural Amnesia and their ilk, so Mex came along as something of a breath of fresh air, independent, home-made, and yet definitely the sort of pop music you need when you're a teenager - so breezy as to make Haircut 100 sound like Kleistwahr. I bought the single Happy Life, which still rates as one of the greatest pop songs ever recorded to these ears, and then I bought the tapes.

Both Alternative Pop Music and Intense Living - which should be considered the first two Mex albums, with this one as the third - are low-fi for economic rather than aesthetic reasons, but even with the occasional muddy mix or duff note or the rhythm of what sounds like a Bontempi organ, I played those fuckers to death, and I can still sing the songs even now despite my copies of the cassettes being presently interred within a cardboard box on a different continent.

Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde is, as I say, the third album, which is exactly what it sounds like, rather than a comeback in consideration of the thirty year gap. Whatever magic he was working back then remains patently undiminished, and this time the songs benefit from all those intervening years of experience and a beautifully crisp production. The Mex himself was apparently a little nervous about what sort of response this collection would receive, which is understandable given that I was myself a little nervous about listening to it for fear of the possibility of it being some grizzled old bloke reviving past glories and ending up resembling Creme Brulee's Les McQueen from The League of Gentlemen.

It's a shit business...

Happily such fears are proven entirely unfounded, even should be considered blown away by the opening bars of Angry Man which, whilst being unmistakably Mex, peculiarly also invokes the rockier end of Nine Inch Nails and even Jim Thirlwell since he packed in the grunting and growling and took to singing once more. Being Mex, there's a Beatley element, maybe a trace of Kinks with the more tuneful hundreds and thousands of the punk rock cake sprinkled over the top, but nothing that renders the occasional saxophone or trumpet solo too incongruous - kitchen sink psychedelia maybe, or something along those lines. The tunes, sombre as they may be in a few cases, work their way under your skin like the very best of Beck or Blur or whoever else once dealt in this sort of bitter-sweet pop; except this album, against all the odds, bears no trace of nostalgia or recaptured glories. The material is too strong, too confident for that, even pausing to give the listener a thoughtful neck rub at the halfway mark with the sadly poignant Think About It.

By rights We Don't Speak The Same Language Anymore should be a hit of such magnitude that we're all thoroughly sick of hearing it before the year is out, but then by rights some boutique vinyl label should be battering down Mex's door for permission to reissue his entire back catalogue. I'm not sure if either of these are likely to happen, but then again I never expected a 2014 Mex album to sound anything like this good. Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde is, excuse my French, fucking gorgeous, a perfect pop record. Full marks also for the presentation, one of those screwy jet black compact discs upon which the label side is printed so as to resemble a tiny vinyl album.

Don't just sit there. Buy it!

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Devo - Moody Theater, Austin, Texas (2nd July 2014)

Devo were an early and important discovery for me. I was fourteen or so, and my record collection comprised four Beatles albums. I was aware of punk, although I wasn't quite sure what it was seeing as all I seemed to hear on the radio was either Dan Hartman's Instant Replay or the Electric Light Orchestra; although that said, I'd watched the first Public Image Limited single and Germ Free Adolescents by X-Ray Spex performed on Top of the Pops and found both songs strangely hypnotic. Graham, my best friend, lent me his copy of the first Devo album apparently having decided that I needed to hear it. It was on red vinyl, and there was something disturbing about it. It was something new in the world. I listened to it once whilst staring at the weird and freakish figures on the cover as I sat next to the record player, then decided to take it back to Graham. There was something strange and deeply unwholesome about this music. It implied regions of human experience I had never considered, and would rather not know about; but Graham insisted I keep at it, give it another listen, and so I did.

Devo became my new favourite band, and have remained pretty much unchallenged in this capacity ever since. Henry Rollins once observed that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who get Devo and those who don't, and generally I've found this to be true whilst thanking providence that I can be counted amongst the first group. The last person I knew who didn't get Devo was the pothead owner of an atheist bulletin board for whom they were essentially interchangeable with Duran Duran. He preferred Kiss and classic rock, and by strange coincidence he was also something of a dick in terms of his interpersonal relationships and how he dealt with other people. Since my brief encounter with that guy, I have known to shun those who don't understand Devo, to walk the other way before they can infect me with their failure and turn everything complicated.

The point that so many somehow miss, is that Devo were never art rock or novelty pop or weirdness for the sake of weirdness. They have always been in essence a folk band, and in American terms possibly the only folk band, the group who see clearly and who understand how our society really works. If they seem a little fucked up stood there in their fake plastic breasts and with those things on their heads, then maybe you need to take another look around yourself, at this world in which we were denied the silver rockets promised by Hugo Gernsback, where Archie has that sister with an IQ of thirty-seven who somehow never gets a mention in the comic books, with Betty and Veronica forever lost in their own lurid fantasy existence of cowboy pharmacology and giant babies. The bottom line - at least for me - is that Devo have ever been so finely attuned to the ongoing backwards progress of human culture, so sensitised to the real stuff, that almost any band or artist stood next to them will inevitably look like teenagers trying to appear cool whilst smoking the wrong end of their first cigarettes; and as a band devolving backwards along the timeline of their own career in keeping with everything else that's happened since the industrial revolution, it seems fitting that now, forty plus years, countless albums, and two fallen soldiers down the line they should be taking the dark Ohio basement in which they recorded their very first songs on tour.

I know most of the material played tonight from the Mechanical Man EP, from the two Hardcore Devo collections of formative recordings originally released by Rykodisc, and a handful of tracks which eventually made it onto the first two official albums. The original recordings sound muffled in places, prone to tape degradation, the best that could be done under primitive circumstances, bluesy science-fiction surf tunes scraped together with home built synthesisers on a rough framework of spastic rhythms. Transposed to a stage before hundreds of eager Texan spuds, it's peculiar how the songs remain the same whilst forming new, unfamiliar shapes. I feared it might sound as weird and cranky as those archive discs, partially because I was there with Mrs. Wax Cylinders whose main frame of reference was this being the band who once had a hit with Whip It. I needn't have worried, and found myself surprised at how funky some of the songs sound in such a setting, even how heavy. The loudest band I ever saw was probably Terminal Cheesecake, and although this wasn't at even half their volume, Devo - against all odds, the novelty band who got a namecheck on Different Strokes and upon whom a Kiss fan might rightly pour his hairy chested scorn - sounded or maybe felt bigger, heavier, darker, funnier, and more relevant to the mess we've gotten ourselves into than ever. Mechanical Man achieved an effect resembling the sort of thing to which Black Sabbath once aspired; Bamboo Bimbo could have been the Swans at their most pensive and grunting; Fountain of Filth and I've Been Refused came on with such righteous energy as to leave no doubt of this being the band formed in response to the outrage of the Kent State Shooting of May, 1970. They didn't exactly play all of the hits - I personally would also have liked to have heard Chango and maybe Bottled Up - but it was all of the good stuff, all the weirdly terrifying and yet strangely intoxicating forms found when you flip the Beach Boys over and scrape off all that stuff that's been growing on their underside; Jocko Homo and Gut Feeling and even the infant-headed Booji Boy finding his way onto the stage for a few numbers with the help of what was either a baby walker or a Zimmer frame, depending on whether you're looking backwards or forwards.

Finally, to boil the above bones down into something that will settle better on top of your beer, it was not only a good gig, but possibly the greatest gig I've ever attended by at least a few definitions, some quantified by hairs erect on the back of my neck throughout the performance. Forty plus years, countless albums, and two fallen soldiers down the line, and Devo are still able to surprise me. I don't know if there's ever been another band capable of such a feat, who could retrace their first steps and still take us somewhere entirely new.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Beck - Morning Phase (2014)

For my money, Beck lost something when he revealed himself to be a Scientologist. Regardless of the quality of the lad's music, from that point on I found it difficult to entirely throw the full weight of my support behind his efforts. It was sort of like finding out that a good friend has an entire room of their house dedicated to the Princess of Wales or listens to the Electric Light Orchestra or something. Although this probably doesn't bother Beck in the slightest. I'm sure he's very happy living in that mansion, eating hot dogs all day long, Panda Cola and Cresta on tap, occasionally turding out another album of quirky backwards acoustic hip-hop country when the coalman needs paying.

Morning Phase is one of those albums recorded every five years or so when he gets fed up of quirky backwards acoustic hip-hop country and wishes to showcase his talents as a classically mellow songwriter, and it would be a great album but for the fact that he's already recorded it once before and it was called Sea Change. It's fine, all very classy and beautifully judged and that, bitter-sweet plicky-plucky slow, slow mournful songs with a ton of reverb and softly psychedelic percussion, but it all sounds exactly like the previous album which sounded like this, and it wasn't exactly what you would call a chuckle-fest first time around.

This is, I suppose, where I have to question what young Beck - or Donald Beck to give him his full name - is doing with his life, if he's still this fucking miserable despite all the Scientology and hot dogs. I mean it's okay, but the ambience of well I'm sort of happy, but I'd better slash my wrists because I expect this is as good as it will ever get becomes much of a muchness after the first three or four songs drift past like depressed teenagers with their shoelaces tied together, none of which is enlivened by the quirky backwards acoustic hip-hop country for which he is better known. In many ways, Morning Phase is a great album, just one that outstays its welcome even before you've listened to it.

Beck, my little son - for God's sake, cheer up. Have a fucking pie or something.