Monthly Archives: April 2011

Saigon/Ghostface Killah

Fans of East Coast rap who have lost count of how many albums Ghostface Killah has released in the past half decade are not alone. Neither are those who’ve lost the thread of the Saigon story, which has involved – among other twists and turns – major label drama, a bar brawl with Prodigy of Mobb Deep, and a recurring role on Entourage. Ghost could make good albums like this forever, and he could do it at this pace, but if he wants to deliver another Supreme Clientele or Fishscale, he might want to take his time on the next one. At the moment, I wouldn’t presume to give Saigon any such advice.

Saigon: The Greatest Story Never Told
“I been in the pen/been in the ‘jects…been in a box and back.” In other words, he knows about doing time. The pen and the ‘jects held Saigon for a while, but it was a box at the back of Atlantic Records’ shelf – where A&R buffoons who didn’t hear a hit kept this world-beating debut for the better part of a decade before producer Just Blaze finagled a way to release it on an indie – that had him contemplating retirement. Pray he’s left those thoughts behind. Much has been made of Saigon’s moralism, and rightfully so, but even more important are his empathy (enormous) and his honesty (bracing). He blasts the drug dealer who enlisted his services when he was barely an adolescent, but admits he still thinks about calling the guy to hang out when he’s feeling lonely; he hangs onto his faith while asking God what gives; and he vocalizes hard for the young African Americans – in the ‘jects, the pen, and boxes all their own – he deems the Abandoned Nation (also the name of a foundation he runs to assist kids whose parents are behind bars). The ex-con who triumphs through music is rap’s version of the Rocky story, but Hustle & Flow this is not. Quick to call himself a conscious rapper, Saigon never condescends the way conscious types sometimes do, and, better still, his consciousness has breadth. To be clear, no one with this many Just Blaze beats is required to use them toward the public good of indicting for-profit religion’s crass manipulation of the poor. Saigon does. A

Ghostface Killah: Apollo Kids
Unless you’ve yet to hear enough about how he and his goon buddies used to sell crack and run trains, this is not indispensible. The man born Dennis Cole is now a 40-year-old father of four. No wonder he’s more convincing referring to himself as “Grandpa Ghost” than he is for the entirety of “Handcuffin’ Them Hoes,” a misogynist goon-fest every bit as tedious as the title makes you fear it will be. Sometimes it’s easy to forget this is the same guy who wrote “Save Me Dear,” to say nothing of “All That I Got Is You.” But when Joell Ortiz and The Game show up to help Ghost tell us about that time they happened upon some other goon dumb enough to steal from them while waiting, ten beers deep, for Whoppers at the Burger King drive-thru? Or the one about the Father of the Year candidate who uses his son’s Nintendo as a blunt-force weapon? I’ll sit at this guy’s knee for hours if it means I get to hear stories as wonderfully crass and detailed as that. B+
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The Strokes/R.E.M.

If either of these bands favored burning out over fading away, they missed their chance. Truth be told, R.E.M. had a far more noble option, and one that’s all too rare in rock: to bow out gracefully. They used to say they’d hang it up if any one member wanted to quit. But that was before they signed what was, at the time, the most lucrative record contract in history. And while I hope that wasn’t the only reason they carried on after Bill Berry quit in 1997, I also have to wonder whose heart is still in this. Because I’m an optimist, I hope the Strokes hold on a while longer. But I also hope neither Julian Casablancas nor I lives long enough to see his band become a corporation, which, no matter who won’t say so, is exactly what R.E.M. is now.

The Strokes: Angles
I’m among the very lucky subset of youngish music obsessives who got to buy the first Strokes album as a CD and listen to it for the first time in a tiny dorm room. Given the fact that I’ll remember those 36 minutes for the rest of my life, it’s a shame I’ve already forgotten how half of these songs go. This is the first Strokes album to feature songwriting from all five members of the band, and it sounds like a case of too many elegantly wasted cooks in the kitchen. Even more frustrating is that, while Julian Casablancas was by all accounts not in the same room as his band mates when these songs were recorded, a few of them are actually thrilling. “Taken For a Fool” and “Under Cover of Darkness,” especially, demonstrate just how much punch their neurotic boogie can pack. But four albums was all they owed RCA, and, unlike R.E.M., they’re not into redemption narratives. So, is this it? I don’t necessarily buy the line that longevity is impossible for this band – they’ve got the ideas and they’ve got the ambition. But I also can’t deny that I got the highest my first time. B

R.E.M.: Collapse Into Now
What you’ve heard is true: R.E.M., as much as any American band that ever became the biggest or best, reached the top with honor. They repped noble causes, refused to license their songs to commercials, and shared songwriting credit equally. But more to the point: they went ten straight albums without making a bad one, or – while they always had their signature moves – the same one twice (some may hold up a halting finger and say something dismissive about Monster or New Adventures in Hi-Fi, but I keep my copies close, and recommend dusting yours off if they’re around.). More impressive still was how quickly they did it. Consider this: a decade on from their debut, the Strokes have released four albums in total, and there’s a reason you probably haven’t heard much about two of them. Ten years after Murmur, R.E.M. had already released their eighth – the classic-on-arrival Automatic For The People. Now we get album 15, and their fifth since Bill Berry’s departure. One of my fellow R.E.M. fans has rightfully noted that their last, 2008’s quick-and-hard Accelerate, lacked the singular identity this band used to exude, but it also served notice that Buck, Mills, and Stipe were recommitting themselves to making band albums again after the beating they took for 2004’s slow-and-soft Around The Sun. They’ve taken a step back here, with Stipe turning in some of the worst lyrics of his career (“the annals of our flavored times” is an awfully big bummer coming from the man who wrote “Nightswimming”) and Buck & Mills working overtime to recapture 90’s glories. But Berry isn’t coming back, and he took something immeasurable from this famously democratic band when he left. Their formula’s bound to hit once in a while: “Discoverer” gives the impression that these 50-something multi-millionaires still feel they have discoveries left to make, and “Oh My Heart,” while a touch corny, is deeply felt. Most of the others feel like – and this word hurts – product. Out Of Time has never sounded sweeter or sadder. B-
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Lykke Li/Yuck

Youth hurts. Here are two excellent examples of how.

Lykke Li: Wounded Rhymes
The song titles say it all. Three in sequence: “Love Out Of Lust,” “Unrequited Love,” “Get Some.” That’s a story as old as time, and one that’s bound to repeat itself. But it’s her story now, and she’ll tell it her way: with walls of sound like those of Phil Spector himself, who was by no means being glib in describing them as “little symphonies for the kids,” and with smarts that allow her to follow the above triptych with “Rich Kid Blues,” which she knows she has, in case you were afraid she wasn’t also self aware. “Youth Knows No Pain” at the outset, but only because she’s drunk and dancing – she’s devoting herself to sadness before all is said and done. She’s grown more assured since her debut (she was 21 then and she’s 25 now) and also (because she was 21 then and she’s 25 now) more bruised. “I’ll get back what I gave my men/Get back what I lost to them,” she pledges in “Unrequited Love.” We know how that will turn out, but so does she. So don’t go saying you told her so. A-

Yuck: Yuck
“Everybody has a mild crucifixion,” sings front man Daniel Blumberg on this young British quartet’s dreamy debut. Like every thwarted romantic of a certain age, Blumberg doesn’t have it quite as bad as he thinks he does. Thankfully, he and his mates know how to tune their guitars to that magic key between spiky and sweet – a great one for selling lyrics that confuse breakups with heart attacks and girls’ names with benedictions. “Me and my guitar/drowning down down down/ready when the pain kicks in,” goes the opener. Theirs is a familiar song, still worth playing after all these years for its ability to thwart disillusionment the way one’s mid-twenties thwart romanticism. A-
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