Thursday, March 25, 2010

Grading Rubric for Album Reviews

For the three people who actually read this blog, I feel it is necessary to include some sort of grading rubric to explain what my ratings actually mean for the album as a whole (in case you didn't pick it up from all the words I typed before I gave it a score). Also, if you haven't noticed, clicking on the title of each post will lead you to where you can listen to each track on an album once for free (and then you can either chose to purchase it or hear a 30-second clip from then-on-out). It's a good way to actually hear an album in its entirety without stealing it. Anyway, here goes:

*100 = An absolute classic. Flawless.
*93-99 = Nearly perfect in every way.
*87-92 = Solid front-to-back with an occasional weak track.
*81-86 = Has many great tracks, but is far from perfect.
*75-80 = Worth a listen.
*69-74 = Mediocre.
*62-68 = Disappointing, but has potential.
*56-61 = Poor; has only a few good tracks.
*50-55 = Incredibly poor. Very few (if any) positive moments.
*49 & Below = Awful in every way. Trash it.

Gil Scott-Heron - I'm New Here [2010 - XL Recordings]

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

-Langston Hughes, 1951

When I heard that Gil Scott-Heron was releasing his first album of new material in 16 years, I got excited. Through the fusion of spoken word and jazz with politically-conscious messages, he essentially created the genre that we now know as hip-hop. Known mainly for his baritone manifestos such as “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “Winter in America,” his work was part of the canon of the Black Arts Movement in the late 60s/early 70s alongside of Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lorraine Hansberry. Scott-Heron has released only two albums in the past 25 years (including this)—his absence from the music industry stemming from his problems with drug addiction and various prison sentences. On I'm New Here, he teams up XL Recordings head Richard Russell (who met with Scott-Heron while serving time in Riker’s Island prison) in a late-career renaissance attempt similar to Rick Rubin’s work with Johnny Cash.

Coming in at a meager 29 minutes, I have to say I’m quite disappointed with this album. During a tumultuous and at times promising decade for the African-American community—with events such as Hurricane Katrina, the ever-increasing achievement gap between white and black children, the election of the first black president, and rampant unemployment from the recession nearly twice that of whites—Scott-Heron’s absence has been greatly felt. The only fit person to stand in for Scott-Heron would have to be himself, and even he comes up short on I’m New Here.

The most disheartening thing about Scott-Heron’s latest release is how poorly timed it is, given the numerous subjects previously mentioned that he could have chosen to focus on. This time around he decided to release quite possibly his most personal record to date. Everything about the album screams personal reflection simply through the use of the pronouns “me,” “I’m,” “I’ll,” and “I” in the titles and subjects of songs. Gone is the sense of community or need for revolution—gone too is the sense of power that Scott-Heron commanded on his 70s albums. He begins and ends the album with a spoken world piece about growing up in a broken home and being raised by his grandma, taking us deeper and deeper into his tortured psyche only to conclude unresolved.

The production by Russell works at times and at others seems alien and unnecessary. He samples a piece from Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights” as the backing track to “On Coming from a Broken Home Parts 1 & 2” and opts for sobering electronic ambiance instead of Scott-Heron’s usual utilization of street-wise jazz and R&B. Russell’s insistence of adding electronic beats and samples certainly won’t earn Scott-Heron any new fans. To put it bluntly, I’m New Here feels out of place to a newer generation of listeners. He's new here, indeed.

The best moment on the album is by-far “New York is Killing Me,” in which hand claps and acoustic guitar mesh with electronic beats as Scott-Heron reflects on his various prison stays and his longing to return home to Jackson, Tennessee. Never has he been more personal or fragile than on this track. The track is steeped in the gloom and isolation of his drug problems, as he proclaims “they got 8 million people and I didn’t have a single friend.” It is this track which leads me to believe that he still has potential to make powerful music.

The remainder of the album is a real downer, not only in tone, but in the actual artistic output. A once mighty baritone voice is replaced with a slurring bourbon-soaked drawl. He often sounds like he’s on his last limb and that his brain is too jumbled to make a coherent statement. At 15 songs that clock in under 30 minutes, Russell adds unnecessary studio bits of Scott-Heron’s ramblings to fill up space. If Scott-Heron had had a better producer, I feel that this would have been a much more worthwhile listen.

While I’m New Here is far from his best work, there are still occurrences of his true wit and brilliance—signs that he may not be finished yet. It is a great disappointment that he released so personal a record at a time when the black community and the world at large need a powerful voice like Scott-Heron’s. As listeners, we are left with a paraphrased question posed by Langston Hughes almost 60 years ago: what happens to an artist deferred? Does he dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or does he explode? Given the genius that Scott-Heron is still capable of, I sincerely hope for the latter.

Overall: 68/100

Best Moments:
“New York is Killing Me”
“Me and the Devil”
“I’ll Take Care of You”

Friday, March 12, 2010

Hot Chip - One Life Stand [2010 - Astralwerks]

My biggest beef with British electro-nerds Hot Chip has always been that they've never made a consistent album. Their debut Coming on Strong [2005] and The Warning [2006] were both only half-good albums. Their 2008 effort Made in the Dark showed their immense potential for creating pop songs that were both danceable and heartfelt, without being overly sentimental; yet it was still only 3/4 of a good album. Just when things picked up, the mood was ground to a halt with the inclusion of too many slow ballads. And this has been Hot Chip's greatest predicament: they belong to a genre that has been historically single-heavy and has never stressed the importance of creating full-length albums that are solid from front to back. The attitude towards making electronic music has changed drastically during the past decade, as contemporaries such as LCD Soundsystem, Caribou, and Phoenix made some of the best albums of the 2000s. Needless to say, relying solely on singles isn’t enough anymore; Hot Chip fully realize this on One Life Stand, as they have finally progressed to the point of making a complete album.

The appeal of Hot Chip has always been their wide-eyed and, for lack of a better term, stupid innocence. “Over and Over,” “Boy from School,” and “Ready for the Floor” are all so innately catchy and ambitiously optimistic that it’s often easy to disregard how stupid the lyrics or messages of the songs are. On One Life Stand Hot Chip mix their best element (the pulsating four-on-the-floor beats) with a refined maturation. They still fully embrace stupid party sentiment on the majority of the songs, but there is a running theme of longing for happiness and lasting love. Songs like “Hand Me Down Your Love,” “Thieves in the Night” and the title track revolve around the idea of enjoying life while embracing the fact that it could end at any minute—to find someone you love and enjoy your life with them.

There is still a fair share of slower ballads, but this time around they are better placed on the album. “I Feel Better” (which sounds like it was taken directly from a mixtape from 1991 that belonged to your mom) and “Alley Cats” keep the album moving along without derailing the grooves established by the dance numbers. The middle of the album contains the majority of the slower songs, but it begins and ends with some of their most danceable numbers. “We Have Love” is easily the most euphoric of the dance numbers and will be sure to instantly fill a dance floor.

Perhaps it is placement that has prevented Hot Chip from making a consistent album. They seem to have realized this on their fourth album, as One Life Stand doesn’t subject the listener to the rollercoaster ups-and-downs of combining dance songs with ballads back-to-back. The songs on One Life Stand blend better then they ever have, and for the first time, Hot Chip has made a solid album front-to-back.

Overall: 88/100

Best Moments:
“We Have Love”
“Hand Me Down Your Love”
“One Life Stand”
“Thieves in the Night”
“Alley Cats”

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Spoon - Transference [2010 - Merge Records]

Arguably the most consistent band of the 2000's releases its first album of the new decade, and, not surprisingly, adds another solid album to their canon. Spoon's 2007 release Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga saw them taking a new direction, namely that of cleaner production and an assortment of new instruments (new to Spoon at least). To a band that has been so heavily rooted in minimalism, it was quite a shock to hear songs with horn sections and even Motown influences. So which direction exactly do they take with Transference?

To put it simply, Transference is a return to a formula familiar with Spoon. Gone are the lush horn sections and pop-influenced songs. The new album sounds very similar to their 2001 album Girls Can Tell, which is my personal favorite. Returning to an earlier sound often indicates a lack of creativity, but that's certainly not the case with Transference. It's the little things that have brought about the biggest changes in their sound. Krautrock influences (namely Can, from whom they get their namesake) mark the majority of the songs as usual, but in a more bass and drum-heavy manner than on previous albums. In fact, many of the songs rely so heavily on the drum and bass grooves that they lack (or rather, have no need for) an explicit melody. The rhythm of many of the songs is closely associated with the sound and feel of a road trip. Songs such as "Mystery Zone," "Who Makes Your Money," and "Got Nuffin" imitate the TCK TCK TCK of a car zooming past the white lines on the road, and "Is Love Forever?" has a definite Bowie influence (Berlin-trilogy era). The album ends like any good road trip, with slower songs implying a conclusion to a journey and a shift to introspection.

The only downside to the album is the inclusion of "Got Nuffin" which had previously appeared on a 12" single a year before. While the song fits well with the other tracks, it's disappointing as a record buyer paying for the same thing twice.

So to sum it up, Transference is rawer in nature than Spoon's previous two efforts. The Velvet Underground, Krautrock, and beat influences remain, but the album sounds remarkably fresh. After 17 years and seven albums, it is safe to say that few bands have done so much with so little for so long. The album may not fill a dance floor, but it's well suited for a long road trip. It's amazing how songs lacking a melody can still be so effortlessly catchy. And it is exactly this sense of casualness and informality which has made Spoon so consistently appealing. It is only upon multiple listens that you realize how endlessly layered and brilliant they truly are.

Rating: 92/100

Best Moments:
"Trouble Comes Running"
"Mystery Zone"
"Is Love Forever?"
"Who Makes Your Money"
"Nobody Gets Me But You"

Saturday, February 13, 2010

I Thought the Generals Were Due!

Do blogs still exist in the year 2010? The answer is yes. Whodathunkit? I remember the goode ol' dayes of LiveJournal which captured some of the best years of our teen angst in blog-form. Then we all got sick of writing in them, and decided that Twitter would have to suffice. Now don't get me wrong, Twitter may be the greatest invention ever, but I often wish to elaborate beyond 140 characters. So Here goes. Blogs are back, in a big way/in pog form. Being a recent graduate and lacking a full-time job has allotted me ample enough time to put forth my propositions, be they four-score or otherwise. That being said, I intend this blog to be a forum to voice my opinions on music, books, general beardcare, or why the Tea Party "movement" is just doublespeak for "KKK." Everything's coming up Milhouse!