January 22, 2015
Hip Hop Revue
Matt Oliver returns with a mix bag of the hottest 2015 Hip Hop essentials and scintillating discoveries for the second edition – and first of 2015 – of his inimitable Rapture & Verse column.
Welcome to Rapture & Verse, receiving its second audition from the good people at Monolith Cocktail and bidding to return to former glories after a spell of hip-hop cold turkey. Straight into the New Year and the madness begins already: for starters, who’s this Paul McCartney chap trying to dupe the internet into thinking he’s Kanye West’s latest protégé?
Danny Brown is writing a children’s book inspired by Dr Seuss, and Jack White is supposedly having another hip-hop epiphany, with Run the Jewels and Shabazz Palaces his constituents. DJ Premier has laid down something legendary at D&D Studios for the last time – the recording institution has closed for business after being a nerve centre for hip-hop classics for 25 years. A$AP Mob founder A$AP Yams, responsible for a successful shift in the New York sound that sent A$AP Rocky stratospheric, died this month aged 26.
Blackalicious claim one of 2015’s first essential diary dates with an appearance at The Jazz Cafe on February 2nd. Abdominal, who used to tear beats a new one with DJ Format, has mellowed into a three-piece called Abdominal and The Obliques, promising “the finest in middle-aged hip-hop” up and down the country in March. Ahead of new album ‘Shedding Skin’, Ghostpoet holds down two dates in London and one in Manchester at the end of this month.
The upwardly mobile Mouse Outfit provide New Year soothers on head-nodder’s special ‘Born Lupers’, with Mattic leading an EP scouting for soul-kissed funk out of Manchester. Sonnyjim’s ‘How to Tame Lions’ receives seven EP revisions of the Birmingham emcee’s big top party piece, with Illinformed, Micall Parknsun and Apatight adding to the spectacle. Unswerving educators Jazz T and Jehst dictate ‘The Lesson’, which is a banger you should all swot up on, and 2014 big deals Problem Child pile into the New Year with posse cut ‘Fully Fledged’ featuring a top-ranking bunch of similar good-for-nothings.
Aesop Rock, in typically blocky, out-of-my-way form with the snappy chat to match, puts ‘Cat Food’/’Bug Zapper’ on shopping lists. A conscious freebie from Red Pill will wake up those sticking their heads in the sand; ‘All of Us’ has damnation flowing out of Detroit via the silk soul of Apollo Brown on production, while Strange U go ransacking in order to uncover home truths and letting ‘Leviathan’ run amok.
If you need release from the doldrums occupied by Wrekonize and Hippy Sabotage on ’Sunny Winter’ – five well-crafted tracks of exacting testimony and electronica in shadow – obey the request of ‘Buy Me a Beer’ from Rediculus and Rich Quick, a slick lil’ liquor-related ditty looped and lapped up to perfection. deM atlas is infectiously chipper, sauntering along the seawall ‘With a Smile’, and Action Bronson rides a backwards-travelling waltzer like it’s all in day’s work on signature mind-boggle ‘Actin Crazy’.
On another of his whodunit funk crusades, Ghostface Killah has armed himself with the most essential of special teams. BADBADNOTGOOD provide the licks and slickness as Tony Starks plunders another shrewd connection on ‘Sour Soul’, after both parties sleuthed together on last year’s ‘Six Degrees’. Full of twangy intrigue and bluesy versatility from the Toronto three, it betters Ghost’s ’36 Seasons’, the stock verbal gristle added to by DOOM, Danny Brown and Elzhi.
With a high-spirited and easygoing blend of stargazing R&B, hip-hop rubbing up neo-soul the right way, and poetical sass making a stand, THEESatisfaction’s ‘EarthEE’ follows much the same oaths as ‘awE naturalE’. A little lighter on the psychedelic outbreaks than their debut, the pair will warm up you more than January will ever allow.
Joey Bada$$ swoops from the street corner with ‘B4.DA.$$’, fluently keeping everything loose, without scrimping on aggression or intensity. From first breath to last beat, the Pro Era leader will inevitably attract headlines of being hip-hop’s latest golden age representative – contributions from DJ Premier, Dilla and Statik Selektah are responsible, with ‘No.99’ sounding like a reboot of ATCQ’s ‘Scenario’ and ‘Christ Conscious’ sampling Das EFX. An early submission for class of 2015.
Seemingly resurrecting themselves with the ink still wet on their obituary, Death Grips have slipped in new instrumental album ‘Fashion Week’. Typically it doesn’t do meek, unleashing a torrent of tuneful sub-hip-hop abrasions and energetic rock star disarray to cannily bash your head in with. Also patting a baseball bat, Sole and DJ Pain 1’s highly charged, fiercely competitive ‘Death Drive’ gets some worthy remix activism, with seven selected tracks having their cages rattled to spread the original’s vitriol.
Hus Kingpin & Rozewood’s ‘Pop-Up Shop’ has got enough NY swagger, seediness beyond the bright lights and “anti-gravity bars” to ensure it’s no five minute wonder. Hijacking production from Alchemist and Rza doesn’t hurt either. For all you sloppy Joes and space cadets, Nacho Picasso and Blue Sky Black Death bathe in the kind of ignorance that would be contemptible were it not woozily fascinated by the world dawdling around it. Trap stuck in a cosmic traffic jam, ‘Stoned and Dethroned’ is an addictive itch.
Anchored by the relentless Cee-Rock The Fury, ‘We Got What’cha Earz ‘R’ Lookin’ For!” is a sixteen track compilation living and breathing hip-hop realness. Gimmicks are out, beats and rhymes with a high purity rating are in. Oliver Sudden, which is a moniker this columnist should’ve thought of a long time ago, boasts about his ‘Phenomaler Steaz’ – an unflappable LP. Honestly, it just can’t be flapped, staunchly supporting boom-bap bounties and lyrics laid down with learned disdain.
Mixtapes and VT
Post-Christmas blues get obliterated by Mr Muthafuckin eXquire. ‘Merry eX-Mas/SMD2’ doesn’t hold back and sets himself up just lovely for the next 12 months; like rifling through a selection box with all the good chocolates still ready to swipe. BoB mixtapes usually show similar grab bag tendencies, but save for a handful of smoother numbers, ‘No Genre: The Label’ sees him shrug off his pop persona as booming trap rings out and his crewmates fight over the mic.
For eyes and ears: ZRO FOX and Sasha Go Hard are impeccably non-committal (1), while Jahzel is wholly devoted (2), Shabazz Palaces (3) and Atmosphere (4) do what they do best, and The Four Owls flock up the place (5).
January 20, 2015
EP REVIEW/ INTERVIEW
Re-intpreting their already omnivorous back catalogue (mostly picking songs from their last LP, I_Con), the rambunctious, ennui, Dutch group added even more mayhem to their already cross-pollinated originals with the reworked Vinticious Versions EP. One minute a Carney Die Antwood, the next, Damon Albarn shimmying to kooky sheik rock, each song was remodeled with a new musical verve and style. If anything, it could be argued that the EP is an improvement on the source – songs such as their Ill Communications era Beastie Boys homage, ‘Input Source Select’, became crispier and bouncier. Sean Bw Parker gives us his opinions on the EP, followed with an interview he conducted just before Christmas.
De Staat – Vinticious Versions (Cool Green Recordings)
In the blanded-out, anodyne landscape of ‘alternative’ music – roundly demarcated by Coldplay, Alt-J and Mumford & Sons – a Dutch studio maverick making headway after a music production degree would naturally set all alarm bells ringing. For this is what Torre Florim, De Staat’s main man is.
However, what he inserts into this all too auspicious introduction is…soul. And a most welcome degree of unhinged loonery, a la Beastie Boys (‘Paul’s Boutique’ era), G-Love & Special Sauce, and yes, the Fun Lovin’ Criminals. It feels like the eight tracks on the Vinticious Versions have been meticulously handpicked and sequenced to ensure that NO ONE ever gets bored – and this we must celebrate.
Musically speaking, the highlight is ‘Devil’s Blood’, a genuinely beguiling, evocative soul lament, minor piano chords and autotune intertwining to sublime hypnotic affect. Elsewhere, ‘Get It Together’, Sweat Shop’ and ‘Down Town’ stand out with their sass and streetwise jaywalking appeal.
Some old-school skank here, spooky whistling there – all perfectly summing up a very roots-y, postmodern perspective – the sound of London, Berlin and New York concentrated into an hour of unique, funky focus and vision.
You’ve made one of my albums of 2014, in Vinticious Versions. Could you give us a rundown of the genesis of the recording?
When you’re in a band you often get asked to do an ‘acoustic’ performance, or a performance in a smaller setting, for radio and in-store sessions mostly.
Most of our songs aren’t made in smaller settings, and aren’t meant to be in smaller settings. Basically, we didn’t like smaller settings.
So we had to be creative and do something different with our songs, without falling into the ‘cajon-trap’. I personally hate it when bad ass bands get into campfire mode. That’s just not for us. So we brought out our small amps, small drum kit, and changed the songs into something different, a bit old school if you will, without losing the edginess.
The new versions were so different and too cool to leave be, so we recorded it in my home and released it a couple of months later as the Vinticious Versions.
De Staat seems to be a sonic stew of many different ingredients, a Dutch Gumbo if you will. Do your audiences get confused with the multifarious directions you take?
I personally love bands that do a lot of different shit. There’s too much cool music around to stay in the same genre bubble all the time.
With an EP like the Vinticous Versions, that’s just what we’re aiming for, to toy around with the original songs, and bring in other influences in an over the top way.
But I think you can hear it’s obviously us in every song. I don’t think our audience gets confused. Our audience is very bright you see.
To Torre Florim: you seem to carry the weight of responsibility in the band. To what extent are you accused of being a ‘control freak’, and does the tag even bother you?
I’m not accused of it that often, though I probably am. The cool thing is about our band is that we have a great understanding of each others qualities, and we tend to agree on what is good and what sucks very naturally.
If the rest of the band think a certain new idea I wrote sucks, I’m usually thinking the same thing at the same time, and vice versa.
I do think I’m less control freakish than I used to be, but that’s easy when you’re surrounded by quality players like I am.
How do you see yourselves within the contemporary music landscape of 2014? Are there any other artists you feel a kinship with?
It’s hard to look at yourself and say, “this is what we are” or “this is where we stand”. I usually don’t know what to say. It’s a being in the eye of the storm kind of thing. If you know what I mean? I don’t!
I’m very much digging St. Vincent, Jookabox and James Blake though, right now. Don’t know if that’s the same as kinship, but this is my answer so you figure it out.
Torre, if you were the CEO of a conglomeration of EMI, Universal, itunes and Spotify, what changes would you bring to the music industry?
I would fire myself right this minute. Let someone else deal with that horror.
What are you drinking?
I’m not drinking it right now, but it’s a great idea: a glass of zubrovka with one ice cube.
January 16, 2015
Untethered to the rules of music criticism, with a enviable poetic licence, our “woman in Istanbul” Ayfer Simms waxes lyrical as she climbs inside FaceOmeter‘s quizzical folk-hop flight of fantasy songbook, Why Wait For Failure?.
FaceOmeter ‘Why Wait For Failure?’ Originally released 2nd November 2014.
‘FaceOmeter-The pirate of the cemented city.’
Its as if a mad pirate was hawking about the UK and the rest of the world on a flying ghost ship and was, with a vigorous voice and a spyglass, looming on the busy, hectic, somber towns of the 21st century, making fun of it all, weaving themes of the mortal below as if he’d put himself in the life of those down there. Storyteller? Yes, with flippancy, passion, ideas and jolting guitar strings, accompanied by a bunch of brethren supporting and following him on the waves of his tales, with vocals that lifts him and us into a state of humorous giddiness.
But the melodies have a romantic edge too, the 60s, the 70s, wordy loon rockers, with a voice, yes hoarse at times, yet boyish all the same, a sentimentally soothing chant. Youth emanates, the pirate is bourgeoning and ambitious, fun loving and dreads boredom but he also, at times walks on the side of a path with a guitar bound to his melancholic self. Tracks like ‘Summerhouse’, with its poignant rhythm cast the fun aside and relates of felt “pressure and stress”.
His lyrics often emanate from mundane moments of life: On a train platform, on the motorway, observing you and me before going to work, to bed, out, and snubbing it with energetic poetic vows thrown in the air for us to catch.
“Sailing, sailing, sailing” is a perfect example of the quirkiness of the album, as he shouts like a deliberately coo-coo voice and old fashioned accent rolling his “r” so as to ship us off straight to another century, guitar taping and chorus of the sailors, we sail in an atmosphere of crocked seas and theatrical polyester waves. ‘Unwillingness To Dance’ encompasses both the atmosphere of campfire camaraderie, the sensibility and the heart breaking movement of the tunes.
Won’t you like to sit in a room full of costumes and live an adventure on a wooden floor that cracks under the heavy assertive witty steps of the heroes?
Will Tattersdill, is a modern adventurer, a performer, a jolly good spirit, and he will have you set up camp in the middle of a city made of cement and enjoy the every day’s little unnoticeable details and perhaps sometimes make you cry a little too.
Raw emotions, we are “Sailing, sailing, sailing!”
January 14, 2015
The first ‘tickling our fancy’ revue of 2015, this latest round up features both the releases that may have escaped your notice at the fag end of 2014, and a number of new and upcoming 2015 releases.
Pausing then, before the music schedule starts to gain momentum after the Christmas holidays, we look at EP/LP and singles from Myles Manley, Viet Sign, Location Baked, This Heel, Schizo Fun Addict Vs The Bordellos, and Kim Halliday.
Myles Manley ‘Pay Me What I’m Worth’ (Trout Records) Single out now.
Premiered on Radio 1 last week, the curious, emerging from a backwoods cabin jam between David Bryne and King Creosote, anti-folk theme, Pay Me What I’m Worth is the latest delightful single from Dublin-based musician, Myles Manley.
Though a career in mathematics beckoned, Manley chose the less virtuous pathway to music; putting out the, prematurely entitled Greatest Hits DIY release and bizarre art gallery situ video (in which iconic religious paintings come to life), ‘Easter People’, in 2012. Both of which led to a chorus of positive chatter and criticism from the Irish press (rightly so); throwing him in with the burgeoning Irish capitol scene that also boasts the blossoming and energetic talents of Girl Band, Jet Setter and Spies.
Recently returning from absorbing and playing shows in the New York anti-folk community, Manley will soon release the latest extended EP, More Songs for his new label, Trout Records. Check the Monolith Cocktail next month for an extended review.
Viet Sign ‘We Talk’ Originally released 21st October 2014.
Digging through the Hip Hop, soul, house, jazz, two-step and jungle crates in the twilight hours to amass a collection of congruous samples, the Welsh electronic duo Jewellers under their side project moniker, Viet Sign, compose a seamless soundtrack that drifts between 80s Chicago club scene and an imaginary bamboo decorated oriental lounge. Cruising along and slipping into the mood with the stuttered melted butter soul and a sweet melodious ‘Approach’, the suite sleekly moves through a golden age of urban music, making smooth crossovers and pairing together a fusion of styles – the up tempo colliding beats ‘Req’ matches up jazz with a slick early 90s d’n’b bordering on grime backing, whilst ‘Wait For Me’ is a sophisticated slice of Paradise Garage meets downbeat soulful 808 powered house.
Lean without an ounce of fat or overt repetition, the Viet Sign’s mix is a nice addition to the Daedalus, James Pants, and (in this case a mellower) Madlib, school of musical collage; scouting both inside and out of the Hip Hop sample orbit to find interesting and harmonious loops, borrowing from an eclectic list of influences including Miles Davis, Martin Denny, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and DJ Koze.
Location Baked ‘Agents Of Change’ (Peski) Released 7th January 2015.
Sounding the clarion call from his Cardiff basecamp, via a trans-European imbued passport of electronica and experimental sound collages, the mysterious Location Baked’s latest suffused offering is a supportive nod to the Agent Of Change principle – a law that will ensure a degree of protection for established live music venues in the event of noise complaints from neighbors. Christ knows we need some kind of sanity, if not balance, returned to the ongoing debate of ‘noise pollution’, as venues – from the community pub to international star attracting club – face ever more Draconian laws. Held to ransom on the say so of just one individual, local councils have heavy-handedly seized upon music venues; forcing some to close in the process, as the eye-watering threats of prosecution can reach ridiculously levied costs. Factor in that local councils have the pressure of the ever-gentrifying phenomena in city centers, and with the need for more low cost housing; more people than ever are moving (if they can afford it) into the busiest parts of town. With vague meter readings (what actually counts as excessive, to the decibel levels that are in the first place used as a, amorphous at best, limit to judge cases upon) and dubious evidence, many venues are still unsure of their rights. This proposal would encourage further dialogue and hopefully force a change in the current legislation.
Building a 16-minute (and 48 seconds, to be exact) wistful ambience around the A, G and C Flat chords (that last chord giving it a certain lilting quirk), Location Baked composes a subtly wavering synthesized kooky suite, punctuated throughout by a soft electronic cuckoo. Held back from edging into discourse, creeping caustic tones threaten but break upon the lightly strummed acoustic guitar and esoteric-Tropicana, pre-set, Casio percussion.
References are varied, with touches of the minimalist composers Steve Reich, Meredith Monk and Michael Nyman as well as their pop descendants Spiritualized, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and Donna Summer’s ‘State of Independence’.
LB is encouraging anyone who supports the campaign to send recordings of themselves playing the chords for a special ‘wall of sound’ version of the single.
Upload the chords to Soundcloud by 31st January to be included in the remix.
This Heel ‘This Heel’ (Small Bear Records) Released 1st January 2015.
Schizo Fun Addict vs The Bordellos ‘Schizo Fun Addict vs The Bordellos Split EP’ (Small Bear Records) Originally released 24th December 2014.
Finding ever more obscure, and relatively unheard of, music from a collection of bedroom mavericks and hitherto minor local underground D.I.Y. bands, Small Bear Records scored a winner in 2014 with the label’s pontificators of grinding rock’n’roll, The Bordellos. Their last album, Will.I.AM, You’re Really Nothing, made our ‘choice albums’ of the year feature: an album that resoundingly bashed out a clarion call for energy over mediocrity, fueled by the epistles according to Julian Cope. Far from taking the usual Christmas sabbatical, the label put out a shared EP, starring both the St.Helens lo fi rockers and the dirge-y dreamers, Schizo Fun Addict. Released on Christmas Eve (and probably missing from most people’s Santa wish list) as a taster to the physical copy on cassette, the quartet of shared songs is still available via Bandcamp.
For their part, The Bordellos ‘Hit It’ and ‘A Little Sadness’ contributions fluctuate between the band’s now signature styles of both off-kilter grinding rock and downplayed, kooky acoustic led ballads. The first of these is an agitated-indie chugging, whistling and squealing mass of Sonic Youth feedback, the second a touching Syd Barrett, jangly lament. Their comrades-in-arms however sound like a hallucinating Les Rallizes Denudés reworking Lush, as they coax a melody and tune from the shoegaze redolent, shimmering resonance and fuzz that buries the opening track, ‘AM Story’. Shifting slightly in mood, their second contribution, ‘Endorphin Portal’ pulsates and throbs to an Orb-esque and paced trance like techno beat.
Following in its wake, released the following week, This Heel’s eponymous debut announces its arrival to a wall of fuzz thrilled noise and barracking smashed-up drums. The solo project of Dog, Paper, Submarine’s front man Martin Månsson Sjöstrand, This Heel picks its way through a litany of alternative indie (bordering on the Goth in some cases) and grime-y drone frazzled garage rock. To a bombardment of Placebo and PiL, the Swedish multi-instrumentalist climbs up to a faux falsetto on the heavy bombastic, charged pop rattler, ‘Mars About To Leave’; ascends a spiraling sequence of spindly chords through a blanket of claustrophobia on ‘Selfish Food’; and sets out on a meandrous shoegazing trope with ‘Tiles’. There’s logic to this fuzz, as the Swedish artist bends the thrashing vortex of noise and steam to his will, eking out just enough of a harmony and tuneful hook to make it work. Expanding the Small Bear roster yet hardly a surprise addition, This Heel kicks off the labels 2015 schedule with assured vigour.
Kim Halliday ‘Halflight’ (Ravello Records) Released 11th November 2014.
Churning out an abundance of soundtracks and congruous composed passages for film, TV, the stage and a myriad of other multimedia platforms, the scores of 90s London film school graduate Kim Halliday hovers on the peripheral. A relatively obscure name, though no less ambitious and not because of a lack of talent, his cannon of work is imbued with over forty years of moods and musical styles; ranging from growling post punk to the subtly evocative atmospherics of Michael Nyman; both ambient-sparse and progressively revved up.
From what I’ve looked-up online and listened to, Halliday’s previous albums and soundtracks follow a suffuse theme, with variations of the main signature. However, his latest suite, Halflight, sweeps and harmoniously traverses between a number of sets and scenes from a host of different imaginary movies. The production and instrumentation bellow a more intricate and descriptive NIN crossed with Bowie circa Outside and Heathen. Beginning with the Holy Fuck scores Drive, throbbing and steely motoring, ‘Fabric, Torn, Time, Slips’: A modern pepped-up Miami Vice with flaring traces of Teutonic autobahn and gargled, voice in the machine, vocals – this album was written, recorded and mastered in both London and the German capitol Berlin -, this industrial beast is an electro-growler, peddle to the ground muscle car of an opening gambit.
Caustic, industrial and often drifting through a kosmiche influenced landscape, Halliday enacts Eno-esque like cerebral ambience or reworks classical themes of lament and solace throughout with tubular struck metallic sounds, saddened synths and weeping, arching guitars (sounding throughout like a cross between two of Bowie’s most experimental choice lead guitarist, Reeves Gabrels and Earl Slick); a counterbalance struck against those more up-tempo numbers.
At other times Kim and his contributors enter the darker recesses of the mind as they investigate the gloomy apparition signals emanating from ‘Hellingly Hospital’ and salacious, if ominous world of kinky “50 shades of grey” Sadomasochistic sex, on the Angie Giles narrated ‘Only A Game’. There’s also a respectful pause for thought on the anniversary of the “Great War”, as Dave Maybrick reads out the fateful and infamous B104-82 receipt that informed the next of kin of their loved ones death. In a somber tone, Halliday builds a trepidation sound of distant artillery fire drums and a softly kneaded piano suite around the form given to men of the lower ranks: a depressing indictment and chilling reminder of the futility of WWI. Later on, Maybrick in a less than somber tone, reads out the instructions of a D.I.Y. methamphetamine kit over an increasingly, John Barry goes big beat, bombastic soundtrack.
With seventeen tracks to peruse, there is a suitable soundtrack for every mood. And despite the varied range of ideas, subject matter and settings, Halflight is a seamless, integrated experience.
January 12, 2015
We are pleased to announce our continuing role in hosting and contributing towards the Alternative Top Forty, with the first chart of 2015. See below for details of how you can take part.
The Alternative Top 40 is a regular music chart shared across multiple music blogs, and a great way of discovering music you might not have heard elsewhere. We are delighted to be among those blogs involved in sharing this list, which is created from nominations from you and compiled by the website Universal Horse.
To contribute to the next #AltTop40 all you have to do is suggest your favourite tracks of the moment to Universal Horse via their online form – or email them a top 5 at email@example.com by Saturday 4th April.
Here’s this month’s edition (note that for its January edition Universal Horse only counts releases from the previous 12 months, making this a de facto ‘tracks of the year’ list):
1. Vessel – Red Sex
2. Eels – Where I’m Going
3. Wenonoah – Hide
4. Copeland (Ft. Actress) – Advice to Young Girls
5. Noura Mint Seymali – Tzenni
6. Boxcar Aldous Huxley – The Slow Decline of the London Necropolis Railway
7. Rabit – Red Candles
8. Swans – She Loves Us
9. SJ Esau – Soul II Skull
10. Robert Plant – Little Maggie
11. Die Antwoord – Ugly Boy / +
12. The Brackish – Surf’s Down / +
13. Rachael Dadd – Strike Our Scythes / +
14. Bob Mould – I Don’t Know You Any More / +
15. Perfume Genius – Queen / +
16. Alex Dingley – Knuckle Bone / +
17. New Cowboy Builders – Black Moses / +
18. Deerhoof – Exit Only / +
19. Gulp – Vast Space / +
20. Yasmine Hamdane – Hal / +
21. The War on Drugs – Red Eyes / +
22. The Spitfires – I’m Holding On +
23. Marilyn Manson – Third Day of a Seven Day Binge / +
24. The Bug feat. Manga – Function / +
25. La Dispute – Extraordinary Dinner Party / +
26. Papernut Cambridge – Nutflake Social / +
27. tUnE-yArDs – Water Fountain / +
28. Paul Orwell – Tell Me, Tell Me / +
29. Tape Waves – Looking at the Sun / +
30. Grumbling Furs – All the Rays / +
31. Downard – Metal Office / +
32. Porcelain – My Friend Paranoia / +
33. Scott Walker & Sunn O))) – Herod 2014 / +
34. Xiu Xiu – Stupid in the Dark/ +
35. Psyence – Chemicals for Breakfast / +
36. Happyness – Great Minds Think Alike, All Brains Taste the Same / +
37. Henry Blacker – Pullin Like a Dray / +
38. Adrienne Lenker and Buck Meek – A Better Time to Meet / +
39. The Van Allen Belt – Clouds/ +
40. The Spiritualized Mississippi Space Program – Always Forgetting with You / +
Follow the Alternative Top 40 on Facebook and Twitter.
January 9, 2015
A pivotal, nee vital, year in Hip Hop history, 1990 was graced with a litany of golden age classics from both sides of the Atlantic; kicking off the next decade with assured bombast. The Monolith Cocktail compiles a playlist of highlights and once pays an in-depth tribute to one of that year’s funkiest, playful and inventive albums, Digital Underground‘s Sex Packets.
Intelligent Hoodlum ‘No Justice, No Peace’ From the Intelligent Hoodlum LP.
X Clan ‘Funkin’ Lesson’ From the To The East, Blackwards LP.
MC Mell’O’ ‘Total Eclipse Of The Art’ From the Thoughts Released (Revelation I) LP.
Kool G Rapp & DJ Polo ‘Streets of New York’ From the Wanted: Dead Or Alive LP.
D-Nice ‘Crumbs On The Table’ From the Call Me D-Nice LP.
Part 2: Digital Underground – ‘Sex Packets’
Tommy Boy Records 1990
Track List –
A (Safe Side)
1. The Humpty Dance (6:50)
2. The Way We Swing (6:48)
3. Packet Prelude (0:57)
4. Sex Packets (7:21)
5. Street Scene (0:33)
6. Packet Man (4:41)
B (Sex Side)
1. Freaks of the Industry (5:38)
2. Underwater Rimes (4:23)
3. The New Jazz (One) (0:37)
4. Rhymin’ on the Funk (6:16)
5. The Danger Zone (5:31)
6. Packet Reprise (1:30)
7. Doowutchyalike (4:12)
All tracks produced by Digital Underground except B4, produced by The D U and Raw Fusion.
Greg Jacobs plays the following roles –
Humpty Hump – Vocals on A1, A6, B1 and B7
MC Blowfish – Vocals on A2 and B2
Piano Man – Piano on A3, A4, B3, B6 and B7; synth on A4, B1, B6 and B7
Shock G – Backing vocals on A1, main vocals on A2, A4, A6, B1, B2, B4, B5 and B7
Rackadelic – Artwork
The Rest –
Bret Davis – Backing vocals on B7
Bulldog – Backing vocals on B7
Chopmaster J – Arrangements and concept, live drums on B3 and drum programming on B7
Computer Women – Vocals on A4, B2 and B7
C.M.J – Vocals on A2, A6 and B7
Danny Myers – Vocals on A2
Earl Cook – Arrangement on A3
Fuse – Backing vocals on A1, turntables
Goldfingers – Turntables
Kenny K – Vocals on A2
Kent Racker – Bass on B1
Liz Racker (Baby Dope) – Backing vocals on B7
Mac Mone – Backing vocals on B7
Maverick – Guest vocals on A4
Money B/ Randy Brooks – Synthesised bass harmonies on A4 and B6; vocals on A1, B1, B2, B4, B5 and B7
Schmoovy Schmoov – Backing vocals on A4
Sleuth – Backing vocals on B7
Tanisha Spencer – Backing vocals on B7
Vinny B – Vocal on A2
Artwork – Victor Hall and Rackadelic (Jacobs)
Cover Story: Greg Jacobs holds the miracle sex pill in his hand, glowing in all its incandescent neon glory, on the shadowy lit cover.
The rest of his crew shuffle around menacingly in the background; acting the ever cool veneered look of being down – though this attitude pose is offset by Jacobs rather fetching Zebra skinned headwear.
Using another alias, Jacobs becomes the doodle scribbling graffiti artist, ‘Rackadelic’, whose Funkadelic-esque/Cheech Wizard caricatures and naked lounging women bedeck both the back and inside covers.
Photographer Victor Hill snaps the D U enjoying the ‘sex packets’ effects, with main man Jacobs filling his boots with a threesome version of the magic bullet pill.
The Funk, the whole Funk, and nothing but the Funk!
Greg Jacobs aka Shock G, the co-founding rap artist, chorographer, producer, musical chameleon, and brain behind Oakland, California’s clown funk miscreants Digital Underground, slipped into a myriad of fatuous and amusing characters for his role as the crown prince of west coast Hip Hop.
Whether he’s assuming the role of the “deep sea gangsta” MC Blowfish, or donning the Groucho bulbous nose disguise of Humpty Hump, or even tingling the late night cocktail lounge bar piano as the Piano Man; Jacobs remains the consummate entertainer, stepping straight off some psychedelic depraved Funkadelic album cover; delivering George Clinton‘s sermon into the Hip Hop age.
Originally from the Tampa Bay coast of Florida, our all-round performer moved out west for a fresh start in the mid 80s – Jacobs went off the rails for a while, ending up serving time for selling dope at one point.
A swift punishing retribution soon pushed Jacobs back on the right track, as he gained his high school diploma and immersed himself with the salvation of music.
Enter stage left Jimi Dright, the son of the well known jazz saxophonist Jimmy. Dright was essentially a drummer and arranger, who’d already recorded a number of records with his old man, before he happened to cross paths with Jacobs in 1987.
The Berkley Californian laidback hippie, of a sort, breezed into the San Leando Music Unlimited store one fine day, where Jacobs was working as a keyboard salesman. A discussion about recording equipment sparked the foundation of Digital Underground, as both men found a common interest in forming a group based on the grand colourful eroticism and psych of George Clinton’s many funk projects.
Jacobs promised to show Dright how to use some keyboard equipment in return for working on some of his rough demos.
This first meeting of minds must have gone off well as Dright soon dropped his surname for the more street savvy ‘Chopmaster J’: the pair began to feverishly record some early 12 inches – which included a very early version of ‘Underwater Rimes’ and the future club hits ‘Doowutchyalike’ and ‘The Humpty Dance’.
They soon realised that they’d hit upon something, as they set to broaden the crew’s ranks with former Tampa radio deejay Kenneth ‘Kenny K’ Waters, and the roommates pairing of David ‘Fuse’ Elliot and Ronald ‘Money B’ Brooks – by 1990 the groups hardcore line-up and peripheral membership had swelled to 20 (see personal list above).
Their larking about and blundering blend of funk and rap drew some favourable criticism, as a couple of 12″ were knocked out on the local scene, with a heavy dose of publicity bombastic radio play.
With the release of De La Soul‘s Sgt.Pepper of Hip Hop game changing debut in early 1988, the D U believed they would soon be scooped up in the frenzy to sign up quirky and new age rap acts. As it happened De La Souls label Tommy Boy came knocking on the Oakland funk mobs front door, though it would take them two years to release their debut long player Sex Packets.
The dance floor “let-it-all-hang-out-tonight” Parliament manifesto party ethos of ‘Doowutchyalike’, and the honk nosed freak gnarling bass of ‘The Humpty Dance’, both saw the light of day in 1989, and both made an immediate impact on the club audience; unfortunately a Richter scale measuring 6.9 earthquake was just about to hit the area that same year, killing 63 people in the process, as the San Andreas Fault decided to flex its muscles.
For the debut LP, Jacobs worked over-time on a suitable extravagant and allegorical apt concept. The result of which trod a fine line between a magical drug, that to all intents and purposes carried with it both scientific reasoning and complete fantasy, and a set of acute observations on the narcotics trade in the real world.
Using another nom-de-plume, Jacobs sets himself up as the, barley disguised, Gregory E Jacobs, a member of the Underground Biochemical Sex-Relations Organization. This body worked in conjunction with a certain Dr. Edward Earl Cook (another thinly veiled D U member) to create an accessible version of his safe-sex pill, nicknamed ‘sex packets’. In the beginning this so-called solution to cheating, disease and all manner of social problems, was conceived as a “genetic suppression relief antidote” for astronauts, whose sexual frustrations could be combated at the swallowing of a pill, their concentration for the task-at-hand (careful!) uncompromised.
Cooks invention inevitably breaks out from its intentional use, and soon makes it onto the streets: packaged in a handy condom mocked wrapper, complete with an image of what to expect, from the realms of sexual every known kink and experience imaginable – you could say the most vivid of wet dreams.
Digital Underground play around with the vividly dreamt-up plot throughout the albums 13-tracks; romanticising, parodying and at times drawing parallels to the drug dependency in their own community.
Oakland like many of the US’s inner cities had to contend with its fair share of the effects of the drugs trade. In the 70s, kingpin drug czar Felix Mitchell flooded the Californian city with cocaine, increasing Oakland’s murder rate to trump that of New York’s in the process.
His legacy created a horrific crack epidemic during the following decade, which obviously made a cultural impact on the city’s music scene.
On the surface, ‘Sex Packets’ can be read as a re-working of the Funkadelic cosmic slop buffoonery, but there is the strong undercurrent of protest; a direct reactionary reading of the devastation caused by crack – though you could say the sex packet pill could also be read as a subtext commentary on the burgeoning cultural adoption of Ecstasy.
That reliance – though obsession seems a more appropriate word – with all things funk, caused some initial problems for the group.
The sheer amount of sampling from the back catalogues of both George Clinton and Bootsy Collins made this LP almost wholly reliant on gaining their permission and clearance for the scattergun spraying of these funk icons work.
Unfortunately a period of wrangling led to the album being shelved during 1989: The fall-out from the ever-increasing sample heavy album 3 Feet High And Rising, led to a change of thinking, with the rights owning labels cottoning on, and now asking for increasingly higher fees for usage and royalties – quite a few groups fell foul of this clamp-down. The only saving grace was that Clinton loved the D U’s sound, going as far as to help them out on their next album: A special thanks is included on the album “…to George Clinton and the entire funk mob for allowing us to borrow the funk”, probably in respect but equalling to fulfil an obligation to the source of their sound.
The albums opening salvo comes from ‘The Humpty Hump’, Digital Underground’s million selling club hit and one of the most influential Hip Hop records of all time. Far from fitting in with the albums main concept, Jacobs gonzo alter-ego and mocking jester masked Humpty Hump persona turns loose over a growling pulsatating bass grooves, ponfonticating a legend-in-his-own-lunchtime brag, whilst vocaling snorkling about his predillications with bravado.
“People say, “Yo, Humpty, you’re funny lookin’,
That’s all right’ cause I get things cookin’.
Ya stare, ya glare, ya constantly try to compare me but ya can’t get near me.
I give’ em more, see, and on the dancefloor, B, all the girls they adore me.
Oh yes ladies, I’m really bein’ sincere,
Cause in a 69 my humpty nose will tickle ya rear.”
Hump, another dreamt up character of the mischivious Jacobs, was the imagined front-man for the doo-wopping carousing Smooth Eddie and the Humpers, who after losing most of his honk in a deep-fryer accident, became a rapper, changing his name from Edward Ellington Humphery III in the process. A slapstick rap from Jacobs over the borrowed drum loop from Sly and the Family Stone’s ‘Sing A Simple Song’, handclap snares from Parliament’s ‘Theme From The Black Hole’, and much speeded-up smatterings of ‘Let’s Play House’ and Clinton’s ‘Atomic Dog’, create an luminous maraudering and bumping grinding classic – the tracks loop remaining one of the most used in the Hip Hop cannon, being ripped and used on over 50 tracks, from Redman to Ice Cube.
This track belittles all in its wake, bomping and grinding across the Hip Hop horizon, infectiously sending listeners into a ritual frenzy.
Following in its wake is the more laid-back jazz of ‘The Way We Swing’, which starts with the opening enquiry:
“Yo man, what’s up with the Underground, man?
You guys old school, new school, R&B or Hip Hop?
What should I tell em?”
In unison the group launch into a more swimmingly vaudeville-esque light rap delivery, as they smoothly sway along to the Jimi Hendrix and his band of gypsy’s languid ‘Who Knows’ jazz rocking meander backing. Jacobs is joined by a cast of backing singers, that include C.M.J, Danny Myers, Vinny B and the southern lock-jaw drawl antics of MC Blowfish – another of Jacobs incarnations.
This marauding jaunt is used as a sound bite proclamation of the D U sound, a bird-finger salute to their detractors and confused critics.
‘Packet Prelude’ plays on the lounge-core piano blues of a late evening smoky club, where Jacobs sits at the grand, resigned and fateful. He gently caresses the ivory, and broodingly tinkles out the main motif of the ‘Sex Packets’ theme; an introduction to the finer details of the main concepts sultry and sulking suite.
‘Sex Packets’ riffs on the prelude, building on a sort of modern rapping bluesy jazz anthem to the wet-dream pill, and a bittersweet symphony detailing the culture surrounding this imaginary sex drug.
Minimal backing and use of sampling, this grand opus relies on cascading synth, piano, and interjections of wailing funk to conjure up an evocative parody to the wonder drug of the moment.
“Sex packets the girl of your dreams,
Just try one it’s not what it seems,
There’s love…..there’s love”.
Jacobs as Shock G, swoons about the pills attributes, and its positive impact. And how you can see get some action, no matter what the situation.
“You whispered in my ear, said “Not tonight”
You just won’t get with me, and you think that you dissed me,
But now I can still be getting busy, with any girl I like,
No more will I ever have to jack it,
Cause instead, I can just take a packet”.
An exchange between the ‘Computer Women’ and Shock livens up the experience, as our protagonist gets carried away in the dreamlike thrill.
There’s also a high-voiced R&B cameo from Maverick, his silky Vandross soulful tones lending some parodied serious lovemaking vocals to the heady mix – now an almost guaranteed addition to most commercial Hip Hop.
“I’m a give ya what you want,
I’m just feelin what you love
And I’m givin til you need,
A second interlude, or segue way, breaks up this soirée with the ‘Street Scene’ skit: we eavesdrop in on a sex packet deal, as the bustling street sounds and mono echoing D U track ‘Danger Zone’ booms in the background.
The excited fiend buyer purchases, “two sisters and a Chinese girl” concoction from the pusher, on this pre-cursor to the next elaborated track, ‘Packet Man’.
Fred Wesley and the Horny Horns ‘Four Play’ brass section heralds the opening refrain of ‘Packet Man’. This further exchange between a pusher and potential customer, to’s and thro’s, as our dealer sells his wares to a sceptical guy in the street.
“(Shock G) Excuse me trooper, will you be needing any packets today?
(C.M.J) Yo B, don’t be pulling on my jacket, ok?
(Shock G) Cool, just trying to get your attention, so you can look at this invention
Now peep these, I got some more in my jacket.
(C.M.J) Man, what are these, condoms?
(Shock G) Uh Uh: Sex packets.
Its like a pill, you can either chew it up,
Or like an alka-seltzer, dissolve it in a cup”.
Some knock-about jive ensues, as Shock explains his merchandises properties and sensations.
“(C.M.J) Well what exactly do I get?
(Shock G) Well read what it says, look at the picture.
(C.M.J) It says Chinese girl, age 17, waist 24, hips 33.
Hmmm, this one here says young black virgin.
Man this is crazy, I’m gonna have to splurge and get me a few of these things”.
We are told there’s even a version for the ladies, and a boastful Shock credits the pill as the safest form of sex on the block.
Flipping over to side two, Donna Summers seductive carousing ‘Love To Love You Baby’ and its bumping grind rhythms, wrap themselves around the “ohhing” and “ahhing” orgasmic funk splurge of ‘Freaks of the Industry’. Peripheral crew member, Kent Racker, plays a gnarling sumptuous bass line, as both Money B and Shock G amuse us with their tales of sexual prowess – imagine if you will, a laidback and comatose 2 Live Crew.
“Getting’ back to my mission, break out the whipped cream and the cherries,
Then I go through all the fly positions,
My head under her leg under my arm under her toe.
She says, “I like it when you scream, baby let yourself go”.
I hit it and split it, lick it and quit it.
After the ride, put my clothes on and walk outside,
And before anybody gets a chance to speak,
I say, “Yo, don’t say nuttin’, I guess I’m just a freak!”
Slipping and sliding over an soulful piano and erotic backing track, our pair of freakified miscreants, try to enact the sophisticated sleaze of Funkadelics ‘Hardcore Jollies’; marrying it to their own brand of spoof and parody.
‘Underwater Rimes’ is quiet a curious proposition, which takes Finding Nemo into a X-rated blaxploitation deep-sea kingdom of filth. A place where ‘French Mermaids’ receive a right royal seeing-to, as a host of aquatic beasts get down to a Hip Hop battle jam.
“Saw your DJ underwater through the window pane.
That sucker tried to hit a mix, but the mix didn’t happen,
Records kept floatin’ all the fish kept laughin’.
A blowfish blew my mind and started to rhyme,
As the octopus cut nine records at a time”.
Reworking Parliaments ‘Aqua Boogie’ and Herbie Hancock’s ‘Chamelon’, the Underground run wild with the Oceanic rule book of apt ghetto puns and jokes – this version of the song on ‘Sex Packets’ is credited as a remix, but is more of an updated variant of the original from two years earlier.
Jacobs once again pops on one of his signature character roles, as he turns back into the underwater poisonous rapping spouting MC Blowfish. With that New Orleans jowl accent and mock delivery, our self-proclaimed “deep-sea gangsta” bangs out some caustic and knock-about bravado, whilst parodying west-coast macho gestured rap artists.
“You wanna play? I’ll hook your line to a stingray.
Get out of here with that boat and a stick,
Get out of line, I’ll call my homey Moby Dick.
I’m not thinkin’ bout dyin’, fool, stop tryin’ to test me,
People fishin’ don’t catch me”.
Ridiculous, mischievous, yet strangely alluring, ‘Underwater Rimes’ once again shows off the group’s goofball theatrics.
A jazz interlude follows in the wake of the sea life misadventure; ‘The New Jazz One’ cuts up the live jam of Chopmaster J’s drums and Jacobs’s piano, like a scratched and slowed down record.
‘Rhymin on the Funk’ follows this minor breakdown of tunes. Using the backing of Parliaments ‘Flashlight’ and the P-Funk Allstars ‘Pumpin-it Up’, the Underground add some extra prowling rumbling bass and synth.
Money B and Shock G ride the rolling beats, waxing lyrical about their new found style; navigating tight turns and bouncing off each others lyrical displays in a show of solidarity to the cause.
There are some nice touches and mixing going on, as the track snakes its over a manipulated roaming funk track for six and a half minutes.
The crew return to a more serious topic on ‘The Danger Zone’, as they paint a destructive street level portrait of the crack problem in Oakland. Bootsy Collins’s ‘Bootzilla’, and, yet another slice of, Parliaments ‘Flashlight’, are used as the foundation for this siren wailing and alarming observation on drug casualties – a direct antidote to the joys of the sex pill, and reality check.
“On the corner, I see cocaine addicts,
Given static and about to go at it.
And then you hear somebody holler,
(Who was it K?) It was dopefiend Carla.
She was waitin on a winner.
That Hoe every night she has crack for dinner.
But everybody’s basin,
Even the suckers who are runnin this nation”.
The crew enacts Oakland’s emergency services; an intercepted message between a cop and the ambulance crew informs us that they’ve come across another dead junkie, the aforementioned “dopefiend Carla”.
A last reprise of the central ‘Sex Packets’ theme slots in-between this warning shot, and the closing ‘blow-all-caution-to-the-wind’ party track ‘Doowutchyalike’.
‘Packet Reprise’ is a instrumental, made up of a shimmering emotive piano motif.
It strikes the last sobering tones of the album before launching into the larger-then-life funk of the ensemble club hit anthem.
‘Doowutchyalike’ mashes together Clinton’s ‘Atomic Dog’, Vanity 6’s ‘Sex Shooter’, Chic’s ‘Good Times’, George McCrae’s ‘I Get Lifted’, and yet even more of ‘Flashlight’, to make a sing-along goofing praise to hanging loose and just not giving a fuck.
In a way this party atmospheric blast is a bookend to ‘The Humpty Dance’. It shares many of the same traits and musical samples, and is another feel-good sex-crazed outlandish slab of fun.
‘Sex Packets’ on its release became an instant success, both critically and in sales terms. Influential to such acts as The Pharcyde and Snoop, their reliance on the back catalogue of George Clinton helped the Funkadelic patriarch take over from James Brown as the most sampled artist – Clinton was so taken with the groups use of his work that he ended up appearing on the their next album.
Unfortunately the D U never quite managed to follow-up the ingenuity of their debut, though they knocked out a further seven albums of funk inspired rap – all worth a punt, but not essential.
The group would soon lose founding member Jimi ‘Chopmaster J’ Dright, after the albums release – a disagreement over the direction of the outfit, led to his departure in 1991. His legacy was to introduce a young Tupac Shakur into the Hip Hop history tomes. Tupac had initially been Dright’s roadie, before his rapping skills impressed enough for him to make a debut on the ‘Same Song’ track in 1991 – this track was taken from the Dan Aykryod and Chevy Chase movie ‘Nothing But Trouble’ tie-in EP, ‘This Is An EP Release’.
Dright would produce Tupac’s very first solo recordings, years later.
Apart from Jacobs, the only member who stayed to the bitter end was Money B.
The group finally called it a day in 2008, with the release of ‘Cuz A D U Party Don’t Stop’; Jacobs wished to pursue new musical horizons and promised to write a book.
The Humpty Dance
Freaks of the Industry
Rhymin’ on the Funk
Check these out –
Digital Underground – ‘Sons of the P’ (Tommy Boy) 1991
Funkdoobiest – ‘Which Doobie U B?’ (Immortal/Epic) 1993
Ice Cube – ‘Amerikkka’s Most Wanted’ (Priority) 1990
The Pharcyde – ‘Bizarre Ride To The Pharcyde’ (Delicious Vinyl) 1992
Snoop Doggy Dogg – ‘Doggystyle’ (Death Row) 1993
January 7, 2015
Back from our languorous sabbatical, the Monolith Cocktail is pleased to confirm that our delightful, erudite and poetic scribbler Ayfer Simms will be joining us once again during 2015; continuing to lift the art of music criticism to ever loftier heights, and vainly describe the indescribable. Ayfer will now attempt to whisk us all off to a romanticized and esoteric Mexico via the sounds of the Liverpool based troupe, Roja Musica.
Roja Musica ‘Promises I Should Have Kept’ (Probe Plus Records) Originally released 1st December 2014.
Languorous and joyously disheveled we are thrown in the streets of a ghostly Mexico with smoky mountains looming in the horizon, bathing in Mariachi and spats of mescal under a thunder of big orchestra and choruses, ample guitars and other instruments.
The trumpets are blowing as far as footsteps dancing in a blazing swirl under a hot air, as if erupting from a voodoo inferno, magical, enticing: The master of it, here a chap from Liverpool, throws in some sparks, seductive and rhythmical, a big adventure, some celebration and passionate outbursts.
The EP, is made of rawness of the sun, the sweat that comes from too much dancing, too much emotions; the music, the tropic’s heat under our hoofs. ‘The End’ is an energetic tune, feverish and sang with gusto: “I know we’ve reached the end” unified in a chorus of deserters, muchachos going up to the mountains for their one way trip to the world of the wicked. ‘The Evil Stands High’ is Ian Flemming walking in the streets of Mexico meeting an old fellow, drowning in his own misery and grandeur: Malcolm Lowry reborn in the skin of a Bond and bound for hell, we are plunged in an atmosphere of high profile characters, dancing the tango on a monsoon day, crime and glamour all at once. It should be macabre, but the EP is a joyous ball of fire. ‘It’s not just a game’ is a duo of a man and woman salivating as they leap toward each other; lovers, indeed it is more than a game, it is hot blood spilling on naked bodies, hearts out in the open with in the background strong feet stamping the ground on Spanish rhythms; a boiling effrontery, the music of torrid fervour, stormy ardor. Yes, do and hunt their name, they are explosive and delicious, to be consummated as spicy and hot as possible.
January 5, 2015
Samba Touré ‘Gandadiko’ (Glitterbeat) 2nd February 2015.
Sidelined, pushed and removed from the ever-changing newsfeed, the slide from a stable though often problematic state into another volatile region on the verge of collapse, Mali has suffered a coup, civil war, insurgency, and now in its northern regions, a draught. The riverbeds run dry and deep, adding yet more strain to the already over-stretched economic and security woes.
A chain of events which started with the Tuareg people’s fight for their own autonomous region (the independent state of Azawad) in the north of Mali during 2012, spiralled as the country’s government failed to quell the ‘rebellion’ and was usurped in a coup d’état, replaced by the less than sympathetic military officer Amadou Sanogo. Despite this, the conflict spread further as the unsavoury Islamist groups, Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, took advantage and joined in the expanding insurgency. Gaining a foothold, moving ever dangerously closer to the capital of Bamako and already taken the iconic, legendary and revered atavistic city of Timbuktu, the ill-gotten miscreant bedfellows turned on their Tuareg brethren – who had by now declared their goal of an independent state – for failing to implement Sharia law in their newly conquered territory. Losing ground and control the government was forced to bring in former colonial rulers, France (with some tactical support from the UK) who eventually forced the Islamists fractions back north. Still in a state of fluxes, even though French troops have agreed to withdraw and some stability has returned to the capitol, a peace treaty has still yet to be signed and guerrilla style attacks continue. But as one troublesome region ebbs – usually down to a turbulent stalemate or uneasy suspension in violence – from our consciousness, another soon replaces it, and in 2014 we were never left waiting for another catastrophe: from the ongoing civil war in Syria, expanding to the full on Fascistic Caliphate that has drawn in the entire Middle East and added more weight to the Kurds long-standing fight against Turkey and others to control their own independent state (currently baring the brunt and doing most of the fighting against the ISIS hordes), to the troubles closer to home in Europe, as Russia manipulates and stirs up trouble in the Ukraine. And not only has Mali suffered in recent years, but also the giant and powerhouse of the African continent, Nigeria, has seen an escalation in violence and kidnappings from the relative nuisance turn national security priority, Boko Harem – currently threatening to overrun the entire country ahead of elections in 2015.
In the eye of this and impending storms, the adroit Malian guitarist maestro Samba Touré transduces the plight of his country into nimbly picked away at, and subtle poetic, desert Songhai-blues’ style peregrinations. His last masterful performance, the Albala album from 2013, was captivatingly sad; lamenting with both anger and stirring protestation the ongoing struggles that were tearing Mali apart, including the taking of his very own village of Diré by the rebels (who once invaded implemented Sharia law) and the ramifications of the 2012 coup in his adopted home of Bamako. The title itself translates as risk or danger, and despite its diaphanous melodies and delicate fretwork, Touré’s plaintive songbook could be read as a eulogy of despair – though a little unjustly, as far from moping around in a swell of remorseful pity, the album was a triumphant mix of gritty, raw and dulcet majesty; making our very own albums of 2013 list.
Far from resolution, the problems of Mali continue, especially for the regions indigenous cultures. Numerous musicians, fearful of the reprisals meted out by both sides, but to the greater extent the Islamist groups, who under Sharia interpretations it seems have condemned most music and art, have left to go overseas or find sanctuary in neighbouring, more tolerant countries: still untainted by the spread of Islam’s most ill-served ‘prophets of rage’ and dangerous death cult insurgents. Even many of the Tuareg Bedouin’s own troubadours have fled or been forced into exile – groups such as Tamikrest and Tinariwen – as the regime outlaws anything remotely electrified and western sounding or straying from the commandments of the good book. Touré returns with his second LP for Glitterbeat Records, Gandadiko, to address these reverberations as well as the most recent problems of a barren landscape made even worse by recent droughts, leading to massive inflation of prices – healthier cattle from just two years back reached $600, now enervated and boney they’re lucky to reach a tenth of that. Yet as Touré’s record producer Phillippe Sanmiguel states in the press release, “this is a more hopeful record”, with “a variety of rhythms and moods, both more danceable and up-tempo”. Touré in his optimistic renew has taken to venturing further a field for ideas and melodies, listening to an eclectic mix of psychedelia, Bo Diddley (not so surprising) and (this one is a surprise) Serge Gainsbourg. But before these influences kick in, “Land of drought” or if you prefer, “burning land”, Gandadiko’s eponymous opening evokes the dusty, parched plains, sweeping in on ominous winds and a hypnotic, sinking and rising bed of esoteric blues. Spindly refined and traipsing the landscape with a mystical accompaniment of sokua, monochord and guitar, Touré lays it bare and simple with the following lyrics:
‘Our tears are not enough to make the land fertile.
Animals die one after the other, the ground becomes dry,
There is nothing more to eat for the herds,
Cows are only skin and bones.’
The pace picks up on the following meandering, handclap accompanied, delta blues number, ‘Wo Yende Alakar’, which languorously brushes with the borderless, well-traveled sound of fellow label mates, Dirtmusic: all mysterious, exotic and imbued with the spirit of the landscapes it wonders through. Sparse but highly descriptive Touré and his band of erudite players, underplay and purposely held quivering or swaying in a disciplined but loose form, continue to fluctuate between the humbling rhythm of poised, thoughtful brooding, as witnessed on the somber, contemplative and beautifully soothing ‘Chiri Hari’, and the more flowing, up-tempo sophistication found on the hypnotic, tapping and twanged ‘I Kana Korto’.
Offering a curveball of sorts, the New Orleans style swamp delta rock of ‘Su Wililié (The Living Dead)’, rolls in with what could be a faux Bellamy Brothers lick before hitting the right spot with a repeating backbeat of clicking percussion, jangled rhythm guitar and sustained electric solo. Positively upbeat and swaying jovially, this tale of Touré’s old, waylaid by the ravages of drink, friend carries a augur of what can happen when you embark upon the crossroads and decide on taking the wrong turn.
‘When I see my childhood friend who looks twice my age,
And who just can’t remember me.
When I see these living dead,
I say thanks that the alcohol has never crossed my path.’
There’s even an undertone of rebuttal against the burgeoning glorification in Mali by the homegrown Hip Hop phenomenon, which celebrates the excesses of both drink and drugs but negates to mention responsibility. An added fatalistic twist haunts this tale, as on the same day that Touré recorded this song and the free-roaming, flame enticing ‘Gafouré’, his friend of the title, Su Wililié, died: Already nervous to play the Djinn traditional demon spirit song, Gafouré in the studio (a standard only ever strummed live in the right setting and circumstances due to its folkloric reputation as an incendiary, dangerous force of evil, not to be taken lightly), Touré later blamed the passing of Wililié on the decision to record it. Spooky coincidences aside, both tracks prove far from demonic or downbeat.
The album finishes on the sweetly harmonic duet, “pan-ethnic understanding”, ‘Woyé Kate’, which features the softer counterpoint vocals of Ahmed Ag Kaedi (of the mirage quivering, sand dune blues rocking Tuareg group, Amanar). A call for reconstruction amidst the chaos, the two consummate troubadours echo the unified mantra of repairing the tenuous, but real, bonds that once kept an uneasy but stable region relatively calm. Almost a soulful lullaby come languid, camel hoofed trot, Touré and his dulcet toned companion Kaedi, soothingly fade out on a message of love, peace and forgiveness. A message and set of themes that permeate throughout this optimistic songbook, which not only returns to Mali’s soul but also cleverly revises the blues tradition that left its shores in the first place to the new world.
As is customary, Touré’s subtle, nuanced style of playing needs total immersion to be absorbed and enjoyed. This is the blues after all, served by a more traditional backing of indigenous variants of West African instrumentation that never quite breaks into a swagger or funk. Still, it does have more movement and rhythm than its predecessor and is perhaps a little more jaunty and self-assured.