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Print Reviews

Rick Rubin: In the Studio

Rick Rubin: In the Studio

by Jake Brown

ECW Press

The 25th anniversary of Def Jam Records presents music fans with a unique opportunity to appreciate the career of its co-founder Rick Rubin. His long-time collaborator Russell Simmons recently took the opportunity, during a VH1 Honors special devoted to the pioneering hip-hop label, to declare Rubin “the greatest producer of all time.” Of course, there are a number of legendary producers whose acolytes would raise vigorous objection to that idea, but you can make a pretty strong case on Rubin’s behalf.

A practicing Buddhist, known as much for his long beard, his omnipresent mala beads, and typically barefooted lotus posture, Rubin is surely not concerned with anyone’s production-chops hierarchy. His reluctance to engage in the usual industry crossfire is as much a factor in the legend as the intense work ethic he’s displayed during three decades in the business. Few have worked with a vaster array of talent, very few have contributed to more classic records, and no one has put together a résumé quite like Rick Rubin’s. Nor would anyone have ever thought to.

Rick Rubin: In the Studio is not a book worthy of its subject, and it’s a terrible advertisement for its author. Jake Brown has written a number of books about major figures in American music, including Alice In Chains, Biggie Smalls, Suge Knight, 50 Cent, Kanye West, R. Kelly, Jay-Z, Motley Crue, Black Eyed Peas, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Rick James. (His In the Studio series also has volumes on Heart, Prince, Dr. Dre, and Tupac Shakur.) This one feels like something he put together within a few weeks for money on the side. One hopes there is more to it than that, but I doubt it.

If any first-hand reporting went into this book, there is no way to tell from the way it’s organized. All of the cited quotes were cribbed from other sources, mostly interviews with specialist music magazines. Any original insight is subsumed by a fan-boy ethic that pervades the text. His book is constructed in such a way that Brown somehow manages to make Rubin come off as overrated. However, the nine-page sessionography included at the end of the book is thoroughly compelling, if only for the revelations of work one didn’t know Rubin did.

The text itself runs 225 pages, of which exactly 30 cover the Def Jam years. This earlier material is handled much more ably; this, along with the Johnny Cash stuff, is the music Rick Rubin will be remembered for. Interesting tidbits abound. For example, Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys discovered LL Cool J’s demo tape while hanging out in Rubin’s dorm room/office. Conversely, Rubin (the group’s original DJ) was the impetus behind their decision to drop drummer Kate Schellenbach and focus on rap. He was the label’s in-house producer for its first five years.

When Rubin speaks of crying on an airplane as he listened to It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the book — if not the story it chronicles — reaches its narrative peak. From that point neither Rubin, nor this book, are the same. Rubin’s moves to start his own Def American Recordings and shift the focus of his production from rap to rock sparked a new era in his own career; he would go on to achieve commercial and critical heights unseen among his generation. It doesn’t work out so well for the book.

Later chapters dealing with Tom Petty, Slayer, Danzig, AC/DC, System of a Down, The Cult, Mick Jagger, Weezer, Dixie Chicks, and Metallica will simply fall flat; even acolytes of those specific artists will be hard-pressed to extract any fresh tidbits from this compendium of public sources. Rubin’s work with Neil Diamond makes for an interesting five pages, while the Audioslave chapter is most notable for the constant subtle digs at former Rage Against the Machine singer Zach de la Rocha.

The book’s author, like its subject, is a big fan of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who have retained Rubin as their primary producer, and whose albums take up 50 pages of the book. A Peppers fan can probably glean some useful insight about the band’s gear and working methods; John Frusciante’s evolution within the larger group dynamic comes through well. But one-fourth of the text? Questionable.

What ultimately sells this book, and cements Rubin’s hall-of-fame credentials, is the Def Jam material and the stuff on Johnny Cash. Brown devotes 22 pages to the near-symbiotic relationship between artist and producer, who together collaborated on four albums that encompass arguably the finest work by either man. The success of the Cash-Rubin recordings (which can now, thankfully, be had as a single box set) led countless musicians, fans, and record labels to revisit the work of past masters and present these voices to a new generation of music consumers. As such, many older artists got the best and/or last payday of their careers as an indirect result. Surely the major Cash scholars will cover all this in greater detail, but Brown writes a nice introduction.

On the whole, Rick Rubin: In the Studio is probably not worth the $17.95 it’s asking for. As a survey of his career, and a sampling of the techniques he brings to bear in the studio, it’s merely a passable stopgap. The major writing on Rick Rubin remains to be done, hopefully by Rubin’s own rock-steady hand. But until then, this will do.

ECW Press: www.ecwpress.com

Categories
Print Reviews

Check the Technique

Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies

by Brian Colman

Random House

Artists use lyrics to paint pictures. They use lyrics to spread messages. Their words define what they are trying to do and why they make music in the first place. It is usually a complicated path that brings an artist to create a song, and there is a story behind the story being told through the lyrics.

The world of hip-hop was often left behind when it came to defining a song’s inspiration. Traditionally, hip-hop has been taken at face value, and many albums were left without liner notes or a key to the real deal behind these tales. Now, Brian Coleman’s book Check the Technique examines the story behind the music of 36 classic hip-hop albums, coming straight from the artists who made them.

The line-up for Check the Technique is a who’s who of superstars in the hip-hop era. Old school favorites such as Public Enemy, Run DMC, and De La Soul speak out about their tunes. The new class including the Wu-Tang Clan, The Roots, and The Fugees chime in, too.

Coleman takes the very simple approach of letting the artist dissect some of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time track by track, giving the inside scoop on where the music began and what was happening with the group at that time. The style is direct and has little filler. It’s a bevy of information for the genre lovers, an in-depth study of the scene.

While the book is sure to be adored by enthusiasts, the non-fanatics may tire of the repetitive style. Check the Technique reads more like reference material than a real page-turner, but it finally allows hip-hop to tell its songwriters’ tales.

Random House: www.randomhouse.com

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Music Reviews

Sarah McLachlan

Sarah McLachlan

Bloom – Remix Album

Arista/ Sony BMG

I popped this disc in my car player and ran through it a few times just to get a feel for it before writing this little review. Normally the computer is my CD player while writing, so I can refer to specific tracks. But THIS is a Sony disc with the dreaded rootkit DRM software, and committing to this disc is like committing to a new operating system. I spent about 15 minutes messing around with the install software, and reading the End User License Agreement. Finally I decided there was no way I would risk messing up my computer with evil corporate software. (Not that I don’t work for an evil corporation, but we have our OWN software.)

So is this record any good? It’s not bad as far as ethereal techno remix records go. Sarah McLachlan has an excellent voice, and she sings those long spacey numbers with the ability to pop up a whole octave for a single note without breaking a sweat. We get a full nine remixes, and they all slide together nicely as background listening, with one exception. Run DMC has a track here, “Just Like Me,” and while it’s not a bad mix, it IS a slow rap tune with the sluggish marching beat I associate with too much Robitussen. If you could clip that song out and recompile the disc, you’d have a nice piece of electronica with great vocals. But it’s not worth the trouble to do that, at least not yet. I might give it a go, and you might to, but not if you want this on your iPod.

Sarah McLachlan: www.sarahmclachlan.com

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Event Reviews

College Music Journal’s 2005 Music Marathon

College Music Journal’s 2005 Music Marathon

New York, New York • September 14-17, 2005

CMJ celebrated its 25th anniversary this year exposing potential music industry hopefuls from across the country to new bands, new music and new ideas. Hosting the opening ceremony was none other than rap royalty himself, Reverend Run of Run DMC fame. Was this a sign of the music industries’ slide into Rock ‘n’ Roll oblivion? Run’s keynote address included snippets of his early days as a rapper, his upcoming solo album and his upcoming MTV reality television show, “Run’s House” labeled by the cable network as “television’s first Hip-Hop reality sitcom”.

Surprisingly, the hip hop and rap genres were poorly represented at this year’s CMJ despite their choice for Keynote Speaker. A buffet of panels incorporated some of the newest changes we have been seeing this year in music. Panels such as: “Credibility in Criticism: Responsibilities of the Music Media in the Age of Blogs and MP3s” addressed the evolving ethical and legal responsibilities journalists face in this constantly expanding technological age. “Break it in the Blogosphere” focused on Internet radio, podcasts and blogs and their position as the new ‘zines of the 21st Century. With the more traditional panel subjects such as label startups, home recording and how to book your band, CMJ certainly provided its audience with the music industry basics college kids and emerging bands are hungry for.

But, CMJ is not just a platform for good information but also for good music and this year was no exception. Certainly the “darlings” of this year CMJ had to be The Arcade Fire who performed at the Mercury Lounge and the most coveted spot of the Marathon; the infamous Central Park Summerstage at Rumsey Playfield. A big fan of The Arcade Fire, Ziggy Stardust himself, Mr. David Bowie joined them for their Summerstage set. I could see the draw Bowie would have to this band. They are eclectic, performance driven and their orchestral use of instruments is reminiscent of Bowie’s own diverse musical past. If the crowd was any indication of this band’s future, we’ll be hearing a lot from them.

So many showcases so little time, but the one of the most memorable in my opinion was the Liquor and Poker showcase at The Continental. The Thieves, who currently hold a spot on Liquor and Poker’s band roster, lived up to their name when their drummer accidentally “stole” my purse! Actually, I was busy chatting with The Black Halos’ lead guitar player Jay, in the green room after the show and like a bad New Yorker set my purse down for a minute when The Thieves were loading up their equipment. I made the mistake of putting my purse on top of the drummer’s gear and when it came time to load up, The Thieves took an “everything goes” mentality! Luckily, I noticed it was missing and Jay helped me track down the culprits before they left. We all had a good laugh at irony of the event.

Speaking of The Black Halos, their performance at CMJ was spectacular. Fresh off their new release Alive without Control, also on Liquor and Poker, the boys from Vancouver once again proved nothing can keep them down. After what can be only be described as a most heinous year for the Halos (injuries, family deaths), their act was spot on. I never get tired of seeing Billy Hopeless gyrate on stage like a stripper, and the addition of guitarist Adam Becvare has only made this bands sound that much sweeter. Along with lead guitarist Jay, bassist Denyss and drummer Rob, The Black Halos always put on a solid rock show and I never miss a chance to see them play live. If you haven’t heard them, go to their website (www.blackhalos.net) and give this band a listen.

Also notable were the band Towers of London, the latest English import blasting their version of glam punk rock. Playing at Scenic on Avenue B to a sold-out crowd they are infamous for spitting at one another on stage. This band often is finds itself riding the fence of love and hate when it comes to their own fans. Love them or hate them, either way the band could care less. In fact, they seem to enjoy the controversy.

From Scenic to Mercury Lounge again, what do you get when you combine a lead singer who garners comparisons to David Byrne and smoking indie rock licks? If you said, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, you’re a winner. This Brooklyn band has had its share of buzz but they still have no record deal. What’s up with that? It’s hard to believe there haven’t been offers but who knows, maybe Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is holding out for the big enchilada. David Geffen are you listening?

Overall, CMJ supplied NYC with a nice wrap up for the summer. True, CMJ’s focus is to provide college kids an opportunity to participate in the real life music industry experience but it’s also a great chance for us fans to see hear some new music and for bands/musicians to get the exposure they so desperately need. Music fans packed into 65 venues across the city and CMJ once again provided 100’s of bands and over 100,000 music devotees with the opportunity to continue the alternative music revolution

CMJ Music Marathon: www.cmj.com/marathon

Categories
Music Reviews

Northern State

Northern State

Dying in Stereo

Star Time

I have to confess that most contemporary underground rap and hip-hop is an unknown entity to me. It’s not that I don’t like these types of music, it’s that I have no idea where to look for beat heavy music that doesn’t sound like a poseur’s shopping list or a dance club advertisement. Northern State’s debut is certainly neither of these things. At its best, on songs like “Vicious Cycle” and “The Man’s Dollar,” the group comes across like an equally feminist Sleater-Kinney or Le Tigre gone ’80s old school. At its worst, “At the Party,” they come off like a female Beastie Boys, which is hardly bad at all.

“Vicious Cycle” contains the following lines: “Who owns the wall space in this big city/the companies have billboards but that shit ain’t pretty/government busy scrubbing true art off the wall/the voices of the people and the freedom scrawl.” Finally! It’s such a breath of fresh air to hear angry, socially conscious lyrics like this in rap again. Especially when it hits just as hard as ’80s greats Public Enemy and Run DMC. I know that this type of rap never really died out, MTV and radio just quietly cast it aside. Ironically, Northern State is now the perfect packaged commodity for MTV: three white girls rapping about social injustice. It’s not quite as themed as the White Stripes, but it’s still a rare commodity ready to be exploited. Thankfully, Northern State seem to have it in their heads to stay away from the co-opting network. Which is good because it will help prevent them from getting lumped in with all the other denizens of commerical rap’s platinum plated gutter that they are rallying against.

Star Time Records: http://www.startimerecords.com/ • Northern State: http://www.northernstate.net/

Categories
Features

List 2002: Ben Varkentine on Music

List 2002: Ben Varkentine on Music

A few things you should know before we begin:

1) Ordering a list like this is difficult because it is arbitrary. What I mean is that I would not want anyone to think that I’m saying Eddie Harris’ A Tale of Two Cities is necessarily a “better” album than Run-DMC’s Greatest Hits. Though one appears higher on my list than the other, both are collections of merit and very different listening experiences. You can’t really compare one to the other.

It’s very roughly (and that’s especially true after the first seven) in bottom to top order. But as you read this list, please keep in mind that the order is essentially unimportant. You could just as easily read it top to bottom or throw all the pieces into the air to see where they come down. In fact, I’ve decided to remove the numbers from it, but the mathematically inclined among you will notice that:

2) There are only 18 titles but 19 CDs (one of them being a two-disc set) on this list. If you like, you can say that the missing 19th title represents all the great music you and I both missed last year.

3) A couple of these picks were originally released, technically, in 2001, but either they were not released in the US, or I just did not hear them, until 2002, and I want to single them out for special attention.

And now, on with the countdown:

Pet Shop Boys, Release (Sanctuary)

Biggest disappointment of 2002. First reaction: I do not know what this is, but it certainly isn’t a Pet Shop Boys album. Second reaction: “London,” “Home And Dry” and “I Get Along” are the only likely candidates for Discography 2 (which the boys must know, since they were singles). Conclusion: When only three Neil Tennant/Chris Lowe songs on a collection of ten are distinctive, and one of them a complete rip-off from Hoagy Carmichael, its a sign of something. Even as seemingly surefire an idea as a love song to Eminem comes off faulty.

It still makes this list because I wanted to write about it. And because I can’t conceive of PSB not appearing on a year-end list in any year when they’ve released a new LP. However, all together it makes for the worst Pet Shop Boys album in nearly ten years.

Menthol, Danger: Rock Science! (Hidden Agenda)

Though flawed, this promising, unabashedly retro record may have deserved a better review than I gave it. Certainly, the most distinctive tracks have continued to grow on me.

Donny Osmond, Somewhere In Time (Decca)

Hey, I’m as surprised as you are. But I have to tell the truth, and the truth is that I’ve been listening to this record a lot (especially “Crazy Horses”). I must respect that. Osmond has recently found employment as host of the latest incarnation of the game show Pyramid. I imagine this is a good way to pay some bills and stay in one place so he can have a home base for his family, and no one could begrudge him that. But I actually find myself hoping he won’t stay out of the recording studio too long, and no, I can’t believe I wrote that either. But his voice is in excellent form, and throughout this CD he shows he has an ear for the good commercial pop hit, which is not the same as the same old hit.

Various Artists, Digital Disco (Force-Tracks)

This self-descriptive compilation of music big on novelty effects has grown a bit in my esteem since I reviewed it in our pages. I still hold that what makes synth-pop groups like New Order more fulfilling than some of their peers (cough, Madonna, cough) is emotional engagement, and this still doesn’t have a lot of that, but it competes pretty heavily on it’s own ground.

Violet Indiana, Casino (Instinct)

Violet Indiana is Robin Guthrie, late of The Cocteau Twins, and Siobhan De Marë, formerly of Mono. Together, they are a duo that is deceptively consistent, and perfect for The Hour of the Wolf.

Dot Allison, We Are Science (Mantra)

“An electronically produced countryside lit by amorphous drops of color.” That’s what I called these songs, and I was serious. I also said that they were better off leaving their meanings a question mark, and I am serious about that too, but it does not seem to matter as much now. Sardonic and peculiar in some of the best ways, the burble-bop of songs like the title track is the kind you want to start sticking on mix tapes. We Are Science might be an intermediate album, but Alison’s next may very likely make her, as she should be, as popular as Moby. Or at least, 808 State.

Al B. Rich, Club Nation America Volume Two (Ministry Of Sound)

This two-disc electronica/alternative/synth pop/club/whatever set is one of the most crisply played and programmed compilations of well-constructed dance music I heard all year. Especially strong sides from Static Revenger and Frou Frou — who I still hope to hear more from in the future. It’s all too easy to make generic dance-floor “anthems,” and this collection deserves to be singled out for spotlighting the good stuff.

Run-DMC, Greatest Hits (Arista/BMG Heritage)

We lost a couple of once-brilliant musicians in 2002, and Jam Master Jay was a king of his genre as much as Joe Strummer of his. I don’t think anyone was kidding themselves that Run-DMC hadn’t already passed their peak long before Jay’s stupid death in October of last year. But this compilation serves as a reminder of just how high that peak was and what a figure Run-DMC cut across all of music in America. And if you don’t agree… you be illin’. It’s like that, and that’s the way it is.

Music From the Motion Picture, Ocean’s Eleven (Warner Sunset/Warner Bros)

I missed this beautiful caper movie in the theaters but caught up and fell in love with it on DVD, and David Holmes’ soundtrack brought a lot to the party. Anybody who can mix Perry Como with funk and Percy Faith with break beats is okay by me.

Paul Hyde, The Big Book of Sad Songs, Vol. I

Hearing this album was like reconnecting with my 16-year-old self, the boy who was first amazed by Paul Hyde (and his then-partner, Bob Rock) in 1987. The incredible intimacy of The Big Book Of Sad Songs, Vol. I is only part of what makes it such a staggering record. One of only two that I knew from first listen would be finding a place on this list. On a song like “Loudmouths,” the lyrics even answer the question of where Hyde has been since I was 16:

Maybe you thought I didn’t care, the way I acted like I wasn’t there I left it for the loudmouths, to the loudmouths comes everything

Maybe. However, honest to god, one of the best things about this gig is being able to speak up for people like Paul Hyde.

Stars, The Comeback EP, (Le Grand Magistery)

Stars are a four-piece electronic pop band currently based in Montreal. This EP contains one of the best pieces of material they have produced in their 20 solidly crafted songs (to date of this release) of existence: “Aspidistra Files.” And they’ve got enough keyboard hooks to make you hope it’s Thomas Dolby come again, which is no small thing to hope for.

Venus Hum, Hummingbirds, (Mono Fi)

Venus Hum is a band I could easily come to love, if I haven’t already. Their forthcoming major label full-length debut is one of my most anticipated records of the New Year. The well-regarded songwriter Neil Finn once defined pop music as “simple, elegant melodies over interesting chords”; and that is what turns up on Hummingbirds. Vocalist Annette Strean and her band mates Tony Miracle and Kip Kubin, Venus Hum, are the newest generation in a line that includes Yaz and Electronic: Strean’s voice colors the songs with airy warmth, adding the breath of humanity to Miracle and Kubin’s (both credited simply with computers and electronics) material. Smooth as skin under satin, if the rumors are true and a ’80s revival is afoot, Venus Hum should reap the benefits. As should:

Lifestyle, Frontier (ArchEnemy)

Spirited synthesizer sequence driven songs and great lyrics rightfully ought to make Lifestyle enjoy cult status; they deserve such devotion. Perhaps a still in-the-works new LP will fulfill this promise. I certainly hope so, as I would like to revisit this fresh, new Frontier. It’s made up of equal parts Duran Duran, New Order and Erasure but at it=EDs best, crucially, it adds Lifestyle’s own take on same.

Club 8, Spring Came, Rain Fell (Hidden Agenda)

And this is the second record I knew from first listen would be finding a place on this list. Club 8, Karolina Komstedt on vocals and Johan Angergard on Everything Else, sound both cold and tender, like the kind of friends and lovers that leave scars despite their best intentions. Which, or course, are the kind we fall in love with.

Wendy Carlos, Tron: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Disney)

Probably the most anticipated album I reviewed all year, anticipated by me, anyway. I’ve been waiting for a CD release of this record since CDs were invented. Wendy Carlos is significant on a large scale, a key figure in the popularization of electronic, synthetic music. However, on a more personal level she and this album are significant to me because it’s the one that introduced me to that music. Synth-pop fans are made, not born, and this still-astonishing gem was the making of one.

Tears For Fears, Shout: The Very Best Of, (Mercury)

Roland Orzabal’s songwriting, singing and multi-instrumental gifts along with Curt Smith’s keening voice helped define the pop new wave sound on such tracks as “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” But beyond that, Tears for Fears were a fucking great band, and more diverse than you might think if all you ever heard are the trademark hits (good as they are). This record is the best single compilation extant, despite an unfortunate choice of the “US Remix” of “Mother’s Talk.

Les McCann, Les Is More (Hyena)

The “top” two titles on this list are half of the four reissues on jazz “populist” Joel Dorn’s latest label, Hyena, which were initially released on his first, Night Records. What gets the Hyena/Night records so “high” on the list is that they are all groovy live performances mostly from the ’70s and ’80s.

But pianist Les McCann’s entertaining, slinky record sets him a height above Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s The Man Who Cried Fire and Cannonball Adderley’s Radio Nights, to my tastes, anyway.

Eddie Harris, A Tale of Two Cities (Hyena)

This moving album makes a credible argument for Eddie Harris as a genius forgotten. It’s a great record, and one of my favorite things about it is it’s playfulness. Another is the way it sounds like the expression of a spirit left behind in a horn, and sparkles with the feeling of connection between Harris and the crowd. You can just feel it washing in waves back and forth between them.

Categories
Music Reviews

Uncle Kracker

Uncle Kracker

No Stranger to Shame

Lava

It is both intriguing and a wee bit disturbing that the kids were lining up for Uncle Kracker the last time around. After all, this is not much more than sub-to-bog standard white soul, devoid of sincerity and personality, and crossed with anemic country and some joke-y rapping. Still, Kracker has this next-door, likeable thing going, so it’s hard to actually dislike the guy. Plus, every song on here can be played on the radio and no one will take offense, which may be a good thing or a bad one, depending on your point of view.

Uncle Kracker tackles the more country based material the best, with the Dobie Gray duet “Drift Away” being alarmingly winning and “To Think I Used to Love You” a fine George Jones, campfire kind of thing. It’s all a bit inconsequential, obviously, but it’s still likeable enough. He doesn’t sound too comfortable on the more rap-oriented material, though, lacking the authority and the presence of the otherwise equally bland Kid Rock, although the Run-DMC style of hidden track “After School Special” actually prove to be the album’s highlight. A weird decision, then, to leave it out from the track list, but there you go.

The rest of it, frankly, is mainly annoying and/or dull. The success of the songs all rest on the hummabilty of the chorus, and generally speaking, they just don’t hold up. It’s too mellow and modest to be seen as plain silly and irresponsibly dumb rock, and it’s too bland and polished to ever matter on any remotely personal level. An album for those who don’t think music’s too hot in the first place. Avoid.

Lava Records: http://www.lavarecords.com

Categories
Music Reviews

So So Def Presents

So So Def Presents

Definition of a Remix feat. Jermaine Dupri & Jagged Edge

So So Def

I want to see the fire-and-brimstone piece of paper, I want sworn testimony from Beelzebub, and I want to see the vial of newborn’s blood Dupri used to ink his deal with the Devil. There’s simply no other way to explain the man’s success. But here he is — more successful than the more talented — with the obligatory remix project. If you like JD, you’ll like this. Even if you don’t, you’ll find some things to like about it. “Welcome To Atlanta,” with Snoop, P. Diddy, Ludacris, and the St. Lunatic, Murphy Lee, has a nice bounce. The Neptunes add nice touches to Lil Bow Wow’s “Puppy Love” and J.D.’s “Let’s Talk About It 2.” Of course, Dupri (like Diddy and Hammer) has the uncanny knack of liberally “sampling” old hits and slapping them onto his productions. While it’s called plagiarism in writing, it’s an easy hit in music. Jagged Edge’s “Let’s Get Married” is a great “Hard Times” remix — even receiving Run’s help here. JE’s “Promise,” which uses LL Cool J’s “I Need Love,” is abysmal, and the use of “Don’t Look Any Further”‘s bass line can’t pump life into Dru Hill’s comatose “In My Bed.”

So So Def Records: http://www.sosodef.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Bionic Jive

Bionic Jive

Armageddon Through Your Speaker

Interscope

Way even before “Walk This Way,” rock and hip-hop were right there in it together. The glory that was “King Of Rock” by Run-DMC! The first Beasties album! Original Concept name-checking Thin Lizzy in “Here Comes the 5-0”! Ah, those were some good times.

But no one really respects any of the rap-rock groups that dominate the charts these days, not since Rage Against the Machine traded Zach De La Rocha for Chris Cornell. Let’s not name names here (cough Fred cough Korn ahem Puffy with that lame “Kashmir” rap cough ahem), but we’re all kind of starting to regret our nation’s permissive microphone ownership laws.

But here comes Bionic Jive to the rescue. Three rockers, two rappers, one pretty raw-ass sound. Ako Mack and Emerg McVay are real MCs with big gruff voices and not-very-charitable attitudes towards Bizkits and Korn: “All I hear is rock bands/With wack MC collaborations/With no structure/We on point like hypodermic acupuncture.” They sound pretty much the same, although Ako has more of a Busta Rhymes flow and Emerg sounds like he’s not unfamiliar with the Dirty South. They’re not very original as lyricists — you should hear their flat-out rip-off of Outkast on “Pump” — but they’re a damned sight better than anyone else out there fronting a rock band these days. And yeah, sure, Larry Luv and Cunni and Chris Elsner are a tight Tool-and-Metallica-influenced trio that show that they can rip shit up when they need to.

The big problem, like always, are the choruses. Every other song is more or less spoiled by an uninspired and repetitive chorus. “Ricochet,” for example, is kind of an interesting thing about being a soldier in the Vietnam War, and has some chilling images happening in the verses: “Swamp sleeper/Booby trap/Barb wires in case peace talks backfire/Bullet wounds and knife scars/Till my lungs expire/All I got left is last words for messiah.” But the damned chorus sucks so bad (“Yes yes y’all/Everybody ricochet off the wall y’all/We gon’ brawl brawl“) that even the whispered beginning of the third verse fails to make an impact the way it should. It’s a shame, and it happens over and over. Can’t anyone write a chorus anymore?

The music is the kind of crunchy rawk thing you’d expect, the lyrics are about what you’d expect (75% “we’re better rappers than you,” 25% “we have some vague political ideas”), and they go together nicely. Bionic Jive will neither surprise you nor bother you too much, and if you’re in the right mood, you might get sorta interested in this band. Overall, Bionic Jive isn’t what it could be yet… but they show a lot of potential.

Bionic Jive: http://www.bionicjive.com

Categories
In Perspective

In Perspective: Run DMC: Still the Kings?

Run DMC

Crown Royal

Arista

Attempting a Supernatural-style comeback, Run DMC’s Crown Royal is loaded down with guest stars. If it isn’t obvious that this album was coldly calculated to attempt duplicating Santana’s comeback success when the band starts throwing out props to Clive Davis, who orchestrated the guest-heavy Supernatural, on “Simmons Incorporated,” then it should be when you note that Davis gets a songwriting credit on nearly every track here. It’s also a testament to how long Crown Royal‘s been sitting on the shelf, since in the same breath, they praise Arista Records, which very publicly ousted Davis about a year ago. The legalities of all those guest appearances kept the record sitting for so long that the track appears extremely dated at this point.

And therein lies part of the problem with Crown Royal: rather than sounding like a fresh update on the classic Run DMC sound, it sounds like a bunch of tracks by the various guest stars, and like what those bands (many of whom I believe, frankly, will prove to be flashes in the pan) sounded like a year or two ago. Where Run DMC were able to resurrect Aerosmith from the musical graveyard (let’s face it, if it weren’t for their remake of “Walk This Way,” Steve Tyler and co. would be recording for CMC and touring with Styx today), they’re now counting on young acts to bring them back. That they should have ever fallen into relative obscurity is unforgivable, but that they should lose so much of their identity in trying to come back is just depressing. Compounding the problem is that DMC chose to bow out of several tracks (“creative differences” were cited, but he’s also apparently had some vocal troubles that led him to re-examine his role in the band). I guess its to his credit that he’s chosen to stay out of overproduced schlock like “It’s Over” and “Queens Day,” both of which sound a lot more like guests Jermaine Dupri and Nas & Prodigy (of Mobb Deep), respectively, than Run DMC.

Another issue is the boasting. While it’s always been an element of rap music in general and Run DMC’s music in particular, it was more acceptable and palatable, somehow, in the days of “King Of Rock.” Perhaps it was because in the old days, they didn’t go on about it on seemingly every track, nor were they bragging about how important they are to the history of hip-hop and music in general. In short, back in the day, they weren’t bragging about their past, they were boasting about what they were doing at the time. Moreover, they backed up their boasts with the music — when Run bragged “I’m the King of Rock, there is none higher/Sucker MC’s must call me sire”, he made you believe it was true. The anemic nature of most of these tracks make any boasts seem idle and unwarranted.

That’s not to say that the album is horrible, or that there are no highlights. The Fred Durst collaboration, “Them Girls,” is surprisingly springy and catchy, if a bit pop for both acts, and Everlast joins in on an inspired cover of Steve Miller’s “Take the Money and Run.” Perhaps appropriately, Kid Rock’s collaboration, “The School of Old,” most sounds like old school Run DMC — after all, his rap/rock hybrid probably owes the more to the legacy of Run DMC than any other guest on the record (and the samples of “King Of Rock” and “Dumb Girl” are a big help). “Simmons Incorporated” works, since guest Method Man has always shown appreciation for the old school, and the tribute to the legacy of the Simmons family seems more sincere than most of the album. And “Rock Show,” featuring Third Eye Blind’s Stephan Jenkins, is one of the catchier tracks on the record (though this is in part due to appropriating some of Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two”). Though on the flip side, when your best songs feature Kid Rock, Third Eye Blind, and Fred Durst, some might find that to be an indication of problems at the outset•

Where the album goes most drastically wrong, though, is in burying Run DMC in the sound of other, inferior acts. Where Supernatural succeeded in meshing Carlos Santana’s signature style and strengths with those of the more commercially-viable modern artists guest starring, Run DMC too often get lost in the application of other styles and artists. Nowhere is this more obvious than on the tracks that guest star other rappers. With Nas and Prodigy’s raps taking up most of “Queens Day,” it sounds more like Run is guesting with them than vice-versa. Likewise, “Ay Papi” picks up so much of so much of Fat Joe’s Latino vibe that it loses any Run DMC flavor, and “Let’s Stay Together (Together Forever)” almost gets lost in Jagged Edge’s reinterpretation of the Al Green classic. While some of these tracks are good songs for the guests, they aren’t good Run DMC songs, which should have been the priority.

Anyone reading this review might assume that I don’t like Run DMC, but that’s totally untrue. I bow to no one in my respect for this group, which is why I hold them to such a high standard. I’ve been anxiously awaiting this album for over a year, despite apprehension at some of the guest appearances, because I know what Run, DMC, and Jam Master Jay are truly capable of. They do merit all the boasting on this album, though the tracks don’t always bear that out. That’s why seeing them lose their way so thoroughly is such a major disappointment. What they really need to do is get back to their roots and make a record on their own terms. When they do, I’ll be first in line, because I know that this band still has greatness in it, still has the capacity to blow minds and eardrums. You can even hear it here, glimmering at the edges of Crown Royal. But it’s buried under so much excess as to be almost indistinguishable. Guess that Supernatural magic only works once•

Arista Records, 6 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10019, http://www.arista.com, http://www.rundmc.net, http://www.revrun.com, http://www.me-dmc.com, http://www.nationwidedj.com