Made in Medina
I'm a newcomer to the genre, on top of being a typical, dumb, mostly-monolingual American, so I hope I can be forgiven for finding it difficult to put my finger on what exactly rai is. The French-Algerian musical form draws elements from both worlds, but beyond that, the definition seems amazingly vague -- and as my first real intro to the field, Rachid Taha's Made in Medina isn't helping matters much by blithely stepping from the cool, seductive pop beats of "Medina," a song that'd sound equally at home on the dancefloors of Paris or Amman, to the grinding, jarring repetition and mechanical noise of "Garab."
But I guess that's the point, really; rai isn't defined by what it's not, but by what it is, an incredible mishmash of styles and cultures, all thrown out on the plate for whoever cares to take a bite. Old world meets new world and back again, it's all here, from sampled beats to the qanun to the cello to something mysteriously labeled "Maghrebian percussion" in the liner notes. Algerian-born Rachid Taha, with some major help from world music guy Steve Hillage and a bunch of talented musicians (both western and North African), swims easily from one musical style to the next, from traditional-sounding chants that evoke shifting sands and camels ("Aïe Aïe Aïe") to real live rock that wouldn't sound out of place coming from a juke joint on the corner of Bourbon Street ("Verité"). So, in the end, all I can do is quit trying to pigeonhole and just listen. Which, obviously, is what I should've been doing in the first place.
I initially picked up Made in Medina after hearing the incredible lead-off track, "Barra Barra," on the Black Hawk Down soundtrack -- if you've seen the film, you'll probably remember the song; it's the one with the harsh, jagged heavy-metal guitar rumbling beneath a surface layer of hand drums, strings, and a low, sinister voice, all of which transmutes slowly into car-shaking bass and breakbeats, with the voice rising to a crescendo above the fray. It's the sound of a band of nomads in a desolate place, playing their hearts out around a bonfire, both defiant and dangerous. I was floored the first time I heard the song, and I'm still floored now, every time I put on the CD.
Keeping that in mind, I'll admit that I was somewhat disappointed when I got past the song and into the rest of Medina, none of which strikes quite that particular chord. The good part, though, is that the rest of the album, by and large, does strike plenty of chords, and all of the good variety; it just takes a little getting used to. "Foqt Foqt" immediately moves away from the more traditional aspects of "Barra Barra," coming off kind of like what U2 might sound like if they'd grown up in Marrakesh, and "Medina," following right behind, throws the listener for a complete loop with its seemingly innocuous yet addictive danciness. "Ala Jalkoum," a melancholy storytelling track that finds Taha gruffly singing an almost-blues, leads straight into the thumping, marching rhythm of "Aïe Aïe Aïe," and then on into the cheery, head-bobbing joy of "Hey Anta."
Upbeat and breezy, "Qalantiqa" is probably the most strictly traditional track on here, but even it takes some liberties with the original sound, incorporating guitars and some subtle programming behind Rachid Taha and the B'net Marrakesh women's singing group. "En Retard" leads on with an insistent chant, some kind of flute(?) and tambourines (and closes with what sounds like shout-outs to Marrakesh and Rabat, which, for those not currently watching enough television, are two cities in Morocco), and then "Verité" swings into the one kind-of-low-point on here, "Ho Cherie Cherie," a cheesy, sweet love song. All's forgiven with the closer, "Garab," however -- melodies give way to mechanical-sounding drums, hand percussion, and rough voices that almost seem to come from another planet, all of which eventually turns (how, I'm not sure) into a bubbling, Underworld-ish techno track and then back to a stomping folk song before it's all over.
The CD succeeds at both ends of the musical spectrum; on the one hand, Rachid Taha and Steve Hillage manage to transform the impassioned rhythms and North African instrumentation into something familiar and inviting to western ears, and on the other, to alter the almost familiar into something startingly alien and exotic.
The most surprising thing about the album, truthfully, is the language. All of Medina is sung in Arabic and French, although I'll be damned if I can discern much of anything that's actually comprehensible to my non-native ears, even with a few years of high school French under my belt (the lone exception is "Ala Jalkoum," which features an English verse sung by African singer Femi Kuti), and I could care less. I may not be absolutely certain what the singer of "Hey Anta" is singing about -- it could be a girl, a boy, God, or a grasshopper, for all I know -- but the pure joy and wonder shines through plain as day. A common language might help the listener to understand, but Medina is proof that it isn't necessary. (JH)
(Mondo Melodia Records -- http://www.mondomelodia.com/)
The Brotherhood of the Bomb
This is Monster Island hip-hop. That's the absolute best description I've been able to come up with, after a couple of weeks of spinning this disc on my way to work (by the way, I'm claiming I was under its influence when I got a speeding ticket this AM; I think it'll hold up in court once I play it for 'em...). Kevin Martin and Justin Broadrick, the British duo behind Techno Animal, who have under their collective belt such notable noise outfits as God, Ice, and Godflesh, have created one hell of a fusion of the aforementioned noise, dark, trippy dub, and hardcore, heavy-ass rap, and I have a sneaking suspicion its going to drive away a lot of afficionados of any of those musical genres.
This is one of those albums you'll either love or hate, most likely: if you're looking for Godflesh-style metallic noise, well, the influence is definitely still there (see the speaker-destroying bass "ripples" that rumble beneath almost every track), but it doesn't really fall into that camp; there's some heavy dub sounds here, as well, especially on tracks like the instrumental "Hypertension" (which could almost be off of Massive Attack's Mezzanine), but it's just too heavy and crushing a sound to make for good pass-the-dutchie music; and hip-hop headz will go away confused, too, despite some similarities to Company Flow (which makes some sense, since El-P guests on vocals), since Brotherhood refuses to fit the stereotypical hip-hop cultural mold and imagery. This isn't the kind of album you can really cruise the hood to, unless you're looking to kill somebody (and want to be real obvious about it).
Instead, the closest musical analogues would probably be those crazy Digital Hardcore kids over in Berlin (who T.A. have apparently worked with in the past), particularly in the way both Alec Empire & company's music and The Brotherhood of the Bomb assault the senses. After a couple of tracks, the crackling drum tracks and churning bass gave me a righteous headache, and after a few more, I found myself not caring, but bobbing my head in time.
The whole Monster Island metaphor somewhat fits with the band's name and supposed ideological slant, actually -- Techno Animal are about a melding of machines and organics, and those wacky Japanese monster movies are about nothing but, right? Picture Godzilla with a turntable, maybe with Megalon or Gamera throwing down the lyrics, a crowd of slamming, bodyrocking proto-dinosaurs, and a monster-sized stash, and you've got a pretty accurate image of what this CD sounds like. (JH)
(Matador Records -- 625 Broadway, 12th Floor, New York, NY. 10012; http://www.matadorrecords.com/; Techno Animal -- http://www.avalancheinc.co.uk/technoanimal.html)
No Sleep, More Fun
No Sleep, More Fun is apparently Theselah's second album, out on their own label. It was recorded on a cassette four-track recorder, but doesn't sound particularly lo-fi. Theselah's sound veers from place to place on this album; the first two tracks are beautiful slices of dream-pop, somewhat in the style of Galaxie 500, with delay guitars and wispy vocals. The third track, "Bad-Ass Hifi," is a shock to the system after hearing the previous pastoral beauty. It sounds something like a metal encounter with Sonic Youth. The fourth track returns to dreamland, but in a crunchier, noisier way, reminiscent of Bright. A couple more dreamy tunes with feedback-y lead guitar parts are followed by another rocker, again with Bright-like textures, but more of an indie-punk-y Sebadoh vocal technique. Then another dreamer, then another rocker, and the album is capped off by an ill-advised lullaby-like a capella number. Despite their somewhat limited playing technique, I think both of the main styles displayed on the album come off quite well, and there're some good tunes here. However, it would be nice if the styles were somehow better integrated, as it could be supposed that two different bands play on the album. Nevertheless, I dig it. (CP)
(K.O.A. Records -- 3383 Lerner Hall, New York, NY. 10027; http://www.koarecords.com/; Theselah -- http://listen.to/theselah)
Third Eye Foundation
I Poo Poo on Your Juju
Back when My Bloody Valentine fans the world over were fantasizing in vain over Kevin Shields and Company's rumored new post-Loveless hybrid of shoegazing guitar rock and jungle techno that never came to be, a Bristol, England outfit called the Third Eye Foundation released a gem of an album called Semtex, which is probably as close to that hybrid as the world will get. Since then, Third Eye Foundations mainman Matt Elliott has put the sampler to the fore in his music, making thick electronic assemblages girded by beat, but never forsaking atmosphere.
Word on the street, or at least the press-kit, is that I Poo Poo on Your Juju is regrettably the Third Eye Foundation's final release. Perhaps more regrettable is the fact that their final release is titled I Poo Poo on Your Juju. Umm, okay. Anyway, what's not regrettable is the fact that this is another fine release. It mainly functions as a collection of songs by other bands remixed by Third Eye Foundation. However, if I hadn't just told you that and you hadn't read it elsewhere, you might not realize that, because the album is remarkably consistent in sound, considering its heterogeneous origins. The first spot you're likely to make this realization is when the vocals kick in during the Blonde Redhead track. Although certain past tracks have been packed with so much raw sound as to make listening somewhat difficult, this album retains a healthy sense of space in most places.
An overall atmosphere of beautiful creepiness pervades much of the album. The surprising final track, a remix of a Jonathan Richman cover, caps off the proceedings well. (CP)
(Merge Records -- P.O. Box 1235, Chapel Hill, NC. 27514; http://www.mrg2000.com/merge/; Third Eye Foundation -- http://www.thirdeyefoundation.com/)
The 13th Round
If you buy just one record of incomprehensibly guttural mangled-English Japanese-girl street punk this year, do yourself a favor and make it Thug Murder's The 13th Round. If. (MH)
(TKO Records -- 4104 24th Street #103, San Francisco, CA. 94114; http://www.tkorecords.com/)
Tight Bros. From Way Back When
Lend You A Hand
How do you feel about AC/DC? I predict that's almost exactly how you will feel about this record (give or take the effect caused by the perceived irony of this effort being on an "indie" label), since they sound just about the same, although the Tight Bros. are rawer (add a little more Stooges/MC5 to the mix, perhaps). I don't know what else you could possibly need to know about this album. (DD)
(Kill Rock Stars -- 120 NE State Ave. #418, Olympia, WA. 98501; email@example.com; http://www.killrockstars.com/)
Long Dim Road
Hoist a pint above your head and yell and shout along with the Tossers. If you know what a "tosser" is, well, that says it all; and if not, just get this disc and see. Irish-flavored bar music with a whiskey back. Politics, law, sex, the pub, pals, justice, injustice, travels -- it's all here. One hell of a great disc; tin whistles, violins, banjos, mandolins, guitars, and the jangly, unmistakable underpinnings of traditional folk music layered with a punk attitude and in-your-face production. These boyos ha' na' fear. Great stories, told mostly by T. Duggins, reflect the "piss on ya, if ya don't like it" mentality of these thugs. How could you not like this? If you enjoy the gut-level reality of this kind of music, you would have a hard time finding better. Get a pint, sing along. I'm getting a disc of these guys for Heather Kathleen. (BW)
(Thick Records -- 409 N. Wolcott Ave., Chicago, IL. 60622; http://www.thickrecords.com/)
New Points New Lines
The early '80s: the best of times, the worst of times. On the one hand, you had synth-pop pap like The Human League and A Flock Of Seagulls; on the other, the wiry, tense and powerful music of Big Flame, The Minutemen, Wire, Gang of Four. So, what to do with this record, which has a foot firmly in each of these camps? This is easily the most perplexing thing I've heard in a while, as Gang of Four-style riffs are underscored with keyboards and breathy vocals that sound like they're from "Don't You Want Me, Baby?" How to evaluate this? Only ahistorically: attempting to listen to it without paying attention to its lineage (a difficult task for me) reveals a very listenable record that can be enjoyed both by those on the punk side of the fence and those on the pop side of the fence. It's rare that a shotgun marriage works, but this one does. (DD)
(Grimsey Records -- firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.grimsey.com/)
Marc Tremblay is a French-Canadian composer of tape music. The album Bruit-graffiti (which translates as "noise graffiti") is compiled from six tape pieces he composed and constructed over the course of the 1990s. His brand of tape music is largely constructed with sounds recorded from real life, often repeated and modified in a variety of ways, but usually not modified so radically as to totally obscure the sound's origin. The sounds' origins are important because most of the tracks presented here have themes which are then reflected in the sounds used. Luckily for the listener, it's clear that Mr. Tremblay, unlike some of the stuffed shirt types who typically inhabit this genre, has a good sense of humor. For instance, witness the brilliant inner photo of Mr. Tremblay, clad in yellow rubber cleaning gloves and a suit, conducting a symphony orchestra of vacuum cleaners, TV sets, bicycles, telephones, microwave ovens, a toilet, and a snowmobile, each with its own empty music stand, on a gravelly beach most likely in Quebec looking out over Hudson Bay. This sense of humor, which never becomes jokey, is also displayed with the Beatles' "beep beep, yeah" samples and car horns in the first track, "Vroum," from 1997, which is about how the invention of the automobile has radically changed our sonic landscapes. Subsequent tracks inventively tackle the subjects of childhood, washrooms, Westerns, telephones, and money. (CP)
(Ambiances Magnétiques -- 4580, avenue de Lorimier, Montréal, QUEBEC H2H 2B5, CANADA; http://www.electrocd.com/)
A New Machine For Living
When I think of great music from the '80s, part of me thinks of the bands I know now -- Sonic Youth, the Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, and so on -- and part of me thinks of what I was actually listening to -- Styx, Iron Maiden, and, especially, video game music. No, I don't mean "Pac-Man Fever"; I mean the theme from Spy Hunter, of course, and especially I mean the numerous tunes from my second favorite video game, Tron. (The first is Joust. No theme song, though.) I share this ramble because I listened to this record (one of many times) while driving on the highway right after playing Tron, and while it would be really easy to pigeonhole it as post-rock crossed with prog-rock (for one, it sounds kind of like that; for another, many of its participants have been associated with prog-rockers Pitchblende and post-rockers Doldrums), I have to think that these guys played a lot of Tron. There's a driven energy combined with an unspooling logic to these songs that evades any typical songcraft concerns (like lyrics or hummable melodies or comprehensible song structure) to really create a sensation of being caught within some sort of machine, perhaps riding the circuit boards or something. I suppose in the wrong mood it could be unpleasant, but I found it hypnotic and enjoyable and found myself looking for the quarter slot in my dashboard. (DD)
(Jade Tree Records -- 2310 Kennwynn Rd., Wilmington, DE. 19810; email@example.com; http://www.jadetree.com/)