A Healthy Distrust
Going by what I'd heard off of Rhode Island rapper Sage Francis's previous effort, Personal Journals (his first "real" solo album, after nearly a half-dozen CDs self-released on his own label, Strange Famous), I wasn't really sure what to expect of his latest, A Healthy Distrust. Would it be more sensitive, backpack-wearing indie-hop meditations on love and loss, the kind of personal introspection raps that wouldn't sound out of place at a poetry slam where the hipster kids are all caffeinated, self-consciously smart, and alternately cynical and sincere? Or would it be closer to his Non-Prophets collab with Joe Beats, Hope, which mined a little bit of a darker, harder, more political vein?
In the end, it turns out, Distrust does both. The personal stuff's still there -- deeply-felt tracks like "Crumble" and "Escape Artist" are definitely heart-wrenching, not just some dumb battle-rap -- but so's the political. What's more, the whole mess is colored a darker, deeper shade than anything of Sage's that I've heard before, including some of his self-released tracks. He's known for his sense of humor and silliness, yes, and there's plenty of that here (the call-and-response of "I'm on fire, I'm on fire / Me too, me too" at the start of "Gunz Yo" cracks me up), but right from the start of "The Buzz Kill," with its ominous bass beat and paranoiac '50s computer marketing samples, it's pretty clear that Sage is mad as hell and ain't gonna take it any more. Even the personal stuff lets an overwhelming fury seep through, the lone exception being "Lie Detector Test," which is a sweet, summer-flavored, lazy swing, a little bit of sleepy silliness that brings to mind Will Smith (if he could rap, that is; sorry, Prince). Even the stark, menacing, black-white-and-red sleeve design alone serves as a warning that Distrust isn't just fluff. This is some heavy, dark shit.
I'm sure the comparison's already been beaten to death, but the thing I keep coming back to when I listen to this disc is "damn, I need to listen to Fear of a Black Planet again." Not that I'm trying to minimize Sage, mind you, but that if he bears a resemblance to anybody, it's Public Enemy -- he's angry-as-hell Chuck D and chucklehead Flavor Flav all rolled into the body of a white guy from the wilds of Providence. That fury I'm hearing? It's the same feeling I got back in high school when I heard It Takes a Nation of Millions for the first time. Tracks like the aforementioned "Buzz Kill," "Gunz Yo," "Dance Monkey," and "Slow Down Gandhi" explode from the headphones, angry, frantic, and claustrophobic (and all throwing witty, sarcastic venom on the fire, to boot).
Beyond that, the production, too, makes me think of the ever-unappreciated Terminator X -- forget that Neptunes/Timbaland minimalist shit, Distrust is practically carpeted with layer upon layer of sound. Sage apparently used a star-studded cast of indie DJs for the tracks, a crew that includes Sixtoo, Dangermouse, Alias, Reanimator, and (of course) Joe Beats, and they've created this overwhelming mishmash of noise that still somehow manages to coalesce. The prime example here is "Dance Monkey" (which also happens to be one of the album's highlights, partly for lines like "I don't got a God complex / You've got a simple God") -- it marries bumping horn samples, funky-grind bass, bizarrely high-pitched backing vocals, what sounds like Ice Cube's voice, and...well, hell, I can't keep track of it all. The end result is like a grenade dropped on the dancefloor.
Of course, that doesn't mean Sage Francis is strictly some old-school revivalist, trying to bring back the Golden Age of Run-DMC and Eric B and Rakim. On the contrary, he's all about the future, blending slam poetry into rap the way Saul Williams does (although I think he succeeds far more frequently than Williams) and even taking an audacious step for a rapper, collaborating with indie downer-country maestro Will Oldham on "Sea Lion," one of the "personal" tracks here, seemingly a meditation on his parents, self-doubt, and vulnerability, Sage wondering aloud if he's doing it right. Seriously -- can anybody see Jay-Z heading into the studio to trade lyrics with Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock? Didn't think so.
Despite the PE comparisons above, I shouldn't make too much of Sage's politics here, by the way; just because he's anti-Bush (and he seems to be -- two guesses who the silhouette figure in the cowboy hat on the CD sleeve is meant to symbolize) doesn't mean he's pro-Democrat. On "Slow Down Gandhi," for example, Sage jabs at both right-wing looney tunes like Ted Nugent at the same time that he's slapping down trend-following rebels who fight the power 'til the bills come due. Throughout the album, he's pretty much "anti-"everything, from stupidity to reproduction to posers to idiotically repetitive songs; on "Sun Vs. Moon," a brilliantly-sketched duel on the decks between celestial bodies, he even steps into a bitter, cynical commentary on the nature of God, declaring that the Devil only exists because of belief and that "same goes for that other guy."
It makes sense, really, since Sage is renowned for antagonizing audiences -- at the end of "Escape Artist," which basically equates the rap game with the magic biz, there's some audio of the rapper taunting an angry crowd from the stage, daring them to shoot him. Hell, "Voice Mail Bomb Threat" is nothing but what it says, a venomous threat left by an enraged Detroit "fan" on Sage's answering machines, laid over a nicely sped-up bit of Latin-inflected lounge music. Who started the fight? I can't say for sure, but my bet would be on Sage. He's a guy who's out to start shit, no matter the subject.
All in all, A Healthy Distrust is one of the most authentic, smartest (love the sly references to Michael Jackson, King Missile, and De La Soul), best-sounding rap albums I've heard in years. It may not be for everybody -- I can just about see the rap purist backlash building -- but who cares? If they don't like it, fuck 'em. The only tracks on here that I really don't care for are "Agony in Her Body," which is nice and all but stumbles a few times too often in the lyrical department, and "Jah Didn't Kill Johnny," which is a well-meaning country/rap hybride tribute to, yes, Johnny Cash; despite the good intentions, the song ends up feeling a bit repetitive and half-assed. Beyond that, though, Distrust should be the album that shoves Sage out of the coffeehouses and onto the big stage. (JH)
(Epitaph Records -- 2798 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. 90026; http://www.epitaph.com/; Sage Francis -- http://www.sagefrancis.net/)
Sandin Is the Self Esteem Destruction Machine
I'll admit it; I was drawn to Carl Sandin's latest record, Carl Sandin Is the Self Esteem Destruction Machine, because his three piece band includes two former members of Japanic. Japanic's danceable pop-jump fun always thrilled me with its rich melodic grooves, so I was happy when I found out that Carl Sandin loves to go pop, as well. I keep wanting to say that each song sounds like its from the 1950s, but it's '50s music the way Marty McFly played it at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance.
Self Esteem Destruction Machine reminds me of the John Byrne record I was listening to on September 11th, 2001 -- serious, sophisticated pop music in a grown man's voice. I listened to that record all day long that day and didn't know that anything in particular had exploded in New York or on the news. It occurs to me that in 2005, the year that Michael Haaga and The John Sparrow found pop excellence in our city, Carl Sandin's album, both old and new at the same time, just gave me another reason to not know what was on TV. (CL)
(Bronze Beagle Records; Carl Sandin -- http://www.carlsandin.com/)
The Secret Machines
Now Here Is Nowhere
Yeah, I know I'm a bit late in jumping on the Secret Machines bandwagon. What can I say? While I'd heard and liked "First Wave Intact," I'm just a poor li'l worker bee, I'm afraid, and am only able to buy new CDs sporadically (Reprise doesn't send us their releases), so I only recently got my hands on Now Here Is Nowhere, the Dallas-by-way-of-NYC trio's debut full-length. Now that I've heard it, however, I'm kicking myself for not getting it sooner.
I should note, by the way, that the press hoopla surrounding the band also threw me off a bit. I read so many reviews that talked about how long the songs were, how the band was a new-era Pink Floyd for the '00s, yadda, yadda, yadda, that I put it in halfway dreading that it'd be a slow grind of interminable, dull-as-dirt space rock. Not that I think there's anything wrong with long, psychedelic, spacey music, mind you -- I dig the heck out of Spiritualized and Sigur Rós, for two -- it's just that I can't generally take a lot of it at one sitting. Ágætis Byrjun, for example, is a fine, fine album...that I happen to listen to probably once a year at best because it requires so damn much of my attention and time. I feared that Now Here Is Nowhere would fall into the same category.
I shouldn't have worried. Yes, a couple of the songs are long, yes, they're occasionally psychedelic/spacey/whatever, and yes, there is a distinct Pink Floyd feel at times (especially on the shambling, swirling "Pharaoh's Daughter," which sounds like a cover of "Time" as played by people who only ever heard the song once, long ago, but decided to give it a shot anyway), but the band (Josh Garza and brothers Brandon and Benjamin Curtis) proves that those are just specific aspects of the overall whole of their sound. In fact, The Machines pretty much blow all of the conventional tags I've seen them with right out of the water, confounding attempts to pigeonhole their music as "space-rock," "the new Pink Floyd," or whatever else.
That's not to say that this is some all-new formulation of rock music or something, but damn if it doesn't do some pretty amazing, interesting things. Easily my favorite track is the first, "First Wave Intact," which sounds like it could serve as the anthemic soundtrack to the next generation of sci-fi flicks. Despite its length (it clocks in at an even 9 minutes, the longest track on the CD), I find myself sucked along for the ride every time I listen, not even realizing that nearly a full sixth of an hour's slipped by 'til the song's done. As an opener for Nowhere, the song practically blasts the rest of the proceedings into outer space. And y'know what does it? It's Josh Garza's driving, propulsive drums and Brandon Curtis's fuzzy, murky bass; the latter bumps along languidly, dragged to full speed by the former's robotic, rock-steady beats. Ben Curtis's guitars flail and strut over this racing-yet-meditative rhythm section, joining with Brandon's keys to wrap the audience up in sound (cocooning them so they can be more easily transported onto the waiting starship, maybe?) like nobody outside of MBV, M83, or maybe those wacky Icelanders mentioned above.
The rhythm section's what makes the album, really. "Sad And Lonely" flies a barrage of fuzzy, warm, Matthew Sweet guitars and keys in over a roiling bed of stomping, John Bonham-ish drums and funky, fuzzed-out bass -- think Girls Against Boys without the I'm-too-sexy croon -- while "Nowhere Again" is all fierce, driving rock (which reminds me oddly of Harvey Danger, for some reason) forced along by the drumming and "You Are Chains" starts soft and synth-y only to hammer in with distorted bass and drums, Space Needle-style. Through it all, the beat charges onward, only pausing briefly for the delicate, whispery spaciness of "The Leaves Are Gone" before diving back in. There's hardly a wasted moment here, either; of all the tracks, the only one that didn't make much of an impression on me is the penultimate, "Light's On," and that's partly because I was still trying to figure out what the heck happened in "You Are Chains". "The Road Leads Where It's Led" is a glorious roar, yet again still somehow almost funky, with hints of both the Poster Children and U2 floating around in the mix, and the album's closing title track veers off into Spiritualized territory for what's essentially a reprise of "Nowhere Again" -- only this time, the artificial gravity's turned off.
Oh, and one funny little bit of synchronicity to end with: while listening to the CD, I had this nagging, annoying feeling like I knew these guys from somewhere, like I'd heard them before. And it turns out that I have -- Garza and Brandon Curtis were two-thirds of one of the greatest unknown Texas rock bands ever, Dallas's Captain Audio, who back in 2000 tossed out the brilliant, effortless-sounding Luxury or Whether It Is Better to Be Loved Than Feared and then faded into what sure seemed like obscurity. Apparently Garza and Curtis hooked up with Brandon's brother Ben and -- lo and behold -- the Secret Machines were born, and are now on their way to becoming real-live rockstars. Nice to see that sometimes good things really do get rewarded. As for the listeners, hey, Now Here Is Nowhere is reward enough for us. (JH)
(Reprise Records -- http://www.repriserecords.com/; The Secret Machines -- http://www.thesecretmachines.com/)
Sky Blue 72
From the start, this three-song E.P. from Sky Blue 72 reminded me of something I used to love. Was it L.A. sex music, like you'd hear in an expensive Melrose hair salon? The female voice singing over the ethereal, trippy, funk, jazz, dance club music made it hard to understand the words. I couldn't understand each individual word, kind of like when you listen to Björk; you don't understand Icelandic, but you assume that through some artistic osmosis, you're gaining the full benefit of the poetry. There's also the effect of when you do understand each word, but don't understand the meanings immediately, and therefore you assume there must be depth and meaning where there is such mystery.
Then I remembered what it reminded me most of -- it was the Sneaker Pimps. A long time ago, I found the Sneaker Pimps debut album in quite a similar way, on the desk of a harried music editor who wanted to recommend it, give it away, even, but couldn't find anyone to listen. So it sat on a desk because it had that sticker "For promotional use only" that kept it from being pawned. This Sky Blue 72 record must be sitting in record stores -- or worse, on the Internet -- with nobody knowing the mysteries to be gleaned from its trance. If you find yourself surfing the shelves of a local record store or the darkest back alleys of the Internet and you love ethereal jazz beats with psychedelic D.J. effects that are positively sublime, well...
I never like to recommend E.P.s, but I'm thinking you'll want to support this one, since if enough of us do, they'll probably decide to put out a ten- or twelve-song disc. If they did, it'd be the kind of thing you'd put on repeat while you sleep. (CL)
(self-released; Sky Blue 72 -- http://www.skyblue72.com/)
Southkill is a Washington, D.C.-based duo of drums and electric guitar. Their songs are almost completely instrumental. The guitar player plays rhythmically straightforward (no mathemagicians here), extremely loud, and intense walls of guitar. The songs are built on repeating chordal riffs, which are very minimal and played mostly at slow tempos. To like Southkill, therefore, you really have to like the sound of distorted electric guitars! Otherwise, this is not for you. The songs themselves are built from rhythm guitar riffs, and since the pace of each song is slow, each goes on for a while -- and unfortunately, here that's not the best idea. All of the riffs are built off the same idea -- hitting chords hard on the guitar -- and most of the songs go on longer than they really need to.
"In the Balance" is probably the most interesting song, where the drone in the song and the fact that the riffs are all within the same range mask the changes in the song in such a way that if you're not paying attention, they sound the same, but if you listen, there are some interesting riffs down below each section of the song. The second half of "Bridges Designed to Collapse" changes the chords more, as well, after you've been lulled into the drone by the first half of the song (also a little long, but better). After that, though the other songs on the album are not nearly as interesting. "Horizon at Aramoana" has some interesting riffs in it, but the song goes on too long, and the others don't even have lengthy chord sequences as an excuse. The problem is that playing instrumentally requires more than regular songs, especially when the songs have no melodies.
Part of the thrill of each song is the sound of the pounding distorted guitars. But because Southkill uses that same murky, overwhelming chord sound on each song, and since the chords are all each song is based on, each song starts to sound the same. And when the sound is an intentional aspect of the songs, the fact that they sound the same is not good. Individually, some of the songs may be okay, but when you put them all together, they're a lot less interesting. And while records don't specifically have to showcase different feels or orchestrations or something on each song, the songs need to work together as a group. But because each song is based around the same idea, the songs on Southkill make each other sound like less than a whole. (HM)
(Noreaster Failed Industries -- 2406 Phillips Drive, Alexandria, VA. 22306; http://www.nfilabel.com/; Southkill -- http://www.southkill.com/)
Stop Doing Bad Things
In my review of Remember Right Now, Spitalfield's previous album, I think I said something to the effect of -- ahem -- "Admittedly, Spitalfield don't blaze any new paths with Remember Right Now, but if you want to call writing killer rock songs 'lame' or 'unoriginal,' then be my guest." The guys in Spitalfield must have seen that review, because here on their sophomore effort they still continue to write killer songs, but now they actually are venturing into new places. First off, the songwriting has definitely matured since Remember Right Now; while they still retain a definite pop sensibility, the song structures are a little more complex this time around, and the lyrical content and vocal delivery are a bit less "high school." There's also a heavier feel to the arrangements -- nothing like Slayer, mind you, but there's definitely a "crunchiness" that wasn't really present on Remember Right Now. With all that said, I must admit that I was taken aback in a sense on my initial listen to Stop Doing Bad Things, as the songs aren't as catchy in the up-front way that they were before (perhaps because of the very things I just mentioned). Then I realized later on that I still had gotten the damn songs stuck in my head (in particular, "Gold Dust Vs. State Of Illinois" and "So I Heard You Joined A Convent"). They had snuck up on me stealthily, like a melodic ninja. The best comparison I can think of would be Clarity-era Jimmy Eat World, which had the same effect on me. At any rate, Spitalfield are definitely building on the solid groundwork they laid with Remember Right Now, and they seem to be evolving into quite the band to keep an eye (or ear) on. (MHo)
(Victory Records -- 346 N. Justine, Suite 504, Chicago, IL. 60607; http://www.victoryrecords.com/; Spitalfield -- http://www.spitalfield.net/)
On their self-titled CD, these New Orleans-based rockers play music like it should be played -- raw, aggressive, loose, energetic, and fun. Their Darkness/Wildhearts/Ramones vibe is a welcome alternative to the more technical, serious attitudes of many bands before them. What you hear is what you get -- pure, up-front rock, complete with catchy vocals, bold riffs, cuss words, and songs that are just the right length, causing the listener to hit the "repeat" button on the CD player.
Band members Chris Lee, Benji Lee, Leif Swift, and Michael Brueggen give the perfect mix of blues, rock, intensity, and humor. Their brand of music is exceptional, original, and, above all, extremely listenable. Each and every song on the CD is unique and showcases the different abilities each band member has. I didn't get bored, which I often do, because many groups seem to add the final few songs as an afterthought, simply to fill up the record.
I've reviewed other CDs in the past and I'm finding, with this one especially, that it is much harder to praise than to ream. Usually I can ramble at great length about why a band sucks, but often can't come up with anything for why a band rules. So I think I'll cut this one a little short. In parting, if you're a rock fan and are looking for something excellent, pick up Supagroup's disc. It's hard to express just how good it really is. You will not be disappointed. (CM)
(Foodchain Records -- 6525 Sunset Boulevard, 4th Floor, Hollywood, CA 90028; http://www.foodchainrecords.com/; Supagroup -- http://www.supagroup.com/)