Tag Archives: Hip Hop

A Swanky 2012: Part Two

29 Dec


[For an Introduction to A Swanky 2012, go here.]

Part Two


The Bowl:  Outback Bowl – South Carolina v. Michigan 

The Pick:  South Carolina (-5.5)

The Album:  Confess by Twin Shadow

Bringing a full-fledged commitment and earnestness to the pop/rock musical styles of the 1980s, Twin Shadow delivered one of the more passionate and assured albums of the year.  Confess sounds as if the brooding, bookish introvert from down the hall has been spending all of his time listening to Top 100 rock radio mixes from 1979 – ’89, and now wants to impress that Hot Girl In The Denim Whitesnake Jacket.  That is a very good thing.

The basic, familiar elements are all there on Confess – the shiny and clear guitar chords, the chiming synthesizers that drench everything in a fluorescent haze, the yearning, balls-out, Auto-Tuned yawp of unrequited love.  This is much more than just a tired retread of an old Journey album, though.  There’s a vitality and urgency to every song, as though front man George Lewis Jr. absolutely needed to get these things down on vinyl.

There’s a lot going on here, musically, underneath the flashy veneer that screams “Retro.”  There are different sonic touches and melodies swirling and enmeshing everywhere, marking this as the work of a true music aficionado who knows his way around the creation of big, bold, and flashy hooks.

Those hooks, and the overall adeptness with creating pop songs, make Confess compulsively listenable, particularly if you’ve got the top down on a sunny day, or you’re dreaming of such a scene as the rain trickles down outside.  The songs sound tight and sleek like any well-oiled pop machine should, and various lyrical and melodic hooks will get stuck in your head long after your first hear them.  The true strength of Confess is that Lewis delivers these pop goods without losing any of his vibrant, bleeding, music-loving heart.


The Bowl:  Capital One Bowl – Nebraska v. Georgia

The Pick:  Georgia (-9)

The Album:  Lonerism by Tame Impala

It had been two years since Tame Impala’s last album, Innerspeaker, and for fans of that record, the wait for Lonerism was a long one.  Innerspeaker was a constant treat for the ears, with warm guitar feedback loops and vintage electronic touches flying under and around the melodic, Lennon-esque vocals of front man Kevin Parker.  The group set the bar high for themselves, and in their follow-up, they generally managed to hit the same top marks while pushing their sound into new territories as well.  While Lonerism may not have been able to best Innerspeaker, it’s worthy of standing on its own as one of the most unique and high-quality rock albums of the year.

Lonerism features the same melodic characteristics that are now familiar to listeners of Tame Impala – the fuzzed-out halo around every sound effect, the echo-y and airy vocals, the propensity to leap off into a psychedelic groove tangent when the opportunity presents itself.  The album, and the band itself, sounds like a transmission beamed here from a recording studio in 1971.  As they’ve proved before, Tame Impala doesn’t rely on their vintage sound to become a gimmicky crutch – instead it is something that is wholly unique and wholly their own.  They know what they like and they make great music with it.

Lonerism marks some different approaches for the band, particularly in that it features some more open-ended songs and sonic arrangements.  Tame Impala have proved they know how to lock into tight grooves and rock out hard with the best of them, and while there are some excellent hard-driving moments on Lonerism such as “Elephant,” there are also a lot of songs that spread out all over the musical spectrum and take their time getting to wherever they happen to be going.  Vocal effects, spare synths, guitars, and various other chimes and squiggles caterwaul around tracks like “Music To Walk Home By” with a joyous abandon, and it can be overwhelming at times.

The strength of Lonerism, and of the maturing Tame Impala in general, is that they are in control of their free-wheeling grooves at all times, no matter how out-there and exploratory they may seem to be.  Just when you think things are going to spin off into the ether, a well-timed bass and drum combo locks into a deep groove and reminds you that these guys are first and foremost a great rock band.


The Bowl:  Fiesta Bowl – Kansas State v. Oregon

The Pick:  Kansas St. (+9)

The Album:  R.A.P. Music by Killer Mike

You’d be hard-pressed to find any other release this year, hip-hop or otherwise, that seethes with as much pent-up vitriol and passionate energy as Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music.  Producer El-P creates spare, pounding beats with menacing synth lines that perfectly match the tone of the lyrics and draw out the essential elements of Mike’s behind-the-beat flow.

For listeners only familiar with Killer Mike from his “All Day I Dream About Sex” days, it’s probably a surprise to hear the bombastic rapper getting serious throughout R.A.P. Music; there’s a refreshing sincerity to his lyrics and delivery as he tackles social and emotional issues through the record.  Mike and Co. aren’t holding anything back on this one.

Things aren’t all somber and preachy, however, as Mike finds plenty of time to toss in off-color jokes and vibrantly ridiculous imagery, much like his fellow Southern hip-hop counterparts, OutKast.  Even as the beats and spat-out lyrics are knocking you flat, R.A.P. never stop being entertaining as hell.

When R.A.P. Music hits its high points, it’s an exhilarating call-back to the days of early Public Enemy and Straight Outta Compton.  There’s an incendiary, almost subversive feeling to the record, and there wasn’t much else like it this year.


The Bowl:  Cotton Bowl – Texas A&M v. Oklahoma

The Pick:  Texas A&M (-3)

The Album:  Nocturne by Wild Nothing

Whether they set out to do it or not, Wild Nothing’s Nocturne sounds like a perfect distillation of every summer night you had from age 14 to 21.  Like many of those nights, it wheels between feeling wistful, blissed-out, and restless.  There’s a laid-back vibe over much of the album that evokes the haze of summer; that slow, dreamy feeling deceptively covers up the prolific and deft musicianship going on just under the surface.

Under that sleek surface, Nocturne is filled with layers of sound that are intricately pieced together, and as each track progresses, the layers often build upon each other, building momentum before cresting in powerful and well-earned climaxes.  These are expansive soundscapes largely dominated by delicate yet striking guitar chords that loop around each other and create an immersive atmosphere around bits of drums, synths, and airy vocals.

The album’s tracks flow into each other and create a hazy, seductive mood that borders on the dreamlike – it can make you feel nostalgic for a period of time or singular moment that you can’t quite place, and maybe never even experienced.  It’s a striking and poignant listening experience.  This is sunny music flecked with melancholy, both in the lyrics and in the chiming, mournful chords that fall like rain out of the speakers.


The Bowl:  National Championship – Alabama v. Notre Dame

The Pick:  Alabama (-9.5)

The Album:  Port of Morrow by The Shins

The Shins’ last album, Wincing The Night Away, was a strange yet fascinating record, marked by feelings of mystery and a slight menace, that saw James Mercer choosing electronic territory more so than the strummed-guitar chords of Chutes Too Narrow.  In the five years since the release of Wincing, Mercer had reshuffled the band around him, and it wasn’t clear which version of the Shins would be appearing in 2012.  Or if they would be able to sustain the quality of albums’ past.  Port of Morrow answered those questions, and showed that the Shins’ future is bright.

One of the great things about Port is that it takes all of the sonic elements from the group’s earlier records and puts them together into a confident and propulsive new sound.  There are electronic flourishes, there are quiet moments of acoustic beauty, there are eloquent, strange and esoteric little catches of lyrics and phrases, and there are surges of momentum that unmasks Mercer’s rock and roll heart.  It’s an album in which you can see how the band has grown, and it feels both refreshingly new and professionally mature.

The ultimate triumph of Port may be that it shows of Mercer’s ability to remain immediate and impactful with his musical themes.  He may not be an angst-y young songwriter anymore, but he can still combine melodies and lyrics to create moments that connect on deep emotional levels.  Port hits upon some universal, hard-to-eludicate themes of life in a way that few other artists could duplicate this year – without sacrificing any musical enjoyment in the process.




Rock The Playoff Bells

19 May

After covering the remaining playoff teams from the NBA’s Eastern Conference, it’s now time to take a look at the Western Conference’s final four contenders and understand them better with some help from the 2012 lineup of hip-hop music festival Rock The Bells.  [Catch up on the Eastern Conference here.]

Western Conference

Lakers – Ice Cube

Ice Cube and this year’s version of the Lakers have a lot more in common besides just calling the city of Los Angeles home.  Cube earned his status as a hip-hop icon with his brash, free-wheeling work for N.W.A. and his own solo releases.  He’s dipped in and out of the rap game since his 90’s heyday, but in recent years has mostly shifted his body of work from Compton to Hollywood.  A string of family-friendly acting roles has given Cube a lot of mainstream success, and while he can still earn a top spot on Rock The Bell’s lineup this year, his focus now is clearly more on the drama than the music.

Drama is something that the Lakers have seen plenty of this season, and a lot of it has come from off the court.  The core of this Lakers team – Kobe, Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol – has had a lot of success in the past with two championships.  Like Ice Cube, however, that success has given way to more and more drama this year, with swirling trade rumors, Bynum acting out, coaching questions, and the ever-changing antics of Metta World Peace.  The Lakers have tried with varying success to keep their focus on the court, but a tough matchup with OKC in the second round is fueling fears that their heyday – like Ice Cube’s – is now a thing of the past.

Thunder – A$AP Rocky “More To Be Announced”

On paper, the OKC squad seems to be a perfect basketball match for A$AP Rocky.  Both the team and the MC are young, supremely talented, exciting, have a lot of buzz, and seem primed for a lot of future success.  That’s on paper though – and as we’ve covered before here at Dan Swanky’s, the OKC Thunder are not a normal basketball team.  To fans of the Seattle SuperSonics (RIP), this OKC team is a living, breathing reminder of greed and theft on a large scale.

The Thunder shouldn’t exist – at least not in their 2012 version,  playing for the whitewashed crowd currently cheering them on in Oklahoma City.  They belong to Seattle, and as far as we’re concerned, are now an illegitimate franchise.  That’s why when it comes to the Rock The Bells Lineup, OKC is really most like that little phrase at the bottom of the poster: ‘More To Be Announced’.  Because they don’t really exist, in the sense of being a true franchise.  Is that a petty, bitter approach to take?  Well, yeah.  But that’s how we feel.  The awesome talent of A$AP Rocky is much, much too good for this stolen team.

Clippers – Bone Thugs-N-Harmony

One of the themes of past Rock The Bell festivals has been to have older artists or groups reunite or make rare live appearances, in which they play some of their classic albums or tracks.  Bone Thugs are continuing that theme this year by coming together in their original lineup and playing the entirety of their most successful album, E. 1999 Eternal.  The group has been pretty inconsistent with their material in recent years, but they have a lot of great tracks from earlier in their career, and their unique, creative sound has earned them a favorable spot in the hip-hop canon.

One of Bone Thugs’ signature qualities is the loose, party-friendly vibe that permeates through a lot of their songs.  This has a lot in common with the style of basketball often played by the 2012 Clippers.  The Clippers carry the nickname Lob City, and play up to that moniker with highlight-ready plays from athletic freaks like Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.  The Clippers run up and down the court, throwing no-look passes and dropping thunderous dunks, and at times look like a bunch of really talented guys playing a loose game of street ball on the neighborhood court.  There can often be a lack of discipline with the Clippers’ style, and discipline is not a word found anywhere near the vicinity of weed-scented Bone Thugs jams like “1st of tha Month” and “Weedman.”  There had to be at least one time this year when a dashiki-clad Nick Young put on E. 199 Eternal in the post-game locker room, prompting the entire Clippers crew to rap and dance along.

Spurs – Missy Elliot + Timbaland

There’s a chance that the Missy Elliot + Timbaland collaboration won’t actually make it to the Rock The Bells stage this year, but they’re on the initial announcement materials, so we’ll go with it.  With a history of one hugely successful run and reliably constant stream of output, there isn’t another artist on the lineup that better compares to the San Antonio Spurs.  To the chagrin of basketball fans who like their basketball stars to be emotional and remotely interesting, Tim Duncan has led the Spurs to three championships in his 15-year career with the team.  For a while in the 2000’s, the Spurs were the undisputed kings of the basketball world, much like Timbaland, and to a lesser extent, Missy, ruled over the music world with their distinct sound and style for a stretch of time.

The spastic, occasionally irritating sounds of Timba + Missy are also reflected by the Spurs with the flopping and flailing style of play often displayed by players like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.  These two foreign stars in particular stand out as being very talented, but nevertheless infuriating when they take spectacular dives from phantom fouls and whine loudly when things don’t go their way.  The music of Timba + Missy can be highly entertaining, and it’s easy to marvel at the high quality of their work; the response to the basketball performances of the Spurs can be the same way.  But there can be a time when the funky and expressive sounds of Timba + Missy become grating and tiresome, and those are two qualities that Spurs haters know all too well.

Rock The Playoff Bells

18 May

The worlds of hip-hop and basketball share many connections, from their deep inner-city roots to their ever-evolving fashion trends; the latter in particular is especially apparent as the postgame press conferences of young NBA stars today are filled with sartorial nods to the looks championed by artists like Jay-Z and Kanye West.

One big reason for the bond between basketball and hip-hop  is that the nature of the business for rappers and professional basketball players is similar, in that both entail a high-level of individual visibility and little room to hide from the spotlight.  NBA players go to work in tank tops and shorts, under the scrupulous eyes of HD cameras and thousands of fans armed with flashing smartphone cameras.  Hip-hop stars need to fill entire albums with rapid-fire bursts of intimate thoughts and personal revelations; there can be flashy beats and effects to draw listeners’ attention momentarily, but at the end of the day, any artist with staying power is going to be judged by what they can do when it’s just them and a mic.

The high degree of visibility that both professions entail can give their respective fans an impression of intimacy with the stars they follow.  This leads to an environment in which commentators, fans, bloggers, etc. can confidently dissect and analyze not just the stars’ performances in the studio/on the court, but also their personal qualities, and overall value as human beings.  It can seem relatively easy and common to be an expert on the comprehensive personal histories of hip-hop stars and NBA players.

On a less in-depth and self-serious note, hip-hop and the NBA also shared something else this week – headlines.  The second round of the NBA playoffs is now in full-swing, and off-court storylines from Miami and L.A. are adding to the drama on the court.  With lesser general fanfare but still drawing attention, this year’s lineup of the traveling hip-hop festival Rock The Bells was also released this week.  And so, in light of the ‘everyone’s an expert’ syndrome discussed previously, we seized upon these two news items as a means to analyze stars from both worlds further.  We decided to take a look at the remaining NBA playoff teams and find their musical matches on the 2012 Rock The Bells Lineup.

Eastern Conference

Celtics – Nas

The core Celtics – Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo – had enormous success in their first year together, going all the way to the title in 2008.  Ever since then, they’ve generally remained one of the elite teams in the league but have never been able to reach another title; the rival Lakers have won two in that same period.  Because of their frustrations since 2008, the legacy of this particular Celtics team is unclear – they haven’t been legendarily great, but they have still been feared and respected.  Their run in this year’s playoff will go a long way to determining their overall place in the NBA’s Great Teams hierarchy.

Nas has a similar legacy issue with the hip-hop game – he burst onto the scene with the all-time classic Illmatic in 1994, but followed that with several years of inconsistent musical output.  His artistic reputation recovered greatly with Stillmatic and God’s Son in the early 2000’s, and ever since, Nas has generally been regarded as someone with a vital place in hip-hop’s history, but who never totally seemed to have the all-time great career that seemed possible after Illmatic.  Regardless – like the 2012 Celtics, he’s still respected in the game and a formidable presence when he’s at 100%.

76ers – Tyga

The 76ers are not a bad team, but they are a pretty young team that has a lot of room to grow.  They most definitely are not a serious title contender, and it can be pretty safe to say that were it not for a highly unfortunate Derrick Rose ACL tear, they wouldn’t even be in the second round.  So it’s pretty easy to label Philly as the ‘just happy to be here’ young team, and that’s even before their coach Doug Collins appeared to slyly concede the series to Boston in his Game 3 post-season comments.

In the hip-hop world, Tyga enjoyed a breakout hit several months ago with the catchy “Rack City,” and has been riding that song’s popularity ever since.  It’s too early to call him a one-hit wonder, but when it comes to being near the top of the Rock The Bells lineup poster, he’s definitely ‘just happy to be here.’

Heat – Method Man & Redman

Method Man and Redman are pairing up to perform their album Blackout, and are generally considered one of the bigger names on the RTB lineup this year.  These two don’t have the same worldwide recognition as LeBron James and Dwayne Wade, but the dynamics of the Heat duo so far in these playoffs have some similarities with the Brick City duo.  There is definitely a disparity in the prestige/popularity level between Meth and Red – Meth has his classic material with Wu-Tang, and with his various acting gigs over the years, has definitely remained the most well-respected of the two.  Red has his appeal, to be sure, but he is not on the same level as Meth at this point.

This can translate to LeBron and Wade, but with a bit of a caveat – which one of them will be Meth, and which one will fall back to being Red, on any given night?  That is the essential drama at the center of the Heat now that Chris Bosh is out, and it is still unclear which of these two remaining stars will rise up and take control of each new game.  D-Wade was definitely the Redman of Game 3, with his paltry stat line and in-game petulance, and it is yet to be seen if he will retain that title going forward.  It is also yet to be seen if Bron Bron and D-Wade will continue to share another similarity with Meth and Red – as individuals, there has been some great successes (Wade won a title, LeBron won multiple MVPs, Meth has Wu tracks like “M.E.T.H.O.D. Man”) but when combined, the output has been less than stellar (the Heat choking in last year’s Finals, How High).  Will a ’12 Title Run change that?

Pacers – Dipset

It’s been repeated nonstop by commentators for weeks, but bears repeating: the Pacers are a team without one true star, and have relied on their great teamwork to get to the level they’re at today.  Without a true superstar, the Pacers are made up of several smaller-wattage stars – great players who just aren’t all-out global names like LeBron or Carmelo.  Roy Hibbert, Danny Granger, and David West are all essential to the Pacers continued success, but they aren’t that well-known outside of Indiana and NBA fan circles.  Together, however, they’re taking on the Heat with some nasty confidence, and at the moment, look like the team with the upper hand.

Holding another spot high on the RTB lineup, Dipset are like the Pacers of the hip-hop world in several ways.  Dipset is stocked with some good-to-great rappers, with Jim Jones, Juelz Santana, and Cam’ron, but it would be hard to say any of those guys have had superstar careers on their own.  Cam’ron and Juelz came the closest, but they’re much more respected and loved in their native NYC and in true hip-hop fan circles, and not so much on the mass-market scale.  When all put together, the crew has an impressive arsenal of group and solo cuts to bust out at their discretion, and are a personal favorite here at Dan Swanky’s.  Much like the Pacers and the ’12 Playoffs, Dipset could take this year’s RTB by storm.

Rocking the Western Conference Bells coming soon….

Personal Soundtrack

15 May

The Song

The Train Pt. 2 by Big Boi

When the legendary duo Outkast are discussed, the popular opinion is often that Big Boi provides the swaggering, gangsta steez to their sound, while Andre 3000 brings the eccentric flair and musical tastes that range far outside of hip-hop conventions.  There’s no denying that the oft-reclusive Three Stacks can be awesomely weird, but there was a reason the group’s second album was titled ATLiens – both of them have sounds inside their heads that are unlike anything else in this world.

Big Boi provides evidence of his otherworldly side at several points throughout his underrated 2010 solo release Sir Lucious Left Foot…The Son Of Chico Dusty.  The album has several swaggering tales of the the hustla’s life, but Big Boi also pairs his wordy drawl with sonic flourishes that bring in elements such as funk and psychedelia.  The latter element is displayed most strongly in “The Train Pt. 2” – a standout track that defies easy genre descriptions and exists in its own universe somehow both inside and out of the hip-hop and R&B worlds.

With it’s lonesome whistling and electronic beeps and tones, “Train” sounds like a transmission sent to Earth from some strange faraway corner of space.  The song has its own laid-back momentum, with Big Boi dropping some reflective lyrics over a propulsive strumming beat; a slinky synth line dances about the rest of the track before taking over completely and trading notes with a triumphant horn section in an instrumental climax.  “The Train Pt. 2” is an epic sonic journey through Big Boi’s strange and funky universe, and these sounds will stick on something deep inside your head.

The Activity

It is some time shortly after midnight and you’ve just been awoken.  You lie in bed, sheets askew, and sleepily try to determine what pulled you out of dreamland.  For a moment, you hear nothing but the gentle whirr of the oscillating fan at the foot of the bed and the intermittent flutter of curtains as the fan’s breeze swings its slow arc.  And then, a strange yet instantly recognizable sound echoes out in the streets beyond your window.  A long and high train whistle, at once both triumphant and mournful, and overwhelmingly eerie. You shudder a bit, involuntarily.

An extended silence follows this piercing whistle, and for a moment you wonder if it had only been a strangely lucid dream.  You roll over and try to fall back asleep, but all tiredness is jolted away as the myriad sounds of a puffing and steaming train suddenly fill the street outside of your house.  This is no dream.

You clamber down to the foot of your bed and peer out at this Industrial Age vision, holding the curtain just slightly open so that you won’t be seen.  There, right below your window, sits a gleaming train, about six cars long, smoke billowing out the front and steam hissing out through the wheels.  The words ‘Polar Express’ flit through your mind before you remember that it’s the middle of summer and still a humid 75 degrees out even in the dead of night.  But what else could this be?  Some kind of dry run for the December main event?  There’s got to be something magical going on here – another peek confirms that there are no train tracks in front or back of this particular Express, which has the words “DADDY FAT SAX” emblazoned upon the side.

As you puzzle out the train’s origins, a figure jumps out from the front car and looks straight at your window.  This figure is wearing an astronaut’s NASA-certified jump suit, but in place of a helmet is sporting a pair of shades and a fedora cocked slightly to the left.  Before you can hide, this space conductor points directly at you and says, What You Waitin’ For.  Let’s Ride.

This silky, baritone-heavy voice has some kind of strange effect on you, because you instantly get up, throw on some clothes, and glide down the stairs and out of your house before thinking twice.  You find yourself standing barefoot on the grass in front of the conductor, who grins and says Big Boi Welcomes You To The Train.  You look around for a second and seeing no one else, realize that your new host is speaking of himself in the third person.

Where Are We Going, you ask, even though you’re already starting to climb into the first car, still under the seductive power of that voice’s strange pull.  Big Boi clambers aboard as well as the train jumps forward.  We’re Just Gonna Go Cruise To Space, he says casually as the train leaves the ground and does, indeed, begin to take off towards the general direction of space.  Still strangely calm, you ask one more question over the sound of the horn section in the back of the train car – When Are We Coming Back?  Big just smiles and says, When My Song Is Over.

Personal Soundtrack

19 Mar


The Song

Xxplosive by Dr. Dre

One guitar line, some xylophone, a backbeat, and hip-hop’s greatest hook man (RIP).  That’s all Dre needed to create a classic track on one of the greatest hip-hop albums ever made.  We’re headed to the first weekend of Coachella in a couple of weeks, and I hadn’t really thought too much about what’s in store out in the desert until “Xxplosive” came on this weekend during some iPod shufflin’.  And now I can’t stop thinking about the Snoop & Dr. Dre headlining slot on Day Three.

Even after hearing it well over a hundred times, “Xxplosive”  still sounds as dangerously smooth today as it did upon its release; the same can be said for pretty much everything else on 2001.  In fact, it’s easy to forget how huge 2001 was in the early-2000’s, especially for someone starting to really discover hip-hop at the time.  Of course, there was groundbreaking and and classic hip-hop releases well before 2001, some from Dre himself.  But for a certain generation, the timing worked out so that as singles like “The Next Episode” and “Forgot About Dre” were blowing up and offering a gateway to the world of hip-hop, we were starting to take control of our own tastes in music and actively seeking out new sounds.

Putting 2001 on the headphones (so the parents wouldn’t be horrified) was the first time that listening to music became an entire experience, offering a worldview coming from a whole different planet than my own.  And the world offered up in 2001 was hypnotic and intense – I couldn’t get enough.  Dark and graphic images of drinking, drugs and murder abounded, yet there was often a swaggering, party-loving vibe in the songs to keep things bumping and high-energy.  You could put on the album at a party and get seals of approval from most everyone there.  From the initial release date until well into my high school career, 2001 was a staple during everything from huge house parties to summer afternoons spent sneaking 40s in the backyard.

“Xxplosive” is a great example of the craftsmanship and overwhelming talent behind 2001 – Dre pushed hip-hop into a new era with his brilliant mixture of traditional instruments and wholly unique electronic flourishes.  The sound was menacing, but funky and filled with an endless barrage of hooks to keep you listening.  I definitely couldn’t stop listening to the album after I first heard it.  2001 was the first CD I put on the car stereo when I finally got my learner’s permit, and I terrified at least a few neighbors by blaring “Xxplosive” on repeat with the windows down on the parents’ car.

The album became a hugely influential part of the soundtrack to my early music-exploring years, and the chance to see some of these songs performed live at Coachella will be a special thing.  Expectations are probably unrealistically high, but there’s no way to lower them now.  At the very least, I’m just hoping we get to hear the slinky guitar sample of “Xxplosive” sounding out into the desert night as the good Dr. himself starts up the beat.

The Activity

TBD while Dancing in the Desert on Sunday, April 15.

Friday Relief

9 Mar

The parallels between urban and agricultural lifestyles are thin, but one thing that holds both communities together is a love for their roots. Our favorite street influence, Kanye West, teams up with a bearded farmer, Zach Galifianakis, in this unforgettable anthem to the land.

Doing It Live: Sleigh Bells

22 Feb

Sleigh Bells at the Mayan Theater, February 21, 2012.

Brooklyn-based group Sleigh Bells released their sophomore album Reign of Terror on Tuesday, and played a sold-out show at the Mayan Theater in Los Angeles to commemorate the occasion.  Although familiar with the band from their first album Treats, we hadn’t been to one of their shows before, and weren’t sure what to expect.  In this era of breathless blog hype surrounding ‘bands-of-the-moment,’ new artists can make a big splash on the merits of having a unique sound, without necessarily having the musical chops to sustain success after an initial breakthrough.  After their novelty has worn off, does a new group simply sound dated, or can they produce consistently great music?

Sleigh Bells is a great example of this question, as they have a distinct sound that felt refreshingly new when they hit the scene a couple of years ago.  Often referred to as “noise pop,” the majority of their songs have the sound pushed up to distortion levels and feature pounding drum machine loops with crunchy guitar riffs.  Fronted by the melodic voice of Alexis Krauss, the group’s first batch of songs were aggressive rockers that had a pop sensibility underlying them, and they were able to build up an ecletic fan base of indie scenesters and harder rock fans.  Will Sleigh Bells be able to keep building fans and rocking faces for the foreseeable future?  Live performances can often be a good indicator of whether or not a band is for real, so the show at the Mayan provided a chance to see what this band has to offer at a notable point in their early career.

The night got off to an uneven start, with a bit of a strange vibe in the air.  The Mayan is a pretty unique venue, as its jungle theme makes one feel as if you’ve stepped in to a drug-fueled lost episode of Legends Of The Hidden Temple.  It is cool in a very weird way, but the night’s opening act seemed to struggle with the theater’s acoustics and it wasn’t clear if Sleigh Bells would have the same issues.  Any doubts of that dissipated as soon as Krauss and guitarists Derek E. Miller and Jason Boyer took to the stage and seized control of it for the next hour.  The band started out with two new tracks that were delivered with enough energy to get the capacity crowd started, but it was when they broke into their first old song, “Riot Rhythm,” that the raw power of their live act fully appeared.

Krauss promptly ripped through a series of Treats songs, and had the crowd in her hands from then on.  Yowling and prowling the stage, she took the drum machines and deafening riffs to another level, displaying a focused showmanship and true rock god(dess) potential.  At some points she was alone on stage, backed only by the towering stacks of Marshall amps, but she refused to let that dampen the energy in any way.  The songs from the new album sagged a bit, but for familiar tunes like “A/B Machines” and “Straight A’s” the crowd upfront was going fucking bananas, with bras and shirts flying at the stage from all angles.  It was a testament to the magnetic power of Krauss’ performance that the group’s quietest song, “Rill Rill,” didn’t lower the energy level at all.

The full set for the band burned hot and fast, coming in at a little under an hour.  The short time left the audience wanting more, and seemed well-suited to Sleigh Bells’ propensity for hopping from one quick, loud burst of noise to the other.  There didn’t seem to be any disappointed faces in the crowd filing out, and the band’s live power would appear to bode well for their staying power as a unique new voice in the music world.  Their brand of music is heavily influenced by heavy metal and pounding hip-hop, and at points the show they put on last night rocked much harder then most “modern rock” bands ever will.  As long as Krauss is getting heads banging like Ozzy and pals used to, Sleigh Bells will be worth the price of admission – and then some.

Personal Soundtrack

16 Feb


The Song

Respiration by Black Star

“Respiration” begins with a few bars of Mos Def rapping over a chiming sample, and has your head nodding slowly before the beat even kicks in.  From then on, you’re in a different world, a dream-like urban landscape populated by sharply intelligent rhymes.  This is a classic song from a classic hip-hop duo, representing many of the things that the genre can be when the artists love what they’re doing.  The beat is laid-back but banging at the same time, providing an expansive sonic playground for the MCs to bounce over with their lyrical gymnastics.  Common joins the Black Star party to add some wordy rhymes that fit right in with the overall vibe of the group.  The beat is evocative, the skilled verses have weight, and the song stays with you long after the record’s over.

Black Star was/is an underground rap group comprised of Mos Def and Talib Kweli – a pairing that was seemingly too good to be true, because they only dropped one album in 1998 before going their seperate ways.  The beauty of Black Star was that both Mos and Talib are incredibly talented and complementary artists – they seemed as though they were fated to perform together, and combined they represented a hip-hop vision that couldn’t have come from anyone else.  Talib was always a bit more wordy and technical with his rhymes, while Mos was always great at expanding the sound of hip-hop into different genres, so that it became a vast collage of every piece of music you might hear while walking along a Brooklyn street on a summer night.  “Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star” brought these strengths together in a masterful album that is thought-provoking, soulful, funky, and essential hip-hop.

The Activity

It’s a warm NYC night on some vague date in the middle of summer, and the city is buzzing.  It’s far too hot in your apartment, so you decide to head up to your roof to get some fresh air.  Seems like most of the other people in your building had the same idea, as a small gathering has broken out on your building’s rooftop patio.  There are all kinds of people mingling about, taking it easy in the night’s heat, and the feeling couldn’t be more welcoming.  The roof has become an island amid the twinkling lights of the city skyline surrounding you, and you know you can stay for awhile.  No one’s really caring to judge up here, and you sit down to accept the joint that the old couple from down the hall have wordlessly offered.  The cute new roommates from two floors down have just arrived with some fresh bottles of wine, so you figure soon would be a good time to expand upon those awkward elevator conversations.  For now, someone puts an old hip-hop record on, and the beats groove out to join the rest of the night’s ever-changing soundscape.  You finally have the chance to do what Black Star implored you to do:  ‘Escuchela…la ciudad respirando.’