Author Archives: David James
Shabazz Palaces‘ new album Lese Majesty has wormed its way to the very core of me. It’s glorious, it’s freewheeling psychedelia, it’s a complete deconstruction of hip-hop forms and one of the best albums this year. Since my purple “loser edition” showed up a couple weeks ago, I’ve played it more than any album in months; even more so on my headphones at work, through the Sub Pop stream and then Spotify, where it’s streaming for free in whole: Lese Majesty on Spotify.
If you haven’t jumped on this wavelength, please have some #CAKE.
The second single, #CAKE, is the centerpiece of the album’s even-more-warped second half. An electro-jungle hip-hop riot erupts before leaping through a perfectly incongruous female soul vocal, taking flight with vintage Kraftwerk synth lasers as the tune ratchets up toward an unforgettable chant ending. It’s the type of multifaceted, twisty song that made their debut, Black Up, an instant left-of-center masterpiece.
This piece is really indicative of how Shabazz Palaces (duo of Tendai Maraire and Ishmael Butler) appear to hold no affiliation to any particular genre or sound. The middle vocal bridge slides into the beat-driven first half like a glacier, overtaking all momentum. As the tune gathers steam for its ending, the krautrock influence bursts through as the vocals craft a towering a list of places from Berlin to Neptune. It’s pointed, it’s weird, it’s confusing, and it’s fun as hell. A recent review of Lese Majesty mentioned that they’re not “the future of hiphop, but a step to the side” as if it was a bad thing. I couldn’t imagine a higher compliment for a duo wholly unconcerned with trends in this meme-driven music climate.
Also, I feel obligated to share this amazing photo of Butler. It’s one of my favorite artist images in years:
[buy Lese Majesty on 2LP vinyl, CD, or digitally via Sub Pop right HERE or Amazon or whatever]
Today I’m taking shelter in my apartment while a certain Christian music festival rears its ugly head across the street. Fanny-packed crowds flood the streets below while devotional rock blasts through the windows. I shut the shades and find my Rifts box set, selecting the third and possibly gentlest Oneohtrix Point Never album, Russian Mind. Once the turntable is spinning, I nudge the volume a few times until I hear nothing but the gorgeous introductory drone and feel myself wash away. I’m reading VALIS, the final work by science fiction visionary and personal favorite, Philip K. Dick. It’s dense, wild, bursting with ideas in every direction at once. It’s also painfully close to my inner workings at times – a strange proposition when the book is about insanity, living information, and puzzling out the coded machinations of the universe.
Hit play now, so you can follow along:
I slide back into the book I’ve nearly completed. The wandering cadence of this story feels like the most familiar dream. When a sudden gap allows the fist pumping dogma to pierce my room from outdoors, I jump to get side B rolling as quickly as possible. The title track begins, and my eyes fall on this passage:
To my surprise I realized that I had stopped shaking.
It was as if I had been shaking all my life, from a chronic undercurrent of fear. Shaking, running, getting into trouble, losing the people I loved. Like a cartoon character instead of a person, I realized. A corny animation from the early Thirties. In back of all I had ever done the fear had forced me on. Now the fear had died, soothed away by the news I had heard. The news, I realized suddenly, that I had waited from the beginning to hear; created, in a sense, to be present when the news came, and for no other reason.
I could forget the dead girl. The universe itself, on its macro-cosmic level, could now cease to grieve. The wound had healed.
Not many people know me that well, but those who do will know why this hits me so hard. Especially when paired with what I was hearing.
Coming in after a song called “Grief and Repetition,” Russian Mind works a swift attack. Rejecting the overlapping, clipped dull tones of its predecessor, the song bursts forth in a warm arpeggio, taking flight above grey clouds on a stormy day, pulling right on into space. It’s simple, direct, working on a primal level; there’s nothing subliminal about the way it sets progressive thought blooming. It is, in a sense, a kernel of understanding my love for sci-fi evoking synth music. I grew up when science fiction was, if not optimistic, always framed with boundless possibility. There was fear, but not of the unknown. The fear was about our past, our old, dumb ideas still haunting us. The unknown was the future, and whatever it held was not going to hold us back. This music opens a back door, plugging me into that childhood feeling of endless curiosity and hope for what was yet to come.
I feel confident hazarding a guess that Dan Lopatin (the artist’s real name; coincidentally the son of immigrants from the former Soviet Union) was raised on similar fiction with a similar affection for the galaxy of sounds made possible via synthesizer. The more I read on, while the album neared its conclusion, the more apparent it became to me: this notion that VALIS, and the philosophy of Philip K. Dick in general, might be the author’s ultimate work. Not only that, but it may be one of the few books I’ve read that stabs toward the fundamental abyss I find myself gawking at so often. Not only that, but, given the book’s themes and plot (I won’t spoil anything), Lopatin’s work likely acknowledges both Dick and this novel in particular.
I’ll end with this tidbit, gleaned from the Wikipedia article on the name of the final track on this album:
Immanence refers to philosophical and metaphysical theories of divine presence in which the divine is seen to be manifested in or encompassing the material world.
Please, read some of Dick’s work. It’s worth all of our time.
Special thanks to my friend, collected unkept, for lending me VALIS.
It’s been a long time since I’ve written here on Optimistic Underground, and as with every prior hiatus I now feel the need to hammer out some mea culpa before jumping into the music. Today I’m skipping that nonsense. Here’s one of the greatest pieces of electronic dance music I’ve ever heard, a landmark from almost two decades ago that I only discovered this year.
Since “better late than never” is mostly true, I’m sharing this new found treasure with everyone. This is god-tier techno, from a Detroit legend you’ve probably heard of. Carl Craig is considered one of the great masters of techno, for reasons that become obvious within minutes of getting familiar. His 1997 masterpiece solo album More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art was an instant all-time top 10 favorite the moment I heard it this past winter. The album peaks at the moment At Les begins pouring from its beating heart.
With an insistent, warm muted synth beat frittering on the wind, martial percussion building from a whisper, and a gathering storm of wordless vocal pads, this tune rolls imperceptibly deep at first. It gives me dystopian fantasy chills, some combination of black neon dance floor and crystal space cavern conjured in my head. The driving rhythm belies an ambient drift to the dynamics; by song’s end you’ve gone through the clouds and back, but At Les disappears without so much as an echo of where it went.
The album itself, pictured above, is a true blue masterwork, and one of the best albums of the 1990’s as far as I’m concerned. Several other tracks, including Red Lights and Televised Green Smoke, are in the same realm as this song, if not quite as iconic. Even if you’re a fan of Craig’s, you may have missed this opportunity (something about his myriad personas and hundreds of remix releases) and deserve to be as wowed as I am.
This album is GOD.
I haven’t been back to Optimistic Underground in a while. There has been a lot going on in life but as always I’m continuously immersed in music. Lately, with a few notable exceptions, I’ve been listening to a lot of my personal favorite albums in an effort to tap into the exhilaration of something I know I love. I think I’m also looking for inspiration, and answers. What elevated these particular pieces of music to a realm of formative life experiences? These are the albums I used to burrow into for months, knowing every nook and cranny, knowing the texture and contours like my own skin.. and yet they’re a revelation once again with the right mixture of time, decay, perspective, distance, environment and attitude. It’s probably more than that. My ears have changed, not to mention my tastes. Yet the true greats will always have a place; it takes at least time to sort them from the intense but short love affairs with slightly lesser albums.
One of the most striking moments in my listening life happened the night I heard The Flaming Lips‘ 1999 masterpiece The Soft Bulletin, driving though rural back roads with a friend who had just purchased the CD blindly. He’d picked up Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots and asked if the band was any good; I replied with some half thought that I’d heard “their older stuff was better” without any clue if I was even thinking of the right band. In response, my friend bought the only other CD available and inadvertently changed my (musical) life forever. The warbling tape orchestra, the out-of-nowhere bass thunder on the second track, and that melody on The Spark That Bled had me instantly. I was distracted to the point that I remember images of my stereo, the booklet in my hands, the music and exclaiming about it, and not the drive itself. The friend wanted a blank CD and I gave him one on the condition that I borrow this new Flaming Lips thing for the night. I listened half a dozen times before bed. I scoured the band’s website, where the entirety of Yoshimi and a handful of earlier album songs streamed free (this was extremely novel and rare at the time, about 2002). I became a total diehard fan in a matter of weeks.
This is all to preface the fact that when I dug through my collection after moving – when the cds and vinyl are all out in the open like that, it’s easier to become excited about certain albums – I had a lurch in my heart toward this album. I needed to hear it. My soul was calling to it, or being called. The next thing that happened was.. despite never having had much of an extended break from hearing it, I was getting the fresh, brightening outlook, rising sun, open chakra, wide eyed feeling all over again, a decade later. The thing that meant most to me at the time, I believe, was this feeling of new possibilities and opportunities everywhere. This adventurous, brave, open and attentive nature was overtaking me and my outlook on life literally widened in scope. It was a confluence of events and life changes, but The Soft Bulletin crystallized that feeling in a single disc I could grasp forever. It was exciting; all the rough, unnerving bits that hit me by surprise like sudden deer in the headlights became the very signposts for the change I was seeking. This album is not only different from what the band was doing, what was accepted and loved in pop music, and what I’d been into until that moment, it actually embodies that jarring, eye-popping thunderclap of sudden and real change in life. The songs each take off like a homemade rocket, reaching space against all odds in some miracle of ingenuity and love. This is not something I take lightly.
I came here today merely to share the following documentary but was overcome by my continent of feeling for this album. I could drift for days on how this makes me feel. I know it was released last year but I only came upon it during my recent binge and was blown away by the reverence and passion the band still have for this masterpiece. It not only delves into the nuts-and-bolts creation of the music itself but also dissects a bit of what makes it such a personal touchstone for a certain set of folks. If you’re already a fan, be prepared to have your nostalgia drive working overtime and keep the album handy for an inevitable post-viewing listen. If you are unfamiliar, I kind of envy your position. This is beautiful new territory, and in my view the documentary will make a perfect introduction.
I must note for the diehard fans that the audio used in most of this appears to be from the 5.1 and/or recent vinyl issue of the album. If you’re as irredeemably familiar with this music as I am, it’ll be a nice experience to get hands on either of those releases and hear this music rendered in a slightly different (clearer?) light.
When I purchased the 2lp edition of Destroyer‘s 2011 pop masterpiece Kaputt, I had no idea that the bonus track promised on side C would slowly become the languid circulatory system of the entire album. It swims in an embryonic well from which the other tracks drink, all held breath and deep plunge. It’s patient and fragile, and just may comprise twenty of my favorite minutes.
If you have only heard the standard tracklisting, press play now. It’s rare when something labelled “bonus” actually elevates the experience of listening to a great album. The Laziest River feels absolutely essential at this point, and while I sympathize with the probable intention of encouraging vinyl purchases, it seems unfair to leave everyone else with an unfinished story. So buy it if you can, but this song can be downloaded and amended to your playlist for a quick fix.
This will loop indefinitely over the Elysian fields of an afterlife of my design.
Actress (aka Darren Cunningham) redefined ambient beauty with this piece, lighting the spiritual wires from the organ works of Camille Saint-Saëns through Brian Eno’s Discreet Music while sparking fresh air to flame. Blooming the color of Arvo Pärt’s devotional tilt in an exploratory space odyssey from the dreams of Oneohtrix Point Never or Stanley Kubrick, N.E.W. is uplifting and warm, alien and awestruck. We’re inside a nebulous pipe organ riding the cusp of a singularity, dancing on the membrane between ascension and obliteration. Let it repeat.
I should mention the video: I have no clue where the footage is from, but it strangely works. This copy was chosen mainly, however, because it can be set to 720p, so the sound quality is superb.
Before sharing a list of my favorite albums in 2012, I’d like to spread my love for the select tracks feeding my addiction throughout the year. These are the tunes flying above and beyond their albums, the ones which dug in and nested in my brain for weeks or even months. The first is easily my favorite track on Death Grips‘ breakthrough album The Money Store. It’s called Hacker.
This frantic burst of nakedly violent energy feels like it’s on the verge of exploding from the get-go, yet impossibly doubles down on its momentum, throttling away like a madman in absolute command of his vehicle. The spliced-digital-ADD edit of Ghost in the Shell footage is a stroke of genius pairing, as far as I’m concerned. Work like this is what the youtube age is all about. And why copyright laws are outdated.
While the album was loved and acclaimed by many of my friends, it was this track alone I felt completely enthralled by. Hell, this thing punches first time listeners in the face. I feel like a rocket every time I hear it.
I decided to post a series of Christmas themed tunes which I can not only stomach, but enjoy thoroughly. Here’s the first, a classic Flaming Lips tune from 1995.
What could be more festive than a song about an attempted jailbreak at the zoo? And animals asserting their free will? And confetti!
I can’t stop this ringing in my head.
With new album Luxury Problems, Andy Stott effectively rendered his pair of groundbreaking 2011 EPs irrelevant. It takes all of ten seconds for this, the opening track, to signify a giant leap. Siren vocal shards and clouds, singing-bowl ring and a Mariana trench of low-end crunch writhe like a basket of snakes, twisting through every crack in every direction.
Hit play, make sure the quality is “HD” and turn this up louder than is normally comfortable. With any luck, it’ll start snowing.
It’s strange to think of the handful of album covers in 2012 featuring high contrast b&w photography of women as all representing their respective sounds in spectacular fashion. This one is my favorite.