Somehow, Viet Cong flew under my radar for the entirety of 2014. It’s my fault, really. Several friends let me know that half the members were from the short lived but brilliant Canadian band Women, and several more friends simply stated that they made balls out noisy punk-stained rock. The kind that’s darkly beautiful and complex in an unassuming way. The kind that I love.
They were right.
Hear for yourself; here’s the moment I realized that this is perfect.
This song exemplifies what I love about Viet Cong’s sound. It’s a three part suite in miniature, shaped at a glance like some post apocalyptic cousin of The Beatles’ Happiness Is A Warm Gun. We entry with a softly grinding drone and muted drum machine tumbling down stairs. The song bursts wide open with harmonized vocals and a sharply panning metallic guitar strum, while an insistent drum throb swells in the background. Finally, iridescent guitar tones rocket toward the sky. I don’t know if I’m hearing a weirdly tuned synthesizer or effects-laden guitar work; it doesn’t matter. The song absolutely explodes into a rave-up ending that had me grinning from ear to ear, determined to buy this album the moment it’s released.
The weird thing is, I was finally sold on giving these guys a try with a friend’s comparison to This Heat. The legendary experimental band from England released only a pair of bewilderingly fresh albums and disappeared at the turn of the 80s, leaving an indelible legacy that’s rarely touched, much less spiritually evoked. If you’re at all familiar with that band, give this your rapt attention. Right now. See also: fans of The Stooges, Public Image, Ltd., Bauhaus, and probably The Velvet Underground. What these bands have in common is a tough, motor-driven veneer with a knotty, heart-on-sleeve artfulness at center. Mining deeper into this territory, Viet Cong marries ragged noise and unapologetic beauty.
Check the Viet Cong bandcamp page for another free tune, plus links to purchase the blistering debut album in every format. One listen, and you’ll want to repeat these 37 blistering minutes as often as possible. Keep an eye on this page for the album’s first single and music video.
This is no joke. I was wandering through Vertigo Music in downtown Grand Rapids, MI, yesterday and my eyes fell upon something I never expected to see without the internet exploding well ahead of time: a fresh LP copy of the timeless shoegaze masterpiece, Loveless. I hugged it lightly against my chest as I finished browsing (and picking up a copy of Cocteau Twins‘ Heaven Or Las Vegas) before asking the wise and friendly owner if he knew the details.
As my cursory Discogs browsing had indicated, it’s a likely bootleg. Do not let this fact discourage you. The sound is impeccable, and after a single listen the moment I got home, I have to say that it sounds warmer, and a bit more substantial, than the tinny original CD edition we’ve all been stuck with for over two decades. It may be sourced from the few-years-old analog/digital remaster that Kevin Shields has still neglected to release or it may be from the original vinyl issue, for all I know. The point is, if you love this album already, you’re going to adore the sound quality of this release.
The packaging claims that it’s a Creation Records release, “made in Nippon,” which, along with the lack of an Obi strip, tips me off to the bootleg nature of this release. With a money back guarantee if I wasn’t satisfied, this was hardly a passing concern. I’m so thankful that I took the leap and now own a perfectly decent copy of one of my favorite albums of all time on vinyl.
Now, for a bit of additional information: this is not a straight reissue of Loveless in its original form. There is a second disc, and while the original 11 tracks are in place, a small wealth of bonus material fills out disc two.
As shown on the back side of the full size insert, there is a minor annoyance: the original album tracks are spread over three sides, instead of a single disc. Perhaps this was to allow for a deeper mastering, or simply to ensure that they could fill out a full four sides of music. Regardless, this became a non-issue once I heard how fantastic it sounds. As an owner of the original Tremolo EP on CD, it’s fantastic to have the three original songs (Swallow, Honey Power, and Moon Song) represented here along with Sugar (from a split single with Pacific) and Instrumental no. 2, a tune I only recently discovered with the 2012 2CD EPs 1988-1991 release. These five wonderful tunes round out the reissue in a non-essential yet entirely welcome manner.
I’ll finish this post with a couple links to help my fellow MBV fans make a purchase of their own. The fact that I hadn’t heard one peep about this says that it might come as a surprise. There are a handful of copies on Discogs, and one seller on Amazon seems to have this edition for $79. Please note that there are occasionally copies of a 2003 Plain reissue floating around, but my experience with this company isn’t encouraging. Shields himself has stated that it’s “ripped from the original CD” and the label doesn’t have a great track record with regards to pressing quality.
With all that out of the way: I can’t emphasize enough how much of a gorgeous, mind-bending landmark this album is, how much of a monolithic presence it’s played in my life and the development of my musical taste. Loveless is so much more than “the best shoegaze album.” It’s a sound that bends rock music so far that, instead of breaking, it pushes into entirely new dimensions. Once you’ve let it into your life, your sense of audio aesthetics will be forever changed. I couldn’t wait to share the news with everyone.
(Here’s the full album, in case you’re wondering what the fuss is about. Play at high volume.)
By the way: if you live anywhere nearby, please visit Vertigo Music and talk to the owner, Herm. Tell him I sent you. It’s easily the best record store I’ve ever visited in the midwest. There were 2 copies left yesterday, at only $27. Hurry if you’re interested!
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:
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.
Long ago I was shown The Necks. The internet was not such a hospitable place and my search for an album to sample was fruitless. Alas, after the buzz wore off they were forgotten. Now, thanks to a helpful soul on a forum, I was reintroduced to what is quickly becoming a new addiction. Here is their first album in its entirety.
The band, comprised of Chris Abrahams on piano, Lloyd Swanton on bass and Tony Buck on drums, unspools boundless jam fireworks outside of any specific genre or time. There’s the interplay of jazz, an often motorik pulse of krautrock, and space based atmospherics of kosmiche all woven together in a pristine spartan construction. They make an hour disappear without breaking a sweat.
I don’t like doing research simply for the sake of posting on here so I must return at a later date when I’m fully immersed in The Necks. For now, enjoy the debut and seek out more if this is your kind of thing. And please, buy their music if you enjoy it. Everything they’ve released is available on their site:
In 2011, like every year since I’ve discovered how to harness the power of the internet (and a handful of discerning friends) to expand my horizons and unveil whole dimensions of music, has been an incredible year for listening: another slab in my monument to Why You Should Pay Attention. I held crushes on a number of albums and fell deeply in love with a select few. All deserve acknowledgement but only the most striking motivate me to gush at length. With a little luck, I can turn people on to something which will enrich their lives and change perceptions in small or significant ways. Or maybe even sell an album for one of these deserving artists!
About the list: I realized I’ve been doing it wrong by putting the best first. Now you’ll have to read the whole damn post to see how it all ends. I’ve broken these into three layers (with bonus levels upcoming!) but would like to emphasize that these are all whole-hearted recommendations. Also let me know in the comments which albums I’ve clearly forgotten, please?
Crush: The Best of 2011
KWJAZ – KWJAZ
So I’m starting with the last album I heard in 2011 and it couldn’t feel more right. This exemplefied the past year of music as much as anything I could imagine and I damn near missed it entirely. A fusion of so many things I could call it noisy lo-fi witch drone beach pop and strike bullseye or land wildly off mark, according to your point of view. If you’re a fan of Hype Williams I will gladly direct you here; this makes their best output feel like a first step in the path leading to KWJAZ. I feel echoes of The Avalanches, Rod Steward, Oneohtrix Point Never and hissing pink clouds of joy. Where to, beyond this? It’s beyond me. This is far out, in the best sense of whatever that means to you.
Seefeel – Seefeel
One of the first albums I heard in 2011 was shockingly forgotten by the end of the year, if other lists are anything to go by. Remaining in the philosophical tracks laid by Seefeel’s classic lineup (pulsing repetetive structures evolving organically; one ear on dance and dub pulse, the other orbiting with satellites) while straying in every tonal manner, the band managed a decade-and-a-half comeback with style and – most importantly – growth and change in spades. Between echogasm guitar textures Kevin Shields would die for and playfully insistent drumming courtesy of Boredoms’ E-Da there’s enough live wire action to set this on a collision course with any of the legendary post rock band’s pre-breakup output.
The Weeknd – House of Balloons
Spaced out back room late night R&B of which there is little to explain beyond the obvious appeal of mysterious smoky production with sexy-sinister vocals to match. Drug fueled downtown adventures and midnight slips down the drain are the topic of choice but despite the lyrics’ often affecting touch, the pure sound of it all is what draws me in. This is what happens when a talented artist grows up with Massive Attack and R. Kelly in equally heavy doses.
EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
This one walked up in silence and stabbed me between the ribs out of nowhere. Hitting all the nostalgic sweet spots someone raised on Nirvana and Fleetwood Mac is inherently vulnerable to, she manages to do something fresh with a sound I’d thought long dead since high school. Leaping between noisy lullabies and shamanistic Kate Bush-isms, Ericka M. Anderson (formerly of Gowns) made possibly the most unlikely loveable of the year. Going against “logic” I cannot help being drawn in over again.
The Field – Looping State Of Mind
Sometimes surprise isn’t really an issue. The Field blew me away with his first album several years ago, sending a fleeting association with minimal techno into a full blown obession. The man (Axel Wilner) imbues his perfectly tailored setpieces with just the right catchy hues and twists to grab passersby with an ease any of his peers should be envious of. This third album is yet another case of him wreaking havoc with my internal resistance to the familiar by just twisting the trick so damn perfectly. He doesn’t have to blow my mind if he’s already flattened it.
Then It’s White
DJ Rashad – Just A Taste Vol. 1
In a corner almost entirely opposite the last entry we have DJ Rashad, a footwork phenom who’s collection hit me with such an alien vibe I couldn’t help the curiosity and head nodding addiction when it hit me like a truck. I’m not going to explain what the genre is about, we have google for that. Instead, just youtube his name or check him out if you’ve got an interest in Autechre, Nas, Al Green, and having your ears reamed with something truly new.
Love U Found
James Blake – James Blake
James Blake was my first post of 2011 and although my breathless appreciation has settled into something more domestic and liveable, I stand by my words. This album hits a raw nerve and breathes revelation; it’s the start of something fundamentally different yet emotionally classic. It’s a kind of blues for a world where dubstep has become ubiquitous as the night sky before falling and dying all over us. The former producer’s producer opened up his throat and set off a hype machine which swallowed him whole but those interested in the actual sounds should stick to what’s real: the fact that a great portion of this album opens up a pandora’s box which hasn’t yet come to full fruition.
Lindisfarne [because he’s apparently too uptight to stream his single anywhere]
Julian Lynch – Terra
Urged by a friend, I listened to Julian Lynch for the first time at the end of last summer, and the warm healing sunlight of this album lifted me time after time in what had become a dark period in my life. When nothing sounds good and I can’t imagine looking forward to tomorrow, Terra sets me on my bicycle in a gentle breeze ushering clouds away. It’s clarity, it’s beauty, it’s melodic guitars, double tracked murmurs, muted horn play and subtly psychedelic synth jumps. I dream of Syd Barrett and Arthur Russell and realize that I’m thankful for a life in which I can enjoy all these things.
Fennesz – Seven Stars
Fennesz created one of my favorite albums of all time with Endless Summer, and in many ways this twenty minute 10″ release is the closest his orbit has circled that masterpiece in the decade since. The granular synthesis, guitar deconstruction, worm tunnel reverb and chest heaving melodic sense all echo that LP’s romantic vibe, yet new elements including (gasp!) live drumming give this set a beating heart all its own and point toward further greatness in store for an artist developing his aesthetic well into its second decade.
Telebossa – Telebossa
This one is going to appeal to a certain subset of music fans, an elliptical presence in the venn diagram between Brazilia and minimalism fans. I happen to like my pop lilting and tropical and my composers positively Reich-ian, so this Rio-by-way-of-Berlin confection is sweet perfection to my ears. Fans of João Gilberto and Philip Glass are equally encouraged to step up and hear something truly new. Telebossa renews the meaning behind the word fusion.
Samba Do Budista
Teebs – Collections
A couple years ago I called Teebs “utopian” and this latest set furthers my prescience. Chiming, floating, pulsing, singing and soaring. Ecstatic harp glissando, buoyant low end thump, organic everything – even the laser future synth space material emerges as if growing from sequoian roots. This is the way the future sounds in the best childhood dreams I never had.
Verbana Tea [w/ Rebekah Raff]
Love: The Best of 2011
The Psychic Paramount – II
“I had this whole through-line about jet engines and surgical instruments and LSD and This Heat and Les Rallizes Dénudés and Miles Davis and cathartic volume levels… ” I said last year. I can’t really say much beyond that, and the rest of my original post. This album is a perfectly calculated maelstrom.
Thundercat – The Golden Age of the Apocalypse
Thundercat was best known as the bassist who made Cosmogramma (see Best of 2010 and this craziness) jump like frogs in a dynamite pond, the beating heart behind Flying Lotus’ mind trip. His debut LP lays that heart on his sleeve and indulges in a master class of modern funk. Some artists merely go through the motions, dropping a slap bassline or bedroom vocals or recycling some of Prince or George Clinton’s well known turns, while others truly understand what makes funk an enduring and often timeless style. Where Dam-Funk lives and breathes it as a perfectly sculpted museum piece, Thundercat births his spaced out love jams in the here-and-today world of beat music and post-hip-hop production (courtesy of Flying Lotus himself). This is as thoroughly modern an album as 2011 begat.
For Love I Come
Gang Gang Dance – Eye Contact
I tried several times throughout 2011 to eloquently share my feelings on this crystaline mind stomper but never felt satisfied with the results. Gang Gang Dance hit me so directly, half a decade ago, like a comet to my brain stem: here was a sound I never knew I’d been craving all along, realized by a band who seemed to be increasing in power with each release. Their 2008 effort remains one of my favorites of all time, and sharing it was part of my inspiration for starting Optimistic Underground in the first place. Eye Contact not only refined what made Saint Dymphna such a masterpiece; it went above and beyond, leaping into the territory of my wildest dreams. This time they synthesized the disco banshee vocals, the tribal trance rhythm, the future dream synths and dub destroying guitar heroism into a laser cut diamond monstrosity. I had the good fortune to catch them live months before this release, previewing the evolution of one of my favorite bands into an even loftier tier of tranced out bliss. As close as you could get to being there in person, Eye Contact is a handy distillation of everything that made this band the first to get me to actually dance at a show.
Glass Jar [excerpt]
Ricardo Villalobos & Max Lodenbauer – Re: ECM
Electronic titans dissect the vaunted ECM catalog and reassemble the tactile familiarity and otherworld mystery of pieces by Arvo Pärt, John Abercrombie, Christian Wallumrød, and many more, threading stars into space and obliterating time. There is a pulse and a whisper of structure to much of this two disc monolith, and it’s plenty to keep me floating for the duration. Here are a few words from the artists:
“Our understanding of music in general and the resultant collaborative mode of operation embodies precisely what we have now manifested and intensified with the project Re: ECM: the synthesis of two musical worlds. To effectively implement experiences accumulated in further musical adventures, we continually oscillate between acoustic and electronic force-fields.
“Re: ECM is building many bridges between the area of influence of the original interpreters and our own area of influence. The rules of the dynamics between these two reference systems permanently shift the relation from relaxation to agitation. In this way listeners immerse themselves in different ways in the flow of our production, which in turn – and that is what we wish for – in an ideal case sweeps them along into a sensually exhilerating journey.
“The most important thing is to harmonize these two worlds, without them aspiring to mutually deactivate each other, to keep both – the organic and the electronic – in balance. That is what it will be about in the future.”
– taken from the liner notes written by Villalobos and Loderbauer in both German and English.
Dimlite – Grimm Reality
Dimlite has been perpetually orbiting my radar since I discovered and wrote about his album This Is Embracing, and in the intervening years I’ve watched him grow stronger and stranger as an artist in the meantime. Always existing on the esoteric fringes of the realm of beat music, Dimitri Grimm completely shattered the tenuous concept of musical peers with his groundbreaking Grimm Reality. Where before his ecstatic weirdness was often bound by rhythmic straightjacket and made to stand in line with the increasingly safe Warp roster or hip-hop beholden Brainfeeder crew, Dimlite finally dove into the core of his id and emerged waving the flag of his own profoundly unique sonic nation. I could mention that my first listen popped Captain Beefheart and The Residents into mind on equal footing with Faust and Neu! and Terry Riley, and that may be helpful if you’re looking for something resembling a touchstone. This is restless, kaleidoscopic evolution on a grand scale. The album transforms and twists, subsuming a carnival of influences and sublimating inner chaos into a jewel of bizarre fascination.
This is quite simply the most lush, immaculate, concise and balanced pop album released in a long time. Produced in with a slick and glossy demeanor, all the rough edges feel tucked in yet bulging through the surface like a pair of tight jeans. This is deeply affecting and emotionally straightforward songwriting wrapped in a shining and breathing and clever and heartfelt and funy and (above all) fun package. This thing bounces and sways. It bowls me over at all the right beats and stands me to attention for all the others. I know it’s a pop masterpiece of a high degree when the first notes of the first song implant a “this is going to be a good time” feeling in my brain, every time.
Destroyer – Kaputt
Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens De Couleur Libres
I feel like an asshole, trying to sell this album to you. It really is that damn brilliant, scary, personal, invigoarating, explosive; a fiery work by a shooting star, a true genius as far as I’m concerned. I’ve got no business even trying to approximate the electric feeling this shoots up my spine. My job here is convincing you that the feeling is true. I shake and writhe, shoulder-shrug dance in my chair, wince, nod, frown, sing along, and sit in total stillness while this LP rolls. I take in every layer of nuance from the intimate sax revery to the scarily catchy call and response chants to the lips-to-my-ears confessional lyrics embedded in maelstroms of noise and heat. This is the world-cracking sound jazz needed but never knew to ask for; it’s the most harrowing and heartrending music I’ve heard in a long time. This is an experience meant to shake you to your core and strip away cynical resistance to actual feeling and emotion in music. This journey through dark territory ends with a sweet release all the more liberating for being hard-won.
Matana Roberts – Kersalia
Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Vol. 2 – Judges
It’s been said that when the natives of South America first spotted European ships on the horizon, they mistook the gigantic sails for mountains. Their collective experience had no conceptual framework for understanding what they were viewing, no context with which to understand. Their minds interpreted this complete unknown into something tangible to their world, however far off base it was. This happens all the time; it applies to all novel ideas and sensory inputs, on a basic level, in everyday life. Colin Stetson’s album is a perfect example. Play this for someone with fresh ears and no pretext or prior knowledge and watch him grasp for edges to frame the sounds, some perch from which to observe or an angle to approach it. What Stetson does with a saxophone is remarkle and brilliant. The best part is that it’s not only groundbreaking; this is fantastic, thrilling, catchy music enticing repeat listens and sharing with friends. “Judges” is a real album’s album, with an emotional heft carrying its narrative arc through a vaguely apocalyptic story courtesy of spare words from Laurie Anderson and the evocative timbre of the starring instrument itself. How he does it all is a whole other story, so read up after you’ve been properly astonished.
Colin Stetson – The Stars In His Head (Dark Lights Remix)
This is not only one of the best hip-hop albums of the year (or several years for that matter). This is one of the most addictive and rewarding listens I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. Black Up is a shape shifting puzzle box, equaly confounding and inspiring. Every spin highlights a novel space, a lyrical twist, a production flourish or masked instrument. Each play is an opportunity for extracting more pleasure, like a miner striking new veins of gold in every direction. Beats worthy of Flying Lotus, lyrics soaring with Digable Planets and Dr. Octagon. Shabazz Palaces have crafted one of those Complete Experiences, the sort of album where everything locks together in clockwork precision. I’ll now quote myself: Thrilling, gorgeous, head nodding and hypnotizing, worthy on its own as pure sound yet never subsuming the oft-poignant vocals, the meaning of Black Up is delivered fresh and phonetic, kinetic, poetic. I sink deeper, hearing more each time. Romantic, political, angry, meditative, militant, optimistic, futuristic, this blurs free-association and laser focus in the same moment, words and sounds in the same experience.
Shabazz Palaces – Are You… Can You… Were You (Felt)
One of my major hangups with this blog is the fact that my favorite music tends to be that which leaves me speechless. These kind of astounding reactions, best experienced first hand, are most difficult to write about; I often resort to sharing what I felt when listening, the clipped proclimations pouring from my id while my conscious mind is circling the drain of blissed-and-gone. The most telling aspect of Replica’s true mind sorcery is that I keep bouncing off the phrase pornographic flights of radiance, unable to more neatly describe the way this thing drags me under its current only to lift at just the right moment for a glorious intake of air and sunshine and light and blood and ride it out forever in dimensions we can barely perceive. Oneohtrix Point Never shared the top spot last year. The fact that he’s exploded in a completely fresh direction means there is no reason to play favorites; this time it’s another story altogether and a new reason to be both surprised and satisfied in every sense I can be.
Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica
So here we have it. There are no numbers because I don’t believe a piece of art can be measurably better than another, but suffice to say each step down this list leads closer to my heart. As with all things, my love will change in time – and as they say, hindsight is 20/20. I hope you found something new or were reminded of an itch to scratch, and that my words hold some value. Please, let me know of omissions and developments, or anything else worthy of our time.
In this first post of 2012 I proudly present my unabashedly belated yet wholeheartedly enthusiastic response to a slice of sound that has not only dominated my listening time for months but brightened my outlook for an important piece of the future of music.
Black Up is one of the best hiphop albums I’ve heard all year (the year being 2011 but it doesn’t matter), possibly longer. I slept on this at first, honestly, because the name just seemed too hipster, too pitchfork, too much. I pictured a thousand chillwave and witch house bands lined up behind triangles and crosses, a sea of stoned faces, limpid whitewashed guitar and anonymous lazy beats. I pictured nothing interesting or worthy of my time, much less my money. I did not picture something this fucking good.
When most people think of a hiphop artist the vocals come first: style, cadence, and timbre to subject matter and storytelling. The sheer blunt force of the words themselves, inseparable from voice, embodies a delivery system of surface and substance. Crushing the underground binary of either transcending or subverting this natural order, Shabazz Palaces blow hair back with pointillistic dexterity and canny substance while folding the vocals into the dreamlike puzzle box instrumentation itself. Beatific slides like “It’s a feeling, it’s a feeling!” and “Clear some space out, so we can space out” are amplified by the very way they emerge through cloudbusting moments of clarity in the mix. The production is the most intricate and interesting I’ve heard in an impossible stretch of time. Huge and futuristic and swarming like Cannibal Ox (one of my all time favorites) but delicate and minimal in places, sometimes in the same song. Relentlessly kaleidoscopic on a track-to-track basis like Madvillain and equally playful. Taking each second as an opportunity for left turns, trap doors, and extraterrestrial launches like the best Flying Lotus material. I’m uncomfortable reducing this experience to references but they help paint a picture. Thrilling, gorgeous, head nodding and hypnotizing, worthy on its own as pure sound yet never subsuming the oft-poignant vocals, the meaning of Black Up is delivered fresh and phonetic, kinetic, poetic. I sink deeper, hearing more each time. Romantic, political, angry, meditative, militant, optimistic, futuristic, this blurs free-association and laser focus in the same moment, words and sounds in the same experience.
The duo of Ishmael Butler, of classic conscious/jazz-hop group Digable Planets (listen if you possess even a passing interest in A Tribe Called Quest, The Pharcyde, or Del La Soul; they’re probably better) and multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire (of whom I’ll be honest: I have no idea where he came from), is an alchemy I’ll forever thank Sub Pop (of all labels) for bringing to my ears.
My first favorite track.
Possibly the most direct distillation of the group’s ethos, with an outright nod to the original Digable Planets album in its ascendant coda.
The full album streaming free with visuals on youtube. Nice.
I should be so bold as to say that this is the equivalent of Disco Inferno (a longtime favorite of Optimistic Underground) for the hiphop galaxy. I don’t state this lightly. I also do not often insist so fully on a vinyl purchase but in this case I must spread the word on its inner beauty: the package does not resemble the semi-anonymous visual you’ve seen floating around the internet and the top of this post.