Archive for March, 2009

Nas – Stillmatic (2001)


You could say that rap and hip-hop aren’t really my wheelhouse. We all have preferences and mine are pretty strongly in favor of rock in its harder varieties. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate and enjoy rap, and now and then there’s an album that brings me closer to the genre. Stillmatic is one of them.

Any true rap fans who are reading this will probably moan and groan at the notion that I chose Stillmatic as the Nas album to connect with when Illmatic is clearly so much better and blah-de-blah. Well, unfortunately, I’m not quite cool enough to have ever really heard Illmatic and I’m not totally jazzed about going out and buying it. I’m pretty ok with my love of Stillmatic. Seriously, it’s a good album.

I bought it because of a song I heard on the radio which was just trash-talking Jay-Z to a beat – Ether. But beyond a handful of choice rhymes that made me chuckle, “Put it together, I rock hos, y’all rock fellas,” the song was pretty strong and I liked the sound of his voice. The other song on the album that I really liked was what later went on to become it’s big single, One Mic. I remember once reading a play by Danny Hoch that I’m not sure ever made it to the stage about a hip-hop festival in Cuba, but one of the best monologues in it was one in which a rap producer recounts working with Nas and how he’s a totally different kind of rapper because his rhymes are in many ways very fantastical and rampant with religious imagery and a little acid-trippy for his genre and really it’s a much funnier monologue than I’m conveying here, but I think Mr. Hoch may have been listening to One Mic when he wrote it. In spite (because?) of that, it’s a really powerful love letter to his neighborhood and experiences. And the non-radio-friendly track I like best is Destroy and Rebuild, which is really kind of a combination of the things I like best from Ether and One Mic – trash talking and love for his neighborhood. The best part, though, is the video-game style music behind the rap – like old-school Nintendo.

The rest of the album is pretty good, but it falls into the trap that so many other rap albums seem to in that there’s a lot of junk gimmicky crap all over the album – most notably Rewind, a song written in reverse. Also not so much a fan of My Country, written in the wake of 9/11 and not what I’d consider a positive contribution.

I listen to this almost exclusively in the car, usually as somewhat of an auditory palate cleanser. It’s great for springtime, with windows down.

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Metallica – Master of Puppets (1986)


You don’t typically see the words “perfection” and “watershed” used to describe thrash metal albums. Yet never have those two words been so appropriate.

The year was 1986, and Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet” and Van Halen’s Sammy Hagar-fronted debut “5150” dominated radio. Big-haired glam metal was the rage on LA’s Sunset Strip, with clubs like Whisky a Go Go and The Roxy doing their part to encourage musicians more interested in how to apply their Aqua Net than challenging the listener or themselves. It was for these reasons that Metallica abandoned LA three years previous to settle in San Francisco and cultivate their own vastly different art. 

Most people – especially radio and MTV – didn’t really care about Metallica. Although they had 2 full-length albums under their belt and were enjoying success abroad, Metallica were a virtual unknown in the US. Given the prevailing scene, that wasn’t surprising: there was nothing pretty about them. Their music & lyrics were as ugly and aggressive as their “we don’t give a shit” look. For me, that was exactly why I loved Metallica (and still do), and at the time I felt like I was a member of a cool “in” club.

But that was about to change.

I still remember the day I brought “Master of Puppets” home and put my needle in Side A’s groove. I got chills as I sat on my bed listening to the acoustic guitars that introduced “Battery”, anxious to hear what was coming. Suddenly, James Hetfield’s galloping rhythm guitar threw the song into overdrive, and a hugely influential contribution to my musical youth slammed firmly into place.

The album is a masterpiece from front to back. There is no filler. Every song epic. Every lyric so powerful that Hetfield didn’t have to sing them live – the crowd did it for him. Guitar riffs like those in “Battery”, “Master of Puppets”, “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”, “Disposable Heroes”, “Leper Messiah”, and “Damage Inc.” made budding metalhead guitarists want to stop playing power chords and learn to speed pick. (Did I just name-drop almost the entire album? Yes. Because it’s that. Fucking. Good.)

I judge musical greatness by the influence that an artist or album has on future artists. Indeed, the release of “Master of Puppets” was the tipping point for thrash metal; a “Nevermind”-like wrecking ball that broke down the wall of obscurity that was keeping the scene underground. It peaked at #30 on Billboard without a single or music video, a seemingly unimaginable feat in an era where MTV-fueled exposure seemed essential for success, and one that gave bands like Anthrax, Slayer, and the like hope. It is an album that made one critic recently write, “Some have called ‘Master of Puppets’ the best heavy metal album ever recorded; if it isn’t, it certainly comes close.” Fuckin’ A.

Metallica have often sited Ozzy Osbourne as partially responsible for helping launch them into the forefront. Ozzy was a fan and he knew the band was hot, so he invited them to be the opening act on his “Ultimate Sin” tour. You can imagine my elation when I found out it was coming to my hometown, and I still remember how the crowd went from utter confusion to rabid appreciation in one blistering 45-minute set. And in retrospect, I am humbled to know that I got to see them perform with the late Cliff Burton.


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Thrushes – Sun Come Undone (2006)


As a measure of full disclosure, I should first say that I can be in no way unbiased about this band because it is fronted by one of my most perfect friends. That having been said, this is one of those truly rare friends’ bands that I would (and do) honestly listen to just cuz it’s awesome.

Thrushes fall under the special and somewhat goofy genre of shoegaze, presumably named for what introspective sensitive listeners do when enjoying said music – gaze at their shoes. But me – when I see Thrushes – I dance.

But I’ve also heard Thrushes describe their music as epic soundtracks for short films, which I think is actually the perfect characterization. Every song on Sun Come Undone is a painstakingly structured and polished piece of music. And this can probably be attributed to the perfectionist streak that runs in each of the band members – from Anna Conner’s passionate little-girl-lost vocals and lovely guitar melodies, to Casey’s deliberate and beautiful guitar, to Rachel’s steady bass lines. But what really comes through on this album for me is Matt Davis’ thoughtful, intricate, and inventive percussion. From the light tinkling of bells to the slow steady crescendo of a cymbal, his timing is impeccable and carries – for me – much of the emotion of the music. So, I was obviously disappointed when he left the band over a year ago – but he recently returned to the lineup, so that’s a relief.

The entire album is gorgeous and I recommend listening to it all the way through. But some standout songs for me include Heartbeats, which begins with a decidedly Ronnette’s Be My Baby intro, but really becomes it’s own song with the chorus of “my heart is full, full of your lo-o-o-ove” sung in only a way that Anna can. Into the Woods reminds of a song that would be in a teen independent film – I can just picture it in the scene where a girl is running away from an embarrassing mix-up that makes her truly beloved look like a monster (but don’t worry, he’ll be back to reclaim her heart later). Ghost Train is my favorite song of the album. It is super eerie to start – it actually kind of stirs up anxiety – and then it unravels into a sweet and fun little chorus of “let’s go out tonight”, which is incongruous but in a totally delightful way. Roy (which has the rare Casey-driven lyrics) is magical if only for the fact that it feels like Twin Peaks, which underneath all it’s too-shocking-for-tv weirdness had a core of love and beauty. And for me, any time that music makes you think and feel the way Thrushes do, it must be amazing.

The good news (for me) is that Thrushes are a local band that I can see often. Like tomorrow. At the Talking Head in Baltimore. Hit ’em up.

And here’s a picture of the lovely Ms. Conner jamming out at the Thrushes first show.

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Babes in Toyland: The Further Adventures of Babes in Toyland (2001)


So the sticker on this cd case calls it an “official anthology – a collection of singles, b-sides, live performances from lollapalooza & unreleased tracks.” And while I’m not keen on the idea of reviewing “best of” albums, I would actually venture to say that this is not really a “best of” but in fact an exemplar of the band. Thus, the review.

So, Babes in Toyland have a sound that’s a little tough to nail down. They’re not punk, which makes them not riot grrrl, even though they are some girls who could conceivably start a riot. And even though they came up in that alternative era of the early 1990s, they’re a little too loud and scary to be proper alternative. I’d say their closest genre would have to be metal, but I imagine a lot of metal fans might take issue with that classification, as would – really – the babes themselves. But they’re definitely hard, and hard-core in terms of the speed, loudness, and growliness of their music. (Except of course for the handful of candy-sweet girly songs like covers of “We are family” and the disco tune “More, more, more.”)

As for the album, you can save yourself some time by skipping to track 3 because the Timothy Leary intro is boring as is the the song “Right Now!” that follows it. But track 3 is one of their singles which may have even gotten some airplay in some places at some point, “He’s My Thing.” It’s a quick little tune with catchy lyrics and kind of a dancy beat. Next is “Handsome and Gretel” which is probably my favorite song of theirs ever. I can’t tell if it’s Kat or Lori who is singing (they alternate), but the growly metal voice is perfect and competes with the best of the boys who do it and it’s really fun to sing along to. The next few songs are single-type album or live versions of their songs and all fine to listen to, except the aforementioned “We are family” cover, which is a little too close to the original to be enjoyable. Then there’s a previously unreleased version of “Sweet 69” which is probably their biggest hit, and with good reason cuz it’s a fantastic song, and this version kicks the original album’s version’s ass. Again, Kat or Lori does a great job of vacillating between little girl sing-song and spitfire monster growls. “Eye Rise” follows it up and it’s a really dark, kinda scary slow tune that sounds almost like an incantation. Which contrasts nicely, but creepily with the follow up, “More, more, more.” I love love LOVE this cover. Kat’s/Lori’s voice is so weird and off-key for singing it, but it’s just so Charlie’s Angels sounding and super dancy and not at all like the babes. It definitely made the workout mix on my iPod. And then the last song is “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” and it’s another weird one that I really like. It’s not loud or angry or metal at all, but it’s not gimmicky like the covers. But I think it’s fun. The lyrics are silly and super-space oriented – “We’ve been exploring your earth and we’d like to make a contact with you, we are your friends.” A great close for the album.

I think the Further Adventures is a great album for working out and fine too for just random housework. I listen to it in the car, but it’s not the best traveling music. It’s also not necessary to listen to from start to finish – it’s a pretty good album for chopping up and inserting into other mixes. The songs stand on their own pretty well.

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