Sunday, 30 March 2003

A case study of the band Weezer

Jeff Rosenfeld wrote his dissertation (at Harvard, no less) on Weezer. Good lad.

"In the pages that follow, I investigate these questions by establishing a model of how the artistic merits of rock music are appraised. Utilizing the institutional framework and terminology Pierre Bourdieu establishes in his “Market of Symbolic Goods,” I frame rock music as a middlebrow art that regards itself as possessing certain elements of highbrow “legitimate” art – namely “symbolic value” beyond a work’s value as a market commodity. 

I then use this institutional framework and aesthetic ideology to investigate the process by which Weezer’s reputation changed dramatically over time. Examining data from several sources: an original survey of 150 music writers, an original survey of 20,000 Weezer fans, original interviews with music writers and editors, and an analysis of a sample of 2000 articles and reviews mentioning Weezer, I argue that a strong fan following led to a reconsideration of Weezer’s artistic merits by the music press and altered the vocabulary used to discuss the band. I ultimately conclude that a number of parties play a role in deliberating claims of artistic value in rock music: music writers, artists, fans, and the commercial interests that employ writers and artists."


Monday, 24 March 2003

Album Review: Wu Chronicles Volume 1

Essentially Chronicles is a collection of sixteen tracks that feature Wu members but that were originally released on other artists albums. Some of the tracks were originally featured on Wu-Tang solo albums, but others come from releases by artists such as Notorious BIG, Tha Alkaholiks and Mobb Deep.

The collection begins with4th Chamber', which is lifted from Gza's peerless Liquid Swords LP. It remains a superb track. The fuzzy guitar meshes uncomfortably with the razor-sharp beat making the track one of the Wu Tang's crowning moments. Cold World is also lifted from Liquid Swords and its Rza remix is included here. In truth it isn't too far removed from the original, the production is slightly sharper and there are now added gunshot samples as well as an added verse from soul crooner D'Angelo. The ensemble track, Wu Gambinos, lifted from Raekwon's seminal Only Built 4 Cuban Linx album also finds its way onto this collection. It is another timeless piece of Rza production and it sounds just as fresh today as it did in 1995.

The What was previously found on Notorious BIG's debut, Ready To Die. The track features BIG back when he was actually a decent rapper, not the wheezing asthmatic he would later become, along with an on-form Method Man. It's hard to believe that the track is nearly a decade old. The combination of Biggie delivering his best ever line, ("Biggie Smalls is the illest / your style is played out like Arnold when I'm what you talking bout Willis") over an atmospheric beat joined by some vinyl crackling serve to make The What an all-time classic hip hop track. Other highlights include, The End which was released on Ras Kass' slept on debut album Rasassination and features the Rza and Ras Kass delivering some decent black political rhetoric. Elsewhere, The The Alkaholiks and ODB carve up a typically raucous slice of hip hop on Hip Hop Drunkies over a funky piano sample and some decent scratching and the previously unavailable 96 Recreation has Cappadonna, Rza and ODB drop weighty verses over a typically minimal beat. The track is only a demo and the accompanying tape hiss only adds to the track's austere feel.

Unfortunately, it's not all of such a high standard. The Cocoa Brovaz are unusually ordinary on Black Trump and the accompanying sample is highly annoying, making it the worst track on the album. Killarmy continue their track record of creating only mediocrity on Wake Up and Young Godz by Shyheim is incredibly bland. Overall though, the quality of the tracks is above average.

It's a hard collection to give a grade to. The music is generally good, but most hip hop fans will own most of the tracks already. Certainly there is a degree of convenience to be had in having these tracks on one CD and the artwork is amazing, but it is a fairly redundant purchase for all but the most hardcore Wu Tang enthusiasts.

Wednesday, 19 March 2003

Album Review: Tical

It seemed likely that Method Man would be the Wu Tang member most likely to find commercial success. Not least because he was the only member to have a track named after him on the group's debut release. There was more than though, his languid drawl made him stand out from the other MCs on 36 Chambers. And so Tical was to be the first solo album to come out of their Shaolin headquarters.

It is Method Man's inherent charisma that initially made him stand out from the rest of the clan; he seemed slightly more charming than his associates. Meth has never been one to take himself totally seriously and on Tical he is as amusing as ever. The title track has Meth squealing, "What's that shit that they be smoking? / pass it over here" in a high pitched voice coming across half rough gangster and half playground bully as he childishly taunts, "Your momma don't wear no drawers / I saw when she took them off" on Biscuits.

When he's not altering his pitch or making juvenile insults, Meth invariably is spitting arrogance or attacking fellow MCs. Release Yo' Delf is an odd track. It's certainly the best example of Meth's bravado, as he declares himself, "as deep as the Poseidon Adventure". The lyrics, however, are slightly at odds with the chosen backing track; an interpolation of Gloria Gaynor's gay party anthem, I Will Survive. The net result should be awful, but somehow it becomes more than the sum of its parts. Method Man fans should check out the Prodigy remix, which gives the track a brutal makeover. Elsewhere, Meth v Chef has Method Man lyrically spar with Raekwon, over a suitably austere beat. It finally is a chance for Meth to up the pace as he tries to keep up with Raekwon.

The commercial breakthrough track on the album is I'll Be There For You; implausibly it samples three songs heavily. It takes Children's Story by Slick Rick, Me & My Bitch by Biggie Smalls and adds it to You're All I Need To Get By by Marvin Gate and Tammi Terrell. Mary J Blige is superb on the backing vocals, and Meth plays the part of the caring suitor to perfection. There is another version of this track earlier on the album, which is far more raw, but fails to find the emotional centre that is on the later version.

The main contrast between this and other early Wu Tang solo LPs is that it sounds more like a collection of radio-accessible singles as opposed to an album. Where Gza and Raekwon set out (with substantial assistance from the Rza) to create very cinematic scenarios with their words and beats, Meth is content to tread through standard rap scenarios. There's certainly nothing wrong with this, and in fact it comes as a decent contrast; but those looking for an intellectual rap album will be disappointed.

Wednesday, 12 March 2003

Album Review: The Cold Vein

The cycle of music causes such things to happen. Those who once were the trailblazers become the establishment. So, while Public Enemy, De La Soul, Wu Tang Clan have all joined hip hops upper echelons, consequently their work has become less important. This transition allows for a new breed of hungry underground artists to come to the fore. Many will cite Eminem and even 50 Cent as the hottest prospects. They are not. Most of them appear to coming out of the ashes of the Rawkus label, but the brightest sparks of all are emerging from the red-hot Def Jux label. Take two of the most intelligent and gifted MCs to emerge for a long time and combine them with the hip hop world's most innovative producer and you end up with not only a remarkable hip hop album but, in this writer's opinion, one of the very best LPs ever made.

Vast Aire and Vordul Megalah introduce a New York that the listener may have forgotten existed after so many bourgeois releases by the likes of The Strokes. As early as three minutes into the first track, Vast Aire gives the listener an idea of the exactly how dire their situation is, "Boy meets world? Of course his Pops is gone, what you figure? / that chalky outline on the ground is a father-figure." It is the grim position that Cannibal Ox find themselves in that dominates the album, on Stress Rap they admit, "You love New York / But New York don't love you." A sample is played mid-way through the opening track reminding the listener that, "You are one of the few predator species that preys even on itself."

However, this isn't a cynical attempt at proving they are from some rough streets in an endeavour to add some B Boy posturing. Cannibal Ox describe themselves, and others in their position as pigeons, feeding off scraps of pizza crust. The metaphor is a fitting one for individuals in such a hopeless position. Despite the squalor surrounding them, Cannibal Ox find time for a little humour. Vast jokes that he "blows heads like that dead clothes designer." There's even room for some humorous self-criticism as Vast Aire admits, "oh shit I said a word twice" and then starts his verse again on Raspberry Fields.

Essentially this is an album about living in New York's underbelly, but scratch the surface and you'll find many more twists in the album. In fact, all but the most robust individuals will enjoy the let up in intensity. Ox Out Of The Cage is perhaps the most traditional rap track on the album with it's "Ladies and gentlemen" opening. But if you think Ox will dumb it down, you're mistaken. Vast Aire spits, "I grab the mic like Are You Experienced / but I don't play the guitar / I play my cadence." Vast then delivers a sermon on modern day relationships on The F Word, "Don't take it personal, I like you a lot but I don't wanna lose what we got / but what we got now is friction / she tellin' me intimacy and friendship she ain't mixing." Elsewhere A B-Boy's Alpha combines Freudian theories with street fighting over a beat reminiscent of a mangled carnival. While all the credit in the world should go to Vast Aire and Vordul for their amazing lyrics, EL-Ps sonic landscape is equally worthy of praise. From the siren that begins Iron Galaxy through the outrageous stuttering beat that furnishes Vein to the majestic guitar that soars as Pigeon takes the album to its conclusion there is not a single misplaced beat or mediocre melody on the LP.

While the album proper ends with the wicked message of hopelessness that is Pigeon, the hidden track Scream Phoenix points to a more fruitful future for the impoverished New Yorkers, "Famine, disease and senseless dying is done / pigeon bird got a breath left / heart beat no more / phoenix bird morph and we live off the G-force." Seventy-three minutes after the journey began, it comes to a fitting end. Scream Phoenix is a message of hope for not only the listener but for Cannibal Ox themselves as the mindless and hopeless pigeons have transformed into noble phoenixes.

This is the real underbelly of New York, and 'The Cold Vein is one of the greatest albums to ever come out of the city. But it is more than that, it deserves to join the realm of 'Pet Sounds', 'Revolver' and 'Nevermind's, as an LP that is regarded to be not only sonically phenomenal, but also culturally important.

It never will of course. But one can dream.

Sunday, 9 March 2003

Album Review: Bulletproof Wallets

The first listen to Bulletproof Wallets ends in disappointment. Recent favourite The Sun, which is included on the track listing, hasn't made it to the final disc. This is a shame because it had the potential to be a big hit for Ghostface. However, what is left is more often than not more than worthy of replacing it.

Maxine gets the album off to a flying start and has Ghostface back at his best. When Ghost ups the pace and rattles through this grimy story of crack addict squalor he truly is amazing; there are few MCs working today who can match Ghostface when he is in this form. Rza should also gain praise for his production on this track. Many Wu fans have criticised Rza for becoming predictable with his production. When the electric guitar is cranked up at the violent climax to Maxine all is forgiven. The track comes to a close with the line, "On the count of three / he landed right in front of the first floor balcony / black brains was splattered / he was dead / and the cops never came."

Elsewhere, Walking Through The Darkness, originally released on the Ghost Dog soundtrack gets a thorough lyric reworking. Theodore with its odd low-key xylophone is an inspired sing-along 1988-style hip hop track. Strawberry is a pornographic tale where the listener gets to know Ghostface more intimately than they probably had wished to - a buzzing sample helps the track from becoming too enveloped in smut though. Also, the story of hotel battlegrounds that is The Hilton is one of the best lyrical works the Wu have released in recent years.

While there are many highlights to the album, there are an equal number of half-hearted tracks. The first single Never Be The Same Again is weak. The story of Ghost dumping his girl and taking the moral high ground is unusual subject matter for the Wu and Ghost's angry rap does not mesh at all with Carl Thomas' soulful crooning. Flowers sadly is equally weak. Ghostface, Raekwon, Superb and Method Man each fail to take this track above average. There are a couple of unfunny jokes like Jealousy and Teddy Skit, which also detract from the album as a whole.

It's an odd LP in many ways; much of it wouldn't sound out of place if it had been released in 1988. And you can't help but feel if anyone else had released it, you wouldn't mind, but Ghostface is one of the finest rappers around, and Bulletproof Wallets never matches the heights that Ironman or Supreme Clientele scaled.

Saturday, 8 March 2003

Album Review: The W

It seems that whatever the quality of the solo albums and the many Wu-affiliated albums, when the Wu have a family get together at their hive, they seem to produce only the sweetest honey. Their debut, the hugely influential Enter The Wu Tang is widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest hip hop albums ever, and its follow-up Forever, while perhaps a little long, was another classic hip hop LP. Unlike, the previous Wu Tang LPs though, The W, was released in the wake of some pretty shoddy solo albums from some of the Wu’s key players (Method Man, Gza and Raekwon). This time though the Wu have brought along a few friends (a first for a Wu group effort). Redman, Busta Rhymes, Junior Reid, Snoop Dogg, Isaac Hayes and Nas all lend their support.

After a kitsch kung-fu movie sample is dealt with, Method Man yells, “We’re Back!” at the start of Chamber Music. It’s a strangely cathartic moment, when the horror of his Tical 2000 album is washed away in an instant; and when Method Man (possibly the laziest member of the Wu around the release of The W) means business, you know the rest can’t be far behind. And indeed, they aren’t.

Perhaps due to the critical mauling most of their second solo albums took, or just because the pressure of rapping solo on every track is off, each MC is back to their best. It is Ghostface Killah, however, who most often stands out above his peers. On Protect Ya Neck, he spits, “taught y’all niggers how to rap / reimburse me.” Elsewhere, a pre-incarceration ODB is rambling more untidily than ever on, Conditioner. But for the most part this is a group effort.

Careful (Click Click) is, for me, the best Wu track since ‘CREAM’. It’s a very claustrophobic track; the eerie dungeon sounds, sleigh bells and the sound of an empty clip make it an uncomfortable listening. Those looking for something more commercial should turn their attention to Gravel Pit, the Wu’s first attempt at a truly commercial track. The 1920s swing-era opening is followed by a strangely hypnotic sample aided by Method Man’s constant, “back and forth” couplet.

The single, I Can’t Go To Sleep is horrific and beautiful at the same time and in equal measure. Again, it is Ghostface who makes the song – it is the story of black oppression over the centuries. It marks a much more mature Wu Tang we’re hearing here as Ghostface cries, “I can’t go to sleep / Feds jumping out their jeeps / I can’t go to sleep / babies with flies on their cheeks / it’s hard to go to sleep.” Rza’s string arrangement fits perfectly and he and Ghostface seem genuinely affected as they sing (yes sing, not just rap) the lyrics. The fact that neither Ghostface nor Rza’s voice can cope leaves Isaac Hayes the task of balancing the track. Hayes’ baritone is the perfect partner to Ghostface’s soprano rap and Rza’s hyperactive nonsense.

The running story of the album is the chaos, paranoia and sadness that lies at the heart of the American underbelly. Tracks such as Jah World, Let My Niggers Live and One Blood Under W highlight this perfectly. These tracks allow the Wu, more than ever, to become a cohesive unit as they paint lyrical pictures of inner-city life as an everlasting nightmare. The tracks featuring reggae singer Junior Reid, in particular, allow the Wu to become more pensive and observant than ever. Reid’s calming influence the perfect foil to the troubled rhymes of Ghostface, Gza et al.

After the lazy, uninspired works that have been emanating from the Wu hive recently, each member seems to have brought their best work to the table for The W. The Wu Tang Clan will never be the same group that released Enter The Wu Tang. How could they be? They’ve achieved their goals; they’ve become a legendary, multi-platinum selling rap act. There’s no going back from here. If this LP is the start of a new chapter for the Wu Tang Clan, let’s all hope they can continue in this form. For The W is potent reminder of just how good the Wu can be.

Tuesday, 4 March 2003

Album Review: Uncontrolled Substance

While Inspectah Deck has never been the most visible bee to buzz forth from the Wu Tang hive, he has always been a stable, jack-of-all-trades member. His mic skills, while not exemplary are matched by a certain proficiency behind the production desk. Thus his debut was not awaited with the same excitement that met his fellow Clansmen's debuts. Nevertheless, Uncontrolled Substance has a lot to like about it.

The Rza produced Movas & Shakers is undoubtedly the standout track. In fact, it’s one of the best Rza productions from the 1999-era. Until this point in their careers it was probably the most commercial party track the Wu had released. It’s Inspectah Deck’s commentary on the club scene, “We trip the light, ride to the rhythm of the night / skin tight honeys show me love at first sight / work light crazy legs non-stop body drop / my hip hop drop you to your knees in shock.” It isn’t insightful and nor is it particularly deep, but the beat is such that the lyrics don’t really matter.

One of the other highlights is The Grand Prix. The track is introduced by U-God as a “lyrical grand prix” and has U-God, Street Life and Inspectah Deck battle it out for a supposed three million dollar purse. Predictably it all ends in a draw. It would’ve been more interesting to have someone judge a winner and then hear the competitors argue the case. Elsewhere, the Pete Rock produced, Isaac Hayes sampling and Marvin Gaye inspired Trouble Man is a funky nod to the 1970s. Again, it’s all a bit out of character for the normally moody Wu Tang, and all the better for it.

Unfortunately Inspectah Deck cannot maintain the innovation for the entire album and there are several below-par moments. Lovin You with La The Darkman is particularly bland. The preposterously named, Hyperdermix is an attempt at Gravediggaz-style eeriness, but succeed only in sounding like a poor videogame score. The worst of the lot though is the totally uninspired 9th Chamber. The production by 4th Disciple is capable without being extraordinary but the rhymes are quite poor. The guests, La The Darkman, Barretta 9, Killa Sin and Street Life aren’t up to the job at all merely coming up with turgid, uninspired verses. It sounds like a poor track from the awful Wu Tang Killa Beez offshoot.

Inspectah Deck is not the most charismatic MC the world has ever heard, nor is he the cleverest, he seems to know his limitations and that seems to make his work all the more charming. All in all, while it never reaches the heights of the Wu Tang’s A-List’s debuts (Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Method Man etc), it is a debut to be proud of.

Album Review: The Fine Art Of Self Destruction

New York native Malin’s name has been on the lips of every music know-all for almost a year now since Ryan Adams name-checked him. Having stepped from the shadow of his former project, the appallingly named punk band, D Generation, his debut solo album gives us all a chance to hear what the fuss is all about. A cursory glance of the sleeve notes gives the impression that his is a who’s who of (dare I say it) ‘alternate’ rock; produced by Ryan Adams, mixed by Carl Glanville (who previously mixed The Counting Crows LP) and with guest spots from Melissa Auf der Maur (Smashing Pumpkins), Joe McGinty (Psychedelic Furs) and Adams. However, a talent as obvious and immediate as Malin’s is not easily overshadowed.

The debut single, Queen Of The Underworld will be the most familiar track for most people, but Malin’s metier does not end there. The album’s centrepiece is the immaculate Brooklyn. The song more than deserves its reprise at the album’s conclusion. It’s swirling melancholy is met in equal measure by a hope for better days ahead, “You used to like the sad songs of doom and gloom” Malin reminisces. Elsewhere there is a nod to Malin’s old punk days on Wendy, an outrageously catchy ode to an all-too-chic girl (“She liked Tom Waits and the poet’s hat / Sixties Kinks and Kerouac”).

Malin’s voice is an acquired taste and after several listens, I still cannot decide whether it is up to the task or not. At worst it is a nasal and catarrhal drone and at best a fragile, emotive and expressive drawl. On the first few listens of Solitaire, his voice really began to grate. However, the track has grown to be one of my favourites on the album. It’s a beautiful song; bare and soulful about reluctant loneliness, Malin mumbles, “Got some cigarettes and no real regrets," before yelling, “I don’t need anyone.” You start to believe him when he takes a rather spry approach to Almost Grown, a song about growing up in a broken home.

Comparisons with Ryan Adams are obvious but slightly unwarranted seeing as both artists deserve to be treated equally but separately. But for those who enjoy that kind of thing, The Fine Art Of Self Destruction is just as good as either Heartbreaker or Gold. If grounded, emotive, stylish song writing is what you’re after, with intelligent, witty and perceptive lyrics thrown in for free, as well as no small degree of musical panache, you will most likely not be disappointed.

Sunday, 2 March 2003

Album Review: Heavy Mental

Killah Priest has never been considered a full paid-up member of the Wu Tang Clan, but his contribution to Gza’s seminal Liquid Swords LP didn’t go unnoticed.

Strange for an early Wu Tang LP that Rza doesn’t earn a single production credit. This means that the beats are very simplistic, and the production is never especially dazzling. This is a mixed blessing. Instead of detracting from the album, it allows Killah Priest to be heard and since Priest is considered to be one of the most intelligent MCs around, this is no bad thing. Over the course of the twenty tracks though, this simplistic style can become a chore to listen to. This puts extra pressure on Killah Priest to engage the listener with his insightful words alone.

The first single and opening track, One Step sets the tone, a simple beat is coupled with what sounds like a sample from William Bell’s I Forgot To Be Your Lover. It is the lyrics though that set this track (and indeed the entire album) apart from the raft of Wu affiliated stuff available. Killah Priest sets out his stall to educate and inspire the listener, “Early natives related to the thrones of David / captured by some patriots, and thrown on slave ships / they stripped us naked while their wives picked their favourite / lives were wasted, in the hands of the hated / driven from the garden, now we starving in the martyring Sodom / they call it Harlem.” Elsewhere, B.I.B.L.E has Priest issuing a challenge to the priests who tell us to look forward to a peaceful afterlife while suffering in squalor while on Earth, “Screaming hallelujah / when we hardly knew ya.” It comes across as astute without being overtly preachy.

Other highlights include Cross My Heart (which features both Gza and Inspectah Deck – both of whom match Priest in the lyrics department). It’s Over is a stirring parable, comparing the end of a rapper’s career with the end of the world and Mystic City is another astute apocalyptic tale coupled with some typically barren production from Y-Kim.

There are some outright weird moments within the twenty tracks. The title track is another Priest rant backed by, of all things, a didgeridoo. Fake MCs also comes across as odd, in the presence of so many more laudable verses. The songs itself is decent, and the production (by 4th Disciple) is capable (it steals a snippet from My Little Brown Book by Duke Ellington and John Coltrane). It is the subject matter where Priest calls out, “phoney MCs”, that just seems a little out of place amongst stories of biblical miracles and black oppression.

Ultimately, the album is a good one, slightly marred by some uninspired production. As an MC, Killah Priest cannot be faulted, as an intelligent rapper, he ranks alongside the likes of Dead Prez and Mr Lif for trying to educate and motivate the listener. But unlike those other artists, the production on this album does not match Priest's lyrical ambition.

Oh, and that title... What in God’s name was he thinking?

Saturday, 1 March 2003

Album Review: The Ying And The Yang

For years Cappadonna has seemed content to ride the coattails of his more established and more talented clansmen, while chipping in with uninspired verses on Wu Tang Clan tracks. His debut, The Pillage was a poor first time effort which leaves Cappadonna some convincing to do with his sophomore release.

It doesn't immediately sound like a Wu Tang album. Just like his fellow clansman Raekwon, Cappadonna has seemingly taken a step away from Rza’s production. This is a brave move, and at times it works well. The Grits produced by 8-off is a traditional slice of bragging rhetoric coupled with ringing horns. It’s one of the more typical Wu tracks on the album, and a decent way to kick off the album. Elsewhere, Shake Dat is Neonek’s attempt at a Timbaland style production. Many Wu fans will be concerned to hear their favourite group experimenting with different production styles, but I'm all in favour of a little variety.

Other highlights include Super Model, the first single to be lifted from the LP. It’s an unsurprisingly graphic account of what Cappadonna and Ghostface Killah like to get up to with super models. Predictably, Cappadonna is pretty far removed from modesty, “It’s a regular females be under my arm / ever since I got paid to start dropping the bombs / I can take two women, my nickname is long.” Meanwhile, there is Love Is The Message. It's caused some consternation amongst hardcore Wu fans; many people have dismissed it as a lightweight club track. Personally, I think it’s one of the best tracks the Wu have released in ages. There’s only so many bland piano and string arrangements that this fan can tolerate, and it’s good to hear the Wu make a decent stab at disco.

Unfortunately there isn’t much else to be positive about. Big Business is Cappadonna’s tribute to the Shaolin. It features a truly awful guitar melody as its backing track, which leaves it sounding like a Ricky Martin b-side. We Know with Jermaine Dupri and Da Brat is as bad as it sounds like it might be. The track is enveloped in cliché from start to finish, featuring a chorus, “We know young like we know old / we know platinum like we know gold / and how to get the fat dough.” But it is Dupri who drags the track even further towards mediocrity. He has to be one of the most uninspired rappers working in the world today and he takes what would be a below average track and makes it a really bad one.

Cappadonna can be pleased that he is making progress for this is a better LP than his debut. Weighing in with just 11 tracks (10 on the sleeve and 1 bonus) it doesn’t drag like many of today’s lengthier hip hop albums. Overall, it’s an alright LP, and it seems these days that’s the best you can hope for with the Wu.