Monday, 25 August 2003

Album Review: Dookie

After two low budget punk albums, Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool finally secured a major label deal to release Dookie on Reprise Records. Despite many accusations from supposed hardcore fans suggesting that the band had sold out, Dookie sold in massive numbers. Those who found Kurt Cobain’s Nirvana a little too off-centre turned to Green Day to deliver a more obvious and direct approach to punk. They weren’t the only band peddling this kind of dumb-Californian-punk-lite, but alongside Offspring, Rancid et al, it was Green Day’s star that shone the brightest.

The major theme recurrent throughout the LP is that of boredom. The very first line on the album is, “I declare I don’t care no more / I’m burning up and out and growing bored.” Armstrong’s lyrics, despite not being intelligent or particularly insightful somehow resonate perfectly with disillusioned and bored teens everywhere. Later on Sassafras Roots, the repeated use of the line, “Wasting your time” is a remarkably accurate description of many young adults. It seems so obvious with lyrics such as these that Dookie would manage to capture the affections of disaffected teenagers everywhere. In fact the album’s anthem Basket Case has Armstrong wonder whether he is paranoid or merely stoned. While it was Basket Case that kept MTV viewers entertained the most, it is arguably live-favourite She that offers the best summary for apathetic youth, as Armstrong asks, “Are you locked up in a world that’s been planned out for you? / are you feeling like a social tool without a use?”

While boredom and disenchantment are the cornerstones of the album, they aren’t the only teenage concerns that get covered. Somewhat inevitably adolescence forms the subject for the bulk of the remaining tracks. The single, Welcome To Paradise (which was originally released on Green Day’s second LP, Kerplunk) is a summary of leaving home. The vaguely dull, In Then End is a slightly too-typical tale of teenage love. Elsewhere, Pulling Teeth unusually covers the topic of girl-on-boy domestic violence. In contrast to some of the more gloomy subject matter the closing hidden track (entitled All By Myself) is a Tre Cool-penned ode to, well…. having fun with himself. This Beavis & Butthead humour is what always made Green Day so appealing, and it has never been highlighted better than on Dookie.

It’s obvious from even the title that this is not an album that is meant to challenge the listener. Dookie is an album made by young idiots for young idiots; and to date there hasn’t been an album that supersedes it. Dookie remains the pinnacle of California punk-lite.

Friday, 22 August 2003

Wesley Willis RIP

Outsider recording artist Wesley Willis has died at the age of 40.

Reports are suggesting that his death comes as a result of complications from chronic myelogenous leukaemia.

A diagonosed schizophrenic, Willis recorded hundreds of simple, witty songs from 1990 up until his death. Willis' stream-of-consciousness lyrics were typically yelled over a one-note autochord feature on his keyboard. Highlights in his catalogue include Rock N Roll McDonalds, Casper The Homosexual Friendly Ghost and Suck A Cheetah's Dick.


Tuesday, 19 August 2003

Album Review: Where Shall You Take Me?

Where his recent excursion with his Gathered In Song collective, I Break Chairs was a slight blemish on Jurado’s immaculate track record, Where Shall You Take Me? has the Seattle songwriter back to his miserable best. I Break Chairs will have concerned fans that Jurado had finally cheered up, and had dropped his acoustic guitar for a more electric sound. Thankfully Where Shall You Take Me sees Jurado as depressed as ever.

The opening lines of album should mislead no one, “First came the scream / and blood on the floor.” Amateur Night is a sullen acoustic opener that becomes so much more when it reaches its dizzying keyboard finale. Elsewhere Intoxicated Hands, with its eerie guitar creates an odd tale of love gone horribly wrong. Perhaps most terrifying of all though is Abilene, a story of a 19-year-old girl whisked away by a “man without money”. Whether she is being taken against her will or not is never made clear, which makes the track all the more menacing. In fact, this lyrical ambiguity is something Jurado makes a habit of.

While Jurado’s voice carries the tenderness and fragility of Jeff Buckley or even Thom Yorke, the inclusion of Rosie Thomas on a few tracks is inspired. Thomas’ input is most notable on Window, an Appalachian hymn so pure it could have been recorded a century ago. Her glowing vocals also brighten Jurado’s tale of life on the American road on Omaha.

Only Texas To Ohio recalls the slightly heavier work of I Break Chairs, but unlike some of the bland material on I Break Chairs, this track is mangled with some muffled vocals that recall Dirty-era Sonic Youth and a swirling keyboard sample. By the time the album closes with Bad Dreams though, Jurado has returned us to unremitting despair. The sparse piano and strained violin take lyrics like, “And I have bad dreams / done so many bad things / so come save me from this fire” and stretch them further into darkness.

On Where Shall You Take Me? Jurado proves that he is truly in a world of his own.
But a world this dark, few brave souls will want to join him.

Saturday, 9 August 2003

Album Review: Let's Get Free

Once intertwined, it now seems that politics and hip hop are as different as leather and lace. The works of Ja Rule, 50 Cent and P Diddy could not be further from the politicised lyrics of Chuck D and Ice Cube. Dead Prez’s much-lauded debut sought to renew the days of NWA, Public Enemy and Ice T. In their own words, Dead Prez fall somewhere in between NWA and Public Enemy and with Let’s Get Free they attempt to snatch hip hop back from the clichéd stories of guns, girls and dollars. For the most part they succeed.
The album begins with a snippet of an address by the Chairman for the African People’s Socialist Party, Omali Yeshitela. The content should leave nobody in any doubt of how political Let’s Get Free will become and this listener, for one, was left wondering how they would follow this awesome opening salvo. I needn’t have worried.

The opening four tracks are as good as those found on any hip hop album. I’m An African has Stic and M1 reclaim their African roots. The two MCs proclaim, “I’m an African / never was an African-American” over a furious fusion of gun shots and thunderous beats. They Schools is a tirade on the American school system’s perceived favouritism towards white history and therefore white students. While these tracks are outstanding it is the debut single Hip Hop that is the high point. Dead Prez reclaim hip hop and ask their audience some pertinent questions, “Would you rather have a Lexus or justice? / A dream or some substance? / A Beemer, a necklace or freedom?” Behind the highly intelligent lyrics lies one of the most extraordinary basslines of recent years making this one of the best hip hop tracks of the last decade. The track’s remix at the LP’s conclusion is hugely merited.

Sadly after this tremendous opening bombardment the momentum is lost by the time Behind Enemy Lines arrives. The first half of the album peters out with the rather bland Assassination and Mind Sex. Unfortunately this slower pace plagues the second half of the album and it is nowhere near as potent as the first. Be Healthy is the hip hop equivalent of a dentist’s poster. “I don’t eat no meat, no dairy, no sweets / Only ripe vegetables, fresh fruit and whole wheat.” From a group who seemed determined to change the world a few tracks ago, this comes across as an extreme contrast, and all things considered, incredibly weak. Elsewhere, Happiness is like an update of Will Smith’s Summertime, which is, as you might guess, a real disappointment.

However, just as the listener is wishing the album had finished after the first five tracks, Dead Prez bring in two of their best tracks. Hidden at tracks forty four and forty five are Propaganda and The Pistol. Propaganda is vaguely reminiscent of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy classic, Television. It should surprise no one that the backing track is not as good as the lyrics. An acoustic guitar some odd chanting and a female vocalist going through her range is not quite upto matching the enraged stories of conspiracy theories and black rhetoric that M1 and Stic are spitting here. The Pistol is an absolutely incendiary and wholly fitting end to the album; however, once again Lord Jamar’s production doesn’t quite do the lyrics justice.

All things considered, Let’s Get Free is a very competent debut from a very exciting group. However, we're left to rue what could’ve been one of the all time great hip hop albums. Stic and M1 are unquestionably two of the most gifted voices in hip hop today, unfortunately the production on the second half of the LP is so dull it really detracts from an incredible start.

Wednesday, 6 August 2003

Album Review: Boy In Da Corner

Anytime an album like Boy In Da Corner arrives it seems to cause no end of consternation amongst the music press. Always happy to pigeonhole artists for the sake of marketing, hacks seem to struggle when credible UK ‘urban’ music arrives. It happened with The Streets and now Dizzee Rascal looks set to suffer the same Garage tag.

Make no mistake; this is no garage album (whatever that means anyway). Like Mike Skinner before him, 18-year-old Dylan Mills has taken the basics of a genre that is currently laying face down in the water and transformed it into something far, far more intriguing. Where Skinner took games of darts and the midnight munchies as his inspiration so Mills takes estate violence and teenage pregnancies as his.

This is a far darker proposition than Original Pirate Material though. Dizzee sees himself as an outsider; the opening track makes this abundantly clear. On the opening line of the opening track, Sittin Here Dizzee tells us, “I’m sitting here, I ain’t saying much, I just think / and my eyes don’t move left or right, they just blink.” For 18 years, Mills sounds remarkably mature, and sounds almost like an elder statesman of the streets when he whispers memories of playing football in the streets, before he yields to the feeling that there will be, “no positive change.” This feeling of hopelessness rears its ugly head again on Brand New Day. Over a dizzying wind chime sample, Dizzee reminisces, “We used to fight with kids from other estates / now eight millimetres settle debates.”

Though just shy of an hour in length, Dizzee manages to cram in a huge assortment of topics. Besides the tales of catching and delivering beatings, the inflammatory single I Luv U is a breathtaking synopsis of a young couples and teenage pregnancies (“Fifteen? She's underage!"). This theme is revisited on Round We Go – a tale of an endless cycle of loveless sex told by a narrator who has learned his lesson.

Elsewhere Fix Up, Look Sharp with its pounding drum, Billy Squier sample and eardrum-destroying bassline is an immense proposition. Dizzee sounds almost demented as he spits the lyrics. It isn’t the only track that defies sonic definition. Jus A Rascal has the most bizarre operatic chorus ever heard, which is totally at odds with the light speed rhymes Dizzee spits on the verses.

Original Pirate Material and Boy In Da Corner share the fact that they are the two best albums to come out of the UK in a long, long time. With Boy In Da Corner, Dizzee Rascal has joint the likes of The Streets and Roots Manuva as urban British artists with something interesting to say, besides American hip hop cliché.

So what is it? Garage? Hip Hop? Whatever genre you choose to pigeonhole this album in, I’ll choose to call it one of the best albums of the year.

Saturday, 2 August 2003

Fonts from videogames

Here's a website that offers downloadable versions of the fonts used in some classic videogames.

That's SNES classic, Secret Of Mana over there, lest you ain't know.


Friday, 1 August 2003

iTrip banned

Uh-oh! I'm a criminal.

"There are no restrictions on its use in the US, where people can use it to listen to songs stored on the iPod on a home or car stereo.

But in Britain, using it is akin to setting up your own pirate radio station.

After discussions with the Radio Agency, A M Micro concluded that using the gadget would mean breaking the law."