Monday, January 31, 2011

More to Nappy Roots concert than meets the eye

Hip-hop was in a state of transition in the early part of the 2000s. The gangsta rap of the 90s was ready to die, and what it gave way to was in many ways completely horrible and disgusting. Around that time, Southern rap started to get big, and it produced a lot of what I would put into that horrible and disgusting category.

But I did become a big fan of Nelly and by extension, the St. Lunatics (okay, so technically, I guess Nelly is midwest/St. Louie rap, but same difference). Ludacris started getting big around the time I started losing interest in the scene, and of course you would have T.I. later.

Nappy Roots left the crowd wanting more at Gilligan's in Murfreesboro.

But a group everyone forgets about is Nappy Roots. They hit it big with that song "Awnaw" and at the time I absolutely hated that song. But over time my mood would change. I'm not sure if hearing their song played over and over on Madden 03 had anything to do with it, but eventually I came around to Nappy Roots.

So when I heard they were playing at Gilligan's in Murfreesboro, I just had to make the trip. On January 21 I arrived there with my lady, not quite sure what to expect but hoping for the best. What we got was certainly not that.

To illustrate why, I have to tell you a little about the venue. Until recently, Gilligan's was known as 527, and every time I'd been there it seemed like a down to earth, no nonsense music venue. Sure, there were people there to have a good time, but it was also a great place to just catch some bands.

Gilligan's appears to be aiming for a different clientele altogether. As soon as I stepped in the door, all I could see was an army of wannabe frat boy douchebags outfitted in conformist plaid shirts and drunk bitches stumbling over the table we were seated at.

Great. I'm surrounded by the stereotypical frat/sorority college crowd, but now I feel even more out of place Laser lights washed over the joint. Yup, the venue I once knew and loved had gone from being a indie music focused venue to a generic club.

However, I was determined to make the best of the evening as I could. The first performer was This Is Art, a DJ who played a bass guitar on stage. I liked how you could feel the music as he plucked the strings of his bass.

For an opening act, I figured he would get about 20 or 30 minutes. I was wrong.

This Is Art played for close to an hour and half. I know some people would be fine with seeing a DJ play that long, but an hour and a half is absurd for an opening act. Maybe he wasn't meant as an opening act. I couildn't find much info beforehand regarding the show or the venue, so I had no way to figure out what to expect. I was digging him at first, but halfway through his set I was beyond sick of seeing him.

I was hoping to get to see Nappy Roots once he finished, but no. After he left, he gave way to another lame ass DJ, even lamer than the one before him. With a name like Wick-It the Instigator, you can tell he's going to be annoying as all fuck. He stepped on stage shouting a string of profanities for no apparent reason. I guess he was trying to get the drunkest of the drunk into it.

I was sick and tired of the DJs. All I wanted to see was Nappy Roots. I was not getting my wish. Musically, this DJ seemed like he was into sampling a little bit more than the guy before him. I heard the Big Tymers "Still Fly," followed by a quick Ludacris sample. At this point what I was thinking was: if he breaks out the Lil' John, I swear to God, I'm going to snap this guy's turntables in half.

One thing he did toward the end of his set that I liked was that he played an electronic-ized riff of Metallica's "Seek and Destroy," and would then sample the guitar riff from the acutal song alongside it.

By this point I was not enjoying myself at all. And I was getting pissed how each performer kept hyping Nappy Roots. It went like this:

Lame ass DJ: Are you ready for some Nappy motherfucking Roots?
Everyone: Hell yeah!

An hour later. Still no Nappy Roots.

After the Wick-It guy, a rapper/emcee named LAWS came up.. He wasn't bad, and was certainly a welcome change from 2 1/2 hours of  DJs. Flow wise, he wasn't bad but he wasn't the greatest either. What I wasn't fond of was that he kept spouting the line, "When I say 'love,' you say 'hip-hop!'"



Sorry, but the whole gag of "When I say [insert word here], you say [insert word]" is one of the most cliched gimmicks in the book. Show me some originality.

Finally, more than three hours after the show first started, Nappy Roots finally took the stage. I didn't get to see much of them because it was after midnight when they went on and we had an hour drive back home.

But there's no denying their awesomeness.

At this point, the entire place was totally packed and rocking. There were probably 500 people in the entire joint. Each of the guys had great stage presence, and really knew how to speak to a crowd.

Musically, much of their material was really hooky, whchi was great for getting the audience pumped. Then they would complement that by having one of their guys take center stage and just spit. This worked to perfection on "Po' Folks" which was pretty much the highlight of my night. The guys all seemed like solid emcees and rappers as well.

So, in retrospect, Nappy Roots was pretty awesome. The rest of the night was total balls, that even 20 minutes of Nappy Roots couldn't entirely make up for. Three hours is entirely too long to have to wait for a headlining act, and when I go to see rap, I'm not there to try to see a bunch of DJs.

Sorry, but it's just not really my thing. I thought Nappy Roots was great, but I wish there could have been a little better distribution on info on the part of the venue or the concert staff.

Monday, January 24, 2011

M.I.A. makes a stand with Vicki Leekx

Genre: Electronic
Running Time: 36:09

Somebody tell me quick, how do you resurrect a career? It's not an enviable position for any type of entertainment star to be in, but Maya Arulpragasam may have rebounded about as well as anyone could have imagined.

Her previous album, Maya, (I'm tired of typing it out with the slashes, so expect to see me refer to it as just Maya). Arulpragasam rose to acclaim on the back of her first two albums, which showcased an ecletic mix of techno and hip hop with tribal influences mixed in.  

Maya ruffled some feathers, though, by ditching that approach in favor of an album that featured heavy motifs from the Internet, the information age, and the digital highway. Nothing made that more apparent than the Youtube menus splattered all over the cover of the album (which was horribly ugly, by the way).

Musically, the album was heavy on electronics on light on almost everything else, with Arulpragasam reaching for delusions of grounder as she labeled herself as some type of online political firebrand.

So to try to salvage her image, Maya has decided to do - what else? Release a mixtape. Because there's nothing like free music to help reinvigorate your fan base. It also doesn't hurt that the mixtape itself is decently impressive in its own right.

M.I.A.'s Vicki Leekx mixtape, released online on New Year's Eve, continues in the electronic/digital theme of Maya, but things have changed. For one, Maya seems to have recaptured the charm that was so glaringly absent on her previous full-length.

She got rid of most of the vocal distortions and let her girly Britishy accent shine through. For once, her voice actually work well with her techno/digital age theme.

Lyrically, you can expect to hear Maya discussing police raids, controversial blog posts, and even making references to Wikileaks . The mixtape consists of a single 36 minute track, which makes it a bit cumbersome. I'm not a fan of the mixtape in its entirety but two cuts I was particularly drawn to were "Gen -N-E-Y" and "Bad Girls."

Ultimately, the significance of Vicki Leekx is that it proves that Maya's techno/digital sound can work. It's not up there with Kala or Arular, but it shows that there's still reason to have a little faith in Ms. Arulpragasam.

ALSO SEE: M.I.A. is missing in action on latest effort

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Elephant comes uncaged - and unhinged - on sophmore effort

Genre: Rock
Jive - R.E.D.
Running Time: 45:07

No matter where you go, you can always find a band vying for mass stardom. Any dance club, bar or grungy music venue is brimming with them every weekend. But there is key question every one of these bands may have to face.

Once you finally release that breaktrhough album that brings in all the mainstream praise and adoration you're seeking, what do you do for an encore? Do you release a clone, or try something totally different? Cage the Elephant made waves with their 2009 eponymous debut, unleashing a sexy, raucous brand of rock and roll that featured strong melodies and a smidge of punk vitality.

Leading the charge was frontman Matt Schultz, who wowed crowds with his high energy and unique vocal delivery not unlike Andrew Stockdale of Wolfmother fame. Their followup, Thank You Happy Birthday, however, veers down a markedly different road as the band attempts to diversify its sonic palette.

The good news is that there's definitely more diversity here than there was on the debut. The stable of songs on Thank You Happy Birthday range from steady rockers to softer, mellower pieces, to outright screeching rockers. But it's not evident the quintet from Bowling Green, Ky. have fully mastered all the styles they try to pull off.

One of the highlights from the self titled album was the frenetic guitar playing. Personally, I'm the kind of guy who loves loves great guitar playing, with loud, rip-roaring riffs, which is something I really liked about the first album. But the guitar presence is noticeably much more subdued this time around; it sounds muddled and buried in the mix. I would even go so far as to say the guitar presence on this album is very weak, which is a major turn off for me.

The opening track, "Always Something" makes this as evident as anything - the guitar doesn't even come in until halfway through the song, leaving the drums and bass to carry the song along with Schultz's vocals. The low and rumbling guitar sound found in many of the album's tracks is new territory for Cage the Elephant, and it's a convention I'm not sure I like.

But despite this, the band tries to craft several radio singles to remind fans of the old stuff. "Shake Me Down," "2024," and "Aberdeen" sound like they could fit in on the previous album. Aberdeen, with its catchy and soaring chorus, is an album highlight.

The band also takes a stab at over the top screaming rockers - much to their peril. The guitar sound is muddled, the instrumental compsiton sounds disjointed, and Schultz's screams and shrieks begin to drive tracks like "Sell Yourself" and "Sabertooth Tiger" into histronics. Cage the Elephant masterfully demonstrates that screaming is an art best left to the metal bands.

But there are also some real gems to be found. The acoustic "Rubber Ball" is a delight, and "Right Before My Eyes" is a catchy rock nugget sporting tight drumming and brimming with a sense of energy. The closer, "Flow" also demonstrates the band's newfound gentler side. There's an unplugged version of "Right Before My Eyes" hidden at the end which may be the best thing on the album.

And the band continues to impress lyrically, as many songs are chock full of clever wordplay. "Indy Kidz" is a rant aimed at the proliferation of mass media, while "Sell Yourself" takes aim at greed and corruption. On "Indy Kidz," Schultz snarls:

"I don't watch TV cause it's just a box of lies/
It makes me want to stick a toothpick in my mind"

In all, Thank You Happy Birthday is an album about experimentation for Cage the Elephant. Some of it works out well, most of it not so much. The neutered guitar sound is a disappointment; for an alleged kickass rock and roll band that's a pretty important element to overlook. If there's a sliver lining to that, though, it's that bassist Daniel Tichenor and drummer Jared Champion get a chance to show off their chops. And they don't disappoint.

And the lack of a standout track like "In One Ear" or "No Rest for the Wicked" is also glaring. However, it's encouraging that the guys are willing to try to break new ground. I'd like to see them try to develop some of the motifs they introduced here and see where they can go with it. But I don't think they're quite there just yet.

Score: 60/100

Friday, January 14, 2011

Totally Unauthorized: 2010 Album of the Year Awards

Alright, so 2010 is now in the books, what a great year it was, yadda yadda yadda. The closing of a year means it's now time for my 2010 albums of the year segment.

Well, in all seriousness, it was a pretty great year for music. As always, the indie scene had tons of great stuff coming out. I guess with the diversity of everything that could be considered indie, that's pretty much the norm. Bands like Vampire Weekend, Spoon, Gorillaz, and Deerhunter had traffic stopping releases this year, but will it be enough for them to claim a coveted award here or will some young up and comer snatch it away?

Rap also had a pretty solid year. Nas and Damian Marley treated us with some reggae infused hip hop with Distant Relatives, and new personalities like Drake and Nicki Minaj got their first big shot on the major stage. But the rap year in 2010 will likely be known as the year of the comeback, as Eminem and Kanye West made big returns from slightly disappointing previous releases, and Big Boi made his emergence as a solo artist.

And in country music, it was also the year heralded duo Brooks & Dunn broke up. Also huge was a string of concerts by a certain country legend known as Garth Brooks, that took place toward the year's end.

But now, seriously this time, here are my picks...

Folk Album of the Year

The Tallest Man on Earth - The Wild Hunt

The indie folk scene is well known for producing great music. We've gotten such great artists as Bright Eyes, Bon Iver, Iron & Wine, and even the legendary Jeff Magnum. But this year none were able to top the Dylan-esque stylings of Kristian Matsson, better known as The Tallest Man on Earth. 

His guitar is crisp and clean, and much of his playing has a wonderful made-for-NPR type of sound. His vocals are a little rough, but in time you'll come to love them. But what really astounds is his lyrical content. 

The title track, which has been on heavy rotation on my IPod for months, delivers a poetic message that you can't be afraid of life or death and you just gotta take it as it comes. Kudos to you, Kristian.

Runner up: Phil Selway - Familial

Jazz Album of the Year
Brian Culbertson - XII

2010 was a solid year for jazz. Guitarist Pat Metheny, a legend in the field, released a great digitized jazz album with Orchestrion, Vijay Iyer showed off his piano virtuosity with Solo, while Paul Motian's Lost in a Dream and Brad Mendelau's Highway Rider also lit up audiences this year. 

But I'm going in a little bit of different direction with my pick. I love jazz, but I also love groove, and I think a lot of other people do too. Enter Brian Culbertson, a jazz pianist with some definitely funky stylings. 

His piano work is accessible but still respectable, and XII features jaw dropping guest appearances from Faith Evans, Brian McKnight, and Avant, among others.

Runner up: Pat Metheny - Orchestrion

Country Album of the Year

 Jamey Johnson - The Guitar Song

It may be lonely at the top, but it's a bitch at the bottom. After cutting his teeth for the last four years (which included being dropped by his label, BMA, in 2006) it's safe to say things aren't a bitch for Johnson anymore. His double album, The Guitar Song, is easily one of the statements of the year.

In a time when the country music industry is brimming in music that is brimming with corporate manufactured sheen, Johnson delivers something that feels true and organic.

At times the line tends to blur between rock and country, as there is some great guitar playing to be heard here. And Johnson's deep, rugged voice spins a message that just won't let you go.

Runner up: The Secret Sisters - The Secret Sisters
Biggest Disappointment 
of 2010

M.I.A. - /\/\ /\ Y /\

Coming off the release of her stunning Kala album three years ago, 2010 was shaping up to be a defining year in the career of Maya Arupugilism. But the wheels started to fall off before the album even released.

Maya was caught up in ugly battles with the pres and had her credibility undermined, but had a chance to make up for it. But for the first time in her career Maya simply fell flat. The personality and creativity that made her first two albums stand out so much was nowhere to be seen here.

It all degenerated into loops of electronic garbles coupled with a blatant attempt to to appeal to the party/hip hop/club scene. After finally cracking the mainstream, it looks like Maya tried to cash in on it. Unfortunately, she missed the mark here.

Runner up: Vampire Weekend - Contra

Most Out There Album of 2010

Avey Tare - Down There

No surprises here. The mad genius who helped engineer Merriweather Post Pavillion returned in 2010 with his own solo LP, and it becomes very obvious where the main influence in Animal Collective lies. 

Tare has once again assembled what essentially is the soundtrack to an acid trip, but there are some departures from MPP's formula. Down There has a much murkier vibe, with an ever-present water theme providing a unique coloring to the album. 

Complete with twisted vocals, bizarre lyrical imagery, and beats that can only come from a mind like Tare's, it's harder to get much more out there this year than Down There.

Runner up: Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz

 Most Overrated Album

Big Boi - Sir Luscious Left Foot... Son of Chico Dusty

Critics and fans alike raved about the debut solo album from the other half of the dynamic Outkast duo. Virtually everyone I've heard from says this album is the second coming of Biggie or something, but you'll have to color me unimpressed. 

My main turn off is the super sleek pop sound presented on this record. It doesn't sound like anything currently being played on MTV, but it sounds like something that could be. I also found this record a bit over the top at times. And it's hard to deny that Big Boi's lyricism is nowhere near what it was during his Outkast heights.

Runner up: Vampire Weekend - Contra

 Best New Artist

Best Coast

I've got to admit I was on a Bethany Cosentio trip for quite awhile. Nevermind Katy Perry; if you've ever had a fantasy about the perfect indie chick, Cosentio is your dream girl.

She's the perfect combination of rocker/hipster/stoner all wrapped up into one babe. Oh yeah, and then there's also the music. With their debut Crazy for You, Best Coast presents a lo-fi brand of sunny California surf rock that sports a retro vibe.

It all floats by like a breezy summer day and its hard not to get caught up in Bethany's sugary melodies. I wish they all could be California girls...

Best Live Show

Paul McCartney at the Bridgestone 
Well, obviously. How is anyone supposed to outdo Hey Jude, Blackbird, Let it Be, Yesterday, Pepper's Theme, The End, and the list goes on. But it's all just more reasons why I can't deny that Mr. McCartney put on the best show I saw this year.

Paul brought his band to Nashville for the first time this summer and did his best to convince us that he's an "up and coming artist," but that's about the only thing he wasn't able to succeed at. Other highlights included his performance of Something as a tribute to George Harrison.

Toward the end, he even allowed a pair of fans up on the stage to get autographs and to rock out. It's hard to get much classier - or better - than Sir McCartney
Electronic Album of the Year

Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles
Crystal Castles began carving out their niche two years ago with their self titled debut. It was big on electronic pyrotechnics and video game/arcade sounds, but here the Edinburgh duo opted for a slightly different approach.

Ethan Kath displayed a brilliance in composing dreamy soundscapes that I haven't seen in years; truly no one can quite arrange .midi files quite like this guy. And Alice Glass made major strides forward in being an anything goes vocalist with mind boggling assortments of different vocal effects from song to song.

Tracks like Intimate make it easy to get your rave on, Doe Deer will make you think you had a bad trip, but perhaps the most interesting experiment comes with the Sigur Ros sample on Year of Silence.

And even though the remixed version wasn't included on the album, the duo's collaboration with Robert Smith on We Are Not in Love captured headlines all over the musical world.

Runner up: Yeasayer - Odd Blood 

Rap Album of the Year

Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

The word for Kanye this year was rebound. 808s and Heartbreak, quite frankly, wasn't that great, and Kanye had taken several hits to his image after sloughing through numerous PR failures. 

But that all came to an end with his Good Fridays series and the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, an effort that is being lauded by practically everyone everywhere. Some even argue that Kanye is redefining rap. 

But however you look at it, it's hard to deny the creativity and ingenuity displayed here. And it isn't just Kanye who lights it up here. Everyone from Rihanna, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj, and Pusha T came out in full force to make this album a stunner. 

Masterful use of samples, undeniable rhythm and flow, and brilliantly selected guest spots enable Fantasy to shine with the brightest of 2010.

Runner up: Nas & Damian Marley - Distant Relatives

Rock Album of the Year

 Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

Finally, Arcade Fire will be known for something other than Funeral.

Their previous effort, Neon Bible, may have been considered something of a step backward but the Canadian septet made it all right with The Suburbs. It's more of a rocking, Springsteen-esque album that focuses on the inevitably of growing up and getting stuck in a routine.

It's easy to hear the frustration and tension in Win Butler's voice as he imagines being stuck in a boring white picket fence 9-to-5 type of life.

Musically, the album moves around from the driving rock of Empty Room and Month of May to the electro pop of Half Light II (No Celebration) to more relaxed mellow rockers like Ready to Start and Deep Blue.

And let's not forget the bouncy 80s pop vibe of the unforgettable Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains). With The Suburbs, the Canadian septet has painted a breathtaking portrait of the world growing up, and Arcade Fire is growing up along with it.

Runner up: Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest

Metal Album of the Year
Orphaned Land - The Never Ending Way of ORwarriOR

It's hard to deny that 2010 was a pretty lackluster year for metal. Iron Maiden flamed out spectacularly, and not much else really notable came to the forefront. Still, Orphaned Land was a bright spot.

The Never Ending Way of the ORwarriOR
was the long awaited and anticpated follow up to Mabool, released all the way back in 2004. It was a long wait, but Orphaned Land's tale of good vs. evil, of light against darkness was well worth it.

The prog metallers from Israel combine death metal and progressive metal with folk elements into a dazzling array of Middle Eastern flavored folk/metal. About the only band capable of pulling that vibe off better is Opeth, which is no small praise.

Runner up: Blind Guardian - At the Edge of Time

Song of the Year

 Kanye West feat. Pusha T - Runaway
2nd Place: Arcade Fire - Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
3rd Place - The Tallest Man on Earth - The Wild Hunt

Runaway is an obvious pick for song of the year. It's tough to think of a song that emboides so many elements, and pulls them all off so well. 

You have catchy hooks, impassioned R&B singing, well placed samples, solid rapping, and a very outside the box vocoder piece that even fuses a bit of electronica into the mix. 

Granted, the vocoder part runs on a little long, and with all the quiality competition out this year that was almost enough to knock it from the top spot. But in the end, Kayne's toast to the douchebags runs away with Best Song of 2010 award.

Album of the Year  
Orphaned Land - The Never Ending Way of ORwarriOR
2nd Place: Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
3rd Place: Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

On my short list you have two albums that are trendy picks to win this category. I decided to go in a slightly different direction.

I found Orphaned Land to be slightly more consistent here; The Suburbs had a few sleepy tracks and as big of a fan as I was of Kanye, there were a couple of tracks I could live without.

That's not to say that every track on the ORwarriOR is necessarily perfect, but with this album Orphaned Land takes you through a mystical oddesy that weaves so many different elements together. It's just enough to lift Never Ending Way of the ORwarriOR into this year's top spot.