Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Killer Mike and El-P rock the crowd with Run the Jewels live show

The collaborative efforts between Killer Mike and El-P were easily one of hip hop's high points in 2012. New York bred rapper El-P brought his deep knowledge of breakneck beats to the production booth for Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music, while both men provided guest spots on the other's album. Now they're giving all of us a gift by collaborating even more closely with a new project called Run the Jewels. They present two vastly divergent styles, but manage to meet at the same end point. In their Tuesday night performance at Exit/In, they showcased the elements that make their sets differ from one another, but also preeminently demonstrated the similarities that make the two such a compelling onstage tandem.

Killer Mike expresses his disdain for former President Ronald Reagan.

Killer Mike's act is all about working the crowd.  He engages a crowd by putting his colorful personality on display, and they eat it up. At the core of it all is distrust and resentment toward the government, coupled with love and pride toward the South.  After getting hit single "Big Beast" out of the way early, he then proceeded into a few of the more political tracks from R.A.P. Music. "Don't Die" sees Mike unleash an overwhelming torrent of rage toward corrupt police, but his defining moment of the night was reserved toward a former occupant of the Oval Office. He stunned the crowd into a hushed silence by preforming an acapella version of "Reagan," a throat stomping piece that examines how policies put in place by nation's fortieth president caused severe detriment to minorities and the poor. Mike slammed the war on drugs and the prison industry, along with Regan's background as an actor, and claimed many of the policies he put in place continue up to the present day. And he didn't even need a beat to do it. He had the crowd in the palm of his hand. When he finished, he had them chanting the song's closing refrain along with him, "I'm glad Reagan's dead!"

Mike's act is certainly informed by nasty politics, but by no means is it defined by it. His pride for the South was also on full display, not only in songs but also in personal tidbits he shared. One of those included his love for former pro wrestler Ric Flair, a Memphis native and one of Mike's favorites growing up. There were Deep Southern/religious overtones to his set as well, without getting directly into matters of religion or dogma. "This, to me, is not even a rap concert," he declared. "This is, what we call in the South, a revival." At one point he jumped down into crowd and began preforming a spitfire freestyle proclaiming his love for the South. If Mike hadn't made it as a rapper, he very well could have found a place as a fire breathing preacher. He capped it off with a performance of the title track from R.A.P. Music, a piece promoting respect for the accomplishments of African Americans, both to music and society in general.

Brooklyn rapper El-P seeks divine inspiration.
By comparison, El-P does his damage much differently. His set is focused on creating an aggressive atmosphere through beats, lighting, and short, declarative statements that are delivered like a boxer's jab. El-P, clad in his trademark red baseball cap, is clutching the mic stand dropping rhymes interrogation style on a dimly lit stage, and then he gives us a line an infectious line in place for his hook, " I WOULDN'T WANT TO BE A PART OF ANY CLUB THAT WOULD HAVE ME!" And the crowd is just eating it up.

His setup is more involved; he brought along a guitarist along with his production specialists, so the sound is bigger and louder. While Killer Mike may by far be the more powerful rapper, El-P has the advantage in speed. During "The Full Retard," the rhymes are coming so fast and hard that it feels like physical body blows.
But he can also lay down devastation with just his beats and a hook. "Drones Over BKLYN," a tune which warns about America's increasing transition into a surveillance state, features a chorus section so intense that heading back into the verses feels like coming up for a breath of air.

El-P had come out for a guest spot during Mike's set for a performance of "Butane (Champion's Anthem)," the song he had guested on from Killer Mike's album, and similarly Mike came out during "Tougher Colder Killer," their collaboration from El-P's Cancer 4 Cure album. He even had Despot on hand to perform his verse, by virtue of the fact that he was one of the opening acts.

El-P came across confidently and put on a great show. Of the two, Killer Mike's act translated better to the stage by virtue of the fact that it relies on less. Though El-P's set was great, the beats didn't carry the same power they do on the record (although that would be hard to do). At times, it seemed like he had to fight to be heard above the beats, and vice versa.

Though when these two come together, it's the perfect union. Killer Mike brings the power, El-P brings the speed, and they both prove they can switch it up to a certain extent. It provides a great variety, and they both complement one another in perfect harmony. Clad in their gaudy golden chains, they ripped through a selection of highlights from Run the Jewel's self titled LP, including "36 Chain," the video for which had just hit airwaves that very day. The beats were more subdued than they were during El-P's set, which put the focus square and center on the two emcees. They brought aggression and plenty of smooth wordplay on tunes like "Run the Jewels" and "Banana Clipper" and complained about police aggression on "DDFH," while showing they can toss in a softer, more melodic hook on "Sea Legs."

Run the Jewels prove their mettle as one of hip hop's top acts.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Preservation Hall Jazz Band seeks to leave their mark with That's It!

It may be strange to say a band is on the rise 50 years into their career, but in the case of Preservation Hall Jazz Band the evidence is undeniable. In the past year they've been venerated at major North American music festivals, collaborated with guest stars as wide ranging as The Del McCoury Band and Steve Earle, and now they release the first album of original material in the band's history, That's It!. Creative director David Jaffe says it's an effort by the band's current members to leave their mark on the modern musical landscape, as the great New Orleans jazz musicians of the past did in their day.

They have some well renowned friends to help them do it.  This is not their first time working with Jim James of My Morning Jacket: they collaborated on "St. James Infirmary Part 1" on last year's St. Peter & 57th Street. This time he brings his expertise to the producer's booth, using his laser focused attention to detail to fine tune the band's sound. There are also a slew of well known songwriters at work on That's It! Most notable is Paul Williams, best known for a string of hits beginning in the 1970s and most recently involved with writing on singing on Daft Punk's Random Access Memories.

Many of the songs are pretty straightforward in terms of tone and theme, usually based upon some story of love or loss, or some facet of New Orleans. Yet it's the presentation of the message that determines the success or failure of a recording, and PHJB's composition most certainly has some meat on its bones."I Think I Love You" provides some great clarinet and offers a fantastic shuffling beat sure to get your hips twisting. Meanwhile, "Dear Lord (Give Me the Strength)" triumphantly fuses jazz and gospel to create a rapture inducing performance.

That's It! gives a great sense of the roots and tradition of New Orleans jazz.  There are many frilly and jovial and brassy numbers, developed much in the style that was championed by old greats like Jelly Roll Morton. Tracks like "Rattlin' Bones" and "The Darker It Gets" are great examples. "Rattlin' Bones," in particular, does a fantastic job of showing off that eerie/creepy but awesome side of New Orleans jazz with a litany of blaring horns and shrill, piercing trumpets. It talks about skeletons rising up from their grave, which gives it a very morose, but awesome feel.

As would be expected with any jazz release, there is plenty of jazz improvising and soloing. The title track, along with "Sugar Plum," do a fine job of showing off the band's instrumental prowess. But other numbers break away from the mold and offer something different.

Newer listeners will likely be drawn in more by the band's traditional New Orleans sound, as it the sound they have been known for all these years, and makes a very distinctive mark upon our collective cultural landscape. However, those hungry for something else will most certainly find suitable servings. "I Think I Love You" fits into this mold, but also of note is "August Nights,"  a somber noire sounding piece not unlike something that would have been produced in the era of Miles Davis's Kind of Blue. It all caps off with the haunting piano based closer "Emmalena's Lullaby." The rattling, shaking sounds of the old organ serves as a reminder that the history of the city isn't always a pretty one.

Jaffe and crew have succeeded in showing off the many multifaceted sides of New Orleans, and produced a disc that showcases a variety of different moods and styles. Furthermore, the engaging nature of the material, combined with the bite size length of the songs, makes this an ideal listen for those who have an interest in jazz but who may struggle with wandering attention spans during longer or more free form jazz works. Despite a spotty track here and there, That's It! most certainly accomplishes Jaffe's goal of making living, breathing, vital music for our time.

Score: 84/100

Friday, July 5, 2013

Totally Unauthorized 2013 Mid Year Recap: Top 10 First Half Albums

With a series of smashing releases that pull from a wide spectrum of styles and genres, 2013 is shaping up to be a banner musical year. As each year seems to be getting better than the year before it, this era of music is beginning to stake its claim that it may be one of the all time best. Here are but a few of the best sounds on display through the year's first half:

10. Atoms for Peace - Amok

Thom Yorke has a clear sense of purpose, and this time he has friends to help him execute it. Yorke and producer Nigel Godrich's joy of concocting sublimely hypnotizing dancefloor electro-pop is almost equal to the bliss that comes from consuming it, resulting in a much more friendly and inviting offering than The King of Limbs. Flea and Joey Waronker provide an added emphasis on percussion and rhythm, giving Amok a fiercer bite.

9. Wayne Shorter - Without a Net

If you can make an album like this at age 80, hats off to you. The former saxophonist from the groundbreaking jazz fusion outfit The Weather Report still packs a punch, supported by one of the best backing bands in the business. Without a Net sees Shorter presenting a mind warping but a set of original tune and reinterpretations of old classics, along with a jaw dropping 23 minute collaboration with the Imani Winds quintet.

8. Deerhunter - Monomania

Very few people who would have guessed Deerhunter would release a grimy dive bar rock and rock and roll record in the year 2013. Even fewer would have expected them to pull it off well, yet here we stand with one of the year's best records, albeit in a dramatically different tone from the band's past offerings. Bradford Cox has come into his own as a magnetizing frontman, and the sound is presented with such an honest clarity and sense of humanity that one can't help but be caught up in the undertow.

7. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories

Daft Punk's latest album feels like an event.  The French electronic duo have ditched house for a 1970s inspired funk/disco sound, and have brought along plenty of collaborators for the party. It's hard to decide which is more fulfilling: getting down with Pharrell and Panda Bear, or jamming out to stories of the olden days with famed producer Giovanni Giorgio. One thing is certain: Daft Punk's shindig doesn't sound like it's ending anytime soon.

6. Bad Religion - True North

When a song called "Fuck You" is one of the more mellow pieces on an album, you know you'd better hold on to your ass. They may be pushing 50, but Bad Religion's crackling intensity has lesser bands pushing up daisies. The lyrics are as socially conscious as ever, as Greg Graffin urges personal self development above all else. After a long wait, Bad Religion has finally made a record that can stand against their best work.

5. The Knife - Shaking the Habitual

It's hard to decide which is more en vogue in 2013 -  electronic duos releasing comeback albums, or electronic duos releasing albums somewhere around two hours in length. The Knife decided to do both. It's tough to say the entire opus is a gripping listen, it's a guarantee that The Knife's exotic vision never gets dull.  In an industry that thrives on the flow of new ideas, the importance of their work cannot be understated.

4. Savages - Silence Yourself

Before this album, I couldn't stand anything post-punk. This band forced my mind open. I'd have to dig deep to think of higher praise to give a band than that. This all-female outfit present their subject matter from a woman's vantage point, but do so with the straightforwardness of men. Jehnny Beth's impassioned shrieks combine with Gemma Thompson's razor edged guitar and Ayse Hassan's propulsive bass to forge one of the year's most explosive releases.

 3. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City

Pop music is often considered disposable, but Vampire Weekend doesn't see why it has to be that way. Modern Vampires of the City contains slick enough hooks to land most of its tracks on the radio, but there are deeper forces at work here. Nods toward religion, history, and death couple with fresh approaches to the band's songwriting to present an convincing argument that pop music is not only a respectable institution, but also a vital one.

2. Queens of the Stone Age - ...Like Clockwork

It's said good things come to those who wait. Six years is no short interval, but Josh Homme and crew made it worthwhile by dropping this undeniable gem of an album. ...Like Clockwork widens the band's sonic footprint by masterfully presenting moody atmospheres, tripped out soundscapes, and smooth doses of Trent Reznor inspired sensuality. The fact that they manage to craft so many distinct styles so well makes this one of the can't miss albums of 2013.

1. Steven Wilson - The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories)

Eclectic 1970s style prog freakouts. Basslines that burrow into your brain. Spacey, chilled out astral washes, Pink Floyd style. Demented King Crimson scales and battering ram drum work. Jazz fusion freakouts. Haunting flute and acoustic guitar combos, along blazing solos from guitar prodigy Guthrie Govan. It's all capped off by one of the most touching piano ballads in recent memory, and structured around the theme of supernatural ghost stories. And that's without even mentioning the genius mind of Steven Wilson pulling the strings like a master puppeteer. Best wishes to anyone putting out an album the rest of the year. The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories) sets the bar for music releases in 2013.