Playlist

Aceyalone
A Book of Human Language
(Project Blowed)

Why do so many artists choose to take the path of least resistance? The current plight of rapper Aceyalone offers an answer. Born E.M. Hayes Jr., Aceyalone was part of the Freestyle Fellowship, a West Coast act that incorporated jazz sounds every bit as effective and innovative as the ones used by A Tribe Called Quest. But unlike Q-Tip and company, the Fellowship didn't move enough units to satisfy the bean counters, and Aceyalone's attempt to go solo with the 1995 Capitol release All Balls Don't Bounce didn't set sales records, either. As a result, A Book of Human Language appears on Project Blowed, a microscopic indie; when I phoned a company rep to get a review copy of the CD, I was informed that he didn't have any to give me. (He kindly sent along the vinyl version instead.)

The label's modesty is no reflection on Aceyalone. He's a tremendous talent, and Book is as good a hip-hop recording as I've heard this year. The assembled tracks are nothing if not ambitious: Following tracks with literal titles such as "Forward," "The Guidelines" and "Contents," Aceyalone (with the assistance of producer Mathew "Mumbles" Fowler) confronts both the unwritten future and the often-painful past, which he sees as an instruction manual that can prevent us from stumbling into worst-case scenarios. In doing so, he counters the growing superfluity of hip-hop lyrics with words that drip with meaning and import.

Seen on the printed page, his descriptions of his new tunes can seem as heavy as the Fat Boys. About "The Reason," he writes, "Speaking from my time span of existence in this world on this continent, in this country, this state, this city and this 'hood, I represent a tribe in a human family whose story has been told the world in many different ways. This is just another one." But the song itself is a thrilling 81 seconds of saxophone riffing, smashing beats and Aceyalone's clear, clean, enthusiastic delivery of lines that are meaningful without seeming unnecessarily dogmatic. There are other fragmentary efforts here as well, including "The Energy" (punchy, anarchic), "The Vision" (elegant, lovely) and "The Catch" (moody, explicit); they serve as prologues or epilogues for beautifully arranged, ceaselessly intelligent slabs of wisdom such as "The Balance," "The Faces," "The Thief in the Night" and "Human Language," in which Aceyalone uses post-bop as backdrop for an extraordinary statement of purpose.

During "Language," Aceyalone accepts his 1998 status with tremendous grace: "Everywhere I go/I plant a seed/I hope it grows/But every seed planted ain't always granted life, though/ Some grow slow and then they flourish in the end/Then again, some grow fast, then they die out as soon as they begin." It's a drag to think that Aceyalone will suffer this last fate; music needs more visionaries, not fewer. But even if only a handful of people actually get a chance to hear his new offering (it can be obtained from Project Blowed Recordings, 4343 Leimert Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90008), he deserves props for staying the course. The Puff Daddys of the world may have more folding green, but Aceyalone's got more brains--and in the end, that's what matters.

--Michael Roberts

The Hope Blister
...smile's ok
(4AD)

Many fans of beautiful underground music reserve a special place in their music libraries for It'll End in Tears, Filigree & Shadow and Blood, released between 1983 and 1991 by England's This Mortal Coil. The honorary house band for the 4AD imprint, the collective outclassed labelmates like the Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance (whose members contributed to the aforementioned albums) because of the group's unique blend of cellos, classical samples and atmospheric soundscapes. It's good news, then, that the outfit's key members--producer Ivo Watts-Russell and mixer John Fryer--have returned under the guise of the Hope Blister. But the new configuration is not simply a recapitulation of its predecessor. Blister maintains Coil's pedigree noir sound while distilling it down to its essence.

When they were making music under their previous moniker, Watts-Russell and Fryer were skilled at reinterpreting the compositions of artists such as Tim Buckley and Talking Heads in new and unique ways. The Hope Blister extends this approach by focusing exclusively on covers such as Brian Eno's "Spider and I," David Sylvain's "Let the Happiness In" and John Cale's "Hanky Panky Nohow." Louise Rutkowski, who crooned alongside Pixie/Breeder Kim Deal and the Throwing Muses' Tanya Donelly on Blood, serves as the lead singer here, and her vocalizing perfectly suits the offering's back-to-the-basics approach. In contrast to the almost-psychedelic escapades of the past, ...smile's ok is dark and acoustic, with Rutkowski's voice, strings, production treatments and the occasional piano flourish serving as the principal elements.

These tools come together strikingly on "Is Jesus Your Pal," and if other tracks don't always hit these heights, they usually come close. As a result, devotees of the nascent darkwave cabal will be happy that this particular Blister has popped up.

--Kelly Lemieux

Bill Kirchen
Hot Rod Lincoln Live!
(Hightone)

When drummer Jack O'Dell and bassist Johnny Castle join Kirchen, a former member of Commander Cody's Lost Planet Airmen, for yet another night in a Texas bar, the results can get hot at times. The words and music are packed with wit, courtesy of Bob Wills, Leroy Preston, T. Johnson, K. Farrell and Mr. and Mrs. Kirchen, and the show is crowned with "Hot Rod Lincoln," Commander Cody's renowned tribute to hot bluesmen and rockers. Just as important, Kirchen's guitar is focused on the songs, not on jamming.

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