(Razor Sharp Records/Epic)
As an experiment, I decided to try analyzing these Wu-Tang Clan spinoffs without paying the slightest attention to the lyrics, and it was a revelation. Suddenly, the voices of Cappadonna, who became part of the family with a cameo on Raekwon's 1995 disc Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..., and Killah Priest, a protege of GZA/Genius, became mere instruments--rhythmic devices that contrasted with the backing tracks in often fascinating ways. Cappadonna's pipes aren't nearly as distinctive as those of Method Man and Ol' Dirty Bastards, the Clan's not-so-secret weapons; it can be thin and a bit hoarse at times. But when he's really letting the syllables fly, he can be effective, especially with production savant RZA behind the boards. "Run," in which RZA pairs Cappadonna's tones with his trademark doom and gloom, is prime stuff, as is "Blood on Blood War," which features an echoey keyboard line and a synth drone that flirt with funkiness. On other numbers, RZA hands over the production reins to folks like Tru Master and Goldfinghaz, but because their style is to clone his, the sound remains consistent throughout. Those who already own Wu-Tang Forever and half a dozen other Wu solo efforts that sound a lot like it may not view this as a positive: The too-much-of-a-good-thing syndrome will come into play sooner or later. But for now, The Pillage is a minor but worthy addition to the canon. As for Heavy Mental, it bears the RZA stamp only by extension. Tru Master (here referred to as "True Master") is the dominant producer, with supplementary efforts provided by Wu-esque parties like 4th Disciple, the Arabian Knight and Killah Priest himself. The result is a mix that's not quite as thick and foreboding as usual; "Blessed Are Those," built on the simplest of beats and background oooh-ooohs, can even be described as spare. Fortunately, the Priest's delivery is impressive, with a deep pitch and a confident flow, and his themes draw from the Clan's spiritual side rather than indulging in the usual bullets-and-Cristal nonsense. The title track, for instance, is a space odyssey ("Now I'm on Allah's road to journey/Into the realms of the cosmos/Where only God knows/Or blows like a UFO") that's as intergalactic as anything by Sun Ra.
Oops. I wasn't supposed to be listening to the lyrics, was I?
Downward Is Heavenward
Hum has got its sound down. Downward Is Heavenward, the group's second release on RCA/BMG, features layers of overdriven fuzz tones and solid, melodic basslines, with the occasional acoustic strum shimmering through. The wall o' guitars meshes into a Smashing Pumpkins-esque aural wash punctuated by Bonzo-influenced drumming that was likely recorded in a big, sound-reflective room. The band also gets points for good use of sustain, feedback and Echoplex with a nod to Pink Floyd here and there; one tune fades out with helicopter sound effects.
Such artistic influences serve the band well in terms of instrumentation and production, but they're not quite as beneficial from a lyrical standpoint. The words are a bit self-conscious for my taste, with lines like "I'm thinking of a number between everything and two" recalling such pedantic prose as "Mountains come out of the sky and they stand there" ("Roundabout," by Yes). Ethereal couplets put to tricky time signatures always come off a bit like art with a capital F to me. Furthermore, Downward's seams show at times. You can tell these guys studied music and that they don't move their lips when they read, but they'd do well to pen a tune about their hormones or something equally base.
Too often, Hum is a great sound looking for a song: Not coincidentally, the album's two best cuts--"Green to Me," which is indicative of the group's overall style, and "Mrs. Lazarus," sorta like "Gardening at Night"-era REM--are its most structured. Whereas the majority of bands need to grow, this one needs to shrink a bit from its lofty poetic ambitions. But if the players get to the point lyrically on their next album, they could become a major force.
In the Irish songs of loss on Altan's latest recording, the music seeps heavily into the skin; it feels like a cold, damp day. These gentle jigs and rolling reels, played in the traditional style Altan has perfected over the last decade, build a sturdy frame of reference for other Irish artists, such as Enya and Clannad, who have tried to advance their nation's sonic vocabulary by coating it in electronic lacquer. Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh's singing floats like a feather on "A Moment in Time," where she sings, "Rosin the bow...of years ago." Later, during the Gaelic number "Gleanntain Ghlas Ghaoth Dobhair," her lilting vocal chords seem to vibrate in clear afterthought over the quietly droning overtones of a fiddle. "Timeless" is an overused descriptive--but in this case, it fits.
According to a local retailer, you can pick up Derek and the Dominos' Layla for $15.99, Cream's Strange Brew: The Very Best of Cream for $10.99, and the Clapton solo discs 461 Ocean Boulevard, Slowhand and Just One Night for $10.99, $10.99 and $19.99, respectively. Which means that for around what Pilgrim costs, you can pick up an excellent-to-decent Clapton album that actually sounds like the star of the show was awake when it was recorded. Caveat emptor.
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