The Beat Assassinated
(Globetrotter/Sony Music International)
Throughout last year's Mad Blunted Jazz, DJ Cam conjured up hip-hop revelations on the DJ Shadow tip--meaning that he dispensed with lyrical excursions in order to explore the instrumental and orchestral possibilities of mixing and sampling. But although this approach was artistically fruitful, it wasn't overtly commercial. So on his first above-the-title release by a U.S. major, Cam (a Frenchman by birth) keeps accessibility on the radar screen by engaging rappers such as Dadou and KDD to add words to his music. The effect is generally more conventional than previous excursions; for instance, Cam's keyboard-heavy tones on "Renegade" are relegated to the background by the crazed toasting of Silvah Bullet, a performer who's half Shabba Ranks, half Busta Rhymes. However, Cam's subtle wizardry prevents the tunes from descending into predictability. "Raise Up," featuring Channel Live, manages to blend the doom and gloom of RZA with the jazzy sensibilities of Guru and DJ Premier, and "Hardcore Freestyle," fronted by wordsmith Otis, works equally well as a dance-floor throwdown and a sonic enigma. Even better are the tracks on which Cam stands alone in the spotlight, particularly the darkly evocative "Inside a Mind" and the lead number, "I Love Hip Hop," which is built around the inspirational phrase "And I love hip-hop like Madonna loves dick." Who couldn't get behind a sentiment like that? Besides Sandra Bernhard, that is.
Musings of a Creekdipper
Artists need steel spines in order to wander with their muses--unless, that is, they're as fascinated by the minutiae of rural environments as Victoria Williams is. Her firmly unaggressive voice cracks and wavers over lyrics about allergic boys, rabbits that pick corn from between a horse's teeth and the extinction of the caboose--topics that seem to concern her more than the uncertainty of her own health. (Williams suffers from multiple sclerosis and was the impetus behind the Sweet Relief benefit albums.) Her previous offerings sometimes sounded a little too cute, but not Creekdipper, which features a unique blend of electric and acoustic instrumentation. She's not the first person who ever thought to stick a cornet between a banjo and a synthesizer, but she's among the few to do so in a way that's worth hearing more than a time or two. The strings, horns and voices Patrick Wallace calls out of his Chamberlain keyboard sit as easily on the ear as Greg Liesz's pedal steel. The result is folk-pop music that approaches the rock-and-roll fan as gingerly as deer edge toward a busy highway.
Minott has one of the smoothest voices this side of Barry White, and he uses it to similar effect on this misleadingly titled CD. For the most part, Herbman Hustling is a collection of lovers' rock--the sleek, melodic, R&B-infused reggae subgenre that rose to prominence in Britain in the Eighties. The style is perfect for Minott, who's gifted with a generally sunny disposition that never collapses into the grating, smarmy optimism favored by the Ned Flanderses of the world. He touches on police harassment during the title track and "Hard Time Pressure," but he's at his best when exploring the vagaries of lost love on "Come Back Baby," among many others. That he does so without sounding maudlin can be credited to his taste for gentle harmonies and uplifting call-and-response horn lines of the sort that decorate "So She Hot" and "Dance Hall Business." Hence the songs are unfailingly buoyant yet varied in terms of mood and tempo. Clearly, Sugar is still one of the sweetest things happening in reggae today.
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How many bands sell hundreds of thousands of records on their own label and charge around $5 a head for tickets to their exclusively all-ages shows? One--and it's called Fugazi. The band has been around for eleven years, and Dischord, an imprint co-founded by Fugazi singer-guitarist Ian Mackaye when he was a member of Minor Threat, boasts an even longer history: It's been part and parcel of American hardcore for nearly two decades. None of that would matter, of course, if End Hits was a watered-down summary of past glories--but it's not. The album, which is dominated by searing guitars and Guy Picciotto's trademark vocal passion, demonstrates that Fugazi's integrity and intensity remain intact even as its members move deeper into their thirties.
The spacious, upbeat opener, "Break," is a bit familiar; Joe Lally's languid bass-playing on it calls to mind 1990's Repeater. But elsewhere, Fugazi's experiments with contrast and tempo sound as vital as ever, and the booming dub touches and abstract punk/metal riffing studiously avoid overindulgence. The understated "Recap Modotti" employs the act's unique rhyme-rhythm equation to good effect, thanks in large part to the propulsive playing of drummer Brendan Canty; the instrumental "Arpeggiator" raises the property values of all neighboring songs (it's one of Fugazi's finest compositions); and "Place Position" alternately accelerates with the force of a sonic boom or pauses like the Titanic stopping on a dime. (The recording as a whole features plenty of finessed, decelerated moments that allow listeners to catch their breath prior to the next onslaught.) As for the words, they're occasionally a bit heavy-handed: An example is the transparent symbolism heard on "Pink Frosty." But "Five Corporations" should have been included in the soundtrack for Michael Moore's leftist documentary The Big One, and "Caustic Acrostic" is consistently intelligent; its lyrics include the lines "I feel dangerous and vexed/Swinging two-ton second guess/And every motion just cuts/Too cruel, too cruel/And the implication is that/You're implicated/Just like a caustic acrostic/Spelling out your name."
It's hard to tell if young punks will have a long enough attention span to appreciate observations like these, and some older ones may have moved on. If so, it's their loss, because Fugazi is still operating at the top of its game.