A Book of Human Language
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.
The Hope Blister
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.
Hot Rod Lincoln Live!
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.
So how come I watch the clock every other song? Because hearing Kirchen's vocals for the first time ever is like hearing Eric Clapton for the hundredth time today. Farrell's "Cold Country Blues" catches Kirchen at his saddest and sweetest, and he goes suitably crazy while barking out the words of Johnson's "Sometimes I Think" and twisting his tongue around "Swing Fever." But in a song-oriented live CD, that's a piddling amount of sharp singing. Fortunately, though, Kirchen's pipes don't prevent Lincoln from eventually reaching its destination.
(In Joy Music)
A decade or so ago, a new-age artist named Paul Winter was regularly taking his soprano saxophone into the great outdoors, turning on the tape recorder and letting the music flow. The result, at the time, was inspiring and frequently breathtaking, but as the years went by, memories of Winter's work slipped my mind--until I heard Sedona, that is. Illenberger obviously uses nature as his inspiration (titles include "Secret Canyon," "Frogs" and "Full Moon"), and he even throws in natural sounds, like a roll of thunder and barking coyotes heard outside the studio window (as opposed to Illenberger being outside). Illenberger writes that these instrumentals were inspired by the "vibrant energy" and "spectacular landscape" of Sedona, Arizona, and the first two tracks are quite dynamic thanks to their crisp, elegant guitar work. They recall the simplicity of the Paul Winter recordings, and they left me wanting more. But not for long: Sedona quickly devolves into a thick, over-textured, syrupy lite-jazz work that, believe it or not, is worse than anything even Yanni has ever produced. If this is vibrant energy, I suggest putting it to good use--in the recycling bin.
In "Kids Do the Darnedest Things," an article that ran in our July 16 issue, I praised recent releases by Sean Lennon, Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright, three pop-star offspring who used the advantages bestowed upon them by their last names in order to take more artistic chances, not fewer. Unfortunately, quite a few second-generation artists choose to take the conventional tack. Case in point: Adam Cohen. The son of Leonard Cohen, a craggy Canuck whose brainy poem-songs and existential-ladies'-man persona has made him a favorite of bookish dudes who are lucky if they date semi-annually, Adam has a voice that's far more flexible than his father's; he's capable of moving from a lover's purr to a petulant bellow in the span of a few words. But whereas Leonard's monotone is limited but indelible, Adam's is utterly generic, a weightless David Wilcox croon that makes everything he sings feel even less substantial than it might seem otherwise.
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Sensing this, the big wheels at Columbia spared no expense when it came to collaborators: Tunesmiths Tonio K and Dillon O'Brien are among those who were imported to co-write material with Adam, and sidemen on the CD include old-schoolers Larry Klein, who until earlier this decade was married to Joni Mitchell, and David Baerwald. But despite these efforts, Adam Cohen is painfully immature--the work of an artist trying desperately to seem more wise than he actually is. When he attempts to express his sensitivity, the younger Cohen is far too on-the-nose: "We're all so fragile/We're all so scared," from "Cry Ophelia," is typical. But far more agonizing are those moments when he reaches for the depths of romantic despair that Leonard makes his home. The nadir is "Quarterback," a teeth-grinding catalogue of teen angst that opens with a clumsy allusion to pedophilia ("Your Underoos past your thighs/A little chubby but cute, so cute") before degenerating into an orgy of whining that might give even Billy Corgan pause. "Why can't your cheers be for me/Instead of the quarterback?" he simpers, sounding like the kind of brat who might have benefited from a few years in military school.
Cohen's disc is certainly professional, and Columbia has big plans for him; the firm has set up a personalized Adam Web site (at www.adamcohen.com) that's filled with the type of hype that practically shouts, "He's the next Jakob Dylan!" Given the vigorousness of the campaign, he might turn out to be just that. And that's precisely the problem.