Songs for a Dead Pilot
The three ultra-minimalists in Low (who appear with the Czars at the Bluebird Theater on October 26) are known for music that's the sonic equivalent of a horse tranquilizer, albeit one with an overtly melodic and stately grace. Acres of space float between the band's spare bass, drums, guitars and vocals, thereby providing the studio types highlighted on owL remix with a virtual canvas of their own. On the best cuts, such as Porter Rocks's version of "Down," individual passages are parceled out, looped and manipulated to reveal interesting details. Elsewhere, "Over the Ocean," festooned with a peppy horn section and a chattering high hat, manages to sturdily embrace two separate but similar retoolings. But the previously lovely "Words" is overwhelmed by Jimmy Somerville and Sally Herbert, who increase the beats per minute until the song's original heart dissipates in a synthesized disco flurry.
The tunes on Songs for a Dead Pilot, Low's latest, are not nearly as pushy; the beautiful nighttime tunes on it wouldn't dare wake Grandma. Mirroring the serenity of Low's Duluth, Minnesota, hometown, the compositions ("recorded at home, pre-flood," according to a cryptic message on the jacket) are slowed to an almost somnambulistic crawl. The effect is sometimes numbing; during the thirteen minutes of "Down by the Wire," for example, the echo from each guitar strum fades before the next approaches. But on a fragile, elegiac piece such as "Be There," the band shows how harrowing a stealth approach can be, especially when guitarist Alan Sparhawk and drummer Mimi Parker whisper, "I don't want to be there when you find out" over the hum of a solitary organ note. Adding a mournful pair of cellos to the solemn "Condescend" amplifies the heartbreak as the song slowly plods to the end of a lonely road.
Whether Songs for a Dead Pilot is a gorgeous winter lament, a case study in seasonal affective disorder or a huge snoozefest is in the ear of the beholder. As for me, I plan to put it on whenever I'm feeling Low.
7 Days a Week
The specter of Ziggy Marley pimping Covergirl makeup on television tells you all you need to know about the sorry state of roots reggae today. Because of waning commercial appeal and marginalization caused by the rise of younger dancehall artists, once-great roots singers such as Itals Keith Porter and David Isaacs and onetime Black Uhuru member Don Carlos must struggle to remain relevant. But they're losing the battle: The latest discs by the Itals and Carlos sound more like background music for a Royal Caribbean ad than the proud efforts of graying Jamaican legends.
Modern Age hardly strays from a formula that's become the unfortunate hallmark of modern roots reggae. Both the CD's cover and its lyrics are decorated with Old Testament phrases meant to emphasize the Itals' Rastafarianism, as though that were enough to establish its heaviness. And the music, consisting mainly of warmed-over synthesizers played at the same tempo throughout, is as flat and uninspired as the singing of Porter and Isaacs, who are stripped of soul by glitzy production and the lack of real instruments. The CD's most egregious offense is "Titanic," a song that improbably compares the sinking of the title ocean liner to the Second Coming. Such shameless hucksterism is made all the more revolting by the fact that reggae preaches against such excesses of Babylon (to borrow a catchphrase). Look for Nike swooshes on their outfits next time they tour.
Carlos, who remained in Michael Rose's shadow during his Black Uhuru days, doesn't give props to Leonardo DiCaprio on his latest, 7 Days. Instead, he participates in a subtler form of subversion by lending his name to reggae of an especially lifeless sort. "Fight the Revolution" is a tired call to arms that contains so much Rasta name-dropping that Carlos sounds like he's taking roll, while "Sunshine" is the sort of shlock that no doubt wows the tourists at the Montego Bay Holiday Inn. Carlos's music features more synthesized bleeps and bloops than Jan Hammer's last opus, and his lyrics display a stunning penchant for cliches like "your love is like a warm summer breeze" (from "Baby You Know") and "a rolling stone gathers no moss" (from "Time").
The thread that links these albums is colossal laziness encouraged by a label looking to milk money from two big-name reggae stars any way it can. Both Carlos and the Itals are beautifully accomplished and spiritual vocalists whose work in the Seventies helped define black nationalism. But because of their reputations, they've been allowed to coast by indifferent handlers and cheerleading fanzines. The result is watered-down roots in which all differences dissolve into a bland message of commercialized goodwill. If you're a true reggae fan, your money would be better spent on Ziggy's nail polish.
Best of Sugar Hill Records
The other day, some junior-high kids asked me (through an intermediary) to put together a hip-hop tape for them, and among the tunes they asked me to include was "Friends," an early-Eighties hit by Whodini. At first I was shocked that anyone south of fifteen knew the song as anything other than a major source for Nas's "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)," but upon further review, it made a lot of sense. The variety of music being made today under the rap umbrella is bracing, but there's something undeniably exciting about the pure stuff--a straight jolt of beats and rhymes made by performers caught up in the rush of creating something brand spanking new.
Best of Sugar Hill Records, a highlights package drawn from last year's The Sugar Hill Records Story boxed set, proves this point many times over. There are works of genius here--particularly "The Message" and "White Lines (Don't Do It)," both courtesy of Grand Master Flash & the Furious Five--but just as crucial are good-timey epics such as the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" and "8th Wonder"; Funky 4 + 1's "That's the Joint"; West Side Mob's "Break Dance--Electric Boogie"; Treacherous Three's "Whip It"; and so on. The cuts succeed in large part because they're generally so unsophisticated and naive. The men and women making them had no idea that such music could make them unfathomably wealthy; they were more concerned with how it made them feel. And all these years later, it still feels good.
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