Black Elvis/Lost in Space
When we last checked in with Kool Keith, who joins DJ Spooky on Tuesday, September 14, at the Fox Theatre, he was appearing on this year's independently released First Come, First Served in the guise of Dr. Doom, a loony serial killer with a taste for cannibalism. But even though the former Keith Thornton gives every indication on the disc of being an acid casualty, he's actually capable of something as calculated as a career move -- which helps explain why Black Elvis/Lost in Space, his first disc for a major label since his Dr. Octagon project went up in flames, plays down both the body-parts purée of the good doc and the freaky-ass sexual deviancy spotlighted in the indie Sex Styles project. That doesn't mean, though, that the album feels overtly commercial; Keith is too flat-out peculiar for that. Rather, it's a quasi-accessible introduction to a fella who gets stranger and stranger the more time you spend with him.
The album splits neatly into two halves, with the first thrusting the listener into "Lost in Space," a hip-hop variation on sci-fi P-Funk. "Intro [267K aiff]," which Keith kindly kicks off with the words, "This is the intro," is a fine stage-setter: Against a deliberate backdrop spiced with ethereal/dippy "Theme From Star Trek" warbling, he asks a series of comically portentous questions ("Why are you making those mean faces in your videos with the fish-lens effects?") before being confronted by the "Official Haters," who describe themselves as "the most salt-shaking, behind-your-back-speaking, record-criticizing, cock-blocking, in-the-club-costume-jewelry-wearing, valet-parked-Lexus-renting, undercover, starstruck, no-game-having, fake-Versace-shirt-wearing, motel-hell-living, false-Muslim-being, jungle-fever-having, pork-eating demon people." Afterwards, Our Hero struts his way through mock-futuristic soundscapes such as "Rockets on the Battlefield," "Livin' Astro," " Master of the Game" (featuring the late Roger Troutman) and "I'm Seein' Robots" before wrapping up in a wave of "Static." But instead of providing the tale with a proper conclusion, this scattershot ditty, in which Keith duets with Sadat X, merely shakes its tailfeather a few times before giving way to " Black Elvis," about a fabulously successful rock star with a taste for "Maxi Curls," "Fine Girls" and a kid's playground his real estate agent is building him "in Denver, Colorado."
Unsurprisingly, neither "Space" nor "Elvis" sports a legitimate narrative. The Kool one's idea of structuring a story involves tossing related ideas against the wall in the hope that they stick -- and fortunately, plenty of them do. When, on "Keith Turbo," he delivers the warning, "Don't step to me at the food court at the municipal airport," it's likely even he doesn't know what the hell he's talking about, but that doesn't make the tune any less enjoyable. Even when his beats are somewhat less than inspired, his quicksilver personality, straight-faced humor and casual surrealism keep the weird times rolling.
Black Elvis/Lost in Space doesn't make a lick of sense. And that's okay by me. -- Michael Roberts
Joe Gallant and Illuminati
It's hard to predict how tens of thousands of Deadheads still grieving over the loss of Jerry Garcia will receive a brash new take on "Terrapin Station," conceived by New York jazz arranger and sound designer Joe Gallant. The better question concerns the capacity of the Dead's seminal 1977 album to withstand a major deconstruction and subsequent reinvention.
No problem. Employing his seventeen-piece jazz ensemble, Illuminati, two dozen assorted singers and, at times, enough additional instrumentalists to make the musicians' union very happy, Gallant turns "Terrapin Station" upside down and inside out on a grand scale. The musical miracle is that he also pays homage to and continually reveals the sense and beauty of the original. It's no mean trick. Gallant's eight-part "Terrapin Station Suite," which constitutes the heart of the new CD, uses everything from lush string voicings to surreal electronica to big-band bebop to minimalist blue-grass twang in the service of rebuilding the house of Jerry.
"You're back in Terrapin -- for good or ill again," a voice intones darkly. Rock-ribbed cultists may claim it's for ill; listeners with ears are likely to be intrigued.
On either side of the suite Gallant and company provide, among other items, a thrilling essay on " Dancin' in the Streets," which sets out in R&B territory and winds up amid full-throated orchestral experiment, and a radical version of the Garcia/Hunter anthem " China Doll," full of storming electronic effects and doom-laden multi-rhythmic percussion.
Purists may carp, but the bold strokes by which "Terrapin" defies musical categories and obliterates borders would likely please Jerry Garcia to no end. -- Bill Gallo
Belle and Sebastian
Belle and Sebastian's latest release could be considered a high school yearbook photo of sorts -- you only wish yours looked so good. Recorded in 1996 while songwriter, vocalist and reluctant frontman Stuart Murdoch and the gang were mere cardigan-clad lads and lassies studying at Glasgow's Stow College, the album was created to complete a music business class practicum. But as a prequel to the band's subsequent releases, If You're Feeling Sinister and last year's The Boy With the Arab Strab, Tigermilk is an adolescent snapshot that holds up remarkably well.
The band's grasp of inspired, well-crafted pop structure is almost fully demonstrated here, helping to explain how the original limited vinyl pressing fueled the buzz for later work. The CD displays a Smiths-like ability to turn the most morose moments into arm-swinging, head-bobbing good times, though without the jangly guitar or vocal melodrama. And if at times the dry wit employed throughout the release treads precariously close to art-school pretension, it's never entirely without charm. The dour "Expectations" ("The rumor is you never go with boys/and you are tight/so they jab you with a fork as you drop the tray and go berserk") and the violent "I Could Be Dreaming" both feature smooth, crafty melodies enhanced by Murdoch's ability to capture teen trauma and ambivalent, coming-of-age sexuality with an unsettling specificity, albeit with the knowing eye of an adult. There are a few gangly, awkward moments here, of course, but considering Murdoch's favorite subject matter -- gangly, awkward moments -- it's hard to complain. In "I Don't Love Anyone," he croons, "No, I don't love anyone/Maybe my sister/Maybe my baby brother too, yeah/I don't love anyone." Sure, it's kind of an obvious sentiment, but who can resist? Maybe only those who can look at their high school pictures without cringing just a little. -- Chris LaMorte
Tricky With DJ Muggs and Grease
Tricky, who has always admitted to hating the term trip-hop, has tried to etch out his own musical niche ever since leaving the groundbreaking band Massive Attack. On Juxtapose, Tricky does not completely distance himself from that musical philosophy (lo-fi trip-hop?), but he does offer his own take on it. Tricky eschews some conventions and embraces others; the result is a record that feels as though it has a focus -- yet refuses to be in a hurry to find it.
In typical fashion, Tricky weaves an assortment of lyrical styles ranging from jungle to rap to R&B. He doesn't forge much new ground lyrically, though, especially when touching upon well-worn ideas such as "keepin' it real" on " For Real [295K aiff]" or women's sexual availability on " I Like Girls [275K aiff]." Fortunately, he does avoid many rap/jungle axioms such as call-and-response, violence and (for the most part) boastfulness, as well as rap's straightforward, beat-oriented musical approach. Tricky effectively arranges vocals to supply the album's ebb and flow, whether rhyming/speaking with his own undiluted sexual growl of a voice or highlighting English junglist Mad Dog and female singers DNA and Kioka. The backbone of the record, however, is supplied through highly crafted yet uncomplicated pieces of music. Though Juxtapose lacks the experimental heart of DJ Spooky or Dr. Octagon, it is still compelling if not risky. By fusing atypical sounds from inconspicuous electric and acoustic guitars, strings, pianos and real drums with programmed, minimalist trip-hop beats, Tricky punctuates the overall organic texture of the record.
On three of the final four tracks, Tricky slows things down and imparts a prevailing feeling of vulnerability and sincerity as he distances himself even further from archetypical rap posturing and the candid sexuality experienced earlier on the record. By utilizing DNA and Kioka's exquisite vocals on " Call on Me [264K aiff]" and "Wash Away," respectively, as well as unobtrusive strings united with lingering beats, Tricky offers a surprising subtlety that many artists tend to either miss altogether or, worse, turn into muddled musical sentiment. This mood is punctuated by the finale, "Luv," with a melodious piano and a discussion of love as something more than a false substitute for sex.
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One of the biggest drawbacks of this record, strangely enough, is its brevity; it comes in at a scant 37 minutes (too many of those minutes are devoted to an unnecessary remix of "Hot Like a Sauna [Metal Mix]"). Juxtapose has a decidedly muted quality throughout its short life, a somewhat unexpected quality considering that DJ Muggs from Cypress Hill (a band known for big beats) is among the five producers of the record and is a co-writer for most of its more subdued second half. Overall, Tricky works hard to deftly create a low-key mood throughout the record and, by doing so, enters the next millennium with the quietest big bang possible. -- Sean McDonald
Reggae Gold 1999
In recent years, VP Records' annual Reggae Gold album has distinguished itself from other compilations by developing into an invaluable guide to reggae's newest and best hits. It is uniquely useful because stateside fans face three major obstacles to following modern reggae: The music is centered in Jamaica, it's driv- en heavily by singles that don't always make it overseas, and dancehall singers swap partners more frequently than do the characters on Days of Our Lives.
Reggae Gold makes keeping up a blessedly easier task. Theme-wise, contemporary reggae continues to revert to a positive message of consciousness and tolerance, replacing the guns-and-girls lyrics that dominated the early Nineties. But the style in which this message is delivered alternates between melodic dance-hall duets and sparse chants that typically feature little more than a drum machine and retain only a tenuous relation to classic reggae. Gold draws nearly equally from each category. In the former, Beres Hammond and Buju Banton's "Pull It Up" is the standout. In what's become standard duet form, Hammond's smooth singing bridges the gaps between Banton's fiery toasts. Luciano and Sizzla follow form with "Jah Blessing," and Capleton manages to fill both roles himself on "Jah Jah City." While I'm not a particular fan of the militant-chanting school of reggae, it's spit out in a thick patois throughout this disc and is worth mentioning because of its prevalence. The chant is the favored style for newcomers like Zebra ("Unfair"), Mr. Vegas ("Wave," "Heads High") and the baritone-voiced Ward ("Haters"), and the fact that it's been adopted by established stars like Beenie Man and Bounty Killer suggests it's here to stay. Whether or not you consider that a positive development for modern reggae, Reggae Gold is certainly a handy primer. -- Joshua Green