Jay-Z / Kanye West, Watch The Throne (Roc-A-Fella Records)
When this big-budget operation dropped last summer, I was blinded by designer brands to pigeonhole it as a focus group approved cash grab by two preening millionaires. But while the Phil Manzanera sample on the opener registered, an early hint that something deeper than their Gucci accounts was at play passed me by. Wondering if the prayers of the unjust reach intended ears, Shawn Carter neatly dissects the notion of piety, conjuring up the wisdom of Socrates and Plato. And while it sometimes seems Jay-Z namedrops simply to namedrop (ie, lumping together “Rothkos” and “Rilkes” as fine art collectibles), this citation is no accident, referencing Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue in which Socrates, um, neatly dissects the notion of piety. And so, the pride of an autodidact opens up possibilities for an album seemingly drenched in self-congratulatory greed – one that actually pivots away from each fetishization of luxury goods to highlight realities facing a community both performers remain aware of. So “Niggas In Paris” proves itself a worthy heir to “Big Pimpin’” even as “That’s My Bitch” demands equal representation for “colored girls” at MOMA. So the genuflecting “Otis” brags how both have bought their way out of the morass even as “Welcome To The Jungle” notes making it to twenty-five is accomplishment enough for many brothers and sisters. So while Kanye may have grand, dumb hopes for his children, Jay-Z more soberly tallies up the accumulated weight of absent fathers on a culture, ruminating “sorry, junior, I already ruined ya” to his unborn child. And when a track claiming to be “a celebration of black excellence” boasts “the paper read murder / black on black murder” as its hook, one begins to suspect the laundry list of expensive shit making up many tracks is mere camouflage. Or that perhaps this may be the rare masscult phenomenon in which celebrity status is used to analyze the mechanics of fame. Not fame-as-loss-of-privacy or fame-as-isolation-device, but fame as a vehicle for transcending rigid class barriers. Ultimately, there remains something unique to the black experience in America allowing for extremes of capitalism to be celebrated in the midst of our weird Gilded Age/Great Depression mashup - a celebration that also sounds an elegiac tone for the Civil Rights pioneers who shed blood so that they might spend cash. How awful, you might say. Only how can one deny financial equality as one aim of the respectfully name-checked Martin Luther King? Or the not-name-checked Booker T. Washington, another capitalist who noted in 1895 that “no race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized”?
The Bats, Free All The Monsters (Flying Nun)
Thirty years into a quiet career marked most obviously by a consistency of sound one might label monotonous if one was heartless, this New Zealand institution’s eighth album sounds as if it was cut the same week as 1987’s Daddy’s Highway. And while any band clinging this tightly to their slight, unchallenging ways would normally raise my suspicions, exceptions must be made for these ambassadors of the Kiwi Sound. Drinking deep from the fountain of “Pale Blue Eyes,” in love with echo the way other bands are in love with distortion pedals or tricky time signatures, this is primordial indie of the kind once common to regional scenes before fussy math rockers and theorists seized the helm. And while no amount of loveliness can overcome lyrics that remain defiantly earthbound, at least the velvet frog vocals of Robert Scott have absolutely no patience for obscurantism – when he entitles a song “Space Junk,” it’s because that’s exactly what he’s singing about; when he entitles another “Simpletons,” it’s because he’s gently chiding them; when the band spends two minutes on an instrumental, it’s justified because it’s lovely. Such devotion to direct communication is certainly old-hat. But how appropriate for a modest crew that, unfairly or not, exemplifies a land that has as much claim on mythic Brittania as any latter-day Avalon.
Don Trip, DGB Presents The Unofficial Best Of Don Trip (DGB free download)
As the title suggests, not a real album, but an unofficial collection put together in download form by the good folks over at Dirty Glove Bastard, who decided we could all use a little guidance sifting through the oeuvre of a Memphis hip-hopper who dropped six (!) mixtapes in 2010 alone. I doubt anybody needs all twenty tracks, since the music won’t do much for those uninterested in southern regionalism. But in all honesty, even Trip’s flow isn’t quite enough to sustain committed interest – while echoes of Lil’ Wayne’s delivery exist, there’s nary a whit of his addiction to mad rhymes. For better or worse, mad rhymes aren’t what Trip’s selling, and neither are the drugs he makes sure we understand he actually pushes on Memphis streets. Rather, the same guy who claims “the game fell off when rappers didn’t realize music raises children” wants us to accept that his life choices, many of them bad, result directly from economic disparities he’s honest enough to never completely blame. Any listener unwilling to swallow that line may still find it helpful to assemble the killer EP hiding inside these 70+ minutes. Finish with “Transformers Freestyle,” a Yo Gotti meetup winningly riding fuzz guitar and electro pulse. Fill up the middle with the old-school-sampling “Vent,” the Weezy-channeling “Thanks Anyway,” and “I’ma Quit,” in which our hero weighs going straight against treating his lady to Benihana. And open with his finest moment, “Letter To My Son,” a heartfelt plea for visitation rights that impresses even while his fury leads him to hurl accusations and names that stun more than any casual hip-hop misogyny. It’s the specificity of the situation that grounds (not justifies) his smear campaign – Trip would seem to genuinely mourn his lost time with a son he calls out by name. Messy and ugly, just like a custody battle.
William Elliott Whitmore, Field Songs (Epitaph)
Back in August, my initial take on this Iowan’s Epitaph song cycle was unduly influenced by an aversion to bluesy vocal groans that reminded me far too much of hometown balladeers straining for soul at the kind of open mic nights I’ve now suffered through on two coasts in addition to the nation’s midsection. While I’m still wary of his grizzled projection, Whitmore’s vocals actually serve as a welcome salve to the hordes of bearded folkies dripping wimp all over what’s been dubbed the New Pastoralism – a pastoralism that neither the Fleet Foxes nor The Head And The Heart seem capable of defining beyond their aversion to electric guitars. In addition to voice and banjo (and guitar), Whitmore’s got politics, and while his tilling-the-land / hard times theme may seem auspicious, he’s hawked this line since 2003, when his debut Hymns For The Hopeless opened with “Cold And Dead”. But there’s little if any pandering to a salt-of-the-earth narrative. His adherence to the rewards of physical labor never pretends working the fields doesn’t also break down the body. He avoids any sentimentality of passing family land down from generation to generation by noting “we’re just here for a little while”. He follows up “so many lost when the West was won” with “this little piece of ground is a homestead now,” thus implicating and complicating the individual’s role in the march of history. And on “Let’s Do Something Impossible,” he offers up plenty of wisdom on a song that could have served as an anthem for the Occupy movement if those drum circles wouldn’t have drowned out his clawhammer banjo.
Surfer Blood, Tarot Classics EP (Kanine Records)
The best thing on this four-song EP occurs in the first few seconds, when a catchy guitar lick drenched in reverb kicks things off promisingly. Immediately thereafter, the reverb gets turned down for clean strumming and glossy production, the better to make sure John Paul Pitts’ and Tyler Schwarz’s sugary hooks meet no resistance. And thus the professionalism that has always afflicted power pop takes over. Great chocolatiers know that the secret to crafting memorable confectionary includes variations on the pleasures of direct glucose. Why not sprinkle a little sea salt over the top, fellas? No, not the muffled feedback you buried at the end of “Drinking Problem” – sea salt.
James Blake, James Blake (Universal Republic)
What hath Bon Iver wrought? London-based “post-dubstep pioneer” Blake is hardly the first thoughtful Brit enamored with black culture to skip straight homage and apply his musical gifts to distinct or even radical reinterpretations of source material. Rather smitten with his own voice - and hopeful you might be, too - Blake has taken a cue from Justin Vernon and quite possibly Antony Hegarty by placing his lackadaisical soulfulness center stage. Pregnant pauses, digital tweaks, and considered swoops combine with a predilection for strained high notes that at times give out altogether, the latter tic apparently signifying “authenticity” in a world where only elites belt out choruses. And while he’s never merely dumb, Blake clearly used up all his big ideas on musical form before getting down to the lyric sheet, unless five minutes of moaning how he doesn’t blame his brother and sister for not speaking to him counts as narrative thrust. But narrative isn’t the point here. Stripping r&b down to the bone, distilling melody to barely perceptible traces, castrating any semblance of steady groove – that’s the point, or points. A dubious venture, perhaps, although far from a hopeless cause. If the voice behind this kind of radical dissection is uniquely poised to hit your sweet spot, it might even prove profound. Which brings us back to the Bon Iver thing.