Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (Pt. 35)


PICKS

Giant Single: The Profile Records Rap Anthology    (Arista / Legacy)

Lacking the primeval hue of Sugar Hill, the seminal rep of DefJam, or the mythos of Death Row, Profile Records gets lost in the hip-hop label shuffle, although even without star attraction Run-DMC, it’s clear their artistic roster played a major role preserving and shaping rap’s evolution from disco jams to the sample-heavy innovations of the late 80s. Hardly surprising, then, that this generous two-disc compilation highlights three Run-DMC tracks, even if the stylistic breakthrough of “Sucker M.C.’s” seems less epochal in this context, and even if the edited version of “Walk This Way” undercuts that single’s power. But those two tracks serve as historical placeholders punctuated by Rob Base & D.J. E-Z Rock’s eternal “It Takes Two,” and if no other single here can match the immediacy of those classics, plenty of the remaining 28 choices offer revelation aplenty. Early efforts like Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde’s 1981 gloss on Tom-Tom Club’s “Genius Of Love” or The Disco Four’s remake of Dazz Band’s “Let It Whip” are contrasted with such quantum leaps as Rammelzee Vs. K-Rob’s “Beat Bop,” a 1983 Basquiat-“produced” test pressing presaging indie hip-hop by a full decade. Or how about The Showboys’  failed 1986 single “Drag Rap,” which would go on to serve as a virtual blueprint for the New Orleans bounce/crunk that BG and Lil’ Wayne would ride in on. Or the anticipatory 1987 dancehall fusion of Asher D and Daddy Freddy’s “Ragamuffin Hip-Hop”. Or female MC pioneers Pebblee Poo and Sweet Tea. And so on. If the final disc can’t sustain this level of inspiration into the mid-90s, the relatively de rigueur nods at Afrocentrism and gangsta are at least period curiosities. Ah, quibbles. For 2.5 hours, it’s the joint.


Philadelphia International: The Re-Edits    (Harmless)

This compilation of various re-edits from disco’s Motown divides its two discs between “Uptempo Good Time” and “Mellow Slinky,” but that’s mostly the record company being clever -  there’s little stylistic difference between the two sets. Where both close and casual listeners will note evidence of the compiler’s hand is among individual tracks, which drift from the light touch of opener Morning Star’s edit of Harold Melvin & The Blue Note’s “Satisfaction Guaranteed” to the more radical re-working of Billy Paul’s “Only The Strong Survive”. Melvin’s original 3.32 take is nearly imperceptibly stretched to 7.22 without any obvious DJ tricks, while J*Ski’s resurrection of the only decent track off Paul’s 1977 album hovers obsessively over little more than one repeated line plus truncated saxophone solo to create an 8-minute groove. And so it goes across 21 tracks, encompassing artists both legendary and justifiably obscure, the more adventurous producers shaking things up just as things trend prosaic, while the traditionalists rope in the excesses of the knob-twiddlers. As somebody who’s always admired the work of Gamble, Huff, and Bell more in theory than in practice, here’s where I’ll likely turn in the future for my sweet string + solid thump fix. And how about those vocals?

NEAR PICKS

Co La, Daydream Repeater    (NNA Tapes)

What’s endearing about this breezy mix of instantly recognizable and barely-reconfigured pop and reggae is its obviousness - the way Baltimore native Matthew Papich doesn’t even attempt to make listeners break a sweat spotting the samples. Since this very quality will turn the stomachs of obscurantists, agree from the outset that these ten brief tracks of nominal dance exist as easy ambient, and settle in. Papich approaches Angelo Badalamenti and Grace Jones the same way he approaches rocksteady, as a mild groove over which to indulge in the gentlest mannerisms of dub, which to his mind means echo and repetition. A few tracks feel a bit like diagram-this-sentence homework. But turning the opening drum beat of The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” into a five-minute percussion workout was a nifty idea. 


Matthew Shipp Trio, Elastic Aspects    (Thirsty Ear Recordings)

This was formulated as a studio suite for piano/bass/drums, which explains if not totally justifies the slow cello-plus-percussion opener, the brief solo piano fragments, and the, um, other slow cello-plus-percussion numbers. So while such fragmentary linking devices have their interesting moments, it’s the handful of full-on trio numbers that really cook, like “Psychic Counterpart’s” repetitive, interlocking theme breaking suddenly for florid runs and jagged comping, or the back-and-forth of “Explosive Aspects,” in which drummer Whit Dickey seemingly lies in wait for Shipp to take a breath before surging forward. Elsewhere, the pianist plonks strings against a swinging rhythm (“Stage 10”) and concludes proceedings with his trademark dark tonal clusters. Impressive as always. But embedded within a framework this inflexible, it’s the conception that undercuts the performances. 

BOMBS

Jack DeJohnette, Sound Travels    (Entertainment One Music)

Quite possibly our preeminent jazz drummer, DeJohnette’s rhythmic abilities put him in line as heir to Max Roach’s commitment to making the kit sing, even while his piano skills echo the whimsical strains of his long-time collaborator Keith Jarrett just as often as they betray his timekeeping purposes. And he’s proved himself open and non-judgmental towards a wider variety of music than plenty of his contemporaries, including other long-time collaborator Gary Peacock, who once sent Elvis Costello packing rather than deign to allow the rocker to sing along in tribute to Lee Konitz. But DeJohnette’s taste is hardly above suspicion, not with the New Age treacle of Music In The Key Of Om part of his recorded legacy. And not with the smoothed-over genre hopping on display in this confusing album, where Bobby McFerrin rubs shoulders against Bruce Hornsby and the bass player steps up to sing the Afro-Cuban son exercise. Decent, well-meaning, and dull.


Speech Debelle, Freedom Of Speech    (Big Dada)

This UK MC has skills galore, with a delivery flow marked by fast hyper-enunciation. She boasts a Mercury Prize, too, along with a subsequent worst-ever-chart-showing-from-a-Mercury-Prize-winner distinction, which she blames on her label. Her grasp of politics seems sure and well-intentioned, if a bit solipsistic. She’s got a thing for a producer named Kwes who lays a heavy, bombastic hand over proceedings. And catastrophically, she betrays a weakness for truly dreadful rhymes, which arise throughout in service to dogmatic asides while continually undercutting her enunciatory zeal. She rhymes “thespian” with “head down like a lessssssbian,” notes “I’m not a child/ I’m a fucking grown woman / With a big grown life,” admits “I guess I’m in love with my own selfishness,” and gets bogged down in imagery involving wings both clipped and angelic. It’s left to guest rapper Realism to deliver the clearest declamation against power, at the conclusion of a furious volley within Dalston Riots-referencing “Blaze Up A Fire” (“no man in power has ever done a thing for me”). Debelle’s own sense of outrage arrives complete with artless pragmatism: “Imagine there was no oil/ And I don’t mean olive/ The kind of oil they drill into the earth’s crust for”. Admittedly, such couplets are actually preferable to strained metaphors like the one about multi-corporations “attacking the earth like fellatio,” which sure doesn’t sound like any fellatio I’ve ever experienced.