Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (Pt. 39)


The Quakers, Quakers     (Stones Throw)

Don’t call them a posse - don’t even call them a collective. These 35 hip-hoppers assembled by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow were carefully culled after a combination of Internet searches and international APB’s, meaning stylistic similarities are largely the product of natural tendencies existing within the subculture, although having three producers oversee 41 tracks also guarantees some kind of thematic unity. That’s right, 41 tracks, all squeezed onto one disc and so individually brief that only one exceeds 4 minutes. Proceeding from the logical belief that good hip-hop begins with good beats, Katalyst, 7-Stu-7, and Fuzzface favor fuzzy vinyl, chicken-scratch guitar, blasts of 70s moog, and marching band renditions of Radiohead. Their many collaborators - both veterans and up-and-comers like Aloe Blacc, Dead Prez, Coin Locker Kid, Guilty Simpson, Booty Brown - follow individual paths, but a few touchstones emerge. You’ll search in vain for epithets like “bitch”. You’ll note mild praise for weed and crack / slave trade comparisons. You’ll hear Obama taken to task for broken promises and strain-tweaking vaccine companies compared to serial killers. You’ll find “Geritol” rhymed with “wherewithal,” “per diem” with “AM to the PM,”  “MC’s” with “bag ‘em like groceries”. And on those rare occasions that a track falls flat, the next one is already queuing up. 

Georgia Anne Muldrow, Seeds     (SomeOthaShip)

Even more so than many another r&b up-and-comer, this soul sister is selling her voice, not ideas, which run a narrow gamut from earnestness (“why do we kill each other / when we’re all the same”) to platitudes (“activate the mind / activate the mind / light a candle / love the world / meditate”) to come-to-Gaia (“we’re taking more than we really need” from our precious “carbon base of life”). But while her philosophy may be disjointed, her heart’s consistently in the right place, worried about what the young will inherit and how to counter negativity with productivity - “give me fifty dollars / to build a well in India” certainly seems concrete enough. And in thirty-four short minutes, she avoids the bloated jazz/soul experiments marring her earlier work, aided considerably by a production duty assumed wholly by Madlib. Digging into a rich vinyl stack of obscure 70s soul, he creates bizarre yet warm tracks centered on deep-as-shit basslines and vocal snippets, a thankfully edited and pop-friendly version of what almost came together on his black soul edition of 2010’s Medicine Show. Taken in small doses, then, both singer and beat-maker register as noble oddballs, nowhere more so than on the ecstatically funky guitar-laced “The Birth of Petey Wheatstraw,” which would seem to be about the Rudy Ray Moore blaxploitation character and not the 1930s Arkansas blues performer, something I intuited based upon spelling alone and certainly not from her “fresh from the earth /pure in heart” chorus running endlessly against the groove.  


Shlohmo, Vacation EP     (Friends of Friends)

A 14-minute stopgap between “real” releases, these three tightly wound drops of atmospherica actually satisfy more than any number of L.A. producer Henry Laugher’s extended projects. Not that those earlier hour-plus albums have ever suggested flagging energies or inspiration. It’s just that here the brevity allows Laugher to highlight tricks that might soon turn overbearing - the twinning of wordless female vocal with cheesy metal guitar solo, cheap-ass digital glitch as primary beat conductor, a repetitive clattering rhythm set atop chunky single-line guitar picking. All set to minor chords, of course. 

Esperenza Spalding, Radio Music Society     (Heads Up Int’l)

She’s young, she’s attractive, she plays bass, she learned her craft studying the work of Ron Carter and Dave Holland, she is of jazz yet loves pop. Sounds promising. And more than a few tracks here expand upon that promise - “Cinnamon Tree,” the Q-Tip aided “Crowned & Kissed,” Joe Lovano’s solo on “I Can’t Help It”. But while her instrumental abilities aren’t in question, neither are they all that notable for an industry in which such skills are taken for granted. Vocally, she exudes mere pleasantries. And her much-vaunted compositional style seems to spring from the dubious theory that Stevie Wonder’s key contribution to late-20th century culture was tricky time signatures. Plus, words. In those rare occasions in which singer-dominated jazz/pop succeeds on its own terms, some type of balance tends to be struck between the frothiness of the music and a lyrical ironic distancing. Spalding prefers to work outside the realm of the symbolic. Hence, “Radio Song” is about how groovy it is to hear good songs on the radio, while her encomium to that “wise and sturdy” “Cinnamon Tree” notes roots firm in the ground to “soak up what’s around”. Are you taking notes, class?


Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, The OF Tape Vol. 2     (Odd Future)

Moral hazard, whatever - the way observers go on, you’d think this L.A. collective was the first hip-hop crew to talk shit. Truth is, observers make  exceptions for those whose gifts they admire, which is why talented reactionaries from Ice Cube to Eminem have smart defenders who refuse to ignore problematic reality. The real issue here isn’t the “outrageous” stuff these fellas drop, it’s how little they back it up with. Production? Synth horns, tinkly three-note piano lines, string hits, blunt beats. Wit? Check out the opening bit of improvisational stand-up that probably required a few takes and deserved many more. Wordplay? From a long list of jotted-down lines, I note a “Say what up to my pinkie,” and there’s probably a few more. Politics? Several statements suggest they’ve signed a proposition ballot in their time. Which leaves us with audaciousness, and aside from two brief Frank Ocean interludes, including the one where he offers to massage someone’s shoulders down by the lake, that’s what distinguishes them. So a pro-wrestling voice screams about monster cocks, Tyler boasts of Casey Anthony snuffing out her kids so she could hit the clubs with him, and their fantasy female involves a bitch who “went to UCLA / wanted to be a doctor / until she met my dick”. Sure, fantasy and escapism. But fantasy with a heavy dose of wish fulfillment. And where’s the fantasy in a line like “you can smell me comin’/ like a faggot when he hiccups”? 

Lionel Richie, Tuskegee     (Mercury)

It was foolhardy optimism to briefly entertain thoughts that this old pro might have attempted a country stroll through his back catalogue as a labor of love - Richie’s own Southern roots and the undeniable c&w tinges that have graced many a ballad going back to  his Commodores days suggested some kind of precedent. But shame on me for forgetting that Richie’s 1987 hit “Deep River Woman” featured backup and vocals from none other than Alabama. And the undistinguished plodding that remains the legacy of that band carries over into nearly every track here, even if Eagles-soundalikes Little Big Town stand in for their predecessors on the “Deep River” remake. Elsewhere, Darius Rucker, Shania Twain, Jason Aldean, and half of Sugarland phone it in, Kenny Rogers yawns out old warhorse “Lady,” and Rascall Flatts do their best to assemble some spirit of spontaneity on a synth-and-guitar pumped-up “Dancing On The Ceiling”. And while low points are the norm in this tour through contemporary Nashville - a tour in which Willie Nelson sounds distracted and Tim McGraw is the most engaged soulman in the building - the worst moment undeniably arrives during a blandly kah-ribbean “All Night Long,” in which Richie calls out track collaborator Jimmie Buffett by name. “Come on, ever’body, dance like Jimmy,” it sounds like, and good lord we’ve come a long way from “Play it, Steve”.