Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A Thought and a Slight Departure

I'm sitting on the couch, enjoying game 1 between the Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls. I can't help but think about this sport that I've enjoyed for so long, where it's been and where it's going. And true to my scattershot nature, a seemingly random array of thoughts start to bundle into a narrative.

And like every narrative involving hoops, Lebron takes center stage.

Lebron. Greatest athlete to ever play the game or narcissistic epitome of all that's wrong with professional sports? I'm gonna hazard a guess with a little from column a, a little from column b.

Just earlier today, Lebron was awarded the MVP having received 120 out of 121 votes. Press reports have him grumbling that he couldn't believe it wasn't unanimous. Joking or not, (I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt here)I can't believe he had the audacity to say that out loud.

Certainly, this wouldn't be out of character. Lebron was quite vocal about the physical punishment Chicago doled out as they ended Miami's almost historic win streak earlier this season. He'll probably gripe about it again after tonight's game. But no one benefits from more soft whistles than Lebron and he knows it. He can't really be upset that opposing teams are going to take that preferential treatment out of his ass.

Plus, it doesn't help that he drives to the basket with the build and speed of a linebacker.

Which all brings me back to the narrative: Performance enhancing drugs.

The NBA has admitted to putting a larger focus on drug testing for performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). Dollars to donuts, if they're serious, Lebron will be the true litmus test for how serious they are. Which is not to say that he isn't preternaturally gifted. He is. And frighteningly so. But for an athlete of such high caliber to play so consistently at such a high level for so long without injury? Somebody will be looking to make a name for themselves.

The larger implications of PEDs that no one seems to address is that once they become standard in professional athletics, and they will, the real divide they create will be an economic one. PEDs, used not just for strengthening but for endurance and recovery, will become a sports medicine resource and no one will reap the rewards better than financially superior teams.

And in a season determined almost solely by a team's injuries (just think Rose, Rondo, Westbrook, Griffin, et. al), the advantages are all too easy to see.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Little Steps

Today is grey. Melancholic. The food is not as crisp. The music seems downbeat.

April has never been a tickertape parade for me but some years resonate a little louder than others. I question myself as to why I'm feeling it so heavy today but, ultimately, the question is irrelevant. This sort of self exclusion is disingenuous false humility at best and self immolation at worst. The fact that I remember is enough and I'm grateful for that as I damn well should be.

Ednaswap's "Trivial" pops up on my ipod. Anne Preven is singing "seven years to the day" and boy do I feel it. Blink 182's "Miss You" follows and it just seems like it's going to be that sort of day.

I find myself wondering: was it disappointment in yourself, the slow poisoning of bitterness and resentment, that pushed you over? I was old enough at the time to know it was no reflection on us. And I was old enough to know that we'll never truly know.

What I do know is that I'm sorry I missed you. I had family obligations to attend to before the rest of my life would tailspin and this is what we accept with the gracious love of others. I also know that I wish I had the chance to tell you:

We all feel disappointed at times.

I struggle with this myself on occasion. I know that 18 year old me would not listen to the man I am today. Then I remember that 18 year old me was a sanctimonious asshole. He couldn't appreciate the changes I've made in my lifetime nor would he understand the adventures that brought me here. There is no sadness. There is no regret. There is only a gratitude for having made the dance at all. It didn't matter if we scuffed our shoes, tore our shirts or forgot the flowers. There was laughter. There was life. There was love.

Life happens in media res. We're all in progress. We're all learning. I wish you could have met me. We would have laughed about the old days and the sell outs we've become. And it would have been brilliant and beautiful like it always was.

Thinking of you today. Peace, brother, and love wherever you may be. Miss you.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Lost Ronin Files Pt 2: Your 2012 Bitchin' Mixtape

This was my best of 2012 list. I burned it onto a bunch of cd's and passed them out to friends as a sort of not quite Christmas companion to the Yuletide cd's the wife and I made.

I'm sure they made very lovely coasters.

Without further ado, your 2012 bitchin' mixtape:

Request Denied by El-P from Cancer 4 Cure
From the immensely talented rapper/producer you haven't heard of, this song was equal parts Public Enemy and Nine Inch Nails. El-P's dense rhymes and dark imagery were surpassed only by the hidden funk of his beats. Cancer 4 Cure was the sound of El smoking all the bath salts, sniffing all the glue and popping all the pills. And this little paranoid gem was only the opening of the floodgates.

Grown Up by Danny Brown
At times, Danny Brown evokes the worst of Old Dirty Bastard: self-destructive, obscene and unintelligible. Other moments, he evokes the best and this track is the pudding. Sentimental, fun and catchy, this song exemplifies everything that's great about hip-hop. Brown even goes with an old school beat to prove that when it comes kicking it, yes, he can.

Fatty Boom Boom by Die Antwoord from Ten$ion
Keeping it real for South Africa, Die Antwoord can best be described as audio graffiti: colorful, offensive and fun. Taken piecemeal, none of the components are nearly as impressive as the whole but this is Die Antwoord at their best. Ninja and Yolandi Vi$$er ride roughshod over each other's rhymes as DJ Hi-Tek melts his macbook into new sounds.

Bad Girls by M.I.A.
Serving as a stopgap between albums, this single arrived to continue the global block party vibe of M.I.A.'s last two efforts. The song starts out simply before burrowing into your brain for days on end as familiar Bollywood sounds twist into new shapes and M.I.A. recasts herself as part rebel without a cause, part femme fatale.

Push and Shove by No Doubt from Push and Shove
2012 found No Doubt returning to where the original skanksta's left off: the dancehall. Sticking to their sunshine of rocksteady roots and club beats, "Push and Shove" delivers all the requisite toasting and boasting for gwennabe's and two tones alike.

Soul Killing by the Ting Tings from Sounds from Nowheresville
Whereas their debut album was youthfully exuberant and funky, this song finds the Ting Tings in a grim mood. The guitar skanks with an ominous dread reminiscent of the Clash while lead singer Katie White toasts like Debbie Harry in a Rapture gone wrong. Had the rest of the album been this compelling, I wouldn't have been able to put it down.

The Baddest Man Alive by the Black Keys and the RZA from Man With the Iron Fists Soundtrack
Disguised as a soundtrack to the RZA's Man With the Iron Fists, this album still manages to be a predominantly Wu-Tang affair. Leading off with the Black Keys team-up of "Baddest Man Alive," RZA cartoonishly boasts his way through a litany of crass behavior that's more silly than ill. Still, there's a lot of old school fun to be found here and a damn good reason to have RZA man the boards for the Keys' next album if he's not too busy revitalizing the Clan.

Off to the Races by Lana Del Rey from Born to Die
The real problem with Del Rey's diseastrous SNL appearance last year was her choice of material. It was, to be succinct, boring. Neither of her lead off singles, not "Video Games" nor "Blue Jeans", display a true range of the dynamics that make her debut album such ridiculously and trashy fun. "Off to the Races," however, is a good primer as it has it all: big beats, lush orchestration, smouldering Lynchian torch singing and Biggie fatalism.

Settle Down by Kimbra from Vows
Never mind Gotye, the real find from last year's "Somebody I Used to Know" would have to be New Zealand's Kimbra. Leaning predominantly on vocal arrangements to shape out her song structures, she betrays a master's knowledge of vocal technique at a time when most would be happy to phone it in as a pop starlet. A little eccentric and incredibly talented, she follows in the footsteps of other female artists who chose craft over aesthetic from Bjork to Kate Bush.

Palm of Your Hand by Ingrid Michaelson from Human Again
Based on her first hit, "You and I," it would be easy to dismiss Michaelson as another coffeehouse diarist waiting for her big breakthrough on Grey's Anatomy. But from the beginning of 2006's Boys and Girls, she's shown a tendancy to break ranks, plug in and rock out with the best of the boys. Sure, there's the pop Ingrid and the ballad Ingrid, but I prefer the Ingrid who proves that bringing noise isn't just for the boys.

Let's Go by Matt and Kim from Lightning
It's hard not to have a good time when it comes to Brooklyn's Matt and Kim but this song heaves equal parts sachharine and sentiment into the mix. Matt's vocal bridge of "Say what you want to say, make it mean everything" lends itself to heavy introspection before kicking you back in the ass with the shouts of "let's go!" Video yearbooks and graduation ceremonies, beware.

Happy Be Fine by Polica from Give You the Ghost
Haunting, elegiac and unforgettable, this was a standout track on what was my favorite album of the year. Built around atmospheric synth waves, rolling basslines, double drums and autotuned vocals, there's an initial eeriness to the band's sound that soon gives way to all too human emotions. None moreso than the wounded confusion of Channy Leaneagh when she sings "I need some time to think about my life without you."

Comeback Kid by Sleigh Bells from Reign of Terror
Possibly the funnest song of the year, this was thrilling in all the ways that kids love and parents don't. It's too fast, too loud and incredibly abrasive. To which I say so what. It's also got killer hooks and an infectious sense of fun. With all due respect to Reign of Terror, the moment that Sleigh Bells can make an album that marries this much pop smarts to this much industrial crunch, that will be a game changer.

Don't Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas) by Regina Spektor from What We Saw from the Cheap Seats
Pretentiously unpretentious, Spektor has never shown any reservations about playing cute for cuteness' sake. Following a long line of songs full of whimsy and whee, Spektor adds in drum loops and horns here for a song that's unabashedly good natured and easy on the ears. Don't be alarmed if your mother finds this song charming.

Melancholy Sky by Goldfrapp from the Singles
Five albums in, Goldfrapp has proven to be an electronic chameleon in which they veer between orgiastic club singles and pastoral compositions worthy of Ennio Morricone. "Melancholy Sky" veers closer to the latter as this sad rumination of a ballad transforms into a lush orchestral anthem. Too often, Greatest Hits and/or Singles collections can be dubious affairs. But this song (and it's other unreleased sibling, "Yellow Halo") sound more like victory lap.

See and Don't See by the Afghan Whigs
Returning from the teenage wasteland of the alternative 90's, Greg Dulli's original glorious soul punk bastards reunited last year to dust off the old songs and see if they still worked. And while no original material surfaced, the group dropped a few covers on us in preparation for the festivities. This would be a tasteful and moving cover by any other means, but Dulli, even at his most sublime in the studio, rarely captures the pathos of the stage. What starts as a plaintive lover man wail here becomes a plea for exorcism in front of the audience.

Return of the Grievous Angel by Counting Crows from Underwater Magic (or What We Did on Our Summer Vacation)
Following up on last year's live celebration of August and Everything After, Counting Crows delivered a collection of their favorite songs to cover. Some (such as Bob Dylan's "You Ain't Going Nowhere") were fun if familiar old time stompers. Some (such as Travis' "Coming Around") were obscure choices waiting to be wrested from their creators' clutches. This choice, however, fit everything the Crows have done extremely well for the last decade and a half. It's part country, part rock, and all melancholy. Moving far beyond the sunny California country rock territory blazed by the Eagles, it revolves around the pained but soulful tenor of head Crow Adam Duritz, just like it should.

Honolulu Blues by Craig Finn from Clear Heart Full Eyes
Craig Finn's solo excursion into songwriting sounds a lot like, well... Craig Finn. The inimitable voice he brings to the Hold Steady is far from lost at sea here, much like Neil Young when he switches from Crazy Horse to the Stray Gators. "Honolulu Blues" finds Finn swaggering with a country fried blues stomp suitable to Skynard fans. Still, it's packed with enough sardonic mirth to fuel a Cohen Brothers' film marathon.

The Man That Time Forgot by Ed Harcourt from Back Into the Woods
Closing out the list this year, I decided to go with the preview song for Harcourt's 2013 release, Back Into the Woods. Armed with little more than a piano and recorded in less time than it takes for me to complete a work day, I expect this album to pop up again at the end of 2013. Hushed, tuneful and more than a little whistful, this is Harcourt at his best. So when he sings, "please don't remember me this way," it's not likely.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Lost Ronin Files Pt 1: Bathsalt Beats

Here's another one to be filed under "the best of intentions."

Started in December, this piece was never finished due to the usual circumstances that leave one whinging for time one day and energy the next. In fact, it's likely I never would have finished it at all if not for the annual shitshow that is the Grammy's. Admittedly, it's a strange thing to take note of as my relationship to mainstream music has been on an increasingly elliptical orbit for some time now. I close in on commercial radio for a peek only to veer further away than before. If nothing else, the Grammy's serve to remind that there are no awards for my music.

It's odd, however, expressing any emotion regarding the Grammy's at all. Paying attention to them is, for me, a lot like paying attention to the sexual adventures and conquests of an ex-girlfriend I never really connected with to begin with. Unless there's comically abject humiliation taking place, do I really care?

That being said, here are my final thoughts on 2012. As a leap/election years go, it didn't disappoint for disappointing moments.

In fact, looking back, there were very few moments when 2012 didn't feel like a Mad Max Zombified redux of "We Didn't Start the Fire." There were face eating bath salt attacks, Chik-Fil-A outrage, faux Chik-Fil-A outrage, the monolithic Walking Dead, numerous tragic public shootings, the most Wrestlemania-like re-election I've seen in some time, numerous apocalyptic proclamations of what would follow said election, Mayan hysteria and Gangnam Style. It's enough have one passing bullets with biscuits every time someone coughs at the family dinner table.

On the other hand, I got married and that was awesome.

Speaking of Psy's "Gangnam Style," I'm not gonna lie: I too enjoyed the hell out of it. The video was a perfect storm of awkward and funny and repeated viewings did little to dim the fun. But it took off a little too much and, as a result, I heard it a little too often. So I'm not putting it on 2012's Bitchin' Mixtape. The same goes for Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know." There is no way that song was ever designed to be a pop crossover hit. Still, consider how many people heard it for the first time on the Voice. Kudos to Gotye keeping it weird and succeeding anyways. Besides, a little weirdness keeps it fecund, y'know?

That being said, mainstream radio was not a place of great excitement or enthusiasm this year. First, there was a distinct lack of ruckus brought on by dudes with guitars. Sure, your favorite classic rockers did their best to represent (I know a lot of you dig the Springsteen) but this is an aging class. Look no further than the anniversary of Rage Against the Machine's debut album as indictment. Still, it wasn't all sour as the Afghan Whigs finally reunited and made my inner 17 year old squee with angsty glee.

Ladies, on the other hand, you were marvelous. From hip-hop to the coffee shop and all spaces in between, the ladies brought the heat this last year. Whether it was M.I.A.'s SuperBowl finger or Lana Del Rey's national humiliation on SNL, at least it was interesting.

Hip-hop also seemed to thrive this year as El-P (with or without Killer Mike), Danny Brown, Kreayshawn, Asap Rocky, 2 Chainz and Die Antwoord all seemed to take root in the dark corners of public consciousness. The dissolution of Das Racist felt like a strange culmination to this new hip hop culture that has taken root outside of the current superstar establishment of the Dre's and the Ye's.

The dark cloud hovering over this was the loss of Adam Yauch to cancer. The Beastie Boys, moreso than almost any group from the 90's, embodied everything that was great about "alternative" music as hip-hop collided with punk rock collided with activism. I may not have been a Beasties die-hard but it was hard not to feel overwhelmed by the loss. It was a sad but inevitable milestone for alt music even if we can take solace in the legacy Yauch left behind. It's hard to imagine groups like Matt and Kim or Sleigh Bells without that hip-hop influence.

Ultimately, there's not a lot more I can say about 2012. It was a year fraught with apocalyptic tension on pre-millenial levels and the music reflected that. There was little comfort or safety to be found in this year's music and, quite frankly, I'm okay with that. I am, after all, from the 90's.

Or, as the late Bill Hicks once said, "Play from your fucking heart."

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

While this may look a lot like New Year's resolutions, I prefer to think of it as making decisions to end aberrant behaviors on my own part and for my best interest a manifesto. And instead of keeping it to myself like any human being with anything close to resembling a shred of dignity, I find it's usually best to shame myself into action by way of public accountability. And nothing works for self laceration quite like public forums. So, if any of these thoughts help you,... well then, god speed and all that.

1. Stop Living in My Head So Damn Much. I spend a lot of time thinking. About everything. About what I want to do and about how to do it. This includes stories, projects and things around the house that I perpetually put off. I mean really, how many times can one person consider all of the angles? So, enough with the thinking. Time to trust my own judgement and get to more doing. As such...

2.Work Harder. Stop grousing and just do what you're supposed to do already. You could've finished your workout in the time it took you to figure out the eleven billionty reasons you don't want to do it (but will anyway). And this goes further than "don't procrastinate." Whatever you do, do it as hard as you can. Push yourself to do more in less time and hopefully, you'll get to the point where you can do it faster. That's logical, right?

3. Work Passionately. If you're doing what you love, then it seems a lot less like work and a lot more like, well, just being. It's a trueism, I know, and I tend to abhor trueisms, but this one is pretty simple.

4. Obey the First Rule of Time Management: Which is: don't waste your fucking time. Usually, I use this in regards to lost causes that we fool ourselves into believing will work if only we had a little more willpower. White knuckle hope and belief is nice but nothing beats actual work... But I digress. This also applies to "how much E! network do you really need to watch?"

5. Admit It, You're an Animal. And that's okay, but animals weren't built for cubicles. So take that big astronaut brain of yours that's trapped in that caveman's body and run it for a few miles. Or do some push ups. Running has turned into my new drink too much and look at the stars experience, which is great for (yeah, I know what I said earlier) thinking.

6. But You're an Animal of Class and Taste. I'm going to try reading more this year. And when I say read, I mean read more books that aren't graphic novels. A hundred pages a week isn't great but it's better than what I've been doing (i.e. reading twenty pages and then "ooh. Look. Something shiny!).

7. Catch Your Stories While They're There. Usually, I mean this in regards to writing down stray ideas and the truly freaky dreams. But I lost my grandmother this last year, and unless I sit down and pry the stories out of my grandfather in the here and now, we'll lose a love story that spanned continents, cultures and decades. Stories are everywhere. You just gotta catch 'em while you can.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A Lot of Things Have Changed, A Lot of Things Have Not

In our collective rush to welcome in the New Year, I see a lot of you quoting Neil Gaiman. And why not? He's upbeat, inspirational and eloquent. But I'm gonna mix it up by sharing some Mos Def with you. Even though this was the opening to his solo debut in '99, the words "a lot of things have changed, a lot of things have not" have resonated for me in perpetuity ever since. It was certainly the only thing resonating in my head this morning.

And don't get hung up on the words hip-hop- this is applicable advice to all paths of life.

From "Fear Not of Man" on Black on Both Sides:

A lot of things going on, y'all- twentyfirst century is coming, twentieth century almost done. A lot of things have changed, a lot of things have not.

Mainly us. We gonna get it together, right? I believe that.

Listen, people be asking me all the time, "Yo Mos, whatever's gonna happen with hip-hop?" I tell 'em, "You know what's gonna happen with hip-hop? Whatever's happening with us. If we smoked out, hip-hop is gonna be smoked out. If we doing alright, hip-hop is gonna be doing alright."

People talk about hip-hop like it's some giant living in the hillside coming down to visit the townspeople. We are hip-hop. Me, you, everybody- we are hip-hop. So hip-hop is going where we going. So the next time you ask yourself where hip-hop is going, ask yourself "Where am I going? How am I doing?"

And you get a clear idea.

So, if hip-hop is about the people and hip-hop won't get better until the people get better, then how do people get better? Well, from my understanding, people get better when they start to understand that they are valuable. And they not valuable because they got a whole lotta money or because somebody think they sexy, but they valuable because they been created by God and God makes you valuable. Whether or not you recognize that value is one thing.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Ten$ion: Is It Real or Is It Die Antwoord?

Initially, listeners were introduced to Die Antwoord with the viral explosion of their 2010 video "Enter the Ninja." The clip veered wildly from wide-eyed aww-shucks bravado to guileless obscenity as lead rapper Ninja seemed both amazed by and stridently convinced of his imminent fame. "This is like, the coolest song I've ever heard in my whole life," he (self-)proclaimed in the song long before anyone else would validate that opinion and yet, he was confident he'd be "all up on the interwebs." Apparently, this was the South African equivalent of keeping it real. Assuming, of course, that you've based your entire identity on stale American hip-hop cliches and lost half of it in translation.

Ultimately, though, the video delivered a lot more than the obvious laughs at Ninja's clueless bluster. In fact, his spot-on pastiche of American gangsterism failed to conceal a gift for deft lyrical dexterity. As evidenced by his rhymework in "Enter the Ninja" and its subsequent album, $0$, there was an obvious talent and ambition at work here. So much so that the cartoonishly excessive nature of Die Antwoord has been repeatedly called into question on the grounds of authenticity. What initially seemed like a joke has blossomed into cult obsession as listeners try to decipher the true nature of the group: is Die Antwoord an elaborate con job or are they South Africa's hip-hop idiot savants?

Inevitably, that persistent scrutiny colored expectations for their latest album, Tension. Would Die Antwoord come out swinging in the hopes of asserting some hardcore credibility? Or would they stand revealed as an hiphop internet fluke? Either way, the pressure was on to replicate their initial success. Luckily for fans, Ten$ion brings us a Die Antwoord that spends less time on the offensive in exchange for just being offensive, grossly cocksure and stupidly aggressive. Which is just to say, really, that Die Antwoord is back with more songs.

It didn't hurt the band's reputation that the last thing they did before releasing the album was alienate their label. Early buzz pointed to creative frictions between the band and Interscope, with the final result being a parting of ways. And while Die Antwoord use the album to take their requisite shots at the label, numerous fans point to the video for "Fok Julle Naaiers" as a breaking point. In particular, they single out it's gay-baiting addendum ("DJ Hi-Tek Rulez") in which DJ Hi-Tek sets a new benchmark for homophobic rants in little more than a minute and a half.

Or does he?

Like everything else the group does (mostly just by existing), bystanders were left to wonder- is this shit for real? And even though Die Antwoord are no strangers to courting controversy (see $0$'s "Evil Boy" video for just one example), this went far beyond their usual brand of crass vulgarity. As such, it should surprise no one that the band anticipated the ruckus they were bringing. Pre-emptively, Ninja filmed a quick defense to accompany the video's release.

"For those of you who don't know, DJ Hi-Tek is gay." He shrugged his shoulders. " So there you go." Ninja quickly brushed this "fact" aside, opting instead to take Americans to task for their all too enthusiastic tendencies towards political correctness and the fearful power that imbues words with.

Lost amidst all this noise, however, was the unprecedented act of hiphop history taking place. The real story here was not Die Antwoord's politically incorrect litany of words, nor was it the recasting of DJ Hi-Tek as the homosexual aggressor of all homophobes nightmares. The real news here was not even the outing of DJ Hi-Tek as a homosexual in hip-hop. The real story, the one that everyone overlooked, was that anyone in hip hop willingly came out as homosexual.*

Again, though, the smoke and mirrors that seem to surround Die Antwoord prevail.

The veracity of DJ Hi-Tek's true identity has always been sketchy at best. On record, his voice has never been presented unaltered and visual appearances have been inconsistent with numerous faces being attributed to the name. Listeners could be forgiven for wondering if the DJ even exists, much less if his outing is just another hiphop experiment taking place in Ninja's mad basement.

Regardless of intent, however, the episode revealed a lot more than DJ Hi-Tek's sexual orientation. First, it betrayed a sense of self-awareness that runs much deeper than Die Antwoord's gonzo gangster horndog image allows for. Moreso, it highlighted the conflict at the heart of their commercial existence: Are These Guys for Real?

Die Antwoord has been plagued by questions of authenticity simply because they are so painstakingly spot on in their pastiche of Amercian Youth Gangsterism. Their moves seem far too calculated, their sound is far too commercial and their rhymes are far too capably executed for them to truly be the simple minded lunkhead collective they portray themselves as. They seem neither stupid nor naive enough to actually be as they portray themselves. Which indicates either they've gone native on what was intended as an art project or they've been scamming us wholesale the whole time.

Ten$ion fits nicely into their agenda, whatever it may actually be, by letting the freak flag fly as high as possible. One need look no further than the recent video for "Fatty Boom Boom" as proof. The clip is a parodical view of South Africa, a cheap shot at Lady Gaga and a pisstake of our first world preconceptions. And then there's Yolandi Visser in black face. Filmed in the Hype Williams style via fellow South African maverick Neill Blomkamp, it quickly turns into an explosion of color and is one of the most visually arresting pieces to come out all year. But if American artists were to attempt this, effigies would be burned, boycotts would be enacted. For Die Antwoord, it's simply another day of jumping the shark.

The lunacy of such viral antics have, for the most part, been embraced by their audience and, as of late, come to be expected. Establishing such a crazed identity online would threaten to overwhelm the actual work of most artists, especially in a market experiencing freefall as badly as the recording industry. Instead, it's allowed Die Antwoord to flourish as they fly under the radar of expectation. Critically speaking, they've slipped in like (dare I say it) a ninja.

Looking back at their debut album, $0$, it's obvious now that controversy was just the sizzle of the steak. The album turned out to be an oddly addictive piece of genuinely weird but delicious hip-hop. Additionally, their production values always skewed closer to the populism of club music rather than anything produced by the pantheon of Dre, RZA, Kanye or Timbaland. Ten$ion retains those tendencies, whether it's the opening dubstep of "Never Le Nkemise 1" or the accelerating bridge of "I Fink Yu Freeky."

Further into the album, though, something interesting happens: mainstream American sounds start to creep in. Ninja goes so far as to spell it out when he harkens back to that "feel good gangsta shit" on "So What." What follows is Dre by numbers with a simple but effective piano loop. "Hey Sexy" recalls the Indian spice of Timbaland at the peak of his freak producto powers. No worries, however, Die Antwoord is not selling out. Their madcap gonzo style is still on full display, whether it's the rich bitch theatrics of "Baby's On Fire" or the crudely offensive "U Make a Ninja Wanna Fuck."

Even Die Antwoord's blatant mysogeny is called into question as Yolandi Visser's presence here presents the group as a legitimate triple threat. For all of Ninja's lyrical dexterity, Yolandi answers in kind: she's a spitfire on helium, just as prone to shooting out aggressive rapidfire rhymes as she is to singing the hooks. Trading verses with Ninja in "Fatty Boom Boom," she threatens to "kick you in the teeth, hit you on the head with the mic" and you can't help but feel that she might.

Running roughshod rhymes over each other with bragadocious flare and aggressive charm, Die Antwoord finally reveal themselves for what they truly are: audio graffiti. Like real graffiti, one does not need to understand it to "get" it- one needs only to see it. Bearing witness is the only true validation any art ever gets and to probe deeper only invites madness, or worse, pretense (exhibit A: see the size of this post). For now, bearing witness may be the only sense we'll ever get to make of Die Antwoord.

*yes, i know that frank ocean came out earlier this year. but, truth be known, the bulk of this was written before that. real life obligations put this on the shelf for the better part of this year, so we'll just pretend that i finished it much much earlier. as fer frank, his coming out genuinely suprised me and bully on him for at least sparking conversation.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Give You the Ghost by Polica

In a year flavored predominantly by hip hop weirdos, female singer songwriters and artists who encompass elements of both, Minneapolis' Polica arrived to spike the punch with ingredients more potent than sweet but subtle enough to pique the listener's attention. Give You the Ghost, possibly the most aptly titled album of the year, resembles more a stir of echoes than a debut album. It's a haunted house of ethereal melodies, a ghostship on ambient seas. It's a sonic salvia, if you will, that connects listeners to some unreachable, great beyond where we dream and where we die.

Chances are, you won't hear a thing this year that's half as mesmerizing.

Musically, the band's sound is an exercise in deceptive simplicity. It markedly lacks the guitar histrionics of typical rock music, opting instead for endless waves of gentle keyboard sounds. Aided and abetted by the dextrous basslines of Chris Bierden, Polica's musical aesthetic is, in all actuality, a polyrhythmic attack powered by the dual drumkits of Ben Ivascu and Drew Christopherson. The end result, executed with easeful finesse, forms an hypnotically effective springboard for the vocal theatrics and effects of singer Channy Leaneagh.

Leaneagh's captivating vocal performance, with all due respect to the rest of the band, is worth the price of admission alone. And while the vocals are autotuned for artistic effect, the grasp of her voice far surpasses the crass reach of a million mediocre hip hop songs. Instantly, it is clear that this is not the autotune Jay-Z was griping about.

Give You the Ghost, however, works as more than an aesthetic allusion to the band's sound. It points in a metaphorical yet very direct way towards the emotional content of the record. No matter how otherworldly the vocals sound, Leaneagh's lyrical concerns betray a woman touched by very real and very human anxieties. Themes of dissolution, confusion, abandonment and discovery abound here. There are numerous contemplations centered on the dutiful and whistful themes of mothers and daughters. There are pointed lingerings on matrimony, tinged with pragmatic sadness at one turn and liberated elation at others.

Leaneagh is a revelation in progress as she sorts through the sadness, longing and fear of her life. The record, functioning much like Hephaestus' forge, breaks down the raw elements of her anxieties and hopes as she is melted into new and more resilient shapes. With every passing track, she emereges more fully realized as both a person and an artist. And while it would be easy for Leanagh to coast on the vast sonic ocean that her band creates around her, make no mistake, her emotionally charged melodies are the turbulence of the tides. The undertow here is a purely vocal one that sucks the listener in and pulls them along for the ride.

Packed with potent melodies and expansive sonic soundscapes, Give You the Ghost brings a currency to the year that has been in suprisingly short supply: beauty. Haunting, emotive, whistful beauty. Fans of Massive Attack, Tricky, Bjork and Portishead should (especially) welcome the album as a throwback to a time when the words trip and hop were used together and without irony. That's right teenyboppers, sad bastard electronic music is back.

I See My Mother
Violent Games
Dark Star
The Maker
Lay Your Cards Out
Fist, Teeth, Money
Happy Be Fine
Wandering Star
Leading to Death

Track by track, this was probably the record I listened to the most this year. It's stunning in all the best ways that a debut album should be but certain songs inevitably haunt more than others.

"Lay Your Cards Out," "Wandering Star" and "Leading to Death" all exude the perfect mix of Polica- beautiful but defiant in the face of heartbreak. But when Leanaegh sings "I need some time to think about my life without you" in "Happy Be Fine," it's enough to give one fits.

Radio Free Pennington 2012

Nestled somewhere between the last few scraps of Halloween booty and the ever increasing ads for Black Friday, there's a dark nagging feeling. That's right, the year will be over soon and all the things we're supposed to do will quickly fade into the things we forgot only to be washed, rinsed and repeated.

About this time last year, I did my year in review with bullet reviews. Designed as a mental exercise, I wanted to see what happened when I limited myself to smaller word counts. This year, I'm going to try working with larger pieces with an eye toward more expressiveness and larger themes to the music I've spent this year listening to.

We'll see how it goes.

In any event, happy holidays to those of you tuned in, tuning in or just stumbling in by accident.

First up, Give You the Ghost by Polica. I was kidnapped for my bachelor party earlier this year and spent the whole car ride up to Denver announcing that this was the only band I wanted to see this year, chance permitting. Like an asshole, I didn't realize their tour ended in Denver and tickets were mere seats away from me. Thanks, guys.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

just another apocalyptic love song

this picture was a wedding present from future collaborator tj.

our upcoming project is one i have mentioned before that involves space pirates, space zombies, space pirate zombies, quantum suicide, the kuiper belt and two girls named mary jane and molly. all things being what they are, in my head it still works out as a love story so big we have to destroy and rebuild the universe to do it properly. or, as ed harcourt might put it, it's "an apocalyptic love song."

when i asked tj if there was anything he wanted to draw, he replied with "smoke and explosions." ...well, jeepers, if you gotta twist my arm.

it's currently scribbled into all my various notebooks as revolver but i think i'm going to save that title for a different project. other possibilities include the space john b soars again, the final ballad of mary jane and molly and the infinite problems with zip.

...i'm certain something better will pop up.