Greatest Hits- October 2000
by Michaelangelo Matos
Longtime readers will note the new title of this column, chosen to reflect the occasional (paper-and-ink) 'zine I put out of the same name (the second issue of which is, I swear, nearing completion). And since it's been awhile, this focuses on stuff indigenous to this year, either new or newly-reissued. For that reason there's a lot of fulsome praise below, and good: Consider
this tape a quasi-best-of-2000, and though there's surely more to come (and, God knows, plenty I missed), looking at the stuff included here makes the year look far better than I remember believing while it was happening. Oh, and if you want to tell me what I missed, the address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Green Velvet: "Flash (Danny Tenaglia's Nitrous Oxide Mix)" (10:50), from CD5 (F-111/Warner Bros.). 6am, Miami Beach. Having figured last night's tally at Winter Music Conference--seven hours, four clubs, zero transcendent experiences--I decide to make one last effort, jumping in a cab headed for Club Space, a warehouse venue in downtown Miami. Twilo regular Danny Tenaglia is spinning his annual all-night set, and two straight hours of dancing later my joints are about to congeal and my field of vision has narrowed to a dust-sized speck.
Then, a familiar kick-drum pattern begins to batter away in the mix. The mocking male voice slithering over the tune's tick-tocking percussion and skittering snares is hard to place: me and the friends I spotted are up near the speakers, I left my earplugs in the hotel room, and did I mention that it's eight in the morning and I've been up all night? Then the music plunges to a halt, the drums echo ominously like the Ghost of Raves Past, and a gravelly voice intones "Cameras ready, prepare to flash," followed by an Uzi-like double-time snare burst, and the entire room snaps to attention and surges anew.
Though "Flash"--the most memorable of Curtis Jones's (a.k.a. Green Velvet) dance-floor anti-anthems--sounds great through headphones, few of my rave- and club-going epiphanies have topped hearing the track on Tenaglia's dance floor as the early morning filtered through the warehouse's doorjambs. The record's physical pleasures, from the deep hollow of its electro-inflected straight-four rhythm to the ear-tickling clicks floating above, wire the floor like an electrical fence. And its text, which has the artist leading a group of imagined concerned parents through a tour of "Club Bad, where all the bad little kiddies go," adds an extra kick. It's a familiar enough scenario for Tenaglia's audience of professional hedonists, though the song's catalog of sins--sucking nitrous oxide balloons, smoking joints, smuggling in beer--may seem mild compared with the levels of substance abuse most clubland denizens have seen or experienced. But Jones twists a cliché into a sharp joke by providing his tourists cameras with which to photograph their children's misbehavior, and his leering voice can still disquiet the most jaded partiers.
"Flash" is the greatest, funniest joke rave culture has yet told on itself, but it's hardly a novelty. The song (and, indeed, the rest of Green Velvet's self-titled compilation, which contains the original) uncannily replicates the drug-fueled psychosis that's practically inseparable from club life. A party's atmosphere is largely dictated by other people's overindulgences, whether you're using anything yourself or not, and Jones spends much of his time making fun of his own subculture. "Flash"'s creepy-funny monologue is, as Simon Reynolds noted in the Village Voice, a holdover of early Chicago house; it also parallels the spoken-not-sung vocals of arena-techno groups like Fluke or Underworld. Unlike those bands, though, Jones doesn't string together pseudo-apocalyptic non-sequiturs in order to seem surreal. Instead, his wigged-out method acting generates rambling, demented narratives that could make Kool Keith blanch. If Keith is a master bullshitter too eager to believe his own hype, Jones sounds like the kid sitting outside of a rave who took one hit of acid too many and is now watching his psyche disintegrate. And he's narrating it for everybody within earshot. As he puts it on another Green Velvet track, "The Stalker," "I'm loooosing my miiiind." Who could argue? After all, isn't losing one's mind the point of rave-culture excess?
- Majalefa a Morena: "Nkosi" (3:35), from God Bless Africa (Music Club). A wall of sound like Phil Spector could only dream of, and entirely made out of voices, like an imaginary soundtrack to Jonathan Lethem's story, "The Hardened Convicts."
- The Bad Seed: "Pockets" (5:06), from Hip Hop 101 (Tommy Boy Black Label). The compilation this is off of doesn't live up to its title--nobody's made that one yet, and chances are nobody ever will, not even De La Soul, who are credited as executive producers but actually aren't. But Hip Hop 101's ingredients are wonderfully basic, even this track, which interrupts the rest of the collection's easy beats and immediate sonics--which, it's worth noting, largely avoid avoids the grimy textures normally associated with most hard hip-hop minimalism; this stiff is primed to pump the party rather than encourage contemplation. This is the exception, a squirrelly, utterly addictive track in which--now here's a break from the hip-hop norm--a man's conscience lives in his pants. Literally: the rapper gets dressed in the morning and has to listen to his left and right pocket fighting over whether he should pursue a legit career or sell drugs, among other things, all on top of shuddering vibraphone samples that evoke someone playing unevenly-filled water glasses (or maybe it's the other way around, I'm not sure which). Not hard. Not street. Not very serious. But I really hope this guy gets to cut a full-length.
- Lucy Pearl: "LaLa" (3:30), from Lucy Pearl (Pookie/Beyond). For a band so patently in love with the past, Oakland trio Tony Toni Toné managed never to sound imprisoned by tradition: they may have emulated Marvin and Stevie as blatantly as Lauryn Hill, D'Angelo, and Erykah Badu would soon after, but they always did so in the service of pop brightness rather than boho expressionism. Yet a true sense of quirkiness shone through the professionalism, and most of that belonged to Raphael Saadiq (formerly Raphael Wiggins), the group's dominant voice, the kind of love man who wanted to get you into bed but wasn't afraid to make you laugh once you got there. Saadiq sounded like he was having fun in Tony Toni Tone, and he still does in Lucy Pearl, in which he's joined by En Vogue alumna Dawn Robinson and ex-A Tribe Called Quest DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad. In fact, he might be having more fun than ever: the trio's self-titled debut is a radio-friendly R&B album with the casual feel of an indie-rock four-track demo, organic two ways, landing somewhere between headwraps-and-incense and Converse-and-bongwater. And all that hit-making experience the three members share gives a song as lusciously tossed-off as this one a beguiling, addictive quality.
- The Solitaires: "I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance" (3:06), from The Doo Wop Box III (Rhino). Not just for the melody or lyrics or singing or structure but, specifically, the pause during the bridge, when the entire group and their backing musicians slow the time to a standstill, and finally, just barely rev back up to the song's original, crawling tempo. For anyone who's ever gotten too nervous to talk to someone they really, really liked, this aural anxiety attack over the woman the singer's just barely talked himself into approaching is as pure as heartbreak gets.
- The Glands: "I Can See My House from Here" (4:09), from The Glands (Capricorn). You can be forgiven for taking Ross Shapiro of Athens, Georgia, for a whiner the first time you hear him: I did, and even after eight or nine listens to his band's self-titled second album, I occasionally still do. But not only did it stop mattering about halfway through that initial listen, I now eagerly await every curled vowel and sigh, because they're of a piece with the guitars, which do pretty much the same thing. Only better: Every pick, strum, conjuring of feedback, and echo of plectra leaving string that Shapiro, Craig McQuiston, and Doug Stanley lay down is an act of love, murmured deep in the night for only-you, enticing from afar and blossoming upon closer inspection, and none as fully as this stoned-soul picnic, which digs a perfect groove and then wallows in it for four exquisite minutes. Something tells me we're not gonna hear a better indie-rock song this year.
- Sleater-Kinney: "Leave You Behind" (3:27), from All Hands on the Bad One (Kill Rock Stars). Unless it's this one. "The perfect sound of perfect forgiveness," I wrote one day while listening to this ten times in a row (again) a few months ago, a pronouncement that now makes me cringe. But hey, I'd just broken up with someone, so I was entitled. It's bittersweet for sure: it'd have to be, since it's sung by Carrie Brownstein, whose voice just about defines the term. It's also the most pop thing they've ever recorded--no manic swoops, no jagged edges, no private murmuring, just as straightforward as, I dunno, the Go-Go's or something, which may be why they didn't play it at any of the three shows I've seen them do since the album came out; maybe they're worried about their fans thinking they sold out or something. Hope it makes them feel better to know that this fan thinks it's their best song ever.
- Sarge: "The End of July" (4:33), from Distant (Mud). "We're an indie band because we want to be, not because we can't do any better," Elizabeth Elmore told the Chicago Reader last year, and the simple tunes and complicated emotions of this song, from a no-it-can't-be (but-it-is) posthumous album, proves it conclusively: "I thought a few months apart might keep us together/But at the end of July all my plans changed/And I've never been good at distance/But I'm getting better." Bid a fond goodbye to a near-great band that would almost certainly have gotten better--and cross your fingers for law student Elmore's now part-time solo career.
- Sick Bees: "Tool Room" (2:35), from My Pleasure (Up). I caught Starla and Julio (both women, first names only please) at the front end of an Up showcase at Seattle's Sit & Spin during the poorly-conceived CMJ Change Music weekend--apparently the magazine doesn't lose enough money putting on its yearly fete in New York, they gotta do it nationally now. Some early technical glitches, then this roar--the duo was operating at full, liberating throttle, with Starla's post-throat surgery voice recovered enough to fully indulge each of her three distinct registers: a low, guttural roar; a plainspoken croon that's closest to her speaking voice, a good-humored Southern drawl; and the unearthly bird calls with which she trills several songs to a startling close. Julio's through-composed drum parts commented upon and filled out Starla's rough, ready, Black Francis-esque guitar and occasional pedal-triggered samples, both basically playing rhythm and lead at the same time. On the Sick Bees' new album, that sound is everywhere, and it's got a real life-or-death feel to it. Too often the rock-critical tenet of 'punk as everyday speech' ends up meaning 'amateurishness as evidence of sincerity' or 'we recorded this in our living room' (badly) or 'we're singing ironically about what we saw on TV today.' In this case, though, it's more like powerchords-and-ferocious-drumming (and I mean punk as in near-metal, none of that gnat-in-a-matchbox shit) as-the-staff-of-life. And this song is their most affecting, whether you hear it how I did, as a declaration of commitment to the healing power of sex in a relationship ("Going down 'cause it feels good...I've got some building to do"), or, as the band wrote it, an ode to the healing power of routine activity following the death of a friend.
- Baby Gramps: "Go Wash an Elephant" (3:36), from Same Ol' Timeously (Grampophone). Kenmore, Washington's longest-running street musician and a major jam-band fave (he's toured with Phish, the String Cheese Incident, Bela Fleck, Leftover Salmon), Gramps is the kind of folkie folkie-haters dream of. He's determinedly goofy--sounds like Popeye, for Christ's sake. He's a real showman: not for nothing does his salable output measure two videotapes to one audio CD--you have to see the guy playing his ancient National steel-string guitars with his elbows, or doing tap-on runs with knee aloft and mouth open, looking for all the world like a hillbilly in a Max Fleischer cartoon. And he's got a wide-open repertoire: Dylan and Guthrie tunes, a passel of horrible pun-songs (please record "The Breakfast Blues," Gramps), ridiculous concept songs like "Palindromes," "Anagrams," and "Aptonyms," and wonderful covers of material copyrighted before even he was born. (A hint: He's played for 35 years, since he was a teenager. 50? 51? 52?)
- B-15 Project featuring Chrissy D & Lady G: "Girls Like Us" (5:55), from 12-inch (Relentless UK). For every dance subculture, a handful of irresistible singles. Not so much to ask, is it? Well, maybe it is--but 2-step garage has 'em, and none are better than this irrepressible number, easily the most satisfying track of the year to date. "Vocal science" seldom sounds more plainly pop, more songful, and Lady G's ragga break is by itself worth the price of the import twelve.
- Armand Van Helden: "Hybridz" (10:06), from Killing Puritans (Armed). It's easy to understand why this album is currently being overrated by Spin magazine: Critics who admired Van Helden's blazing overhauls of the Sneaker Pimps' "Spin Spin Sugar" and Tori Amos' "Professional Widow" either after the dancefloor fact or before they could really do anything about it in print are tripping over themselves to anoint him a genius three years after he provided evidence of it and one year after making it official with last year's 2 Future 4 U, an album so hit-filled it can be thought of, without much exaggeration, as house music's Thriller. Killing Puritans won't be anywhere near as big, and it shouldn't be, for the simple reason that it just plain ain't nearly as good. But here's something weird: Although Common, who guests on the album's "Full Moon," is one of hip-hop's best lyricists, his track is topped by Van Helden and fellow house jock Junior Sanchez bigging up their peers and spewing fuck-the-industry rhetoric and self-aggrandizing braggadocio for 10 hilarious minutes over a blunt steal of Adonis' Chicago house classic "No Way Back." (They even sing a bit of the chorus for good measure.) If anything, it proves that Van Helden's best bullshit is his silliest--and that doesn't mean sampling the fucking Scorpions, ai-ight?
- Spring Heel Jack: "Root" (5:20), from Oddities (Thirsty Ear). Back when they were on an American major, people thought avant-garde breakbeat dabblers John Coxon and Ashley Wales might actually make drum-and-bass America's household sound. Well, we all know what a pipe dream that was, just like expecting their six-cut, 53-minute comp-tracks and b-sides collection to cohere--trash the second half and call it a helluva EP. Still, in a dance world where "intelligent" is too often synonymous for "pseudointellectual," Coxon and Wales flaunt smarts their peers would envy if they'd only get their heads away from their Monty Python reruns, as on this piece of musique concrète, which contains as much zing, bite, wit, tang, whatever your adjective of choice for head music that stays there happens to be as you'd like.
- De La Soul: "All Good," (4:30), from Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump (Tommy Boy). Maturity that doesn't resort to seen-it-all weariness is nothing new on these guys, as anyone who paid attention to Buhloone Mindstate is aware. The biggest difference between now and the old days is how deeply ingrained that maturity is--and that they've gotten as goofy as their old Prince Paul-produced selves again after the somber Stakes is High. The secret isn't just the guest stars, though getting Chaka Khan to sing the chorus of this, the new album's best song, certainly helps. But that and AOI's other helpmates (Rockwilder, Redman, Beasties, et. al.) only highlight just how good they are when they're being themselves. At first the album feels disjointed--smart, interesting, playful, but somehow disparate from itself, the parts not quite meshing--until you realize that A) all their albums sound like that at first and B) just like them, the second or third listen of this one finds it all coming together. And this time around, that's largely to do with De La packing more surefire singles into it than any album they've made since 3 Feet High & Rising itself. No wonder AOI debuted in Billboard's Top 10. Even if that's just a quirk or accident of commerce, it's worth rejoicing: everybody say "Oooh...."
- Quasimoto: "Return of the Loop Digga" (3:48), from The Unseen (Stones Throw). In 1987, Prince recorded an unreleased, pseudonymous album titled Camille, on which he pitched his voice up to an androgynous twitter and laid it atop funk that sounded like it had seeped onto tape directly from his subconscious: tense synth lines, talking drum-machine beats, touches of Eastern psychedelia. Most of the album would eventually see release, with three of its cuts ("Housequake," "If I Was Your Girlfriend," "Strange Relationship") making their way onto Sign 'O' the Times.
Now imagine if that album had been produced by a different Prince--Prince Paul. Because The Unseen, created by Quasimoto, the a.k.a. of Madlib of Oxnard, California group Lootpack, brings to mind the love child of Camille and 3 Feet High and Rising, down to the nut-brained hook. Like everyone else mentioned, Quasi's lost in music, especially here: chiding the competition for looping "those played-out hits," pilfering so much source material that it's tempting to think he changed his name to escape litigation, interrupting the proceedings to berate a clueless record store employee for not carrying rare Stanley Cowell sides, hooking it all to a irresistible, low-key-excitable "It's the loop digga! My nigga! My nigga!"
- Raymond Scott featuring Jim Henson: "Limbo: The Organized Mind" (4:30), from Manhattan Research Inc. (Basta). Figures that the best thing on two discs of sparkly bright, infectiously frisky, sci-fi-futurismo pops, clicks, wows, flutters, rhythm exercises (which some Detroit or Berlin tech-nerd needs to sample today), and radio jingles for Sprite, Twinkies, Vicks cough drops, Ford, GM, the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company, Ohio Bell, the Pygmy Taxi Corporation and IBM is a narration through one man's capacious cranium.
- The Manhattan Brothers: "Malayisha" (2:41), from The Very Best of the Manhattan Brothers (Stern's African Classics, originally recorded 1954). They performed around South Africa for a decade before entering the recording studio, in mob-run nightclubs where acts played eight hours a night and which made the chitlin' circuit look like a Carnival Cruise vacation. Their chief inspirations were the early Ink Spots and Mills Brothers, before those groups traded the barbershop for the supper club, something the Manhattan Brothers could scarcely afford to do under a government hadn't adopted apartheid yet but was getting close to doing. They scored their first hit on the Gallo label in 1948, with an Andrews Sisters cover. They swung tight and relaxed, with Nathan Mdledle's baritone taking center stage most of the time. He gave the spotlight most frequently to tenor and principal songwriter Joe Mogotsi, and, briefly, to a young woman named Miriam Makeba. They sounded like they wanted nothing more or less than to entertain you as thoroughly as possible. They succeeded, becoming a household name in South Africa. "Malayisha" is their roughest, most exciting song, and sounds closest to the kind of lurching stop-start that would define later S.A. mbaqanga at its knottiest. Seven years after they recorded it, and two years after their final Gallo recording session, they exiled themselves to London and their catalog promptly went out of print, where it remained for 35 years. The CD this song is on remedies that; there will be no more beautiful reissue this year.
- Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos: "No Puedo Frenar" (3:40), from ¡Muy Divertido! (Very Entertaining!) (Atlantic). I can't have been the only one who figured that the self-titled 1998 debut of the Prosthetic Cubans, as their name is translated, was a one-off: after all, Ribot is a restless sort. But the man knows a good thing when he's in on it, and this is an exceptional thing--subtle, addictively gorgeous late-night music that simultaneously called up images of old Havana and modern New York. This organ-drenched cut, like nearly all of the rest of the slightly jumpier, slightly guitar-heavier follow-up, even throws New Orleans into the pot. A nice place to visit, an even better place to immerse yourself in.
- Modest Mouse: "Paper Thin Walls" (3:01), from The Moon and Antarctica (Epic). Lyric of the year: "Laugh hard/It's a long way to the bank."
- Lifter Puller: "Space Humping $19.99" (2:45), from Fiestas + Fiascos (Frenchkiss/Self-Starter Foundation) "Think about what I've got/Compare it to what you've got/Now whaddaya think my giiirrrl wants, my girl wants?" Craig Finn, "living large and feeling small," punctures subcultures like Stagger Lee shot Billy, with malice aforethought and with so much style it's wasted: hip-hoppers, rockers, and especially ravers are made fun of as he and his hardy (and now tragically defunct) band hurtle through a string of songs that cumulatively describe the most debauched evening of revelry this side of a Fourth of July weekend at the Kennedy compound. "Space Humping"'s tinny new-wave organ hook and roustabout drumming (Dan Monick! Dan Monick!) is worth your time all by its damn self, but it's Finn, accusing and boasting and warning and pointing out weird shit that just went by and thinking too much and drinking too much and coming up with more good rhymes in a half a fucking hour than the entire city of New Orleans as represented (and kept real) by No Limit Records that siezes your attention and points its straight at the innards of the nightlife he celebrates so gleefully. Even at his most distantly, sarcastically reportorial, Finn never seems holier-than-thou; he's obviously been to as many warehouse parties and dance clubs as he has the basement keggers and all-ages matinees endemic to his particular corner of the world, and to him they're all different solutions to the same species of enervating suburban boredom people dream will be changed by moving to the city and throwing themselves into nightlife. Or maybe as a once-fanatical raver and, later, nightclub employee, I'm taking this all a little too fucking personally. But damn if he doesn't get right the intensity of that wish's parameters. To become a cog in a readymade pleasure-machine is incredibly seductive; you're taking part in something bigger than yourself, and you don't really have to do much of anything. And the gnawing sense of rootlessness built into nightlife--attempting to make a life out of it can be as much of a cul-de-sac as the boredom people attempt to escape from by getting into them--he gets right too. Without romanticizing it, either: Finn sounds like the only Beat that influenced him was getting his ass kicked in junior high. I swear to God that I have not heard a better album all year.
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