Michaelangelo Matos is a freelance writer who contributes to the Minneapolis City Pages, the Chicago Reader, the Wire and the NY Press.
This is an excerpt from Greatest Hits: a Mixtape 'Zine, available via mail-order for $3 a copy or $12 for a one-year/four-issue subscription (distribution is currently pending). If you're interested (the first issue includesng selections from PSF's Jason Gross, To Live and Shave in L.A.'s Tom Smith, Great Pop Things' Colin B. Morton, novelist Camden Joy and others), drop a line to GreatestHitsZine@hotmail.com for ordering details...
Side A (46:20):
- Golden Gate Quartet: "Comin' in on a Wing and a Prayer" (2:53), from Sony Music 100 Years: Pop Music: the Early Years 1890-1950 (Columbia/Epic Legacy '99; originally released 1944). Hush. Not a word out of you. "Come, ing, iinnn..." Background hums, unearthly. "On a weeeng..." Deepest bass voice I've ever heard in my life. "And a praaahhhrrr..." Those backing "mmm"s transform into "oooh"s. Suddenly the pace picks up: "We're coming in," the Quartet snap in unison, clipping their words the way the fighter pilots the song's about do their opponents' wingspans, and then when the next verse starts ("What a show, what a fight/Yes we've really hit our target for tonight") they glide across the notes instead of tapdancing atop them. The dynamics here are remarkable, with each verse getting its own separate rhythmic treatment, as is the arrangement, which parades each Gate in front of the microphone to alternately celebratory-comic, how-do-they-do-that?-comic, languidly-tense, and goodnight-sweetheart-goodnight effect. Originally a V-disc, and maybe the greatest--hell, maybe the only good--pro-war song ever recorded.
- Gang Starr featuring Nice and Smooth: "DWYCK" (4:03), from Full Clip: a Decade of Gang Starr (Virgin '99; originally released 1992) and
- A Tribe Called Quest: "Check the Rhime" (3:38), from The Anthology (Jive '99; originally released 1991). "DWYCK" is pretty much what Sasha Frere-Jones was referring to when he wrote about DJ Premier: "Rendered thus, hip-hop sounds like the only goddamned music on the planet." Down-to-earth, not kidding, funny as hell ("Lemonade was a popular drink and it still is/I get more props and stunts than Bruce Will-is," not to mention the way Smooth B pronounces "Boo-shit"), plus the bassline sounds like a versioned "Guns of Brixton." Meantime, Tribe's all-time-greatest-hit still sounds that way, especially heading a best-of that waters this particular mouth more readily than their any of their albums-proper.
- Sensational: "Disco Lights" (3:27), from Corner the Market (Wordsound '99). Known as MC Torture back when he was a Jungle Brother, Sensational is often credited with most heavily spiking the punch that created Crazy Wisdom Masters, an art-damaged freakout that Warner Bros. deemed unreleasable. The ten-inch EP from that album's sessions put out last year by Brooklyn indie Wordsound lived up to its rep fine, though I'll be goddamned if I can figure out how the bipolarity of its replacement, 1993's J. Beez wit the Remedy--which alternated straight-up old-school-style raps with straight-up musique concrete experiments--was considered any less risky.
Still, those records sound like Mantovani scoring Celine Dion compared to the records Sensational makes under his own name for Wordsound. "Dank" doesn't even begin to de-scribe them; both 1997's Loaded with Power and last year's Corner the Market sound like they were discovered at the bottom of a dumpster, with beats so thick and irregular you keep checking to see if your CD player is functioning correctly. The raps themselves leave you awestruck at their antivirtuosity: in an era when MCs strive for vivid detail of narrative and knock-you-on-your-ass metaphor, for deep flow and ultra-articulate verbosity Sensational's incredibly repetitive word choices sound specifically tailored toward his having to move his lips and tongue as little as possible. If the Jungle Brothers are noted for being the first hip-hop group to sample the Stooges, Sensational goes his former group one better: on his own, he practically is the Stooges, his music grinding along awesomely underneath mantra-like lyrics that convey a bombed-out worldview part and parcel with his massive pot intake. "Disco Lights," from the new album, is its cheeriest, catchiest selection, mainly for the weird string-synth that provides its two-note hook. It sounds nothing like the disco strings it's meant to evoke--and (this is the really weird part) it sounds like them anyway.
- Crown Heights Affair: "Every Beat of My Heart" (3:50), from Super Rare Disco Vol. 1 (Robbins '97; originally released 1975), and
- Donna Summer: "Try Me, I Know We Can Make It" (4:46), from The Donna Summer Anthology (Polydor Chronicles '93; originally released 1976). Some real disco strings, then. "Every Beat" is the lo-fi disco of my wildest dreams; the hi-hats/strings intro sounds like a machete slicing through a cornfield, with plenty of help from what seems to be a master tape that sounds like it's liquefying as it goes. This also helps explain why the pair of near-identical-sounding male vocalists (maybe the same guy overdubbed, maybe not) sound like they're mumbling and whispering when in fact they're singing at full voice, though that could just be a fucked-up mix. Which, naturally, I love: the falsettos are so simperingly wispy that, as just another detail in the mix, they as heartbreaking as, I dunno, Malkmus's overdubbed "Ah-ah-ah"s in "El Ess Two," from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. And once the lyric is over, the real action begins, with a horn chart as assuredly robust as the chest hair you can just imagine bursting out of the band's unbuttoned shirt fronts. The way the bass rumbles on the fade-out is worth the price of the disc. If Rudy Ray Moore's immortal Avenging Disco Godfather had actually been a good movie, this would have been on the soundtrack.
"Try Me," on the other hand, is very sonically clear, as is its title's meaning, which is not about starting a successful business together. It's a song I'm fairly obsessive about: after succumbing to the joys of disco shortly upon high school graduation (I'd grown up on it and had vehemently spurned its advances when I got into music seriously around junior high--ah, to be a pretentious 13-year-old who thinks The Dark Side of the Moon is Art again...), I rediscovered Summer's best-of and fell hard for this insistent come-on of airy strings and breathy singing. I ended up buying A Love Trilogy in the hope that the side-length version would be as similarly epic as the 17-minute "Love to Love You Baby," but instead it was Interesting and little more. Finally, I purchased the double-CD Anthology to get the unmixed-into/out of single edit, and was surprised at how weak the kick drum is during the verses. (During the breakdowns, I am pleased to report, it fucking pounds.) Looking back at it, my attraction to "Try Me"'s enveloping sensuality makes a lot of sense. Though it's about Topic A, it celebrates pleasure-without-consequences in a way that feels almost innocent now, and seemed ideal when viewed through the prism of my then-burgeoning sense of myself as a raver/clubber.
- Mouse on Mars: "Diskdusk" (3:48), from Niun Niggung (Thrill Jockey '00). Since the album this is off of really does sound, in classic IDM fashion, like its title (with maybe a little krikle-krakle and some dwoob-woob thrown in, plus some chwoom schwaaar and some whoosh-zing on top of them), it's tempting to file under Autechre and never play the thing, but the truth is that Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner's bizarro-world sound-universes are their own beasts entirely. Listening to Mouse on Mars feels like floating through cooled-down, fluorescent lava, the kind you might find in a 3-D computer-animated remake of Yellow Submarine: ultra-psychedelic, wriggling and bursting uncontrollably into existence, alien but not alienating, conveying a rare, childlike innocence and transported grace. Built on a submerged disco kickdrum and filled out with swishing hi-hat, deep-booming electro-tom-tom and overlaid with analog squelches, random sproings, tinkling keyboards, and surging sweeps of disco strings that are almost shocking in their emotional charge, "Diskdusk" suggests Basement Jaxx had they wiped the hooks off their masters, leaving only the fleeting noises they surround them with. In other words, what this past New Year's might have sounded like had it actually been the last night on earth.
- Powerhouse featuring Duane Harden: "What You Need" (6:50), from 10 Years of Strictly Rhythm (Strictly Rhythm '99). Producer Lenny Fontana provides the near-unbearable tension: boogie-woogie guitar dances atop icicle-sharp strings and a booming-and-zooming bassline like Yosemite Sam's got a gun aimed at its feet, with all the requisite boom you need to prevent it from flying off the earth under-pinning everything. South Street Player master-mind and Armand Van Helden guest-vocalist Harden's ultra-wuss falsetto floats somewhere in the middle, complete with Stevie Wonder-style growls so y'all know how "serious" and "soulful" he is--and how seriously soulful, for real. Big fat filtered breakdown in the middle lasts forever and comes crashing back with (sampled) acoustic drumroll that sounds like it's being played on aluminum foil in one of those "just wait for that shit to come bombing back at your ass" moments that househeads who couldn't give two shits about "progression" live for. Ridiculously kinetic. Sounds just like Chic. Best single of 1999.
- Black Masses: "Wonderful Person" (6:34), from A Night at the Playboy Mansion: a Dimitri from Paris Mix (Astralwerks '00) and
- Mighty Dub Katz: "Just Another Groove" (4:56), from Ministry of Sound Sessions 7: Frankie Knuckles (Minstry of Sound import '97). If house music is church for dispossessed believers in god, country, family, whatever, here's a two-part nondenominational sermon. First, Black Masses transcribe an Up with People meeting and lay it atop the kind of brick-house rhythm section that marked the post-Chic era: the Sugarhill house band, vintage Shalamar, West End's greatest hits, arty white New Yorkers like Talking Heads and Liquid Liquid getting the bomb dropped on them too, like that. The lyrics are so artlessly transcendental they're, well, transcendent: "You are, you are/A wonderful, wonderful person...You've got to believe in yourself!" sung in the kind of conversational, vibrato-less, reaching-not-straining R&B-not-soul singing endemic to the above-named era. As for "Just Another Groove," that's Norman "Fatboy Slim" Cook's little way of making us feel all warm and fuzzy inside instead of raucous and rawked-out: classic vibes-sounding loop, buried falsetto "whoo!"s in back-ground, bongos and congas bouncing the beat some more, and a heartbreaking, breathy, sincere message for those of us who have forsaken god, country, family, or probably more to the point, the dancefloor: "I think we should get back together."
- Moby: "Down Slow" (1:35), from Play (V2 '99). Because when you have a minute and a half to fill at the end of a side, you might as well go with the best.
SIDE B (46:54):
- The Clash: "(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais" (4:00), from The Clash (U.S. version) (Epic '79). Listening greedily to my Clash reissues, I finally understood why critics love these guys so much: no rock band ever wrote better about white liberal guilt. Take their greatest song, Joe Strummer's account of being the only paleface at a Delroy Wilson concert. Only that isn't even close to half of it, because until I put the thing on again after not having heard it in years I was floored by how unstable this band sounds: they really do feel like they're about to fly apart any second now, not in a sloppy we-don't-give-a-shit way but because they're so overloaded with electricity their wires can't sustain it. Of course, even when I was going around saying they were the most overrated rock band of their era I knew better than to deny the utter fucking magnificence of Strummer's leap from the genuine-sounding laugh on "Burton suits" into the genuine bitterness of "Hah! You think it's funny" into the seen-it-all singsong of "Turn-ing rebellion into money," and then the half-second of silence that greets the next guitar onrush.
- The Fastbacks: "I Was Stolen" (3:53), from The Day That Didn't Exist (SpinArt '99). "We're Still Trying to Be the Buzzcocks (Only We're Probably Better)" Part 175, this is my favorite on the new album because it's got the funniest lyric: "We tried to save the world last fall/You remember that we didn't save anything at all...We thought we did it the right way/We saved up for months and then we gave it all away." They're not talking about their career, are they?
- Mary J. Blige: "All That I Can Say" (5:30), from Mary (MCA '99). "She sounds like she's experienced everything," my little sister said one day when we were listening to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, but I'm-just-plain-ol'-Mary can sound like she's giving you a guided tour through emotional terrain you either didn't know, didn't remember or tried to forget existed. So it makes sense that her finest vocal performance to date, "Not Gon' Cry" included, is on this written/produced-by-L-Boogie-herself joint. Slurring the opening line so that it sounds like a fade-in ("...uuUHving you is wonderful..."), by the time the first quatrain is finished her footing is so assured she could just modulate the same couple notes she started with for five minutes and still trash the competition. She doesn't; on "With you I can let down my guard," you can hear her doing just as she says, hesitantly arcing up toward the notes at full throat, like a lover reaching over you in the morning to turn off the alarm. By the time she hits the second refrain ("Aaahh-ll I can say-hay..."), there's nothing hesitant anymore, but you're struck by this incredible yearning in her voice: She wants this to work out more than anything in the world, she doesn't have a shred of control over it, and it's not fucking fair. Then we get to the bridge--"Knowing him/Showing him," et. al.--and all that anxiety and ecstasy boils over into the kind of rapturous tonal color that Hill learned so diligently from Stevie and Joni and Marvin and Curtis. So like hell Mary isn't the next Aretha. And incidentally, between this song and "Ex Factor," I'm convinced L-Boogie writes the best bridges since the young Elvis Costello.
- Next: "Too Close" (4:04), from Ultimate Dance Party 1999 (Arista '98). One night about eight months after this song had run its chart course, I ran into a couple of journalist friends at a book signing. We ended up hanging out at a neighborhood bar that one of them was planning to write about. It wasn't the kind of place any of us usually went. The bar was suburban, working-class, and unfashionable; jeans were tight and hair was large, and the entertainment was an R&B cover band. We proceeded to have one hell of a good time; I later told another friend about it and he nailed it: "Even though it wasn't a place you'd normally go to, you didn't have a condescending good time or a sociologically interesting good time. You just had a good time." Though it seems odd to speak of a social bar-jaunt in terms of transcendent moments, this night had one: in the middle of their Ohio Players and Cameo-heavy set, the cover band played this song, which I'd heard some on the radio and mentally filed under "catchy," but hadn't given much more thought. Suddenly, surrounded by a couple hundred people, many of whom were dancing, who knew and were singing every word of the chorus, the song came completely alive. I didn't pick up a copy for a few months, but now that I own the song I haven't stopped playing it.
- Papas Fritas: "Way You Walk" (3:48), from Buildings & Grounds (Minty Fresh '00). Ever since they reversed my skepticism by upstaging the Cardigans in early '97 (not a difficult task, I'm now aware), this Boston trio have marked out a place for themselves as the kind of group you don't just like but root for. Unfortunately, after one too many tries I'm convinced the new album's too flimsy to bother with: where they once won points for at least trying (if not always succeeding) to rock their wee pop ditties, here they're going for an insinuating pop that doesn't seeps in nearly enough. This is the only time it gets completely under your skin, and it's a humdinger: boy accuses girl of eyeing other guy, girl shocked by accusation but soon intrigued by possibilities, boy retreats into hole of self-hatred and starts acting creepy, girl coolly lays down law ("I never said I was yours only"). The denouement is left open, but we all know where this one ends, don't we?
- Talking Heads: "Cities" (4:05), from Fear of Music (Sire '79). Picked in large part for the similarity of its groove to those of "Too Close" and "Way You Walk" (plus it fades up after the previous song's, always a great way to sequence mixtape selections), this also extends Papas Fritas's paranoia: she's cuckolded him, he can't deal with it, and in a voice so tense it's about to snap in half, he's decided to try and to "find [him]self a city to live in." Good luck, pal.
- Lee Perry & the Upsetters: "Station Under-ground News" (3:02), from Chapter 2 of "Words" (Trojan '99; originally released 1972). As our hero arrives in his new hometown--for some reason he decided to move to Kingston, Jamaica, which means god knows what--he turns on the radio, and though the patois the DJ shares with the locals is somewhat daunting, the groove is irresistibly funky, with an especially smart call-and-response going on between the organ and guitar. Meanwhile on top, the Upsetter, as he calls himself, babbles playful nonsense about being "your main man reporting/The news as it happens--WHAAA!" Fun! Then, all of a sudden, a couple minutes in he does this perfect segue into the Chi-Lites' "(For God's Sake) Give More Power to the People" for a few bars, and then drops it out again and we're back into the groove without a wrinkle or a flaw.
- The Techniques: "Queen Majesty" (3:31), from The Kings & Queens of Rocksteady (Music Club '00; originally released 1968). Maybe the greatest rocksteady number ever recorded, its moderate tempo underpinning some of the most transportingly beautiful harmonies of its time; obviously, the Techniques learned well from their Impressions records, and there's even a rubbery but unshakeable guitar line Curtis Mayfield would have been proud to call his own.
- Jhelisa: "Friendly Pressure (Into the Sunshine Edit)" (3:48), from Muzik Presents the Tunes 98 (Muzik magazine insert, import '98). The vocal cut up, sped-up and filtered over what sounds like a marimba playing a melodic line and crisp garage beats this song continually opens and closes itself up, lotus-like. Rapturously hypnotic.
- Everything But the Girl: "Five Fathoms" (6:25), from Temperamental (Virgin '99). Boy, are these guys overrated. Boy is this album uneven as fuck. Boy, do they know how to get to the heart of the matter: this meta-record (club an-them about clubland and its discontents) absolutely fucking 100% nails that nagging, gnawing 3 AM feel: "I walk the city at night," excited by everything, can't wait to touch and taste it all, but still scared of getting hurt, which leads us to the most heartbreaking chorus of any dance record I can recall offhand since, uh, the same group's "Missing": "I wanna love more," Tracey Thorn croons, and it is to melt, for real. Why oh why is the album so fucking uneven?
- Green Velvet: "Answering Machine" (4:48), from The Nineties--1993 A.D. to 1999 A.D. (Music Man import '99). Addled, oddly-coifed Chicago house DJ comes home to find everything gone haywire: femme fatale getting his unlisted number from his mom ("I'll keep calling and calling and calling and calling..."), landlord leaving eviction notice, pregnant girlfriend assuring him the baby isn't his ("You didn't have to get me that engagement ring..."), friend who I assume is the baby's father ("Oh yeah, we threw a party at your crib while you weren't home, it was the bomb!"). Oddly-coifed DJ's on-the-beat response: "I! DON'T! NEED! THIS! SHIT!"
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