All That and a Bag of Words
MTV told us poetry is making a comeback, but where then are all the poets? So far the spoken-word revolution has offered only a bunch of strictly average monologists and some mildly entertaining performance artists. Has our grasp on literacy dipped so low that the artless talking hip-hop of Last Poets wannabes such as D-Knowledge is considered the work of an accomplished wordsmith?
No offense to Derrick Gilbert (D-Knowledge), who as a graduate of UC-Berkeley and a Ph.D. candidate at UCLA is more than likely an intelligent young man. But neither the ideas nor the lyrical abilities he displays on All That and a Bag of Words qualifies him as a poet. It's not just his lack of originality, even though two of the CD's first four tracks riff on "To be or not to be," the most riffed-upon line in the history of the English language. It's not just his lack of insight, even when his verse simply retraces the race-obsessed sermons of better rappers and more eloquent black-power bards. And it's not just his maddening delivery, even if he ends each line with a pseudo-beatnik, drawn-out, fly-away syllable until the album becomes virtually unlistenable.
No, D-Knowledge is not much of a poet because he doesn't seem to appreciate language for its own sake -- the wordplay, alliterations, rhymes and cadences that separate poetry from prose, and human speech from random noise. Despite some fine background jazz improvisations and arrangements, and a few funny lines, All That and a Bag of Words proves that while there may still be poets in the world, you won't find them anytime soon on pretentious major-label CDs.
-- Roni Sarig
To Bring You My Love
You've probably heard the recent Polly Jean Harvey single, "Down by the Water," on the radio. Y'know, it's the one that goes "Little fish, big fish, swimming in the water / Come back here and give me my daughter." Kinda darkish, yet catchy in a popish way. While the rest of Harvey's songs on To Bring You My Love aren't exactly mainstream ... excuse me ... alternative radio fare, they're definitely in the same gritty, soul-baring vein. Excepting the straightforward "C'mon Billy," the ten songs on Love are reverb-heavy, especially in "Working for the Man" -- one of those "I can't understand a damn thing she's saying but it sounds great" songs. And while Harvey's vocals range from pretty to annoying, they do it accordingly and never in an exhibitionist fashion.
In today's world of "Women in Rock," Harvey is in the same league as Liz Phair, although she'd be best classified as Phair's mean-spirited stepsister. As a whole package, Love -- like Harvey's previous releases -- is ear-candy for brooding types. Very good ear-candy for brooding types. However, those with more conservative tastes might best be advised to stay clear of Miss Harvey's Love; other than "Down by the Water," there's little here that will appeal to them. And what little there is, such as "Meet Ze Monsta" and "Long Snake Moan" will undoubtedly be played ad nauseam on one of those mainstream ... darn it ... alternative radio stations.
-- Joe Hon
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Wasps' Nests proves that Stephin Merritt is not only a master craftsman of the pop song, but also a clever self-promoter. Instead of waiting decades for a Merritt tribute album, he decided to release one on his own. The 6ths is not so much a band as a forum to showcase the synth-pop writing and arranging talents Merritt normally reserves for his sometimes solo/sometimes group project, the Magnetic Fields. On Wasps' Nest, the songwriter's first major-label release, 16 indie rock stars from Superchunk's Mac McCaughan to Unrest/Air Miami's Mark Robinson take turns singing new Merritt compositions.
But despite all the reinterpreting you'd expect from staunch individualists such as Sebadoh's Lou Barlow, Wasps' Nests is surprisingly unified. Perhaps because the music and production are all Merritt's, none of the voices do much to alter the essential qualities of the songs' form and style. Every vocal performance, from the airy soprano of Heavenly's Amelia Fletcher on "Looking for Love (In the Hall of Mirrors)" to Merritt's own brooding bass, is inconsequential to the music's identity.
It's just as well, since Wasps' Nests is designed to highlight Merritt, the writer and arranger. As he made clear last year on the Magnetic Fields' brilliant The Charm of the Highway Strip, Merritt is a rare pop composer who ingests all the greats before him -- from Bacharach and David to Morrissey and Marr -- and applies their infectious melodic gifts and lyrical grace to the sounds and tools of the day. Merritt's weapon of choice is the multilayered metallic drone and zap of the computerized keyboard. And he slays us every time.
-- Roni Sarig