Seize the Time
In case you haven't yet figured out why Public Enemy's last release stiffed so hard, take another lesson from Fun-Da-Mental. An English rap group comprising two Asians and two Afro-Caribbeans, Fun-Da-Mental applies P.E.'s aggressively political ranting to Britain's homegrown race problems and essentially rehashes the same angry sentiments. Predictably, the group's Seize the Time debut is one of the most joyless, self-righteous, rhetorically confused mixes of politically correct incorrectness since those boring white boys in Consolidated annoyed us with one of their preach sessions. Subversiveness and intelligence, the two things that made this kind of "guerrilla rap" so exciting once upon a time, are completely absent from Fun-Da-Mental's rhymes. Eight years after P.E.'s Yo! Bum Rush the Show, all those "white devil" sentiments are now just the stuff of rap parody movies. And by continually pointing fingers at the evil "them," or the vicious "powers that be," Fun-Da-Mental ensure the only revolution they'll be leading is one of simpletons. Truly an injustice: Fun-Da-Mental plays the same old race-victim card in a game that desperately needs more constructive discussion.
But, if you can stomach the styleless delivery of inane raps like "Fearing my words like a Dracula movie / That's when the powers that be try to move me," Fun-Da-Mental offers a fairly interesting blend of Eastern sounds and instruments with modern hip-hop beats and rhythms. It's nothing Bill Laswell hasn't done better before, but in the hands of these assimilated immigrants, the musical mesh at least sounds like a natural product of their contradictory upbringings.
-- Roni Sarig
Do You Want More?!!!??!
Typically, we're better off ignoring the boasts of a rapper describing his own music, but when the Roots' lead voice, Black Thought, opens up his group's debut album Do You Want More?!!!??! by saying, "You are all about to witness some organic hip-hop jazz," it's a good idea to listen up. Organic is a fitting adjective for a hip-hop crew whose m.o. is as different from the typical studio-locked DJ/emcee combo as grass is from AstroTurf.
Nothing wrong with a little artificial grazeland, of course, but the Roots makes tasty roughage that blooms into real songs, where raps wind around bass, drums, keys and horns, and instruments coil up to vocal cadences -- where music and lyrics meet and grow together naturally, not coincidentally. You can hear the Roots' heart pump hardest when they pull off the tricks loops and samples can't: just check the vocal/instrument interchanges of "Essaywhuman?!!!??!," or the sharp-turn instrumental digression midway through "Mellow My Man." The Roots' Philadelphia-based groove collective builds slick acid jazz playing around the smooth East Coast rhyming a la A Tribe Called Quest and wild West Coast freestyling to create sounds that are as formless and fluid as jazz, but never unrecognizable as hip-hop. The music picks up where the mad scatting and melodic trills of L.A.'s defunct Freestyle Fellowship left off. The roots of this kind of fusion have long been around, though perhaps these Roots are hope for a new dawning.
-- Roni Sarig
Black Velvet Flag
The shame of the Cocktail Nation -- a New York pseudo-scene of twentysomething tuxedo-clad guys and pink chiffoned gals drinking extra-dry martinis -- is that their musical tastes lie more in the ironic cynicism of post-modernism than any actual reverence for the sounds of schmaltzy 1950s easy-listening. If they'd noticed the very real (albeit camped up) talent behind Sinatra's evocative hep-cat swing or Juan Garcia Esquivel's sonically thrilling "space-age bachelor pad music," they probably would not have produced a one-joke novelty like Black Velvet Flag's Come Recline.
Oh, it's a funny joke all right: an album of California hard-core punk classics covered as light and jazzy lounge music. At their best, the songs are catchy, even-tempered reworkings: Fear's "I Don't Care About You" bounces along like bubble-gum pop; Black Flag's "No Values" plays like a sugary girl-group swoon; Suicidal Tendencies' "Institutionalized" gets deadpanned over War's Latinesque "Spill the Wine" riff. Mostly, though, the songs say nothing more than "listen to how hilarious 'I wanna fuck the dead' sounds sung over cleanly plucked minor seventh chords."
Had Black Velvet Flag actually been a band with musical ideas instead of just smirks, the album might have turned out a lot more substantial -- and maybe even a lot more fun. But with the trio's remedial musicianship (singer, guitar, bass and Ringo the drum machine), the band sounds less like an incongruous cocktail group and more like, well, a castrated punk band.
-- Roni Sarig
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Tomorrow the Green Grass
At its best, listening to the Jayhawks make music is a beautiful American experience falling somewhere between drinking a cold Coca Cola on a hot day and driving through the Rocky Mountains at sunset. Perhaps it's in the clarity of Mark Olson's tenor melodies and their accompanying ghostly harmonies, floating above and swooping down like they were sung by some child angel of a country blues singer. Or maybe it's in Gary Louris' immensely raved up country rock licks, so dripping with juice they nearly burst at the touch of his guitar pick. Or perhaps it's the impression left by the words, which never give enough to reveal the whole story, but tell just enough to tear at you and make you understand their root feelings -- the loneliness, the sorrow, the hope or the peace.
The Jayhawks were at their best on 1992's Hollywood Town Hall. The guitars were sharp, the words perfect and the melodies unforgettable. With Tomorrow the Green Grass, though, this year's version of the great country soul group is decidedly less filling, even when the taste is still pretty great. The addition of violins is a nice touch, but a misstep where the music's muscle is concerned. The guitars are still gorgeous, but muddier and less hook-laden than before. The lyrics still haunt, but they're more disjointed and less gripping this time around. And the melodies are both a blessing and a curse: catchier and chart-ready, but with a lot less meat on their bones. Call it cosmic American music in the sugary Milky Way galaxy. Or else just remember how much Gram Parsons always did look sort of like David Cassidy.
-- Roni Sarig