Saturday, April 09, 2005

Music From The Margins

Prefuse 73 – Surrounded By Silence (Warp)

A more appropriate title might well have been ‘Surrounded By Special Guests’, so prominent are collaborations on this album. This work has been heavily criticised in some quarters for being fractured and fragmented, which seems odd to me given that these were the same people who heaped plaudits on its predecessor (‘One Word Extinguisher’), which was an equally bitty record. Herren’s working method is to ensure that his tracks are mercilessly concise, hence ‘Surrounded By Silence’ manages to squeeze a testing 21 tracks into its 70+ minutes. Whilst this approach tends to be a major obstacle to enjoying most conventional hip hop albums for me, it works perfectly with Prefuse 73. This is mainly because Herren is intelligent and talented enough a producer to know that short does not necessarily have to mean insubstantial.

What an array of guests Herren has amassed for this one – El-P, The Books, Broadcast, Aesop Rock, Kazu from Blonde Redhead, Beans – it’s a critical list of the most significant figures in contemporary experimental music. Reading the album credits feels a little uncomfortable – you could be forgiven for pre-judging Herren and assuming that he has depended on the talents of others to carry an otherwise lacklustre work. Luckily, this is not the case. The crucial point to remember is that Herren is not a lyricist – so collaborations are to some extent a necessity if Herren is going to progress beyond a narrow audience and convert more traditional rap fans.

This isn’t to say that there are no problems with ‘Surrounded By Silence’, just that the scattergun approach has always seemed to me to be one of Herren’s endearing idiosyncrasies. The slight malaise that drags down much of this record is its slight trepidation. It doesn’t ever go straight for the jugular like previous Prefuse releases, and it sounds slightly tentative and afraid to be audacious. The stuttering, fearlessly intricate beats of previous albums have been replaced by flatter, slightly plodding, more generic hip-hop conventions. The jazzy infusions of ‘One Word Extinguisher’ have been replaced by more familiar murky atmospherics.

There are some notable stand-out moments. Kazu’s breathy, slightly distant vocal adds some appealing mystery to ‘We Got Our Own Way’, whilst El-P and Ghostface sound ragged and fiery on ‘Hide Ya Face’. Beans retains his quixotic, quirky wordplay on the excellent ‘Morale Crusher’. Elsewhere, some of the collaborations feel strangely fruitless. The Books are one of the most inventive and distinctive electronica acts of the moment, but Herren can do little to improve on their already comfortable blueprint on ‘Pagina Dos’. ‘Just The Thought’, featuring Masta Killa and Gza of the Wu-Tang Clan ought to be a bewildering and brilliant clash of styles – but it disappoints simply by fault of not sounding fresh enough.

‘Surrounded By Silence’ also suffers as an album because of the lack of a unifying theme. The best hip hop albums of recent years have been powerful thematically as well as musically (take Cannibal Ox’s ‘The Cold Vein’, a dazzling, almost overwhelmingly brutal record that is evokes contemporary New York with grim and uncompromising realism). As a compilation, ‘Surrounded By Silence’ would be an impressive display, capturing both the successes and failures of an intelligent producer. As an album, it’s something of a frustrating challenge. It does reap rewards, but some of Herren’s sharper edges have been blunted in the process.

Sage Francis – A Healthy Distrust (Epitaph)

Sage Francis is a white rapper who has endured the inevitable comparisons with Eminem. Why are music journalists so lazy? Eminem is a hugely marketable proposition, with a cartoon style and populist production. Francis is uncompromising, with an acid tongue, and a brings a wry, refreshingly liberal perspective to his probing social commentaries. Their chosen genre of performance and the colour of their skin may well be their only common ground. It’s unlikely that Francis will enjoy Eminem’s massive success, but ‘A Healthy Distrust’ is a brilliant record nonetheless, elaborate, articulate, and hitting all the right targets with admirable rigour.

I picked this up largely because of ‘Sea Lion’, a collaboration with Will Oldham that works remarkably well. I’m always endeared to rappers and hip hop producers who seek out new ways of incorporating melody without relying on lazy cut and paste samples from classic soul records (compare this with the complete tedium of Kanye West and his helium segments). ‘Sea Lion’ is a deceptively simple record, with its skeletal guitar and woozy melody, and its effect is something close to intoxicating. It’s one of the finest tracks I’ve heard so far this year.

Fortuitously, there’s plenty more of interest elsewhere on this record. Francis is an engaging and often fearless rapper, dismissing radio stations that ignore him because they are afraid of veering from ‘clear channel playlists’ and best of all undermining rap’s casual homophobia by depicting the gun as a phallic symbol on the remarkable ‘Gunz Yo’. He even gets metaphysical on ‘Sun Vs. Moon’, stating that ‘the Devil only exists because of your belief in him’ and envisioning a ‘cock fight’ between the sun and moon. ‘Slow Down Gandhi’ seems to encompass as many topics as possible – berating political bandwagonists whilst providing something approaching a cogent analysis of America’s current political cul-de-sac. When placed next to the wealth-obsessed, bling nightmare of the current mainstream hip hop scene, we have an articulate poet, characterised by extreme scepticism (as the title implies) who is capable of reflection as well as braggadocio, and who is unafraid of confronting darker forces in the world around him.

Francis has also employed some inventive and creative producers to help him out. Alias, one of the numerous members of the Anticon collective, provides something close to folky ambience, particularly evocative for ‘Escape Artist’ and the aforementioned ‘Sea Lion’. There are also memorable contributions from Reanimator and Daddy Key. Best of all is Dangermouse, who gives a menacing undercurrent to ‘Gunz Yo’, placing the cut and paste schtik of ‘The Grey Album’ in a more intriguing context. All the contributions cohere more easily than the latest Prefuse 73 effort, at least in part due to Francis’ engagement with wider themes, and ‘A Healthy Distrust’ seems to work effortlessly.

Alasdair Roberts – No Earthly Man (Drag City)

I had high expectations of this record, not least because Alasdair Roberts has delivered two of my favourite records of recent years with ‘The Crook Of My Arm’ and ‘Farewell Sorrow’, and also because production duties on this third solo album are handled by Will Oldham. It is, of course, a natural move for Roberts. He has collaborated with Oldham before (on the Amalgamated Sons Of Rest project, also with Jason Molina) and benefited from Oldham’s patronage when fronting the now justly revered Appendix Out.

Oldham’s production makes for a considerably more challenging record. These songs delve right back into the folk tradition –with dirge-like melodies, and relentless, droning accompaniments. Oldham creates a mysterious space through which Roberts can thread his delicate, wispy vocals. Deeply respectful of the tradition from which he has drawn these songs, Roberts commits to singing all the verses, and the songs are typical of their idiom in their length and tendency towards repetition. This makes for a difficult listen – but the obstacles to enjoyment are counterbalanced by the ease with which Roberts inhabits this distant world of murder and sin. There are some who would question whether Roberts can really justify recording a collection of Scottish folk ballads – but listening to ‘No Earthly Man’, it becomes immediately clear how deep his understanding of the genre is. This is the music he has grown up with, refashioned for the contemporary folk world.

There are times when the effect is mesmerising and hypnotic. Opening track ‘Lord Ronald’ is typical. It is unusually floaty, but is cemented by Roberts’ endearingly vulnerable voice, the striking poetry of the lyrics and the respect for the traditional melody. Oldham provides some appropriately spectral backing vocals that weave in and out of the mix. It’s unusual to hear traditional music that sounds this original and fascinating, whilst also capturing the timeless quality of folk music. It’s easy to imagine these ballads as campfire songs – but they have been refracted through the restless imaginations of Roberts and Oldham. Even when they adopt something close to a conventional approach, such as on the acoustic lament ‘Sweet William’, it still sounds distant and almost alien. The paradoxes at the heart of this deeply impressive record make for a confounding but engaging experience.

Antony and The Johnsons – I Am A Bird Now (Secretly Canadian/ Rough Trade)

I bought this very hyped record after being so sick of reading about Antony that I simply had to hear the music speak for itself. Given the knowledge that this was an album of highly theatrical cabaret torch songs, I was expecting to admire it more than appreciate it. I’ve been somewhat guilty of prejudging it – this is an exquisite album, and one that is virtuous in restraint as well as elaborate expression. At just over 35 minutes, it is brilliantly brief. A longer album might well have given us too much of Antony’s tremulous vibrato. As it stands, we are left wanting more. Not only this, but there is much subtlety to be found beneath the theatrics.

This doesn’t have much in common with the Prefuse 73 album – but it does share that record’s preponderance for special guests. ‘I Am A Bird Now’ gives gainful employment to all the musical cognoscenti who have offered Antony their patronage – from critics’ darling Rufus Wainwright to fallen icon Boy George, via Lou Reed and overrated new folk minstrel Devendra Banhart. Some of them pale into insignificance next to Antony’s exquisite phrasing. Boy George guests on the sublime ‘You Are My Sister’ but it rather sounds like he’s trying too hard to emulate Antony’s distinctive style, Banhart is left floundering. Lou Reed offers a typically droll semi-spoken intro to the outstanding ‘Fistfull Of Love’ (sic) and therefore fares much better simply by being himself. Wainwright and Antony have already collaborated on the outrageously camp ‘Old Whore’s Diet’ (from Rufus’ excellent Want Two album), and they repeat the trick here.

Yet Antony manages to emerge sounding not only the freshest but also the most impressive talent here, particularly at the beginning and end of the album. The first three tracks are extraordinary. On ‘Hope There’s Someone’, he genuinely evokes memories of Nina Simone with his hovering, vulnerable tones, and he lends a sensuous, soulful quality to ‘My Lady Story’. Best of all is the delightfully simple ‘For Today I Am A Boy’, where the vocals are multi-tracked in delirious harmony. Significantly, whilst these tracks play heavily on Antony’s gender bending persona, they do not sound contrived or unconvincing, but instead entirely natural. This all reaches its apotheosis in the outstanding closer ‘Bird Guhrl’, which seems to sum up Antony’s thematic preoccupations very neatly, whilst also being remarkably free in its expression.
This is not just an album of cabaret torch songs, however. It’s clear that Antony’s inspiration runs deeper than that – there are hints of Southern Soul in the brass punctuations of ‘Fistfull Of Love’, and ‘My Lady Story’ might betray an interest in 80s electronics. The overall sound is both coherent and distinctive – and the salacious, sultry mood also comes tinged with mournful sadness and regret. ‘I Am A Bird Now’ is moving, evocative and timelessly beautiful.

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