Friday, March 23, 2007

Up All Night

Apostle Of Hustle - National Anthem of Nowhere (Arts and Crafts)
El-P - I'll Sleep When You're Dead (Definitive Jux)

A couple of albums have emerged in the past couple of weeks that could be serious album of the year contenders (although 2007 is, like the previous two years, offering such rich pickings that I’m not sure there will be one clear standout).

Oddly, given the belated chorus of approval for Toronto’s Broken Social Scene last year, nobody here seems to have noticed that one of their contributors, Andrew Whiteman, has just released a second album under his Apostle of Hustle guise. I wrote in praise of his first record, ‘Folkloric Feel’ a couple of years ago, although I now suspect that my admiration for that album had more to do with its sound and musical sensibility than the quality of Whiteman’s songwriting. ‘National Anthem of Nowhere’ makes big strides in achieving a greater equilibrium between ideas and memorable tunes – this is a consistently excellent set of songs.

Much like ‘Folkloric Feel’, the songs here deploy Whiteman’s burgeoning interest in a variety of music from across the globe, but most particularly the rhythms of Cuba. Whiteman has been remarkably successful in merging these ideas with a more conventional indie-rock template, and where Apostle of Hustle stand apart from a number of their counterparts is in the sheer quality of playing and arranging. Whilst this is very much Whiteman’s project, it sounds like there’s a real group dynamic here, and there’s never any bland strumming patterns or monotonous chugging. Instead, we get the atmospheric and infectious ‘Cheap Like Sebastien’ (a close relation of Wilco’s ‘Handshake Drugs’), the sea-shanty roll of ‘Haul Away’ and the Afro-Cuban groove of ‘My Sword Hand’s Anger’. There are even two Spanish language songs.

There are also a number of moments that will be instantly familiar to any BSS fan. ‘The Naked & Alone’ uses an ascending bass pattern that resembles ‘Stars and Suns’ from ‘You Forgot It In People’, whilst ‘National Anthem of Nowhere’ echoes the grander concerns of the eponymous BSS album with its introduction of an effervescent horn section. Yet, whilst BSS revel in fuzzy, sometimes incoherent production textures, there’s a much greater clarity of sound here that may well elevate this album above and beyond the achievements of the supergroup. Also, Whiteman’s voice sounds confident and commanding here, whereas Broken Social Scene’s vocals tend towards the unfocussed (sometimes burying their best singers – Leslie Feist, Emily Haines etc too deep in a sound fog). BSS are a remarkable band, and there’s something very exciting about the flexible collective approach they adopt – but let’s pay attention when there’s real clarity of vision from their less well known individual members.

It feels like a long time since I’ve written anything substantial about a hip-hop album (although I did briefly comment on Ghostface Killah’s outstanding ‘Fishscale’ in my albums of the year list). Producer and Definitive Jux label supremo El-P has been involved in some of my all time favourite rap records, including Company Flow’s masterpiece ‘Funcrusher’, and the terrifyingly dark netherworld of Cannibal Ox’s ‘The Cold Vein’, a real Urban record if ever there was one. He’s now back with another solo record, following the entertaining ‘Fantastic Damage’ and the brilliant Thirsty Ear jazz project ‘High Water’.

I’m pleased to report that ‘I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead’ is yet another masterpiece, maintaining a standard in production that few others have even come close to matching. It’s darker and heavier than ‘Fantastic Damage’ – if anything closer to the menacing, threatening landscape of ‘The Cold Vein’. It sounds positively dangerous and raw – a musical terrain filled with fear and foreboding. At 55 minutes, it’s mercilessly concise by hip-hop’s bloated standards; there are no pointless skits and no instrumental interludes. Alarm bells sounded when I first heard the guest cast list (including Omar and Cedric from The Mars Volta and Trent Reznor), but not even the mutual backslapping can puncture this record’s distinctive and claustrophobic atmosphere.

Amidst the harsh and punishing production, there is also an intelligence, warmth and emotional resonance that does even more to undermine hip-hop’s stale conventions. How many rap tracks are there with choruses that repeat lines like ‘I found love on a prison ship’? There are amusing ruminations (‘why should I be sober when God is so clearly dusted out of his mind?’) and powerful descriptions of revenge (‘heart of an altar boy molested in confession/who plotted for 20 years then slit the throat of a reverend’). What is most impressive about the lyrics is their preference for half-rhymes and internal rhymes, rather than the more obvious schemes which tend to appear in rap tracks. Even when it hits its most lyrically conventional, as on ‘Drive’, the beats are so relentless and powerful, with rich variety in the sounds and samples that drift in and out. It all coalesces brilliantly on the epic concluding track ‘Poisenville Kids No Wins’, which features subtle vocal interventions from Cat Power. ‘I’ll Sleep…’ is a hard-hitting record with a singular vision – nobody else in hip-hop production is working at this level. It won’t help my insomnia much though….

Further thoughts to come on new albums from Laura Veirs, Willy Mason, Findlay Brown, Maximo Park, Air, Robyn, The Bird and The Bee, Basquiat Strings, Paul Motian and more. I should also take the time to note how great 2007 has been for reissues so far - superb packages from Warren Zevon (with The Envoy becoming available on CD for the first time), Sly and The Family Stone, Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath, Dexy's Midnight Runners, The Triffids and Nico.

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