Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Young and The Old: Dizzee Rascal, Bishi, Bruce Springsteen, Nick Lowe

One of the most irritating elements of pop music culture is the tendency to throw up sub-genres which all-too-briefly blaze incandescent before very quickly dying out. Two new albums arrive this week amid talk of ‘the death of grime’, particularly troubling given this genre has only recently been subsumed into the mainstream. I’ve not heard the Wiley album yet, but ‘Maths and English’, Dizzee Rascal’s third album has emerged to a curiously mixed reception. The Observer Music Monthly, increasingly the national mouthpiece of ludicrous hyperbole (the Arcade Fire are the best band in the world etc) hailed it as the best British hip hop album ever, but more critical reviews have expressed serious reservations.

It’s certainly fair to say that this is Dizzee’s attempt to distance himself from the limitations of the grime sound. The compelling and intriguing opener ‘World Outside’ sees him proclaim that he’s found a new world outside the ghetto. Along with a handful of other tracks here, it deftly incorporates some of the familiar sonic tricks from grime’s instrumental offshoot dubstep, with recent albums from Burial and Skream! perhaps being influences.

Given that Dizzee is British hip hop’s most distinctive and articulate voice, it’s difficult to resent him for seeking new contexts for his lyrics. When these contexts genuinely sound fresh, they are startling. ‘Temptation’, with its Arctic Monkeys sample, is surprisingly effective, and hints at how interesting the Monkeys could be if they placed Alex Turner’s wry musings in a setting less slavish to angular indie rock conventions. The insistent, repetitive phrasing of ‘Where’s Da G’s?’ (a merciless attack on the faux-posturing of drugs-rap) and the appropriately unsettling ‘Paranoid’ work particularly well. Both tracks are less dependent on the familiar bowel-crushing synth bass figures that predominated on ‘Boy in Da Corner’ and ‘Showtime’, and look more to high end sounds for their sinister impact. ‘Hardback’ is interesting as Dizzee adopts the wise voice of experience, advising those who might follow in his footsteps. ‘Another thing, make sure you buy a house before a car’ he sagely suggests ‘everyone thinks that Porsche looks great/but do you really want it sitting outside your council estate?’ It’s good to see his humour has not deserted him.

Elsewhere, there’s an old-skool preoccupation that works only intermittently. ‘Bubbles’ is preoccupied with fashion, most specifically Nike Air trainers. Looking fresh? These were the must-have item when I was nine! What goes around comes around, I suppose. It is also evidence to suggest that Dizzee can make almost any topic sound significant simply with the precision of his vocals. ‘Da Feelin’ goes for a summery vibe with a frantic drum ‘n’ bass beat but ends up sounding a little cheesy, DJ Jazzy Jeff’s ‘Summertime’ meets Goldie’s ‘Inner City Life’. ‘Sirens’ is simply awesome though – a hard-hitting tale of adolescent criminality with heavy, noisy music to match. It recalls Public Enemy’s collaboration with Anthrax on ‘Bring the Noise’. ‘Pussyole’ is just lame by comparison, yet another track content on merely recyling the tired old James Brown ‘Think’ break (perhaps second only to Brown’s ‘Funky Drummer’ in overused hip hop samples). It’s also by no means the only example of a puerile undercurrent running through this album – it’s difficult to tell whether ‘Suk My Dick’ is deliberate parody of hip hop braggadocio (in which case it’s quite clever), or simply juvenile rubbish.

Some tracks are simply substandard unfortunately. On ‘Excuse Me Please’, he lists some rather obvious contemporary problems in a rather uninspired and schematic way, whilst sounding thoroughly disinterested. The collaboration with Lily Allen on ‘Wanna Be’ is predictably irritating. For the privately educated Allen to mouth the witty ‘your mum buys your bling’ accusations seems a little ridiculous.

‘Boy In Da Corner’ had something of the shock of the new, whilst ‘Showtime’ cannily refined the formula. ‘Maths and English’ is the sound of an artist struggling to retain his core identity and seek new directions. It’s occasionally over-confident, and whilst it spends plenty of time lambasting posturing, it doesn’t always succeed in finding true substance underneath. ‘You Can’t Tell Me Nuffin’, coming right at the end of the album, reminds us how musically inventive he can be, all dissonant synth string lines pulling against each other in grimly compelling mismatches. We needed more of it here.

It’s great to hear a full length album from Bishi, KashPoint and Siren Suite DJ, Patrick Wolf collaborator and one of London’s most idiosyncratic young talents. I had expected ‘Nights at the Circus’ to be an album of traditional Indian and Eastern European folk music, particularly given the excellent acoustic folk set she performed in support of the Unit single launch at the Spitz last year. The finished product actually merges Bishi’s folk music discoveries with her own incisive and intelligent writing to quite glorious effect. ‘Night…’ is an album with a clear and coherent vision, where traditional instruments (sitar, tabla, accordion) meet electronics in a natural, homogenising fusion that uncovers connections between musical forms often wrongly deemed mutually exclusive. Drawing links between Indian melodies, Bulgarian folk harmonies, contemporary composition (the string arrangement on ‘Broken Creatures’ is particularly ef

It helps that Bishi’s voice is so unfashionable in its studied confidence and accurate enunciation. There’s no slurring of words here, just crystal clear phrasing coupled with enticing melodies and harmonies that genuinely enrich and enhance the music. Bishi is a talented and effective communicator, with the title track conjuring a mysterious and hedonistic alternative world, and the delightful ‘Nightbus’ proving that observational lyrics are not the sole preserve of Alex Turner.

It’s also clear from this collection that Bishi has managed to sustain this vision for some time – the gorgeous, moving finale ‘Namaste’ is the result of a collaboration with Patrick Wolf from some years ago. It sits comfortably alongside the more recent work because it shares a warmth and generosity of spirit with tracks like ‘Grandmother’s Floor’ and ‘Broken Creatures’. The relentless rhythmic drive of ‘On My Own Again’ and ‘Never Seen Your Face’ prove that she is as comfortable with contemporary club culture as she is with the traditional idioms she has learnt. The press release presents this album as a product of the ‘quiet revolution’ but I would take this wonderful cross-cultural bounty over the forced, pretentious faux-folk of Devendra Banhart or Joanna Newsom any day of the week. ‘Nights at the Circus’ is a work of genuine artistry and invention, completely out of step with any current trends.

By complete contrast, I’ve also been enjoying two releases from older statesmen of the rock world. Bruce Springsteen and The Session Band’s ‘Live in Dublin’ (not sure why the Seeger prefix has now been dropped from the group’s name) brilliantly captures the sheer passion and euphoria of last year’s live shows across two audio CDs and a DVD. Although taken from three separate performances, the sequencing faithfully reproduces the careful balance of a typical show, featuring many of the traditional folk songs from the Seeger Sessions album alongside radical reworkings of Springsteen originals and previously unreleased interpretations.

With effortless spirit and a pretty much unprecedented trust in audiences, these shows pretty much covered the entire history of rock ‘n’ roll. There’s gospel fervour aplenty (‘This Little Light of Mine’, ‘O Mary Don’t You Weep’), New Orleans Dixie and rhythm and blues, Irish folk melodies (‘Mrs. McGrath’ and the original immigrant song ‘American Land’), even dalliances with ska and reggae (an almost unrecognisable ‘Blinded By The Light’ and unexpected ‘Love of the Common People’ respectively). The performances are consistently both inspiring and inspired, with Springsteen frequently spitting out the words with the grit and guts of a preacher. The sheer exhuberance of this remarkable band remains a revelation – and there are great moments when the brass section all solo together, vocalists trade lines and fiddles spar with banjos and accordions. The energy never lets up. Indeed, this seems as much a travelling community as a band, with Springsteen generously ceding lead vocal duties to Mark Anthony Thompson and Patti Scialfa.

There are some curious omissions (no ‘John Henry’) and some of the original selections are idiosyncratic. I would have liked to have the beautiful 6/8 take on ‘The River’ here (and I sincerely hope I can find a recording from another source), and it’s interesting that he goes for the country shuffle version of the verbose ‘Growin’ Up’ over the more accessible ‘Bobby Jean’, which he had performed in a remarkably similar style (although perhaps it simply wasn’t played at the Dublin shows). Instead, though, we get some more rarely performed riches. The reimagining of ‘If I Should Fall Behind’ in the style of the Tennessee Waltz is particularly heartwarming and ‘Highway Patrolman’, one of his very best narratives, sounds particularly moving in this new context. I’m particularly grateful for the inclusion of ‘Long Time Comin’, in its full brass-bolstered glory, and clearly one of the very best songs of Springsteen’s career.

Some songs are so thoroughly reworked that they completely change mood. ‘Further On Up The Road’ sounded doom-laden and apocalyptic on ‘The Rising’, but here it sounds mordant, reflective and melancholy – both dance and lament. ‘Open All Night’, a stark acoustic blues on ‘Nebraska’ is presented here as barroom boogie party anthem, complete with backing vocal workouts and obligatory audience participation.

The centrepiece of the show is Springsteen’s brilliant reworking of Blind Alfred Reed’s ‘How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?’, an impassioned howl of protest against the incompetence of the Bush administration in the face of Hurricane Katrina. It helps make the show far more than just a musical history revue – it’s brought crashingly, devastatingly into the present day, and crystallises the notion that the blues can never lose its relevance.

Springsteen is both committed bandleader and inspired storyteller throughout, laying his own claim to the public domain material and boldly refashioning his own to suggest a long dormant connection to the roots of American popular music. The E Street Band are now rumoured to be reconvening for a new studio album (again with Brendan O’Brien producing) and world tour, but there have to be serious doubts now as to whether this is the right move. Completely free from production trickery, this extraordinary record may be the very pinnacle of Springsteen’s career.

With its dry, self-mocking title and concise running time (just 33 minutes), ‘At My Age’ from Nick Lowe is a considerably more unassuming proposition. Lowe must be one of the most underrated songwriters in Britain. Best known for penning ‘(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding’ for Elvis Costello, his own work has been consistently neglected, and few have noticed the quite marvellous late-blossoming of his songwriting with his work since ‘The Impossible Bird’. This might be a result of his work-rate slowing considerably – ‘At My Age’ is the first we’ve heard of him since 2001’s outstanding ‘The Convincer’.

‘At My Age’ doesn’t offer any real surprises, mining the same rich seam of Southern country-soul as ‘The Convincer’, very much in the world of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham. Those familiar with the recent work of Solomon Burke will already be familiar with ‘The Other Side of the Coin’, and the feel of that track is a pretty fair indication of the overall sound of the album. There are three covers, including an excellent version of Charlie Feathers’ ‘The Man in Love’, alongside nine Lowe originals.

The originals all have a relaxed, easy-going charm and direct lyrical simplicity. The opening ‘A Better Man’ is a slow dusty shuffle with a slight resemblance to Johnny Cash’s ‘I Still Miss Someone’, whilst ‘Long Limbed Girl’ has a slightly awkward half-groove that suits its title. ‘The Club’ combines a lazy brand or rockabilly with a lonely hearts lyric (Lowe claims he writes about what he knows, and he knows what it means to be blue). Most shocking is ‘I Trained Her To Love Me’, an exquisitely nasty piece of misogyny, with Lowe breaking a girl’s heart to take his vengeance on the whole of womankind.

It’s not a revelatory record by any means, and coming after ‘The Convincer’ it feels like more of the same, although if anything even more understated and controlled. Still, it’s a mostly warm and genial listen, and Lowe’s half-spoken, half-sung vocal delivery remains uniquely ingratiating.

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