Friday, February 05, 2010

Bruised but Unbeaten

Gil Scott Heron - I'm New Here (XL Recordings)

This intriguing comeback from Gil Scott Heron is actually an incredibly difficult album to review. Scott Heron has arguably never made a bad record – even his last release, 1994’s ‘Spirits’, had its moments. Whilst ‘I’m New Here’ belatedly continues the quality streak, it stands alone in Scott Heron’s catalogue in terms of its sound and instrumentation. Yet it’s faintly ludicrous to applaud it for ‘incorporating hip-hop’ when, along with the Last Poets, Scott Heron is one of the founding fathers of rap. XL boss Richard Russell’s production therefore represents a sensitive and logical modernisation, rather than a forced or unnecessary one.

The sonic environment Russell has crafted for Scott Heron may not actually be all that radical. His claustrophobic, sinister but minimalist combination of strings and beats could easily have come from a Massive Attack album. He at least seems to be a good deal more creative with such backing tracks than Massive Attack themselves are these days. His accompaniments take Scott Heron away from his natural comfort zone without making him sound distant or uncomfortable. There’s no Fender Rhodes piano or live percussion and no attempt to smooth over the rough, nervy reality of Scott Heron’s words. The jazz lineage (the world of ‘lady Day and John Coltrane’) may have been sacrificed – but the results are suitably dank and fearsome.

What is most interesting about this record though is Scott Heron’s voice, which now sounds deeper and more resonant, but somehow simultaneously more weathered and dry. He now sounds like a man who has been through a tough prison sentence and various drug rehabilitation programmes. In this sense, the musical backings work remarkably well, given that they are atmospheric but unobtrusive – allowing that peculiar but powerful voice space to communicate.

This set supremely reaffirms Scott Heron’s talents as a performance poet. It is full of interludes and brief skits which complement the flow of the overall album rather than interrupt it. It is bookended by two parts of an autobiographical tale entitled ‘On Coming From A Broken Home’ in which Scott Heron’s elaborate language is as rich and evocative as the sound of his voice. Even more intense is the stark, pounding ‘Running’, which seems confessional in light of Scott Heron’s recent life experience.

The album is rather dominated by the choice of covers, which leads to obvious comparisons with Rick Rubin’s rehabilitation of Johnny Cash’s career. Yet, to hear Johnny Cash singing with acoustic instrumentation was not surprising. To hear Scott Heron doing it on the surprisingly effective version of Smog’s ‘I’m New Here’ is rather radical and unexpected. The song’s combination of irony and honesty is the perfect vehicle for Scott Heron’s resurrection, with its brilliant chat up lines (‘I met a woman in a bar and told her I was hard to get to know, but damn near impossible to forget’) and self-reflection (‘I had an ego the size of Texas. I forget –does that mean big or small?’).

Perhaps less unexpected are versions of Robert Johnson’s ‘Me and The Devil’, relocated from the Mississippi Delta to a paranoid urban environment, and an ostensibly soft take on Bobby Bland’s ‘I’ll Take Care Of You’. Here, Scott Heron’s harsh voice suggests not compassion or commitment – but rather defiance and conviction.

The only original ‘song’ here – ‘New York Is Killing Me’ – is excellent, and suggests that there may be much more to come from this resurrected artist. Set to a handclap backing reminiscent of the Dixie Cups’ ‘Iko Iko’, the accompanying vocal is anything but lightweight, actually weighed down by its burdensome natural gravitas.

I’ve long had reservations with the image of Scott Heron as a prophet of equality and human rights, given his early song ‘The Subject Was Faggots’, a rather unpleasant piece of observational writing. Perhaps now that he has singlehandedly failed to take his own advice (having fallen victim to the very drink and drugs he warned so gravely about) we can now see him in a different, more nuanced light. On ‘I’m New Here’ he seems defiant, but also wiser and slightly vulnerable too. This is an unexpected, powerful return to the real world.

Ready For The Four-to-the-Floor

Hot Chip - One Life Stand (DFA/EMI)

It’s quite a long way from ‘drivin’ in my Peugeot, blazin’ out Yo La Tengo’ and being ‘sick of motherf*ckers trying to tell me that they’re down with Prince’ to ‘why can’t I be bright, like my lover’s light?’, ‘happiness is what we all want’ and the various other platitudes that populate Hot Chip’s fourth album. With this record, Hot Chip have moved towards a concept of maturity that favours monogamous relationships and expressions of love. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, of course and unlike, say, Badly Drawn Boy (whose creativity seemed entirely stymied by domestic contentment), there doesn’t seem to be any diminution of Alexis Taylor’s gift for a melancholy melodic line, or Joe Goddard’s production talents.

There has, however, certainly been a reduction of the musical quirks that made Hot Chip such a distinctive proposition. There is already a consensus building around ‘One Life Stand’ being their most consistent (and therefore best) album. If consistent means the most accessible – this is certainly true. Most of the references that spring to mind when listening to these insistent and infectious ten songs are pop songs – New Order’s ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’, Eurythmics circa ‘Sweet Dreams’, the Pet Shop Boys take on ‘Always On My Mind’, early 90s Italian house singles, even Madonna on ‘I Feel Better’. The skittering, uneasy, sometimes disorientating grooves of ‘Coming on Strong’ and parts of ‘The Warning’ have been jettisoned in favour of a constant four to the floor kick drum pulse. The result is a near seamless and richly enjoyable collection of artful pop songs that rejects both the wayward, unpredictable charm of ‘Made In The Dark’ or the radical sophistication of ‘The Warning’.

Hot Chip still work best when deploying their mysterious balance of the sinister and the saccharine. It is this, both natural and unforced, that raises their music above the sum of its influences. Sometimes this peculiar equilibrium is achieved through the highly contrasting vocal contributions of Goddard and Taylor (and it’s great to hear Goddard back to greater prominence here), sometimes it just sounds like they’ve spliced two completely different songs together. This is the case with the title track, which I first heard several months ago in one of Alexis’ DJ sets, in a version that only included the outrageously infectious chorus. That this deceptively simple melody has hardly left my head since is itself testament to Alexis’ melodic strengths but the finished product is substantially more satisfying. The synth riff and verse melody seem almost to stand in opposition to the theme of the song – perhaps influenced by the Chicago house boom, and offering something predatory and seductive before the chorus’ sweet statement of commitment.

The group pull off a similar trick with the magnificent closing track ‘Take It In’. Goddard’s vocal is propulsive, dark and murky, before a wonderful, shimmering chorus takes over and eventually dominates. More linear but no less inventive is the delightful ‘Alley Cats’. This might just be my favourite Hot Chip song to date, slowly building from a subtle, unassuming introduction into something elegiac, haunting and affecting. The intial theme bears more than a passing resemblance (presumably intentionally) to Arthur Russell’s ‘That’s Us/Wild Combination’, a song with which I’ve become somewhat infatuated of late, but it develops into much more than mere homage. It’s a continuously developing, shifting narrative and Taylor’s counter-melody is plaintive and wistful.

Elsewhere, there are a handful of tracks with which I have minor reservations. ‘Brothers’ is a bit earnest, and reminds me inescapably of Boney M, although I’m not sure why. I’m usually a staunch defender of Alexis’ bittersweet ballads, but ‘Slush’ might be a step too far into Bacharach-lite territory even for me. Having said that, its more mysterious, lush and somewhat unexpected coda complete with steel pans takes it to an entirely different space. ‘I Feel Better’ perhaps overplays its synth string hand and steals its chorus melody from Madonna’s ‘La Isla Bonita’. It’s unfortunate also, particularly given that this album was largely completed some time ago, that its use of vocal autotune no longer sounds particularly novel.

Yet the album’s best moments render such problems largely trivial. In addition to the aforementioned triumphs, ‘Keep Quiet’ provides an essential moment of delicate intimacy, whilst ‘We Have Love’ and ‘Thieves in the Night’ are irresistible dancefloor tracks. ‘Hand Me Down Your Love’ ingeniously marries an Italia house piano stomp with the sweetest, most yearning string-laden chorus. As usual with Hot Chip, it’s the material that really shouldn’t work that somehow ends up being the most successful. Whatever they try here, they do so with confidence and conviction. It’s an immediately engaging sugar-rush of an album, but also one which grows with each listen. This one could be for the long term.