Friday, August 24, 2007

Kala by M.I.A.

Maya Arulpragasam, or M.I.A. as the moniker she understandably performs under, is not one for backward steps. However, after her debut in 2005, Arular, was critically lauded and announced a new talent to the world, the inevitable questions began to be uttered: where to now?

Well, the answer is here, in the sequel, Kala, a stunning melange of Bollywood rhythms, hip-hop sensibilities and a mish-mash of funk, reggae, jungle, gunshots, chanting, guest vocals and indigenous Australian rappers.

MIA has long been known for her fairly radical political views (and for the daughter of a rebel fighter with the notorious Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, who has been a refugee in India and traveled the world after losing her father, who can blame her?), and it turns out that they're responsible for the production of the most amazing hip-hop record to come out in years (and yes, that includes everything Kanye West has ever released). MIA was refused a visa to the US in 2006 when she was scheduled to work with uber-producer Timbaland on a number of tracks, awhich likely would have resulted in the necessary homogenisation endemic in US hip-hop right now.

Unfazed, she traveled the world, becoming something of a musical sponge, soaking up influences from African tribal beats ("Bird Flu"), Australia ("Mango Pickle Down River"), her native subcontinent ("Boyz", "Jimmy") and European garage ("Bamboo Banger"). The resulting record is an incredible mix of rhythms, samples and rhymes, positively oozing sweat from every pore, a feverish, thumping album of party pop unlike anything anyone has heard.

Perhaps it is he sheer audacity of Kala that is so intoxicating, sounds that appear in each speaker seem unannounced, uneccessary and utterly extravagant, but it is this superfluous soundscape that makes the record such compulsive listening. At no point is the listener left alone to await the next verse, sample or generic rhyme; instead, gunshots fire in the left speaker, while bleeps lifted from old Nintendo games jump out of the right, Bollywood strings jerk and shimmy over thumping tribal drums, didgeridoos and all manner of synthesised noises.

In short, Kala is a triumph, a veritable smorgasboard of wonderful, inventive, creative and utterly delicious sounds that cannot fail to leave the listener dazzled. While M.I.A.'s debut was a startling wake up call to the world, Arular was the stark, beautiful monochrome compared to Kala's delectable technicolour.

4 1/2 stars.

The Stage Names by Okkervil River

There's something wonderfully reassuring about dudes whose songwriting chops are so terrific that it totally outweighs the fact that he's not all that much of a singer. Not only that, but he (or she) sings with such commendable vigour and enthusiasm that you just don't care anyway. Will Sheff, frontman for Texan troubadors Okkervil River, is most definitely one of those men. On nine numbers on their new release, The Stage Names, Sheff manages to pump

bellow and howl his way through all manner of emotions, volumes and tempos, each time attacking it with such fervour that you can't help but emote along with him, all the while tapping a foot or breathing a sigh.

What's also reassuring is bands like Okkervil River (and for that matter, fellow Texans Spoon, whose drummer Jim Eno produces here) that can produce solid, modestly ambitious middle-American rock without falling into cliche or bland reproduction. When Sheff self-references Okkervil River as a 'mid level band' on "Unless It's Kicks", one of many highlights, it is indicative of the lack of hubris surrounding the group, who have been around for so long without any kind of raging success to know their place in the world.

But that said, when it comes to sheer solidity of songwriting talent, it's hard to look past these guys. They don't reinvent the wheel - they don't want to - but they rarely, if ever, fail to come out with a hook-laden piece of pop magic, be it "You Can't Hold The Hand Of A Rock And Roll Man", with it's rollicking downtempo, late-night barfly rhythm, or any of the numerous gorgeous, introspective, stripped back pieces, foremost of which is the beautiful "Title Track", which demonstrates the band's confidence by allowing Sheff's vocals to rest delicately over a gently strummed guitar, before the rest of the band jump in on a full-bodied (in the most late-night red wine sense) chorus.
Another one of 2007's essential albums has come out, replete with fully formed characters, struggling through life in a world that doesn't quite seem to give a shit, and who always remain accessible enough for the listener to care more. Okkervil River have proven - again, as if they needed to - that they are among the best in the world at producing sad, serious and pretty rock music. A pearler.
4 1/2 stars

Monday, August 20, 2007

A Weekend in the City by Bloc Party

Bloc Party are a lot of things: ambitious, serious, dedicated and earnest. Oh, so very earnest. When Bloc Party decide to take their epic (ish), dead serious power pop rock in a slightly different direction, you know damn well that they'll do just that. And still have a message to push. And push it they will. With vigour.

After Silent Alarm in 2005, with its onslaught of energy and immediacy, Bloc Party announced themselves with a piercing yell that easily pushed them to the forefront of the many, many exciting debuts of that time (Arcade Fire, The Go! Team, Maximo Park et al), serious subject matter being married seamlessly to dancefloor riffs and beats, driven by one of the most furiously tight and tidy rhythm sections since Rage Against the Machine. Suddenly, Lindsay Lohan and Brad Pitt were rocking up to gigs. So where do you go for a sequel? Well, these guys still are dead serious, and the riffs are still there, but something's a bit different. They're still irony free, and while that can easily get irritating, you can't help but believe them, and that they really give a shit. Of course, there are a series of bonus features not heard on Silent Alarm, most notably singer Kele Okereke's - slightly forced - falsetto on lead track "Song for Clay (Disappear Here)", before kicking into more familiar thumping riff territory in the second half. It's actually a real corker, and it's Bloc Party's real strength: if nothing else, these guys are professional, thorough and precise. Songs are crafted here, unlike the aural energy bursts of the previous record; "Hunting for Witches" opens with digitally mixed random noise and beats before drummer Matt Tong steps in with some of his (now trademark) creative drumming and the riffing, thumping song proper kicks in. And it's great.

And that's the thing: much of the record is great. Not just that, but it's the one thing you wouldn't expect a Bloc Party record to be: a grower. A real, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die, dead set grower (hence the review coming some months after the release). In fact, the most accessible song here, "I Still Remember", the second single, is also the weakest. And that is no co-incidence. Opening single, "The Prayer" which, from a band that seems enthusiastically atheistic, is actually Okereke hoping to get the balls to hit the dance floor and pull chicks, is positively thrilling, tribal drums thumping along over pseudo-electronica-with-instruments, and it's, once again, great. And it's not isolated: "Waiting for the 7:18" is a genuinely pretty little love song, "On" is the most creative track here, and "Uniform" is a gentle breather.

However, there are some sequencing issues. The second half falls a litle flat in patches, not least on the by-the-numbers "I Still Remember", with its paint by numbers lead riff and Okereke's truly awful jumper in the film clip.

But in the end, not many bands can ake themselves this bloody seriously, try so damn hard, and not sound complete turds. Bloc Party is most definitely one of those bands. They can suck occasionally, but A Weekend in the City is evidence that if you've got the time, the talent, and the sheer pig-headedness, you can put together a solid, mature and thoroughly enjoyable record.

4 stars

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Redressing a gaping hole...

I've recently received some correspondence from a couple of readers of Machines Against the Rage who, amid several pages of glowing praise, suggested that doing something to increase the variety of artists and genres dealt with here might be of some benefit. So naturally I trawled throught the collection and dug up some of the finest examples of hip hop from the past 25 years in order to present for your edification:

The bluffer's guide to hip-hop.

It all started in 1982, with The Message. While hip-hop had been around on he streets of New York and LA for years, even decades, springing out of blues and funk, the vocal stylings driven by lack of instruments, as was the tendency to 'sample' other artists tunes, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (and yes, I realise there are seven people on the cover) were the first of these to make it to vinyl. The Message is an important milestone in the history of rap, setting the standard for lyrical dexterity and beats garnered from forgotten funk records. Just as importantly, though, was the overt political message, paving the way for many of hip-hop's greats, before the political MO of rap was stolen by pretenders of the gangsta-rap ilk.

Four years later, thanks to Run DMC and The Beastie Boys, not only had rap become socially accepted across the US, but three white Jewish boys from New York were setting the standards, releasing Licensed to Ill in 1986, skillfully blending rock and rap and opening up barriers for available subject matter. The success of 'Fight for Your Right' led to the album becoming the highest selling hip-hop record of all time to that point. One year later, Run DMC appeared in a film clip with Steve Tyler, covering 'Walk This Way', and bringing hip-hop squarely into the mainstream.

Then along came Public Enemy, and in the space of two records, 1988's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet two years later, hip hop experienced arguably its finest hour. The strange, squeaking sample on Nation..., the brutal, explosive lyrics and the non-stop sound and fury, so intense that the record needed numerous instrumental interludes to offer the listener a breather. The follow up, the most wildly non-commercial record to dominate the charts in rap's history, attacked white musicians, while spitting venom across the world, all to a funky beat, a wild departure from the Run DMC-styled rock-driven rap, paving the way for a hybrid of all three in Rage Against the Machine. And all this while The Fresh Prince was on top of the charts with his utterly inoffensive commercial pap.

Following that came one of the more underrated bands in early '90s hip-hop: Arrested Development. Unashamedly activist and pushing a uniquely positive message of self-respect and brotherhood, some of the smoothest rhymes in the business merged flawlessly with a surprising lack of samples, while also recalling everyone from De La Soul to Sly Stone in what was the first ever example of Southern hip-hop, to be followed (eventually) by Outkast.

A complete contrast to that, and the evolutionary pinnacle of the rap-rock pioneered by Run DMC was Rage Against the Machine's debut, self-titled record. Never have extreme politics and vicious, angst driven venom combined so perfectly with mainstream middle-class white boy affections. But even now, the violence, urgency and relevance of Rage remained unmatched.

In 1993, Snoop Doggy Dogg's debut record, Doggy Style, appeared on the scene, bringing gangsta rap screaming into the mainstream with the stomping single "What's My Name?", and the album itself was a classic example of what hip-hop was to expect for much of the next decade. Samples from Curtis Mayfield, George Clinton and a series of other funk and soul legends abound, crammed into the record with multicoloured brilliance. It's a shame that the album's successors failed to live up to the potential of this one.

Many years later, the southern rap milieu recovered with the release of Outkast's Stankonia, fusing Hendrix, gospel, southern deep fried rock, RnB and soul in a blazing flare of creativity, to be followed a few years later by the squillion-selling Speakerboxx/The Love Below, which featured the mammoth hit "Hey Ya".

And of course, Eminem. With The Marshall Mathers LP, The Slim Shady LP and The Eminem Show, the 'new Elvis' redefined what a white rapper could do, weaving words together with wit and humour not witnessed since Bob Dylan was at the top of his game. With Dr Dre sitting in the producer's chair, Eminem was the only name in hip hop before wis woeful Encore and subsequent retirement in 2005.

Common was a widely reputed rapper well before he released Like Water for Chocolate and Be in 2000 and 2004, and represented the combination of Arrested Development's concientiousness and the RnB club sensibilities of their northern cousins including Snoop Dog, Dr Dre and Ice Cube. Common, however, rested on an entirely separate plane, rhyming at times breathtakingly complex rhymes with positive affirmations of self-respect and mutual love that stood out like a sore thumb in the hip-hop climate of the time.

Screaming into the present, in 2005 and 2006, two artists announced their presence in the most clear way possible. Kanye West, already with a killer record under his belt in The College Dropout released what he certainly believed to be the best record of 2005, Late Registration. Already a renowned creative force as a producer, West's skill in tinkering with samples, twisting, stretching and scratching them to suit his needs, became the new normal, and "Gold Digger" and "Touch the Sky" made him the new main man of hip hop, but it's the dazzling, Shirley Bassey inspired "Diamonds from Sierra Leone" that sets new standards for top level hip hop. Then, the next year, a young Muslim who had guested on "Touch the Sky" released HIS debut, and Lupe Fiasco's Food and Liquor, with it's youthful exuberance and delight in creating new sounds, is the true sound of the future.
So there it is, the history of hip hop in under 1000 words, and, yes, I have left out numerous examples that have littered the last 30 years and achieved great distinction, but, too bad. For those who previously couldn't name one rapper after Eminem, you now have the tools to pass yourself off as at least a passing fan of urban grooves.
Good luck!

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Robbers and Cowards by Cold War Kids

It's a constant problem for indie bands to somehow distinguish themselves from all the other indie bands clamouring for the attention of what is, let's face it, a fairly limited audience of converse wearing, stovepipe-jean sporting indie fans. And the Cold War Kids do a pretty good job of it, cobbling together a respectable pastiche of nouveau blues, knocking off little pieces of everyone from The White Stripes' blues rawk to Spoon-ish sparse pop, with singer Nathan Willet jumping around from a gruff David Byrne yelp to a quasi-Jeff Buckley croon, as the occasion demands.

Of course, like any indie group striving for kudos from that most difficult to please demographic, there is a significant amount of superfluous musical extravagance; time signatures shift around almost arbitrarily and references to obscure literary figures (a little Gabriel Garcia Marquez, anyone?) abound, but refreshingly, the subject matter is strangely conservative, opening track, 'We Used to Vacation' a cautionary tale of a despondent alcoholic whose life slowly collapses, resigns himself to optimism, 'Still, things could get much worse/This will all blw over in time'.

With the almost underwater clash-bang drumming well forward in the mix, the rhythmic drone of the record carries it along for much of it's running time, particularly when songs as strong as 'Hang Me Up to Dry', 'Tell Me in the Morning' and 'Robbers' bob up periodically. It does all get a bit much towards the end, but for a solid half hour, Cold War Kids keep things fresh and interesting enough to suggest that they can, indeed, stand above the masses, at least for a little while.

3 1/2 stars