Public Enemy – Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp

Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp

Public EnemyMost of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp Enemy Records ERSD002LC (2012)

It would be easy to write off Public Enemy as a hip-hop group long past its time of relevance, but that would be a mistake.  Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp, released in the group’s third decade (and 25 years after their debut album), is about as relevant as anything in hip hop.  There is only one dud (“Rltk”).  The rest might not feature anything as powerfully catchy as their biggest hits of their early days.  Still, the simple, utilitarian beats get the job done.  The group isn’t innovating when it comes to beats — if anything, they are looking backwards somewhat, more so than on The Evil Empire of Everything released the same summer.  Yet these are the sorts of beats that made hip-hop what it is, providing a hardness that provides momentum, and most importantly are ones that fit the talents of the MCs and the message they have to offer.  Chuck D is still one of the smartest and most compelling lyricists in the genre.  On “Truth Decay” he raps, “The truth dies while lies make a living.”  And on “”I Shall Not Be Moved” he goes on about the “senior circuit” in a funny way.  Sure, it might help if he (and the rest of PE) was a little more of a feminist and less prone to advocate for the Nation of Islam, but those are petty quibbles.  On the interludes that talk about “heroes” that should be on stamps, as referenced in the album title (which quotes a lyric from their iconic 1989 song “Fight the Power”), that statement has to be qualified quite a bit.  Without speaking for S1W James Bomb, who wrote and performs the spoken parts, he has to concede that Malcolm X was on a U.S. stamp issued in 1999 (Chuck D cites Malcolm X as a hero on some notes to the album).  When Elijah Muhammad is mentioned on “…Don’t Appear on No Stamps (Part I)” as “one of the great ones,” well, it is hard to agree agree — Elijah Muhammad deserves that honor as much as Richard Nixon, which is to say not at all.  But this is really the wrong way to look at the album title, and the interludes of the same name.  The point is that there are a lot of heroes out there and they aren’t all celebrities.  Chuck D raps, “To some of my heroes/ be most of y’all’s foes,” going on to mention “Belafontes to Bikos / some dying incognegro / Che, Chávezes and Castros.”  Flavor Flav name-checks Huey P. Newton, H. Rap Brown, Marcus Garvey, Angela Davis, C. Delores Tucker, Cynthia McKinney. And those are just a few.  Harvey Milk, John Brown, Leonard Peltier, Subcomandante Marcos and others are mentioned too.

Future president Jimmy Carter gave a speech to a room full of lawyers on “law day” (an occasion created as a rebuttal to the international workers holiday May Day) in 1974 where he sharply criticized what lawyers do, and how they resisted Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s reforms, and concluded by discussing Leo Tolstoy‘s novel War and Peace:

“And the point of the book is that the course of human events, even the greatest historical events, are not determined by the leaders of a nation or a state, like Presidents or governors or senators.  They are controlled by the combined wisdom and courage and commitment and discernment and unselfishness and compassion and love and idealism of the common ordinary people.”

Public Enemy is saying something similar.  They are all over the Occupy Wall Street slogan the 1% vs. the 99%.  As they put it, “Never have so many been screwed by so few.”  As Chuck D said, “While I like artists like JAYZ and KANYE WEST and consider them giants who are afforded to project their opinion through culture, Its been difficult for me to like and respect their viewpoint in theses times. . I must fight for the balanced art projection of the real side of life as opposed to the fantasy world which most likely cannot be attained by many.”  The liner notes to the album, too, are a history of PE’s efforts to use alternative and independent media, and to escape the clutches of greedy entertainment corporations.

It is great that PE is still around, still making music, and just as committed as ever — maybe more so — to making music that matters.  The group’s heart is in the right place, and just as often their heads and fists are in the right place too.

Anthony Braxton – Four Compositions (Quartet) 1983

Four Compositions (Quartet) 1983

Anthony BraxtonFour Compositions (Quartet) 1983 Black Saint BSR 0066 (1983)

A good one for sure, but overshadowed by what came before and after.  This is a transitional album.  George Lewis is still around, but Braxton is essentially putting together a new quartet (Marilyn Crispell would soon replace Lewis).  New ideas are surfacing, but they aren’t quite fully developed yet.  This is a man who recorded and released music so prolifically that, for better or worse, you get to hear him evolve.  “Composition No. 69 Q” is the highlight here; it kind of looks back to Braxton’s 70s work.

Anthony Braxton – Composition N. 247

Composition No. 247

Anthony BraxtonComposition N. 247 Leo CD LR 306 (2001)

A pretty challenging extended piece from Braxton and co.  I like it, though it’s certainly not a casual listen and I don’t listen to it that often.  It’s pretty dense, even relative to other Braxton releases, which says a lot.  This will probably turn off many listeners.  It features a lot of circular breathing and even includes bagpipes — to excellent effect. It’s yet another entry into Braxton’s “Ghost Trance Music” series.  This comes more from the realm of modern composition than jazz, although it mixes elements of both.  As composition, it intrigues me most because of what it suggests for music that extends continuously without any real fixed reference points to distinguish beginning, middle, end, or anything else.  I also like the texture of the bagpipes, which you don’t often hear in this kind of setting.

After Earth

After Earth

After Earth (2013)

Columbia Pictures

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Main Cast: Jaden Smith, Will Smith

Here is a sci-fi film with an interesting core premise, burdened by all the usual plot holes of a typical M. Night Shyamalan feature.  Humanity makes the Earth’s environment essentially uninhabitable, and the planet’s population moves to a new planet called Nova Prime.  Some other alien species tries to remove humans from Nova Prime (for reasons not explained in the film) by attacking them with genetically engineered monsters called Ursa, which relentlessly attack humans by detecting pheromones given off when humans are frightened.  Cypher (Will Smith) is a general in the Nova Prime military, and his son Kitai (Jaden Smith) wants to follow in his father’s footsteps.  However, Kitai is troubled by having seen his sister killed by an Ursa.  So, father and son go on a space voyage and an “unexpected” asteroid belt causes the spacecraft to crash land on a planet that turns out to be Earth.  There were only two survivors.  To raise a rescue beacon, they must reach the tail section of the craft that landed some number of miles away from where Cypher and Kitai landed.  But Cypher has broken his legs, so Kitai must make the journal alone. And an Ursa that was being transported in the craft has survived the crash too, and gotten loose.

The story line is fairly typical “son must prove himself to a military father” one.  Those plot holes?  Well, here are a few.  How would an asteroid be unknown and undetected, so close to the human home world?  When Cypher injures his leg, why is he unable to apply a tourniquet, a technology known for millennia?  If the Ursa are practically blind except for their pheromone sense, how are they able to walk about without crashing into things?  And are they also mostly deaf?  Why must the Ursa be fought practically hand-to-hand, rather than using tanks, missiles, robots, and the like?  And with all the new technologies, it strains credibility that the characters are so unfamiliar with it that they are inclined to offer explanations (for the benefit of the film’s audience).

Will Smith’s acting is wooden.  He was always better in comedic roles.  Jaden Smith is terrible, and devoid of acting ability.  So why watch this film?  There are great special effects.  If you can set aside the bizarre forgetfulness when it comes to “ancient” technologies like tourniquets, there are a few interesting concepts, like flexible and holographic computers.

What makes this movie decent, in spite of its flaws, is the psychological basis for the main plot point.  Kitai must overcome his fear of Ursas to accomplish “ghosting”, by overcoming fear and avoiding the release of pheromones to pass by them as if invisible.  The very notion of “ghosting” is ridiculous.  But the idea that you have free will as to how you subjectivize objective experience is a key concept of psychology:

“[M]an is not simply a product of objective circumstances.  We all have this margin of freedom in deciding how we subjectivize these objective circumstances, which will of course determine us.”

Kitai has to decide whether in response to the very real and objective threat of the Ursa whether he subjectivizes that circumstance through fear, or another way.  In one very anthropomorphic scene, too, Kitai is saved by a giant eagle who chooses to protect him from severe cold that occurs every day, who manifests the same phenomenon.  She chooses to protect Kitai after loosing all her babies in an attack by jaguars or some such mutated large cats.  A “protector of the weak” is how she wanted to be seen by others.  So the basic message of this film is a defensible one.

Johnny Cash – The Sound of Johnny Cash

The Sound of Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash – The Sound of Johnny Cash Columbia CS 8602 (1962)

After a few albums that tried to test the limits of Johnny Cash’s stylistic range and abilities — from the concept album Ride This Train to the retro country album Now There Was a Song! Memories From the Past to a second, drier gospel album Hymns From the Heart — he returns to the established folk-country sound of The Fabulous Johnny Cash and Songs of Our Soil with The Sound of Johnny Cash.  While he is not trying to break any new ground, and there is not any standout single included, this remains one of his better early/middle period albums.  It is a pleasantly mellow and likeable album that aligns the material and performances with Cash’s disposition as a singer raised on a farm but with some years of national touring behind him.  He sort of honors his roots, yet also aims for something that has a touch of urban sophistication that stretches beyond those roots. By 1962 Cash’s voice had changed a bit, deepening and coarsening as a result of a steady touring performance schedule that left him with problems of chronic hoarseness.  Those troubles with his vocal chords don’t surface on this album, but rather add a layer of complexity — turmoil even — just under the surface.

“In them Old Cottonfields Back Home” is a traditional folk song, and it just happens to ring true to Cash’s own upbringing on an Arkansas cotton farm.  “Mr. Lonesome” with its vibraphone accompaniment and Cash singing at a lethargic pace, going into his lower vocal register, with light backing vocals, is pitch perfect for the album.  Halfway between a smooth pop romance song and country heartbreak weeper it fits the hybridized city/country style that Cash had mastered.  Then there is his first recording of the grim first-person tale “Delia’s Gone” (revived decades later with great success on American Recordings):

“First time I shot her
Shot her in the side
Hard to watch her suffer
But with the second shot she died”

With that song Cash was sticking to his fascination with murder and the dark side of life.  A star of his stature might have been tempted to cast those interests aside and go exclusively with lighter fare — like Elvis around this time.  Johnny Cash never did what might be expected, though.

Guitarist Luther Perkins is a crucial presence.  As the music pushes toward urban sophistication, Perkins’ iconic boom-chicka-boom guitar picking is this primitive ballast that refuses to dissolve into the airy, consonant vocal harmonies.  Yet that guitar sound is also an ideal foil for Cash’s vocal phrasing, allowing Cash’s singing to occupy a middle ground that moves confidently into the era of post-WWII prosperity without forgetting the grit, hard work and determination of a rural childhood.  Cash’s background is honored while still being compartmentalized as a stepping stone to a role as an musical ambassador of sorts — most of Cash’s political views fit into the left-ish end of New Deal programs that accompanied the post-war boom.