Prince – The Very Best of Prince

The Very Best of Prince

PrinceThe Very Best of Prince Warner Bros. R2 74272 (2001)

More appropriately titled “Greatest Hits” than “The Very Best of,” you could stand to get a much better overview of The Purple One than this compilation — The Hits/The B-Sides would be a slightly better choice.  Still, for the mildly Prince-curious this gives you most of the biggest hits to use as a starting point.

What Prince stood for in the 1980s — his prime — was a contemporary R&B (as Little Richard has it, that means “real black”) counterpart to David Bowie of the 70s.  Prince was this slightly androgynous, racy character who had these incredibly catchy, popular and just plain great songs.  Now, the fact that Prince was coming along in the wake of Bowie breaking into the charts might be explained by the somewhat socially conservative streak found in afro-american culture — especially when it comes to sexuality, the core of Prince’s musical subject matter.  Strange that Prince died just a few months after Bowie then.

An Enemy of the People

An Enemy of the People

An Enemy of the People (1978)

Warner Bros.

Director: George Schaefer

Main Cast: Steve McQueen, Charles Durning, Bibi Andersson, Robin Pearson Rose

Action star Steve McQueen plays the lead in this  film adaptation of a Henrik Ibsen play about a whistleblower.  There are a few such films around, like The Life of Emile Zola (1937) with Paul Muni.  McQueen portrays a doctor in a small Scandinavian town that is planning to open a hot springs to boost tourism — they practically salivate over their ambitions to be richer and more cosmopolitan than other towns nearby.  When the doctor sends water samples to a distant university, however, the tests show that the water from the springs has been polluted by a nearby leather tanning factory.  He seeks to make this publicly known.  At this point the townspeople turn against him.  The viscous actions of the townspeople might seem extreme — they stage a biased, sham “town hall” meeting in which they deny him the opportunity to speak and then vote him “an enemy of the people”  — if it were not for copious real-life examples that have played out similarly (or worse).  The closest comparison for an individual might be those involving lead poisoning, like the scientist Clair Patterson who was vilified for trying to remove ban lead as an additive for automotive fuel, or, perhaps even the way the lead pipe industry, the tobacco industry, and so many others have acted throughout history.  McQueen is quite good, actually.  Complete with long beard that makes him almost unrecognizable, he plays the lead a bit like a Nineteenth Century hippie (or the equivalent for small town Scandinavia).  The cast playing his immediate family is excellent in their pleading and perilous sympathy, save for Charles Durning, who is miscast as McQueen’s brother, the self-important mayor and chairman of the corporation opening the shot springs — he wasn’t the first choice, brought in as a last-minute replacement for Nicol Williamson.  It is sort of appropriate that this film was scarcely shown upon release.  It may have come along shortly after Watergate, The Pentagon Papers, and some other famous acts of whistleblowing, but vested interests despise whistleblowers.  Just look at the attempts to suppress publications like Hau Hoo’s 現代相似禪評論 [A Critique of Current Pseudo-Zen] (1916) and A.S. Mercer‘s The Banditti of the Plains (1894) — the later having only a few surviving copies at one point, some of which were riddled with bullet holes (!) that testified to the attempts to suppress its availability.  An Enemy of the People isn’t wholly successful.  It has a claustrophobic quality like many film adaptations of stage plays.  But the story is compelling and many of the performances first-rate (Robin Pearson Rose is excellent as the eldest daughter choosing conviction over personal ambition).

Antipop Consortium – Arrhythmia


Antipop ConsortiumArrhythmia Warp WARPCD94 (2002)

Hip-hop often is very boring, because so much of it is so conservative.  There are plenty of acts following the party line, so-to-speak.  Everything is wrapped in the protective blanket of genre “rules”, and expectations and ambitions are contained within carefully delineated formulas that can seem like an inescapable supermassive black hole.  Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there are acts like APC.  With cerebral, abstract lyrics jammed full of non sequiturs and poetic wordplay, plus production that bears more resemblance to European electronica than traditional breakbeats, these guys definitely offered a unique sound.  And they were willing to depart completely from convention to do that.  It seems APC are loathed by many solely because their records don’t resemble so much other hip-hop music.  But that kind of criticism (if I’m generous enough to even call it that) is so thick-headed and laden with narrow-minded assumptions that it hardly is worth the effort to debunk such obviously flawed logic.

One of my favorite aspects of Arrhythmia, clearly the group’s best album, is the way in which it sidesteps all the nonsense that I earlier dubbed “the party line”.  This album isn’t about grown men trying to live out adolescent fantasies.  It isn’t about macho boasting of vicious and violent tendencies, not to mention empty self-promotion and grandstanding about non-existent talent.  It isn’t really about demeaning women or homosexuals.  It isn’t an apologist’s monologue on life as a dimwitted fool.  Of course, the album isn’t explicitly about avoiding those things, in some kind of preachy, paternalistic fashion either (except maybe parts of “We Kill Soap Scum,” if I read the symbolism right).  Like I said, it sidesteps all that, and ultimately derives its power from allowing us listeners to ignore the party line out of existence.  Instead the listener is treated to esoteric wisdom, abstract personal narratives and funny musical tricksterism.

The group:  M. Sayyid was perhaps the best rapper around at the time, in terms of his technical ability to vocalize, and yet was still willing to joke around with his lyrics.  Then there’s Beans, who is an incredibly well-rounded rapper, capable of writing some impressively complex lyrics.  High Priest may have the least imposing talents, but he’s a master of rhythm and timing, and he can build tension by applying those skills like few others.  Producer Earl Blaize finely crafts minimalist, glitchy beats in a way that smoothly pulls together the contributions of three rappers who are really quite different in their individual styles.

This disc is definitely not the kind of thing you would throw on at a party or a dance club.  It’s more inwardly drawn and inflected.  There is hardly a single sample on the whole disc, stripping the affair of clear reference points.  This isn’t to say more dance-oriented stuff is automatically whack, but why must everything be that way?  APC go in another direction.  They certainly aren’t the only ones who do that.  Although I do feel like they were among the few acts around the turn of the millennium identified with the hip-hop genre that made music that was interesting for what new ideas it presented rather than merely how well it satisfied genre formulas.  Hell, there ain’t many act period that can do that, hip-hop or otherwise.

But of course, if there is no other reason to love this album, I must add that here High Priest delivers one of my favorite lines in hip-hop on “Dead In Motion”:

“Shasta after I slash rap with a protractor”

Airborn Audio – Good Fortune

Good Fortune

Airborn AudioGood Fortune Ninja Tune ZENCD95 (2005)

Years ago, the groundbreaking hip-hop trio Antipop Consortium broke up (they later reunited for a tepid “comeback”). Beans went solo, releasing two albums and an EP in the following two years. The other members, M. Sayyid and High Priest, formed Airborn Audio. A full two years after the breakup, Airborn Audio’s debut Good Fortune arrived. It would seem that an appropriate response would be, “Why the wait?” Good Fortune is pretty disappointing. It certainly is a solid album, one as good or better than any mainstream hip-hop album of the day you could name. Still, Sayyid and Priest have to be held to a higher standard. On Antipop’s landmark Arrhythmia, Sayyid could tear up lyrics with speed, clarity and rhythm that most rappers only dream of attaining (well, contemporaries like DMX and 50 Cent probably gave up on that dream a long time ago). Now, his rhymes are mostly lethargic, and always heartbreakingly mundane. Both Sayyid and Priest waste most of Good Fortune on pointless jabs at and nods to other rappers, boring pop culture references and lame self-promotion. Their raw talent bubbles up from time to time, but mostly it is hidden behind hokey effects.

The major disappointment with Good Fortune is that these former innovators have now thrown their hats into the same ring as countless others. Despite the claim on “Monday Through Sunday” that Airborn Audio has the “same agenda” as Antipop, it comes out sounding like a lie. If even if this album is slightly ahead of the pack that counts for little. That would give too much credit to direction in which the pack was headed! The best songs, like “Bright Lights,” lean on beats that probably would have been cutting edge eight or ten years ago on a DJ Spooky album. Today it’s hard to get excited about them.

Good Fortune proved far less interesting and nowhere near as the best releases from former bandmate Beans. This album seems like a step backward for two of hip-hop’s brightest young talents.



Gummo (1997)

Fine Line Features

Director: Harmony Korine

Main Cast: Jacob Reynolds, Nick Sutton, Chloë Sevigny, Linda Manz, Jacob Sewell

Harmony Korine is the heir to the likes of Pier Paolo Pasolini, making films that are about sociological premises.  So, Spring Breakers (2013) makes the most sense after reading Thorstein Veblen‘s book The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), with its sardonic descriptions of how rituals of the elite (much like spring break for college students) presuppose the means to fund such activities — the poor have to steal (money) in order to acquire that social capital themselves.  There was a review of Gummo by Janet Maslin in the New York Times who wrote that no other film that year “will match the sourness, cynicism and pretension of Mr. Korine’s debut feature.”  But, to me at least, the film is the exact opposite of that, and it was New York Liberals like Maslin projecting their bigotries onto the film.  This is what I though was remarkable about Gummo: it forces liberals, etc. to reveal their elitist bigotry and tentatively reveal their oppressive tendencies.  Uwe Nettlebeck (producer of the early Faust albums) made a similar comment in the 1970s about the need to “force the other side to show its true colours; they won’t react in a liberal way as they would like, but in an authoritarian way as they must when things get serious”.

Gummo is most like Pasolini’s Accatone (1961) in taking unsympathetic characters and trying to humanize and find sympathy with them.  It is a difficult proposition.  Korine took 1990s daytime TV trashsploitation and tried to celebrate its inhabitants.  It’s fair to say he’s exploiting them too — its almost impossible to make a film without some kind of exploitation — but he’s also pushing against condescension, taking on what seems on the surface irredeemable.  He also embraces the weird as an end unto itself, as kind of non sequiturs of capitalism that create small pockets of escape.

Oh, and anyone wondering what the title “Gummo” refers to, that would be Gummo Marx, the vaudeville performer who quit his brothers’ troupe before they went into film.

Eric B. & Rakim – Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em

Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em

Eric B. & RakimLet the Rhythm Hit ‘Em MCA MCAD-6416 (1990)

Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em was an ambitious hip-hop album in its day. The duo pulled rank. Their earlier albums were more popular and acclaimed then, but it’s those other ones that today sound like relics.

There are at least three stages to hearing this album. First, you just dig it because it’s a solid album with a snap to the beats. Next, you start to decipher Rakim’s intricate lyrics. Finally, you realize how intricate Eric B.’s mixes are and how they intensify everything on the disc. You don’t even have to get past phase one. Really that’s the beauty of it. Bobbing to it or dissecting it, either works.

That “Keep ‘Em Eager to Listen” comes right before “Set ‘Em Straight” says it all. Nothing on the album is accidental. This feels like the album Eric B. & Rakim always wanted to make if they could. Well they did it. The record receives all the talent like uninvited guests who arrive with inexplicable expectancy.

There seem to be more than enough James Brown samples to go around. It takes quite a Godfather fan to pick out precisely where they come from though. Eric B. breaks everything down a rebuilds something of an entirely different form. He was a bridge between old school and new school. As a DJ he could scratch with anybody, but he could build cohesive songs through improvisation. Eric B. seems to have a greater awareness of why he’s improvising and where this is all headed.

Rakim was simply one of the most talented rappers and lyricists of his day — a status that isn’t exclusive to hip-hop. “In the Ghetto” is the unsentimental tale of his grim existence. Rakim flexes his lyrical muscle to get some needed breathing room.

This is known as a lyricist’s album, but that sells Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em short. Rakim lays out some fine lyrics but it’s the delivery and the assembly of the choice whole that make this a classic. Bleak in a dense mass. The lyrics fit into an orchestrated statement said in more than words.

Hip-hop albums too often end up disposable vehicles for nonsense fads. Eric B. & Rakim set out to make an album for the ages. Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em quickened hip-hop’s ascension. A few have continued the challenge. The others perhaps ignore this as it might reveal their own weaknesses.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Yeah Yeah YeahsYeah Yeah Yeahs Shifty SH05 (2001)

[written back in 2001]

Against the weight of circumstance bearing on rock ‘n’ roll there are the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (YYY). They make art punk funk noise. Precisely what these post-no-wave New Yorkers actually have stumbled onto is a mystery of epic proportions. Here is a band willing to cop an attitude.

A holy racket that can level a city like a monster movie, Yeah Yeah Yeahs is “only” a five-song EP. Some garage-quality production values are not a major obstacle (Jerry Teel at Funhouse studios does a good job with probably few tools). EP’s are vehicles and this is quite a ride. This is just the beginning but the YYYs are way out in front of just a casual pace. They are already running.

The trio packs a multitude of delights. They are part rogues, artists, sexaholics and comedians. Karen O rock stars usually come in dreams. Does she embody pleasure or pain, or is she a prankster bent on destroying the distinction? Her sexy snarl is enough to leave a boy or girl confused and hoping for yet more confusion. Nick Zinner on guitar tears through his icy riffs. He can groove in deeper rhythms or attack with slashing solos (and take some nice photographs). Zinner is a major force. Brian Chase adds a deft touch on skins though lo-fi recordings never do drums justice.

The savvy lyrics have a medical efficiency. “Bang” is a pure sex song. “Mystery Girl” flaunts the unknown pleasures of all that lies ahead (with the appropriate lyric “take a deep breathe, babe/ ‘cause we just started”). “Our Time” is their contemporary anthem of disillusionment, chanting, “it’s our time/ to be hated” (patently destroying the essence of Tommy James & The Shondells‘ “Crimson & Clover”). Sometimes they are thinking while sometimes they just feel. Apparently inhibitions are needed urgently elsewhere.

The YYYs play groovy noise rock but with sketchy reference points. Comparisons hardly work (Boss Hog/JSBX? The Cramps? Gang of Four? Swans?). The YYYs stand on their own though. Yeah Yeah Yeahs is loud and subtle. It can move you or intrigue you. In other words, it can hit you in the gut or in the head. Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ empowerment lies in your choosing its target.

This EP is like the ground-floor entrance to the next big thing. Yeah Yeah Yeahs blasts you with the indifference of a finely tuned death trip. Critics have picked up the YYY’s scent. Either everyone else takes the hint now or thirty years later the YYYs will reunite for their first tour with seating for 30,000.

Carl Wilson – Let’s Talk About Love

Let's Talk About Love A Journey to the End of Taste (33 1/3)

Carl WilsonLet’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (33 1/3 #52) (Continuum 2007)

Carl Wilson tackles Céline Dion‘s album Let’s Talk About Love.  His approach is intriguing, based mostly upon the theories of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (particularly as set forth in his Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste).  In essence, Wilson asks whether his distaste for her music is really a way to distinguish himself from her fan base.  While the basic premise of the book is worth reading about, Wilson stumbles a bit when going about applying the theory to the work of Céline Dion.  For one, Bourdieu was insistent that the point of his analytic framework was to expose systems of domination in order to permit them to be challenged.  Wilson, though, eschews that sort of purpose.  He notes that aspect of Bourdieu’s theory but glosses over it in his own analysis.  He instead ponders endlessly how her fame doesn’t make sense.  But it does!  The essence is that she supports modes of domination, providing a convenient coping mechanism for the victims of domination without challenging the oppression by the powerful.  She is therefore supported and promoted by those who benefit from that domination (key to her having a huge Las Vegas show).  Wilson skirts this issue.  Take this passage concerning her penchant for sentimentality:

“Her songs are often about the struggle of sustaining an emotional reality, about fidelity, faith, bonding and survival — continuity, that is, in the destabilizing flux of late capitalism.  While business and rebel-schmaltz stars alike tout self-realization, social negation and the delegitimation of traditional values, Céline’s music (like Nashville country) tends to prioritize ‘recognition and community,’ connection and solidarity.  Granted, she also promotes overwork, ambition and luxury, which is to say she’s still a pop star.  But in that matrix, sentimentality might be her greatest virtue.”  (p. 127).

Wilson is right that the palliative aspect of her sentimentality can be seen as a redeeming quality, but in positively noting that perspective he deflects attention from who benefits from it.  He recounts an amusing anecdote about how Jamaican gangsters often played her music loudly.  Isn’t the core of gangsterism the direct, physical expression of domination, just as Céline’s music is a facilitator of it through the more subtle economic and political mechanisms of late capitalism?  Gangsters liking it makes perfect sense when ideological alignment is considered.

There are many perspectives on Céline’s music that Wilson never quite considers.  He comes close for some.  He talks about how Céline appeals mostly to people who make use of her music, for weddings, events, and as the soundscape of life, not people (like professional critic Wilson) who scrutinize and analyze it.  Joe Boyd in his memoir White Bicycles, wrote about how in the 1960s folk music scene there was a divide between those like archivist Alan Lomax who pursued “gregarious” music meant for social events — sing-alongs and such — and record collectors more interested in virtuoso performers.  This is a very similar divide between Céline’s fans and Wilson and his cohorts.  But he does not really go there in the book.  Also, could it be that Céline’s music appeals to extroverts, while most music nerds are introverts? This is not to say that these other lenses are the correct ones, but rather that the way Wilson struggles to find an explanation for Céline’s appeal means that he never quite has the crucial insight that explains the divide between her fans and her many detractors.  Put more simply, this is why Wilson’s approach is unscientific and superficial.  He acknowledges that he lacks the funds to perform a large survey like Bourdieu (for that, look to the likes of Gerry Veenstra).  He would be better off looking to the style of Thorstein Veblen, but he disses Veblen and misquotes him (flattering himself by trying to coin the phrase “conspicuous production” in a way that is already subsumed by Veblen’s original theory of “conspicuous consumption”).

There are many passages of great insight in the book.  They unfortunately don’t hang together into a whole, and are offset by unfortunately blunders.  For instance, Wilson contrasts Céline with the Carpenters.  And yet, the Carpenters are actually credited by many with creating the genre of pop power ballads (“Goodbye to Love”) that are the core of Céline’s repertoire.

The extensive personal anecdotes that Wilson injects throughout the book are a distraction.  While those sorts of things can orient a reader to the ideology and perspective of the writer, Wilson is not as candid as he claims to be (for one, he points out that he writes for leftist publications, but his endless claims about misunderstanding Céline’s music is purely centrist liberalism).  The book would have been better without those digressions.  It could have stood to go much further into the application of Bourdieu’s theories as well.  What’s more, his eventual “review” of Let’s Talk About Love is limp and uninteresting.

In spite of its limitations, one hopes that Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste still encourages other writers to take up a similar approach to criticism.  There are few more intriguing ways to look at the nature of criticism.  (Actually, David Lee‘s The Battle of the Five Spot: Ornette Coleman and the New York Jazz Field is a much more substantial book applying Bourdieu to jazz music and practice, or look to various French writers who have done this in the past).