All posts by Syd Fablo

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Nico – Chelsea Girl

Chelsea Girl

NicoChelsea Girl Elektra V6-5032 (1967)

Nico’s Chelsea Girl is an overlooked classic. While certainly a product of the 60s folk movement, this album stands apart from the gritty yet welcoming humanity of the usual folk-rock. It instead cascades through personal trials of someone out of step with the multitudes. The album focuses on the wonder and feeling of experiencing a time without answers. What makes it so unique is the album’s ability to fit within a much larger scheme. Chelsea Girl plays its part magnificently.

A model in Europe, Nico (born Christa Päffgen) managed to get a part in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). In the U.S., she studied at the Actor’s Studio as a classmate of Marilyn Monroe. Nico also fell in with the Andy Warhol Factory crowd. As a Warhol “superstar” she appeared in movies like The Chelsea Girls (1966) and **** (1967). Warhol was eager to promote Nico’s singing career by pushing her into a role with The Velvet Underground. Nico provided another sonic texture to the Velvets, who changed music forever with their new urban musical experiments. The interpersonal dissonance she created in the group only permitted a short stay.  The Velvets were not a backing band and Nico wanted to be a solo star–like Bob Dylan.

Chelsea Girl is a fantastic debut album, through the combined efforts of many. Nico sings “I’ll Keep It with Mine,” which Bob Dylan wrote for her (but first recorded by Judy Collins). Lou Reed, John Cale, and Sterling Morrison from the Velvet Underground provided five songs between them and perform on a number of the tracks.  Jackson Browne wrote three songs. Browne also plays guitar on the album, having played behind Nico at live shows (alternating with other guitarists like Tim Buckley, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Tim Hardin).  Renowned producer Tom Wilson pulls the far-reaching aspirations of Chelsea Girl together. The soft strings and flute arranged by Larry Fallon add just enough sweet beauty to the songs. Wilson precisely matches every sound against Nico’s voice.  While Chelsea Girl‘s orchestral chamber folk tracks certain currents in the New York folk music scene at the time, there is an apolitical melancholy to it that other vaguely similar examples lack.

A voice takes this album to new places. Virgin ears, however, may take a moment to adjust. Nico sings with an icy drone that seems to pull all parts of the chromatic scale into just one tone. She is not only guileless, but she seems positively incapable of guile in her voice.  Her English isn’t clean, almost like a low Germanic rumble. The music is isolated. Often tragic, the album echoes a lasting wisdom in its bleak messages. The deepest beauty of the music is its cerebral, existential intrigue. Yet, the calm arrangements make the album still accessible. Chelsea Girl has the same peaceful acceptance of a tragic world found in John Coltrane’s last recordings from about the same time.

The title song flows with a cool but sweet melody, narrating a insider’s look into Warhol’s “Chelsea Girls.” “I’ll Keep It with Mine” has the atmospheric pop qualities you expect from a Dylan song, but seems even prettier after the title track. “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” falls together perfectly as a metaphor for the entire album. It would never work without Nico’s emotional detachment though. The deep, unsentimental searching in her voice has never been duplicated.  Perhaps the most noted songs on the album are “The Fairest of the Seasons” and “These Days.” You actually have to appreciate the rarity of such pure statements. She may not have a dazzling range, to put it mildly, but Nico had a powerful ability to make moving music.

Chelsea Girl in a way expands on her very first recordings made with Brian Jones, Jimmy Page, and Andrew Loog Oldham.  This album did have a heavy influence by producer Tom Wilson and the rumor is that neither Nico nor the Velvet Underground crowd liked the results.  She certainly never made music even remotely similar again.  Her next few albums established Nico as a goth queen whose music bore more from 20th-century classical than any kind of rock and roll.  Only “It Was a Pleasure Then” hints at her later work, and even then only slightly.

While Nico never went beyond underground status as a singer, the present time would have been kinder to her. She did influence plenty of alt-folk like Tim Buckley and Nick Drake. Never truly understood on its own terms, but the success of latter-day alt-folk artists and the inclusion of some of her songs on The Royal Tenenbaums soundtrack show the world eventually readied itself for the sound of Chelsea Girl. Personal problems and drug additions aside, a model like Nico could have gone far in the realm of music videos as well. She was closely involved with many of the greatest artists of the last century, and her legacy certainly belongs with them.

Bo Diddley – Bo Diddley’s Beach Party

Bo Diddley's Beach Party

Bo DiddleyBo Diddley’s Beach Party Checker LP-2988 (1963)

Consider Bo Diddley’s Beach Party the first great live rock and roll record.  It was recorded in July 1963 in Myrtle, Beach South Carolina.  Recording technology was not really advanced enough to permit on-location live recordings of amplified rock bands to have anywhere near the fidelity of studio recordings of the day.  So, this one is pretty lo-fi.  But damn if Bo and his band — just Jerome Green and Norma-Jean Wofford — don’t rip the place up!  Bo is a huge ball of energy.  His screaming vocals on songs like “I’m All Right” are pretty fierce.  Just listen to the guitar on a song like “Mr. Custer” too.  You could almost slip it onto The Blow Up from more than 15 years later and it would still sound contemporary.  It’s really the raw and cutting guitar that makes this one so special.  Apart from some of the hits, which are frequently played at breakneck speed, Bo manages to tear through such unlikely material as “(On Top of) Old Smokey” as an instrumental and make it cook.  It was a few years before live rock records came close to this one, and then mostly from West Coast acts able to tap into the latest technology.  It’s records like this that make people fall in love with rock and roll.

Bo Diddley – Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger

Bo Dilley Is a Gunslinger

Bo DiddleyBo Diddley Is a Gunslinger Checker LP 2977 (1960)

I will repeat a line someone wrote about Sly‘s A Whole New Thing that Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger is also one of the most exciting mediocre records ever.  It was recorded in gloriously crude and primitive fashion in Bo’s home studio in Washington, DC.  The effect is a little like having him playing in your living room, which is so small the backing singers have to be in the next room — that’s how quiet they sound on the opening “Gunslinger.”  There are plenty of flubs, a lot of off-key singing and a pervasive do-it-yourself feel to this music (there is a superior version of “No More Lovin'” on Rare & Well Done complete with someone coming into the room during recording to announce “I’ve got your hamburgers.”).  While hip-hop eventually turned to gangster and thug life topics, in its early days it was proudly focused on trivialities like sneakers and how parents didn’t understand.  It was a transformation with parallels in rock ‘n roll.  Gunslinger sounds very much like the early rock ‘n roll era with fun, frivolous topics carried on by pure energy…and Bo’s raucous guitar.  You can put this album on for anybody, and they’ll get it.  And they’ll probably smile too.  Nobody can make a record like this anymore without resorting to parody.  But that’s just because there never was and won’t ever be another like Bo Diddley.

Education and Academic Credentialling

Promoting his book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (2014), former English professor William Deresiewicz wrote an Article in the New Republic (the most popular article in the publication’s history) called “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League”.  The book evolved from an article he wrote in The American Scholar some years ago, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” 

The original article talks about an experience in the admissions office of an Ivy League university.  He recounts the relentless proliferation of extracurricular activities on the applications from prospective students.  Rather than see these students as pillars of success, he sees something else:

“Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”

There is no point in summarizing the article in full.  But it is worth looking at what it stands for, where it comes from–historically–and what some of the rebuttal and alternative arguments are in this area.

Deresiewicz’s takes a position highly reminiscent of John Dewey‘s attitudes toward education, and is especially troubled by the idea of reducing schooling to mere preparation for a job or to take a place is a social class hierarchy.  He also touches on much of what Thorstein Veblen (The Higher Learning in America (1918)) argued a century ago regarding universities gaining prestige through research but sacrificing the education and teaching of students to business objectives of making money from student “customers”.

Not willing to let such a liberal tract go without a response, Steven Pinker, a professor in the sciences, offers a conservative rebuttal in his article “The Trouble With Harvard.”  Pinker’s argument ironically succumbs to the very problems that he finds in Deresiewicz.

Pinker argues that people

“should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom.”

Well, it is quite clear that Pinker here is a partisan advocate of analytic philosophy that says “science” is “objective” and therefore superior to continental philosophy, for instance.  Is it?  Or is Pinker just arguing (“If I say it, it’s true.”) that his professional ambit (science) is superior to the liberal arts, or any other academic area?  Roland Barthes in Criticism and Truth [Critique et vérité] (1966) ruthlessly attacked the notion of “clear writing and speech” in the context of literary criticism as nothing more than self-serving and circular justifications for the status quo of social status, and ignoring the ways that the perception of “clarity” in discourse was really just a reflection of social status, and not an independent and objective characteristic.  It is here that Pinker’s stripes show through.  When he talks about the “real world”, he means the values of the current social hierarchy.  If a few people swap in and out of that hierarchy, so be it, as long as they don’t transform the basis for that hierarchy in the process (what Deresiewicz’s underlying argument at least hints at).

Pinker takes jabs at “popular writers like Stephen Jay Gould and Malcolm Gladwell, pushing a leftist or heart-above-head egalitarianism”  (notably, these are not people that Deresiewicz relies upon in any way in his New Republic article).   Pinker continues,

“But all of these hypotheses have been empirically refuted. We have already seen that test scores, as far up the upper tail as you can go, predict a vast range of intellectual, practical, and artistic accomplishments.”

First of all, this retort fails to address a point embedded in Deresiewicz’s argument: what if the elite schools merely reproduce class status?  If so, would it not follow that “accomplishments” are segregated by class?  Pinker rejects this line of analysis, and in essence changes the subject, tacitly accepting that certain classes can–and should–be able to unilaterally determine what constitutes “accomplishment”.

But further, have these hypotheses been empirically refuted?  Pinker offers no evidence or citations.  While people like Malcolm Gladwell are hardly paragons of rigorous research, you can see here the ideological battle lines being drawn.  Richard Lewontin, who worked with Gould, wrote extensively against biological determinism and the use of scientific credentials to bolster non-scientific arguments based on conservative ideology.  No doubt, a weak point of Deresiewicz’s New Republic article was a lack of any sort of comprehensive empirical analysis and an over-reliance on selective anecdotes (I have not read his book to see if that is remedied).  But Pinker kids himself if he thinks he has done any better.

Pinker pulls out the old canard of “correlation is not causation”.  Causation is just high correlation, and the dividing line is entirely arbitrary, and not independent of the ideology or theory that guides the underlying data collection.  This is where Pinker’s analysis becomes “bad social science”.  He should really read up on the likes of the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu….but he won’t because Bourdieu was not a conservative!  And here we have continental philosophy beating out Pinker’s argument, which is revealed to be based on an ideology that naturally seeks to conceal its aims.  Pinker is advancing an argument that his type of knowledge, which secures his social position, is superior to other types of knowledge.  Why?  Well, his article carefully avoids this question, assuming it away.  All he offers is the statement,

“I believe (and believe I can persuade you) that the more deeply a society cultivates this knowledge and mindset, the more it will flourish.”

To be persuasive, this would require much more than what Pinker offers in his article!  Rather, Pinker offers an analysis that is no more rigorous than anything Deresiewicz wrote in his New Republic article, but is premised on a fundamentally conservative political ideology rather than a leftist one.  Pinker fools himself if he thinks that his argument is superior in any way aside from its different ideological premise.  If he wanted to launch a better critique, he would need to provide more (or any) data and would need to actual explain why inequality is better than equality (an inherent–and characteristically conservative–premise of many of his arguments).  The correlation/causation issue is not independent from ideology, and Bourdieu’s use of geometric data modelling and multiple correspondence analysis, for instance, was a way to objectively relate complex data like this in a more meaningful way that the facile P-value sort of analysis Pinker seems to allude to.

Oh, but what about Pinker’s unsupported assertion that “all of these hypotheses have been empirically refuted”?  It would actually seem to support what Deresiewicz argues:

“The research suggests that the best map of this struggle is provided by Pierre Bourdieu, who demonstrates that resistance to standardization within the educational system comes from an inherited elite fighting to preserve invisible modes of evaluation that reproduce the privileged status of a select few.”  Protecting Privilege

Or see Nathan D. Martin, “The Privilege of Ease: Social Class and Campus Life at Highly Selective, Private Universities,” Res High Educ (2012) 53:426–452, etc. Maybe these two examples aren’t definitive sources, if fact, they certainly aren’t, but they are more than what Pinker provides. 

Pinker concluded that there are good reasons to have selective universities.  U.S. society hasn’t always agreed, and so they created the land-grant system (particularly through the second Morrill Act) to chip away at the preeminence of those colleges.  This is why afro-American colleges exist at all in the U.S. South.

But let me stop critiquing Pinker’s arguments and look instead at the arguments both writers are making.  They share some common ground.  Neither of these writers really touch the sort of arguments that someone like Ivan Illich raised in Deschooling Society (1971), arguing that institutionalized education (full stop) carries with it a certain set of problems.  This comes as no surprise for Pinker, who is clearly opposed to the sorts of things Illich was suggesting, but it’s more problematic for Deresiewicz.  At book length even, Deresiewicz seems to be advocating for mild reforms that don’t seems to present any real solution to the wider problems that Illich wrote about.  On this point Pinker has some valid complaints about Deresiewicz’s arguments: are the non-elite schools really any better than the elite ones?  Following these arguments through one doesn’t seem to arrive at the position of either Deresiewicz or Pinker.

Pinker also asks:

“Why, I wondered, do these cutthroat institutions hire rowers and baritones who know diddly-squat about business just because they have a transcript with the word “Veritas” on it? Wouldn’t they get more value by hiring the best finance major from Ohio State? I asked some people familiar with this world to explain what seemed to me like a massive market failure.”

Aside from the answers he receives, the very question is interesting.  For one, the answers don’t seem to entertain the possibility of class reproduction.  Sociologists have studied this extensively, and they often say this class reproduction is a major factor in explaining how the economy functions (Bourdieu, The Social Structures of the Economy).  Deresiewicz considers this (“The education system has to act to mitigate the class system, not reproduce it.”).  Pinker counters Deresiewicz by ignoring this point entirely and asking a different question.  He tries to shift the debate.  Pinker asks instead about “market failures”.  Asking that question confines the inquiry to the framework of orthodox economics, which ignores class issues–not because such inquiries are rebutted but for purely ideological reasons.  Yet again, it seems, we have the predominantly leftist sociological discipline pitted against the largely conservative economic discipline.  You could take Deresiewicz and Pinker out of the debate as individuals…they are making most of the usual arguments that the two political ideologies always make.

The “market” view of education is a pernicious one.  Thomas Frank interviewed anthropologist David Graeber, and this sort of issue came up:

“So the right wing manipulates the resentment of the bulk of the working class from being able to dedicate their lives to anything purely noble or altruistic. But at the same time—and here’s the real evil genius of right-wing populism—they also manipulate the resentment of that portion of the middle classes trapped in bullshit jobs against the bulk of the working classes, who at least get to do productive work of obvious social benefit. Think about all the popular uproar about school teachers. There’s this endless campaign of vilification against teachers, who they say are overpaid, coddled, and are blamed for everything wrong with our education system. In fact, grade school teachers undergo really grueling conditions for much less money than they’d be paid if they’d gone into almost any other profession requiring the same level of education, and almost all the problems the right-wingers are referring to aren’t created by the teachers or teachers’ unions at all but by school administrators—the ones who are paid much more, and mostly have classic bullshit jobs that seem to multiply endlessly even as the teachers themselves are squeezed and downsized. So why does no one complain about those guys? Actually I saw something telling written by a right-wing activist on some blog—he said, well the funny thing is, when we first started our school reform campaigns, we tried to focus on the administrators. But it didn’t take. Then we shifted to the teachers and suddenly the whole thing exploded. It’s hard to explain that in any other way than to say: a lot of people resent the teachers for having genuine, meaningful jobs. You get to shape young lives. You get to make a real difference for other people. And the logic seems to be: shouldn’t that be enough for them? They want that, and middle-class salaries, and job security, and vacations, and benefits, too? You even see that with auto workers. ‘But you get to make cars! That’s a real job! And you also want $30 an hour?’”

Ole Bjerg wrote an excellent book Making Money (2014) in which he discusses a contemporary economic fantasy of “being in the market”.  This same fantasy is applied to education today.  Students, or at least prospective students, are asked to “invest” in an education by incurring massive debt, in the hopes that such an investment makes them “marketable” for certain jobs.  This places the burden on the student to select a type of educational training for which there will be employer demand over the entire term of the student loan cycle.  Tying in with Graeber’s points above, many prospective students face a crisis when they perhaps find the jobs (and associated education) that are lucrative now unsatisfying, and few can predict whether even the lucrative jobs of today will still be lucrative over the many-decades terms of typical student loans (which in the USA are not dischargeable in bankruptcy proceedings).  This is usually a matter of “educational status” being a “diversionary explanation of wealth disparity” that is “duly dubbed ‘human capital’ on the logic that each academic step adds to the stream of future earnings.” (Michael Hudson, “Piketty vs. The Classical Economic Reformers”).  But if there really is any personal freedom, it is the freedom to make a subjective choice about what fantasy is used to process real world interactions.  An insistence that everyone accept a dominant fantasy, like the one Bjerg details, is essentially a deterministic stance that rejects the possibility of personal freedom.  These are the old battle lines of the political right and left.

Another critique of current secondary education in the USA is that it is premised on selling a “college experience” rather than on education per se.  This view may be difficult to fully separate from the sociological one that people like Deresiewicz advance.  After all, it is not as if students really reduce college to a brief and singular experience that they plan to pay for the rest of their lives of drudgery.  Rather, they probably do expect something better through the rest of their life to justify the debt, and it might be that this allows them to participate the the habituation to the culture of the elites, perhaps something that predicts achievement/success better than “pure” education.

Yet another critique focuses on the application of neoliberal political and economic ideals to educational settings.  This is the sort of analysis offered by Benjamin Ginsberg and others, focusing on the rise of highly-paid, non-academic administrators in university business models.  This perspective is highly informative, yet neither Deresiewicz nor Pinker address it in either of their New Republic articles.  Noam Chomsky has spoken about this view, which does tie together with some of the other critiques.  Indeed, Chomsky notes that “there were basically two [educational] models discussed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”  These two views more or less correlate with those that Deresiewicz and Pinker take, although Pinker would probably deny that he falls into a glorified “teaching to the test” sort of model.

Where does all this leave us?  Well, the political left and right still don’t agree.  This is hardly a surprise.  But these political ideologies also clash within the realm of education and academic credentials.  Who prevails is a question of power.  Pinker in essence sidesteps the question of power.  Deresiewicz obliquely references old debates about it.  There is an old Leonard Cohen song with the lines, “There is a war between the ones who say there is a war / and the ones who say there isn’t.”  That is precisely what is happening this this debate.  Both Deresiewicz and Pinker are trying to marshal resources to their side, making old arguments.  At least in their respective New Republic articles, neither systematically brings any new evidence to the table.

Kishi Bashi – Lighght


Kishi BashiLighght Joyful Noise (2014)

Pop music can still succeed.  Kaoru Ishibashi has made an album here that melds the frenetic energy of Japanese J-Pop with an assortment of Western pop music formats from the last half a century, especially prog rock (Mike Oldfield, Kansas), symphonic psychedelic rock (early Harry Nilsson, The Moody Blues), indie rock (Animal Collective, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, fun., Mercury Rev), etc.  There are a lot of synthesizers here.  They create a symphonic palette on a humbler scale, and without much to be humble about.  It’s something of a surprise that the songs aren’t about elves and fairies, because upbeat, hyperactive music like this is usually drawn to the realm of magical fantasy.  But it isn’t.  That push into another direction is what makes Lighght so nice.  Its strength is its eclecticism, used in a way that is not an end unto itself.  The lyrics have some missteps (“Mr. Steak, you’re Grade A”, *sigh*).  Still, the lyrics are an afterthought to the soundscapes.  The sensation given by many of the songs is that of an idea so intensely developed that it overflows a bit, unable to be contained by the usual structures of the styles it employs.  So, that leads to the limitations.  These songs are sometimes little more than little shots of pop pleasures, synthesizer extravaganzas with slowly building, anthemic vocals rounded out with baroque flourishes on violin and sped-up segments (often from the violin again) once upon a time reserved once upon a time for attempts to sound like chipmunks performing holiday songs.  So enough about the limitations.  A song like “Q&A” has an adept sense of shifting rhythm, built around a fairly steady 4/4 beat, the layers of synthesizer-generated horns, and slippery strings and soft punches of a moog keyboard capture attention away from the beat, so that what is steady has the appearance of something shifting and moving.  This is what Ishibashi does so very well–the insistent drive of “Carry on Phenomenon” has that quality too.  Whatever about the music seems superficial, it more than makes up for in its happy reconstruction of the geekiest sorts of grandiose pop music of the past.  This sources of inspiration often came across as pretentious.  But strung together this densely, Ishibashi puts a sizeable crack in the ponderous self-importance of those influences.  All those influences have a place.  There isn’t any sort of reductionist emphasis on any one of them though.  The techniques of pop music that felt the need to be taken seriously are cleverly subverted this way, by taking away their primacy and centrality.

Talk Talk – Laughing Stock

Laughing Stock

Talk TalkLaughing Stock Verve 847 717-2 (1991)

Though commercially ignored on release (and beginning descriptions of recordings this way usually means good things are in store), Laughing Stock is now recognized as being among the definitive albums of the 1990s. There are definitely different stages in Talk Talk’s oeuvre. Early on, they were an above-average pop group. By the time Spirit of Eden came about, they were making art music removed from the usual progressions.

Searching testaments in Mark Hollis’ vocals find new expressions of timeworn themes. Hollis anchors this disc, as studio musicians lend much to Laughing Stock. Multi-instrumentalist Tim Friese-Greene stirs the pot enough to have the album invigorating throughout.

Sounds are layered to the point that horns and pianos appear only for seconds at a time, and even then becoming only barely audible. The orchestral backing accentuates the ambient qualities while also resonating with the natural textures.  In all these songs, Talk Talk derive a new way of recording pop music, one that takes painstaking effort to build layered, evolving tonal canvases that practically “waste” the sounds of the instruments by putting so much detail into music that ends up being comparatively spare.  There is very little structure. You cannot point to some essential core of the album and say, “this is Laughing Stock.” It suggests more than just itself. It remains like an untranslated, intensely introspective piece of one great, total mystery. To forgive, to accept, to die, to love; these are the preoccupations Talk Talk take up. They go where the stakes are high indeed.

“Ascension Day” has rhythmic guitar washes enveloped in a near-hypnotic wall of sound. The foreboding flow of the lyrics (“Bet I’ll be damned/ Get’s harder to sense to sail/ Farewell fare well”) assumes a humble wonder that probes even the darkest possibilities. These painful first steps lead to richer realizations. “After the Flood” has the obscured vocals building a new, calmer state. It creates a fresh palette. Guiding are the gentle organ harmonies and sweetened drum licks punctuated with a long, distorted run from the harmonica. Talk Talk build rhythmic pulses into a living canvas. Wading through a vision of some kind of a den of sin, Hollis constantly seeks some general apocalypse from which he could be reborn. “Taphead” drives deep into the themes of rebirth and enlightenment. “New Grass” then continues the uplifting feeling with its softly slurred guitar lines.

Laughing Stock is so unique and developed that it reaffirms the human power to survive the wear of day-to-day life. Disconnects can be healed. Listen to Laughing Stock when everything is dark. Listen to it again in bright sunshine after waking. Laughing Stock is attuned to both the wandering emptiness of night and the building glory of the morning.

Mac DeMarco – Salad Days

Salad Days

Mac DeMarcoSalad Days Captured Tracks CT-193 (2014)

Call it hypnagogic pop, cultural anthropology, or the musical corollary of “Hansen’s law of third-generation return,” there are plenty of musicians operating in the early new century trying to reconfigure the music of the past that was never associated with people their social status before.  Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti spring immediately to mind, but in their own ways, acts like Thundercat and Kishi Bashi have the same sorts of attitudes, even if they utilize arrestingly different styles and techniques.  Mac DeMarco represents sort of the singer-songwriter contingent.  Salad Days has wit and character.  But it also overuses a few gimmicks, like an effect that makes the guitar sound like it is wobbling or maybe even like the strings are rhythmically bending, and many of the songs fail to make their mark.  If you hear one of these songs you’ve practically heard them all–but if you have to choose, pick the title track.  DeMarco has talent and promise.  He’ll just need to work at broadening his range a bit.

OutKast – Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik


OutKastSouthernplayalisticadillacmuzik LaFace 73008-26010-2 (1994)

The TV channel VH1 aired a documentary “ATL: The Untold Story of Atlanta’s Rise in the Rap Game.”  At one point there is a clip of OutKast’s André 3000 responding to an unruly, angry crowd at a 1995 hip-hop magazine’s award show booing OutKast, after “East Coast” and “West Coast” rappers had been feuding throughout the entire event, by saying, “The South got something to say!”  (Here, remember that at that very award show OutKast also asked for open-mindedness, listening to what any original MC had to say…).  The tone of the documentary was that Atlanta hip-hop musicians felt neglected as media focus was exclusively on New York City and Los Angeles.  But the problem with putting André 3000’s declaration in this context is that it makes it hardly more than an arbitrary statement of chauvinism.  Did the Midwest, the Southwest or the Northwest not have something to say too?  This reveals an important insight into the dead-end aspirations embedded in a lot of hip hop in the 1990s.  The goal wasn’t some kind of fundamental equality.  It wasn’t like this was a noble fight so that everybody, no matter their origins, could have a chance. Instead it was just a narrow battle to put Atlanta, alone, at, or maybe even above, the level of New York City or Los Angeles.  It was about a distinct “Atlanta” identity having some kind of precedence over other identities.  This represents the narrowest possible expansion.  It is sort of a defense of the status quo, with just one specific fiefdom added to the inner circle of nobility in the largely patriarchal estates of the hip-hop realm

Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik starts strong, but runs out its welcome a bit as it goes on.  The rapping is, really, nothing too special.  The lyrics are all about players/playas, which is to say they are about the bravura of young men angling to achieve “alpha male” status.  They render that mindset well.  By adopting a slightly ironic distance from some of it (“Ain’t No Thang”), though, OutKast allow themselves to perpetuate the sorts of misogynistic, materialistic claptrap that they occasionally poke fun of, yet always seem to be preoccupied with (“Player’s Ball (Original)”).  It could just be a youthful mistake.  As much as this album is suppose to announce the arrival of a unique southern style of hip-hop, it mostly recalls New York boom-bap and early 1990s East Coast gangsta rap.  Yes, the tempos are a little slower, the bass is a little heavier and more insistent, and the overall vibe is a little more laid-back.  Also, the music has more melodicism in the raps than most hip-hop at the time.  It remains just a slight variation on the basic template of hip-hop from elsewhere.  While Outkast tried to rise above the confines of mainstream hip-hop, their earliest music couldn’t.  It tripped up by being just the same old gangsta hip-hop with a less aggressive posture.  They didn’t really have a new objective.  All they had was another horse in the same old race.  Maybe they wanted this music to be more than that, but they don’t always get there.  They bring it on a few tunes, but there is plenty of ho-hum filler too.  After a while the album gives way to what sounds more like third-tier R&B than hip-hop as such.  At that point it becomes quite tiresome.

The big stars here are the producers, Organized Noize.  The rappers, Big Boi and André 3000, seem like they are along for the ride.  They are up for it, but they don’t really seem like they are driving the procession.  That would come a few years later.  They were still kids.  Much of what they started here was more compellingly delivered on Aquemini (1998), and then they went in really new directions with Stankonia (2000).  But, really, it seems like OutKast wouldn’t have become what they did without first setting off in the direction they took here, then exhausting the need to push a “player” identity and instead making music that spoke to everyone on a new level.