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Wednesday, Aug 1 2001

Cold Vein (Def Jux)

The dirt-slathered beats lumber with a sinister lope, escapees from a mad scientist’s lab. Pieced together from electronic splinters, lost analog loops and other mangled music, the downtempo tracks sound like trip-hop gone to hell and back. They’re the antithesis of the shiny perfection of Swizz Beats or the Neptunes, yet just as meticulous in their studio-engineered intricacy. Produced by El-P of the defunct Company Flow, Cold Vein’s music is a ballet of chaos, gorgeous yet grimy, beautiful yet baleful.

As striking as El-P’s aggressive auditory assault is the ability of Cannibal Ox — a.k.a. Vordul Megilah and Vast Aire — to stay in sync with the pace and feel of the tracks, no small feat. Vast comes with more force than finesse, but despite his deliberate, plodding flow, his commanding baritone stomps a lasting impression. Vordul lacks Vast’s presence but makes up for it with lyrics more complex than a Wu Tang cipher session. Try unpacking this line from “A B-Boy’s Alpha”: “All of us canoeing/through sewers/with juvenile maneuvers/Caught up in nooses/from borders with troubleshooters.” At once confusing and compelling, Cannibal Ox pen abstract philosophies grounded in street realism.

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The result is a synergistic meeting of mind and music that makes for one of the most striking albums so far this year, in hip-hop and otherwise. Without taking anything away from Vast’s and Vordul’s verbalistics, however, it’s still El-P’s soundplay that anchors Cold Vein. Layering samples and snippets too deep to unravel, he can switch from angelic grace (“Iron Galaxy”) to carnival funk (“Painkillers”) to cacophonous brutality (“Raspberry Fields”). Best believe the end of the world never sounded so good.

Buffalo Springfield

Box Set (Rhino)

An enigma wrapped in bushy sideburns and suede fringe jackets, the Buffalo Springfield saga seems ever more implausible as the years go by. There’s the blink-and-miss-’em meeting on Sunset Boulevard of Canadian expats Neil Young and Bruce Palmer and Greenwich Village refugees Stephen Stills and Richie Furay — one infinitesimal change in the events of that fateful day, and Young and Palmer would have driven to San Francisco to meet an entirely different musical destiny. There’s the vital but volatile relationship between Stills and Young, the latter of whom was discouraged by bandmates and management alike from singing lead because his voice sounded too “weird.” There’s Furay, the eternal nice guy whose pipes lent Young’s songs a more commercial flavor but whose own material got caught in the constant Stills-Young crossfire. There’s the old-school management team of Charlie Green and Brian Stone, whose inept production almost ruined the first Springfield album. There are the walkouts, the drug- and draft-related legal hassles, the lone Top 10 hit (1967’s “For What It’s Worth”), and David Crosby’s guest appearance with the band at the Monterey Pop Festival, all compressed into a mere 25-month period.

And then, of course, there’s the music. As Rhino’s long-anticipated four-disc box attests, Buffalo Springfield was a freakishly talented band that somehow managed to distill the chaos of its brief existence into three albums of compelling, genre-busting rock music. Recorded in the summer of ’66 at Hollywood’s Gold Star Studios, the 11 acoustic demos that open Disc 1 sound both innocent and astonishingly sophisticated, embodying many of the same contradictions that would come to haunt the band’s career. Although the Springfield hadn’t been playing on the Sunset Strip for more than a few months, Young had already penned the spectral “Out of My Mind,” a fame-triggered freak-out even more harrowing than his subsequent “Mr. Soul.” Yet he was evidently pragmatic enough about his songwriting career to demo “There Goes My Babe” for Sonny and Cher, Green and Stone’s other major clients. Stills’ early demos are full of bluster and bonhomie, almost too big for the room, while Furay’s are gentle slices of early country-rock. These guys wanted to form a band together? What could they have been smoking?

Other highlights include the Stills-sung version of Young’s “Down to the Wire”; the fuzz-raga rave-up of “Buffalo Stomp,” featuring Skip Spence of Moby Grape on kazoo; early demos of Young’s “Old Laughing Lady” and “Round and Round and Round”; and a lovely piano demo of “Four Days Gone.” The previously released tracks (especially the first and second albums, included in their entirety on Disc 4) sparkle like never before, highlighting the band’s willful collision of folk, country, blues, R&B, British Invasion and Sunset Strip influences. Like the Byrds and the Burritos, Buffalo Springfield helped pave the way for the Eagles, Loggins & Messina, and a whole mess of mustachioed wimps with acoustic guitars, but their own music was far more fierce and complex than that grisly legacy might suggest. Here’s your proof. (Dan Epstein)

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