Photo by Pennie Smith
RADIOHEAD Kid A (Capitol)
Hey man, slow down, slow down, head Radiohead Thom Yorke pleaded in The Tourist, the concluding track on 1997s OK Computer. It wasnt that Yorke couldnt keep up, its that he resented being pulled in a direction he didnt want to go.
Where was that? Well, open Kid A and remove the CD. Now remove the CD tray. Hidden underneath is a 12-page paper booklet in black, red, white and yellow: a collection of Edward Goreyesque horror drawings, with rows of words set in bold, distressed pseudo-woodcut fonts. The text is unrelentingly bleak and surreal, like a George Saunders sci-fi horror fable: For Christmas I got you a prepackaged newborn slave to serve your every need; Watch the world collapse like a discontinued component in a new outdated appliance; you will soon be thrown on the scrap heap with the corpses and the fridges, with CFCs and killerbees; Food is food & sex is sex; Ive had my fill, I want to defect. A post-present conjured by the techno-corporate elite for the First Worlds medicated/alienated consumer drones and the Third Worlds 3 billion souls living on $2 a day: Yorke has seen the near future, we gather, and he must scream.
Fortunately, Yorkes is one of the prettiest, most reassuring voices there is in the increasingly coarse, numbed and flat-out-contrived popular culture that accompanies the cross-global fungal crawl of hypercapitalism. From the opening of Kid A, it flits about in a barely decipherable scream of consciousness, phasing from ear to ear cut, compressed, squeezed, backmasked, warped, echoed, twitched and battered. And then, almost without warning, everything falls away the processed vocals and slippery beats and synth washes, all the Aphex Twin homagework of the title track and The National Anthem and it emerges, wondrous, in some grand, desolate space previously occupied perhaps only by David Bowies Space Oddity and Masamune Shirows Ghost in the Shell anime.
Bad day . . ., sings Major Thom, ethernaut, to Ground Control on How To Disappear Completely. Im not here/This isnt happening . . . Shimmering notes (guitars? keyboards? strings?) cascade in from the wings one, two, three, four times. This harrowing, stunning song, like the whole album like the future itself is scary and weird and exhilarating, the sound of the bio invading the cyber, of man taking over the machines by falsetto and grace. Musically, its a guitar-rock band intentionally dipping itself in electronica liquid, without becoming Garbage; thematically, its an account of attempted escape from the psychological toll of being too aware of what goes on in this nightmare gridworld.
Kid A may feel cold and ahuman at first, but stick with it for the full 50 minutes: Listen long enough, and a fragile, flickering glow becomes apparent amid the chill. Its the sound of human warmth flooding into a formerly alien space of Radiohead finally going exactly where they wanted.
Radiohead performs at the Greek Theater on Friday, October 20.
CHEIKHA REMITTI Nouar (Sono)
Cheikha Remitti is the 77-year-old godmama of all the rai chebs and chabas, and Nouar has been banned in Algeria. Predictably banned, since Remitti has a 60-year track record there as an outlaw for singing songs openly encouraging women to have and enjoy sex, with lyrics so plain-talk frank theyd still send the self-appointed guardians of the U.S. moral order running for cover. Its hard to conceive of how they must hit home in an Islamic society, though Remitti did have to move to France when Algerian fundamentalists declared open season on rai musicians in the late 80s. Theres nothing obviously risqué in the brief translations of the songs on Nouar. Others fall in love with the handsome guy, I do with the experienced one aint that provocative, but it does give some idea of Remittis ongoing commitment to having at it with the immediate object of her desire.
Most of Remittis half-dozen albums since her re-emergence 15 years ago havent strayed from framing her voice with throbbing Magrebhi hand percussion and the breathy wooden tones of the ney flute. The one anomaly is 1994s Sidi Mansour, a record Remittis voice and basic percussion tracks in Paris and ship em to Geza X in L.A. to flesh out in a mélange of Frippertronics, Flea funk-bass pops and East Bay Ray punk/metal chords job. It worked because Remittis coarse, character-laden vocals were never dominated by the sonic maelstrom. Nouar expands and adorns her customary spare arrangements in more low-key ways. Tasteful keyboards supply melodies and muted solos; the bass underpinnings are simple but firm; occasional accordion and acoustic guitar add different colors to the mix. Melismatic wails spice Saida, and three songs feature the tart, melancholy trumpet of Bellemou Messaoud, a key figure who midwifed the transition of rai generations from Remitti to Khaled.
Nouar doesnt have the international pop savvy of Khaled, the rock moves of Rachid Taha, modern dance-floor grooves à la the current crop of chebs/chabas or explosive big-bang climaxes. What Nouar has is the indomitable vocal presence of Remitti the voice of a female elder who projects total command, authority and strength, conveying a message of No apologies needed for who I am or what I want that crosses any language barrier. Now, can you imagine your 77-year-old grandmama being banned for being an enemy of the moral rectitude of the people? Dont you like the idea? (Nouar is distributed in the U.S. by Sterns Music, 71 Warren St., New York, NY 10007-3501; 212-964-5455; firstname.lastname@example.org) (Don Snowden)
NED ROTHENBERG Ghost Stories (Tzadik)
Like virtually all of the new-music composers and performers associated with the original Knitting Factory in New York, woodwind/saxophone ace Ned Rothenberg has a formidable reputation as an innovator. Specifically, Rothenberg has been celebrated for his circular-breathing techniques, as well as his experiments with overtone manipulation and polyphony. He also shares the restless eclecticism of colleagues like John Zorn and Anthony Braxton, with a particular interest in the more painterly shades of contemporary Japanese classical music. What renders Rothenberg more approachable and, in the end, more significant than many of his peers is the serenity at the heart of his fiercest playing. Even when fronting the Double Band, his long-standing, free-blowing jazz-funk ensemble, Rothenberg infuses solos of breathtaking virtuosity with a rare, peaceful patience.
Ghost Stories, a collection of classically themed chamber pieces, may be his most perfectly realized release to date. Austere but not forbidding, all four of these works recall Rain Tree Sketchera Toru Takemitsu in their moments of misty, gently disintegrating dissonance, yet they are never derivative. In Arbor Vitae, Rothenbergs sax and Riley Lees shakuhachi flute alternate as still ocean and trade wind, blowing around and across and through each other. The title composition, for pipa (Chinese lute), cello and percussion, develops fitfully, with moments of politely plucked strings and tapped toms evolving into squalls of scraping bows and scurrying percussion. Kagami, for Rothenbergs solo shakuhachi, remains centered in the preternatural stillness that instrument creates around itself, but shudders with unexpected bursts of tongue and breath.
A relentless student, Rothenberg has had many collaborators and teachers. But that welcoming tranquillity is nothing he learned, and it saturates all these ghost stories, which rise far above pastiche or homage, and which really are haunted. (Glen Hirshberg)
ICE-T Greatest Hits: The Evidence (Coroner)
KRS-One A Retrospective (Jive)
Among the hip-hop pantheon, its hard to find two more larger-than-life figures than Ice-T and KRS-One. The former helped pioneer Los Angeles reality rap movement long before the term even existed. The latter is forever synonymous with the boogie-down Bronx (though KRS now works out of L.A.) and is one of hip-hops biggest icons, and most controversial. Together, they have accounted for 16 albums, more than two decades of music making and countless anthems that have mapped hip-hops last dozen-plus years, everything from Ice-Ts brazen Im Your Pusher to KRS-Ones sinister Sound of Da Police.
To truly understand Ice-Ts role as one of the vital architects of L.A.s hip-hop scene, you have to appreciate his efforts to inject social realism into gangsta raps ego-infused fantasies. Though he calls himself the O.G. original gangster Ice-T has always seemed to share more with the stark street narratives of 70s pulpmaster Iceberg Slim than the blustery ghetto tales spun by contemporaries like Ice Cube. The difference may seem narrow, but on early songs like his 6 N the Mornin, You Played Yourself and Colors, its clear that Ts more interested in exposing the limits of the strife life than promoting its spoils. Even so, hes not exactly a New School prog-rapper with utopian visions songs like Money, Power, Women and Peel Their Caps Back betray a darkly cynical, no-way-out ghetto Darwinism. But as he brags on Power, Ice-T wields a style topical, vividly optical, and hes long been one of L.A.s most vital street documentarians.
KRS-One has rarely had the same flair for narrative as Ice-T (his anti-materialist Loves Gonna Getcha and autobiographical Outta Here being notable exceptions), but when it comes to lyrical power and style, almost none can compete with his baritone ballistics. Sure, he once had the chutzpah to declare I Am Hip-Hop, but in the light of his dual majesty as both social philosopher and self-promoter, whos to argue? KRS can batter your mind with incisive critiques on songs like the scathing Black Cop or Afro-revisionist Why Is That?, and hell also crush your spirit with the pure force of his braggadocio on Im Still #1 and MCs Act Like They Dont Know. You may not agree with his social or personal politics, but the weight of his presence is undeniable like Hendrix with an ax or Bird with a horn, KRS is a verbal virtuoso whos managed to stay on top of his game for well over a dozen years.
As anthologies, both The Evidence and A Retrospective are adequately inclusive of each artists seminal works. Yet considering their prodigious output (not to mention sales), its disappointing that neither was given the kind of extensive retrospectives that both Gang Starr and the Beastie Boys received in 1999. At least Ice-Ts includes liner notes written by T himself, bringing a rare personal perspective to not only the songs but each of Ts seven albums to date. KRS-Ones set offers an insightful homage penned by media assassin Harry Allen, but none of KRSs own words. Then again, both discs are nothing but words, and while a true completist may have grounds to quibble about which songs made it and which didnt, for longtime fans and younger listeners, both offer more than an adequate introduction to these two hip-hop heavyweights. (Oliver Wang)
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PERE UBU at the Knitting Factory, October 7; POLE, BURNT FRIEDMAN at El Rey, October 12
One day I will be the best that you can do/and time will catch up to you/like it caught me too, sighed/warned Pere Ubu bulbous guy David Thomas during a song midway through the pioneering avant garage Cleveland bands recent Knitting Factory performance. Maybe time has caught up with ol Crocus Behemoth, as it has with the lonely-hearted oddball narrators of many of his recent songs, but from the opening pitch (the classic 30 Seconds Over Tokyo) of Ubus 25th-anniversary set of artistic hits and total commercial misses, the ever-watchable Thomas was in command of the small stage like few other living rock & roll frontmen.
Maybe its Thomas fantastic, utterly unique vocals all growls, yeowls, bleats and warm warbling or his large mass and dainty hands, his fingers carefully grasping vintage mike and silver flask . . . or perhaps it was his giant red apron, tattooed with pickup mics. In any case, he resembled an imposing supervisor in a Midwestern slaughterhouse: heavy, covered in dark stains, red-faced and wildly gesticulating, only occasionally satisfied with his departments performance. Thomas neednt have fretted so the band was stupendous, with returning original Ubu guitarist Tom Herman especially deserving a laminated co-founder-of-the-month certificate for the staggering amount of inventive riffs, solos and sounds he summoned from his supermodified electro-acoustic guitar. If this was the best Pere Ubu can do after two and a half decades, well, its still more than enough.
Not enough was my verdict at the end of Poles eagerly awaited headlining set last week at El Rey, home of the $6 12-ounce Heineken. After enduring the acclaimed Poles Scape labelmate Burnt Friedmans set of abstract, arhythmic, amelodic, a-everything German machine music, I was prepared for the placental deep-dub groove stuff that Pole (that is, Berlin-based Stefan Betke) specializes in: you know, music thats made for people rather than home appliances. And the unassuming, helmet-haired, stocky and be-Izoded Betke delivered, opening with the most human thing of all an impossibly deep bass rhythm modeled after the human heartbeat before getting down to perhaps the biggest, most sinus-clearing bass-ics and pops n pings ever recorded on land. After 40 minutes, the bobbing Betke came up for air. The music hit a full stop, Betke applauded the audience, and then he abruptly left the stage to appreciative cheers. Time, I guess, had caught up with him. (Jay W. Babcock)