Record Reviews: The Knux, Robin Thicke, Gang Gang Dance
The Knux | Remind Me In Three Days | Interscope
Despite getting the cold shoulder from stale, corporate radio, it’s little surprise that Entourage prominently featured both of the Knux’s first two singles, “Cappuccino,” and “Bang Bang.” After all, both HBO’s exercise-in-wish-fulfillment and Remind Me in Three Days, the debut album from the L.A. via La. rappers, share a thematic affinity for what Biggie cited as Southern California’s three chief amenities: the weather, the women and the weed.
Not to say that Krispy Kream and younger brother Rah Al Milio are solely consumed with the lighter side of life. Cuts like the clever Police inversion “Roxanne” and the poignant, Manichean manifesto, “The True,” exhibit a level of complexity befitting their brains. But more often than not, Remind Me in Three Days aims at capturing the 8-Ball essence and neon fluorescence of the Cahuenga corridor, from the slimy British coke dealers hovering in bathroom stalls (“Pea Knuckle”), to the blissfully ignorant spawn of “The Hills” generation (“Daddy’s Little Girl”), to the sybaritic scions haunting the scene (“Playboys”).
Incorporating a spate of influences ranging from the Gravediggaz to Depeche Mode, Hieroglyphics to the Strokes, the Knux play all their own instruments and self-produce every track. The end result sounds akin to Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm smacking skulls with Outkast’s Stankonia, were “We Luv Deez Hoez” the springboard rather than “Gasoline Dreams.”
The album isn’t all perfect: “Daddy’s Little Girl”’s satire isn’t incisive enough and its melody skates perilously close to Fergie territory, while “Hush”’s orgasmic moans recall Serge Gainsbourg at his most forced. Yet this remains one of the decade’s most original and auspicious debuts, one that bodes well for the Knux’s future. Indeed, Remind Me in Three Days feels suspiciously like a sophomore effort, the one artists make after fame gains them access to the hottest girls, coolest toys and best drugs. Not since Guns N’ Roses has a local group rendered the fast-lane lifestyles of the young and debauched so vividly. If the old adage is true that all great rap music is beholden to localism, consider Remind Me in Three Days a significant triumph.
Robin Thicke | Something Else | Star Trak
Robin Thicke doesn’t possess the best voice in R&B but he uses what he’s got better than most. His favored falsetto has obvious influences — a little Marvin, some Smokey, even a touch of pre-tabloid Jacko. Yet, at its most wispy, its fragility is less bare-chested soul and more sensitive folk rocker, a la Elliot Smith or Nick Drake. On songs like the post-break-up denouement “Cry No More,” the gentle strands of his voice melt into the track’s delicate guitar strums; Thicke has a strong awareness of his instrument and how best to wield it.
His smooth tenor is usually reserved for more uptempo songs and there are a few competent ones in the mix: “Magic” is a vigorous groover with its piercing strings and brass workout; while “Sidestep” updates - and redeems - the funky undertones of ‘70s yacht rock (this is a good thing, really). Other dance tracks misfire: “Shadow of Doubt” sledgehammers its hook home obnoxiously while the title song hews too closely to the excesses of the late disco-era that inspires it; all gloss, not enough substance.
Thicke’s gifts really lie with his slow jams. He’s always had a penchant for their subtler textures, and Something Else offers a bounty of beautifully crafted ballads. His sweetest confection is “Ms. Harmony,” a bossa nova-flavored blend of dreamy guitar melodies, Latin percussion and Thicke’s own, mojito-cool vocals. More provocative is “Dreamworld,” with its swampy thump and lyrics that mix folksy platitudes with sneak doses of social content: “the ice caps wouldn’t be melting/and neither would I.” (The heart’s in the right place — but the songwriting isn’t always).
It may be surprising to learn that Something Else is Thicke’s third album — he’s been an impressive presence as a producer and cameo guest (he and rapper Lil Wayne make an unlikely but effective duo) but his solo work has been undervalued. That deserves to change now. Compared to Solange Knowles’ likable but transparently retro-soul outing or Jennifer Hudson’s surprisingly sterile and inert debut, Thicke showcases what a mature, self-assured command of style can achieve: an album of protean sounds and moods, tied together through a voice that can speak loudest when it whispers.
Gang Gang Dance | Saint Dymphna | Social Registry
Since their early days sharing a rehearsal space with Black Dice and Animal Collective, Gang Gang Dance has filtered their rock & roll instrumentation and unusually diverse influences — English grime, Iranian choubi, ‘80s pop — through the technique of sound collage. Their so-called live EP, “Hilleluh,” spliced together concert recordings to create an improvisational-sounding patchwork of tribal rhythms and feedback loops. Their newest full-length, Saint Dymphna, employs the collage much like their previous full-length, God’s Money, with peak-and-valley structures that embrace all the drama and cohesion of typical rock songs.
But even at their most song-like — tracks such as “First Communio” or “House Jam” — the band continues to rebel against the vocal-dominated hierarchy of rock, with Lizze Bougatsos’ voice functioning more like a fifth instrument than a focal point. As a textural singer, Bougatsos has grown out of her Kate Bush-isms and into her own demon-possessed brand of yelps, spoken word chants, and pop ornamentation.
Gang Gang has always hinted at ritualism with their trance-inducing repetition, and several tracks on Saint Dymphna settle into loops of pitch bends and unsteady dubstep percussion. On one of these tracks, “Vacuum,” looping leads to delusional trip hop; on others, it turns to sinister club music. And on “Princes,” it comes in the form of a complex, fascinating grime production, complete with a guest appearance by East London’s Tinchy Stryder. Whenever the tracks lean too close to prescribed genres or to blithe pop choruses, the the record seems to warp and fall into a land of humid Middle-Eastern nightmares. Gang Gang Dance are aware of their ability to both flirt with the most-appealing song forms and dip into confusing off-kilter avant-rock, and they masterfully play with these two notes, tricking the listener when they need to be tricked and pulling out the rug when the journey becomes too easy. (Gang Gang Dance perform with Marnie Stern at the El Rey on Saturday, November 15.)
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