It seems appropriate that an album whose title translates to Purpose took five years to gestate. Blackalicious‘ Nia comes half a decade after the Oakland duo’s Melodica EP, half a lifetime, it feels, after the group‘s QuannumSolesides family (DJ Shadow, Latyrx) first manned the vanguard of California’s indie hip-hop revolution. Nineteen tracks long, Nia is the group‘s debut full-length album, an ambitious project that strives to honor its Swahili namesake through a mesh of moralistic fables, elaborate narratives and straight bash-’n‘-bruise braggadocio.
At times, the album’s myriad directions feel Hydra-like, but Nia is anchored by dazzling moments of musical and mental inspiration. From the Afro-beat riddims on ”Smithzonian Institute of Rhyme,“ to the jangling piano melody of ”A to G,“ to the nasty, throbbing bass loop on ”Ego Trip,“ Chief Xcel finally shows off his patchwork of beats after tempting us with mere swatches. Likewise, Gift of Gab invokes his own nom de plume on songs like ”Trouble“ and ”The Fabulous Ones,“ spraying a stream of rhymes that race the rhythm in speed and density. Showing off his versatility, Gab also goes deep into the polemics of positivity on ”Shallow Days“ and ”Making Progress,“ and gets in touch with his soulful self on ”As the World Turns.“
Given how long it took for the album to come to fruition, Nia‘s expansive ambitions are understandable, even expected, but they also strain the project’s consistency. In a worst-case example, Gab‘s attempt to graff a rap noir vignette onto the six-minute marathon ”Cliff Hanger“ ends up being far less interesting than DJ Shadow’s techno-meets-horrorcore track of drum ‘n’ bass blasts and dub drifts. Ironically, for all its iconoclastic intentions, Nia‘s more conventional songs (”A to G,“ ”Trouble“) hold things together with their familiarity.
The true beauty of Blackalicious isn’t in their attempts to fix a moral center (much as hip-hop needs it) or their spiritual cleansings on songs like ”Sleep“; it lies in the remarkable chemistry between Gab‘s sinuous syllabics and Chief Xcel’s soul-engineered beats. On ”If I May,“ Xcel kicks off the track with shimmering cymbals and an acoustic-guitar loop, and in glides Gab, proclaiming, ”Here we go againslip into my consciencecome along and take ina story about a battlein this corner Satan . . .“ He seems hardly to pause to breathe as he continues to spill his words, and you‘ll be left in similar anticipation until the song ends.
Blackalicious performs at Fais Do Do on Tuesday, February 22.
Disco & the Halfway to Discontent (Luaka BopAstralwerks)
Expertly hybridizing a handful of subcultural forms, Cornershop topped crit lists in 1997 with their last album, When I Was Born for the Seventh Time. The U.K. band — really a duo of singersongwriter Tjinder Singh and utility man Benedict Ayres — injected indie rock with beats and a dose of Punjabi folk. (What exactly the latter term means is a mystery, but it seems to function as a catchall for Singh’s Indian-tinged contributions; happily it means more than just an occasional sitar track.) Considering that critical juice hardly pushed them to superstar status, it‘s odd they’ve chosen to go the pseudonymous route for their new one, Disco & the Halfway to Discontent, released under the provocative (or something) name Clinton.
They say it‘s a politicized, beat-based side project — a critique of disco, and a love letter, too. But their claim that Clinton combines disco and agitprop doesn’t jibe with the sounds or the messages contained herein: Disco lived off ecstatic ebbs and bathetic swells, while this music is steady and repetitive. Beyond that, this is largely an instrumental record; agitprop lives off lyrics. When vocals do pop up, they sound more like shout-outs or effaced samples than manifestoes. Perhaps that‘s the critique — Dionysian disco life leads to anonymized consumption — but if so, it was presented better and with more bite in the early ’80s by Clinton‘s agitpunk countrymen Gang of Four. Even the pimps and freaks strolling down Sunset on Beck’s new one, Midnite Vultures, have more sinister implications than the funky brothers and sisters on Disco & the Halfway to Discontent.
Talk of politics aside, Clinton adhere to Jacksonian democratic principles. No, not to Andrew, but to a gang of five: Jermaine, Jackie, Marlon, Michael and Tito. The leadoff track? ”People Power in the Disco Hour.“ Sadly, in Clinton Singh often neglects his talent for the insistent song, relying only on the disembodied hook. Their sound is steeped in rare grooves, enhanced with hip-hop electronics and designed for lighthearted dancing. If the pair occasionally turn their rhythms on autopilot and rely on algorithm, you can‘t really hold it against ’em. In fact, Singh‘s appealingly mellifluous monotone is a nice complement to the often repetitive lockgroove. In a face-off of alter egos, this duo’s Cornershop project comes out on top, but Clinton leaves us more than half content. (Alec Hanley Bemis)
Soul on Soul (RCA Victor)
With all the awards he‘s been raking in lately, New York trumpeter Dave Douglas seems about ready to break out of the avant Zorn-and-Braxton-associate level of recognition and start dating Harry Connick’s personal trainer or something. Will his major-label debut get him a spot on Rosie O‘Donnell’s TV couch? Probably not.
Douglas, age 36, hails from a generation of jazz performers who go the extra mile in acknowledging their predecessors. Having already recorded a tribute to Wayne Shorter and one to the more obscure Booker Little, with Soul on Soul he celebrates another non–household name, pianist Mary Lou Williams. Though Williams wasn‘t one to stand still and get boring (she even made a terrific duo recording with Cecil Taylor in 1977, four years before she died at 71), her music was always dominated by her swing-to-bop roots — roots separated by trunk and branches from the twisting harmonic and rhythmic tendrils of Douglas, who’s an unlikely acolyte. But even if a blindfold test wouldn‘t tend to betray the source of his inspiration, Soul on Soul is an often involving extrapolation. Provided you already like that kind of thing.
Douglas approaches Williams the way Marcus Roberts or the World Saxophone Quartet might: by allowing her personality to influence his own modern predispositions. Which, since straight imitation always sounds bloodless, is the only method that makes sense. And with the aid of a sympathetic ensemble, he scores some hits. The cool hesitation of Douglas’ ”Moon of the West“ (in 178 time) elevates Williams‘ easy swing to rarefied heights, and serves as a perfect vehicle for tenor solos by Chris Speed (gasping) and Greg Tardy (writhing). His slow, chimy ”Canticle,“ highlighted by Douglas’ own yearning solo, references Williams‘ Catholic spirituality. And his ”Multiples“ finds success against all odds in its ambitious layering of rhythms — Speed’s Coltrane-ish sax, Douglas‘ ripping trumpet and Uri Caine’s icily delirious piano are all united by drummer Joey Baron‘s crazy drive.
Of the four Mary Lou Williams compositions, the best re-imaginings are ”Aries“ (a hard-pressed groove followed by static neoclassical horn arrangements) and ”Play It Momma“ (whose Cuban-bongo feel, bounced by James Genus’ simple bass riff, lets Douglas take his belt off and jam). Too bad that spirit of fun couldn‘t have filtered into the rest, much of which, though inventive, sounds forced. Williams, raised in carnivals and vaudeville, never would have let that happen to her. (Greg Burk)
Vikings of Mint (K Records)
Prowling out of Portland, Oregon, is the head colonel of the melodic wolf pack, Jason Anderson, a superdogged songwriter who in 1996 started out by hosting solo-acoustic performances in his dorm at Lewis & Clark College. By the next year, Anderson had thunk up over 250 tunes, featured on nine demos he recorded all by his lonesome on a friend’s 8-track. Who says persistence doesn‘t pay off? After he met Mr. K Records himself, Calvin Johnson, at a Halo Benders gig, Johnson took an interest in Anderson’s project, but made him a deal only after Wolf Colonel took the Bob Dylan route and went electric.
A lot of Northwest bands practice shameless musical incest, so it‘s only natural that Anderson should play drums for all the bands (the Navins, Ring of Seventeen and Yume Bitsu) whose members he’s recruited for Wolf Colonel. The newly formed group ”performed and mixed“ the 15 tracks featured on Vikings of Mint in all of 49 hours over four hot, sweaty days last July at the Dub Narcotic Studios. Opening track ”A Medium Rootbeer“ comes off with a fast and spontaneous energy as ”a chance encounter“ finds Anderson ”reeling and overcome with feeling.“ Inspired or Guided by Voices, ”The Moral of the Story“ is ”that nobody rides for free, not even me,“ which is as obvious as it is true — not to mention hella catchy. Melodic powerhouse ”Dear Elliott“ may or may not be a fun little ode to a certain Elliott Smith, another singing-songwriting Portland native. ”The Indian Ocean“ is the closest Wolf Colonel gets to a lulling ballad, and the quirky closer, ”Scared of a Snail,“ leaves you wondering what the other 235 of Anderson‘s songs sound like.
Anderson says he wants to resurrect the rock, and his silly, sweet and palpable poppy-punk shorts are where it’s at. But it‘s way over before you know it — in 30 minutes, to be exact. (Rita Neyter)
JIMMY WEBB at the Cinegrill, February 9
To reflect upon the career of Jimmy Webb is to be amazed at the diversity of hit songs that can come out of one human (five in 1968-69 alone), and to hear him perform those hits is to be assured that the first human to sing them understands them better than the singers Webb helped make famous. Where Glen Campbell and his honeyed tenor got all maudlin on ”By the Time I Get to Phoenix,“ Webb tells in a wounded, gravelly baritone of an almost embarrassing emotional truth (who hasn’t basked in the imagined scene of an ingrate lover realizing this time it‘s for real?); where Richard Harris dripped histrionically on ”MacArthur Park,“ Webb is forceful and passionate (and, incidentally, leaves little doubt about the song’s significance, even if legions of fans remain puzzled by its literal meaning).
Alone at the piano, Webb puts back into his songs everything the pop artists took out to put them on the Top 40; interpreted his way, his tunes are messy, deep, rough and true. With a long brown ponytail trailing down his back, he squeezes his eyes shut and throws all his sentimental effort behind a phrase — accuracy of note and pitch be damned — and the payoff is rich indeed: Overplayed melodies reclaim their integrity; familiar lyrics emerge from cliche, and ”Wichita Lineman“ makes audiences tear up all over again — even in an awkward medley package with other tunes Campbell sang to strings, including ”Galveston“ and ”Phoenix.“
”We were always on different sides of the political fence,“ Webb says of Campbell, with whom he‘ll team up for a New York show in May, ”but firmly astride the same musical fence.“ If that’s true, it‘s a long and winding fence, and he shares it with a lot of people. Having written songs for everyone from the Fifth Dimension (”Up, Up and Away“) to Art Garfunkel (”All I Know“), Webb — who looks half-hippie, half-trucker, sings like Joe Cocker and bangs on the keyboard like Elton John — can’t even be sure what genre he falls into. ”When I write for Waylon, I‘m likely to hit Amy Grant,“ he complains, ”that’s my accuracy rate.“ And while his late-‘80s ”The Highwayman“ won a Grammy for Best Country Song, ”I never understood what country they were talking about.“ Unless it’s just the country of solid, decent and inspired songwriting, neither do I. (Judith Lewis)