It’s Very Stimulating (Wordsound)
Last of the Great 20th Century Composers (Corrupt)
These two albums from the paler side of the rap spectrum are living proof that 1) being/sounding white is the hottest new trend in hip-hop since parachute pants, and 2) Prince Paul could make fingernails on a chalkboard sound dulcet.
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Do It Like A Robot
Meet You Halfway
The clown Prince only produces one of Princess Superstar’s songs (“I Hope I Sell a Lot of Records at Christmastime”), but a twisted knack for humor is shared by both. For Superstar, her cup overfloweth with winking witticisms and smarmy self-irony as she updates Deborah Harry’s rap-pop fusions for the ’00s. Crossing Valley Girl drawl, Third Coast flows and porno panting, she slams syllables into songs like “Do It Like a Robot” and “Meet You Halfway,” backed up by a digital storm of electro-funk effects and old-school drum bursts. Sex is a central theme on much of the album, though the most eXXXplicit song, “Come Up to My Room,” is perhaps the album’s most banal. Superstar shines far brighter on “Kool Keith’s Ass,” where her low-end lust for Keith’s derrière spooks even hip-hop’s freakiest fellow.
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Joy of Your World
MTV Get Off the Air, pt. 2
If Princess Superstar comes off like a Vivid girl with Lower East Side attitude, MC Paul Barman is more like the cybergeek lusting after her with one-hand fantasies. His It’s Very Stimulating EP is so outrageous in its puerility, it almost seems parodic. It’s easy to dismiss Barman as the Ivy League Eminem for lines like “I like to suck toes/yours secrete fructose,” but if you can get beyond his juvenile predilections and dorky voice, he’s easily one of the funniest rhymers out there right now. Barman and Superstar are made for each other, and they team up on the album’s most hilarious (and sexplicit) song, “MTV Get Off the Air, Pt. 2.” Sample the banter — Barman: “I’ll snack on your pooper-hole/throughout the Superbowl”; Superstar: “I’m like Chase/dip your card in and out/thanks, see, stacks o’ cream are coming out.”
The glue to Barman’s whole shtick is Prince Paul, whose campy sound on the EP accents Barman’s absurdities with a tongue-in-cheek sensibility. Paul’s track for “Joy of Your World” is a silly, happy tune of harps and flutes punctured by a kinetic breakbeat, while “Salvation Barmy” hops along with a nursery-rhyme bounce. Though Barman’s lascivious limericks are amusing in their own right, Paul helps boost his new protégé from the outhouse to the art house . . . or at least the alleyway between the two.
THE ESSEX GREEN
Everything Is Green (Kindercore)
“Meet me in the Sixties,” goes the hook line and title of the Essex Green’s warmest, most inviting song, effectively defining an entire movement’s aesthetic, if not its intentions. Like everyone else associated with Elephant 6, the Athens, Georgia–based label/collective that has brought us Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control and the Essex Green, this band doesn’t so much emulate as replicate the psych-drenched sounds of West Coast and English underground pop circa 1967. What all these bands want from that era, however, is less certain.
More Pearls Before Swine than Pink Floyd, the Essex Green offer a specifically sylvan sort of neo-psych. Each winsome track comes garlanded with flutes, strings, tablas, organ or exotic percussion. On the back of the CD insert, there’s a painting of a gnome playing an accordion in a leafy green glade. If you can hum the tune he’s playing, you probably need this disc. Even if you can’t, the Essex Green’s music is consistently surprising without being willfully quirky, earnest without being embarrassing, and refreshingly melodic. It can rock, too.
There’s just that nagging “why” thing. “It never was our fate/us living three decades late,” goes another lyric in “Sixties.” But precisely what the folky folks in the Essex Green long for remains elusive. Not social commitment or communal protest, because it’s going to be “Darling, just you and me.” If the dream is escape from millennial commodification, digitization and death-of-rock malaise, well, okay. But nothing I’ve ever heard or read, good or bad, suggests that the goal of the ’60s was having a glade to ourselves. (Glen Hirshberg)
Return of Saturn (Trauma/Interscope)
A lot has been made of No Doubt’s transformation from ska-meisters to new wavers, but that’s not what makes their long-awaited Return of Saturn so disconcerting. While the band deserves credit for exploring facets of its personality that were only hinted at on its breakthrough Tragic Kingdom, the new set lacks Kingdom’s cathartic exuberance, not to mention the myriad bouncy sing-along hits that made Gwen Stefani to the ’90s what Madonna was to the ’80s.
Not that there isn’t enough here to inspire young girls to trade in their bindis and bondage pants for Duran Duran–style makeup and Pink Flamingo hair dye. Stefani’s heartfelt croons are still rich as molasses, still evoke the intriguing duality (bratty little girl or powerful, passionate woman?) that made the feminist teenybopper anthem “Just a Girl” the (ironic) mega-hit it was. The punchy first single, “Ex-Girlfriend,” has the same kind of sultry urgency, with Stefani singing soft and deep about the pain of being another name on her off-again, on-again beau’s list. Introspective cuts like “Six Feet Under,” “Magic’s in the Makeup,” “Artificial Sweetner,” “Home Now” and “Dark Blue” are infused with worthy observations too, but neither Stefani’s emotive vocal style nor guitarist Tom Dumont’s layered riffs nor the relentless rhythms of bassist Tony Kanal and drummer Adrian Young seem able to rescue these largely unmemorable songs from tedium. And thanks to the slick production of Glen Ballard, the harmony-heavy tunes sound too Wilson Phillips–like for their own good.
Still, the band does seem to be all on the same (nu)wavelength, from the Missing Persons mode of “New” to the provocative, Berlinesque “Comforting Lie.” And the buoyant jazz-standard-style romp “Bathwater” is nearly as vivacious as Kingdom cuts like “Spiderwebs” and “Are You Happy Now?,” while the wistful ballad “Simple Kind of Life” is better than their biggest hit, “Don’t Speak.” But No Doubt fans who expect more than just a few good candies in their heart-shaped box will be disappointed, as Return
of Saturn’s so-so sweets (like cotton candy, you can never really sink your teeth into ’em) by far outnumber their addictive confections. (Lina Lecaro)
Givin’ Away the Store 2 (32 Jazz)
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As ferocious a hard-bop trumpet player as there ever was, Woody Shaw showed up in the mid-’60s right in time for his genre to fall out of fashion, his star just starting to ascend as fusion supplanted straight-ahead jazz late in that decade. Conventional wisdom states that little if any progressive jazz happened during the fusion era, but Store — culled mostly from Shaw’s 1970s Muse LPs — tells us that acoustic jazz was still vibrant, and that jazz trumpet was kicking hard, even if the audiences were smaller. In fact, the disc’s only unsatisfying cut is “Symmetry,” which shows the trumpeter trying to update his image by collaborating with avant-gardist Anthony Braxton. Elsewhere, Shaw is heard in the company of such giants as Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock and Kenny Barron, all of whom work magic for these sessions, and Shaw was clearly their equal. Unfortunately, a troubled personal life often interfered with his career.
When Wynton Marsalis arrived in the early ’80s and the ensuing “Jazz Is Back!” implied that all ’70s jazz was fusion, artists like Shaw, Ricky Ford and George Coleman were rendered invisible, as if they hadn’t churned out gems for a decade. But Shaw was in peak form during the ’70s, and Store is full of incredible playing. Compared most often to Freddie Hubbard, Shaw was actually more advanced in many ways — he was the Joe Henderson of trumpet. And though his most famous recordings were as a sideman (especially Larry Young’s Unity), many of his best are here.
Shaw died in 1989 after jumping in front of a subway train, but he generated echoes in such contemporary trumpeters as Dave Douglas and Graham Haynes. Store — with its supercheap list price — gives us an inexpensive way to check out a master. Call it a public service. (Skip Heller)
Magnetic Curses (Thick)
Inspired by record compilations that introduced regional music to the rest of the world, Magnetic Curses uncovers Chicago’s remarkably diverse and thriving punk scene. In the past, these collections often covered locales that had a discernible sound, such as Orange County, D.C. or the East Bay. But the 26 bands on Magnetic Curses have very little in common.
Originally from England and now residing in Chicago, the Mekons are the best-known band here, and their “Where Were You” is a very English, slobbering-guy-in-a-pub-style tune. Not from England, but with the whole fake-British-accent, we-support-the-class-struggle thing down pat, the Strike (among the best of the wannabe-British punk bands) deliver the fine anthem “Three Steps Forward.” The only group with a girl singer, Mary Tyler Morphine, sounds like a ferocious rottweiler tugging at its chain, while Oblivion and Muchacha are great, straightforward melodic-punk combos of the old-timey sort. There are a couple of forgettable ska-punk bands, a not-bad Pogues-influenced Irish bar band called the Tossers, and two groups made up of the remnants of Naked Raygun, of which Pegboy fares far better than former singer Jeff Pezzati’s latest aggregation, the Bomb. Several members of the Smoking Popes have a new thing called Tom Daily, whose bizarre “I Am the Bus Driver” sounds like an overloaded dump truck crashing into a mall.
The best song on the CD is “The Devil Has a Pussy” from Apocalypse Hoboken (whose sticker is prominently featured in a scene in the movie High Fidelity) — though the band broke up onstage at the release party for this album. Overall, this disc proves Chicago’s punk scene to be among the best in the country. (Adam Bregman)