Buried beneath the gunshots and the tall tales of gunplay that ride the surface of DMX's sophomore outing, Flesh of My Flesh Blood of My Blood, is a complex and difficult album that hides under its battle scars, futilely attempting to protect the even more complex and troubled artist at the root of it all. Facing and upping the challenges of his debut, DMX finds the heart of Flesh of My Flesh, rips it from its hollow body, and shoves its bloody, throbbing mass in your face.
It's a direct album, confrontational and relentless. But DMX is deeper than he often lets on. He's perplexed and distressed by the choices he makes along the way (think of the anxiety and neuroses that were at the center of 2Pac's best work, and you've got a good idea where DMX is coming from). "I got blood on my hands and there's no remorse/I got my blood on my dick because I fucked a corpse," he bellows on "Bring Your Whole Crew," a song filled with biting belligerence and nerve-scratching regret. DMX howls, barks, and wails his way through Flesh of My Flesh like a being in never-ending torment. He's sold his soul, or at least he thinks he has, and now he wants it back, and the result of that bargain is the core of this album.
He even has dialogues with both the devil and God. He chats up the former on the creepy "The Omen" (with guest Marilyn Manson making eerie intonations in the background), never really quite sure where the pact begins and ends. By the album's closer, "Ready to Meet Him," DMX and God go one-on-one (by the way, theologians, the devil and God don't sound all that different here; both are deeper and overdubbed versions of DMX's staccato rasp), with DMX recovering his spirit, only slightly bruised by the entire incident.
Once we accept that hip-hop hasn't given us a genre-busting album since Arrested Development's 1992 debut, 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life of, and realize that nearly everything since has been a variation on the same old themes (even Dr. Dre's The Chronic, a milestone of '90s hip-hop, was little more than an extension of his own work with N.W.A.), we then can appreciate the subtle skills of new-school rappers like DMX and Jay-Z. Flesh of My Flesh--which comes a mere eight months after DMX's debut--isn't original. But in DMX's hands it sounds revelatory, even significant. All hail the new blood.
Elinor Blake (a.k.a. April March) was born in New York City and lives in California. She used to work as a professional animator, including stints with Pee-Wee's Playhouse and Ren & Stimpy. So, naturally, she sings in French.
According to her hand-written bio, April March began learning French with a puppet, Monsieur Hibou, in nursery school. This was one effective learning aid. Singing in the y'e-y'e tradition of French artists like Françoise Hardy, March sounds as if she popped out of the womb with a beret on her head and a loaf of bread under her arm. She practically levitates over music written and produced by Bertrand Burgalat of Air, who swirls acoustic guitars, strings, horns, electronic gizmos, and drum machines around her vocals.
Sticky with '60s bubblegum pop as interpreted by Europeans, Chrominance Decoder is often too precious for its own good. The opener, "Garden of April," has flutes, cheesy harmonica, March's "bop-bop-bop-bop-bop-bop-bop"s, and a guitar riff the musical equivalent of a double take in a scatterbrained comedy. The xylophone intro to "Pas Pareil" could be the theme song of a low-rent children's show. "Charlatan" might be too hokey for even Austin Powers. But tracks like "Mignonette" and "Garçon Glaçon" agree with March in a way Odelay did with Beck. Listening to these songs, I wanted to wear Capri pants for the first time in my life.
The deeper you get into the album, the more you realize it's Burgalat's. It's as if the allure of March's sweet voice frees him to try anything, including slip in instrumentals. "Mon Petit Cowboy" begins with a banjo part before taking a wicked U-turn to harmonica and piano.
My French is too dusty to tell you exactly what March is singing about, but it sounds like love. She does sing in English on a few tracks. "I was a girl/I had no fear/Until you took my sugar/And left me tears" she coos on "Sugar," which appears on the album twice, the second version treated with a Fifth Dimension-like bass line courtesy of the Dust Brothers.
Hedging against Jerry Lewisdom, March does sing English versions of her best songs. "Mignonette" becomes "No Parachute," a cold warning to a guy that he's about to de dumped. Look out below.
Fun Lovin' Criminals
Blame the Beastie Boys. The emergence of white b-boy culture begins and ends with the godfathers of white, smart-ass New York hip-hop. Way back before it was cool to drop the drawers to the knees, pinch cig butts with self-conscious style, and sport spotty chin hair, the Beasties were taking what they knew of black hip-hop stylists, applying their own spin, and developing a little pasty cult of their own.
Another trio of white, smart-ass New Yorkers, the Fun Lovin' Criminals, desperately wants to be the Beasties. Or at least at one time wanted to. Their 1996 debut, Come Find Yourself, stirred in so many hip, identifiable samples and splashes of Tarantino-meets-Spicoli attitude that the Beasties comparisons were inevitable. They became huge in Europe (while settling for a dent here with "Scooby Snacks"). But on their second album, 100% Colombian, the Criminals toke up and mellow out with such severity that you get the feeling they're going to nod off on you any second. Not that that's a totally bad thing; Digable Planets' Blowout Comb felt like it was recorded in an opium den and was the better for it. But the Criminals, essentially white b-boys with a couple of tricks up their designer sleeves, have little to say and even fewer ways of saying it.
Employing more live instruments this time around, the Criminals do a little Bo Diddley strut about a "Korean Bodega," wallow in Santana-like guitar solos, and recruit B.B. King to help out on "Mini Bar Blues." They also slink their way through a Barry White homage ("Barry White saved my life," lead Criminal Huey recites in such casual stoned-speak that you want to call Mr. Love Unlimited back to check that pulse again). 100% Colombian's grooves try oh-so-hard to be retro sexy that they nearly end up parodies of laid-back hip-hop culture.
Maybe that's what the Criminals have in mind. Because the few times they do bust a move--like the gutsy, guitar-fueled "Southside"--they're worthy subjects of the Beasties' kingdom. And the best cut here, "Big Night Out," not only features a naturally smooth mantra--"I got supermodels on my D"--it also cops a Beasties-worthy riff from Tom Petty's "American Girl" guitar break and climaxes with a choir sing-along (this time ripped from the Marshall Tucker Band). It's a shining moment, but one that barely crawls its way out from the smoke-hued clouds that hang over the rest of this album.
Back Tuva Future: The Adventure Continues
Hordes of techies, like latter-day Huns, flood the Himalayans, the steppes, the flood plains of Asia, dogged in their search for the next global groove. They scour the land hoping to stumble upon a monastery of happy, chanting monks or some other undiscovered, indigenous musical enclave. A quick recording and then back to their studio, where they overlay dance beats or effect-heavy guitar lines. Propelled by the mantra non-Western music is just a drum loop away from accessibility, they dream nightly of NPR profiles by British music critics with persuasive accents.
Producer David Hoffner took the concept one rather odd, complex step further. Inspired by the late physicist Richard Feynman's enthusiasm for Tuvan-style throat singing, Hoffner apparently abducted one of Siberia's foremost practitioners, Ondar, and recorded an album with him and the likes of Randy Scruggs, Bill Miller, Willie Nelson, and (I'm not kidding) Feynman himself.
Hoffner's aim was to feature Ondar's voice in a setting that emphasized the similarity and compatibility of Tuvan and American music. He sums up his intentions in a liner note: "Despite sounding like Popeye, kargyraa [one of several throat-singing styles Ondar employs on the album] may seem bizarre to American ears. Nevertheless, it is considered the most beautiful form of singing in Tuva--and the melody, a sentimental favorite there, sounds surprisingly American." Not surprisingly, didactic goals and ambitious overreach sink the well-meaning project.
Make no mistake: Ondar's vocal technique is breathtaking. He can fracture his voice into three tones: a droning pedal tone, an oscillating middle tone, and a high-harmonic melody line. The man sings chords by himself. But for all his genuine interest in Tuvan music, Hoffner ultimately treats Ondar like a one-trick pony (albeit one with a really cool trick) and exploits his voice only as far as it furthers his American-folk-is-one-world-music master plan.
Strange tracks abound. Consider "Little Yurt on the Prairie." The track opens with one of Ondar's otherworldly vocals. Before long, synthesizers slip in underneath, but before they threaten to new-age-ify Ondar, a string section begins. Granted, the strings do parallel Ondar's upper harmonic melody line for a few bars. But they eventually build in orchestral swoops and swells, and before long the track has two-stepped onto the set of a Hollywood western--Stagecoach Ondar and the Ringo Kid. "Other Side of the Mountain" starts with the same raw feel, but predictably, the Americana returns with a vengeance when Randy Scruggs kicks in with his acoustic guitar. Ondar drops out, leaving nothing but somewhat bland instrumental folk. If that weren't corny enough, throughout the album Hoffman piles on extraneous drum loops, recordings of Feynman back from the grave, and dorky sound effects like clomping horse hooves and whistling wind. And then Willie Nelson chimes in with a doleful narration: "Where has my country gone?"
This is not to say that Ondar gets buried on the album. On "Good Horses," Ondar sings out with especially striking, raw power, irrespective of what's going on around him. Probably the best collaboration (and the one he most enjoyed) was "Two Lands, One Tribe" with Native American musician Bill Miller. Hinting at what the album could have been, the two sound as if they're actually interacting and enjoying it. For a good deal of the other tracks, though, it sounds as though Hoffman recorded Ondar and then used the recordings for his own devious purposes. He would have been much better off--and the album for it--had he simply dropped the drum-looped, swelling-strings big West and let Ondar and the boys sweat-lodge it all by their lonesomes.
Bubblegun grows on you, slowly. At first spin it has the questionable charm of so much Beatles-influenced Britpop, with a hint of the La's, but by the third or fourth listen, it's hard not to get hooked by the Swedish duo's melodic sensibilities. Perhaps they're not directly influenced by the Fab Four, but, like Crowded House, this is what musicians with a true ear for harmony and melody sound like when they write pop songs.
Bubblegun is the second release from the band. The Merrymakers' debut, No Sleep 'Til Famous, appeared in Sweden in 1995, and like its follow-up, sold well there and in Japan. With Bubblegun, David Myhr and Anders Hellgren are set to take on America, reintroducing late-'80s tunes ready to be blasted from college radios by those sick of rap/ska/punk.
Built almost entirely of intertwining fingerpicked and strummed guitars, the music rolls around inside a well-constructed frame. Lyrically, the Merrymakers do not put on any airs, sticking mostly with love as subject matter. And whether a product of their annoyance with modern soapbox bands or their inability to write complex sentences in English, it's all pretty straightforward. "April's Fool" laments, "She packed in January/She left in February/It took till March to realize/That I'd been April's fool." These are springtime love songs, where the singing birds and dappled sunlight help you forget your honey just broke your heart.
Blue Collar Life
Remember when your parents said not to mouth off to strangers, because there are a lot of twisted folks out there, and one of 'em might just snap and turn you into this evening's lead urban tragedy? Local metal-peddlers Porch Rag could very well be the scowling, surly dudes in line ahead of you at the DMV. Just a little heads up.
Blue Collar Life is the sound of anger and the inability to express it poetically. "Green Sin" features such confounding lyrics as "Three strikes you're out/You ran your mouth/Forfeit/Give in/Soaked in/Green sin/Gratitude never shines/Envy is your cake and I'm the knife." "Why?" asks the gloomy questions "Why don't you die?/Why do you lie to me?/Why can't you kill me?/Why do I deserve to live?" I dunno; why am I listening to this record?
Musically, guitarist/songwriter/album cover designer Claire Broa forges a plodding but workmanlike set of metal minus the frenzied riffing and twaddling often found in the genre, occasionally mixing in rap elements. You can count on one hand the number of notes that singer Joe Shearer Jr. howls on key and still hold a cup of coffee. Perhaps only on "Lost ..." do his James Hetfield cutout rants work, but most of the time his tone-deaf delivery is a bucket of cold water on the spark of any of the tracks.
It is impressive that Blue Collar Life was recorded in one day and mixed in one more. But anyone who shells out cash for this record will likely wish the band had spent a little more time in the studio sharpening the material.
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IF THE BRAHMANS OF AKRON WERE IN THE MARKET FOR AN OFFICIAL CITY SONG WRITTEN AND PERFORMED BY A PUNK-POP BAND, THEY CAN END THE SEARCH WITH C.D. TRUTH'S "WE GOT THE BLIMP." "I SEE THE BLIMP HIGH IN THE SKY," SINGS JEFF HARDY, "AND RAISE MY FIST AND SALUTE IT!" THE GENIUS OF HARDY'S RAP ABOUT BLIMPS IS THAT HE SOUNDS BOTH EMBARRASSED AND PROUD. YEAH, IT'S KIND OF SAD AKRON IS BEST KNOWN FOR SLOW-MOVING AIRCRAFT--BUT IT'S KIND OF COOL, TOO. AT THE END OF THE SONG HARDY SINGS, "ONE TIME, A SMALL CHILD ASKED, 'WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF A BEE STUNG THE BLIMP?'/NOTHING WOULD HAPPEN IF A BEE STUNG THE BLIMP/IT'S TOUGH; IT CAN TAKE IT." DAMN STRAIGHT.
C.D. TRUTH IS LIKE THE CLASS GENIUS WHO HIDES HIS TALENTS BEHIND SELF-DEPRECATING JOKES AND CLOWNISH BEHAVIOR. ON SEEDY, HARDY SINGS ABOUT BLIMPS, SECRET AGENTS, AND HIS DOCTOR'S WARNINGS ABOUT PROMISCUITY AND LACK OF EXERCISE WITH A NASAL WHINE. THE SONGS SOMETIMES SOUND LIKE WINKING PARODIES OF GUITAR ROCK CLICHeS. THIS IS NOT, HOWEVER, A JOKE RECORD. HARDY'S LYRICS ARE TRULY CLEVER, AND THE MUSIC IS PUNCHY, CRISPLY PLAYED, AND OFTEN MELODIC AS HELL.
"SIMPLER WAY" IMMEDIATELY BRINGS TO MIND HOUSE OF LARGE SIZES, THE GREAT IOWA BAND THAT SOUNDS LIKE JANE'S ADDICTION IF PERRY FARRELL GREW UP SURROUNDED BY HOG MANURE. "FLOWER" IS A SCHIZOPHRENIC, MOSHABLE LOVE SONG, WHILE "GOING OUT TONIGHT" SOAKS THE VIOLENT FEMMES' "BLISTER IN THE SUN" IN CRUNCHING GUITARS. HARDY PROBABLY WOULDN'T TELL YOU, BUT (SHHH) THERE'S A GORGEOUS LITTLE CHORUS TUCKED INSIDE "G-MEN."
A FEW OF THE FIFTEEN SONGS ARE DUDS ("HENRY HEEPE" IS A HEAD-SCRATCHER), BUT SEEDY IS NOT A TINNY SLAPDASH OF HALF-FORMED IDEAS; IT'S A REAL ALBUM.
TRANSMISSION HAS EMERGED OUT OF THE ASHES OF THE ONCE-PROMISING LOCAL BAND WORLD IN A ROOM, LED BY FORMER WIAR BASS PLAYER TIM BRENNAN. HIS SONGWRITING HAS ALL THE EARMARKS OF A MUSICIAN SEARCHING FOR HIS OWN VOICE.
THE DOWN-AND-OUT "PICK ME UP" DESCRIBES AN ALCOHOLIC'S DESCENT AND INEVITABLE RATIONALIZATION. BRENNAN'S SWAGGERING VOCALS CAPTURE A SMOKE-FILLED BEER JOINT JUST AROUND LAST CALL. WITH LYRICS RIGHT OUT OF TREES LOUNGE ("I THINK I NEED ANOTHER PICK-ME-UP ... AND I PROMISE I WON'T SCREW UP AGAIN") AND AN UNASSUMING ACOUSTIC GUITAR, THE SONG PAINTS A VIVID PICTURE OF DESPAIR.
DON LISY'S HEAVY SNARE DRUM ATTEMPTS TO KEEP PACE WITH BRENNAN'S ALLURING GUITAR HOOK AND SNIDE VOCALS IN THE UPBEAT "YOUR FAVORITE RIDE." IN THIS TUNE, A ROLLER COASTER IS THE METAPHOR FOR HIS LOVER'S EVER-CHANGING INTEREST. THE CONCISE DELIVERY AND SUCCINCT LYRICS ("WE'LL IT'S ALRIGHT, I'LL STAY/YOU NEVER MEANT TO HURT ME ANYWAY") MAKE IT ONE OF THE BETTER TRACKS ON THE DISC.
THE REST OF TRANSMISSION DOESN'T KEEP PACE; MANY OF THE SONGS SOUND UNDEVELOPED. BRENNAN'S STRENGTH IS HIS INSIGHTFUL, DESCRIPTIVE LYRICS, BUT ON "FLOODWATER," THE REFRAIN ("NOW BABY, YOU'RE DRIVING ME CRAZY") SEEMS TO GO ON AND ON AND ON. EVENTUALLY, BRENNAN PLUGS IN AND LETS LOOSE WITH A SHOWER OF CRUNCHING GUITAR CHORDS.
TRANSMISSION HAS ITS MOMENTS, BUT IT MIGHT REQUIRE MORE PATIENCE THAN YOU ARE WILLING TO GIVE.