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Various Artists – Look Directly Into the Sun: China Pop 2007

September 5, 2011 Leave a comment

Invisible China, 2007

I know nothing about Chinese music, popular or underground.  Therefore, seeing an affordably priced compilation that declares it represents China Pop in 2007 easily captured my attention.  I have heard a lot of Japanese and Korean pop, so I thought that I might have to wade through quite a few sugary numbers.  With bands like Queen Sea Big Shark and Voodoo Kung Fu I felt I could survive a few cute dance numbers.

Apparently this compilation was put together by a fellow named Martin Atkins, who traveled out to China some years back and wanted to put together a collection that represented the Chinese underground scene.  Great concept!  He actually is a member of China Dub Soundsystem (on this disc with so-so flare) and created a film entitled “Sixteen Days in China” about his Beijing trip and the bands he ran into.  Whatever one thinks about this compilation, I bet that film would be fascinating to watch.

So, on with the music.  I know that compilations are a real crapshoot when it comes to hearing tracks that are interesting enough to spin again.  Unfortunately, this album required some serious effort to find much of anything that was agreeable with the stomach.  The compilation starts off with two serious clunkers, the first being Snapline’s “Close Your Cold Eyes” that has a vocalist that sounds a lot like a really bored Damon Albarn in an elecro noise effort.  Then China MC Brother’s “JaiJung” rap rock gave me the Limp Bizkit chills.  Like I said, awful start.

Thankfully, a pure pop punk number by Caffe-In saves the disc from a preliminary chuck out the window.  The female vocalist squeaks a little bit as the power chords speed through “Mario and Peaches”, which would be great to have the lyrics to for this Nintendo enthusiast.  After digging up a little bit more about them, it turns out the group is actually made up of Japanese folks.  Other good tunes on the album are an excellently blended guitar instrumental by White and a live ska-like track by Rococo.  “Panda” by Carsick Cars is also a solid straightforward rock song that reminds me of that 90s indie sound, but the vocalist is dull.

Alright, now for the outright junk!  Aside from those first two songs, Subs pulls a Linkin Park and tries to sound very soft and then blow up in your face with shouting.  However, at four plus minutes the song is tedious to listen through with its disjointed guitar and repetition of “Shut up, shut up, shut up” and top volume.  The Scoff’s “Nasty” probably is the equivalent of an American grrl band, so I guess one can’t ding too much on a punk song whose vocals that are intentionally ragged.  Unless, of course, it’s a guy singing.  HoneyGun stole a riff from Alice in Chains’ “Man in a Box” and Voodoo Kung Fu is just … out there.  I guess they are an artsy metal screamo band, which is fascinating to listen to once given the country of origin I guess.

Those looking for more about the music on this compilation might find something on the record label website:  Invisible China.  I also managed to find the Chinese MySpace page for Caffe-In if you want to listen to what pop punk out of China sounds like.

I feel sort of bad labeling this collection as a Bust, for I do like Atkin’s idea of promoting music we might not otherwise hear.  Unfortunately, aside from a few good songs from Caffe-In and Rococo, I couldn’t recommend this compilation to anyone unless they just want to hear what Chinese underground music sounds like for the experience.  According to these eighteen bands, it simply sounds similar to American underground music.  Glad to hear that bands are trying to make it over there in the East, but there aren’t many on this collection that makes me desperate to buy a plane ticket to go see what I’m missing.  I suppose this hurts my diplomacy score, eh?

De La Soul – Stakes Is High

July 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Tommy Boy Music, 1996

Aside from their big “Me, Myself, and I” track, the main reason why I fondly recall De La Soul is their “Ring Ring Ring” track from 1991.  Its message about people leeching off of them for their own gains was not as much noticed as the light, catchy hook underneath the lyrics.  Since my idea of enjoyable hip hop is A Tribe Called Quest and the first two albums from the Black Eyed Peas (aka when they were credibly good), I figured that an affordable De La Soul record was going to spin right for me.  I was De La Sold.

According to RateYourMusic, “Stakes Is High” concludes a well regarded quartet of records put out by De La Soul back in the nineties.  I knew nothing of this when I picked it up, but apparently the record came out after one of their main song producers, Prince Paul, departed to do other things.  Regardless of what Prince Paul may have brought, the trio don’t sound like they miss him too much due to a large quantity of really solid tracks.

“Supa Emcees” has a classic swing that can make one bop along to a tune about hip hop posers.  “The Bizness”, featuring an early cameo by Common, has got a simple yet effective bass hook that allows the group to seemingly rap about … I guess … themselves.  Well regardless, tunes like “Dinninit” and “Brakes” keep the good tunes flowing early on.  Overall, the record definitely has a cool, effortless feeling to it that makes it quite listenable.

Given the time frame, I enjoy seeing a few of the cameos from artists just starting off.  Mos Def makes a fine contribution in “Big Brother Beat” while the ladies of Zhane, as in “Hey Mister DJ” Zhane, show up wonderfully on “4 More”.  Truth said, these cameos stand out even more so due to their infrequent number.  There’s only four cameos listed on the seventeen tracks!  Nowadays hip hop artists can’t get away with a cameo-less tune, it seems.  Aside from those (agh) skits.

For all its consistently smooth songs, the title track is the one that really stands out.  It’s got some J Dilla production, the sound of people fervently shaking some dice, and a more upbeat hook.  It turns out to be an aggressive tune about the state of violence, drugs, and poor neighborhoods and how that has translated into the hip hop scene.  That’s how I heard it anyway.  Great tune.

I don’t have a whole lot to knock about this album.  I suppose the only complaint one can have is that the whole record sounds very laid back and, when spun front to back, a few of the songs actually seem to blend together a bit.  But hey, I like laid back.  But most modern hip hop has a really hook-heavy, in your face tune once every three tracks or so.  De La Soul is consistent and, aside from the particularly head-turning title track, most tunes maintain a cool groove.  Perhaps this is what one needs to listen to when they want their hip hop to be chill for awhile.

De La Soul can be heard at their very colorful website or, of course, MySpace and Last.fm.

If the modern sound of hip hop isn’t satisfying enough, or the artists these days all bring the same message, perhaps you could use a listen to De La Soul.  The lyrics make you think, the beats are smooth enough from track to track, and you get the small bonus of listening to something that carries an old school vibe.  Plus, anything that reminds me of A Tribe Called Quest puts me in a happy place.  If for some reason you see some De La Soul lying around in a dollar bin, I highly recommend grabbing them to fill your ears with something good.

Northern State – Can I Keep This Pen?

May 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Ipecac Recordings, 2007

An old friend once exclaimed that Northern State was her new favorite group, but of course, I was too busy waddling in something that the Shins dripped up at the time.  Therefore, I could only vaguely remember her words (like an inner echo from far away) when I thumbed this out of of a nearby bin full of forgotten indie releases.  Its bright, pastel cover and rather normal-looking band members gave me little insight as to what kind of pop music I was going to be listening to.  As it turns out, this record is a whole lot of rap with varying degrees of pop!  I therefore declare Northern State as the pioneers of pop rap … or prap.  And yes, it’s better than countrified rap if you know what I mean.

The three girls of Northern State combine a few influences that I can think of on their bouncy third release.  The first that came to mind was the quick, comedic lyrics of some early Beastie Boys from “Licensed to Ill”.  With smirking lines like “I heard your mom drives an ice cream truck” and “I’ll be coming like Joan Rivers and the fashion 5-0”, it’s hard not to compare these three ladies to the three guys who gave us the poetic “Brass Monkey”.  Like the Beasties, the ladies don’t spend too much on fancy vocabulary from verse to verse, but that’s besides the point if the music is catchy and a grin is induced once in awhile.

However, unlike the vocally unique Beastie Boys, Northern State’s ladies all have a rather monotone delivery.  This reminds me of Jimmy Pop from the Bloodhound Gang or that guy from Cake, which in both cases get a little dull from repeated listen.  Thank goodness for the music, then!  Nearly every song has the expected beats needed to keep a rap song going, but Northern State also does a good job blending band elements like guitar and bass in each song.  The song “Away Away” actually comes off as a moody pop song that has very little of anything that could be construed as rap.  Hey, what gives?!  Thankfully, Northern State mostly sticks to the bumpin’ goofy stuff, so tunes like “Good Distance”, “Oooh Girl” and “Sucka Mofo” keep it light and head-bobbing.  Although the group does sometimes hint that they want to turn into softies once in awhile, this record is mostly an energetic flow of enthusiasm on the microphone.

Check ’em out on their website which has a few songs (“Mic Tester” and “Sucka Mofo” in particular) and the lyrics that you need to know.

I definitely admit to enjoying anything that has a great sound and humor, (note: Weird Al and me are like THIS) so Northern State combines much of what I can really appreciate about some groups.  Unfortunately, I don’t understand why Northern State aren’t even bigger than they should be.  What is out there that could top three rapping, clever females with some really catchy songs?  Apparently, the world isn’t entirely ready for them.  Hopefully the three years since the release of this record means that they’re working hard on their masterpiece.  Heck, I’ll take their “Hello Nasty” if that’s what’s coming up.

Categories: Bargain Tags: , ,

Various Artists – Fear of a Black Hat soundtrack

April 12, 2010 Leave a comment

Polygram Records, 1994

At some point during an evening where I was procrastinating something yet again, I flipped on the Independent Movie Channel and stumbled upon this rap mockumentary entitled “Fear of a Black Hat”.  It turned out to be something along the lines of “Spinal Tap” where three guys start a rap crew and have varied levels of success, inner turmoil, and wayward side projects.  It actually turned out to be quite funny and some of the borrowed songs in it were amusing in their ability to match the originals.  I likely recommended the movie to a few friends but thought nothing of it afterward.  As luck would have it, the soundtrack of the movie was found in a dollar bin not too long after I saw the movie, so I figured if I wasn’t going to get the DVD for an expensive three bucks, I could go for a buck and be satisfied.

Usually soundtracks are best heard not long after seeing the movie since one has a better chance of remembering the scenes the songs were featured in.  If you hear the soundtrack when your memory of the movie has faded, your fondness of the songs is sometimes hindered because you spend more time analyzing if you like the song at all on its own instead of recreating the movie scene it represents.  I don’t own too many soundtracks for this reason, but the songs for “Fear of a Black Hat” defy that scenario because the tunes do well in representing themselves separately from the movie.

Written mostly by Rusty Cundieff and Larry Robinson, the rap songs on the soundtrack all resemble comedic versions of originals from that late eighties, early nineties era.  “Ice Froggy Frog” is an amusing spin on Snoop Dogg’s “Who Am I (What’s My Name)?” and essentially details a story about a thuggin’ frog.  Cheeky lyrics like “I never hesitate to give a dragonfly his last” and “Polly gets what Polly-wogs/the frog with the biggest log” is what you’re going to get throughout.  “Granny Says Kick Yo Black Ass” is obviously based on LL Cool J’s tune that featured him confronting his critics.  The movie echos the original song’s intent as one of the characters tries to split from the group, so when he rants “When my foot goes in that posterior/you’ll taste it in your mouth’s interior” you know he’s a dangerous butt kickin’ dude.

The best song is the most uncomfortable one.  “I’m Only Human” does a great take on P.M. Dawn’s “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss” in that it has a similar airy sound of love and peace.  However, the cool toned rapper discusses bodily functions and how no matter how gross the topic we are all human and perform the same functions.  The chorus of “You are just like me/I am just like you/We all stand or sit when we pee” is catchy but it’s hardly the most unnerving.  When the rapper gets into mucus, toilet habits, and earwax one gets conflicting feelings of horror and amusement.  It’s definitely my favorite on the disc for that awkwardness alone.

Other songs mimic the likes of NWA, Public Enemy, Ice T and C & C Music Factory, so there’s bound to be one that you might find amusing if you liked rap from that time period.  Check out some of the tunes at Grooveshark.

It turns out that this movie was the first one that Rusty Cundieff wrote before he went on to write such ‘classics’ like the horror spoof “Tales from the Hood” and “Sprung”.  He then went on to do a lot of television including the Dave Chappelle show, so if you haven’t seen this movie then you probably have heard a few Cundieff jokes somewhere in your media travels.  I liked the soundtrack for certain songs, but if I’m going to recommend anything here it is the movie.  Go check it out sometime and, if you are a fan of mockumentaries like me, I think you’ll find it’s worth a rental.

Wreckx-N-Effect – Hard or Smooth

April 9, 2010 Leave a comment

MCA Records, 1992

I distinctly remember an English classmate of mine repeating the fact that all he wants to do is a bazoom zoom zoom and a boom boom.  I’m not sure if my English teacher truly appreciated that nonsense, but Wreckx-N-Effect were pioneers of video booty at the time.  Just picture an MTV with Boyz II Men, All-4-One and SWV singing casually with their squeaky clean escapades just standing around and singing.  Boring.  Then Nirvana came in with cheerleaders and some noise, yet it was still what was expected for rock videos despite its strange gymnasium setting.  Then Wreckx-N-Effect show up with the bikinis, the beach party, and the butts.  Oh dayum.  Needless to say, eighteen years later and I feel that I need to properly review the merits of this group since I’m an established music critic.  For a dollar, it was time.

Just to get past the obvious, just know that “Rump Shaker” is a classic.  All one needs to start a party is that opening saxophone note and everyone already knows what is coming.  In case you don’t know what would be coming and don’t want to be caught unawares at a future party, er, I believe you should be prepared for the naughty dance.  A chick playing a saxophone in a bikini will likely suddenly appear as well.

The rest of the songs following “Rump Shaker” contain a similar party sound, but none measure up to the single.  “New Jack Swing II” has one of the rappers sounding like he’s a member of Kriss Kross, which is miggidy-miggidy-miggidy alarming.  The band then proceeds through a few party songs before they get a little more sensual in “Tell Me How You Feel”.  I imagine its message might be hard for a woman to take seriously after she saw the entire crew in a video dancing with a large group of half-naked women on the beach.  But hey, don’t judge.  The guys want to know some feelings with aggressive rapping and smooth backing vocals.  Oh yeah, and they also want you to drop and do the booty wop (oooooooh!).

There were a couple of catchy tunes like “Wreckx Shop” and “Here We Come”, each of which had a good bit of energy and swagger, but most songs get a little old after the first couple of minutes.  I found it hard to believe that most of these songs were more than 4 minutes long, but I guess the trio had something to say in detail.  Those topics were … well, probably their greatness as well as booties.  I suppose one could have entire lectures about that kind of stuff.

This is where you can find Rumpshaker:  Grooveshark

For the other stuff, it’s here:

I was a bit disappointed that there weren’t any songs that had the same charm as “Rumpshaker”, but I suppose any rap group from those times was happy that any of their songs managed to become a big single.  The rest of this record essentially contains songs that aimed for a similar vibe but fell quite short.  If it weren’t for “Rumpshaker” this record would be a total tosser, but that song saved ’em.  Plus, this disc is like a nineties rap time capsule, where rap started becoming more glitzy and overtly sexual.

As for Wreckx-N-Effect, they didn’t last too much longer after this record and permanently called it quits four years later.  No matter.  They left us men with what we needed to woo women with poetic words and invitations to gatherings.  For example, if you find yourself at a loss for words on how to initiate conversation with a woman so that she’ll respect you and consider a future relationship with you, just ask her to shake it baby, shake it down, shake it like that.  Believe me, those are magic words.