PJ Harvey: Rid of Me

When Rid of Me came out, I hated it. I liked my female vocalists to possess angelic voices that were sad and mopey. A dash of sexy didn't hurt, as long as there wasn't too much sexy. The sexy couldn't outweigh the sad, if you know what I'm saying.

Needless to say, Polly Harvey freaked me out back then. She didn't sound sad, and she certainly wasn't angelic. Honestly, her moaning and her groaning was kinda scary. She didn't weep about doomed relationships, she wailed about them. She didn't quietly celebrate her soft femininity, she raged about it. All the while, the band was way too busy kicking ass to waste time strumming guitars over pretty piano chords.

I've grown up a bit since then, so when I checked out Rid of Me from the EPFL, I was ready to tackle it with ears that weren't afraid of raw emotion. It's a good thing, because there's a lot of raw emotion on this album. Coupled with the raw production, it makes for a pretty raw album.

And that's good. The rawness here is the kind of rawness that the musical world needs. I wish there were more of this kind of rawness in music. It's the kind of thing that grabs you by the throat (or by the ears, I guess), shakes you, and says, "Hey, motherfucker, I'm alive and I'm feeling some shit, and you're gonna hear me out."

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Rid of Me may not be as good as it's been made out to be over the years, but it's still pretty awesome. Steve Albini's production captures the band's raw energy without making them sound small or sloppy. The dynamics are excellent, and of all the quiet/loud/quiet bands that sprouted during the early '90s (including Nirvana), none of them captured musical extremes as well as PJ Harvey did on the song "Rid of Me." The album is somewhat repetitive, and they probably could've ditched tracks 2-5. The opening song is incredible, though, and the second half of the album is so unstoppable that I'm disappointed when it ends.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
There's nothing pretty about the photos of Polly Harvey. I hated them 15 years ago, but I love them today. The lighting and shading are completely unflattering, and remind me of the American Apparel ad campaigns. (Why does a clothing company market their wares (wears?) in a way that is, at least in my opinion, completely unsexy? Obviously they understand something I don't, because I bet they make way more money with their "unsexy" ad campaigns than I make with my library blog. Anyway.) If the jacket contained more than song titles and credits -- or at least if they were presented in a remotely interesting way -- the packaging would've gotten a higher score.

Listen if you like: Nirvana, The Kills, The Pixies, Cat Power, Patti Smith

If it were food, it'd be: A shot of tequila, straight up with no lime or salt or any of that other nonsense that people do to ruin the sweet bite of tequila.


Spank Rock: YoYoYoYoYo

I want to hate this album. It's stupid, it's misogynistic, it's ignorant, and it's arrogant. Spank Rock's (Naeem Juwan) lyrics are the typical, sex-obsessed drivel that always seems to pop up in pop music, regardless of whether it's from Little Richard or Lords of Acid.

I want to hate this album, and for the most part I do. But the music is really well-produced and really good. Producer XXXchange (Alex Epton) obviously appreciates many facets of dance music and hip-hop from the past few decades. There's more than a nod to Miami bass, but there's an equally large respect for innovators like DJ Shadow and Herbert.

There's absolutely no reason why Spank Rock couldn't become immensely popular. It's crap, but it's better than most of the crap that spills from the speakers of cheesy dance clubs and tricked-out Hondas throughout the country. The beats are good, the production is excellent, and the lyrics are as catchy as they are imbecilic. As stupid as the words are, however, they can't hide the fact that Juwan and/or Epton are relatively intelligent.

And hell, it's local. I suppose we have to stand by it to some degree. I mean, we take pride in the fact that our murder rate is higher than almost everyone else's (curse you, Detroit) and our politicians are among the most inept douchebags outside of DC. If we're willing to wear those badges of honor, surely we can dab some of Spank Rock's stupidly sexy perfume behind our ears before we go out dancing.

Music: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
It's excellent for what it is, but what it is is a far cry from excellent. The music falls somewhere between 2 Live Crew, Isaac Hayes, DJ Shadow, Massive Attack, and The DFA. The lyrics fall somewhere between 2 Live Crew, Isaac Hayes, Missy Elliott, Ice-T, and the disease-ridden crotch of one of the girls working over on S. Carey.

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
It's gold and black, with big bold typefaces, scantily-clad women, and gold chains. Despite some strong design elements, it's a bit clichéd on its own, but it is absolutely perfect in context of the music. (Sleevage has an excellent write-up on the artwork.)

Listen if you like: Any of the groups mentioned above. If you're one of those idiotic kids who loves to shock his parents / neighbors / friends with raunchy music, this is right up your alley. If you have a deep appreciation for good dance music and a high tolerance for stupid lyrics, give it a shot.

If it were food, it'd be: An overpriced bottle of Cristal in the champagne room of Sherrie's. Oh, wait... do they have a champagne room at Sherrie's?


Various Artists: The Rough Guide to Calypso and Soca

After reviewing Lord Invader's Calypso in New York, I was excited to dig deeper into the genre of Calypso. Not the party music that is played in beach-themed bars and Tim Burton movies, but the music that Lord Pretender calls "true true calypso."

Needless to say, I was a bit disappointed when Lord Pretender's "Never Ever Worry" sets the tone for an album that parties a lot and worries very little.

One reason Lord Invader was so exciting to me was his acknowledgment that sometimes we need to worry about things. As an American whose exposure to calypso has been limited to the feelgood escapism of island fantasies, I want to hear about the 11 months of the year when Trinidad & Tobago aren't celebrating Carnival. Do people work? Do they get into fights? Do their parents die? Do they run out of money and beat up their wives and abandon their children? Lord Invader sang about those things, but only a few of the artists on The Rough Guide to Calypso and Soca follow his lead.

But maybe that's the point of Pretender's statement, "wherever you turn, somebody suffering more than you." Maybe calypso, and the more modern offshoots of soca and rapso, are the way that Trinidadians deal with the harsh realities of their day-to-day lives. Maybe they cope with their worries by throwing a party. It's not such a bad thing to do.

Music: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
This is fun music that will liven up a party. The songs blend into an optimistic sheen of background noise, but there are a few standouts: "Cyar Take Dat" by Brother Resistance (a key innovator in the style of music called rapso) is a dark and socially conscious track that seems heavily influenced by both roots reggae and dancehall; "Jouvert" by Hunter & Laventille Rhythm Section reminds me of Fela Kuti; and "Mud Madness" by 3 Canal is filled with the kind of excitement that can inspire people to go crazy in the streets.

Given that calypso seems to be a male-dominated genre, it's a shame that the three female-fronted tracks are the most generic and flawed songs on this collection. Sharlene Boodram's "Joe Le Taxi" is the kind of third-rate dance-pop that mediocre record labels try to foist upon unsuspecting listeners every summer. Square One's "Controller/Feelin De Vibes" is clearly influenced by house and dancehall, but it fails to capture the very things that make those genres so special. Singing Sandra's contribution is by far the best of the three, but "Voices from the Ghetto" is as melodramatic and overwrought as Kanye West's "Diamonds from Sierra Leone." Of course, being melodramatic and overwrought doesn't necessarily lessen the social statement, and sometimes the only way to get listeners to pay attention is to beat them over the head with your message.

Packaging: 1.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
One of the best things about compilations that come from labels like Smithsonian Folkways or Rounder is the care and knowledge that go into the liner notes. If the booklet in Calypso & Soca is typical of Rough Guide releases, I'm not going out of my way to get any more of them. There's a half-page overview of the musical genre, followed by a paragraph on each artist (all of which sound like they were written by a publicist rather than a music lover), followed by the name of the album from which each song came, followed by five pages of advertisements. I read the entire booklet, and I learned nothing of value.

Listen if you like: World music, island-themed parties, island-themed parties where people play world music.

If it were food, it'd be: rum and Coke at a Friday night party.


Lord Invader: Calypso in New York

I thought I hated calypso. I've heard Harry Belafonte's "Day-O" and The Beach Boys' "Sloop John B." and John Denver's "Calypso," and I don't like any of them.

But now that I've heard Lord Invader (aka Rupert Grant), I realize that disliking calypso because of those songs would be like disliking rock because of "Yakety Yak."

Lord Invader was amazing. His music was powerful and political, literate and lyrical. His music was funny and sexy and spiritual and violent and sad and proud and... and it was alive.

All of this, and every song is a story. Some are fun and silly, others are dark and troubling, but they all make for fascinating listening.

There are a lot of similarities between Lord Invader and the best hip-hop from the past 25 years. First of all, there's the same sense of oneupmanship. The album is filled with Lord Invader's boasts of superiority: In "Ten Thousand to Bar Me One," Invader equates singing to stick-fighting, and he tells his rivals, "Duke of Iron must surrender, Houdini it is fire and slaughter ... tomorrow is blood in the gutter, I mean to commit manslaughter." It's violent imagery, and it's a powerful metaphor for his musical superiority.

Big egos and boasting cannot make a vital album, though, as any hip-hop fan can tell you. There has to be some substance. At various moments throughout Calypso in New York, Lord Invader is political, spiritual, social, commercial, sexual, comical, and even humble (Invader loses singing battles in "Sly Mongoose" and "My Intention is War," while "My Experience on the Reperbahn" portrays his surprise at a German whore with some unexpected... uh... parts).

Music: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The music on Calypso in New York is definitely calypso. There are lots of steel drums and Caribbean rhythms, but don't let that scare you away. This is much closer to early reggae and ska than it is to the whitewashed, sterile garbage that has been presented to American audiences for the past 50 years. Most of the music sounds festive and joyous on the surface, but a good amount of the subject matter is very serious. There are only a few songs on the disc that leave me completely cold, and they are grossly outweighed by the tracks that are filled with passion and fire.

One thing that is especially notable is the richness of the lyrics. "My Intention Is War" is a (presumably improvised) lyrical battle between Lord Invader and Mighty Dictator. Invader busts out with lines like, "Dictator, you insolent boobie, delirious mule, audacious slum monger you're out of rule ... you gabilous squabbler illiterate ape, now you are in a terrible scrape." At the end of the song, after Invader has lost (which I don't understand, because his opening verse is awesome), Dictator offers a gracious, "Now Invader, you too are really great, and my statement no one can adjudicate, put your hand in mine, let our friendship remain sublime." This is great stuff, both musically and lyrically.

Packaging: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
It's pretty much a given that anything from Smithsonian Folkways will have fantastic liner notes, and this is no exception. Prior to checking this out from EPFL, I knew nothing about calypso. Now, I know the names of a handful of the genre's greatest artists, I have a high-level understanding of its history, and I've got a half-dozen CDs on order from Ebay. There are only two flaws in the packaging that I can spot: 1) Not enough photos, and 2) The song title "Auf Wiedersehen" is misspelled, but that may be how the song is copyrighted, so I think I can forgive them for the typo. Anyway, the song more than makes up for the typo with the line "Hear them jivin' meine lieber, das ist screamer, which mean that I'm a good love-maker."

Listen if you like: reggae, hip-hop, or folk music. It's a must-hear if you like steel drums.

If it were food, it'd be: A plate of curry chicken, a bowl of callaloo, some plantains, and a few sugar cookies. And a rum and Pepsi-Cola of course.


Sunset Rubdown: Shut Up I Am Dreaming

Imagine spinning the crank on a jack-in-the-box. You listen to the creepy music and you wait... and wait... and wait for the release, but it just doesn't come. And you sit there, anxiously spinning and waiting and spinning and waiting. That's kind of what Shut Up I Am Dreaming is like.

Music: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
There's a lot of tension on this album, but it's constrained within some decent pop songs that are almost memorable. The music is loose and sloppy and relatively simple, but it stays together well. Neither the music nor lyrics are particularly notable, and at times it sounds like the band is trying way too hard to be clever and quirky. The album is cohesive, though, and it comes together in a way that is disturbingly satisfying. (For you Baltimoreans out there, track 9 on the EPFL copy is dead, so be prepared if you decide to check this out.)

Packaging: n/a (Altered by EPFL)
EPFL cut up the original package to fit into a jewel box, so there's nothing here except the front and back covers. There are some interesting themes (bodies being thrown into bonfires, stabbings, and lone figures praying), but without the context of the rest of the package, the artwork is dull. (Of course, the artwork may also be dull even in context of the rest of the package.)

Listen if you like: Bowie and/or Tin Machine, TV on the Radio, Kurt Weill, Wolf Parade (Sunset Rubdown's main guy, Spencer Krug, is from Wolf Parade).

If it were food, it'd be: A tasty but uninspiring meal at a hip restaurant where you're having a first date with someone who is quirky and smart and unsettled and noisy and definitely off their meds.


Burning Spear: Man in the Hills / Dry and Heavy

Reggae isn't really my thing, but I know that Burning Spear -- a.k.a. Winston Rodney -- is an artist who deserves to be heard. This CD contains two early Burning Spear albums, and it's easy to understand why they are both said to be great reggae records.

The opening track, "Man in the Hills," is about a family working together, each member doing what he or she can for the greater good. The overall mood is not one of exhaustion or complaints, but one of harmony and love and joy. As the albums progress, this harmonious hope is layered atop political awareness and pleas for peace among warring groups. There is an overarching sense of black pride, but it is inclusive and tolerant rather than exclusive and racist.

Frankly, as a citizen of Baltimore at a time when women routinely raise their children alone, parents cycle between addiction and incarceration, and young people identify with music that celebrates violence and hatred, Burning Spear's message is shocking. It's shocking to hear about a family working together in the name of love. It's shocking to hear a musician praise responsibility and community. It's shocking to hear a story about a dad who didn't leave the family to pursue his love for drugs or violence or good times. It's shocking to hear music that is hopeful and positive, yet still powerful and revolutionary.

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Even if you don't love reggae, this is worth a listen. Yes, it can be monotonous to those of us who don't have a deep passion for reggae, but when I listen on headphones and pay attention to the words and music, each track takes on a life of its own. The performances are flawless, and the band has a great groove. Rodney's voice is smooth but powerful, and he brings a richness to the music that makes it clear why Burning Spear is considered to be one of the most important artists in the history of reggae.

Packaging: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The artwork and liner notes are very good. So many "two albums on one disc" packages include nothing more than the covers and track listings from the original albums, but that's not the case here. The original notes from Man in the Hills are included (notes for Dry and Heavy are absent, making me wonder whether or not any were included on the original release), as are full musician credits for each album. Best of all, there's a three-page essay that talks about the history of Burning Spear, the making of these two albums, and each of the songs. The color scheme, photos, and paper stock all contribute to a package that is almost perfect. The only thing that could have been better was the typeface for the essay, which is hard to read due to the small text and the brown-on-tan palette.

Listen if you like: Bob Marley and the Wailers, and you want to learn more about what reggae is about; music that is optimistic without being spineless; being black, or listening to music about being black.

If it were food, it'd be: a home-cooked meal with your family after a hard day of working together in a beautiful but imperfect world.


Various Artists: Nicky Siano's Legendary "The Gallery" The Original New York Disco 1973-1977

Before it got screwed up by greedy record labels and clueless club owners, disco was actually pretty awesome. The music was about freedom and love, and the original disco DJs would play anything (as long as it was good, sounded strong through the speakers, and fit the mood of the dance floor). Rock, soul, jazz, gospel, blues, even world music... it was all fair game for the great disco DJs.

Nicky Siano was (and is) a great disco DJ. When you listen to the music he put together on this disc, it's obvious that Siano cares about connecting with his crowd. It's obvious that he uses music as a way to reach out to every single person in the room. It's obvious that he understands how music can make us feel alive. This music is powerful and exciting, it's filled with truth and tolerance, and it makes you want to stand up and celebrate.

Really, if you think you hate disco, try this out. Chances are, the only reason you hate disco is because you've never heard disco. Pick this CD up, put on some headphones or crank it up in the car, and give your body up to the music.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
There's not a bad song on here. Future house diva Loleatta Holloway demonstrates that disco, at its finest, was music of love, spirit, and power. The Pointer Sisters were an exciting and unique band at one point in time, as "Yes We Can Can" proves. "Exuma, The Obeah Man" by Exuma sounds like The Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" mixed with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. There are classic Motown artists like The Temptations and The Supremes and soul stalwarts like Bill Withers and The Isley Brothers. If the album doesn't make you at least tap your foot, you might want to check your pulse.

Packaging: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The booklet is as good as the liner notes in a Smithsonian Folkways CD, but it's way more fun. It's like a guided tour through the disco that no one knows, but everyone -- at least everyone who loves music -- should know. The pictures alone have a great historical value, but the "essays" from Siano and dance music historian Tim Lawrence are what makes this package shine. Again, if you think you don't like disco, give this a shot; at least you'll start to understand what it is that you think you hate.

Listen if you like: house, electronica, R&B, civil rights, gay rights, music that makes you want to get up and dance.

If it were food, it'd be: An organic fruit smoothie from one of the handful of post-disco parties that still happen today.


Pinback: Autumn of the Seraphs

Sometimes an album is just good enough to make you realize it's not very good. Autumn of the Seraphs is one of those albums. Pinback has some genuinely interesting ideas, but they're mired in mediocre songwriting, weak lyrics, and bad production.

Autumn of the Seraphs reminds me of early Death Cab for Cutie. Sure, there were some good ideas on those first few Death Cab CDs, but they were mired in mediocre songwriting, weak lyrics, and bad production. Things clicked for DCfC somewhere around their third album. Pinback has already released more than three albums, but something tells me this is as "clicked" as they're going to get. It's a shame, because they come close to making some special music. They just never figure out how to get past the mediocrity and let the greatness shine.

Music: 2 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Not to harp on Death Cab comparisons, but Pinback reminds me of a half-baked Postal Service. While Jimmy Tamborello's electronic layers bring a warmth and humanity to the Postal Service, Zach Smith and Rob Crow's synths and drum machines are as cold as the worst 80s new wave bands. It's not the kind of coldness that Kraftwerk or Depeche Mode mastered, for both of those bands succeeded in finding the hearts that lived within the machine; no, Pinback's music is cold in the way Human League was cold -- they're cold because they're not good enough to be anything else. The best thing I can say about Autumn of the Seraphs -- and it truly is a good thing -- is that the layers of instrumentation and vocals occasionally create some wonderful melodies and counter-melodies.

Packaging: 2 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Like the music, the artwork is a one-dimensional portrayal of a scene that should have some depth. The cover art reminds me of Narnia, if it had been created by a writer who lacked the humanity to find the warmth hidden amidst its frigid landscapes.

Listen if you like: early Death Cab for Cutie, Matt Pond PA, slightly better-than-average indie rock. If you liked the jaggedness of the first few Police albums but find the warmth and soul of that band offputting, this should be right up your alley.

If it were food, it'd be: A processed milkshake from a fast-food joint.