Madvillain: Madvillainy

Each genre of music has a period of greatness, a time when every unique aspect of the style's past, present, and future melds together in an almost magical way. In jazz, it happened between the late '50s and the late '60s, when Mingus and Monk and Miles and Coleman and Coltrane broke the rules faster than they could make them up. In rock, it was from '66 to about '73, when bands as diverse as The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Pink Floyd created previously unimagined sounds that would be emulated and regurgitated for the next four decades. Folk had the period between Joseph McCarthy and Lyndon Johnson, punk had the years between the formation and the dissolution of The Clash, and reggae had the creative explosion in the '70s that resulted in everything from dub to dancehall (and some dude named Bob Marley).

That's not to say that no great artists existed outside these periods of greatness. Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker certainly pre-dated the peak of jazz by several decades, and Jane's Addiction and Metallica arrived long after rock's brightest lights had either burned out or faded away.

Hip-hop reached its creative peak somewhere in the late '80s and early '90s. The music was sophisticated enough that the novelty had worn off, but young enough to freely embrace new ideas. It was a time when aggression, violence, dissent, revolution, love, lust, drugs, intelligence, stupidity, pride, hope, and humor all shared the stage in an uneasy but creative peace. Sampling was still fair game, and young producers and DJs were experimenting with making their own sounds in the studio rather than relying on what other people had made.

I don't love hip-hop enough to search for the rap equivalents to Jane's Addiction or Metallica, the artists who came long after the genre's peak and completely changed the music for the better. Sure, I'll occasionally hear some guys who blow me away, but mostly I hear the hip-hop equivalents to Boston and Smashing Pumpkins and White Stripes: artists who might have an original voice in isolation, but are lacking when compared to the greats within their genre.

Music: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
In isolation, Madvillainy is a fairly unique and striking album. Madlib's production is interesting, and Doom's words (or MF DOOM's words, to be technically correct) flow well. In a year (2004) when mediocre records by Beastie Boys and Kanye West were receiving Grammy nominations and rotten records by TI, Nelly and Jay-Z were selling like hotcakes, it's no surprise that Madvillain was almost universally regarded as a breath of fresh air.

The problem is, Madvillainy is only fresh when compared to the worst the genre has to offer. If you hold it up to TI and Nelly, the record is absolutely brilliant. But it's pretty damned lame when you compare it to the creativity that burst forth from people like Gangstarr, De La Soul, NWA, Public Enemy, and countless others a few decades ago. Yeah, there's an accordion sample in "Accordion," but who cares? (A whole bunch of critics, apparently.) I hate to break it to y'all, but accordion has been around for a long time, even in hip-hop!

There are some good moments here, but they're cloaked in so much of the same old dope-smokin', chest-thumpin', money-grubbin', bitch-hatin' crap that you have to search for the true gems. And really, guys, can't you get past how awesome pot is? I mean, didn't everybody figure that out with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg like, 15 years ago?

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover on the EPFL's version is different than (and not as strong as) the cover I see at Allmusic, but it's still decent. The overall design is simple, but it has a lot of personality. The lyrics are included, and they're easy to read without being dull to look at. The credits are straightforward, and don't get bogged down with a bunch of unnecessary nonsense. It's tough to balance simplicity with individuality, but designer Jeff Jank did an excellent job.

Listen if you like: the many incarnations of Madlib and/or MF DOOM. If you're one of those people who thinks N.E.R.D. was the most innovative production team this side of George Martin, you'll probably like the tasty grape flavor of the Madvillain Kool-Aid.

If it were food, it'd be: read the previous sentence, please.


RTX: Western Xterminator

Some album covers are so awesome that you just have to listen to the music. I'd never heard of RTX, but Western Xterminator has a cover that is one part high school notebook cover, one part '70s hard rock, and one part drug-induced insanity. I figured I had a 50/50 chance of getting either some crazy hard rock or some crazy underground hip-hop.

Music: 1 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
This is the second-worst album I've checked out in the 18 months I've been reviewing CDs from the EPFL. (This is the worst.)

The opening of the album is deceptive. "Western Xterminator" is a flute-driven song that is low-key and trippy and incredibly promising. Yeah, the album would've gotten boring if everything else had followed in that style, but it would've been better than what's here. Imagine a cross between the most clichéd Heart song and the most clichéd AC/DC song, and you have Western Xterminator. The title track and "Wo-Wo Din" are the only tracks that have an even remotely original sound. The rest of it makes the first few Foreigner albums look like creative masterpieces.

The production sounds like a cheap demo recorded in the studio that some dude's brother's pot dealer built in his garage. It would be forgivable if the production hid something great, but this sounds like the engineer tried to polish a turd with a poopcloth.

And yes, I get the fact that this is, like, totally ironic, man. The thing is, I just don't care. Irony or not, it's rotten.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The album cover totally sucked me in. Really, go take a look at it. Maybe it's just nostalgia for my old notebook covers and hand-drawn band fliers, but there's a whole lot of good imagery on this cover. It's unique and interesting, yet it looks completely DIY. The band photo on the inside is unoriginal but not terrible. The font in the booklet is nearly illegible. That might be OK if it was crazy, hand-drawn text, but this is just a stupid font that someone thought looked cool. Guess what? You were wrong.

Listen if you like: Bad songwriting, bad performances, and bad production.

If it were food, it'd be: Does anyone remember the 29-cent Hamburger Stand, an '80s cheap-ass burger joint that fell somewhere between McDonald's and cardboard? Yeah, that's pretty much Western Xterminator.

(I wrote this review before I read anything online about RTX. In trying to read the stupid, illegible font on the tray card and the jacket, I figured out that RTX is somehow related to the wildly overrated Chicago band Royal Trux. This album reminds me of why I thought all the junkie hipster bands that rose to fame in the '90s were complete asshats. Obviously, being a musical asshat has survived well into the first decade of the '00s.)


Goldfrapp: Seventh Tree

I have a confession. A nice woman at Mute records sent me Seventh Tree earlier this year, in hopes that I'd review it at one of the other sites where I write. I never reviewed the CD, though. In fact, I never even listened to it. It sat on my desk for months, and I never even took the shrink wrap off of it. That's how much I didn't want to listen to this album.

I don't know why I hate Goldfrapp. Alison Goldfrapp has a perfectly reasonable voice, and Will Gregory, her musical partner in crime, seems to be a talented fellow, even if his hipster hair and hipster beard and hipster glasses make me want to smite him with irony. (Is that wrong of me? If you take the honest-to-goodness sociopaths out of the mix, is there any group of humanity more annoying than hipster musicians? And is there any better way to abuse them than to use their favorite literary device against them?)

Anyway, I digress. I don't like Goldfrapp. The very thought of listening to Goldfrapp makes me feel icky. I dislike Goldfrapp to the degree that if someone tells me he or she likes them, I immediately think a little bit less of that person, the same way I would think less of a person who told me they hate black people or they kick puppies. Because bigotry and cruelty really have so much in common with bad musical taste, you know?

So, when I looked at the New Releases shelf at the EPFL and I saw Alison Goldfrapp in her stupid pirate hat on the cover of Seventh Tree, I knew it was finally time to listen. Here goes. Wish me luck.

Music: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The only way I can honestly review this album is to break it into two sections: all of the songs except "A&E," and "A&E."

The music on Seventh Tree isn't as awful as I expected. In fact, it isn't awful at all. It is dull, though. Listening to Seventh Tree is about as exciting as finding that long lost Carpenters album, Karen and Richard Sit Around and Sing about How Much They Love Ironic Electro-Hipsters. The music is pretty and well-produced, but it's just not that interesting. The words are clever and biting, but they just aren't that good. It's easy to listen to the songs on Seventh Tree, but not a single musical moment from the album sticks with me after the disc ends.

Not a single musical moment except for "A&E," which is absolutely fantastic. The music curves and climbs in a wonderful way, and it supports lyrics about a woman waking up in the emergency room after a lovelorn suicide attempt. (A&E, or Accident & Emergency, is apparently what the Brits call their emergency rooms.) The song is a beautiful juxtaposition of joy and pain. The lyrics are simple but they're remarkably effective: for example, the narrator's "backless dress" -- whether taken on its own or interpreted as a metaphor for a hospital gown -- manages to convey a great deal of imagery with a paltry three syllables.

Packaging: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Owls, pirates, boobies, owls with boobies... the whole thing screams "pretentious." Or maybe "stupid." Or maybe even "crazy." Whatever it is, the photos are well done and the owl costume is pretty impressive, even if it is pretentious/stupid/crazy. It's a shame that the lyrics are printed in muted gold ink on cream paper, but they're not all that good anyway. My petty complaints of legibility aside, the package does have a kind of other-worldly sense to it, like a poster for the Renaissance Faire or something.

Listen if you like: lite dance/pop like Air, and maybe twee nonsense like Belle & Sebastian. Bjork or Kate Bush fans might give it a chance, but it's remarkably tame when compared to either of those two. All those deaf people incredibly insightful people who loved that annoying brilliant mid-'90s tribute to The Carpenters will probably like Goldfrapp. Owl fetishists and/or furries could seriously dig the artwork.

If it were food, it'd be: sugar free cake with extra saccharine and one deliciously out-of-place piece of fresh fruit right in the middle.


Sheryl Crow: The Very Best of Sheryl Crow

You, dear reader, have no idea how deep my love for you runs. You think it's all fun and games over here at the offices of Pratt Songs, but we suffer for you. (That's offices, plural, mind you. Tonight, for instance, we're working from our office at the window table at the Panera Bread in Rosedale, mostly because our staff feels like shit and really needs some hot soup. And don't even get us started about how we're referring to ourselves in the plural. Just because you don't hear voices in your head doesn't mean you need to spoil our fun.)

Anyway. As I was saying, I suffer. To prove it, I'm listening to The Very Best of Sheryl Crow, a hits package from my third-most-despised artist in the history of rock music. (The list goes something like 1: Steely Dan; 2: Joni Mitchell; 3: Sheryl Crow; 4: Carly Simon; 5: Steely Dan.) But I'm listening, and I'm doing everything in my power to listen objectively, so I can give you the Fair And Balanced™ review that you've come to expect from Pratt Songs.

Music: 1.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
There's really nothing wrong with Sheryl Crow. Her songs are all memorable, her bands are made up of top-notch session musicians, and she's not a bad storyteller. The problem is, her music sounds like Los Angeles.

A writer named Michael Ventura wrote the most insightful thing I've ever read about Los Angeles. He wrote that the city has no innate personality. You can move to New York and become loud and obnoxious, or move to New Orleans and listen to jazz, or move to Baltimore and snort heroin while you call everyone "hon." But you can't move to LA with the expectation that the city's personality will supplement what you're lacking.

Every song on this album sounds like Los Angeles. These are songs whose personalities are so vague that you can dump your own experiences into them and let them become your personal soundtrack. These are musicians who can play anything under the sun, but who never succeed at developing their own unique sound. These are stories whose characters and plots are more than willing to step aside and let someone else's life story take over.

My problem is I love songs with personality. I love musicians who put emotion before proficiency. And while I love stories that have a universal appeal, I really love stories that are best told by the person who lived them.

I don't believe that Sheryl Crow lived a single one of the songs on this album. And if I don't believe in the truth of a song, there's nothing it can offer to make up for what it lacks.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
This is a good package, particularly considering the lackluster inserts given to most best-of collections. There's an essay that talks about how Sheryl Crow possesses a truly unique and passionate voice (I'd take it more seriously if it weren't written by a guy who lists The Teen Choice Awards 2005 and Christina Aguilera: My Reflection among his TV writing credits) and about 8,000 photos of Crow. There are no lyrics, which is disappointing, but the overall design of the package holds together well and compliments the music.

Listen if you like: The Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Melissa Etheridge, Los Angeles

If it were food, it'd be: A late-night sandwich at "Rock and Roll Denny's" on Sunset and Vista in Hollywood. The place seemed exciting and genuine on the surface, but it was really just bad food and dull people, both claiming to be far greater than they really were. As far as I can tell, the place has closed down, and I can't say I feel one bit of nostalgia for it.


The Chemical Brothers: We Are The Night

I'm not really sure what it is about these guys that got both critics and music fans in such a tizzy in the late '90s. Yeah, they make energetic dance music that has elements of rock. So what? So do about a hundred other dance/rock hybrids. The Chemical Brothers are a band that mastered the lowest common denominator of both rock and electronica, but never excelled at either genre.

My opinion is not held by many people, though. Since I haven't listened to anything the band has released since Surrender came out in '99, I figure it's time to see if there's a bit more chemistry between my ears and their sound.

Music: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The production is very good, but We Are The Night is dull. The band still knows how to rock, but they don't go in that direction very often. (When they do, they rock in a very safe and commercial way... kind of like the Foo Fighters.) Most of the music is the safe, light, middle-of-the-road electronica that I've come to expect from groups like Air. "Do It Again" is my favorite track on the album, but it sounds like it could've been on pretty much any Felix Da Housecat 12" from the past five years (which has hardly been Mr. Housecat's best period).

Packaging: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Eh. The constellation motif is kind of neat, and the mountain motif is kind of neat, and the hand motif is kind of neat, yet it's all kind of boring. As with the music, there's just not enough here to hold my attention.

Listen if you like: Easy-to-digest dance music like Air. Those of you who miss Pharcyde should like "The Salmon Dance" (which features vocalist Fatlip), but the song sticks out like a sore thumb. Fans of the sound that made The Chemical Brothers famous won't find much here.

If it were food, it'd be: Campbell's soup. Its watered-down taste appeals to the masses but is utterly uninspired.


His Name Is Alive: presents Sweet Earth Flower, a tribute to Marion Brown

I bought HNIA's debut CD, Livonia, back when I was obsessed with everything that came out on 4AD. It was a wafty and lofty affair that was completely forgettable, even to someone who loved all things wafty and lofty. I watched as HNIA released album after album in the nearly two decades since Livonia came out, but despite a ridiculous amount of critical acclaim, I never felt compelled to listen to them again.

As soon as I saw the cover of Sweet Earth Flower at EPFL, though, I knew I wanted to hear it. Although you can't judge a CD by its cover, Sweet Earth Flower screamed out that it was as different from Livonia as an album could possibly be. Thus, after nearly 20 years apart, I am finally reunited with HNIA.

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Before hearing Sweet Earth Flower, I didn't know Marion Brown from Marion Barry. I had a vague idea that he was a jazz musician, but I couldn't have even told you with any certainty whether he was a he or a she.

Since I haven't heard any of Brown's music, I guess this might be an awful and disrespectful tribute to him. I can't imagine how that's possible, though, because this music is awesome. It's tempered and boundless at the same time. It is wild, yet its restraint is what makes it shine.

Comparisons to Fela Kuti -- particularly the modal arrangements and the relentless energy of the rhythm section -- are completely fitting. The opening track reminds me of Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman," and "November Cotton Flower" makes me remember how it felt to sit in a dark room and listen to Pink Floyd's "Shine on You Crazy Diamond."

Packaging: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The package is simple. It contains two stenciled images (presumably of Brown), some very basic credits, and a statement that a portion of sales will be donated to a charity that helps children in Nepal. That's it. The stencils are well-done, and could easily be featured in an awesome book of street art. It's a shame they didn't say anything about Brown, but I guess they figured anyone who cared enough to listen to this would either already know the man or know how to use that fancy Google thingie.

Listen if you like: Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, Fela Kuti, Pink Floyd, John Zorn, Marion Brown

If it were food, it'd be: an earthy stew with potatoes and legumes and a lot of crazy spices