Sunday, April 29, 2012

Grimes: Visions (2012)


(4AD)

Claire Boucher, Canadian performance artist and musician under the name Grimes, favors a sprightly, punkish electro-pop not fully dissimilar to Crystal Castles, but less immersive and with a stronger top-40 influence. That's led many to approach her as an indie-grade populist, and admittedly there's some pop-worthy weirdness and oddity to be found here, starting and not concluding with the heavy metal-grade cover art. But the aggressive banality of her songwriting and its distinctly anti-pop tendency toward bland mindlessness seem to undercut some of the more intriguing tendencies she shows off here.

That "performance artist" title is key to understanding exactly what's going on within Visions, which though overhyped is certainly one of the more sharply independent and nuanced albums of the year, clearly recorded and released by someone completely aware of what she was doing and the fuss it would cause. She approaches the LP in the form of a DJ spinning twelve-inch singles, melding grooves into towers of bliss -- but she's the sort of DJ who doesn't give the game up ever, at least not until very very late in the night (long after the crowd has probably left, therefore long after the album has finished). The pleasures she offers are limited and curiously opaque; in the same vein as the Weeknd, she's setting up artificial roadblocks to connecting.

The presentation is certainly fine, though; you can feel her bobbing her head and programming the hooks on "Genesis" and "Oblivion," two excellent early cuts that fulfill the promise of the dark, dense synthpop you might hope for. The only serious debit? Boucher's vocals, which tend toward the emptily twee and flat, and not in a manner becoming to the songs she's singing. This doesn't distract too much at first, but as the beats and backdrops grow more repetitive and less inspired, her cooing and belting seem increasingly like some sort of put-on. And you get that sinking feeling that you're listening to essentially a dilution of a Japanese pop mix CD some high schooler put together in 2001.

In the interest of balance, it's fair to note that it's not hard to imagine Visions working tremendously well as a party album -- just at a very, very specific sort of party, and again, extremely late at night because this is defiantly not a midnight or even 1:00am record, it's most certainly 3:30 or 4:30am, like Waffle House hours. Boucher's potential is considerable; she crafts lovely soundscapes that can tease and twirl enthusiastically, but there needs to be a bit more development and depth happening before she can really live up to the attention afforded this release. As it is, Visions is a limited-appeal project that somehow broke through; one hopes this does no harm to Grimes' chances for future success, but right now people are hearing the potential more than the music.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Chuck Berry: After School Session (1957)


(Chess)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

This isn't a time capsule, or a dissertation, or any definitive blistering rundown of the early triumphs of Chuck Berry, St. Louis' giant among giants and the true King of Rock & Roll. This is an LP in a carefully orchestrated, staggered and designed sense clearly meant for listenability. It excludes the first three major Berry singles, anyway; "Maybellene" and "Thirty Days" are both missing though their b-sides are here, and "You Can't Catch Me" is noticeably absent as well. It sounds odd, but this resistance to the "instant greatest hits" scenario -- it would've been easy and tempting to replace the instrumentals and blues slow-burn incidentals here with the hits, after all, and there couldn't have been much artistic impetus to do otherwise in this era long before the legitimate supposed "art" of the rock long-player -- improbably makes the record stronger. Its pacing feels deliberate, it impresses and seduces methodically.

The result, thanks to a seamlessness of aesthetics and a healthy spreading around of the greatest wealth in the master's early catalog, is a definitive context for the classics included here. We open with one of Berry's first true manifestos, "School Days," which begins with a sardonic play-by-play of the trials of teenhood before allowing total release and a rolling over of Beethoven: "Hail, hail rock & roll! / Deliver me from the days of old." It's grand when you really think about it, and permanently prescient and universal. But like the other masterpieces included here, it's really just extraordinarily adept dance music before any of its literary aspirations, which are plentiful but not emphasized on this record. The verbose anthem to end them all, "Too Much Monkey Business," finds Berry spitting out phrases that give him solidarity with a working class he well understood, having already spent plenty of time with all the mentioned annoyances of work and life -- nearly every line, in its speed and wisdom and humor, with nary a breath between ideas, is immensely quotable: "workin' in the fillin' station, too many tasks / wipe the windows, check the tires, check the oil, a dollar gas, aahhh!" -- but its agelessness comes from its pounding beat and flawlessly angry-beautiful guitar lines.

The second half opens with one of Berry's most sumptuous singles ever; what it lacks in the innovation of "Too Much Monkey Business" and the thematic hugeness of "School Days" it compensates in its pure poetic fervor and breakneck pacing. With the confidence and spark of the master storyteller he is, Berry runs down through the ages with a sampling of the many triumphs caused by and for the "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" -- it takes little perspicacity to recognize "brown eyed" as meaning something else entirely, and this stunning rock & roll song becomes a musical empowerment.

It sounds so right to hear the four classics (many rank the ballad "Havana Moon" below the faster cuts, but not me; it's exciting, romantically sad, and beautifully sung, and then there's that world-shaking "OWW!" in the middle of it) broken up in this way you almost can't believe that the general preference among Berry's fans is the hit-after-hit structure of The Great Twenty-Eight. That's a splendid experience, but this is something else that can actually provide the listener with even stronger appreciation for Berry's gifts. There's no question that the choice cuts elevate the rest of the material; instrumentals "Deep Feeling," "Roly Poly," and "Berry Pickin'" mean little out of context, but here they provide moments of reflection amidst all the ruthlessness.

To boot, there are some songs here that deserve a careful level of attention and warrant far more affection than they've received over the years. "Wee Wee Hours" is difficult to argue with anyway, a piano-driven and genuinely shaken blues, and the same goes for the quite delightful "No Money Down" -- a fan favorite that reminds me of the Coasters' later "Shoppin' for Clothes" with Berry's own love-and-car numbers -- but don't discount the oddball ballad "Together (We'll Always Be)" which positions Berry as a sort of cracking Dion in a rather charming plaintive vocal rare for him. The record closes with two exquisite but forgotten atmospheric pieces that richly deserve rediscovery now; both exhibit the neglected cinematic quality in Berry's writing. "Down Bound Train" sounds like the lost overture from some John Ford epic, while "Drifting Heart" positively aches with romance and the film noir night-sky fever of Sweet Smell of Success. No one would argue that "Drifting Heart" deserves a place among Berry's top classic singles, but it alone makes this album worth buying -- which says a great deal about the quality control in the performer's music at this stage.

As composer, musician, and singer, Berry is much more than professional on this protracted debut. He's crafting consistently fascinating and elegant music that rather well deserves the setting Chess provides for it here. It's a small slice of Berry and '50s Berry in particular, of course, but whoever put this sequence of tracks together and presented them in this fashion deserves a veneration that history hasn't really provided. I'm not saying you ought to make this the first Chuck Berry record you pick up, but along with One Dozen Berrys, Chuck Berry Is on Top, and especially St. Louis to Liverpool, it's as essential to your library as one of the compilations. It's not mere archival history, though that's a part of it, it's all so immediate. There's so much pleasure in even the filler, you won't regret a run through the early LP discography at all. I shouldn't have to tell you how rare that is amongst '50s pop stars.

[SEE ALSO:]
The Chess Box (1955-75)
The Great Twenty-Eight (1956-65)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Madonna: MDNA (2012)


(Interscope)

My emotional investment in Madonna's career is such that I can't really put together a normal and coherent review of this. Instead, in the inimitable but highly readable style of Sampo, my notes on MDNA:

  • The title was M.I.A.'s idea and seems like either an ill-advised bid for relevance or an awful pun, though it could make genetics students happy I guess. I also object to the cover of the regular edition which is her blandest since the putrid American Life and appears to me to be a reactionary move against the ageist ranting and raving about the cover art of her last two records -- which were ugly, honestly, but not because she was in sexy-mode on them. Not that I'm saying Madonna should feel obligated to slap some risque provocation upon every release, not least because the "Girl Gone Wild" single cover is pretty dull too -- just that I prefer something that doesn't look like an issue of Fast Company. And I just don't like the idea of giving a bone to the types who think Madonna's somehow wrong to explore her sexuality into her fifties.
  • Like so many other current pop records, this suffers from its broad mishmash of producers, which render the final product uneven and jarring. This was clearly Madonna's decision and I have to believe this is to some extent, like so much else about MDNA, a reactionary move, resulting from the criticism leveled everywhere (these quarters included) at the trend-following production by the Neptunes over most of Hard Candy.
  • On the whole: her voice, improbably, continues to improve and the album features some of her best singing. But so did American Life.
  • In contrast to the bleak outlook of Hard Candy which essentially cast a longtime innovator as a behind-the-times explorer of trendy aesthetic dance-pop and Hot 97 values, MDNA returns Madonna to the top tier of mainstream club music and pop radio, in form if not content. To borrow a somewhat ageist turn of phrase, it's the record of a "young" artist -- though we think of it that way strictly because Madonna is redefining what it means to be an aging pop musician, which for someone of her stature and gender is really uncharted territory.
  • Unfortunately, the record's steeped in a flavor of pop that isn't particularly suited to her. The opener and second single "Girl Gone Wild" goes down easy enough but is really just "Hung Up" without its retro persuasions. She blends in shockingly well with a certain class of modern club music but that's just it -- she blends in! This effect isn't too different from Hard Candy, genre aside.
  • The Benassi brothers contribute that cut and the sillier "I'm Addicted," which features the rather intrusive M-D-M-A chorus, but these songs do both sound perfectly seamless with Top 40 at the moment even if they don't exactly stretch any conception about Madonna or any definition of pop music -- but has she really done that in the last twelve years anyway?
  • The first dud is "Turn Up the Radio," which retains a '90s arena-club sound but is run aground by subpar songwriting -- this isn't anything unique, though; think of it as Madonna Filler Type A, the decent beat and poor hook that usually clutters up most of her albums at least once. I'm honestly more bugged by "Superstar," which seems to me the worst song here and I don't think just because its chorus is one of the dumbest things she's ever sung (oddly calling to mind the song the little girl sings in I'll Do Anything) -- it's the generic hook and the vocal mixing that crush it. Madonna's voice shouldn't be out in front so much on a song like this.
  • The two "credibility songs" wear better than the last album's dreadful "4 Minutes." M.I.A. doesn't really do much here, but Nicki Minaj proves an enjoyable match for Madonna -- "Give Me All Your Luvin'" is derailed slightly by the horrendous cheerleading motif but is a decent single otherwise, blistering from idea to idea at breakneck speed. Better yet is the direct Minaj collaboration "I Don't Give A," bringing pleasant memories of "Human Nature" and an enjoyably unrestrained attitude.
  • But the central problem with MDNA is that about half of it is produced by William Orbit and though a couple of his selections are a bit of a bore ("I'm a Sinner" and the goofy W. soundtrack item "Masterpiece"), you can't help wishing he'd been involved in the entire record. That's a measure of how brilliant a job he does with Madonna's ruthless Nancy Sinatra-inspired dubstep "Gang Bang," undoubtedly her best song in about seven years. That cut and the deliciously barbed-retro throwback "Love Spent" could return Madonna to the status of premier dance musician if released as singles. It's the first time she's sounded several laps ahead of the curve in a good while.
  • I also enjoy Orbit's "Falling Free," which just about put me to sleep the first time but is on reflection the kind of Madonna ballad I've sort of missed; it could fit pretty seamlessly on Something to Remember, surely more so than the already overrated "Masterpiece."
  • The Orbit songs sear mostly, and there are some other bright spots, but overall: I don't know if Madonna has really succeeded in retaining the creative restlessness that would carry her through many more records like this. It's frustrating because she's well in control of her career, has made good decisions and hasn't exactly done anything wrong -- she's kept up with the rising producers who'd bring her often great ideas to fruition and has done a fine job of keeping her place in the pop music scene. But the level of songwriting she was exhibiting up to about 2005 seems to continue the dry spell it showed on Hard Candy. I happened to hear "Physical Attraction" in the middle of reviewing this and the difference is dramatic -- her voice was so much thinner then, and less expressive really, and at its best the production on MDNA is arguably just as strong and intelligent as the work on those earliest classics -- but the song is so incomparable to anything here in terms of its immediacy, depth, and appeal. Only "Gang Bang" and perhaps "Love Spent" can even approach the joyous thrill of something like "Physical Attraction."
  • But goddammit, she isn't less good simply because she's older. She's trying harder than almost anyone and in many ways she's succeeding. And not that it's relevant to this review, but her being fifty-two also doesn't make her "ugly" or gross and doesn't disallow her from expressing herself sexually. It's wonderful that she's unafraid to do so, and fuck anyone who objects to it.
  • (Relevant to that and to the prior review posted here, incidentally: if Madonna or anyone else seeks validation for a pure-sex album that in fact celebrates aging, the most recent B-52's LP, Funplex, is a flawed but largely successful example of just that. It's much stronger in this regard than any of Prince's recent work, for instance, to cite a just as important artist who's done a far poorer job than Madonna of keeping market share and relevance.)
  • It's really a pity that MDNA, despite its #1 entrance on its first week, has sold so poorly. Even though I can't really promote it, it does my heart badly to imagine a world in which a new Madonna record is no longer an event -- that's been true for my whole life. What's heartbreaking is that unless there's a very quick turnaround time on the next LP, which I doubt given the large-scale promotional effort being planned for this one, I can't honestly say I'll be terribly excited for the next one either.
  • Again, it's not something I think she can help unless she comes up with more songs with the honest-to-goodness inexhaustible appeal she was displaying not so long ago, because she's technically better than ever. Her last genuinely successful and innovative recording was Music from 2000; since then, her best work has been the unabashedly backward-looking Confessions on a Dance Floor, an excellent album that kept some layer of modern mass appeal while exploring fervently the roots of Madonna's career. This gives me one small bit of hope: can we finally, finally have that Pet Shop Boys collaboration? These are the two longest-running dance artists who've remained relevant, and arguably the two best ever. They were supposed to help out on Hard Candy but Warner Bros. nixed it. Warner Bros. is out of the picture now; Neil and Chris would be thrilled to work with Madonna, I'm certain. It's about fucking time, I say.

    [SEE ALSO:]
    Hard Candy (2008)
  • Thursday, April 19, 2012

    The B-52's (1979)


    (Warner Bros.)

    HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

    Like your train's ready to collide with it, the opening notes chime away and then stomp a bit while Cindy Wilson begins her swinging stride with that simple "remember?" and the phenomenal, alert and immediate crush of it is magnified all the more by the knowledge of what's coming, of which the song, "Dance This Mess Around," provides not even a hint. Wilson shows little patience with pleading for your cooperation, instead insisting and chiding and demanding in the listless, independent howl that launched Kate Bush, Björk, Merrill Garbus, and need we go on: "WHY DON'T YA DANCE WITH MEEE?" Fred Schneider shows up to egg her on with jokes and surreal pronouncements about how "they do all sixteen dances," but Cindy's is the total performance. Kitsch this and kitsch that, and she does of course proceed to help Schneider with those "yeahyeahyeahyeahyeahyeahs" and conjure up wacky names for the sixteen dances in question -- but the enduring, lasting reality of this moment is its completely unironic celebration of a female identity as undiluted, undisguised, unmanipulated. Its cumulative impact could make you cry.

    If you weren't too busy dancing, that is, which you are. Voice of experience: this record was a greater comfort to me than a thousand Nick Drakes in a state of grief some years ago, and I remember thinking exactly: "How can I be sad when this music exists in the world?" Not just when it's playing, when it is possible. The closest analogy might be a Gene Kelly musical; there's something that heavy and life-affirming in these oddball grooves. And filmic influences permeate, of course, starting with the melodramatic Peter Gunn interpolation in the overpowering new wave dance opener "Planet Claire," a genuinely otherworldly creation that sets the stage with joyous curiosity.

    In short, it's an empowering album, and the first half particularly is the sort of four-cut run that makes you believe again: "Planet Claire" into "52 Girls" into "Dance This Mess Around" into "Rock Lobster" is pretty much as good as the pop album gets for such a stretch, and to have it all dressed up with this sly, unabashed Southernness and, again, empowering femininity and, yes, adventurous / ambiguous sexuality, is something that flies far beyond art-student bohemian retrotainment. "52 Girls" is a classic, for instance, wholly separate from any such concern despite its wry pop-culturalist lyric; it's the melodies, the hook, the bottomless unexpected turns the guitar line makes, the shoegaze-predicting soar of the vocals.

    Something as simple as individuality and assertiveness can, at a level this basic, form the guts of art. "52 Girls" is expressive enough, but the willful surrealist play throughout, borrowed as it is from the terminally underappreciated Yoko Ono, could've proven some kind of massive consolation to a certain sort of teenager, the same as that "WHY DON'T YOU DANCE WITH ME?" Fred, Cindy, and the iron-voiced Kate Piersen wind their way gleefully through deeper cuts like "There's a Moon in the Sky (Called the Moon)" and the greatly amusing "6060-842" with inexhaustible showmanship and enthusiasm; even the Spector groups were positioned behind a haze of constant threat. This is people doing something, doing it for them and for you.

    The visceral clash of that power and the surface-level kitsch peaks and explodes certainly on the grand, unedited "Rock Lobster," which prattles on for seven minutes nearly with an increasingly unstructured chutzpah that often threatens to lose track of its own disco thrust -- especially when the three vocalists begin to rattle off the names and sounds of "a dogfish / chased by a catfish" and of course Schneider's all-time classic "There they saw... a rock / It wasn't a rock."

    Guitarist Ricky Wilson is the backbone and voice of this extraordinary band at this point in their career, making them surprisingly closer in this regard to fellow new wave stalwarts like Blondie and Television instead of the equally dance-infected, genre-defying Talking Heads, who were driven almost wholly by their rhythm section. Wilson's loss would prove catastrophic for this band, but his consistent incisiveness and sense of fun as a guitarist infuses the first four B-52's LPs with a charismatic voice and firepower. The dynamic of the B-52's in their early years is a wonder to revel in, frankly; the only analogy I can think of that seems so rich in its multigendered, positive communal drift is the Fugees, and they lack the familial unity here.

    Yeah, the second half of this LP is a huge dropoff from the first, but by then you're so knocked over with giddiness you'll barely even notice, and "Hero Worship" and "Lava" keep the fire burning well enough; it's a party with a built-in hangover. You'll visit both for the rest of your life.

    Saturday, April 14, 2012

    Burial: Kindred EP (2012)


    (Hyperdub)

    This is a mellowing of, arguably, dubstep's premier practitioner -- formerly anonymous twiddler and Four Tet schoolmate William Bevan. Though it has moments of obliquely pretty affect, more ambitiously fragmented and screwed than the numerous works of lesser artists in Bevan's wake, and is certainly a technically strong performance -- divided in two lengthy suites of clipped, soulful noise and an afterword -- it still doesn't work for me. Expansive though it is, it seems to be to be drilling further and further down a clanging, arrhythmic road I can't go down -- but it's got an 89 or something on Metacritic so file this under "things I felt obligated to acknowledge here but don't really have a strong feeling about or desire to ever listen to again."

    Sunday, April 8, 2012

    Angie Stone: Black Diamond (1999)


    (Arista)

    This is another bargain bin item, but with its pedigree -- Stone cowrote much of, and sang backup on, both of D'Angelo's albums -- it seemed worth a plunge. The impression that there's something here is aided by a contemporary memory of the song and video "No More Rain (In This Cloud)," both of which hold up as a strikingly individualistic "moment" of sorts in the often compromised and homogenized, "safe" world of neo-soul.

    Unfortunately, this well-meaning album has very little presence and is fatally backward-looking, the semi-hit owing considerably to a Gladys Knight & the Pips sample which is by far the most musically audacious moment of the sprawling, overlong record. Stone has a pleasant if sometimes overworked, actorly voice, but what she lays down here is the same sort of benign, easily acceptable R&B that stormed the charts in the late '80s thanks to the likes of Anita Baker. Well-sung, technically proficient, thoroughly inoffensive -- well, until the generic lite-jazz cover of "Trouble Man," which is pretty offensive. This is elevator stuff; it probably sounds great at the Limited but isn't much fun to actually listen to.

    But Stone's had a hand in some superlative popular music, so we'll assume the production (by about twenty different people) here is just misguided and won't write her off.

    Wednesday, April 4, 2012

    The Shins: Port of Morrow (2012)


    (Columbia)

    !! CAUTION !!

    Read my Metro Times review.

    [SEE ALSO:]
    Wincing the Night Away (2007)

    Neil Young: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)


    (Reprise)

    HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

    Sadly drowned out in what might have been the greatest year in history for classic rock albums, Neil Young's breakthrough solo effort Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is both a quantum leap over its predecessor and an assertion of a true artist whose work exists wholly outside the plane of his brilliant material crafted with Buffalo Springfield, whose work he would soon overshadow. Young's sophomore record captures here a stirring and unique moment of self-assertion. Triumphant though it is, and remarkably out-of-time, it's absent of the warmth and passionate subservience to beauty that would render Young the premier rock & roll singer-songwriter of the '70s. There's a streak of darkness to it, a desolate bleakness untempered by the harmonious grace of CSNY's "Helpless" or even the showboating rockist relief of "Southern Man" or "The Loner." Living up to the John Ford expanse and emptiness suggested by its title, Nowhere can be described as an often truly unforgiving record.

    This is best exemplified by the deceptively lilting but finally mad "Round & Round," a circular duet that gradually magnifies its dirgelike intensity until the rubber band seems poised to snap. The other moment of heaviest dread is the bogged-down "Running Dry"; both songs seem more conceptually significant than the brighter country-rock interludes, the title cut and "The Losing End," that nevertheless suggest the most bottom-hitting kind of heartbreak. All are as evocative as the best of Young's later work, and all continue to lure despite the dour mood they strike up.

    Nowhere is structured intriguingly, with three pillars linked by these contextual episodes. The three major songs are among the most memorable and harshly confrontational in the classic rock catalog; shirking his own lyricism, Young goes for the jugular. The riff rocker "Cinnamon Girl" is nicely economical and does slightly call back to heavier Springfield tunes like "Leave," but its towering guitars give vent to their own agenda while the wonderfully unhinged vocal seems to come from a different world entirely, that delightful incongruity a key element of Young's '70s appeal falling into place. The track wouldn't sound out of place on any of his subsequent major albums, save perhaps Harvest.

    That highlight is inevitably shoved aside by "Down by the River" and "Cowgirl in the Sand," as much as it sparkles out amidst the songs that amount to conceptually charged interludes. "River" is a large masterpiece that illustrates the entire LP's structure by opening and closing with the melodic bliss of Young's nasty, nihilistic, delirious murder ballad and generating in between the two renditions nearly seven minutes of stark guitar catharsis that sometimes seems as wildly off the handle as Dave Davies' much shorter frenetic solos on the earliest Kinks singles. What's most disturbing is how Young lends such sing-song beauty to his horrifying lyric, though he gives the game away entirely in the complex muttering, pleading, obsessed screeching of his vocal. Like David Bowie, he can sound horrendously off-mode with the expressive ideals of a brute without ever being difficult to listen to or admire. That's conceptual mastery, the skill he's gained seeingly overnight here.

    "Cowgirl in the Sand" might be an even stronger piece, even if its deceptions are less complete and less artful; it's a responsible paean to male aggression, toward a married woman or simply a strong-willed woman, that sympathizes with but challenges the reductive and vaguely misogynist reasoning of its babbling character. Adoring and angry, fiery and complicated, it's a lot to get your arms around but marvelously eloquent and felt ("hello ruby in the dust / has your ring begun to rust?"), challenging to Young's maleness, the maleness of his audience, and to itself. It's a mark of the times that it satirizes the half-assed sex revolution feminism of so many young men, but by absorbing such attitudes into a larger and more surreal study that bears out the larger pattern of the LP, it transcends its time and place.

    The mystery is why we want to visit that time and place so often; it doesn't seem pleasant, certainly not naturally cathartic and righteous like what we hear in the later Young records. But its brooding sense of loss and futility carries a surprisingly constant power to move and relieve. As suggested in the darkest, most haunting and hopeless moments of "Down by the River," it's a mournful, desperate fever dream -- true art, messy and viable.

    Monday, April 2, 2012

    Curren$y: Muscle Car Chronicles (2012)


    (Def Jam)

    !! CAUTION !!

    What the fuck!? Okay, I guess we needed another reason to compare Curren$y to Bob Dylan because now we have his equivalent to Dylan's legendary 1973 album Dylan, a set of shit outtakes he didn't want released but his old label did so anyway. So here's this Curren$y 'rock' album that he didn't want released either, and he's long gone from Island/Def Jam now, having issued his subsequent tapes and albums on Warners, but this long festering thing appeared out of nowhere a few weeks ago.

    It's pretty bad, although Curren$y acquits himself nicely -- his flow is solid and there's an appealing economy to his words, though you can tell this was recorded three years ago by how he talks about "search engines." And a couple of cuts are so morbidly fascinating they become good fun, "Frosty" kind of a Carnival of Souls organ burlesque, and "The Strangest Life" a kitschy wonderful sing-song thing somewhat suggestive of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon theme song I can't quite place.

    Otherwise, this is a lot like listening to Curren$y rap over an Endless Boogie or Black Keys album. All the songs are short but still really tough to get through; the same goes for the album, which comes in under twenty minutes but is still being weirdly promoted as an LP; looks like the cover art took more effort than the haphazard, generic music. I get why he's suing Island over this -- it worsens his market glut and makes it seem like he doesn't know at all what he's doing, which I'm pretty sure (but not positive) he does.

    At least it comes with a "bonus disc" of producer "Sean O'Connell's" (not the "Irish footballer" and not Sean O'Casey) instrumental tracks, which I bet all fifteen of the people that actually buy this will totally totally listen to.

    See the movie.

    [SEE ALSO:]
    Pilot Talk (2010)
    Pilot Talk II (2010)
    Return to the Winner's Circle (2011)
    Weekend at Burnie's (2011)
    Verde Terrace (2011)
    with The Alchemist: Covert Coup (2011)

    J Dilla: Donuts (2006)


    (Stones Throw)

    !!! A+ RECORDING !!!

    Where has this music been all my life? I don't know how or why I skirted past J Dilla's Donuts when it dropped, familiar until the last few weeks only with his work as an outside producer and some of his business with the beloved Slum Village, but immersing deeply in this extraordinary record I find that despite the universal adoration it's been afforded -- just six years after release it's already an acknowledged classic -- it still doesn't feel as if its earth-shaking, life-affirming genius is sufficiently appreciated. Stretching the bounds of dance and pop music in a manner other mashup architects -- even the greats, like the Avalanches -- couldn't reach, Donuts scores because it's so infused with passion, and because although it's an instrumental sample-based recording, it's steeped in hip hop: as an attitude, a culture, a breath of exuberance, a kick against tragedy.

    Tragedy, though, is an inevitable fixture here -- Dilla, born James Yancey, was fighting for his life in hospital as he created this final album, the victim of a rare blood disease that left him suffering and wheelchair-bound during his last tour in fall 2005. The label fitted him with a sampler and a toy turntable during an excruciating inpatient stay the prior summer, and it was there that he sorted through the sounds and married the beats and grooves and eccentricities together to make Donuts, as direct and communicative a piece of craftsmanship as a producer's ever likely to conjure up, establishing a wonderfully unique relationship with the listener. There's a sense, sure, in which you can hear Donuts as the chaotic last bid for self-expression, but it's also a selfless experience -- Dilla couldn't have known if he'd ever get the chance to witness this music in its ultimate joyous application, moving and shaking people, but he engineered it all in a quiet room and knew.

    Donuts consists of thirty-one semi-formed songs, typically structured nontraditionally as a marathon of hooks -- separated, fused, turned upside down. It feels like a genuine act of discovery and a manifestation of the producer's plainly unfettered love of sounds and words. There's such wit here, the way "you'd better stop" confronts a brief and funky STOP, all around the wanderings into a deconstructed and dissected soul rabbit hole. There's attitude, of course, all the vibrant hip hop of Slum Village rechanneled into the manic expressionistic energy here, defiantly original music at odds with its drab, bleak origins as much as with all notions of serious avant garde music, to which this edges far closer than 2 Many DJ's and the Avalanches and their ilk ever did, ever could. Even as a fan of Since I Left You, it's inescapable that this is the true masterpiece of musique concrete body music, no longer any kind of a contradiction. It teases you but you feel it all over.

    Dilla's impromptu record collection, rumored to have been generated from flea markets near the hospital at which he was staying, gives him a motif: the addiction to groove, the kind of moments you want to loop over and over on a pop recording (the blistering heaven of "Last Donut of the Night" a standout example), here tantalizingly thrown together, absorbed, and taken apart again, usually before you're ready for them to pass. The songs nearly all flicker out after less than two minutes, Dilla too impatient and restless to bear down and fester with something, eager to move on to the next idea. The result is a frantic pace that rewards constant repeated listens, details revealing themselves gradually and always offering some new combination of bluster and noise to focus on. This last time, I was newly enchanted by the sleazy, crazed horns on "Glazed," and how I could sense the lifelong tropes of the slow-jam turned on their heads in "Time: The Donut of the Heart."

    But most of the pleasures are as immediate as on any great rock & roll recording. Dilla's wit becomes evident and infectious right away, and you're in his hands by "Airworks," ready to sing along with that killer "I don't really care" L.V. Johnson sample as many times as he'll allow, which isn't many. The ballsy and magical "Lightworks," conversely, leaves you ready to reward him with all kinds of hyperbole about turning culture, Beautiful Music, futurism, nostalgia all around as not a fusion or a junky irony but as an irreverent but appreciative new art, designed to delve and consider and challenge but give unceasing pleasure. You can hear how much fun the creative process must have been, and how much it must have become something to live for -- it comes through, becomes ours, all that joy and grief that extends out to the softly melancholy Sylvers-inspired "Two Can Win" and that shattering interpolation of the obscure Escorts on the breakdown of "Don't Cry." When little moments are all the record's willing to give, you collect and cherish them all.

    It's hard not to relate all the workings and intricacies of Donuts to Dilla's pending death and how much he knew or didn't know. It seems an unlikely death album until you find how much you can hear a resignation when the piano gets lifted from Martha Reeves' "Sweet Misery" or the sense of celebration on the clever "One for Ghost" comes across somehow as a Last Chance with so much abandon and grief, "U-Love" like a Jerry Butler pillow to which we retire. And the brilliant "Hi," indeed, becomes a romantic funeral march of sorts, "Last Donut of the Night" one last wistful note, but all with the surreal application of the sultriest and raw of eccentric, bold soul music. The eroticism here is nothing if not an assertion of what finally matters most, in music and everywhere. If it's a surrender to mortality and flesh, it's a balanced and mature, optimistic one.

    Music had to be everything to J Dilla in those last months more than ever. Maybe busy hands were just happy hands, and maybe the creative process was just an end to itself, as it so often is for the seriously ill. But his gift to us, if we can take it as such, was a collection of a kind of new secular, found-art gospel that doesn't merely expand the boundaries of hip hop as an art form but of the medium of the album itself, as a teasing and minimal but sprawling, inventive and breathless journey that seems to almost perpetually live to explore its own edges and repeatedly move out farther beyond any perceived limit. Hard to escape the idea that we were denied so much more from this brilliant young man who should have had decades left to refine his craft, but more than half a decade after his death, he's still ahead of everyone -- by a longshot.