If I could avoid getting sick and avoid working, I’d be doling out musical opinions all day/everyday. You’d love it, really. Alas, that’s not the case, but here’s the stuff I’ve been mulling over for the past few distracted weeks. May they tickle your iPod like they’ve tickled mine.
In the middle of “Make Some Noise,” the first track off of The Beastie Boys’ long-awaited Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, MCA sums up their new record perfectly, “My rhymes/They age like wine as I get older…” That’s because no matter how old they get, MCA, Ad Rock and Mike D. understand the hip-hop genre better than anyone, and their skill is still mesmerizing, even 3 decades later. Falling somewhere in between spaced-out funk, unhinged hardcore, and absurdist/synth inspired 80s hip-hop, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two is the best Beastie Boys album since 1994’s Ill Communication. “Nonstop Disco Powerpack” is a rush of rag and bone percussion, stitched together with booming stand up bass and warped record scratches. Elsewhere, “Say It” heaves with rusty feedback while “Too Many Rappers (New Reactionaries Version) (Feat. Nas)” benefits from stadium sized beats and crunchy keyboards. Unlike the often dry To The 5 Boroughs or the laid back instrumental detour The Mix-Up, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two showcases an aggressiveness to the Beasties’ genre bending that hasn’t been heard in a while. Hot Sauce is HEAVY, boasting a deep, fuzzed-out thickness that adds might and muscle to cuts like the blitzkrieg-inspired “Lee Majors Come Again.” Of course the real cherry on top is the Beasties themselves, still boasting the best collective rap chemistry in the game. Even in their 40s, they come off tight, fresh, and smooth, often like a fine Chardonnay. “I got Shark’s teeth that’ll bite your head/I got Tiger’s claws that’ll scratch you dead…” MCA boasts on the head banging “Long Burn The Fire,” showcasing just how far other MCs have to climb to get to their level of flawlessness.
Key Cuts: Nonstop Disco Powerpack, Long Burn The Fire, Lee Majors Come Again
To say that Danger Mouse loves the 60s is an understatement. His career is predicated on taking sounds that have cracked with age and brightening them for today’s listeners. That’s been his bread and butter for a while now, especially when you consider The Grey Album, Gnarls Barkley, and Broken Bells. Yet Rome is a beast of a different color entirely, even if it borrows heavily from Enno Morricone’s spaghetti western scores and Danger Mouse’s penchant for vintage. Together with Italian film composer Daniele Luppi, Danger Mouse has created something that falls in-between film score and side project. Cuts like “Morning Fog” and “Her Hallow Ways” come across pristine and expansive, constructed with technicolor strings and rumbling percussion. Yet the real masterstroke is enlisting the vocal talents of Norah Jones and Jack White, both of whom add just the right touch of tension and melancholy to the sonic backdrop. Jones’ smoky allure shines brightly on “Black” while White’s in full on outlaw mode during the twitchy guitar pluck of “Two Against One.” While nothing on here rivals “The Ecstasy Of Gold,” it doesn’t need to. Rome is the perfect blend of rustic homage and modern refinement. If Danger Mouse continues to cobble together this much talent for his music, Trent Reznor might have some competition come Oscar time.
Key Cuts: Season’s Trees, Two Against One, Black
Aside from rocking differential diagnoses as Dr. Greg House, Hugh Laurie simply rocks out on Let Them Talk, his decisive leap into American roots music. Though Laurie has always been known as one hell of an ivory tickler (even during his days on A Bit Of Fry & Laurie) it’s here on Let Them Talk that his talents come out front and center. Throughout the disc’s 15 tracks, Laurie leads his band through blues classics with shambling percussion, heaving horns, and wobbly steel guitar. While his singing voice lacks the coarseness often associated with New Orleans jazz/blues aesthetics, Laurie sells it well for operating in the more nasally end of the spectrum. “Six Cold Feet In The Ground” finds Laurie’s anguished wail lurch forward in waves of deft piano and spidery lead guitar. Let Them Talk won’t WOW anyone for being particularly innovative, especially since it draws from the fine (but familiar) traditions of Robert Johnson, Ray Charles, and other blues icons. But it SOUNDS good, full and muscular rather than some slick, major label disaster you’d expect a TV star to produce. It’s Laurie’s execution and natural charisma makes these classics sparkle, in every down and dirty groove and rustic vocal run. In the end, Let Them Talk is not only a fine edition to Hugh Laurie’s marvelous career but to anyone that’s jonesin’ for a dose of old time, jazz club panache.
Key Cuts: Six Cold Feet In The Ground, Police Dog Blues, Let Them Talk
Ambition is scarce in a singles driven music landscape. Yet unlike the slew of faceless one-hit wonders that populate the iTunes charts, Manchester Orchestra are itching to say something important, both in their sound and in their thoughts. Decidedly less heavy than their previous album, Simple Math is their bid for crossover recognition. If those words scare you, they shouldn’t. Chief songwriter Andy Hull doesn’t aim to make his crisis of faith and weak self-esteem issues more palatable, he aims to make them dynamic. The soft keys and sleepy slide guitar of “Deer” gives way to the angular crunch and sweeping strings of “Mighty” for one of the year’s most powerful album openings. It doesn’t stop there, “Virgin” sports an ominous southern rock groove set against chiming xylophone, defeated brasswork, and a downright spooky children’s choir. Overall, Simple Math is brighter than it’s predecessor, less punky but no less short on energy. The group stretches it’s quirky take on indie rock and marries it with Queen-like grandeur, Ozma-style hooks, and pristine production. However, the real meat and potatoes are Hull’s lyrics, which find him examining his life and his relationships like a careful surgeon. On the album’s revealing title track, Hull attempts to connect the unconnected portions of his life, set against the cinematic swoop of strings, drifting guitar atmospherics, and mammoth walls of distortion, “What if I was wrong and you had never questioned it?/What if it was true, that all we thought was right, was wrong?/Simple math, the truth cannot be fractioned…” In the end, it doesn’t take a mathematician to see that Manchester Orchestra are destined for great things, 3 stellar albums into their career.
Key Cuts: Mighty, Virgin, Simple Math
Every so often there’s a rap album that personifies the idea of the Hip-Hop Boogeyman, the one that’s going to send us down the road of no return. 2011’s version of that is Goblin, the latest creation from the Odd Future’s musical general, Tyler, The Creator. Taking minimalist cues from Public Enemy and sprinkling them with some spaced-out jazz grooves, Goblin’s dense, spectral-laced production offers an interesting counterpoint the richness currently lauded in mainstream hip-hop. Yet it’s Tyler’s rapping that’s the real sticking point. A clumsy MC, Tyler spends a great deal of these 15 tracks conversing with his pitch lowered “therapist,” allowing listeners a glimpse into his supposedly dark psyche whilst offering a few “If anything happens, don’t ****ing blame me White America….” warnings a few bars later. It just goes to show you how disposable his thoughts are. Goblin is a record that survives solely on Tyler’s misplaced rage, anti-gay/rape-murder fantasies, and shock-rap appeal, rather than substantive expression. The slinking “Yonkers” finds him lashing out at everyone from Bruno Mars to Hayley Williams while “Sandwitches” is simply another entry about what he can do to the female anatomy. Bloated, gratuitous, and grim, Goblin is the sound of a teenage hip-hop star that thinks Relapse is the best record of all time. Tyler won’t ever save hip-hop, but once the buzz dies down, we’ll forget him like all the Boogeymen that came before.
Key Cuts: Yonkers, Nightmare, Tron Cat