Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Music from or inspired by ...

Last Night
Score: 5

Moby has already had what could be considered a full life cycle, going from obscurity to club fixture to cult figure to household name to household name that never comes up.

Last Night attempts to step back to his early '90s club days, but it lacks the hyperkinetic energy of "Drop a Beat" or "Electricity." His female vocalists, too, are more subdued. Compare "The Stars" to "Ah Ah" or "Go," both on his 1992 self-titled release. "The Stars," somewhat of a combination of those tracks, uses a quick cut of a crowd cheering (playing the role of the "Go!" chant) and replaces the quasi-gospel "Ah ah" with the quasi-gospel "I see the stars." Near the end of its midsection, vaguely eerie synths --- not unlike the "Twin Peaks" ones he sampled to great effect in "Go" --- sneak in.

The main sample of "257.Zero" should be so lucky. A woman, possibly an air-traffic controller, intones, "Two, five, seven." Then, "Two, five, seven." And again, "Two, five, seven." And finally ... "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, zero."

Maybe there's a cool dance Moby could do with it and an audience, but it's dead on record.

"Everyday It's 1989" is one of the few tracks that does justice to his earlier works. The piano run and the crisp beats build each other up as a diva hollers and the synth layers beam in like lasers.

By contrast, "Alice" and "I Love to Move in Here" don't resemble what he's done before. Instead they point, perhaps, to Moby's next creative stage. Both are collaborations. "I Love to Move in Here" shimmies with a Brazilian rhythm, and versatile session vocalist Chrissi Poland provides Reddi Wip-light coos that flank an underwhelming appearance by Grandmaster Caz, whose old-school detour lasts for all of 40 seconds. "Alice," a foray into hard-edged territory, bristles with bass feedback and features the show-stealing flow of MC Aynzli of Nigerian group 419 Squad.

Moby's smart to pass the mike to his guests. Hotel foundered in part because he sang lead on almost every track. Although he can carry punk rock-styled songs, like Play's "Machete" and Animal Rights' "That's When I Reach for My Revolver," his voice remains the weakest of his attributes. His strongest might be his strings. Moby's strings have always kissed the sky.

In the liner notes, Moby writes that Last Night is about two things: "trying to take 24 years of going out in nyc and condensing it into a 65 minute record" and "trying to condense an 8 hour night into just over an hour of music."

On the first count, the album misses by a mile. In no way does it approach the variety and scope his statement implies. New York City birthed whole archetypes of music that aren't represented here. Of course, this is Moby's album, and he can interpret that 24-year orgy of sounds as he sees fit. He comes closer to his second goal, as Last Night holds to the basic structure of a dance mix, building up the tempo, then bearing down or easing back, depending on whether it's time for a breather (although its last third locks you in the chillout room). Again, though, it's in Moby's hands how that hour plays out, and considering that Last Night is on the New Releases shelf, there's a good chance this is exactly how he wanted it to sound.

But the theme seems like window dressing when you consider that all those years and styles and nights and venues, when boiled down and shaped into songs, all come out sounding like Moby. Whether it's the mystérieux intrigue of "Hyenas" or the stately contemplation of "Mothers of the Night," there's no way you'd mistake the songs for anyone else. Then again, maybe that's the point.

Archives at your fingertips

I wasn't completely satisfied with Blogger's archiving system, so I created an easier way for you to access past reviews. Now you can check out any you missed the first time around, or any you want to revisit, or any that catch your eye.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

New tricks (and new hoes)

for an old Dogg

Snoop Dogg
Ego Trippin'
Score: 6

Big Snoopy's gettin' long in the toothy. Outlasting gangstas and canines alike, Snoop Dogg asserts his longevity on his ninth album proper. Over 21 tracks and nearly 80 minutes, he shows that, if anything, he still has lots of energy.

Ego Trippin' runs the gamut, from the house-party bass bumpin' of "Sets Up" to the chipmunk soul of "Those Gurlz"; from the piano clank of "Deez Hollywood Nights" to the back-porch acoustic strum of the Everlast-assisted "My Medicine." "Cool" is a dead ringer for Prince, all synth vamps and drum machine. Snoop and a crew of producers traffic in familiar templates, but they do it with considerable skill, making Ego Trippin' a relatively streamlined grab bag.

Rumor was, Snoop was going to sing on this one, and while his parts aren't unmistakable --- he's not trying to outdo Ne-Yo here --- he does occasionally rest his rap to play with vocoder and some studio treatments. And you can hear his naked voice behind the cabaret chorus line in "Deez Hollywood Nights."

'Course, with his smooth, blunted flow and his outsize personality, it's not like he needed any new tricks up his sleeve. But we'll take 'em. It's fun to hear his Prince, since both have such a special connection to the bedroom. Snoop decides to go the extra mile for his partner, devoting a track to ... well, it's called "Sexual Eruption."

Overall, though, it's clear Snoop hasn't gone soft (so to speak). His No. 1 concern is still Snoop D-O-Double-G, and most women don't advance beyond the status of playthings.

It seems a bit incongruous that he details his sexual exploits with the hoes, then dedicates a song or two to the wife. He even refers to her by name on "One Chance (Make It Good)": "Shante, what more can I say? / But, baby, look at us today / Your husband's a boss, the kids is cute / The king of the coast with a gang of loot."

In "Gangsta Like Me," which blares cinematic horns for drama, he tells of a fan inspired by "my nasty video," otherwise known as his Hustler film "Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle." He doesn't turn her down, but he makes sure to note, "We can do our thing, but you can't be wifey."

Did the encounter really happen? There's Snoop the person, and there's Snoop the persona. There's fact, and there's fiction. But with this album, the line is all blurry. Within the first minute of Ego Trippin', Snoop alludes to his TV show, "Snoop Dogg's Father Hood." "Neva Have 2 Worry" gives us the CliffsNotes version of his career. In "Deez Hollywood Nights," he says of Jessica Alba, Jessica Simpson and Jessica Biel, "I let 'em all come to my back table / Roll up and lick the paper if they able." And that wily Leonardo Di Caprio "slide me new hoes everywhere we go."

Regardless of whether that's true, the expansion of Snoop's fame through the years has made more of his boasts plausible. His real life now competes with his larger-than-life character in the way of extravagance. Snoop has appeared in "Training Day" with Denzel Washington. He has his own line of hot dogs. On the Showtime hit "Weeds," he's played himself. (Is that even acting anymore? Their script would be tied to your reality!) He's made it as a rapper, an actor, a TV star and a porn director. The memoirs can't be far behind.

No, wait: They already came out. Nine years ago.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Now Scything: Mike Doughty,

The Raveonettes, Goldfrapp

Mike Doughty
Golden Delicious
Score: 5

Relax, James Van Der Beek, you're off the hook. Ex-Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty isn't busting up a Starbucks this time around. But aside from that, Golden Delicious could be Part II of Haughty Melodic. It's another round of sunny pop melodies with a liberal helping of quirkiness and acoustic guitar. Doughty hasn't forgotten the days of El Oso, throwing in Spanish ("Wednesday [No Se Apoye]") and quasi-rap ("More Bacon Than the Pan Can Handle"). And his favorite triumvirate --- women, cars and food --- remains intact. Soul Coughing fans will probably miss the inventive musicianship, but Doughty's moved on. He's mellowed out, favoring the schoolhouse nostalgia of "27 Jennifers" over the rumpled brio of "I Miss the Girl." If you want it black, you'll have to go somewhere else.

The Raveonettes
Lust Lust Lust
Score: 7

Lust Lust Lust expands the playbook of Danish duo Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo, if only slightly. Their Jesus and Mary Chain idolatry continues full-tilt, but on a few occasions the Raveonettes use conspicuous beats to punch up their songs. Lead-off track "Aly, Walk with Me" doesn't so much walk as swaggers, the kick-kick-snare rhythm giving it body. Overall, though, this album, like their others, is all about guitar. The Raveonettes work on two levels: fuzzy and fuzzier. Usually they favor a gentle approach, relying greatly on reverb to construct their sound net. But in "Aly, Walk with Me," they unleash torrents of distortion. The aggression is a welcome constrast to the rut of similarity they can sometimes trap themselves in. The album's real treat is "You Want the Candy," a sparkling euphoria of chimes over surf-rock guitar. Each chorus delivers another rush of Pixy Stix rapture. Of course, it's not as innocent as it comes on, with "I hooked myself on you" and "I plowed my way through hell" being a good indication that when the Raveonettes sing, "Gimme some C," the C doesn't stand for chocolate.

Seventh Tree
Score: 4

Restless as always, Goldfrapp make their fourth album another transformation. They shed their Supernature nightclub gear, take the back door, and step straight into a field of dewy wheat stalks. Wait a minute: Where'd the field come from? In the holodeck world of Seventh Tree, images are transitory. Sounds, too. Forgettable, in other words. Principally soft and airy, Seventh Tree whiles away its 40-some minutes drifting through a pastoral landscape. But the easy-listening strings and acoustic guitars can't shake the electronic touches that peek through like cracks in the simulation.

Introducing ... Now Scything

I'm pleased to announce a new feature today, Now Scything. Now Scything will be comprised of condensed reviews, and it will run less frequently than my standard reviews. This will provide a greater variety in review form, and it will allow me to cover more albums.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Doing the twist

The Magnetic Fields
Score: 7

Distortion takes many forms on The Magnetic Fields' follow-up to 2004's i. Naturally, there's the noise component: reverb, feedback, collision, convergence. But there's also ideological distortion.

On "California Girls," and on many other memory-teasing pop songs, band leader Stephin Merritt scoops out the messages we thought we knew and pours in his own. Merritt rejects the Beach Boys' portrayal of California girls as beings worthy of lust and fascination, and he channels his contempt for their carefree lives into a song designed to evoke idyllic, early-'60s surf rock. Manipulating that fun-in-the-sun vibe, he assails California girls as vapid, cruel, social climbers embodying plastic perfection.

Though he wrote the song, collaborator Shirley Simms sings it, a gender switch that obfuscates the writer's identity and intent. It's no longer a man bashing women; it's a woman bashing women. Or is it? We never find out the character's gender. In any case, Simms' sweetness disguises the bitter lyrics, making the chorus, "I hate California girls," as inviting as a piece of cherry pie. And because of that, when the song enters "Scream" territory, implying the use of "battle ax" literally as well as figuratively, it doesn't jolt us.

Merritt uses these tactics throughout Distortion. For "Too Drunk to Dream," he turns what could have been a Saturday night party song into a bludgeoning night of drug abuse.

It's catchy.

Lyrically, though, it describes a vacuum of self-destruction. Similarly, "Drive On, Driver" soars on an REO Speedwagon-esque melody, despite being about a character crushed to learn that his inamorata (or her inamorata) has stood him (or her) up. The sexual ambiguity echoes the album cover, a symbol of a man attached to a background of hot pink, a symbolically feminine color.

Merritt is shrewd to alternate vocal duties with Simms, keeping his sepulchral bass from overwhelming the album's balance. His dour croak on "Old Fools" would be a heavy weight to bear if not for Simms' chipper foil on "The Nun's Litany." In that song, a nun has thoughts that would make her sisters run for confession. She says she longs for a life as, among other things, a topless waitress, a go-go dancer, a dominatrix and a porn star.

The fact that the longings of the nun were written by an openly gay man and routed out the mouth of a woman puts a number of twists on the song, and it opens the way for questions about gender politics and suppression in the name of religion. We gain perspective on the nun's wish to be a brothel worker when she adds, "I've always been treated like one."

Like the movie "Far from Heaven," Merritt's songs pull back history's whitewashed curtain to reveal all sorts of repressed realities: homosexuality, depression, loneliness, animal sacrifice.

Who knew they sounded so good together?