Two decades ago, new albums from Macy Gray, Kristin Hersh, Basement Jaxx and others were spinning away in my portable CD player. Here’s what I had to say about them back then (with some minor editing):
On How Life Is
If any new artist out there is the voice of distinction, it’s Macy Gray. Indeed, it’s impossible to discuss this hip-hop singer/songwriter’s stunning debut album without first discussing her equally stunning voice. As a child, she says, she was so mercilessly teased about her little-girl rasp that she stopped talking for a time; even after becoming a songwriter, she was so self-conscious she didn’t even think of singing until a gal who was supposed to record one of her songs didn’t show up at the studio. When she opened her mouth, everyone else’s jaw dropped.
As did mine — Gray’s voice, while not technically amazing, has a sound that’s unforgettable. It’s the sort of transcendent, one-of-a-kind entity that whips critics into a simile-spinning frenzy: It’s like Betty Boop crossed with Rod Stewart. Like Tina Turner singing a duet with Eartha Kitt. Like Carol Channing covering Billie Holiday. Like … well, you get the idea. Actually, you really don’t until you hear her. Because her voice is like all of the above and like nothing else you’ve heard before: It’s soulful and gritty, it’s charming and sweet, it’s tender and evocative, it’s sexy and raw.
Remarkably, so is this wonderfully varied 10-track set of songs featuring lyrics by Gray, set to tunes performed by a crack studio band including former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Arrik Marshall. That old-school-meets-new-cool vibe is evident in songs like Why Didn’t You Call Me, Do Something and the tongue-in-your-cheek Sex-O-Matic Venus Freak, a potent mix of slick ’60s soul, superfly ’70s funk and bouncy ’90s hip-hop.
But perhaps most important is what On How Life Is does not contain. There are no overproduced ballads, no gangsta raps, no diva histrionics. Just real-deal funk and inner-city soul, served up with wit, grit and sass. To put it another way, let’s just say Gray’s musical voice turns out to be just as distinctive as her singing voice.
This is purported to be the soundtrack to a long-lost ’70s blaxploitation flick that was pulled after two days for inciting violence. Call me cynical, but I suspect that’s about as legit as The Blair Witch Project. But whatever; even if these soul-powered tracks aren’t the real deal, they sure sound real. And real Superfly — figuratively and literally. The finger-popping bass licks, percolating organs, chicken-scratch guitars, falsetto vocals and bongo sprinkles seem lifted straight from Curtis Mayfield’s classic score. These folks may be faking the backstory, but they ain’t faking the funk.
Awesome Mix Tape #6
If you recognize the title from Boogie Nights — it was the name on the psycho coke dealer’s Sister Christian cassette — give yourself a point. But Washington, D.C., ska septet Pietasters aren’t just playing movie trivia here; this is also a perfect title for the impressively eclectic third CD. You get yer zippy ska-punk; you get yer old-school Jamaican blue beat; you get yer grinding speed-punk and pop-core; you get yer Stax-Volt Memphis soul — and you even get a hilarious comedy number called Me No Wanna Lickee You Down There — all dished up with plenty of spunk. All that’s missing is a ska cover of Sister Christian. Now THAT would be awesome!
A while back, Throwing Muses leader Kristin Hersh was thrown over by her own muse — the songs she’s always claimed just pop into her head stopped coming. So for the first time, she sat down and made up tunes from scratch. Which kind of makes her new solo CD Sky Motel her first album — and it’s a damn fine debut. As you’d figure, it’s her most controlled effort yet, both in the songcraft (a dozen tracks of lean boho-rock and quirky folk-pop that fall between Patti Smith, Liz Phair and Julianna Hatfield) and in the performance (she plays nearly all the instruments). Sure, you might miss the tense unpredictability of her earlier work. But there’s no denying Hersh’s best muse may turn out to be reality.
Red House Painters
If Lou Reed’s wrist-slash opus Berlin is your idea of make-out music, then Red House Painters’ Mark Kozelek is your Barry White. This dramatic, downbeat San Francisco singer/songwriter could make Curt Kobain seem happy-go-lucky; he’s spent his career languishing in KC’s Leonard Cohen afterworld, so he can sigh eternally. This two-CD retrospective gathers together the beautifully dark gems of his band’s first four discs, along with outtakes, demos and live cuts. My favourite: A cover of Ace Frehley’s Shock Me, drained of all power and reduced to a bleak, world-weary dirge. Call it The Kiss of Death.
Canadian blues geek Chris Whiteley (not to be confused with his darker American counterpart Chris Whitley) has been nominated for five Junos, played on umpteen albums and appeared on Saturday Night Live backing Leon Redbone — yet he still flies way below the pop culture radar. His new disc Blues Party could be the one to raise his profile. True to its title, the live-in-the-studio disc has the loose, laid-back feel of an after-hours jam, as Whitely leads a big band from Bourbon Street to Michigan Avenue and back again, laying down jazzy jump, dirty blues and 12-bar originals that could pass for standards. Hip enough for the retro swingers, authentic enough for the true-blue purists — and commercial enough to turn Whiteley from a Juno nominee to a winner.
These days, it seems every electronica act wants to make art. Well, Basement Jaxx just wants to make you move your body. Remedy is the perfect remedy for the recent trend towards boring, overblown techno: An hour of jubilantly funky house jams that have all the exuberant immediacy of improvisation. Of course, they’re not spontaneous — the boombastic rhythms, instrumental interplay, inventive samples and goofy vocals all make it very clear these new Jaxx swingers have spent just as much time in their bedrooms with their record collections as the Chemical Brothers. The difference is, they make it sound like they never left the party. And that’s an art all to itself.
The Birthday Party
Live 1981 – 82
There are plenty of bootlegs, but no official, approved live album from these blues-based, post-punk legends led by the young and unhinged Nick Cave. Live 1981 – 82, featuring 17 songs culled from guitarist Mick Harvey’s personal tape stash, addresses that oversight. Actually, it addresses it, stamps it, drives it to the freakin’ post office and shoves it down the mailman’s throat. Future Bad Seed and murder balladeer Cave is as intense as a hostage-taking here, howling and growling like The Cramps’ Lux Interior on drugs (or perhaps even more drugs), as the band — at the height of its powers — primal steams through classics like Junkyard, Dead Joe and The Stooges’ Funhouse, with all the sturm und clang they can muster. It’s their Party, and they’ll fry if they want to.
Lower East Side Stitches
You might recognize these New York City sewer rats as the punk band from Spike Lee’s ’70s drama Summer Of Sam. They sure didn’t change their sound for the film — hell, I bet they didn’t even change their clothes. From the tips of their Mohawks to the soles of their Doc Martens, the superchaged L.E.S. Stitches are the reincarnation of every young, loud and snotty band that ever played CBGB for the cover. And this grafitti-titled debut is straight from ’77: The Ramones’ blitzkreig-bop beats, Steve Jones’ pretty vacant guitars and Johnny Thunders’ junkie nihilism, sonically reduced to punk rock’s core elements — three chords and the truth.
Pretend I’m Human
This is going to sound weird, but I swear it’s a compliment: Orange 9MM are the McDLT of rap-metal. Like the burger that came with the patty and the fixin’s individually packaged (slogan: The hot stays hot, the cool stays cool), this New York trio manage to weld heavy riffs and hip-hop rhythms without getting them all over each other. On this third outing, they bring the noize in the form of squealing, snarling axework; they give up the funk with some solid, neck-snapping stickwork. What they don’t do is dilute it with cliche rubber-band guitars, lame white-boy B-boy shtick or cheesy scratching. In other words, the metal stays metal and the funk stays funky. They’re two great tastes that taste great together.
Black Gangster might be the coolest concept for an album I’ve come across lately: A soundtrack based on a book by ’70s black crime novelist Donald Goines. Jay-Z, Ja Rule, DMX and a posse of lesser gangster-rap lights take the late author’s rags-to-riches morality play about a — you guessed it — black gangster and spin it into an album’s worth of high-grade odes to money, macking and thug life. Granted, the fact that virtually every rap song ever written is about money, macking and thug life kind of lessens the impact. Even so, Black Gangster is still above average — and anything that spreads the word about the criminally overlooked Goines is OK in my book. Now, how about a soundtrack to Daddy Cool?
DJ Tall Paul Newman is this year’s It Boy on the U.K. dance scene — he’s produced and remixed everyone from Duran Duran to JS16 and his Midas touch to turns dross beats into gold records. Duty Free (also the name of his record label) is as much of a resumé as an album: There’s just one of Paul’s tracks (two mixes, natch), flanked by his remixes of tunes from The Son, Robbie Rivera and others, along with cuts from other Duty Free acts — all seamlessly woven into a 74-minute dance mix. More of his own tuneage would make this feel less like a K-Tel album, but based on his DJ skills alone, it’s easy to see why Tall Paul stands head and shoulders above the dance floor pack.