Two decades ago, new albums and box sets from Ninja Tune, Mocean Worker, Snow 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):
Ninja Tune: Xen Cuts
Rule No. 1 of Martial Arts Movies: Whenever a gang of black-clad, nunchuk-wielding ninjas attack the hero, they can never rush him all at once. Instead, they must all stand around in a circle and attack him one at a time so he can kick the snot out of them.
Meet a pack of assassins who don’t go by the rules: The cutting-edge artists of the U.K.’s Ninja Tune records, one of the world’s premiere hip-hop, electronic and intelligent dance labels. Founded and still run by Coldcut partners Jonathan More and Matt Black, Ninja is celebrating its 10th birthday with Xen Cuts (X=10, get it?), a three-CD collection of new, old, favourite and unreleased tracks from pretty much every act on the label’s top-flight roster, including Herbaliser, Kid Koala, Amon Tobin and, of course, the Coldcut boys. Taken one by one, these acts are formidable on their own. But packed deep like this, they’ll smoke you like a cheap cigar.
Disc 1 comes out swinging, with 18 tracks of primo hip-hop and rap. T Love gets down with the scratch-happy finger-popping funk of QMS. Herbaliser spaces out with the loose and loping De La Soulish groove of 8pt Agenda, propelled by the vocal gymnastics of rhymers Latryx. Amon Tobin enlists rapper Roots Manuva to give his sinister, lurching Saboteur a rich Caribbean monologue. Up, Bustle & Out head downtown with the organ-fuelled acid jazz of Hip Hop Barrio. Coldcut offer up Give it Up, another of their sampledelic, kinetically goofy constructs. But nobody, and I mean nobody, beats the supremely divine Sarah Jones, whose defiant sexuality oozes out of every syllable of DJ Vadim’s simmering groover Your Revolution, their unforgettable reworking of Gil Scott Heron’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. “Your revolution will not happen between these thighs,” promises Jones, her voice dripping with honeyed venom. “The real revolution ain’t about booty size, the Versaces you buy or the Lexus you drive.” Ouch!
While you’re still reeling from Jones’ crotch-kick, Disc 2 comes in swinging for your head with 14 mind-expanding, experimental tracks. Clifford Gilberto’s The 10th Victim provides the synth, strings and Shaft-lick score to a funky detective series that doesn’t exist in this universe. Neptune’s Soul Pride answers the musical question: Can we bring down the establishment with just an old drum track, some bongos and a couple of bleeping and buzzing analog synths? Chris Bowden gives the drummer some on Original Sins, a fat-bottomed slab of funky jazz. Animals on Wheels win the title competition with Build a Church With Your Fear, a slowly mutating lite-funk groove abruptly punctuated by the odd video-game synth braps. Then there’s Ken Nordine, whose Iceberg Slim-cool delivery takes the haunting bongo-jazz of DJ Food’s Ageing Young Rebel down to the poetry slam.
Finally, Disc 3 moves in for the kill, with 14 unreleased and rare tracks. Saul Williams’ Twice the First Time both anticipates and surpasses Moby’s field-holler electronica with its fusion of chain-gang vocals, string loop and human-beat-box. Coldcut’s More Beats & Pieces gets sliced and diced by Tortoise’s John McEntire, who gives it his typical post-rock bleep-bloopist makeover. Hexstatic gives props to the boss with the eastern-themed Ninja Tune, built from samples of an old chopsocki shlocker. My pick, though, has gotta be the live version of Drunk Trumpet from Canada’s own Eric (Kid Koala) San, who shows he can pull off his insanely complex and creative scratch routines without dropping the beat. That’s a knockout on its own.
Aural & Hearty
Sometimes you just gotta dance. Even when you’re a critically acclaimed drum ’n’ bass and acid jazz innovator like Adam (Mocean Worker) Dorn. This multi-talented musician/producer/A&R man — his father is legendary jazz producer Joen Dorn — raised the bar with his previous electronica efforts, which traded in mind-bendingly cinematic textures and painstakingly elaborate structures. On his third album Aural & Hearty, though, Dorn has another goal: He just wants to get down. So he takes off the black turtleneck, dons some rave gear and programs a 4/4 beat on the drum machine to drive dance-floor ditties like the Deee-Liteful Hey Baby or the electro-funky Air Suspension, which features an unrecognizable vocal by Bono. Cutting-edge and intellectual it may not be, but it does live up to the lyrics of one loungecore track: “Supersonic, magnifique, tres, tres cool and tres, tres chic.” Come on baby, do the loco-Mocean.
Perfecto Presents Another World
“Babe,” comes the familiar nasal voice, rising out of a dry-ice swirl of synthesizers and drum-machine thump. “Baby, baby, I’m gonna leave you.” Yes, it’s Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant — or at least his decades-old vocal track — sliced, diced and remixed into a stomping dance-floor filler on British DJ Paul Oakenfold’s new progressive-trance mix album Perfecto Presents Another World. Obliterating all trace of Zep’s dinosaur-rock swagger, this version by British remixer Quiver wraps Plant’s voice in layers of echo and underscores it with keyboards worthy of John Paul Jones, pulling the tune straight into the new millennium. Too bad Oakenfold — who assembled this set with tracks from his own Perfecto label — stops there. After Quiver’s inspired remixing, the rest of this two-discer is deathly pale by comparison, with Oakenfold digging in the crates for remixed versions of Dead Can Dance (Host of the Seraphim), Lisa Gerrard (Sacrifice) and Vangelis (Bladerunner), which he weaves into your standard, hypnotically repetitive house mix. Next time, try more rock and less shlock, Paul.
Avant-DJ Scanner continues his collaborative Meld Series with this second volume starring multimedia artist Stephen Vitiello, an experimental New York guitarist who also works in film and visual art. Fittingly, the six tracks that make up Scratchy Marimba are more soundscapes than songs, with Vitiello and a handful of collaborators — including former Firewater violinist Hahn Rowe on turntables and Scanner manipulating voices and tapes — joining forces on pieces that are more concerned with texture and mood than tone and melody. Loudmouth, for instance, skips along to an ambient, Frippertronic loop and some funky-drummer percussion, while the title track quite succinctly lives up to its name. For the more adventurous, the noise-based Taxi Take Off Turbulence and Landing consists of low-frequency rumbles, mechanical squeaks and a plaintive classical melody, looped and mixed so low it’s almost subliminal. Is this art? I dunno — but I know I like it.
Christened by the sound of an airplane taking off, accompanied by a booklet of pictures from a tropical paradise, electronica and house producer Rupert (Photek) Parkes’ sophomore CD definitely exudes an escapist vibe. It’s only fair — Solaris finds the jungle legend expanding his horizons beyond the confines of the paranoid, hard-edged drum ’n’ bass sound he pioneered and perfected on 1997’s Modus Operandi. Venturing into Chicago-style acid-house and techno minimalism, Parkes stretches out and relaxes, crafting neck-snapping, brittle beats that anchor his wobbling, subatomic bass lines and squirrly, textured synths. Two numbers, Mine to Give and Can’t Come Down, even feature disco diva-ish vocals. Only Infinity offers a bit of trouble in paradise, returning to the darkly complex drum ’n’ bass fans know and love. Tellingly, it’s also one of more focused works on the album, whose lengthy, loose grooves tend to be a long journey that doesn’t really end up anywhere. I hope Photek enjoyed his vacation — but now it’s time he got back to work.
Mind on the Moon
Informer? More like Reformer. Reggae-pop toaster and dancehall bad boy Snow cleans up his act big-time on his fourth CD Mind on the Moon. After the heavy Jamaican vibe of his ’97 flop Justuss, Darrin O’Brien takes blatant aim at the pop charts here. Rubba-dub rhythms and Caribbean melodies are tossed for silky smooth soul and boy-band hip-pop, and even Snow’s boasting toasting — arguably his main strength — is literally pushed back in the mix to make room for crooning vocals on songs like Everybody Wants to Be Like You, one of several numbers that could be an outtake from a Backstreet Boys demo (not surprisingly, BSB and ’N Sync cohort Mike Tucker had a hand in the production). It ain’t totally snow white — the song Jimmy Hat is about exactly what you think, in no uncertain terms. But in the main, Snow’s latest will leave you cold.
Storyteller is a term often applied to folksingers. But rusty-voiced troubadour Richard Buckner really takes it to heart on his riveting new album The Hill. The high-concept disc is based on writer Edgar Lee Masters’ historical Spoon River Anthology, with Buckner crafting 18 intimate musical portraits that join together like chapters into a rich, well-plotted novel. In literary terms, it’s like a collaboration between Faulker and Hemingway — Buckner sketches characters like Oscar Hummel, Julia Miller and Emily Sparks with an elegant economy of words and instrumentation, utilizing rustic instruments and his world-weary voice to deliver bleak, southern-gothic vignettes of love and death that wouldn’t be out of place among the century-old artifacts on the Anthology of American Folk Music. It could be a new chapter in folk music.
Axel Rudi Pell
The Masquerade Ball
Current Eurometal comes in two major varieties: The fantasy camp with keyboards and tight-trousered vocalists belting out overblown songs about wizards and warlocks, and the black-hearted death grinders who snarl and screech about dismemberment and destruction. The title and armor-suited skeletons on the cover of this 11th CD by German guitar whiz Axel Rudi Pell should be enough to tell you which team he plays on. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Pell’s sleek, Blackmore-ish riffs and envelope-pushing solos, aided and abetted by big-lunged singer Johnny Gioeli, give melodic metal numbers like Voodoo Nights and Tear Down the Walls a classic rock cast that would easily win over fans of Scorpions, Rainbow and old Bon Jovi. Which is more than you can say for the average death-metal act.
Like their handle suggests, this DJ collective features an axis of some of the turntable world’s superpowers. This six-member outfit — including teenage Canadian scratch-master A-Trak — boasts resumes loaded with world titles and awards. Here, instead of battling each other, they collaborate on some seriously smoking hip-hop, rap and dance tracks. And I do mean collaborate — A-Trak, Develop, Spictakular, J-Smoke, Infamous and Craze each get one solo track and then take turns cutting it up on three mind-bending, scratch-fest group endeavours. Walking a line between dancable grooves and engaging head-candy sonic collages, The Allies are as unstoppable as a tank. Let the invasion begin.
Although he flies way below the radar of North American pop culture, Chris Knox is a major figure on the indie-rock scene in his native New Zealand, thanks to his lengthy tenure as one half of lo-fi garage popsters Tall Dwarfs. I doubt his latest album — his 11th, by our count — will do anything to elevate him from beloved cult figure on these shores. More’s the pity. Beat, an ode to love in all its many twisted forms, features 13 tracks of charming home-recorded simplicity, fuzzy sugar-pop and cockeyed wit that kinda sound like a union between early Go-Betweens, The Violent Femmes’ more low-key moments and Dylan if he could loosen up a little. As an added DIY bonus, Knox includes not only the lyrics but also the chord changes and horn charts so you can try this at home, kids. But even if you can imitate Knox, few can truly duplicate his disarmingly charming style.
In her day job with New York mellow-pop troupe Madder Rose, Mary Lorson shares songwriting duties with guitarist Billy Coté. With her new side-project Saint Low, she takes the reins with a set of self-penned ballads. Obviously there were no hard feelings — Coté helped produce this dozen tracker, which showcases Lorson’s husky, sultry rasp against a backdrop of moody torch-ballad noir and melancholy slow-pop. With her quiet, smouldering intensity, Lorson sometimes recalls Fiona Apple minus the vocal gymnastics and wrist-slash instability. Other times, she’s a bit more like the Cowboy Junkies’ Margo Timmins — or even Sheryl Crow on some of the rockier tracks. Either way, Saint Low shows enough promise that she could give up her day job if she wanted.
I presume the diminutive suffix in this Vancouver indie-roots trio’s name is there both in honour of and as a way to distinguish themselves from late great San Francisco folk-rock outfit Flophouse. But whether Woodland is homage or not, singer-guitarist Jon Wood and his bass-and-percussion rhythm section certainly distinguish themselves on this impressively low-key debut, a homespun piece of lo-fi back-porch Americana in the vein of Radiogram or 16 Horsepower. Wood possesses both a world-weary Westerbergian sorrow and a breezy, gentle rasp which, bolstered by his natural way with a melody, elevate quietly simple tracks like Things I Coulda Been and Sorry Alibi into touching tales that are as compelling as an overheard confession. Jr. or no, Flophouse are second to none.
Into the Abyss
Once in junior-high electrical shop, I accidentally grabbed both poles of an outlet while the juice was on. I got a good jolt that left us with ringing ears, a mild headache and a sensation somewhere between a scalding burn and a painful tingle. Which, to get to the point, is sorta how I felt after listening to Stockholm’s death-metal trio Hypocrisy’s 10th album. With hair-raising intensity, singer-guitarist Peter Tagtgren tosses off high-voltage, lightning-bolt riffs and spews unintelligible napalm-fuelled invocations; meanwhile, the hell-bent-for-leather rhythm section gallops pell-mell through a volcanic, apocalyptic landscape of bludgeoning intensity and relentless frenzy. Before you unleash the power of Into the Abyss, be sure you’re well grounded.
If you Rewind, be kind. And for heaven’s sake don’t just sit there and listen to it. In fact, the first thing you can (and perhaps should) do when you open it up is put aside the music CD. It’s the other disc — the enclosed CD-ROM — that elevates Rewind from just another high-concept dance-music album into a stunning and ground-breaking achievement. First, it contains eye-popping, full-length multi-media videos for all 11 music tracks, turning competent if predictable fare like Vector and Bass Invader from the usual collection of thumping beats and arcade-game samples into sumptuous, tranxfixing eye candy for your computer. On top of that, it has two extra tracks not on the CD. And if that isn’t enough, it also contains an interactive function that allows you to cut and paste various song samples — the slamming car doors and exhausts of Auto, or the talking heads of Deadly Media, say — into your own custom remixes. The two graphic artists in Hexstatic say Rewind is the world’s first true A/V album. I hope it’s the first of many for them.
If Johnette Napolitano had become a computer programmer instead of a Concrete Blonde; if Dale Bozzio were a stewardess instead of a Missing Person; if Debbie Harry had stayed a brunette Bunny instead of becoming a punk-rock Blondie. Had these rock ’n’ roll stories ended up differently, Car 44 singer Dahna Rowe would have the whole angry-alt-rock-sex-kitten-diva-vocalist field to herself. Unfortunately, as it stands, her all-too-familiar combination of pouty brattishness and husky, big-lunged power just reminds you of all the talents who have obviously influenced her. Of course, if you miss all the women above and want to hear a perfect carbon-copy — complete with the ’80s-style bar-rock of her backing trio — then Car 44 is definitely going your way.
The Remix Album … Diamonds are Forever
Diamonds aren’t the only thing that’s forever. The big, brassy voice of Welsh pop belter Shirley Bassey is eternal. Electronica duo Propellerheads figured that out back in ’98, when they enlisted her help on the James Bond/John Barry tribute track History Repeating on their decksanddrumsandrockandroll CD. If that track started the ball rolling, here comes the avalanche — 10 classic Bassey tunes remixed by some of the U.K.’s brightest dance-music lights, including Mantronik, Nightmares on Wax, Groove Armada and yes, the Propellerheads, who offer a suitably noirish techno take on Goldfinger. Interestingly, some of the more obscure artists turn in the more exciting work, like Kenny Dope’s give-the-drummer-some funk of Light My Fire, DJ Spinna’s syncopated drum ’n’ bass revamp of Spinning Wheel and Wild Oscar’s Hey Big Spender, which exchanges the classic bump ’n’ grind for neck-snapping wah-wah disco funk. You might find yourself shaken — and stirred.