Yearly Archives: 2001

Strength, courage and wisdom

All right, all right, so is late in getting hip to India.Arie — I’m here now, okay?

And she’s everything everyone said she’d be: optimistic and intelligent, smart and spiritual, sexy and humble.

Whether she’s eschewing show business’ criteria for beauty or reinforcing a holistic perspective on omnipotent wisdom, India.Arie comes across as honest and knowledgeable.

When she sings “I see the God in you,” even recovering Catholics can find comfort and solace in her words.

If a person never pays attention to Arie’s words — virtually impossible when she sings such alluring lines as “Brown skin/I don’t know where yours ends/I don’t know where mine begins” — her music speaks volumes.

No overproducing. No glossy synthesizers. No canned beats. No cookie cutter sentiments.

Yup. That acoustic guitar gives Arie’s music an incredibly organic feel, and those restrained beats certainly give credence to the idea of “less is more”.

But Arie is no show-off. She doesn’t indulge in the vocal histrionics of Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston or any number of bombastic divas featured on VH-1. And it’s that control which contributes heavily to her cool factor.

It’s no surprise that Sade invited Arie to open her first tour in eight years. The two singers share a creative kinship — soulful music that draws its power by looking within.

“Strength, Courage and Wisdom”. It’s a title to one of Arie’s songs. It’s also an apt description of Acoustic Soul.

Here’s an album that speaks across all genres. File under: R&B for People Who Hate R&B. Or better yet, file under: Good Music.

It’s never too late to discover.

Authority figure

Don’t think all the PR-machinery hype about Alicia Keys’ classical training has any bearing on her music.

Classical training frowns on improvisation and intuition, and a style of music as freedom-loving as R&B couldn’t be more at odds with the western art music establishment.

What Keys’ training does give her, however, is confidence, something that definitely comes across in Songs in A Minor.

For the most part, Keys’ debut doesn’t offer anything earth-shattering. She more than likely studied Beethoven in school, not Schoenberg. As such, the 15 tracks on A Minor are just your standard hip-hop/soul/jazz fare.

Songs such as “The Life”, “Jane Doe”, and “Mr. Man” offer mid-tempo, pitter-patter beats, funky 70s bass work, glimmering guitars and huge, gospel-choir backing vocals.

But they’re delivered with such an impressive presence, even listeners who couldn’t tell Jill Scott from Mariah Carey can recognize something distinctive about Keys.

She’s all over Prince’s “How Come You Don’t Call Me”. She hammers her point on “A Woman’s Worth”. And she stands her ground on against the slick beats and fancy arrangements of “Girlfriend”.

The word bandied about by listeners and reviewers alike is “mature”, and for someone as young as the 20-year-old Keys, it’s certainly an apt description.

Keys could have very well geared her music for the teens and pre-teens that have the music industry by the financial balls. But she has her eye on the future, and maintaining that maturity — while still growing as an artist — ensures she’ll be around for some time to come.

Songs in A Minor is an impressive enough debut for non-R&B fans to enjoy. Keys may not be as flamboyant as Macy Gray, versatile as Lauryn Hill or even holistic as India.Arie, but she does have an incredible sense of who she is and can become.

Stretching out

In the rush to find the next Macy Gray-Eryka Badu-Lauryn Hill, Res (pronounced “Reese”) seems to have fallen through the cracks.

While India.Arie and Alicia Keys occupy the clichéd spotlight, Res quietly arrives with one of the rocking-est R&B albums set to digital.

Res isn’t content to just paint within the urban lines — she draw as much from rock and other music as she does soul and hip-hop

“Golden Boys” traffics in the kind of grandiose string-and-timpani arrangements more akin to David Fridmann’s work with the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev than to Marvin Gaye. “They-Say Vision” hums along with a backbeat that feels closer to 70s rock bands than to 70s souls bands.

“Ice King” may have a hip-hop beat driving it, but the underlying, haunting guitar hook sounds more Latin. Dub rhythms ease their way onto “If There Ain’t Nothing” and “700 Mile Situation”. Res even goes so far as to sample the Cure’s “Other Voices” on “Let Love”.

Such flourishes makes more traditional R&B tracks — “The Hustler”, “Sittin’ Back”, “I’ve Known the Garden” — feel even more grounded.

As a singer, Res can hold her own against everyone else in her peer group, but she can stretch when she needs to — especially on the more rock-influenced tracks.

She’s forceful on “Golden Boys” but sweet on “Ice King”. She dominates on “How I Do” but draws in on “Tsunami”.

Urban music fans will find a lot to like about Res, and more importantly, people who can’t stand R&B will find Res positively appealing.

How I Do is bold, proof positive that urban music doesn’t need to be ghettoized in its own section of a record store.

Cock rock sans cock

Lennon Murphy would be pretty cool if only Youjeen weren’t around.

On her debut album 5:30 Saturday Morning, Lennon stabs a territorial flag on the male-dominated metallic jock rock of Limp Bizkit, Alien Ant Farm and Korn.

And like her Korean-born counterpart in Japan, Lennon could pretty much use Fred Durst to mop the floor.

Growly, buzzsaw guitars, creepy synthesizer effects, larger-than-life drumming — all the hallmarks for a Vans Warped Tour band are never in short supply on 5:30 Saturday Morning.

“Mommy’s in the closet finding God,” Lennon coos in the opening lines of “Property of Goatfucker”. “I’m on my knees finding you.” Once she’s established that kind of sentiment, ignoring the rest of the album is difficult at best.

Lennon is a powerful-enough singer, able to belt out a chorus when the guitars crash in, able to draw back when the strings and keyboards take over.

And while she’s got more than enough fury to spread over 12 tracks, she’s no screamer. Before Youjeen, that would have been all fine and good. After Youjeen, Lennon comes across as, well, relatively tame.

But Lennon is far more capable of just ranting at fakes, manipulators and liars.

Toward the middle of the album, lilting compound rhythms on “I Hear” and “Thank You” provide a nice contrast from the bombast that started things off.

On “Asking You”, Lennon indulges in power balladry that never comes across as false, while the title track concludes the album with only Lennon and a piano.

5:30 Saturday Morning is, as the saying goes in music criticism circles, an impressive debut. If you can’t afford to spend $30-plus tracking down Youjeen, settle for spending $10 on Lennon.

The future’s so bright

In an interview with the Austin Chronicle, Bruce Robison revealed he only recorded albums as a way to shop his songs to other artists. That somehow implies that he really didn’t intend for himself to be the premier interpreter of his own works.

It shouldn’t, however, stop anyone from finding Wrapped, his 1998 major label debut with Lucky Dog/Sony, or his latest album, Country Sunshine, released on his own label Boar’s Nest.

Country Sunshine finds Robison’s getting back to the heart of his talent — exceptional songwriting. Unlike the scattered and rather brief Long Way Home From Anywhere, Sunshine works as an album while still managing to stretch Robison’s core country and western foundation.

Credit some of that cohesion to the vocal contributions to wife Kelly Willis. Forget the George Jones/Tammy Wynette comparrisons — Robison and Willis are the Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris of today. (And it sucks to think I’m not the first person to arrive at this conclusion.)

Willis provides a velvety sweet foil to Robison’s earnest drawl. Her presence subconsciously strings together the divergent styles Robison employs throughout Sunshine.

“Bed of Ashes” calls to mind the Parsons/Harris masterpiece “Love Hurts”, while “Friendless Marriage” updates the dynamic Robison forged on “Angry All the Time”, now a hit for husband-and-wife country úber-duo Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.

Robison must have caught a few Asylum Street Spankers and 8 1/2 Souvenirs gigs since recording his last album. “Devil May Care” has a country-meets-swing vibe totally at home with the folks in both bands. It also helps that former Spanker Eamon McLaughlin contributes his clean fiddle-playing on the track.

Then there’s “What Would Willie Do”, the sure-fire favorite among reviewers. When Robison delivers the line about “taking a deep breath, then letting it go”, it’s a classic case of comedy and music co-mingling without resorting to obvious gags.

The rest of the album reads like that old joke about what happens when you play a country record backward. (Answer: Your wife comes back to you, and your pick-up truck gets fixed.)

Lyrically, Robison’s songs on Country Sunshine paint well within the lines of acceptable country music themes — broken hearts, good ol’ boys, that sort of thing.

Musically, his songs traffic in keeper melodies that seep deeper into a person’s consciousness with each repeated listen.

Back to the future

Rolling Stone magazine once said Roland Orzabal was the missing link between the Cure and Sade.

Long after Tears for Fears shout, shout, let it all, Orzabal continued to marry post-punk moodiness with classic rock and jazz-pop.

Taking the TFF moniker for himself after Curt Smith went his own way, Orzabal hammered out one hook after another on 1993’s Elemental and 1995’s sadly overlooked Raoul and the Kings of Spain.

Orzabal has now reclaimed his name and updated the aesthetic that marked his early career with Tomcats Screaming Outside.

It’s classic Orzabal — a comfortable blend of dance floor beats and rocking guitars.

But the dance music of today bears little resemblance to the analog beats of 1980s new wave. It’s all techno, drum ‘n’ bass, jungle and whatever other labels clubgoers imagine.

“Ticket to the World” opens the album with ethereal synthesizers that could have been recycled from the Songs from the Big Chair sessions, but as soon as a drum ‘n’ bass rhythm kicks in, it’s totally modern.

From there, Orzabal drives his beefy guitar lines with four-on-the-floor beats and growly, thumping bass lines.

“Hypnoculture” includes Deep Forest-like world music sampling and a vaguely-“Vogue”-ish bass pattern. “Bullets for Brains” and “For the Love of Cain” return Orzabal to the big choruses that marked “Head Over Heels” and “Break It Down Again.”

“Under Ether” indulges in a bit of Tricky/Maxinique-like darkness. “Day By Day By Day By Day” is a Robert Wyatt-inspired song disguised as a trip-hop fantasy.

In other words, Orzabal has come full circle. He’s reached back into the past only to find the future.

But this time around, it’s a future that’s more kinetic, more fluid than the thump-whack beats of the 80s. Combined with Orzabal’s knack for ear-catching melodies, this future seems like destiny.

Get your tunes on

Under all those distorted synthesizer effects, under all those grinding guitar riffs, under all those gravel-y vocals, this album’s got its tunes on.

The Mad Capsule Markets (previously spelled as the curiously hanging possessive The Mad Capsule Market’s) have spent the last 10 years perfecting its so-called “digi-hardcore-punk-metal” sound.

But really what Kyono, Ueda Takeshi and Miyagami Motokatsu are doing is burying some singable melodies under a barrage of pumped-up noise.

Nowhere is that more apparent than on Osc-Disc, The Mad Capsule Markets’ first album to be released in the United States. (It was originally released in Japan in 1999.)

“Pulse” epitomizes this digi-core aesthetic — without the keyboard effects and the heavily pre-processed vocals, this song could have been brat-punk or rap-rock anthem.

“All the Time in Sunny Beach” has a chorus that reflects its title quite well. “Good Girl” is your typical pogo-inducing punk-pop song, only delivered through a mess of studio trickery.

Every so often The Mad Capsule Markets takes a stab at a straight-forward, rock quartet approach, such as on the bouncy “Island” or the post-grunge, Wrench-sounding “Step Into Yourself”.

The rest of Osc-Dis is a full-on sonic assault. “Mob Track” and “Restart!” barrell down on listeners at a super-fast tempo. Kyono delivers some spit-fire raps on “Tribe”. “Out/Definition” lays heavy on the drums and samples.

And while the surface of Osc-Dis is pure fist-pumping punk and metal, there’s always a hint of hook somewhere in all that distortion. When Kyono proclaims “I’m stoked this fine day” on “MIDI Surf”, it’s hard to forget.

If you’re no fan of “digi-hardcore-punk-metal”, be prepared to be nicely surprised by The Mad Capsule Markets.

For posterity

Best-of collections are usually a means to bleed the proverbial royalties turnip, but some artists actually offer greatest hits packages as a record of posterity.

Cocco’s last hurrah, the clumsily titled Best + Ura Best + Mihappyoo-kyokushuu, falls somewhere between a greatest hits package and a boxed set with its thoroughness.

Rather than just collect the 11 singles that marked here brief but prolific career, Best + Ura Best + Mihappyoo-kyokushuu supplements those singles with b-sides, a few album tracks and five previously unreleased songs.

In the four years she recorded albums, Cocco produced enough extra tracks on her singles to become something of a fifth album. Recognizing that not everyone would be so thorough to buy her entire discography, Cocco included some of those extra tracks on Best.

Some of those extra tracks are every bit as good as the songs that eventually made her albums.

“Drive you crazy”, with its matchbox twenty vibe, pointed to a creative direction Cocco could have effectively pursued. “Sweet Berry Kiss” reflects its title quite well.

“Guuwa” starts off quietly, only to end on a haunting note, while “Again” shows Cocco at her most introspective.

The same can’t quite be said of the five mihappyoo-kyokushuu, or “unpublished songs”. Of those tracks, only “Mokumaoo” and “Ibara” stand out. “Mokumaoo” offers the kind of majestic choruses that marked “Hane” and “Yakenogahara”, while “Ibara” has a hard rock groove that’s totally Cocco.

The three other unreleased songs — “Amefurashi”, “Shiawase no Gomichi” and “Kutsushita no Himitsu” — tend to disappear into the background.

To round out the disc, Cocco included a few tracks from her overlooked debut album, bougainvillia. Although “Isho” and “Hoshi no Umareru Hi” are both great songs, one of them could have made room for “Hakobune”, a b-side to “Hane ~lay down my arms~” that’s as beautiful as anything Cocco has written.

Perhaps the most surprising gem in Best + Ura Best + Mihabbyokyoku is “Hiyokobuta no Theme Part 2”, a TV theme Cocco recorded for NHK. The light-hearted track has a playful vibe not quite captured in Cocco’s other children’s song.

Unfortunately, only the first pressings of Best include the track on a CD-3 that includes a version of “Nemureru Mori no Oujisama ~haru, natsu, aki, fuyu~” originally released on Cocco’s debut indie release.

In all, Best + Ura Best + Mihappyoo-kyokushuu is a must-have for even the most casual of Cocco fans.

Big on hooks, not on precociousness

In the singles-driven Japanese music market, albums are usually after-thoughts, a way to collect tracks from an artist’s last few singles onto one disc.

New World, Do As Infinity’s second album released earlier this year, was such a disc. Of the album’s 12 tracks, only three songs hadn’t been previously released.

Then bandleader Nagao Dai decided to forego video and photo shoots to concentrate on writing for the band. As a result, Do As Infinity managed to released its third album within months of its second.

This time, not only is there more new material, but the songs are better, and the album feels more cohesive.

Do As Infinity strikes a delicate balance between pop, jazz and hard rock, often combining one or more of these elements in unusual but appealing ways.

Deep Forest, however, sticks pretty much to delivering hook-filled pop. Some of the experiments that went into New World and Break of Dawn have been toned down and focused.

The three singles DAI released in consecutive months this past summer (“Tooku Made”, “Week!”, “Fukai Mori”) form the blueprint for the rest of the album — big on melody, but not too heavy with the slickness.

“Tadaima” has a gorgeous sing-along chorus that’s almost child-like. “Koiotome” indulges a bit in the usual anime-theme guitar effects without sacrificing any of its beefiness during the bridge and chorus.

“Get Yourself” and “Tsubasa no Keikaku” start off with sweet, chiming motifs, only to transform into a pair of rockers complete with larger-than-life guitar solos.

Do As Infinity does allow itself a bit of breathing room for some daring material.

“Koozookaikaku” opens with sitars, then breaks into a “Sing, Sing, Sing” drum beat complete with jazzy horns and growly guitars. “Bookenshatachi” hums along with a drum ‘n’ bass beat and some distorted guitars before hitting a jazzy chorus.

Those experiments aside, Deep Forest feels like a proper follow-up to the aesthetic Do As Infinity established with Break of Dawn. The band never strays from delivering the hooks, nor does it let it’s more creative endeavors get out of hand.