Yearly Archives: 2003

Back in the day

Bruce Springsteen had 9/11 to fuel his examination of life, the universe and everything on The Rising. For Missy Elliott, her motivation hit closer to home.

In the span of a year, Elliott lost two colleagues — Aaliyah to a plane crash, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes to a car accident. Those deaths, plus the lingering murders of TuPac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, spurred Elliott to scrutinize the state of hip-hop today on her new album, Under Construction.

Her conclusion: where the hell did the fun go?

Elliott makes her most impassioned plea on “Back in the Day”. She namedrops Run DMC, Salt ‘N’ Pepa and Slick Rick as epitomizing a time when hip-hop “was so much fun”. Instead of sounding wistfully nostalgic, Elliott and guest Jay-Z reason hip-hop’s fascination with the thug life could have prevented the deaths of TuPac and Biggie.

In Elliott’s view of the hip-hop world, the media is just as much complicite in perpetuating the feeding frenzy for a gangsta image as the hip-hop artists who indulge in it. Missy is realistic, though — she’s not telling her colleagues to time travel to the past. Rather, she’s encouraging them to let in some room for a bit of fun.

And Elliott practices what she preaches.

At the start of Under Construction, Elliott says “hate, anger, gossip and plain old bullshit have become ignorant to me”, and she goes on to skewer gossip mongers playfully but assertively on “Gossip Folks”. (“I hear she eat one cracker a day”.)

When she’s not ruminating on loss, Elliott pursues the modus operandi that’s driven her career — macking on men and putting clueless people in their place.

“Work It”, the third best single of 2002, is a sonic masterpiece.1 Backward lyrics, Blondie samples, Chinese phrases and an elephant roar serving as a euphemism for male genitalia — clever wouldn’t begin to describe it.

Then there’s “Pussycat”, a dirty ditty in which Elliott purrs, “Pussy don’t fail me now/I gotta turn this nigga out/So he don’t want nobody else/But me and only me.”

Afterward, Elliott spends another soliloquy needlessly justifying the song’s intention, stating she wanted to do something “representing for my ladies”. Query: what would a gay man’s version of this song sound like?

On “Nothing Out There For Me”, Elliott teams up with Beyonce Knowles of Destiny’s Child to satire women intoxicated by “their man”. Knowles plays the whipped girlfriend in a phone conversation with Elliott, who plays her conscience.

Throughout, collaborator Timbaland provides Elliott with a sonic backdrop that often threatens to upstage the “star of the show”. Next time Trent Reznor gets writer’s block, he ought to put on “Slide” and “Ain’t That Funny” for inspiration.

From track to track, Timbaland produces some fascinating textures that don’t necessarily add up to a tight whole. After a while, Under Construction feels like it’s patched together. The constant references to Missy Elliott exclusives don’t string anything tighter.

But for all of Elliott’s assertiveness, she doesn’t lose that sense of fun, that old school party atmosphere she’d like to see more of. What’s the point of tearing down the fragile ego of a man if there isn’t an element of play?

Under Construction is nakedly honest, a likeable work fascinating for its laurel leaf aspirations.

1The best single of 2002 is “World’s End Supernova” by Quruli, with “Funky Movin'” by Zoobombs taking second place.

Girl talk

Disclaimers and confessions, first.

Disclaimer: I don’t listen to “urban music” (unless you consider Utada Hikaru “urban”), so if it shows in the next few paragraphs, you’ve been duly warned.

Confession: I probably wouldn’t have been curious about this album if it weren’t for the death of Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes.

Even if a listener actively ignored such chart-topping fodder as “Waterfalls” and “No Scrubs”, it was hard not to notice Lopes’ headline-grabbing flamboyancy. Burning mansions aside, how often does one member of a group challenge her colleagues to make solo albums, just to see who’s best?

Lopes recorded a few tracks for 3D before she was killed in a car crash while vacationing in Honduras in April 2002. It’s those tracks which makes the case for Lopes’ contribution to the trio. TLC, on the whole, may have provided a voice for strong-willed women everywhere, but Lopes in particular gave the group its edginess.

Nowhere is that charm more apparent than on “Quickie”, where Lopes plays a school marm lecturing her male audience about “Left Pimping”. “As you can see,” Lopes chimes in a nasal voice, “it’s located in a region near your manhood named ‘unsatisfying’.”

Lopes stands up on “Over Me”, when she addresses the group’s well-publicized woes: “When the house burned down, I took the blame/When the money got funny, I took it to court/When most of your chicks wouldn’t have even fought.”

Even when Lopes isn’t around, TLC still manage to keep the momentum going, getting sexy on the Neptunes-written “In Your Arms Tonight” or chiding unfaithful lovers on the slow burning “Hands Up”.

R&B is generally a plain-spoken genre, not prone to using metaphor or vague imagery as rock ‘n’ roll. In the wrong hands, that plain-spoken-ness can produce some pedestrian results.

Not so on 3D. T-Boz and Chilli may have a few choice words for the guys who don’t respect them, but they seldom ever sound like they’re posturing. Even ballads such as “Turntable” and “Damaged” feel more anthemic than histrionic.

3D reaches its apex on the Timbaland and Missy Elliott contribution “Dirty Dirty”, where the group shows the world (if not Christina Aguilera) that being dirty doesn’t have to mean being a tramp.

After that, the album deflates considerably, losing its steam over a series of unremarkable tracks. “Give It To Me While It’s Hot”, however, makes for a nice conclusion, leaving 3D on a less manic but still high note.

Despite the non-musical context of the album, 3D is a lot of fun.

Even if T-Boz and Chilli don’t have the most powerful voices in the world, they possess charisma to give their work some real honesty. You don’t feel sorry at all for the guy with his hands up in the air with hoochies everywhere.

And with Left Eye’s palpatable contribution on the album, it’s quite sad to consider the prospect of more TLC releases of little more than vault material.

Premier interpreters

Café Tacuba is the kind of band thoroughly comfortable revelling in dissonance. Even when the Mexican quartet revs up the traditional music of its home country, there’s just something arty about how they play it.

But when Café Tacuba decide to sound as straight-forward as any other rock band on the planet, they sound excellent.

Vale callampa, a tribute EP to Los Tres and the band’s debut for Universal, contains some of Café Tacuba’s least obtuse performances.

The disco beats, discernable melodies and “normal” chords of “Déjate Caer” sound almost alien compared to anything off of Reves/Yosoy or “12/12”, the band’s avant-garde collaboration with Kronos Quartet.

And yet, hints of the band’s usual weirdness crops up now and again.

The “ooh-ahh” harmony vocals of “Olor a Gas” are more humorously heavy-handed than need be. Eventually, they turn dischordant.

Singer Rubén Albarrán, credited this time as Rita Cantalagua a.k.a. Gallo Garrr, gives a spirited, jokester performance on “Amor violento”. In fact, “Amor violento” is where Café Tacuba sounds most like itself — pre-programmed beats and lush synthesizers mixing it up with Mexican guitars.

The four-track EP winds down with “Tírate”, performed as a straight-forward traditional song with a flourish here and there by an electric guitar and synthesizer.

Although Café Tacuba are excellent songwriters and composers in their own right — the aforementioned “12/12” being the most obvious example — Vale callampa reinforces the band as premier interpreters.

There isn’t a single song on the planet Café Tacuba can’t turn into their own. Even though the songs on Vale callampa aren’t the band’s, they make them sound like they’ve always been.

Unfortunately, the EP is also the worst kind of appetizer. It’s been nearly four years since the band released a full length album, excluding 2001’s retrospective Tiempo transcurrido. Is this any way to fix a Tacuba jones? For the time being, it’ll have to do.

Spartan sameness

For the past 15 years, Tracy Chapman and Enya have shared one certainty — their music doesn’t change much from album to album.

Chapman is still writing the same understated folk music that introduced her to listeners back in 1988. Half of her six albums were produced by the same guy (David Kershenbaum).

So does John Parish (obligatory name-dropping: PJ Harvey, Giant Sand) bring anything new to Chapman’s distinct vocal tremble and folkie strumming? It’s not so obvious at first.

Let It Rain starts off predictably enough — Chapman, guitar, minimal percussion, subtle arrangements. So far, so good.

It’s not until Chapman’s ghostly backing vocals takes charge of “In the Dark” that it becomes noticeable — Parish has pared down Chapman’s songs ever further than they already are.

Compared to the vibrant New Beginnings and the thoroughly-produced Telling Stories, Let It Rain is economic, almost Spartan.

“Another Sun” ambles along with little more than a backbeat, an electric piano and a few slides on an electric guitar. Strings provide “Almost” an eerie drone.

This kind of minimalism isn’t new for Chapman, whose songs are generally associated with the adjective “introspective”.

This time around, there’s a palpable intimacy on Let It Rain that didn’t seem so immediate on the last two albums. Parish’s production is dry, employing little reverb, even when electric pianos hold down the sustain pedals. As such, what few instruments are used on each track feel compact.

The only thing not downsized are Chapman’s backing vocals. They’re just as full and resonant on this album as any other.

Chapman does attempt to shake herself lose from the introspection with “Hallelujah” and “You’re the One”, both the only major missteps on the album. “You’re the One”, in particular, doles out some pretty pedestrian sentiments (I love you, don’t change).

Of course, all these subtleties are exactly that. On the whole, there’s not much on Let It Rain to surprise listeners familiar with Chapman’s modus operandi.

Brilliant or boring?

Sinéad O’Connor said she wanted to “sexy up” the traditional songs found on Sean Nós Nua, her debut album for Vanguard Records.

Oh. Kind of like what Talitha MacKenzie did with Solas back in 1994? Where Scottish waulking songs and mouth music got dressed up in modern pop arrangements?

Actually, no.

Although Sean Nós Nua translates to “songs in the old style, but new”, the first few tracks of the album don’t reveal much that is “new”. Aside from a very liberal use of echo on an effects processor, the arrangements of such tracks as “Peggy Gordon” and “Lord Franklin” are rather predictable — fiddle, bodhran, tin whistle, acoustic guitars. O’Connor’s understated performances border on lifeless, her trademark whisper containing little fire.

It’s not until “Óró Sé Do Bheatha ´Bhaile” does the album get a kick start, with a dub rhythm navigating the tricky time signatures of the song. As the song’s themes get darker, O’Connor’s voice reclaims its power.

O’Connor inhabits the character of an Irish ex-patriate in America on “Paddy’s Lament” to great effect. “The Moorlough Shore,” with its ticking guitar lick and ethereal embellishments, underscore the cautionary tale O’Connor delivers about impulsiveness and regret.

As the album draws to a close, O’Connor and her house band (which includes traditional Irish stalwarts Donal Lunny, Steve Wickham and Sharon Shannon) unshackle the arrangements to let in more modern influences.

“Báidín Fheilimí”, the only other song in Irish, also gets a similar reggae treatment. “My Lagan Love” incorporates marching drum rolls similar to Madonna’s “Frozen” and features O’Connor’s most passionate performance on the album.

The 11-minute “Lord Baker”, a duet with Christy Moore, ventures into Enya-like minimalism, with Moore and O’Connor trading verses over a warm drone.

Fans of Celtic music may enjoy the respectful balance between tradition and foresight on Sean Nós Nua. Fans of O’Connor, however, may find it difficult to warm up to the album.

The trademark fire of her own music shows up rarely on Sean Nós Nua, and when her voice doesn’t connect emotionally with the songs’ themes, the album gets weighed down.

Depending on your background, this album may be brilliance or it may be lackluster.