It seems cruel to suggest that the worst half of Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson's new memoir, Mo Meta Blues, is the half that's actually about him. Cruel, but not untrue--and not undeserved, given that ?uest himself opens the book by complaining about the predictability of most musical memoirs. Maybe that's impossible to escape. But when the rest of the book practically sparkles with mischief, I can't help but wish it was willing to spend more time dancing around expectations.
The book opens with a great deal of self-awareness. We're dropped into an interview between ?uestlove (a nickname that is wreaking havoc with my keyboard muscle memory) and an unnamed interviewer, debating how the memoir should be written. A letter from Ben Greenman, co-writer, then fills in some context: the interviewer is Richard Nichols, co-manager of The Roots, the band for which ?uestlove has been drumming for many years. Nichols proceeds to almost steal the show: a passionate and wry speaker, he takes over the narrative during the interview chapters, contradicts ?uestlove's account of events, and then decides he doesn't particularly care for the interview format. He spends the rest of the book weaving arch comments into the footnotes instead.
This is a book that takes the "meta" part of the title very seriously.
The problem is, when Mo Meta Blues actually slips into memoir, that awareness and playfulness seems to vanish. There are times when it picks back up, like ?uestlove's amazing Prince anecdotes or his year-by-year recounting of the best records he listened to throughout his childhood and why they're important, but these are few and far between. For the most part, the biography part of the story follows a traditional trajectory, with little scandal: The Roots form up in Philly, struggle for years, mingle with a collective of other artists, and eventually reach a kind of working success. The group comes across a lot like ?uest himself: wholesome and largely uncontroversial.
Which, to be fair, is not untrue: The Roots are not another Motley Crue, behind-the-music tabloid tale. But I think it probably undersells them. As Mo Meta itself points out, they're an uncommon outlier in modern hip-hop: a live band with lots of members and a long chain of albums, not to mention an expressly political viewpoint. There are hints of analysis there, but I wanted more.
So what we're left with is half slightly-dull memoir, half guided tour through hip-hop's sonic history. Which half wins? To me, it's a no-brainer: as a fan of his music, I'm happy to indulge ?uestlove for a few hours. But I'd love to see him cast his critical net a little wider next time.
On Friday, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down played a show at the Sonic Boom near our apartment in Seattle. The shop was completely packed, which was a pleasant surprise. Seeing a Thao Nguyen concert, even in abbreviated record-shop form, is always a treat: live, she performs with a kind of abandon that privileges energy over accuracy, and you really get the full impact of her voice, which can veer from a mutter to a howl in the space of a beat.
The best parts of her new album, We the Common, are the songs that let that voice greedily cover its full range. The titular opening number is a stompy rallying cry that builds from a choppy banjo riff until it soars into a wordless chorus. "The Day Long" showcases the quieter, spookier side of the album, but is no less effective: it has a kind of marching melancholy that's weirdly danceable. In between, there's the jaunty swing of "The Feeling Kind," which wouldn't be out of place on the band's first album.
The production remains top-notch: they seem to have picked up a few tricks from Thao's collaboration with Mirah (especially the Tune-Yards'-produced "Eleven"), but applied it to her particular brand of indie rock. "Every Body" mixes a spiky ukelele with synth bass, and while it may just be that I've been listening to a lot of Stop Making Sense lately, I hear a touch of the Talking Heads in the punchy, over-distorted "City," probably in the call-and-response that closes it out. It's becoming one of my favorite songs on the CD, along with the boozy wall of sound that is "Age of Ice."
Fittingly, the most skippable tracks involve times when Nguyen's voice is either kept to a single mood (the dirge-like "Clouds for Brains") or, more bizarrely, paired with Joanna Newsom on "Kindness Be Conceived." Newsom's folky, child-like voice is an acquired taste I've never found appealing, and it tips an otherwise inoffensive song over into tweeness.
We the Common isn't as dark as Know Better, Learn Faster, but it's still not what I'd call cheerful. It's probably not as political as the title sounds, either, although with her elliptical lyrics that's hard to know for sure. But it remains tightly-crafted songwriting wrapped around a unique, powerful voice. I think it's a must-listen, but don't take my word for it: check out their short performance on KEXP and see what you think.
Clearly shot on a total shoestring, but no less adorable for it.
"Frank is a funkasaurus rex. Frank has a profile on eharmony.com if any of you single ladies out there are into puppet dinosaurs with sweet dance moves."
"Wry melancholy" is perhaps the best I can do when describing "We Brave Bee Stings And All," the first album from Thao and the Get Down Stay Down. "Did he hurt you/In a new way?" she asked in one song, as if she was too bored for a romantic crash-and-burn that didn't at least offer a little novelty. I liked it quite a bit.
The group's new record, "Know Better Learn Faster," marks not so much a shift in attitude as a refinement: the humor is drier, the victories more hollow, the outlook even bleaker. The title refers to the two things you want to do as a relationship begins to come unmoored. The joke is that they're impossible. This is, according to interviews with Thao, a break-up record, but it's one that can't quite take its own melodrama seriously: from the first track ("The Clap"), in which the lyrics "If this is how you want it/Okay, okay" are transformed from a dirge into a foot-stomping rallying cry, to the last ("Easy," introduced with a muttered admonition that "sad people dance, too").
A big draw has always been singer/songwriter Thao Nguyen's voice. It's soulful at the low end, reaching into a wounded yelp during crescendos. But lots of singers have good voices. Part of what sets Nguyen apart for me is less in the tone and more in the relationship between her melodies and the lyrics. She's good with ambiguous pauses: in "When We Swam," she adds a hungry emphasis to the line "Oh, bring your hips to me" that leaves the listener momentarily unsure why she wants said hips, or her interest in the person attached to them. Likewise, the way she sings "We made it/Won't we save it?/And I fixed it!/What you hated" betrays a mixture of petulance, anger, and surprise at her own admission.
Other standout numbers include the title song, with its soaring violin accompaniment, and the self-destructive "Body," which builds repeatedly to a raging call-and-response. It's not all roses, of course: "Oh. No." lapses into mopiness, as does "But What of the Strangers." They're also, tellingly I think, the two songs that find Nguyen alone with a guitar instead of pulling energy in from the rest of the band. But these kinds of misfires are really minor symptoms of a group that's stretching out and becoming comfortable with their sound. And what a sound it is: one that looks for the grim punchline behind a broken heart.
What can we do about a band like the Noisettes, a band with two full-length albums as different as salt and sugar? As lead singer Shingai Shoniwa said on What's the Time, Mr. Wolf's "Iwe," who are these people? And how do we get the band from that album back?
What's the Time was one of my favorite albums of the last five years--a raucous, almost lascivious collection of rough blues-rock. Their follow-up, Wild Young Hearts, is a total about-face. It's a pop album, slick and forgettable. It's dripping in strings, overdubs, and synthesizers. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.
When the album is strong, it's not bad: "Don't Upset the Rhythm" is a decent dance groove, followed by the retro-sounding "Wild Young Hearts." The 50's imitation sound is also present on "Never Forget You," and the shift into doo-wop bopping doesn't really play to the Noisettes' strengths--it's all a bit me-too. "Beat of My Heart" sees band's original rock sound re-emerge momentarily, although it starts off a bit limp and then transitions into a bizarrely out-of-place, metal-esque guitar solo. Shoniwa lets her voice stretch a little on the softer songs, like "Atticus," but the material (a lengthy, rambling metaphor touching on both To Kill A Mockingbird and Pandora's Box) doesn't really justify what she can bring to the table. And the less that's said about 80's dance number "Saturday Night," the better.
Perhaps the biggest problem with these songs is not that they're bad, although they're certainly a bit weak, but that their energy is so low. Shoniwa has a powerful voice, and she's capable of shifting almost instantly between mocking, pleading, and menacing ("I dig your smile, too/And you dig my poker face"). Seen live, she's a force of nature on stage. But here, that manic presence has been pulled back into something more polished, more restrained, and the album suffers for it. Only on "Don't Upset the Rhythm" does she come close to cutting loose--small wonder that it was chosen as the radio single--and nowhere does she reach the heights of "Nothing to Dread" or "Scratch Your Name" from their first record.
Combined with the reduced presence of the other band members (among other things, their backing vocals have largely been replaced by overdubs of Shoniwa), it's tempting to speculate that this album is an attempt at grooming her for a role that's less confrontational, more mainstream--less Sister Rosetta, more Gwen Stefani. Personally, I think that'd be a real shame. The Noisettes of What's the Time were a breath of fresh air in an increasingly stale world of garage rock (at least half of which is apparently helmed by Jack White, in one form or another). But who's to say? With a sample size this small, and a shift this great, the Noisettes could go anywhere from here. Here's hoping they'll take the chance.
Tonight the Black Keys are playing at the 9:30 club here in DC. Gotta remember my earplugs--they're loud.
In the last couple of albums, the Keys have stepped away a little bit from the dirty garage aesthetic that originally drew me to them. It's good music, but Rubber Factory's still my favorite album.
Live, though, the band still pulls out all the stops. And they've got a few new songs with that old energy. This is them doing "I Got Mine" on Letterman about a month back.
There's a new NIN album out--online only for now, and it's completely free. Reznor's been prolific lately, what with the Ghosts halo just late last year. As a friend said when he forwarded the announcement email, "Is there a new NIN album every month now?"
Maybe. Because--and I don't know the man, and he doesn't know me, so this is just conjecture--I suspect that Trent Reznor is really enjoying this. It seems to me like he's enjoying the feedback, and he likes being able to put out material direct to his fans, and perhaps most importantly, he's getting a real kick out of frustrating his label's plans to monetize his output.
I mean, this is a musician who has had a long, long history of label fights. There was the lawsuit and public struggle with TVT, followed by a lawsuit against the guy who helped him found Nothing Records, and then most recently his disparaging remarks about pricing in Australia and UMG in general. This is a musician who used to release something once every five years, and now it's more like every five months. It sounds like he's energized to me.
Which I'm not complaining about. But it is a real change from the guy who used to literally write songs based on his notebooks of goth poetry. Even if the music's not as good, I'm kind of happy for him.
Update: The music's not bad at all, actually. And Reznor's done a very cool thing with the MP3s: they've got huge, high-res, individual pieces of artwork as the "album" art for each, by longtime collaborator Rob Sheridan. It strikes me as a very cool update of the LP album art, which was thought lost after CDs created packaging that's so much smaller. Now the music's shrunk to insubstantial dimensions, but it's reacquired that visual, almost tactile element. Between his earlier commercial experiments and this small touch, it's obvious that Reznor has put a tremendous amount of thought into this whole online music thing.
In some ways, Year Zero is a return to form for Nine Inch Nails. As opposed to With Teeth, which stepped sideways into the rock tradition, Year Zero sonically evokes The Fragile, both in sound (Reznor seems to have become comfortable with his synth palette, and there's not much experimentation) and the strong sequencing of the songs. The latter may be what makes this feel most like a Nine Inch Nails album to me: it's once again something I can't bring myself to shuffle.
Unfortunately, not everything here is as strong as The Fragile, or even With Teeth, which makes the sequencing a little transparent. With this CD, I started to realize just how similar the progression of NIN studio releases has been:
I pushed a button and elected him to office andYeah, subtlety's still not a real strong point here. "The Great Destroyer," on the other hand, is titled like a song with a lot more political content than I think it actually has--and it's the third stand-out song, despite the Aphex Twin-like TB-303 breakdown that consumes the second half.
He pushed the button and dropped the bomb
You pushed the button and could watch it on the television
Those motherfuckers didn't last too long huh-huh
I'm sick of hearing about the haves and the have-nots
Have some personal accountability
The biggest problem with the way that we've been doing things is
The more we let you have the less that I'll be keeping for me
Year Zero takes some getting used to, since (much like its predecessor) the vocals often involve odd ticks and inflections. "Survivalism," for example, has a great chorus, while it throws traditional stanza rhythms out the window during the verse, leaving the listener off-balance and confused (no doubt the point). But then, most fans of Nine Inch Nails are probably used to that by now, as well as accustomed to the slow process of becoming acclimated to Reznor's evolving work.
It's hard for me to imagine, in fact, how newcomers would approach this. I came late to Nine Inch Nails, only really starting to listen about four years ago, but since then I've developed a real taste for it. Year Zero wouldn't be the halo I'd recommend first, but I'm happy to say that it's hardly the disaster that I was expecting from the preview tracks I heard a few months back.