Common – Finding Forever
Geffen Records (7/31/07)
Hip-hop / Rap
After finding a winning formula with Kanye West’s seamless production on his 2005 album, Be, Common one again has enlisted him of this album, which incidently has become his first chart-topper. “The People” contains some elements that Kanye previously used for The Game’s “Wouldn’t Get Far” single, but it’s got a decidedly jazzier tone, with the obligatory Barack Obama shout-out. Kanye also shows up for an apropos cameo on the energetic “Southside”, though I’ve always set it as “South Side”, and I, too, am for it. “The Game” features a decent Primo beatâ€”it could have been better but I’ll take Primo wherever I can get him, and of course bonus points for scratching, which is something that’s becoming rarer and rarer in hip-hop in this day and age. “U, Black Maybe” pairs Common’s silky smooth flow with Bilal’s crooning and the quintessential Kanye beat featuring a sped-up female vocal from an obscure ’70s soul trackâ€”this is a winning combo. Bilal once again shows up on “Misunderstood”, though the beat for that one is lacking a bit, and I’d really like to see them use Bilal a bit better. The guy can sing, seriously… he needs to be allowed to break loose like on “The 6th Sense”, from Like Water for Chocolate, or better yet, “Certified” from Guru’s third Jazzmatazz. There are a few songs that are a tad bit insipid, mostly because the beats are tired (as in “Drivin’ Me Wild”, featuring Lily Allen, and will.i.am-produced “I Want You”), and I’m really wishing the Soulquarians were still producing beats. Speaking of which, D’Angelo is apparently not dead, as he makes an appearance on the soulful “So Far to Go”. For a Common album, Finding Forever is good (we’ve seen better from him, specifically on the aforementioned Like Water for Chocolate, as well as the classic Resurrection, but I’ve come to terms that there will never be another Resurrection) but for a hip-hop album, especially one coming out during the current state of the genre, it’s fantastic.
Kottonmouth Kings – Cloud Nine
Suburban Noize Records (8/28/07)
Rap / Rock / Punk
For those of you who like the music of the Kottonmouth Kings and their labelmates, I could say that this is the worst album in the history of the world, and you would still buy it. And I can respect that kind of power that a band like this can have over its fans. As far as I’m concerned, the Kottonmouth Kings are interesting in that they can’t really be pigeonholed into one particular genre. While most of the music would either fall under rap-rock, they also delve into straight-up punk songs, as on Cloud Nine, with songs like “No Escape” and “All or Nothin'”. Aside from those two tracks, though, the rest of the album is held together by raps. “Pass It Around” is a dub-infused track reminiscent of Sublime, while “Ridin’ High” (featuring B-Real) could’ve been released on Death Row in its heyday. “Marijuana” revisits the stale topic that they’re still using as their main gimmick, but the beat is decent. While the album has its highs (pun not intended), most of it is adequate at best, and it also has stinkers like “Drunk With Power” and “Don’t Make Me Beg”, which might as well have been released by the Cash Money Millionaires, as everything from the beat to the rhymes to the subject matter screams Southern rap. “Think 4 Yourself” features Insane Clown Posse, so that’s really all I need to say about that one. In staying with the pot-aphilia theme, the ballad-like “Proud to Be a Stoner” tells us something that we already all knew. Come on, guys… the whole pot thing is lame. I understand that you like the stuff, but knock it off already. Sure, Luther Vandross loved to eat hamburgers, and we know that for a fact, but he never sang about them.
The Chemical Brothers – We Are the Night
Freestyle Dust/Astralwerks (7/17/07)
Electronic / Dance
It’s really hard to believe that these guys have been crafting big-beat electro goodness for 14 years now, but what’s even more impressive is that Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons have stayed not only true to the small record imprint that gave them their big break, but also to their big beat roots. That’s not to say that they haven’t shaken up the formula numerous times to different results, but one thing that they have always kept with is the big beat sound that made them famous in the first place. And as is such in We Are the Night, which has plenty of big beat with, of course, a few different new elements thrown in as to give the product some semblance of freshness. They sample their own track (“The Sunshine Underground”, off of 1999’s Surrender) on the album’s title track, which is laden with the robotic sound effects found in many of their other tracks, and picks up to become a fantastic dancefloor filler and what should be the album’s first single. Of course, as is the case with most Chemical Brothers albums, the flagship single is one that features vocals in order to be more easily marketable, and “Do It Again” (featuring Ali Love) is an all-right track. However, it should be a decent club hit due to its deep droning beats and nice rhythm, joined by a repetitious chanting of “do it again”, which I could’ve done without but was nowhere near as bad as “It Began in Afrika”. “Saturate” and “The Pills Won’t Help You Know” are electro-psychedelic astral anthems that would be the perfect soundtrack to either a mid-summer night’s bonfire, or some scene in some new Zach Braff movie. You know exactly what I mean. Cameos by Ali Love and Fatlip, on “Do It Again” and “The Salmon Dance”, respectively, don’t quite mesh, even though they’ve both been packaged as single, when they’re a couple of the last songs on the album that deserve the credit. While previous Chemical Brothers tracks featuring guest vocals have been the ones to soar, the best offerings from We Are the Night are instrumental tracks like the vintage “Burst Generator”, the electroclash-infused “Das Spiegel” and the atmospheric, Orb-esque “Harpoons”. It almost makes me wish that Noel Gallagher were around to save the day.
Blaqk Audio – Cexcells
Interscope Records (8/14/07)
Rock / Futurepop
AFI used to be a pretty straight-up punk rock outfit, with Davey Havok and Jade Puget keeping their love of futurepop and synth on the down-low. However, as the band matured, bits and pieces of synth would gradually find their way into AFI songs, giving the band’s music a more integrated sound (see, e.g., “Death of Seasons”, “Love Like Winter”â€”the latter was actually originally intended to be a Blaqk Audio track), as well as more critical acclaim. So it was only natural that either (a) AFI would eventually become a full-blown electro outfit, or (b) Havok and Puget would finally take the plunge and form a side project in order to sew all of their wild electro oats. The latter would ensure that the core sound of AFI was held intact while the duo could have an alternate outlet for their itch, and so Blaqk Audio came full-circle, and we have Cexcells. “Stiff Kittens” (a shameless but still nice nod to Joy Division), the album’s opener and first single, is pure synthpop that combines hints of Depeche Mode, Wolfsheim and Apoptygma Berzerk. Even Havok’s usually whiny voice brings the whine-factor down a few notches, and works here, which was something about which I was concerned, since he’s always sort of been the goth Geddy Lee. And so I’d be remiss not to mention that the strongest part of the band is the production, as the music holding together the aforementioned “Stiff Kittens”, as well as “Snuff on Digital”, “Bitter for Sweet”, On a Friday” and “Semiotic Love” as pure futurepop goodness. A lot of the acts being dubbed “New Wave revival” (see The killers, The Bravery, The Sounds, et al.) sound like they’re aping the genre to which they pay homage, while Blaqk Audio sounds like they are and have been part of the genre from the get-go. “Where Would You Like Them Left?” sounds like a reprise to Camouflage’s “The Great Commandment”, nicely balancing goth and synth. Yes, Havok’s vocals are going to pretty whiny no matter what, but when life gives you lemons, you wrap them in fantastic electro beats and they actually don’t taste so sour after all. You’d be surprised. VNV Nation would be proud, and speaking of which, I’ve been meaning to post this for a while now…
VNV Nation – Judgment
Metropolis Records (4/10/07)
Electronic / Futurepop
This was supposed to run on the site back in April, but somehow I lost it, and just recently recovered it (along with the proceeding review) while cleaning out my file closet. In any event, this was an album that I’d been looking forward to for a long time, and it opens up in the quintessential VNV fashion, with a deep, atmospheric instrumental that seems as if it’s being played by some sort of futuristic orchestra. “Prelude” recalls nighttime images of snow and winter, cold and cruel but beautiful at the same time. If that doesn’t make any sense, then you’ve been listening to 50 Cent too long. He does sort of look like a walrus, though. “The Farthest Star” picks up seamlessly, and while it presents a nice floor filler for goth clubs all over the world, I was more impressed with “Testament”, which is lot harder but still has enough emotion to pass as a great VNV track. When I first listened to this album, it was through the eyes of a fan who was disappointed that there weren’t more dancefloor fillers, but after taking a second look, it is apparent that this is a band that is evolving. There are number of slower tracks on the album, but most of them do end up working. The only track that really doesn’t do much is the dystopian “Descent”, which features Ronan chanting when we’d much rather hear him sing. The combo of the more downtempo “Secluded Spaces” and “Illusion” might get a bit sleep-inducing into the second track, but following it with the harder, rousing “Carry You” balances everything out nicely. As a whole, the album works very well, though it really doesn’t have that one huge standout track that previous VNV Nation albums have had (see “Epicentre”, from Futureperfect, and “Chrome”, from Matter + Form). Not that’s necessarily a bad thing, though, as the album has a decent flow but wouldn’t hold its own against either of those albums. And while I’m reviewing an album that came out five months ago, I might as well revisit another one that I lost…
Nine Inch Nails – Year Zero
Nothing/Interscope Records (4/17/07)
Electronic / Rock / Alternative
You know (to borrow a phrase from Mathan), I’m really going to be glad when Bush is gone, not only because he’s a blithering fool who’s screwed the country six ways to San Bernardino, but because it’ll also mean (I hope) the end of these damned politically charged albums by musicians trying to get their heat back. I didn’t like it when Green Day did it, I didn’t like it when Springsteen and Mellencamp did it, so I went into this one with low expectations, but that was premature. Year Zero paints a picture of a not-so-distant future where the country has fully succumbed to a 1984 scenario, complete with a “US Bureau of Morality” warning on the back, which reads: “Consuming or spreading this material [on this album] may be deemed subversive by the United States Bureau of Morality. If you or someone you know has engaged in subversive acts or thoughts, call: 1-866-445-6580 – BE A PATRIOT – BE AN INFORMER!” Well, I’ll give it points for creativity. At least the album’s not one big bitchfest. While most of the other aforementioned albums are purely anti-government, Trent Reznor attacks the use of Christian values (yep, it’s still Nine Inch Nails, all right) to justify violence and injustice (the liner-note design features one arm holding a Bible and the other a machine gun). Combine that with the fact the production on Year Zero is silky smooth and damn near flawless, and we’ve got ourselves here one fine album. The first single, “Survivalism” (which I reviewed in back in February), was enough to incite fans, and while I personally received it sort of coolly, it works a lot better amid the rest of the composition, following the hard-edged instrumental opener, “Hyperpower!”, and the mellower “The Beginning of the End”, which has just the right touch of angst. We get some solid chill-out tracks, too (my favorite being the brooding “The Greater Good”, which, as evidenced by choice tracks off of the band’s last two albums, Trent can pull off very well (see, “La Mer”, from The Fragile. Of course, we get the obligatory anti-Bush song in “Capital G”, which, while corny at times, is actually pulled off pretty well, as is most of the material on the album. “Meet Your Master” is about as vintage Nails as you’ll get, though it’s obviously clear that Trent has no problem making good on slower, churning beats with a message. As far as concept albums go, this is excellent; as far as political albums go, this is excellent; and as far as Nine Inch Nails albums go, as long as you can realize that they’re an evolving band, the album is quite excellent, indeed. I’m still pretty interested to see what the upcoming remix album, Year Zero Remixed, is going to sound like, as it’s rumored to contain mixes by Bill Laswell, Ladytron, The Faint and… Saul Williams. Oh yeah, and “The Great Destroyer” reminded me of “Block Buster” by Sweet. Listen to it and you’ll know what I mean.