Aiming at Nothing and Hitting Your Mark – P.O.S.’s “Never Better” [Guest Post by Eric from the Nocturnals]

1 04 2009

I haven’t said a word about my favorite album of 2009 to date yet, but you’re about to hear about it from someone much more qualified than myself. Meet my cousin Eric, aka ‘ziek, master of the obvious at the hilarious new blog, Big Breakthroughs. Eric is one of my main sources for indie hip hop. He’s about as knowledgeable on the subject as anyone I’ve met, and has introduced me to some of my favorite albums in the genre, most notably Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus, which I’ll hopefully write on at some point. He’s also, and I’m not just saying this because he’s my cousin, a pretty talented rapper himself, adopting a sort of deadpan spoken word delivery that recalls Sage Francis. Last year he recorded an album called Next Time, It’s Personal under the name The Nocturnals. Here’s a highlight:

The Nocturnals – Slow 2 B Leaving (Download) (Myspace Page)″

Early this year, Eric turned me on to P.O.S.’s latest album Never Better, and I found it stunning. I asked if he would be interested in writing about the album in a guest post, and here’s what he came up with:

Nothing’s better than aiming at nothing and hitting your mark
Everyone’s famous,
Now we can just sit in the dark
and wait.

—P.O.S., “Never Better,” from Never Better (Buy It)

P.O.S. - Never BetterI always thought that “rap-rock” was definitionally bad. A lot of rock groups seems to have rap influence – Beck, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soul Coughing – and a lot of rap groups have rock influence – Rage Against the Machine, Saul Williams, El-P – but the music media never seems to refer to any of these groups as rap-rockers. Instead “rap-rock” is a term generally reserved for especially bad “rap-rock,” for the Kid Rocks, Limp Bizkits, and Linkin Parks of the world. Even Faith No More is too good to be called rap-rock.

P.O.S. is thus quite an anomaly. Especially after his luke-warmly received second album, Audition, critics, accurately, labeled P.O.S. as a rap-rocker. His recent release “Never Better” may be the first great, or, for that matter, the first even half-decent, rap-rock album.

P.O.S, who started as a punk rocker in Minneapolis, has released his last three albums as part of the tightly knit Twin Cities hip hop collective, Doomtree Records (His latest album was picked up by Indierap giant, Rhymesayers Records, who represents the likes of Atmosphere and Brother Ali). Doomtree is made up of a seemingly indefinite number of MC’s, including P.O.S., Cecil Otter, Dessa Darling, Sims, Mictlan, Mel Gibson & the Pants, and Yoni, to name a few. Doomtree has released a number of albums as a group: while last year’s self-titled album was somewhat disappointing, the False Hopes and False Hopes (Warped Tour) albums are indie rap standouts. Doomtree is no by no means flawless. Their MC’s are not the most talented, but they up there with the most original. From P.O.S.’s punk-rap to Cecil Otter’s melancholy folk-rap (“My name is Cecil Fucking Otter/Not Dylan goes electric”) to Dessa Darling’s spoken word, Doomtree has effectively reinvented the rap-hyphen.

On Never Better, P.O.S. shines as both a rapper and a punk-rocker. He stays away from the rap-rock cliches like screaming rap bravado over heavy metal guitar, mediocrely speaking rock songs over unnecessary scratching, tacking a rock chorus onto a rap verse, doing it all for the nookie, etc. Instead, P.O.S. pulls from his experience as a rapper and a punk-rocker to subtly merge the two genres, and he pull beats and rhymes structures out that don’t quite belong in either camp.

Notice the wordplay, punk rock hook, and purposefully awkward beat culminating in a beautiful round on “Never Better”:

P.O.S. – Never Better (Download)″

Demonstrating the eclecticism of the album, check out the intense drive of “Drumroll”:

P.O.S. – Drumroll (Download)″

What the songs have in common, and how they effectively merge genres, is by blending rap stylings with the raw passion of early punk rock.

I saw P.O.S. play in Champaign, IL not long ago. It was a small venue, with maybe about 25 people in the audience, most of them gathered in a circle around P.O.S., as he, Sims, and Mictlan played from the floor. It was just what you would expect from Doomtree: intimate, non-pretentious; and hard-at-work to keep their few fans coming back.


Best Music of 2008, Part I (Albums 20-16)

10 01 2009

The Notwist - The Devil, You + Me20. The Notwist – The Devil, You + Me (Buy It)

Highlight: “Good Lies” (Download)″

“We’ll remember good lies when they live in a room with us, use our kitchen table and our little beds.”

There are two types of songs on this album. About half the album is made of fairly simple, straighforward songs about melancholy and regret that lament things like staying for the wrong reasons and lying to ourselves to get by. These songs are carried by the smallness of Markus Acher’s voice, which lends a sweetness to the sorrow, as if taking a bit of solace or even joy in the humanity of regret. The rest of the songs are built around slightly dissonant, repetitive melodic patterns washed out by complex, unsettling percussion and trembling strings. These songs are darker and more foreboding, but again anchored by the simplicity of Acher’s delivery. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but with this exception of the title track, the album is quite consistent and occasionally touching, and works out a few interesting ideas with some success.

The Dodos - Visiter19. The Dodos – Visiter (Buy It)

Highlight: “Fools” (Download)″

And he thinks in his mind that he’s just getting by, but he’s a compromise, he’s just a compromising fool

Yeah, I guess I’ll let this slide into the top 20. My enthusiasm for this album has waned since the beginning of the year, but the second half especially is still a lot of fun – rapid guitar strumming and erratic (though sometimes imprecise) percussion make for a pulse quickening, nerdy (sometimes to the point of awkwardness), quizzical good time.

King Khan & the Shrines - Supreme Genius of King Khan & the Shrines18. King Khan & the Shrines – Supreme Genius of King Khan & the Shrines (Buy It)

Highlight: “Land of the Freak” (Download)″

You’re lost, you’re loaded and you’re losing your mind, oh don’t ya worry ’cause we got your fix. We’re comin’ to take ya to the midnight mover, the freak with a big back of tricks

King Khan’s set at the Bottom Lounge after the first night of this summer’s Pitchfork Music Festival was definitively the best small-venue show I saw all year. Backed by the blaring horns of the Shrines and a cast of characters ranging from cheerleaders to afroed cross-dressers, Khan’s accelerated throwbacks to vintage garage rock and soul had everyone at the Lounge twisting and shouting. Sweating profusing, yelping, stuttering, and eventually taking off his pants, Khan whipped the crowd into a frothy madness as all hell broke lose on stage.

The Supreme Genius of King Khan & the Shrines captures all the jittery energy of the live show with a compilation of the swarthiest, tightest, most jolting hits of King Khan’s career. These are songs that would be at home on the Nuggets collection of “Original Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era,” dated to the present only by the lyrical bluntness of songs like “Took My Lady to Dinner” (“My babies fat, she’s ugly, she’s fat and she’s ugly, but I love her”), “I Wanna Be a Girl,” and the Shrine’s love song about welfare, “Welfare Bread.” If you’re missing the days when vintage garage rock was still played in garages, King Khan and the Shrines have what you need.

White Denim - Workout Holiday17. White Denim – Workout Holiday (Buy It or Buy White Denim’s U.S. release, Exposion for about a third of the price)

Highlight: “Shake Shake Shake” (Download)″

Hey, say what? What? I’m gonna do it! What’s that? Hands up! Shake shake shake shake shake shake shake shake shake shake shake shake shake!

Many of the tracks on Workout Holiday have been around for a couple of years now in a variety of formats. Readers of my old blog may recall that I listed the opening track, “Let’s Talk About It,” as one of my favorite songs of 2006. This year alone, White Denim released three slightly different versions of their debut album under different titles. All of this suggests some difficulty arranging a somewhat diverse set of material into a single album: Workout Holiday’s biggest flaw is that it doesn’t fit together very well as a whole. At the same time, it’s clear that White Denim has taken its time building up a body of quality works, and track after track proves this band has talent.

The majority of the songs on Workout Holiday evince a fast paced, riff based garage style with hints of psychedelia and a spastic quality that seems drawn from punk. But unlike King Khan’s deliberately vintage sound, White Denim sounds like it came from this side of the 80’s. I hear hints of Devo on several tracks, a certain stilted quality that adds tension by stopping up the rush of energy. While most of these songs are blunt and to the point, though, some of the directness is broken up by meandering tracks like “Sitting” and “Don’t Look At Me That Way” or bluesier pieces like “IEIEI.”

Beck - Modern Guilt16. Beck – Modern Guilt (Buy It)

Highlight: “Gamma Ray” (Download)″

Come a little gamma ray / standing in a hurricane / Your brains are bored like a refugee from the houses burning / And the heat wave’s calling your name

I haven’t enjoyed a Beck album this much in a decade. There’s not a track on here that lacks a spark or fails to stand up on its own. Shying away from the stuttering funk that defined Odelay and Guero, Modern Guilt veers closer to the 60’s psychedlia of Mutations (where album closer “Volcanos” would fit right in), adding a more driving beat on about half of the tracks that places them into more of a rock idiom. “Orphans” recalls “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Chemtrails feels like it could cozy up next to Lee Hazelwood & Nancy Sinatra’s “Some Velvet Morning,” while Gamma Ray’s bass line would fit right in with the Standells or the Count Five. DJ Dangermouse’s production is seemless – while he does add in an occasional glitchy sample that sounds like it was made by a machine (listen to the verse of the title track, for example) even these samples usually blend right into the psychadelia. The two exceptions are “Youthless” and “Replica,” where the percussion is foregrounded to create more modern sounding beats.