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.


Songs About Radios #3: Airwaves Pull Your Eyes Towards Heaven

30 03 2009

“I’ve seen you fire up the gas in the engine valves
I’ve seen your hand turn saintly on the radio dial
I’ve seen the airwaves pull your eyes towards heaven
Outside Topeka in the phone lines, her good teeth smile was winding down”

—Soul Coughing, “True Dreams of Witchita” (Download) (Buy Ruby Vroom)″

“This kiss, unfinished, lips to receiver in the parking lot,
a pucker shot through a fiber optic wire
to an answering machine
toward switchboards and stations transmitting
in blips to satellites…”

—Mike Doughty, “From a Gas Station Outside Providence” Slanky (Download)″

Soul Coughing - Ruby VroomI think I’m finally ready to write about this song. “True Dreams of Wichita” is, in some ways, the beginning of my love affair with songs about radios. In the summer of 1999, the summer after I graduated from high school, I fell in love. In April of that year, I had slipped a note saying “will you go to prom with me?” into a copy of Soul Coughing’s then recently released El Oso that I was lending to a friend; she said yes; we didn’t begin to date until a week after graduation. At the end of the summer, I left the midwest for the east coast, and we spent a year falling in love over the phone before she eventually decided to join me out east. Freshman year of college, “True Dreams of Wichita” seemed the perfect embodiment of everything I missed about the midwest.

During that year, we discovered Soul Coughing, a Brooklyn based “deep slacker jazz” outfit, as frontman Mike Doughty once described them, best known for singles “Super Bon Bon” and “Circles.” We worked our way backwards from the drum and bass influenced El Oso to the more eclectic Irresistible Bliss to the almost “Vaudvillian”‘ (again, Doughty’s word) jazz of Soul Coughing’s debut, Ruby Vroom, before eventually hunting down the other odds and ends scattered through Soul Coughing’s catalogue, songs like “Unmarked Helicopters” from the X-files soundtrack. We claimed Soul Coughing as our own. They were the first band I really “got,” the first band I felt I knew better than anyone else I knew.

I remember, at a prospective students weekend for the college I eventually attended, telling a girl who’s wedding I attended this past weekend that I wished I could walk around with someone playing the upright bass behind me to punctuate my sentences. Man, I was a pretentious fuck back then. But something about the phrasing of Soul Coughing’s laid back grooves and Mike Doughty’s precise over-enunciation made me feel powerful.

“True Dreams of Wichita” was different, though. There was a folky sweetness to it that anticipated Mike Doughty’s solo work on Skittish. The combination of nostalgia for an imagined, idyllic midwest, with the powerful imagery of radio waves carrying dreams through the night sky endowed music with a transformative power. Radio brought things together, made Wichita a part of Brooklyn and Brooklyn a part of Wichita, made possible an intimate shared experience between people worlds apart. In Mike Doughty’s prose poem, “From a Gas Station Outside Providence,” this intimacy is literalized as a kiss transmitted over the phone wires. For Doughty, the transmission is always incomplete, interrupted: the signal gets lost in the satellite; the kiss is “a tinny phantom of the smooch like a smack on an aluminum can.” But the static is intoxicating. Radio waves signify, in Doughty’s work, the limits of what can be shared between two people, that which bridges but also defines the gap between subjectivities.

The degree to which I’ve internalized this metaphor explains, to an extent, the fact that I will forever associate music with intimacy, both in terms of close friendship and romance. I rarely feel closer to someone than when I discover that we both love the same song. I’ve kept up conversations with people I’ve only met once based on little more than a shared appreciation for girl groups, or trip hop, or Wolf Parade. That’s why Songs About Radios is a labor of love, and why I deeply appreciate your readership. I almost titled or subtitled the site something involving “airwaves pull your eyes towards heaven,” but couldn’t make it sound right. Still, if you hear something here that pulls your eyes in that or any other direction, I hope you’ll tell me about it.