skykicking - june

Sunday 23

Firstly: Apologies for the lengthy delays. I’ve just come out of a rather full-on exam period. However, if someone could be helpful and point me towards a workable, free and non-trial version webpage application for Macs, I would both be very grateful and able to update more often. I’m sick of downloading Dreamweaver every couple of weeks, but on the other hand writing this particular entry on Word has taken me absolutely ages and produced no small amount of frustration! (which results in sub-par writing, I fear)

Secondly: the actual entry…
For the longest time I managed to avoid buying Wu-Tang Clan’s Iron Flag, which was foolish seeing as I’d heard and loved both “Rules” and “Uzi”. And of course it turns out that after a week of actually owning and listening to Iron Flag, it’s shaping up to be one of my favourite Wu-related albums ever, perhaps the favourite. There’s something so, I dunno, driven about it, and I don’t just mean the rappers’ enthusiam or all the war imagery. Listen to the grooves – especially the first three tracks in succession – and it’s clear that what seems to be business as usual is in fact a fundamental shift within the typical RZA-patented style.

The rhythms are no longer clanking and oppressive but pounding and kinetic; the shuffling beat on “Rules” actually sounds sprightly, which would have been unthinkable eight years ago. Maybe it’s just that there’s a new sense of clarity here: while on one level the arrangements are “rougher” than on previous albums, they demonstrate a pleasing immediacy and clearheadedness that suggests a significant shortage of weed in the studio – this is the first Wu album I’ve heard that actually sounds like a collection of “bangers”. Which is why, when the Trackmasters sidle in with the luscious gothic funk of “Back In The Game”, it doesn’t sound out of place at all: RZA and his cohorts have already switched up their style, be it on the shimmering horn-infused groove of “One Of These Days” or the ruthless stomp of “In The Hood”.

All of which would mean nothing if the rappers weren’t so damn on form and charismatic this time out. It’s like the lot of them have mastered the art of the soundbite: songs rebound from great one-liner to great one-liner. Some are more experienced at self-promotion than others, of course; Method Man’s verse in “Rules” feels like my favourite thing in the world ever, and it’s probably because it sounds like the rap that his numerous guest appearances on everybody else’s albums have been building up for all along. And because he talks about the Backstreet Boys.

More than that though, Method Man here seems to understand better than ever the power and charisma within the grain of his voice, which conveys so much more than the words would alone. I mean, the words are great too, but they're not what I specifically delight in. When he jumps in with "We can eat right, or we can clap these toys," and the last word just rolls out his mouth with that husky burr of his, it fills me with such a profound sense of rightness - perhaps it's the realisation that Method Man has captured Method Man perfectly. This is why Meth and Ghostface are my favourite Wu members: their connection to their own characters, and their ability to spin it off into a thousand delightful variations via permutation of flow, is second to none. The other rappers, though less immediately distinctive, generally put a fine effort in as well, and above all it's the jostling interplay between members that has always been the Clan's constant strength, even when RZA wasn't coming up with the goods.

For the most part Iron Flag keeps the pace at a thrilling level of intensity, and as a result the one time the group do significantly drop the tempo, on the opulent quasi-trip hop of “Babies”, the shift pays off massively. A gorgeous “C.R.E.A.M.”-style slow number with an aching dovetail groove and ragged soul vocals, not to mention the slyest bassline ever, “Babies” mines a particular seam of relaxed mournfulness that should have lost its power to affect me through over-exposure. Instead, I’m captivated. Like Lina’s Stranger On Earth, by reclaiming the retro-modern tradition of trip hop for black pop styles “Babies” makes a powerful case for a third way between nu-soul traditionalism and pop-happy futurism; one that recognizes the potential for ear-tickling sonic delicacy within “old” sounds without becoming enslaved by reverence. “Babies” does nothing that Mobb Deep at their best haven’t done already but, um, hello? "Mobb Deep at their best." That’s praise enough.

Part Two of my trip hop turnaround focuses on my implausible love for DJ Shadow’s The Private Press, a set of ponderings I had almost completed when my computer FUXX0rED it.
eleven-fifty-four pm

Friday 07

Hard to believe that I once dismissed Foxy Brown as Lil' Kim's less talented, less compelling double - finally actually buying last year's Broken Silence has reinforced my slow-forming, mp3-induced realisation that she might just be my favourite of the big female rappers (ie. Missy, Kim, Eve, Trina - all of whom I hold varying degrees of affection for, generally orbiting "strong").

But then again, the thing is that when it comes to Lil' Kim's territory (brazen sexuality and violence), Foxy Brown really does sound like a less distinguished also-ran. Kim can fire off three different ways that her pussy can snap off your dick before you can say "talk dirty", while Fox is left in the dust rhyming about her Christian Dior and Prada shoes. Compare their album covers too - both almost grotesquely sexual, but Kim's arresting pose (unbuttoned jeans, arms covering her breasts and a gritty snarl) seems so much more dominating and in control than Brown's (standard issue bikini + smirk).

It's a matter of confidence, I think; what makes Kim fascinating is how she sounds as if she genuinely believes that she's the Queen Bitch, that if she asked you to, you'd happily let her urinate in your mouth, and that if you refused she'd be able to take out her glock and shoot you cold. In comparison Foxy sounds uncertain, and her attempts to paint herself as the illest bitch seem more for her own benefit than for the listeners (compare and contrast: Foxy's constantly thanking the fans who have stuck by her, whereas I'm not sure it would ever occur to Kim that she wasn't universally admired and feared).

What becomes clear upon repeated listens to Broken Silence is that Foxy's weakness is actually her strength, her lapses into uncertainty actually creating a compelling sense of pathos to complement the rough talk and ghetto posturing. In fact Foxy steadfastly avoids Kim's deadening invincibility - where Kim opens her album with a surrealistic courtroom shoot-out, Foxy plays voiceovers from news reports of her crashing her car, her overdosing on drugs, her losing her mind because of all the pressure. Foxy is more real than Lil' Kim's (if that means anything), her tales of enforced hospital confinement and lingering depression more touching and tangible than Kim's near surrealistic fantasies of cataclysmic shoot-outs. If Kim is a crazy fuck, Foxy's fucked up.

It's best expressed on "The Letter", a straight recital of a suicide letter over a mournful, plangent groove, in which Foxy apologises for and comes close to rejecting her gangsta life, her voice constantly cracking under the strain. "All cried out, feel like I've gotta go" she almost whispers, while Ron Isley croons tenderly in the background. "730" is more incongruous: bizarrely but brilliantly sampling an insanely cheery prog keyboard riff courtesy of Styx, it's all uptempo thug boasts circling around the uncomfortable admission, "They say I'm 730/say I spaz out/"F.B. is ill/she'll wild out"/But can y'all feel my pain?/I can't let it slide/How can I smile/when I'm hurting so bad inside?"

I suspect that Foxy - or at least Foxy's persona- is unhappy with herself, with her flaws, with her inability to hold up underneath the weight of the world's expectations. And perhaps it's this which makes her sound so restless, so voracious in her desire to land upon the formula that will reinvigorate her. So Broken Silence whirls through a myriad of exciting costume changes: the grinding pound of the thuggish "B.K. Anthem", the raunchy Neptunes-pop of "Candy", the eerie and alien bhangra-infused "Hood Scriptures" and the power ballad-tinged title track. Foxy's best costume, however, is her rampant dancehall obsession, which flowers brilliantly on a number of tracks here.

"Tables Will Turn", for example, is a full-on ragga joint, boasting a trademark yard rhythm, ragged reggae warbling and raucous toasts from Baby Cham, not to mention a high-pitched chorus that could have been swiped from J-Pop song. It's not Foxy's best ragga turn though, because she herself sticks to her usual delivery. Much better is "Run Dem": over a conventional hip hop arrangement (although to be fair it's a totally gripping concoction of prowling piano runs and dramatic strings) Foxy slips between her natural style and utterly convincing ragga chat so naturally that it appears she can't tell the difference between them. "So what?" you might ask, "why not just get Lady Saw for the real thing?" But there's something thrilling about Foxy's drift in and out of comprehensibility, her deviation between the familiar and the exotic.

When I put on a ragga album, I lose sight of the fetishistic aspect of ragga's alienness after about ten minutes - it's not that I get bored, but rather that I quickly adjust to the foreignness of the approach. Foxy's a tourist like me, so she understands that the secret to the appeal of the exotic lies in context and careful presentation. Thus her ragga moments blaze out like a stripe of red on a grey background, or a liberal dosing of spice to season her savoury mixture. On the similarly excellent "Na Na Be Like" (which benefits from a restlessly rustling groove that totally slays me) Foxy deliberately divides her chorus into a New York/Jamaica/Jamaica/New York juxtaposition, as if to evoke an image of her venturing out into a rudegyal netherworld, before returning to the firmament.

For Foxy, dancehall is more than a costume among many: it's an emotionally necessitated roleplaying exercise. Secretly riddled with insecurity, Foxy uses her Jamaican persona to achieve the hardness, the sense of invincibility that she can't capture otherwise. Knowledge = power, and Foxy's mastery of what is essentially another language gives her a crucial edge over other bitches, because she understands another way of conceptualising and enacting violence and superiority. She's literally allowing herself to be possessed by dancehall, and drawing on the almost superhuman strength this spirit provides.

The fascination of Jamaica (and thus of the exotic generally) exerts itself over a disproportionate number of female rappers; Kim, Eve and Missy have all succumbed to varying degrees. Foxy is the only one so far to be savvy enough - or desperate enough? - to allow it to actively corrupt and corrode her persona, to give herself over to psychological impurism. This marks her out as a gangsta rapper particularly and peculiarly resistant to ossification of character; hopefully though she'll hold onto enough of her current flux and restlessness so as to make her next venture a similarly exciting one.
eleven-twenty-one pm

Sunday 02

I hope David H continues on with Shazam, which i only just discovered. The first entry certainly provoked a laugh. Also, Mr. David Werner, if you read this could you please e-mail me? I've lost your e-mail address/details, and I believe I owe you a cd or something!
eleven-forty-seven pm

I do enjoy it an awful lot, but I must admit to being ever so slightly disappointed by Coloma's album Silverware, which maybe suffers slightly from trying a bit too hard to turn microhouse into art-pop, losing the best part of microhouse (the grooves!) in the process. It's a starkly serene, frequently beautiful album, but even when a minimal house template is used and not discarded, it is stretched so thin that it sounds like a largely superficial aesthetic choice; the arrangements are about as close to microhouse as Depeche Mode's Exciter is. Which isn't a bad thing, but after hearing "In A Snowstorm" and especially "Transparent" I was hoping that Coloma might achieve that rare (or, at least, rarely successful) alchemic combination of soul-searching and dancing.

There's a distinction, perhaps, between Coloma's approach to the song, and that of other microhouse artists. A mental rundown suggests to me that most forays into pop by microhouse artists have tended to be interested in pop's fomal qualities: a love of choruses, of the emotive pull and engaging directness of pop's aching refrains and simple chord changes, of the grain and texture of pop singers' voices. These artists aren't interested in the "song" as a medium for a message, but rather as a conglomerate of appealing sonic tricks handed down through the decades.

Taken to its extreme, this approach reveals itself in the cubist-pop of M. Mayer's "Amanda", or on Sascha Funke's deconstruction of Bros, or MRI's homage to Aaliyah. Coloma's singer Rob Taylor lent his vocals to Mathias Schaffhauser's "Hey Little Girl", which sounds like a extended house mix of Icehouse's version rather than a new performance, so faithful is it to the architectural impressiveness of the original. Like the other artists mentioned, Schaffhauser regards pop songs as constructs, with his take on "Hey Little Girl" being the perfect simulacrum, a thoughtful improvement upon the original via the addition of dance friendly beats and a deeper, dub-inflected arrangement.

Coloma meanwhile regard the pop song as a dream-world, an impressionistic landscape in which no two emotions appear twice. Whereas on "Hey Little Girl" Taylor's vocals exhibited a studied perfection, on Silverware his singing is multifaceted and idiosyncratic, slipping in and out of a thick British accent and riddled with eccentricities. The songs seem to be self-consciously designed as texts - the overripe lyricism of You Came As Yourself (a tale of a costume party filled to the brim with misty-eyed brides, prophetic soothesayers, banana-skinned clowns and celebrity chefs; indeed, filled to the brim with "such perfect workmanship/such oneupmanship" as couplets rhyming "mercurial Alice" with "poisoned chalice") suggests that it was written purely for the joy of reproducing the words in the lyric booklet, although in point of fact Coloma saw fit not to include one.

(I should note that I reckon Taylor is an intermittently brilliant lyricist. There's a moment of particular... precision?... on the glowering "Waltzer", when he grandly declaims, "I'm a bearded lady! Who's gonna buy me a drink?!?").

And the music, ah the music, so rich in gloomy lugubriousness and morose minimalism: droning organs, twinkling music boxes, misanthropic bass riffs, sullenly chiming guitars and gently clicking static all connoting indulgent torpor. So why do Coloma feel the urge to so frequently tie it all onto a pulsating 4/4 beat? What does "house" - in this, its most abstracted and peripheral articulation - signify to the duo? Perhaps it's in fact that old red herring: the house beat as a restraint mechanism. Only it's not a red herring here, because the duo are romanticising the style's supposed deficiency. Coloma intentionally use the 4/4 beat as a straightjacket - or, rather, a corset - to judiciously stifle their songs, to render their gasps at once more painful and somehow more vital. It's an act of containment that might be a product of fear of letting the outside world in, but I rather think it's the opposite. This is defiantly not landscape music, not horizon music, because Coloma's haunting visions are of the things we carry within us, the secrets caught between our skin and our clothes.

Grooving quietly but firmly, "Transparent" stands apart from its bedfellows on Silverware, perhaps because it was given over to labelmates Decomposed Subsonic to reproduce and remix into a spartan dancefloor wallflower. Coloma return the favour on Decomposed Subsonic's "Part of the Machine", with singer Rob Taylor providing vocals. "Part of the Machine" is an entirely different beast to "Transparent", however: a menacing bass burble announces an evil intent that is swiftly rammed home by the most punishing, remorseless house beat outside of a Green Velvet. And like some of Green Velvet's work, "Part of the Machine" sounds a bit like an attempt to make gabba at house tempo - there's that same edge of delirious, dangerous abandon, a sensation of too much intensity. The beats have an almost resonant clamour about them, sounding like the cold, clanking timpanis of the underworld. There's this great moment, too, where the whole thing slows down, grinding to a shuddering halt, before snapping back into action, as if hell itself momentarily closed down to absorb a particularly evil new arrival.

For his part, Taylor sounds at once neurotic and unhinged as he sets about doggedly translating the thoughts of a psychotic robot. "I'm a spring, I'm a cog, I'm a wheel/I'm a king, I'm a pawn in the deal/I'm cool, I'm calm, I'm clean/I'm a part of the machine!" Compared to the sculpted grandeur of Silverware, it's a surprisingly blunt performance, though you might not know if you heard this in isolation. I don't think I necessarily like the results more than Silverware, but I think I like it more often, its harshness hitting a spot that the fragility, the precariousness of Silverware perhaps prevents it from touching. Coloma write songs trapped in straightjackets; "Part of the Machine" is the straightjacket.
eleven-ten pm



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