Like Public Enemy in the late '80s, Staten Island's Wu-Tang Clan has cast a long shadow over the '90s hip-hop scene. Public Enemy's great innovation was to speed up the beats pioneered by rap artists such as Run DMC, with lyrics as politically direct as the Clash's. By contrast Wu's sonic architect The RZA slowed down hip-hop, making the beats as murky as molasses while tying it all together with an incoherent yet mesmerizing mix of kung fu dialogue, ghetto tales, and woozy keyboards.
On their debut album Architechnology, Chicago's Rubberoom has melded these two distinct styles and added the skilled art of thirteen different turntablists. Often their songs start frisky, then devolve into something more ominous: Imagine Raekwon produced by Tricky. As is the case with Wu's words, it's often impossible to figure out just what the hell Rubberoom is going on about in their songs (society's obsession with technology and a preoccupation with an impending apocalypse seem to dominate), but their intricate soundscapes are much more evocative than their lyrics.
Indeed what distinguishes Architechnology from other current hip-hop albums is its improvisational air, and Rubberoom's sheer ferocity. The group has also added another important element: You can dance to the music. On Architechnology's best songs, the tracks work both as extended dance remixes and personal statements. "Acid" features creepy strings and a hypnotic snare backbeat that adds drama to this cautionary tale of a promising young woman "with a reefer in place of a soul," while "Vertigo" disses an urban community that has lost touch with reality (MCs Lumba and Meta-Mo's mile-a-minute delivery adds to the disorientation) over slurred vocal loops and tinkling piano.
The record never slows down; mixmasters Isle of Weight and Fanum understand the importance of flow. Besides, stopping and assessing the damage means succumbing to the impending chaos Rubberoom's members foresee. So they pile on the effects, their only weapons against doom being the clanking garbage cans on "Lockjaw," or the hisses and stuttering cello (playing a few notes of the Jaws theme) on the appropriately titled "Smoke."
The album is intoxicating, if a bit wearying. Sixteen tracks, most over five minutes long, make for a pretty heavy aural meal, while the relentless onslaught of backbeats and lyrics comes at you like a battering ram. Still Rubberoom proves that not only is there such a thing as 21st-century hip-hop, but that the genre can tolerate hedonism as much as social commentary.
-- Alfredo Soto
Lies, Sissies, and Fiascoes. The Best of This American Life
This two-CD compilation of the popular National Public Radio program This American Life is a fascinating listen on many levels. Each segment presents a fifteen-minute window into another person's world, and each of the CDs is sequenced in such a way that connections between the stories create surprising revelations. Taken as a whole, the package is funny, disturbing, annoying, and quite remarkable.
To a listener unfamiliar with the show, and therefore new to this material (like me), the monologues are slightly unnerving. Listening to a person talk directly to you for fifteen minutes is an intimate experience: It's the auditory equivalent of voyeurism. Different segments use that intimacy in different ways. Some approach it theatrically, like David Sedaris in his story "Drama Bug," which is about his childhood infatuation with theater and is delivered in an appropriately stagey tone, or like Cheryl Trykv's "Teen Getaway," which is a recording of a stage appearance, complete with audience. The basic formula is more literary, with someone telling a story as if they are reading from a book, interspersed or underscored with atmospheric music. Others include interviews and some field recordings (like Sarah Vowell's priceless document of a father-daughter cannon shoot). The final track, "Apology Line," consists of anonymous apologies left on an answering machine.
Disc one is the lighter of the two. The dominant theme here is childhood memories and dealing with parents. Maybe an even more dominant theme is quirkiness, which would take into account Dishwasher Pete's anecdote about putting one over on the David Letterman show in the name of free food (though this could also fall into the category of extended childhood). Disc two is where things get dark. Psychodrama is the theme, starting with the Woody Allen-esque (in delivery as well as in content) light neuroses of host Ira Glass's postbreakup angst, and heading into two incredible explorations of some very dark mental areas: "Hands on a Hard Body" (about a pickup truck-related endurance contest in Texas); and "The Test," a history of one man's encounter with schizophrenia. David Rakoff's "Christmas Freud" provides comic relief but stays within the psychoanalytic theme: It relates the experience of an actor who, for four weekends leading up to Christmas, portrayed Sigmund Freud in a New York department store window.
There are many surprises on these CDs. Although it's hard to imagine listening to them over and over again like one would a favorite music recording, there is definitely enough to think about on these discs to make them worth far more than the two hours of listening time, which could make at least a good chunk of, say, a long car ride that much more interesting.
-- Ted Reichman
This American Life airs Sunday mornings at 10:00 on
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