Bonfire in a Dixie Cup
On the Yips' 1995 single "1000% Fox," pinched-voice vocalist/bulldozer guitarist Gilmore Tamny kept her anger in check, and throughout the assaulting gem she made a point of bragging about it: "The rage in my cage stays mainly on the page." On the Columbus, Ohio, duo's brilliant debut album, however, Tamny lets her rage fly all over the trash-pop landscape she has staked out with drummer Jonathon Davidson and presided over by low-fi avatar Mike Rep (who produced Bonfire with typical speaker-rattling, crap-rock finesse). Mixing swaggering chord riffs with charming melodies, punk snarl, and swinging, savage bursts of percussive bang and clang, the Yips make tough rock nuggets with chewy-soft centers. Highlights are everywhere: the snarling churn and sway of "Cut the Shit" and "Arson"; the lovely, acoustic delicacy of "Why We Slosh So"; and the finger-picking guitar raunch on the finger-popping instrumental "Muhammad Ali." Best, though, is the menacing "Short North Song," a ferocious screamer about mistaken identity, sex for dough, and teenage prostitutes with bad coughs, set in one of Columbus's seedier after-dark locales. Equally funny and sad, sympathetic and indignant, it is a masterful snapshot of grim urban reality that marks Tamny as one of the finest new songwriters currently toiling in the Amerindie underground.
-- John Floyd
De La Soul
Stakes Is High
One of the great things about the seven-year recording career of the Long Island rap trio De La Soul is that, so far, the term "stakes is high" has applied to every one of their albums. Since their sensational 1989 debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, each release has been an event -- always anticipated, always examined, and always inconclusive enough to make us excited for the next one. The subsequent albums (1991's De La Soul Is Dead and Buhloone Mind State, from 1993) both offered more of something; Stakes Is High, on the other hand, doesn't offer more of anything.
Not being more, though, doesn't mean it's always less. On songs such as "Betta Listen," "Itzsoweezee (Hot)" and the title track, the trio tries out some new ideas (like including the woman's perspective in a tale of sexual conquest, a rarity on the rap front) while doing the same old thing really well (like building great hip-hop around an obscure sample). But the album suffers tremendously from the absence of De La Soul's unofficial fourth member, producer Prince Paul, who over the years crafted some of the most distinctive and adventurous tracks anyone ever laid rhymes over. Most of the cuts on this De La-produced effort feature bland jazz samples that render the songs limp and, at times, tedious. Even a revived sense of spirit during the album's second half doesn't help muster enough excitement.
While every new rap sensation pledges to "take it to the next level," mostly it's just empty rhetoric. De La Soul has clearly advanced the form, and can take credit for moving hip-hop into adulthood without reducing it to self-parody. As they proved with the much more accomplished Buhloone Mind State, though, getting old doesn't have to mean growing tired, and for the first time, De La Soul has failed to take the music to another stage.
-- Roni Sarig
Calling Up Spirits
The spirits conjured by the renascent King of the Surf Guitar on his latest postrevival release are best displayed on full-bore workouts like "Nitrus," "The Wedge Paradiso," and "Gypsy Fire." On these, the majestic power of the waves is captured, driven by a giant dose of metallic fury. They're as close to "Miserlou" as we're likely to get in '96, and proof that the King's comeback is due to more than just the influence of Pulp Fiction -- the soundtrack of which prominently featured Sir Dick -- on the world's hipster masses.
What should have been an unstoppable performance, though, is occasionally brought to a near halt when Dale opens his mouth to sing. A revival of his early R&B-style "Peppermint Man" is one thing, but the world needed one less lame version of "Fever" about 100 tries ago. On Spirits, Dale comes off like a lounge lizard for the surfboard set. As for the environmental and social concerns addressed on "Window," let's just say that the untamed cosmos is channeled more effectively through Dale's ultra-heavy strings than by the warning that "your life has lost its meaning like the people of the plains before your time." Better to catch the Force on Spirits' title track, a much more formidable (and more musical) nod to Native American philosophy, or the audacious cover of "Third Stone From the Sun."
-- Rickey Wright
It Was Written
It was a delight to watch all those slack jaws drop last month when this sophomore effort from relatively obscure Queens mike man Nas (Nasir Jones) debuted at number one on the Billboard Top 200, displacing Metallica's latest dirge. Like Coolio's Gangsta Paradise, It Was Written boasts enough singles to win months of airplay. It should also reinforce hip-hop's primacy as the buying public's fave crossover genre. The reason is pretty simple: A well-produced hip-hop album is just a lot more fun to listen to than the latest alt-rock poseur or Hootie rip-off. And Written is nothing if not well produced. As with his ambitious 1994 debut, Illmatic, Nas receives assistance from some of rap's finest boardmen, including the terminally savvy Dr. Dre.
Give Nas credit: For a 22-year-old, he's got chutzpah. Witness the disc's opening track, a swell of maudlin strings -- a la Gone with the Wind -- over which we hear Nas the Slave rebelling against his master and getting lynched. On the heels of this interlude comes "The Message" (not the Grandmaster Flash classic from rap's early Eighties infancy), a chronicle of street life that is distinguished by minor-key Spanish guitar plucks and Nas's knack for running the lyric flow. (He rhymes "Jesus" with "Kathie Lee and Regis," an act of blasphemy that earns him permanent lyrical respect in my book.)
Like most of the album, "The Message" adheres to the standard paradox of today's hip-hop -- the simultaneous celebration and condemnation of violence and drug sales. But to his credit, Nas proves capable of subverting the formula in spots. "I Gave You the Power" is a gripping saga told in the voice of a gun that rebels against its drug-running master. "Watch Dem Niggas" is an equally chilling cautionary tale that undercuts the glamour of the drug trade by focusing on its rampant paranoia. Borrowing the familiar riff from Eurythmics' hit of the same name, Nas narrates "Street Dreams" to the sounds of a chaotic drug shootout. Not surprisingly, the single that has propelled the album into the MTV stratosphere is "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)," a swaggering, airhead ode to wish fulfillment that features Fugee and reigning hip-hop It girl Lauryn Hill.
Perhaps the most revealing tune on the fourteen-song collection is "Nas Is Coming," in which producer/self-appointed mentor Dr. Dre urges young Nas (over a blunt) to forget coastal rivalries for the sake of the almighty buck. "Hey, let's get this money," Dr. Dre rasps. "Let's get paid."
It's this sort of glib materialism that winds up shooting the album in the foot. For all his verbal skills and insight, Nas can't quite bring himself to forsake the gangsta mentality he's critiquing. This may explain why he continually invokes the memory of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. In the end, it's not quite clear whether Nas realizes that, for all his financial achievements, Escobar is both a murderer and a dead man.
-- Steven Almond
Phillip Johnston's Big Trouble
Flood at the Ant Farm
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Saxophonist Phillip Johnston's Big Trouble octet gets negligible recognition when compared to the attention bestowed on the well-groomed young lions in Wynton Marsalis's den. On its third album, though, Big Trouble explodes the myth that adventurous jazz is claustrophobic, solemn, pedantic, and inaccessible. Rather, these New York-based mavericks show that fun is a valuable component of their music, through the refreshing lilt in their playing and the giddy gracefulness of their writing.
The Johnston composition "Mr. Crocodile" has a sublime melody over an attractive samba beat, but it still steers clear of mainstream respectability thanks to quirky instrumental digressions and textures. "Pontius Pilate Polka," penned by Johnston for a project featuring accordionist Guy Klucevsek, sounds like dance music for couples drunk on port; "Willie's Room," written for the Philip Haas film The Music of Chance, manages to balance delicacy with a peculiar kind of understated tension. Keyboardist-saxophonist Joe Ruddick's "Heaven, Hell or Hoboken" tears it up start to finish with a rockabilly string-bass figure underlining bursts of "Try a Little Tenderness" and the timeless curio "There's No Place Like Home," among other pointedly zany references. Eclectic woodwind player Bob DeBellis and percussionist Kevin Norton pitch in with the curiously compelling tunes "Don't Fret, Sweat" and "The Enduring Heart," respectively, letting the immediacy of their composed sections dictate shape and form to the soloists.
Such imaginative writing would matter not at all without capable and clever players. The Big Trouble guys are that and more, with a special nod to Johnston for his inspired contributions on alto and soprano. Sizing up Steve Lacy's "Hemline," he uses the higher-pitched straight horn to evidence the influence of Lacy (the premier soprano player of our time), offering fluid lines that carry a dignified calmness and that counter a gruff, urgent solo statement from the aptly surnamed trombone player Steve Swell.
-- Frank-John Hadley