September Music Review (Album Review Highlights)

September 29, 2011

* J. Cole – Cole World: The Sideline Story

J. Cole built a following with the current standard of a slow-burn schedule of free mixtape releases for close to two years before his official full-length debut arrived this week. The best moment of that mixtape hype-building phase was the fantastic single “Lights Please,” which is included here in its studio version. “Lights Please” is a showcase of what Cole does best–a delicate mixture of rough-voiced, streetwise sexuality and thoughtful social contemplation. Its lyric, “I know you want to change the world but for the night please, just reach over and hit the lights please?” put into the words of a hotel-room lover to him displays a wise and winking acknowledgment of aiming for great and noble things but finding yourself succumbing to less than noble actions. Cole name-checks Dr. King at several points on Cole World as a kindred spirit in the seeking spiritual and political revolution while falling to the flesh and though it pushes the metaphor to a point of tension when one tries to compare the commercial hip-hop game to the civil rights and nonviolence struggle, Cole’s delicate balance of disparate tendencies and acknowledgement to noble heroes does indeed stand him apart from many of his contemporaries.

The album opens with “Dollar and a Dream III” after the mandatory and superfluous intro track, and “Dollar” is an excellent culmination of his mixtape starter tracks from the past year or two. He follows that with a sexcapade themed romp through “Can’t Get Enough” featuring the perennially mind-in-the-gutter crooner Trey Songz and they nearly waste a great chopped-soul sampling beat but Cole’s talent as a rhymer and deft use of metaphor saves it somewhat from its dirty self. Cole is much better when he steps back from the grime to poignantly comment on it with street-sense yet thoughtful, articulate, artistic consideration that transforms sex and money songs into Michael Eric Dyson style social commentary. He does this wonderfully on “Never Told” which graphically depicts the events and wrongs of sexual wandering and cheating, acknowledging a participation in ignoble acts as well as the repercussions such acts have on he and those like him perpetrating them as well as the one-night stands caught in the way and the emotional affect they will likely have from such encounters. He traces the root-of-cheating back to following bad parental examples in a dubbed in acted-out conversation between a father and son in which the father tells the son that to be a man he has to keep some things to himself so as not to tell his mother he saw his father cheating. “Never Told” is what J. Cole is capable of–straight-faced, tell-it-like-it-is yet consider the ramifications in a down-to-earth rather than erudite manner. He’s not a Dead Prez or Talib Kweli style ruminator on social conditions–his method of social commentary emerges forcefully yet almost as a byproduct in his consideration of people and their real-life experiences rather than in social theory. Another great example of this on Cole World is “Lost Ones” in which he narrates the conversations between different poor couples considering abortion or carrying a child to term–he doesn’t preach a pro-choice or pro-life doctrine so much as give voice to the men and women working through that decision on their own, even committing a hip hop “sin” in admitting to crying over the decision as a man.

Of course, J. Cole is still a streetwise rapper who knows many of his intended fans don’t only want serious conversation. So he delivers trunk-rattling infectious earworms like “Mr. Nice Watch” which pairs him with his signer and mentor Jay Z on a blitz computer-from-the-dancefloor-future beat and a great hook. It sums up another persistent feature of Cole as a rapper– “let’s ball like there’s no tomorrow, no next year,” a celebration of life in the moment because a return to poverty and hard times may wait around the next corner. Later the track “God’s Gift” gives us a lift from old Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony beat  filtered through some serious soul and emo-ish rock which he rides to perfection with some of his best bars on the entire album. “Nobody’s Perfect” features a welcome return from Missy Elliot–oddly she doesn’t deliver a rhyme but she sings the chorus, silly as it may be, beautifully.

There are some clunkers–10 percent of this album could have been trimmed to refine it into a spectacular debut. And there are also squandered opportunities in which J. Cole in his early twenties doesn’t think to push past some of the restrictive boundaries and prejudices modern mainstream hip hop forces on itself. He also has the Kanye West tendency of intertwining brilliant lines with inadvertent corny ones. Yet, if we are to compare this to the rest of his upstart class of back-pack meets street rap that is emerging, he stands head and shoulders above them. He’s less quirky than Wale, is a better rhymer with a much better flow than Drake, and less clunky than Lil B. Since it’s always been rumored that Cole is Jay’s answer to Young Money’s Drake a comparison to that debut shows that although there were many undeniable hooky pop hop tracks that still hold up relatively well from Thank Me Later a year-plus later, the best moments of Cole World: The Sideline Story will likely outlast and stand up longer. J.Cole shows remarkable potential, so let’s see what he does with it from here on out.

r- 7/10

 

*Mastodon- The Hunter

Mastodon albums perpetually sound like they could be the soundtrack to the battles, hunts, and worship of the lands depicted in “Conan the Barbarian.” It’s like spiritual music from the really old-time religion, that of cave men. That’s not an insult. Mastodon, for all their bluster, noise, abrasiveness and straight-faced delivery of lyrics about crystals, diamonds, killer whales, oracles, blood feuds, and all other manner of such things, are not unintelligent. Mastodon have earned a deserved seat of respect in modern metal (a genre of surprisingly continued evolution in variety and depth just under the radar of most mainstream music critics and fans). Mastodon’s arguably best work was 2006s Blood Mountain which added enough hook, melody, and accessibility that previous intense efforts had lacked causing the music to better showcase its inherent songcraft and (although grimy) beauty. I found 2009s follow-up Crack the Skye moving too much in that direction, it pushed the sound more toward Soundgarden styled heavy-grunge than the artistic yet noisy prog-metal they were best at making. Good news–The Hunter gives us the best of both worlds, stepping back from the cleanness found on Skye enough to deliver pure metal but with a murky pop garnish to give access to a potentially larger audience. Mastodon eschewed the intricate (and often incomprehensible) concept records of their past with this one, focusing on a series of strong individual songs. So we get the first half of the record as powerful metal rippers, almost all single-worthy; clean vocals, heavy guitars, fast riffs, noisy excellence. They gradually work in their murky, stoner-metal sludge towards the back-end but hopefully those unaccustomed to such sounds will coast off the energy given to them at the front end of the record so they can appreciate the latter half. At times this record sounds like it could have been recorded by Sabbath in their 1970s prime, at other times it’s obvious that today’s learned and evolved metal technical skills and production qualities were necessary to present this type of Metal.

r- 8/10

 

* Wilco: The Whole Love

Wilco have consistently been one of the best artistic rock bands for around two decades now. Though they may not be as culturally important or as revolutionary and significant as The Beatles, a respectable argument can be made that their catalog of music is as solid and as excellent as that lauded institution of classic pop music. Wilco is a solid band, unafraid to stretch themselves, seemingly incapable of making a bad album, and they’ve developed a large batch of timeless and classic songs. They’re also an excellent live act. A.M. was a solid Americana record when they debuted with it and rather than stay there they’ve made sprawling alt-country pop (Being There), artistic tapestries of post-rock experimentation laden with pop hooks (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, A Ghost is Born) and recently they returned to simple yet solid rock music with the occasional southern twang and the ever-present pop hook (Sky Blue Sky, Wilco: The Album). It takes awhile to fully digest a Wilco record so my rating could go up or down a point, but for this moment I find this record to be their best since Yankee. Maybe I’m just excited to hear real, unapologetic music presented by a band comfortable enough in their own skin to try what they want with complete unconcern for what critics or the mainstream want to hear. The Whole Love mixes their Americana song-writing skill with their flirtation with technical experimentation, evinced strongly by album opening track “Art of Almost” with its twitch knob-twisting squeals, clear hooks, and break-down jam session at its close; those clashing cymbals are worth the price of admission alone. The keyboard-organ sounding pop beats on songs like “I Might” are ridiculously infectious; they’re stick-in-your-head pop melodies done right, they repeat themselves in your mind without annoying you or making you ignorant. “Born Alone” is a moment of pure brilliance and beauty, softly wrapping you into its fold. “Capitol City” is a depression-era jam drug through jazz and a 1980s arcade until it finds some of modern indie rock’s highlights. Every song has its charm and the whole thing closes with Wilco at their simplistic, stripped-down best with the acoustic ballad “One Sunday Morning (Song for Janey Smiley’s Boyfriend).” The Whole Love is easily a front-runner for record of the year, though it faces a few tough competitors.

r- 9/10

Note: A lot of excellent releases seemed to emerge out of nowhere in mid to late September after a rather long lull; some of these I’ve really dug but not heard enough to properly review, others I look forward to listening to soon. Notable examples are: Tori Amos- Night of Hunters; Machine Head- Unto the Locusts; Opeth- Heritage; Rwake – Rest; Thrice- Major/Minor; and several others.

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One Response to “September Music Review (Album Review Highlights)”

  1. […] that I didn’t cover on my full album review of this one back in the summer, which you can read here. The Hunter isn’t the opus akin to Leviathan or Blood Mountain, but it’s a solid outing […]

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