No other artist or label represents the giant chasm that emerged in underground hip-hop more than Sole and Anticon. While their contemporaries took a defiant and counter position against the conventions of mainstream hip-hop, those in the Anticon collective were always seen as the awkward kids at the party. They were too experimental, too offbeat, hell, too “white.” It seems like for every one fan that dug their approach to hip-hop, there were three who thought they were a shade too off. But Anticon and Sole cultivated a pretty solid niche, releasing a staggering amount of records long after their perceived heyday. Yet, despite a 13-year run seemingly on his own terms, in February of 2010, Sole relinquished his ownership share of Anticon and also left the label as an artist.
During those 13 years, Sole expanded his sonic palate by delving into a variety of different styles. As part of his experiments, he joined up with Skyrider and began releasing records as Sole and the Skyrider Band. After two prior albums and an EP, Sole and Skyrider have reconvened for their latest release, Hello Cruel World, their first post-Anticon release. But they’re not alone. Such disparate guests as Xiu Xiu and Lil B also join them on this campaign.
If you haven’t listened to Sole since his early days, the first thing you’ll notice is that he has a better relationship with the beat and keeping on it. There’s also less of an attempt to cram 125 pounds of syllables in a 12-ounce bag. And for an artist who has long taken delight in subverting the unwritten rules of hip-hop, on Hello Cruel World Sole and Skyrider have venture farther afield into icy, electro backdrops, indie-rock influenced workouts and some tracks that aren’t that removed from modern R&B. But it’s Sole’s single-minded high-intensity approach to performance that ties it together. Even when crooning, he attacks the song with the same conviction as when he lashes against the shallowness of modern culture. Those still wasting time arguing about “real” hip-hop probably shouldn’t bother with Hello Cruel World, but it is nonetheless another solid plank in Sole’s platform to expand hip-hop’s boundaries.
Dorian S. Ham
In 2007, Sam Ubl published a great piece for Stylus on the state of humor in rock music, writing that “the role of musical humor has seldom been more deeply misunderstood.” Have we made any progress in the last four years? I don’t know. Ariel Pink is kind of funny, I guess, and the Dismemberment Plan reunion is certainly a promising sign. Das Racist is, of course, hilarious, but they make rap music, a genre that from the beginning never struggled with humor. When it comes to rock & roll, however, we’re still stuck in a sort of post–Arcade Fire malaise. Luckily, They Might Be Giants, the most prolific and longest-running practitioners of funny music (not “joke rock”—there’s a big distinction) are back with their first non-children’s record since 2007’s The Big Else.
Right out of the gate, They Might Be Giants knock off two instant classics with “They Can’t Keep Johnny Down,” a shimmering ode to not being a dick, and “You Probably Get That a Lot,” in which the singer makes the dubious claim that the person he’s speaking to is often referred to as a cephalophore. Join Us continues to chug along nicely, but leaves its best moments for the third act. The last seven of eighteen tracks are nearly flawless, from the RJD2-ready horns of “The Lady and the Tiger” to the futuristic fable, “2082,” which, like “Particle Man” and “Constantinople,” would make perfect material for an Animaniacs short.
Music this absurd and goofy is not for everybody (our fearless editor made that much clear when I suggested the review). But you have to respect the degree of difficulty and sense of daring involved in attempting humorous rock, at least when compared to more “serious” ambitions. If Win Butler of Arcade Fire tells us he sits around all day reading Nietzche in a windowless room while yelling at his financial adviser, we have every reason to believe him. But you can’t fake funny, and They Might Be Giants are never afraid of a good laugh.
MP3: “Can’t Keepy Johnny Down”
I was probably amongst a small minority when it came to digging the self-titled debut from Costa Mesa’s Japanese Motors that came out a few years ago. From what I can tell, the band ceases to be, which is a shame, because with a fetching mix of Velvet Underground primitivism and seaside jangle, there wasn’t a whole lot not to like about them. In fact, I’m still convinced of their lone record’s potency even after hearing Tomorrow’s Tulips, the new project from singer Alex Knost, had me doubting my convictions.
The problem with Eternally Teenage, the debut album from the Tulips (Knost and his drummer girlfriend Christina Keyes), is it’s lacking in the East-meets-West Coast verve that made the Japanese Motors unique. Instead, the duo dabbles in somnolent minimalism. Cuts like “Roses” and the appropriately titled “Lull,” as well as the vast majority of the album, move by at the decidedly drowsy pace that Keyes sets, never building momentum. This wouldn’t be so bad if there was something to break the lethargy, but the record’s decidedly ramshackle cadence makes it seem like the couple just rolled out of bed and hit record, thus ensuring the sleepy vibe is never broken. So while there’s sparks here and there of vivacity, my high hopes are largely dashed.
MP3: “Eternally Teenage”
A mellow, carefree summer vibe pervades The English Riviera, the third release from British electronic group Metronomy. (The sound of surf and seagulls on the first track are a big hint.) But this isn’t the typical quintessential summer surf-rock album, partially because, of course, Metronomy mastermind Joseph Mount is from the shores of Devon, not California, and he records electronic music. His summer sounds are strained through a synthesizer and put in a time machine set to random for an incongruous, trippy collection of electro-pop.
As such, Mount, keyboard and saxophone player Oscar Cash, bassist Gbenga Adelekan and former Lightspeed Champion drummer Anna Prior lead listeners through hints of music eras past: ’70s rock with “We Broke Free” and disco-funk with “The Bay”, as well as ’80s electronica with “Corrine,” which borrows a page from Speak and Spell–era Depeche Mode. Elsewhere, it’s difficult not to compare “She Wants” with She Wants Revenge—it’s as if Metronomy’s playing a word association game with those of use who remember that duo from several years ago. This track and “Loving Arm” both have dual personalities; a spooky, gothic intro gives way to pop, funkified hooks. These songs cheer themselves up.
The gems, however, are the meandering “Trouble,” with soaring keyboards and a laidback countenance, and “The Look,” a charming ditty awash in twangy guitars and pop sensibilities. There’s something vaguely French about the latter, or perhaps it’s just reminiscent of Phoenix, a French band. In keeping with the album’s theme, there are a few albatross tracks, tacked on to the end of the record: the unfocused “Love Underlined” and the plodding, bloopy (yes, bloopy) ballad “Some Unwritten.” These are, in fact, the longest tracks, when I thought they just felt that way. Overall, though, The English Riviera is a pleasant and adventurous musical jaunt, bumps and all.
When the duo of Rob Garza and Eric Hilton, a.k.a. Thievery Corporation, emerged some 15 years ago, they brought a fresh mindset to the DJ vocation. Fusing together a worldly breadth of styles ranging between reggae and Afrobeat, Brazilian samba and Parisian trip-hop, and genres even further afield, the pair gave electronica a heartbeat and a soul. Albums like The Mirror Conspiracy and The Richest Man in Babylon showed ingenuity and a modern facade, while still being built upon time-tested grooves. Thievery Corporation was unafraid to give their songs voices too, introducing the world to the talents of LouLou and Bebel Gilberto in the process.
For a group that at one time seemed to be constantly pushing forward—not only with their own music, but as the brains behind the ESL label—Thievery Corporation has seemed to remain in a holding pattern for the past few years. Their last two records, The Cosmic Game (2005) and Radio Retaliation (2008), were lacking in comparison to the albums that preceded them, and it appeared as if the band would soon fade into the pack of faceless, passionless knob-twidlers.
Fortunately, Culture of Fear bears some of the distinction of Thievery Corporation’s past. The dynamic duo probably makes cuts like “Tower Seven” and “Fragments” while checking their email, but elsewhere they show more creative intent. The title track, featuring Mr. Lif, mixes a jumpy backbeat, scratches and funk-laden horns into a sublime, frenetic groove. Meanwhile, the heavy dub of “Stargazer,” the laidback riddims of “Overstand” and the airy acid jazz of “Light Flares” are equally satisfying. It is the human element that makes these tracks stand out, and which, has elevated Culture of Fear over its predecessors.