Friday, February 26, 2010

Am I Behind The Times?

There's something about music that feels so incredibly current. If you're not on the ball, plugged in, or obsessively following the scene you'll miss it. I suppose you could describe all culture that way, but because I pay more attention to music than to visual art or fashion or film or theater I feel a greater responsibility to know what is now.

But why do I beat myself up, figuratively of course, about not discovering a particular band until well after their moment in the sun or 15 minutes of fame? Why does it matter when I find out about something I like? Do I feel like I missed out on a collective societal experience - a moment in time that will never be recreated? Well, yes.

One way this happens is, especially living in NYC, you don't find out about a band you like until they 'make it' and then it's impossible to get tickets to a show when they come to town (She & Him, Animal Collective, etc etc etc). Or you miss the tour supporting a particularly great album (Of Montreal- Hissing Fauna). Or you don't realize you like a band until they no longer exist (Uncle Tupelo). Or you feel silly suddenly liking a band because you heard them in a commercial and their 'real' fans think they've 'sold out' (this list could go on forever but Nick Drake comes to mind first even though he was dead well before someone put him in a Volkswagon ad).

This is perhaps not the best example but this week I started listening to a Manchester, England based band called Working For A Nuclear Free City, specifically their 2007 album Businessmen & Ghosts. They were on Pitchfork's radar way back in '06 but didn't make much of a splash in the US until '07.

I guess I should give myself a pass on this one - they've been playing in the background (literally) with some songs in everything from video games to movies. But when I heard them for the first time this week I was hooked - I hear an amazing distorted harmonica from time to time, Chemical Brothers-esque electronic loops, shoegaze-y guitars that burst into rock anthem-worthy solos, and some lyrics worth straining to hear. Each song, while contributing to the whole of this massive album, seems to have its own unique influences. (I also think Animal Collective must have been influenced by some of this when they made Merriweather.) Then all of a sudden out comes a poppy drum beat, like on England, and you're bopping your head and toe tapping before you really know what the song is. Love.

Needless to say, I'm now a fan. I discovered them for myself. Am I behind the times? That remains to be seen, but now I know about them and can happily anticipate their new album coming out later this year, Jo Jo Burger Tempest.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

K'Naan - Troubador

In the rash of best-of lists at the end of each year, I always discover something that should have made my own best-of list. This is that album this year.

K'naan is a Somalian-Canadian who emigrated first to New York, then to Toronto when he was a teenager. He didn't speak english when he moved here, but he already had a great love for American hip hop. He raps about his life in Mogadishu, and about the difficulty of leaving a warzone with friends and family still in danger. His biography is very important to his image as a world-wise, self-aware rising star. This would be a fascinating story even if the music weren't so good.

Troubador is a kick in the pants - it's the first new hip hop album i've enjoyed since Tim Fite in 2007, and I've been playing it nonstop. It's ruining the monopoly that indie rock and alt-country have had on my ipod for a long time. The first song I heard was Wavin' Flag, and it's a fantastic song - uplifting and heartfelt like no other hip hop song i've ever heard - but it doesn't begin to showcase K'naan's rhymes. If I had to compare K'naan's style it would be somewhere between Kanye West and Eminem - he truly learned english by listening to hip hop, so he's assimilated perfectly the standard rap cadences, pronunciations, and interior rhymes of the most inventive American stars. The difference is, when he reps the hood he grew up in, it was Mogadishu. Not that suburban Chicago didn't have it's trials and tribulations.

Sometimes, K'naan gets caught up too much in comparing his relatively unassailable background to those of other rappers. He's obviously earned his swagger, and as with almost every hip hop album, it gets tiring to listen to him brag about gun crimes, and offer to take other rappers on a "field trip" to the streets where he was raised. But these moments are overshadowed by songs like Take a Minute where he credits his strength to his mother, to Africa, to the generosity of those who've taught him that if one truly knows anything, it's that he knows "not a damn, damn thing at all."

There are, of course, lighter moments as well, like 15 Minutes Away - where he raps about how much he loves getting money transfers from Western Union, Bang Bang - probably his best rhyme showcase, where he spins a dizzying tale about another dangerous experience in his life, trying a bed a woman who was just too beautiful, and If Rap Gets Jealous - featuring guitar work from Metallica's Kirk Hammet. These moments provide a welcome respite from the potentially depressing subject matter of some of the rest of the album, and the overall feeling is not only uplifiting, it's fun. K'naan grabbed my attention with his biography, but he's really backed it up with his music.