Jeffrey Haynes, the mega-dreadlocked MC better known as Mr. Lif, has long been the ace up the sleeve of NYC's forward-thinking Definitive Jux collective. Combining one of the most distinctive tones since fellow Beantowner Guru with an intimidating intellect, Lif is the real deal.
The Public Enemy Handbook saith: When making hiphop to enlighten the masses, make the production as compelling as the raps, and be sure to throw in a li'l levity to lighten the load. This has never been lost on Lif; as usual, Lif's dense lyrical barrage fits El-P's anxiety-inducing, deconstructionist boom bap to a T, and Murs shows up to trade comical bars with the dread on the fame fantasy "Murs Iz My Manager." Lif even gets his Morgan Spurlock on with the fat-American screed "The Fries," and sends a letter to his seed from the road on "For You," showing a breadth beyond most rappers.
Mo' Mega is a welcome break from his concept pieces Emergency Rations and I Phantom, as well as from last year's overtly "conscious" Black Dialogue album with the Perceptionists. Not to say that Mo' ain't chock-full of relevant commentary—just check the Bush-whacking "Brothaz"; this time around, however, it's far more subtle, weaved into Lif's street-level take on matters both personal and mundane. Along the way, Lif's snaky flow and multidimensional mic presence—from passionate to hilariously deadpan, dude has real control—make all his topics sparkle, providing much proof why Lif is one of rap's most focused MCs. Heed the words of the brother. LARRY MIZELL JR.
Through the Cardial Window
For lovers of exploratory, drone-based music, Kranky Records has been a godsend (no, I'm not on staff). Spring releases by Bird Show, Keith Fullerton Whitman, and Loscil represent a cornucopia of top-shelf head music that'll keep your third ear dazzled for years. Oakland-based multi-instrumentalist Gregg Kowalsky's Through the Cardial Window continues Kranky's hot streak. While his minimalist pieces bear the compositional rigor you'd expect from a Mills College grad (avant-garde guitar maestro Fred Frith was one of his professors), you don't need an advanced degree to appreciate Kowalsky's warm, enveloping tone waves. Using computer, electronics, field recordings, and melodica, Kowalsky conjures hypnotic whorls of astral dust that corkscrew into your brain with the gentle insistence of a softly uttered prayer. Aid from Ben Bracken's prepared guitar, Marielle Jakobsons's violin and bowed glass, and Joel Chapen's bowed acoustic guitar tastefully embroiders Cardial Window's sonic Persian rugs. Kowalsky has atomized his rich sound sources and made them radiate in a sacred light. His mentors oughta be proud. DAVE SEGAL
R. LUKE DUBOIS
DuBois is the latest in a long line of sound artists who treat electronic music as a kind of aural camera, zooming in, compressing, and magnifying sound. Decades ago, the now-forgotten Hal Freedman condensed Wagner's elephantine four-evening Ring cycle of operas into a four-minute piece for magnetic tape, "Ring Precis." Like Freedman, DuBois compacts an encyclopedic amount of material into a single work; in 36 minutes, "Billboard" devours and distills the 857 number-one hits on the Billboard Hot 100 from 1958 to 2000 into vaporous slabs of sound glazed with reverb––as if the original 45s were channeled through a massive network of subterranean aqueducts and emptied into an icy, cathedral-sized cavern. Some might find DuBois's unfunky, deliberately stilted rhythms tedious, but like Tom Johnson's The Chord Catalogue, what was boring for two minutes becomes fascinating after 20. Two good shorter pieces round out the album. "Clavier" speeds up snippets from J. S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier into shimmering organ-like textures. "...Time Goes By (Casablanca)" coagulates granulated segments from the movie Casablanca that spurt and roar like jets of steam. Timelapse flows from beginning to end as a coherent album; yet the disc's collective similarity of timbres and digital processing techniques—a byproduct of using one application, in this case Max/MSP––made me wish for what's missing in most experimental, electroacoustic music today: risky structures, breathtaking timbral variety, daring changes in tempo, and good old-fashioned polyphony. CHRISTOPHER DeLAURENTI
NICK CASTRO & THE YOUNG ELDERS
Come Into Our House
(Strange Attractors Audio House)
Come Into Our House is Los Angeles songwriter Nick Castro's third proper album and first for Strange Attractors Audio House, an underrated sanctuary for all sounds cosmic. Castro's distinctive blend of folk is rooted in British traditions, with exploratory forays into Eastern mysticism and '60s psychedelic rock. "One I Love," for example, is the spitting image of Simon and Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair" reimagined by Fairport Convention, where "Sleeping in a Dream" is a darkly whimsical folk gem that sinks headlong into a tribal fever dream. The album is at its most potent, though, when it opens up and lets the array of harmoniums and pennywhistles take over, as in the acid-tinged forest voyages of "Attar" and the 13-minute epic "Lay Down Your Arms"
Castro's ambrosial production touches spanning the disc are immaculate and crystal clear, perhaps a little too clear at times. In fact, if there's a flaw here, it's that Castro, much like the city where he's based, often places style before substance. The prime essence of the folk idiom is the raw craft of songwriting; one senses that stripped of their ornamentations or transposed to another genre, some of the songs here might fall as flat as an elven pancake. Still, most listeners who choose to come into Castro's house will likely rest down upon an eiderdown with a cup of chamomile and be suitably bewitched. JOSH BLANCHARD
BARKLEY'S BARNYARD CRITTERS
It's becoming apparent that Lightning Bolt bassist/Wizardzz drummer Brian Gibson is one of those people you secretly hate because they're really ambitious and good at everything they do. Exhibit C is the latest Barkley's Barnyard Critters DVD, Mystery Tail. I can tell you the same plot synopsis that almost every internet review describes—protagonist Barkley is frontdog for a successful band, but quits under the pressure of their rising success, only to fall into a drunken downward spiral and later return to the band and reclaim victory, but the loose plot is nothing compared to the downright weirdness of this cartoon.
Tail is a mix of live-action characters, drawing, and computer 3-D generation. Humans in costumes often share the frame and interact with cartoon figures and/or ride around in computer-generated vehicles. The combined effect is disorienting, and some of the live costumes disturb with equal parts nightmare and acid flashback. The characters, which include, for example, a hyperactive cane named Rudy and an anxiety-ridden, deer-headed human named Sedric Charles Chadwick III, all exhibit distinct and amusing personalities. Along with the almost hour-long feature, we get a searing, percussion-heavy live set from the aforementioned Wizardzz, who are also dressed in truly concerning garb; a three-minute montage of the Totem Tour (basically random live shots of people in costumes running around and freaking out); and a 2002 Barkley short that provides a good reference point for the increasing sophistication and weirdification of Gibson's other side project. GRANT BRISSEY
Best of Luna
(Rhino; digital only)
The quality that made it easy to take Luna for granted was also their strongest selling point: consistency. You can't break down their catalog into "the disco record" and "the folk record," etc., because their sound varied only marginally from release to release (perhaps one reason Luna brought in different producers on each album), but within a set of clearly defined sonic parameters—Dean Wareham's conversational singing style, woozy guitars, codeine-slow tempos—they always delivered. Wareham himself oversaw the 17-track Best of Luna, and although it shortchanges the front and back ends of their 12-year career, it compensates with great liner notes, wherein he shares little stories about each cut. Like finally seeing the video for a song you've adored for ages, these revelations arrive too late to color your individual interpretations of "Tiger Lily" or "Astronaut," yet add a new layer of enjoyment to each old favorite.
Best of Luna opens with "Moon Palace" and closes with "23 Minutes in Brussels," two 1995 selections featuring Television's Tom Verlaine, and also frontloads the disc with "Friendly Advice," showcasing one of the final performances by Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison. In case anvil-on-the-head hints like this didn't make Luna's principal influences crystal clear, they also littered their canon with cover versions of Suicide, Serge Gainsbourg, VU, Dream Syndicate, etc., the best of which are assembled on the digital-only companion volume Lunafied (available via all major download services). While hardly essential, this 15-song selection will allow diehard fans to finally pack away a myriad of singles, soundtracks, and other ephemera they were holding on to for one or two cuts. For casual listeners, the Best of... alone will suffice nicely. KURT B. REIGHLEY
ROOTS TONIC MEETS BILL LASWELL
Roots Tonic Meets Bill Laswell
For a while, you could hardly spit without hitting an ad or poster for Matisyahu, the Hasidic Jew reggae/rap go-getter from White Plains, New York, shown during his promotional blitzkrieg dressed in full traditional garb. Roots Tonic, then, is his backing band, which is how they hooked up with prolific bassist/producer Bill Laswell (who produced Matisyahu's heavily pushed album, Youth). You could write an encyclopedia based solely on Laswell's body of work, but lately he's increasingly tended toward reggae and dub structures, taking on projects like these and last year's Trojan Dub Massive: Chapter One and Chapter Two. Those releases found Laswell carefully and subtly remixing selections from the massive vaults of legendary dub label Trojan's back catalog. But Roots Tonic Meets Bill Laswell is very much contemporary dub, what with the exquisite production, crisp tones, and a notable presence in the room. The best dub transports you out of the room, with its ancient, otherworldly patterns. Those on Roots Tonic Meets Bill Laswell are fine humdrum melodies: Take "Employees Must Wash Your Hands," with its strutting guitar, fly-by sound effects, and ethereal keyboards. The band is tight, and the production intent, but the track would sound better all warped out, with some old, heavy-analog reverb, and grittier production. Because that's how dub is meant to be heard, from dust-covered loudspeakers, outside in the hot sun, when your senses aren't quite all there. Roots Tonic and Laswell have created an album of headphone dub, which is a very American thing to do. GRANT BRISSEY
In the 13 years since Swiss proto-black/death-metal trio Celtic Frost last released an album, we have seen the introduction of MP3s, CD burners, and online file sharing—all of which have prompted record labels (and bands) to institute various security measures to ensure that new music doesn't become available for free on the internet before it can be sold in stores. The thinking goes that if fans can download the album for free before it's even in the racks, there's a decent chance some of them won't bother spending the money when the shit actually comes out. Fine, we get it.
It boggles the mind, however, what with all the technology available to prevent Monotheist from being plastered all over the Inter-Hole before its release date, that Celtic Frost would condone (or Century Media would implement) the insertion of a high-frequency tone—a tone which occasionally corresponds with the timbre and tonal quality of the music itself (and then, suddenly, doesn't)—into review/promotional copies of Monotheist EVERY 30 SECONDS FOR THE DURATION OF THE CD. Thus, we have rumbling riff, ominous vocals, drum thunder, black-metal belch, BEEEEEEP!; operatic female vocal intro, plodding drum beat, charred electronic ambience, BEEEEEEP!, and so on, EVERY 30 SECONDS FOR THE DURATION OF THE CD. As a result, reviewing Monotheist in any conventional sense is not only pointless, it requires selective hearing and a willing suspension of disbelief. After all, what reviewers have been provided with is not representative of the work itself (i.e., what fans are potentially buying)—and apparently neither Celtic Frost nor Century Media care enough about the music to preserve its structural integrity. So why should we give a fuck? J. BENNETT