Friday, August 26, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 8/26/11 - Guided By Voices and Cypress Hill

The sheer substantiality of Guided By Voices’ discography can inspire some diverse and animated conversational grist amongst the band’s oft zealous fans. Like for instance, which’s their first classic album, PROPELLER or VAMPIRE ON TITUS? Were the two releases for TVT Records a misstep? Was HALF SMILES OF THE DECOMPOSED a fitting studio swan song? Which of the band’s five box-sets is the best? The approach to such questions will surely be impacted by individual listener’s unique discovery of this uncombed warhorse of a band. Folks whose introduction to GBV occurred while doing bong-hits (or keg-stands) in a college dorm room as “Glad Girls” or “Teenage FBI” blared from an overtaxed boom-box are far more likely to hold DO THE COLLAPSE or ISOLATION DRILLS in the highest of esteem than are sometimes crotchety veterans of the ‘80s rock underground. But that’s by no means a sure bet; there isn’t even true consensus on what is GBV’s greatest album. Folks smitten with the band’s breakout low-fi sound generally pick either BEE THOUSAND or ALIEN LANES. For years I was solidly in the BEE camp in large part because it served as my introduction to Robert Pollard’s magnetic sensibility, but recently I’ve been snuggling up nice and tight with LANES. While there is immediate tangible similarity between the records, there is also much perceptible difference. BEE holds the greatest songs and is also a recording of deliberate peaks and valleys; for many it continues to define the American low-fi pop-rock aesthetic. LANES’ fi is just as low but holds fewer strategic fractures; it’s ultimately about conjuring a cohesive or perhaps collage-like sound from Pollard’s (and Tobin Sprout’s) endless supply of tunes. Subsequently, these records inspire me in different ways. Much as it gels as a whole, occasionally I’ll grab BEE THOUSAND just to hear one or two songs, “Buzzards and Dreadful Crows” or “Echos Myron” for example. ALIEN LANES on the other hand seems to demand, of me at least, to be absorbed as a whole. This isn’t to imply that LANES lacks classic tunes. Mr. Pollard is always about the songs (even when it might seem like he isn’t), and this one holds some unabashed doozies; it’s just that with the possible exception of “Motor Away”, all of the record’s best examples of unpolished and uncut guitar-pop song-building feel intrinsically tied to the moments that proceed and follow them. This is to say that ALIEN LANES ultimately registers far more as a premeditated LP in the way it unwinds. In addition, there is a wise shifting of approach to the concept of low-fidelity. Again, BEE continues to feel gloriously strained and at times slightly broken, like the result of sessions from a band that had convinced themselves they existed in a vacuum of societal indifference. This isn’t a bit true of course, since in the two years prior to BEE THOUSAND’s release Guided By Voices’ underground stock had rose considerably, finding them very much a fanzine promoted name to know. But ALIEN LANES approaches low-fi with a well-considered almost maturity; its cut and paste aura holds nary a hint of afterthought and the song placement seems to have been actually toiled over. And while they obviously ended up inhabiting greener sonic pastures, Guided By Voices’ differ from both Pavement and Sebadoh in their relationship to the low-fi concept. Barlow’s boys and the Pavement crew both originated in the indie-scene’s small-scale and fuzzed-out aural underbelly, but they both left it right quick as their listenership increased and the larger labels came a knockin’. But as anybody who’s heard GBV’s FOREVER SINCE BREAKFAST EP from ’86 will attest, Pollard and company actually began by promulgating a fairly pro sounding batch of sleepily appealing R.E.M.-like jangle, with the following three LPs slowly shifting away from Athens and toward a well-honed Beatles-esque approach. It isn’t until ‘92’s PROPELLER (my pick for their first true classic) that the low-fi really begins in earnest. Where Pavement and Sebadoh’s career movement takes the rather predictable path of meager beginnings improbable rise and inevitable breakup (with ultimate reunion tour), GBV’s trajectory through the TVT-era feels like the wobbly path of a boomerang launched from the arm of a half-loaded legionnaire, with the return to Matador allowing them to strut authoritatively to the finish line. Back in ’95 ALIEN LANES made it quickly and abundantly clear that BEE THOUSAND was no fluke. From the confident distorto-riffing of “Watch Me Jumpstart” to the blatant Hollies-mining of “As We Go Up, We Go Down” to the sweetly burning string-gnaw of “Blimps Go 90”, this LP was/is weightier yet trimmer than BEE and came with a more clearly defined sense of direction; to the larger studios they were headed, with full-on rocking in the cards and the breakup of the “classic” lineup not far off in the distance. At 28 tracks in 41 minutes, this record can surely throw more conventionally minded listeners for a bit of a loop. Let it sink in for a while however and the well-conceived advancements of classic form moves will become readily apparent. Naturally, the Tobin Sprout sung UK-derived paisley pop junk (“Straw Dogs”, “Little Whirl”) provides some nicely wrought wrinkles, and Pollard’s own continually shifting Beatles-descended mush (“Chicken Blows”) also assists in thickening this record’s already quite potent stew. The verdict shows that ALIEN LANES is one of the ‘90s truly essential rock discs, as vital to understanding the musical geography of the decade as SLANTED AND ENCHANTED, BUBBLE AND SCRAPE, IN THE AEROPLANE OVER THE SEA and (not to put too much emphasis upon it) GBV’s own BEE THOUSAND. Cue it up, sit back and imbibe the rapid-fire subterranean-pop conceptions of Bob Pollard’s ceaselessly staggering creative mind.

When Cypress Hill’s behemoth first album dropped back in August of 1991, it stirred the requisite levels of intense fandom and uptight controversy while being immediately perceived as a rock solid game-changer. It’s nice to know the record’s often harried approach to dense, funky atmospherics and its then unique cannabis-fueled take on Hardcore Rap’s aggressive theatrics still holds up. Boldly referencing the past through deceptively complex weaves of samples often rendered via maddeningly infectious loops, DJ Muggs was the group’s by no means secret weapon; CYPRESS HILL was easily one of the most sample heavy records since Public Enemy’s IT TAKES A NATION OF MILLIONS, but it attained this status in an almost inverse manner. Where PE’s Terminator X relentlessly pilfered from the old to assemble the bedrock of a finished album that defiantly announced its newness, sounding like nothing that came before, Muggs achieved his breakthrough by building sonic environments that were overtly, proudly, and most importantly, intrinsically linked to the past; while scores of hip-hop records had already featured breaks from obscure soul/jazz/R&B/funk records, CYPRESS HILL was distinctive in that it was simply inconceivable without them. This is Old School 101. Above and beyond this, Muggs’ ideas sounded wildly distinctive. Where drugs as a topic (pro and con) had already been covered by rappers as far back as Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines”, the music of Cypress Hill sounded druggy without words even entering the equation. For a while, this “blunted” style of production was one of the freshest sounds in hip-hop, successfully broadening West Coast Gangsta from the breakthrough of N.W.A. and truly integrating Latino elements into the hip-hop scene in the process. And since I was there, I can report with confidence that CYPRESS HILL was one of rap’s last big assimilating breakthroughs into the suburban regions (the final blows were Dr. Dre’s THE CHRONIC from the following year and Snoop Dog’s DOGGYSTYLE and Wu Tang Clan’s ENTER THE WU TANG (36 CHAMBERS) from ’93). While I’ll plead guilty to valuing hip-hop far more from the standpoint of the DJ/producer than from the angle of the MC, I certainly will not hesitate to credit worthy microphone handlers when I hear them. B Real’s whiny post-Beasties nasal-isms work fantastically on this debut because it’s mixed so adroitly with Sen Dog’s husky workmanlike gruffness. Smartly, B Real is front and center on CYPRESS HILL’s opener “Pigs”, one of the most subversively groundbreaking tracks in ‘90s hip-hop in terms of both form and content. The content should be obvious from the title, but let’s speak of how it mingles with the form. In a word, it’s all about simplicity. B Real takes the sing-song baby mollifying sweetness of “This little piggy” and turns it inside-out and ugly, blowing its innocence to smithereens and replacing it with a toxic, anti-authoritarian screed against corrupt law-enforcement that culminates in lurid promises of prison retribution. At the time, it felt legitimately angry, unfocused, possibly impromptu and all the more effective because of it. But familiarity provides enlightenment. B Real shrewdly describes ten “pigs” in his roll call of opprobrium (one for each toe, y’know?), his disgust heightening as the sordidness of the details increase. All the while the music is a study in minimalist mayhem; a corrosive, vamping guitar loop combines with a driving, roguishly basic rhythm as police radios intensify the levels of urban menace. The track is brief but is crafted to feel long, and when it’s over, the group wisely shifts gears. The rest of the album is more approachably funky, generally up-tempo, with one of the highest ratios of guitar samples on a rap record that doesn’t suck (Here’s where I practice restraint and don’t say a damned thing about the reeking aberration that is the highly embarrassing and horridly dated JUDGMENT NIGHT soundtrack. Oops, it looks like I’ve said a lot). Like most ‘90s hip-hop albums, CYPRESS HILL is slightly top heavy, its best tracks coming early, but in hindsight the second side here acquits itself rather well, holding more quality stuff than some group’s full LPs. For one example, “Psychobetabuckdown”’s explicit infatuation with late-‘70’s Parliament pre-dates the explosion of West Coast G-Funk by a few minutes, though it’s far less smooth and way more freaky (i.e. a very good thing).  The crew’s follow up record BLACK SUNDAY ultimately made a bigger commercial splash, and while I liked it fine, I’ll admit it lacked the breakout vibe and edginess that made the debut such an intense and refreshing trip. I frankly couldn’t abide their next record III: TEMPLES OF BOOM; it found the group shifting into a ludicrously “spooky” sound and featured one of the most hackneyed samples (from PULP FICTION, for crying out loud) to ever stain my ears with unsubtle obviousness. In response, I haven’t listened to anything the group has released since, not that they’ve been particularly busy. But it’s as plain as a beak on a bird that CYPRESS HILL stands the test of time with natural ease, and in celebration of the record’s 20th birthday (almost old enough to drink!) a red vinyl reissue has been waxed. Anybody with even a passing interest in ‘90s hip-hop simply must get acquainted with the twisted logic of this at times brilliant record. Why it’s not packaged in a deluxe gatefold sleeve can only be categorized as a true stumper.

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