Much as I’m impressed with the sound of the whole Odd Future/Tyler, The Creator explosion, the hip-hop release I’ve been most eagerly anticipating these last few months is RELAX, the hard-copy ducats on the barrelhead full-length debut from New York’s smart-assed intellectual pranksters Das Racist. Where lots of folks dismissed their first single “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” as a shallow novelty (and more wanted to dis it but were afraid of being called square), I found it to be a fascinating hunk of infectious minimalism that succeeded in offhandedly critiquing the ludicrousness and ubiquitousness of contemporary consumerist culture that once wormed into the furrows of my head could stay there for days at a time. They followed that up in 2010 with a pair of very fine free mix-tapes titled SHUT UP, DUDE and SIT DOWN, MAN, proving that they were more than just a one viral-internet-hit wonder, but wait a minute. Let’s back up a bit. “Hut/Bell” is likely the best out-of-nowhere seeming novelty but actually signifier of substance and future promise since Beck’s “Loser”. Some folks might not remember that when “Loser” first hit the streets, one of the main streams of discussion concerned how the song was an obnoxious slacker prank unworthy of serious consideration. It took the at times substantially warped and occasionally noisy atmosphere of MELLOW GOLD to get some of those naysayers to cease their carping. Well, both of Das Racist’s mixes made it plain that they were for real, but it’s undeniable that a whole bunch of nasty dealers were poised to heavily knock these guys if their entry into the arena of commercially viable product was found wanting (just like Beck-haters were crouched to strike and left flabbergasted by the one-two combo of ODELAY and ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE). I’m sure that some will find bones to pick with RELAX anyway, but in my estimation it shows that Himanshu Suri aka Heems and Victor Vazquez aka Kool A.D. (with hype man Ashok Kondabolu aka Dap in tow) possess far more than just fleeting talent. Now, hip-hop is well-known as a punishing genre that can turn those with far more than just fleeting talent into forgotten also-rans with efficient quickness. So who knows what the future really holds for Das Racist. Right now, they’re riding high. RELAX’s presentation is undeniably rife with quirk and edge, drenched with allusions and the aura of erudite knowing. Das Racist understand right out of the gate that they are smarter than the majority of listeners that will hear their music, and if that sounds like I’m being arrogant on their behalf, please check the record and tell me I’m wrong. But Heems and Kool A.D. don’t wield their knowledge (what some might call “arts-college hipness”) like a bludgeon. RELAX feels designed to encourage listener enjoyment regardless of the ability to catch all or even some of the lyrical references flying out of the speakers with calculated abandon. Naturally, knowing of what they rap will deepen the experience. But it should be noted that much of what Das Racist reference will probably never enter the Rap 101 handbook: “L. Ron Hubbard with no bling” might just be the first time Travolta’s boy’s been name-dropped inside the hip-hop sphere (I wouldn’t bet on that actually) and the same with rhyming handguns and Jeff Mangum (I would bet on that one, though). It’s been well established and reinforced by RELAX how this crew is well-adept at linguistic acrobatics, but folks like me simply require the music to be equally up to snuff. Happily, this record satisfies; the subtly-‘70s funky piano accents of the title track (and the quite tweaked auto-tuned laughter that closes it) for one example or the non-trite video-game vibe of “Rainbow in the Dark” for another. The complex but catchy layering of “Michael Jackson” just begs to be blasted loud, and “Shut Up, Man”’s deft rapping (with guest El-P) impressively obscures just how driving and smooth is its musical construction. I also like the sideways ‘80s R&B goofiness of closing track “Celebration” and especially enjoy the more techno-pop-like diversions of “Girl” (very Peter Bjorn & John-ish) and “The Trick” (though that one has a very fine old-school beat). Das Racist’s music is quite often concerned with matters of identity, and as minorities in the contemporary American landscape they have much to add to the current discourse. And the fact that Heems and Dap are Indian and Kool A.D. is Afro-Cuban/Italian finds them in a unique position within the contempo hip-hop scene; at the risk of being too obvious, part of Das Racist’s significance to rap in 2011 feels comparable to Cornershop’s effect on the ‘90s indie scene. Both cases have resulted in a much welcome broadening of the spectrum, and while not perfect, RELAX does bode well for Das Racist’s continued developments. OFWGKTA has set the controls for the heart of the future and Shabazz Palaces might just be the hip-hop surprise of the year, but Das Racist has struck another blow for the outsiders. Here’s hoping RELAX has more than just the inevitable underground/indie scene impact. They deserve it.
Having sprung from the uncompromising doomy moodiness of Canada’s Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Thee Silver Mt. Zion is a group of musicians (a band in the best sense of the term) very much about the same sort of prolonged emotive thickness that personifies the group that spawned them; either outfit can at times register like the soundtrack music to intensely personal films created by the headstrong and young at heart, filmed in black & white (naturally) to be projected onto a blank wall in a dark room as a small handful of witnesses absorb them in varying states of outward aloofness and inward appreciation. In my estimation Godspeed is a methodically B & W band, and to some extent I feel that Mt. Zion is too, but as Efrim Menuck’s side-project has progressed it has strategically interjected bits of deep color. With the increase of lyrics and tangible singing came the feel that the Zion crew was morphing into a mixture of experimentalism, deep folk, punk spirit and occasionally caustic social/political protest. Sure, beyond the relative normalcy of vocal chords none of those ingredients were in any way foreign to the impressive thrust of GY!BE, yet the flagship group’s sensibility was far more boldly smitten with breaking away from the standards of rock convention: in a nutshell they were “post-rock” par excellence. In contrast, Zion can often feel connected to the deliberate (and sometimes implicit) smuggling in/adaptation of musical precedent. HORSES IN THE SKY, the collective’s fourth release from ‘05 is one of their strongest albums. By this time Zion had progressed enough from their point of origin to have not only established a unique, sturdy musical identity but also held the confidence and resourcefulness to diverge from the safety of that path and display real creative longevity. Forged from smack dab in the dark guts of the Bush years, HORSES’ political topicality can be blunt and acidic, and I find that to be one of its strengths. But mileage will vary, as they say. The expressed ideology of Mt. Zion, which in my perspective often radiates the pleasant and much-needed stench of old-school radical leftist tradition that flourished in the first half of the 20th century (they truly feel like old souls in underfed young bodies), also feels clearly inspired by the pull-no-punches ancestry that burst straight outta the global-‘80s underground: Minutemen, Fugazi and The Ex being prime examples. Unlike the “soft” political grandstanding promulgated by spoiled/coddled rock-stars and safely issued from within the walls of a corrupt, corroded structure that tolerates (promotes!) in these appointed minstrels the illusion of righteous action and dissent, the music of Thee Silver Mt. Zion is suitably “hard” in both sound and topic: HORSES IN THE SKY is unconcerned if it angers or alienates for it is music born directly out of anger and alienation. The record is an often despairing if never defeated meditation on the shabby state of world affairs interspersed with shards and glimpses of beauty, the whole occasionally blossoming into a chant of shared experience and camaraderie (e.g. “Hang On To Each Other”), and in this sense they are markedly different from the fist-pumping clarion calls that are associated with D. Boon or Ian MacKaye. Zion’s crossroads of sincere experimentation and take no prisoners protest, embodied so well by HORSES’ opening track “God Bless Our Dead Marines”, can hearken all the way back to “War Sucks” from PARABLE OF ARABLE LAND, the killer ’67 debut from Mayo Thompson’s Texas malcontents The Red Crayola. As stridently avant-garde as Zion can be, they have a finely developed sense of twisted folk tradition that’s further intensified by HORSES being the first of the band’s LPs to feature the combination of vocals and original lyrics on every track. Unsurprisingly, the increase in ideas communicated through words really escalates the group’s sense of oppositional fervor and underscores the boldness of their recurring themes. Phrases are often repeated to the point of borderline discomfort, and that’s apropos. Additionally, there is a definite embrace of the rustic in the well formed if untidy sonic landscapes of HORSES, often feeling like the group distrusts any potential additive to their sound that hasn’t been well tested and vindicated by the deep wrinkles of time; the string burn of testy violins/cello (courtesy of Sophie Trudeau, Jessica Moss and Becky Foon), amp distortion, well thumped drums and the aged largeness of the double bass. Yet Mt. Zion distinguishes themselves as one of the most forward-thinking active bands I can name. To be cautionary, folks averse to unrepentant emotionalism (which shouldn’t be confused for a sec with “emo”) might want to steer clear. Also, the ragged intensity of Menuck’s singing might take a bit of acclimation (or a lot if you’ve a weak constitution) and I surely wouldn’t drop HORSES IN THE SKY onto a stack of party platters, but I can claim without hesitation that this record’s six long tracks itch my sweet spot for progressive-minded contemporary rock clamor that’s unashamed to be agitated, disillusioned, disgusted, despairing and strident in its conviction that the powerful and greedy are slowly destroying anything that’s decent on this planet. And for that I salute them. HORSES IN THE SKY is but one of Thee Silver Mt. Zion’s considerable achievements, and anybody interested in the complicated weave of current experimental rock owes them a hearing.