Friday, May 4, 2012

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 5/4/12- Death Grips and Ty Segall/White Fence

With The Money Store, Sacramento CA trio Death Grips cross-pollinates hip-hop with the tactics of noise and drenches it all in a seething, apocalyptic outlook. Certainly not for everyone, it is however a surprisingly successful document, displaying high standards of variation throughout its onslaught of vitriolic ferocity.
To begin with The Money Store, there’s the major label aspect. This is frankly the most unlikely release to get corporate backing in quite a long time, but it’s important to remember that this sort of thing happens in cycles, and the way some people are reacting, you’d think Epic signed Borbetomagus or Masonna to a contract. The Money Store is indeed a crazy and uncompromising release, but it’s not completely off the map; as abstract and scorching as the record gets it retains a close enough relationship to previous models (mostly through the employment of rhythm) that its integration into the Sony Music Entertainment empire doesn’t so much inspire head scratching but instead feels like the latest example of a company feeling secure enough in its bottom line to attempt stepping out as the coolest bunch of executives on the block.
If that’s cynical, so be it. Epic may very well believe very strongly in what Death Grips offer on this quite impressive if undeniably divisive record, but that remains to be seen. Just because the musical landscape is different now than in any time since people realized a nice profit could be made by mass producing records doesn’t mean that the behavior of big money is somehow in need of reappraisal. The ‘90s major label feeding frenzy of indie and u-ground acts also resulted in some hard to rationalize signings, e.g. Boredoms’ Pop Tatari. The main difference here is the lack of an overflowing floodgate of sudden (and temporarily) hot properties ready for the pickings; digital avenues have greatly leveled the playing field against big label tomfoolery and anybody with internet access and speakers can discover new bands and test drive the records they want to buy (this directly led to an indie band winning a Grammy for Album of the Year). Yes Death Grips stick out like bloody appendages on the Epic Records roster, but in the end that’s not really anything new under the sun.
But far more importantly, if not quite as extreme as some have claimed, The Money Store is a riveting and somewhat groundbreaking listen. In combining the aesthetics of hip-hop, electronics, and noise into a bleak, at times unsettling landscape of shattered imagery, they feel like a new (if by no means wholly original) development. Comparisons have been made to Odd Future, but the edginess (or of you prefer, offensiveness) of that group registers differently from Death Grips. Odd Future often feels like just the latest extension of hip-hop’s transgressive possibilities. The Money Store comes off like a mixture of u-ground hip-hop, the far-out electronica of Kid606 and a despairing worldview that’s somewhat comparable to early industrialists like Throbbing Gristle.
And the specifics of Death Grips’ discomfiting vision are by design not easy to discern. The vocals of Stefan Burnett (aka MC Ride) are mixed throughout the album in a manner that resists any kind of narrative hold. Words, phrases and occasionally whole lines do jump out, but struggling to decipher the fabric of what’s being said is ultimately against the grain of The Money Store’s goals. Death Grips don’t want to tell an unpleasant but easily grasped story but instead desire to craft the equivalent to the often inexplicable imagery of a fevered nightmare.
This unholy trio of Burnett, producer Andy Morin and drummer Zack Hill (a name some may recognize from Hella and numerous other projects) released the Exmilitary mixtape last year. Flipping the script somewhat, their debut is less caustic than their major label coming out party. A big reason is The Money Store’s lack of samples. Exmilitary featured clips and loops lifted from sources as disparate as Black Flag, Pet Shop Boys, The Castaways’ “Liar Liar”, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Pink Floyd and that unrelenting motor-mouth of lingering societal discomfort Charles Manson, and the use of these collected reference points fashioned their initial effort as being much closer to the norms (if you will) of experimental hip-hop, though it was an immediately darker experience that didn’t necessarily fall in line with the genre’s expressions of intellectual complexity.
But a large segment of the planet’s population will derisively sum up The Money Store as “noise”. And it’s also true that aficionados of various noise sub-genres will possibly be quite taken with the contents of this LP. But Death Grips’ cacophonous blitzkrieg wields its effectiveness through precision, relying far more on force and velocity than on the elements of abstraction that lead many observers to erroneously label noise music as so much screwing around. However, it’s highly unlikely that people will volley the insult “my five-year old can do that” in this particular album’s direction.
And that reliance on power and momentum is in execution if not in sound very reminiscent of vintage hardcore punk’s primal fury, with Exmilitary’s Black Flag sample holding much more significance than being just a crafty loop. And the cover art only amplifies this connection, looking like a cross between prime Raymond Pettibon and a page ripped out of some S&M troll’s leather-bound sketchbook.
But The Money Store isn’t just one big bum’s rush of methodical if calculatedly submerged aggression. “I’ve Seen Footage”, “Hustle Bones” and the closing track “Hackers” introduce periods of relative respite from the maelstrom. In fact, the appropriating and reconfiguring of the beat from Salt-n-Pepa’s “Push It” makes “I’ve Seen Footage” feel like this record’s “single”. While a perfectly fine song taken in isolation, I’m a bit conflicted over its presence here, as hearing it in sequence highly normalizes The Money Store; while reportedly left to their own devices, Death Grips still managed to come up with a record that the suits at Epic could identify with strategically; amidst the hammer blows of third-degree negativity, this album holds in its nihilistic mid-section something resembling a party jam.
Conversely, tracks like “Lost Boys” “Blackjack” “System Blower” and “Punk Weight” turn up the abrasive heat, and it’s in these excursions that Death Grips come closest to realizing the potential of hip-hop for Merzbow-loving Wolf Eyes fans. This means that The Money Store’s hip-hop legitimacy is roughly comparable to Last Exit’s relationship to jazz or Jandek’s general proximity to folk or rock. This record is certainly “there” in hip-hop terms, but its status as an idiosyncratic hybrid with likely garner some purist hostility.
Ultimately, “I’ve Seen Footage” might bode well for Death Grips’ future. Bands specializing in music of this extremity often have short qualitative life spans, either flaming out before they start to suck or unfortunately besmirching the vitality of their initial work with inferior product. I’ll still be surprised if these three are still together and cranking out top-notch material in two years’ time, but there is a chance that Death Grips will exceed expectations and wind down later rather than sooner.
With another album scheduled for the fall, it’s going to be interesting to hear Death Grips’ progress. Whether they’re destined for brevity or built to last, The Money Store is a major statement. It might be far from pretty, but it’s surely effective in its caustic vision.

As its trippy cover image indicates, the collaborative effort of Ty Segall and White Fence’s Tim Presley conjures up a natty batch of tough-minded psychedelia. While not a life-altering affair, Hair confidently succeeds in its ambitions and stands as far more than just a one-off curiosity.
While Ty Segall is still most accurately identified as a garage-rock guy, it’s also true that he’s been showing some significant growth spurts of late. His record of last year Goodbye Bread made great strides in both the level of his songwriting and the scope of his presentation, all while remaining true to Segall’s organic, non-flash aesthetic. And while he was never really a stone-faced garage purist, his development remains worthy of commendation; ‘tis true that no one will ever fill the gap left by the far too soon departure of Jay Reatard, but Segall probably comes closest through the prolific and unfussy nature of his progressions.
Tim Presley is the man behind White Fence, a quietly impressive bedroom psyche solo project that also happens to flaunt a high level of productivity; four albums, a live cassette and a 7-inch in a two year period, all released while remaining a member of the bands Darker My Love and The Strange Boys. If his approach in White Fence looks backward to such fine antecedents as Syd Barrett, Love, The Move, Donovan and the anemic glory of toy-town psyche, hearing just a small portion of his solo output makes it plain that he’s very much an artist of the moment. Presley’s not deliberately up-to-date, but his work still feels contemporary in its overall thrust.
With all this said, I frankly couldn’t help but feel a tad bit nervous after being tipped off to the imminent release of a joint venture between Segall and Presley. Collaborations between established artists have a tendency to either be a bit underwhelming (Broken Bells, for instance) or highly disappointing (not to flog a gift horse in the mouth, but how’s Lulu treating you lately?), and in this case I was unsure of how two musicians who’d so successfully forged a creative identity out of going it alone would reconcile with the give and take inherent to the exercise of artistic partnership, though the basis of my concern resided more with Segall than with Presley. It’s true that Ty has also spent time in full-fledged bands (five of them in fact; The Epsilons, The Traditional Fools, Sic Alps, Party Fowl and Perverts), but he’s also been effectively solo since 2008, and that’s where his reputation is rightly based.
But I was also intrigued. The pairing of Segall and Presley was somewhat surprising since their styles aren’t a natural fit, but at the same time they were far from theoretically irreconcilable. In fact, I quite like it when the garage-born mindset nuzzles up against a psyche state of mind, finding it a case of two great sounds that sound great together. But I kept having this nagging suspicion that the duo would just jump into the studio with a combined head full of shared steam (or some other substance or two) and proceed to throw down a batch of songs that felt glorious as it happened but would unfortunately linger after the fact as something far less than earth-shattering. It’s the recurring sensation of All-Star Jam-itis Super-Sessioning its way into the depths of the record collection, taking up space and looking very necessary as it’s being passed over once again for some other less-grandiose selection, rarely if ever getting pulled out for a spin.
After ample time spent with Hair, I’m happy to report that my fears were misplaced. While not a masterpiece, this tidy if expansive eight-song collection leaves a lasting positive impression mainly because it doesn’t attempt to present an overt equality between the participants. Presley sings the majority of Hair’s songs and the album’s overall thrust is much closer to White Fence than to Segall’s extant work. This shouldn’t be read as Segall not asserting himself; to the contrary, he picks his spots exceptionally well, and his presence is certainly felt throughout the album. It just becomes apparent that he’s disinterested in matching Presley song for song in some spurious desire for creative democracy. Instead of the schizophrenia that might’ve resulted from that situation, Hair really breathes, its tunes calling out for repeated spins, the product of the two’s shared desire to simply make the best album possible.
Opener “Time” sets the scene exceptionally well. It begins with some faux-psyche garage action, then shifts into a strummy, mildly George Harrison-like mid-section and tacks on a distorted coda that feels a little bit like the young Times New Viking shooting for the sweet thunder of prime Crazy Horse. Quite a trip! The next track “I Am Not a Game” feels a bit like a combo of Thee Oh Sees, White Fence’s sunshine-psyche vibe and the sort of rhythmic drive that’s been Segall’s specialty over the last few years, and it all concludes with an ace rave-up.
I can’t help but hear Robert Schneider in Presley’s vocals, and this only abets “Easy Ryder” in sounding like something the Elephant 6 ringleader might’ve come up with had he been more inclined toward the grittier side of the ‘60s psychedelic experience; it shares a similar melodic approach, but is ultimately punchier and more stripped-down in delivery, more Nuggets and less Pet Sounds. The first part of “The Black Glove/Rag” alters this mode slightly, sounding a bit like Schneider shooting for the folkier side of Donovan. But the track’s second half gravitates away from this sensibility toward a fine survey of gradually mounting guitar scrawl, drum pound and vocal swagger.
Side two commences with the brief, echo-laden stomp of “Crybaby”, sounding like The Sonics in full-tilt glory, which means we’re solidly if momentarily on Segall’s turf. But “(I Can’t) Get Around You” tilts the proceedings back into Presley’s favor, and with gusto; the song is essentially a tug-of-war between Anglo derived pop-psyche (replete with nasal-blockage vocals) and some exquisite amp-fuzz circa ’66 Los Angeles. From there the loopy rocking of “Scissor People” and closing sing-along strum and bop of “Tongues” are just gravy.
After some consideration, it seems that Segall’s strongest overall contribution to Hair lies in how he tempts Presley’s approach out of the bedroom and onto a larger, bolder stage. Certainly there is nothing inferior or less-admirable about the oft-twisted intimacy that hovers around the existing White Fence material like an enveloping and intoxicating florescent cloud, and indeed Presley has already exerted flashes of a more extroverted nature. For example, there is “Harness” from last years’ Is Growing Faith, and the stellar Brit-DIY nod of “Baxter Corner” from his 2010 self-titled solo debut. But on Hair a vigorous quality of conception pulses throughout and it draws largely from Presley’s creative wheelhouse; much like Segall’s work on his lonesome, it’s not polished or pro, but it oozes with the same confident, punk-derived attitude.
Apparently, there is more in the can from this match-up, so it remains to be seen if Presley’s impact on Hair is representative of the whole, or if this album was sequenced to sit in contrast to an additional volume where Segall will assert the fiery potency of which he’s most capable. Either possibility would be equally welcome.