Horn Gallery Spotlight: Cam’ron

by Gavin Mead ’15 and C. F. Collison ’15

Cam

Although we’ve been privy to the fact that Cam’ron will be performing at the Horn Gallery this Saturday for quite some time, it still hasn’t sunk in yet. Whether you know him as Cam, Killa, Flea, or Cameron Giles, when you sit back and really think about it, isn’t Purple Haze your favorite rap album ever? To think that Cam will be performing an intimate show on our own college campus doesn’t even seem real. What have any of us done to deserve this pure gift?

We’ve always admired Cam for his natural disposition towards technically skilled and humor-focused raps, a tradition he’s passed down to recent luminaries of the genre such as Lil Wayne, Das Racist, and Lil B. But it’s not like Cam was the first to make rap funny – it would be a disservice to the history of the craft to make such a claim. What can certainly be said is that Cam was the first to have a style that sounds completely effortless yet ridiculously flamboyant. The seed of both insanely goofy rap and unabashed opulence / self-aggrandizing grew in the fecund soil of Cam’ron’s albums such as Come Home With MePurple Haze, and the Diplomatic Immunity series with his group The Diplomats.

We’ve selected some of our favorite Cam tracks and written about them below. While most folks know the seminal classics like Hey Ma, Oh Boy, and Down And Out, we wanted to highlight some other selections from his work that may have slipped under people’s radars.

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Kenyon Alum Brendan O’Connor on Rap Lyrics and Court Trials

By C. F. Collison

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Earlier this week, Kenyon alumnus and Noisey contributor Brendan O’Connor ’12 wrote a feature detailing the history of rap lyrics being used in court trials against their authors.

O’Connor received input from various noteworthy scholars on the issue, who commented on the criminal justice system, the nature of authenticity in rap lyrics, and legal prejudice against black performers. O’Connor also spoke with rapper Killer Mike, who performed at Kenyon’s own Horn Gallery in 2012 and is currently one-half of Run The Jewels, the recently lauded moniker he performs under along with rapper / producer El-P. A portion of the article is included below:

“Put another way: the creative output of black and brown people—and especially young, poor, black and brown men—is not being treated by the US government as protected speech. ‘The prejudice is there; hip-hop is just being used as a way to apply the prejudice. It is hip-hop today, it was jazz 80 years ago, it was rock and roll when Little Richard was around,” Michael Render, a.k.a. Killer Mike, told me… “The most dangerous thing is not the active participation in a racist system… but the very real and very scary thing is the apathy by the general American public that is the same racial makeup of the leaders of these groups.'”

Read Brendan O’Connor’s article here and check out his other work at his home page.

Spooktober Soundtracks Vol. 3 – Contemporary Horror

by Gavin Mead ’15

The previous two installments of Spooktober Soundtracks has been focused on distinct eras in the history of horror films, attempting to provide a look into exploitation horror of the 70s, exemplified by the Giallo movement in Italy, and the surge in dark underground films in the 80s, as led by the work of John Carpenter. The world of horror movies in our current day and age is interesting in that mainstream horror has become completely solidified as a genre. Horror directors are no longer working on the outskirts of the movie industry, and horror films have become huge cash cows for the major film studios and staples in their annual wave of summer blockbusters. Not only has this stifled experimentation in plot and visuals, but the scores for these movies have also become much more predictable as well by using the same jump-scare tactics and canned strings that were introduced to the genre over 20 years ago.

While this decline in quality in blockbuster horror movies is unfortunate, really interesting work is going on in independent film. Horror directors have delved back into the underground, using experimental tactics that in many ways make it difficult to distinguish their work from that of arthouse cinema. The composers of these films have followed suit, melding together references to the sound of horror’s past while also moving in more experimental directions, drawing from recent trends in electronic and contemporary classical music.

Here are a few of my personal favorite horror soundtracks of the 2010s so far:

Broadcast – Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

Of all the reference-heavy horror movies released in the past couple decades, beginning with Scream in 1996, Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio might be the greatest. The film follows a British Foley artist who travels to Italy to work on a Giallo film. For a film so concerned with the effects of sound and illusion on the human psyche, it is hard to imagine a soundtrack better serving the film than the one produced by the British band Broadcast.  The score is undoubtedly reverential towards the great composers of horror’s past, evoking sounds of Ennio Morricone, Goblin and Tangerine Dream, James Bernard’s work with Hammer Films, and Paul Giovanni’s uniquely British soundtrack for The Wicker Man. However, these countless nods to inspiration never obscure or overpower the tenacious vision at the music’s heart. Broadcast stretches the few main motifs in every direction possible, wringing them for every ounce of meaning.

 

Mica Levi – Under the Skin (2013)


Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is remarkable for the way in which it makes the everyday seem alien by detailing the exploits of an extraterrestrial femme fatale as she cruises around Glasgow, seducing and then feeding upon unsuspecting men. Like the film itself, Mica Levi’s score is equal parts sexy and discomfiting. While Levi at times draws heavily from horror movies of the past, sometimes recalling György Ligeti’s dissonant orchestral pieces used to such great effect by Stanley Kubrick in The Shining, other moments seem uniquely otherworldly. Most captivating is “Death,” the recurring composition used whenever Scarlett Johansson’s character harvests another victim, in which a thumping beat and a glacial drone underscore a sickly erotic string melody that sounds like the Alien soundtrack as remixed by Demdike Stare.

 

ROB – Maniac (2012)

Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac is the rare horror remake that is actually as good as, if not better than, the work it was based on. It draws on the essential parts of what made the original interesting in the first place, while also possessing enough vision of its own to actually justify the remake. The same goes for ROB’s soundtrack, which is heavily reminiscent of Drive in its allusions to the ultra-slick production and neon-lit atmosphere of 80s post-disco. While this soundtrack lacks a huge single like Drive’s “A Real Hero,” it possesses the perfect mix of polish and menace to accompany such a gloriously bloody and inventive film.

DJ Spotlight: Natalie Reneau ’15

By C. F. Collison

Name: Natalie Reneau
Show Title: Hell’s Baguette, Mondays 8-10PM
Hometown: Great Falls, VA
Major: English Major, Latin@ Studies Concentrator, Studio Art Minor

CC: First off, what are the titular “Hell’s Baguettes”?

NR: First off, it’s “Hell’s Baguette”. Last semester, when I DJed with Emma Specter ’15 and Rebecca Saltzman ’15, it was “Hell’s Baguettes” – plural. Now that it’s just me, I’ve switched it back to the singular. I’ve never told anyone what Hell’s Baguette means, but I’ll tell you this – it’s something between a moniker and a mantra

Was the split with Saltzman and Specter amicable?

We’re all feeling pretty neutral about it, but at an earlier point, no, it was was not amicable.

In all seriousness, Rebecca and Emma have seminar on our traditional Monday slot. I’ve had a fun time going solo this semester.

(Ed: Asked for a comment later, Specter said: “I forgot that this is a real show now and not Emma’s trash time”.)

You pick a new theme for your show every week. How do you determine your track listing?

I was a little better at making themes earlier on in the semester, but what I’ve been doing is structuring my themes (both musically and artistically) off of impressions of a figure and a color. So one of my first shows was based on Virginia Woolf and the color light blue. And another of my shows was Medusa-themed – I really just played songs about snakes, but I like Medusa because she’s one of the most misunderstood woman in Greek mythology.

How is that?

The myth of Perseus and Medusa tells us that Perseus, the valiant hero, uses the mirrored shield of Athena to slay the great evil that was Medusa. However, that’s not the full story. Medusa was actually a handmaiden of Athena, who was faithfully worshipping in Athena’s temple one day when Poseidon unexpectedly comes in and sexually assaults her. Athena is so upset that her temple has been defiled that she ends up blaming Medusa for the crime she suffered. Athena banishes Medusa to an island and turns her into a gorgon, forced to lead a life where men constantly come and try to murder her because her head can be used as a destructive weapon (her stare turns people to stone).

Wow, I didn’t know that!

The cool thing that happens when Medusa dies, however, is that Pegasus springs out of her neck when she is beheaded. All the really terrible stuff aside, that’s so sick.

I love your art that you put up for each of your shows with the musicians that you’re playing. I noticed that you also only post the artists, not the track listing.

I like doing that because it gives listeners a rough impression of what I’m playing on the show. I also make sure to post it before the show begins as a way to catch peoples interests in the hopes that they’ll tune in.

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You usually play a healthy mix of classic and contemporary artists. What informs your taste and what do you look for in new musicians? I notice you play a lot of 4AD.

Honestly, I don’t like talking that much about music – but I really like listening to it! I think my taste was built off of a lot of the music I started to listen to at the end of high school. I’m not compelled to have an encyclopedic knowledge about music – I like to keep my music close in a sense that I look for new music that builds off of the sounds and styles that I particularly enjoy.

Who do you think is being slept on right now?

Tinashe. She’s starting to get hype, she’s on the radio, but she needs it immediately – she’s so good. Love her. Have you listened to Pretend?

No, but I love “2 On”.

Listen to it!!

You’re a senior now – what’s your favorite music-related memory from your time at Kenyon? It’s okay if it wasn’t at the radio.

It’s actually from the radio! My freshman year at Brett Miller ’15’s radio show – she was assigned to do an 80’s themed program that a bunch of Kenyon alums were going to tune into. I had so much fun playing tunes with Brett and my other friends Emma, Simon, Anna, and Kat. We also broke a WKCO record of listeners – I think we had over 50 people tuning in!

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That’s so tight. Last but not least, a fun fact about yourself.

Oh… Now that I’m thinking about freshman year, my fun fact back then during orientation was that one time I touched Buzz Aldrin, the famous astronaut and the second man to set foot on the moon. I thought it was hilarious and “quirky”, but I told everyone that it made me one step closer to the moon. Looking back on it, I cringe.

Tune into “Hell’s Baguette” on Mondays from 8 PM to 10 PM for Natalie’s show!

A Word on Flow

by Tom Loughney ’16

A friend of mine recently asked me about how I defined flow and its importance, and it got me thinking a bit on my experience with qualifying flow. When I first began exploring hip-hop critiques, most everyone utilized the term without ever really explaining what it was or what it meant. I remember my frustration with the nebulous use and nature of the word, so hopefully my thoughts will help those just starting out with hip-hop to gain a general sense of the ideas and importance behind flow.

Flow is a lyrical technique that grows more complex as it is applied to different musical and thematic styles, but, at its core, flow is the rhythm and cadence of a rapper’s lyrical delivery. Simple as that. The vocal aspect of flow varies from MC to MC[1] in the same way that playing techniques vary from musician to musician. Andre 300 and Big Boi of Outkast have a relatively smooth, laid back flow in many of their songs – like “Spottieottiedopaliscious” and “West Savannah,” while MC Daveed Diggs of Clipping favors a more relentless flow, as shown on songs like “Intro” and “Story 2.” The base upon which a flow is built is the rapper’s particular speech patterns – their cadence, accent, and speech idiosyncrasies. This means that the way one artist will deliver a word, such as “door,”[2] can alter their rhymes and rhythmic delivery, changing the flow of their lyrics. The effectiveness of a rapper’s basic flow is dependent upon the successful execution of their line deliveries, as they relate to their particular speech patterns.

Some hip-hop artists, who are particularly comfortable in their own flow, are able to spit rhymes at an incredible pace. While being able to deliver lyrics at a rapid tempo is impressive, there’s still a lot more to flow than just being able to speak really fast. Having good flow means more than your ability to say words – it also means having a dynamic range of deliveries and rhythms to your lyrics.

A good artist will know when and how to change their flow from song to song[3], and even be able to effectively change it within a song itself. For example, in “Backstreet Freestyle” by Kendrick Lamar, Kendrick’s flow during the first chunk of the song is cocky and confident. As the song intensifies in the third verse, so does his delivery. He increases his tempo, and adds a bit of an edge to his voice. This is something that sets artists like Kendrick apart from the rest of the game – they possess and utilize a wide range of rhythmic deliveries. This not only allows them to get more out of their music, they also avoid sounding like rhythmic one-trick ponies.

Backseat Freestyle” brings up another good point that delves into the more complex application of flows – having a flow that matches the musical, thematic, and emotional tone of a song[4]. Kendrick sounds confident because the beat is driven – “Backseat Freestyle” is a musically confident hype track, and Kendrick’s lyrics and delivery mirror that to great effect. On other songs, however, Kendrick can sound sensitive, angry, or sorrowful, depending on the mood of the song. He knows how to match his delivery with the tone of a song, and this is one of the most important pieces of standout flow.

To offer up a counter-example: Earl Sweatshirt is a great lyricist whose flow severely lacks dynamic emotional delivery, diminishing the impact of his music. He sounds exactly the same in every song, from “Burgundy” to “Chum.” Despite the two songs having production and lyrical content that evoke very different emotions, Earl’s delivery remains the same. Other artists like Aesop Rock suffer from a similar problem, sounding the same in every song. In a lot of ways, it’s similar to “The Incredibles Effect.”[5] If every flow sounds sad/happy/driven/angry, then none of them do because there’s no differentiation.

Conversely, Eminem’s delivery drastically varies from song to song. On “Kim” – a song where he is talking about murdering his ex-wife – he screams his violent lyrics. It is intense, to say the least. On “Stan” – a more reflective song – his flow is sedate and melancholy. The discrepancy between Eminem’s emotional deliveries grants each of these songs their own respective emotional impact.

Another great example of an MC with a dynamic flow is MC Ride of the recently dissolved Death Grips. On “You think he loves you for your money…” Ride’s flow is insane and schizophrenic – matching the fragmented, violent vibe of the song; however, on “Get Got,” which has a more subdued sound, his flow is more calm and passive. Not only does utilizing a dynamic range of emotion preserve a song’s emotional impact, it’s also a great way for an artist to show off their performing abilities.

To be clear – I’m not saying that an artist is bad[7] or that their flow is bad if it doesn’t perfectly match my criteria above – there’s a lot more to hip-hop than just flow, even if it is a big part of what makes or breaks the genre. Also, just because an artist doesn’t meet my standard for good flow, doesn’t mean that I think their flow is horrendous. I personally really enjoy Earl Sweatshirt and Aesop Rock, even if they don’t achieve the transcendent flow of someone like Kendrick Lamar. I hope my thoughts on flow have been helpful and interesting.

This has been FLOW

[1] For example, Kendrick’s vocal flow is crisp and a little high pitched, Kanye has a more nasally vocal flow, and Rick Ross’ vocal flow sounds like a dying beached whale.

[2] I.E. door versus do’ (pronounced, “doe”)

[3] Unless your name rhymes with “Lick Moss,” and you’re huffing and puffing your way through every song in generally the same fashion

[4] Unless your name rhymes with “Sick Sauce,”[6] and your songs all have the lyrical and emotional weight of a Home Depot

[5] If everyone’s super, then no one will be

[6] “Dick Boss,” “Kris Kross,” “Mick the Albatross.” I could do this all day, people

[7] Except Rick Ross. He is very bad.

CLPPNG – Clipping

by Tom Loughney ’16

Clipping is a Los Angeles hip-hop trio comprised of William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes, and MC Daveed Diggs. Full admission: I’ve never heard their first record;[1] however, their newest release – the vowel-deficient CLPPNG – has me excited to check out their other work.

Far and away, the boldest, most characteristic aspect of this album is the production’s industrial sensibilities. The instrumentation is fantastically rich – each song manages to express the raw energy of the genre, while simultaneously avoiding any unduly abrasive textures. This is especially impressive given the inherently harsh sound of many of the tools and items they sample.[2]

Clipping’s more listenable interpretation of industrial hip-hop lends itself well to another one of the group’s achievements on this record – their successful pairing of diverse instrumentation with downright toe-tapping beats. Deep, booming bass often accompanies the many DRIVEN tempos on the LP, complimented rather well by whooshing noise or high-pitched, shrieking synths. This album’s sound is sexy, in a dangerous sort of way. Honestly, I find the whole thing rather alluring – many of their beats are pretty standard fare, rhythmically speaking; however, they are augmented by the sonic ingenuity of this record. The percussion appeals to the basic, instinctual rhythmic affinities that have made modern pop the dominant musical genre, while the unique sounds at play serve to cater to those who are looking for a little depth in their music. This extraordinarily effective combination is easily the album’s greatest strength.

Unfortunately, MC Diggs’ flow is as uninspired as this record’s songwriting is good. While he can spit rhymes at an impressive tempo, his delivery lacks the character that makes artists like Kendrick and Eminem standout KINGS of hip-hop. When a song crescendos, basses bumping and instrumentals blasting, Diggs delivers his lyrics in the same way he did during the verse, the bridge, the chorus, and nearly every other song on this LP. Rarely do we hear him exit the emotional intensity of slightly-above speaking levels. This is ultimately what I feel to be the great shame of this album – that such daring, interesting sounds are brought down by vocals that lack either the desire or the ability to match the dynamic range of the production. The attitude is there, but without the bite that it should have.

Though his delivery is sometimes disappointing, there are a lot of strengths to be found in Diggs’ lyrics. As is the enduring hip-hop trend, Diggs expresses varied portrayals of villain characters from song to song. In doing so, he creates a world populated by vividly unsavory people and situations, meshing well with the tormented and ominous quality of the instrumentation. Diggs’ narratives reflect the tone of this project in a way his vocals do not, and are consistently his most worthwhile contribution to the LP.

Feature Feature

The features on this album do a fine job. They bring nothing noteworthy to the table, which is a little disappointing, but none of them shame themselves either.[3] There are a fair amount of female features, which is a refreshing thing to hear in a largely male-dominated genre. Ultimately, most everyone’s presence on this record is inoffensive, and that’s perfectly alright with me.

Tracks of Note: Good and Bad

My personal favorite from this album is “Work Work” – its catchy, clever hook is fun, danceable, and sexy. This song has what is easily my favorite production on the entire album, utilizing reversed audio of what I postulate to be shattering porcelain; as well as high pitched, rattling percussion during the verse complimented by nicely sustained bass during the hook.

Body and Blood” is an unstoppable powerhouse, with provocative lyrics, intense production, and a relentless beat. This song overflows with a confidence unmatched by any other song on this record. I would also highly recommend you check out the rather distinctive music video by clicking HERE.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have “Tonight,” which had me drawing comparisons to LMFAO – musically, melodically, and lyrically. For a while, I honestly expected them to put in a drop. The song caused me to experience mild flashbacks of camp dances.[4] The lyrics are absolutely garbage – talking about getting too drunk, having a one night stand, and a few other uninteresting ideas that don’t belong on this record. The feature on this song, Gansta Boo, whines[5] her way through her verse, talking about going to a Waffle House to have sex. In the hook, Diggs talks about leaving the bar at the last song of the night, saying that it’s “time to figure out who fucking tonight.” You know what, Daveed? I’m good, actually.[6]

Final Word
CLPPNG is good – really good. Even though I wasn’t completely taken with this project, Clipping surprised and impressed me with their unique sound. Sonically and, for the most part, thematically, there’s a lot to like on this record, and I have to say, it’s got me looking forward to their next release. Until then, check out their music below, and purchase it if you want to support the band.

(LIGHT) 8/10

[1] Titled Midcity

[2] A drill and an alarm clock, to name a few.

[3] Except for on the song “Tonight,” but we’ll get there in a bit.

[4] For those of you who’ve never been to a camp dance, imagine, if you will, a small, dark barn full of 100 kids – all of whom are undoubtedly sweating out of every single pore and pimple. Throw in some sexual tension, the complete inability to approach/converse with people they’re attracted to, and SONGS LIKE THIS, and you’ll have a decent picture of most junior high camp dances.

[5] Sorry, GB. That’s just what it sounds like.

[6] Sorry about this paragraph and that one footnote. That song makes me salty.

Summer Playlist

TUNES FROM THE BLACK LAGOON: A SUMMER PLAYLIST FOR SUNBURNT DAYS AND EQUALLY SUNBURNT NIGHTS (alternatively titled: one redhead’s peril) 

by Erin Delaney

1. History Eraser – Courtney Barnett
Courtney Barnett’s first record (or rather two EPs released together), The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas is full of quintessential summer lazy tunes. Barnett’s slacker rock aesthetic is effortless, yet her lyrics are consistently witty and pointed. Also, dat Australian accent.

2. I Was Born (A Unicorn) – The Unicorns
And where would summer be without some good old early 2000s lo-fi indie? This whole album, Who Will Cut Our Hair When Your Gone? soundtracked my finals last semester and is recommended for driving, bicycling, and getting rid of cysts.

3. FYR – Le Tigre
But then also feminism. Le Tigre’s self-titled album gets more popular attention, but for my money Feminist Sweepstakes is indispensable Kathleen Hanna operating with both ovaries on fire. That one got away from me. Le Tigre is decidedly pop, not the punk Hanna got famous for, but has the same incendiary feminist lyrics that garnered national attention for the riot grrrl movement (and Hanna) in the 90s.

SIDE NOTE: the recently released documentary The Punk Singer chronicles Hanna’s rise as a leader/reluctant poster-girl for riot grrrl, and while the film is unabashedly biased in it’s admiration of Hanna, it’s on instant on netflix and goes with my playlist swimmingly.

4. We’d Never Agree – P.S. Eliot
HEY remember those two bands that played at the Horn this year, Swearin’ and Waxahatchee? Well, those projects were fronted by twin sisters Katie and Allison Crutchfield: Waxahatchee is Katie’s solo project and Swearin’ is Alyson’s band. P.S. Eliot is the twins’ joint band which released this record, Inverted Romance in Our Troubled Minds way back when in 2009 before the twins’ separate projects began garnering more recognition than P.S. Eliot.

5. LOVESEAT – QUARTERBACKS
Dear old Kevin “deathdeath” McKinney is to thank for introducing me to this band, QUARTERBACKS, which bounced out of the abyss last year second semester to soundtrack any and all walks back from my radio show Tuesday nights. Amongst their (relatively short) discography, this song is a particular favorite of mine for packing an impressive amount of anxious energy into a minute and nine seconds, while simultaneously practicing such delicious restraint. And, all their records are **free** on bandcamp.

6. My Gap Feels Weird – Superchunk
It’s hard to know where to start with Superchunk. This song is off their 2010 record Majesty Shredding, which is the latest release of a now 25 year career that’s consistently delivered jams directly into my earholes. This song is everything I want to get me out of bed in the morning, plus it’s about goth kids. “Keep your hair black and in your face” summer people. It’s good sun protection.

9. It’s Common but We Don’t Talk About It – Bratmobile
Bratmobile came out of the same early 90s feminist punk movement that I mentioned earlier. Bikini Kill and  Sleater-Kinney were obvious legacies of the movement. Bratmobile, on the other hand, has largely been forgotten about but might be my favorite veteran riot grrrl band (discounting Sleater-Kinney, which formed at the tail end of the movement from two members of veteran riot grrrl bands). Bratmobile infamously formed as a joke band, but I’ve never heard their kitchy sound replicated with the same irony and simultaneous genuinely (oft tried for, rarely achieved, and horrendous when it fails). Bratmobile’s playground chant lyrics are as aggressive as any of the lyrics of their contemporaries. This album, Ladies, Women, and Girls was actually released in 2000, but I could easily have selected any of the songs of their 1993 Pottymouth or 1994 The Real Janelle and felt as confident with their sound. Bottom line: if you like this song, check out those earlier albums.

7. Dig, Lazurus, Dig!!! – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
Ah, Nick. This track is off the very first Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds I ever picked up (at a used CD store in New Jersey, go figure) and this is the opening track. Dig, Lazurus, Dig!!! has all of the loose, jangly, erotic energy that I love in their music. Leave it to Nick Cave to resurrect Lazarus, nickname him Larry, and turn him into a dope fiend.

8. Somebody’s Gettin on My Nerves – Salt-N-Pepa
Would not be summer without Salt-N-Pepa. They’re still doing it. Keep it up ladies. “Get off my bra strap boy / Stop sweatin’ me.”

10. I Don’t Know You Any More – Bob Mould
Bob Mould has been living with the legacy of Hüsker Du now for a good 20 years, and in the meantime has been struggling to break free with experiments that range from rock to much more poorly fated electronica to scriptwriting for professional wrestling. Mould’s The Last Dog and Pony Show was, as the title suggests, (supposed to be) his last rock album. Instead, he’s returned to us (thank god) with his recently released Beauty and Ruin. He’s not breaking any huge new ground with this track, and there are certainly better tracks on the album (see “Low Season” and “Little Glass Pill”) but it’s catchy and angsty and good for summer drives.

To Be Kind – Swans

by Adam Brill ’17

Michael Gira is a man unafraid to follow his instincts wherever they take him. Gira’s biography alone can tell you this. He hitchhiked through Europe, ended up in Israel, and spent four months in prison for selling drugs all before his 18th birthday. Gira eventually received his GED, went to art school in LA, and moved to New York City to start a band, Circus Mort.  He recorded one EP with Circus Mort, and then promptly disbanded the group to start a second project, Swans. Swans’ early releases were marked by heavy abrasive sounds and little melody or tonality. Eventually, female vocalist and devoted Swans follower Jarboe joined Gira. Jarboe’s presence lead the group to soften their sound a bit in favor of more sophisticated songwriting and textures. Gira also quit alcohol and found Jesus, which obviously influenced the songwriting on their 1987 release, Children of God. This album is, in many ways, the most important release in Swans’ career. It marked the first album with acoustic guitars, melodic vocals, strings, and woodwind instruments. Thematically, the album shows Gira’s religious influences. Instead of purely pounding noises, Children of God is much more musically varied. This allows for more interesting song dynamics and ultimately makes the music a lot more listenable. The releases following Children of God continued to explore this newfound songwriting style. In 1996, Swans released their supposedly final album, Soundtracks for the Blind. This gargantuan release (a whopping 2 hours and 20 minutes) was by far their weirdest, longest, and most ambitious release. Musically, Soundtracks for the Blind, runs the gambit from post rock textures to noise to gothic rock to bizarre sampled skits while still maintain a consistent vision throughout. Many publications referred to the album as the band’s masterpiece. It seemed like a fitting and apropos way to go out for one of rock’s most forward thinking outfits of the past 10 years.

After Soundtracks for the Blind, Swans disbanded. It seemed like a permanent move. How could they possibly follow the ambition of Soundtracks for the Blind? Gira, in 2010, made the bold move of reuniting Swans. They released the relatively short album, My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope, which is a respectable yet unremarkable album. However, 2012’s The Seer is a different story. Clocking at just less than 2 hours, The Seer is a long and difficult album. Also with The Seer, Swans began to pursue a new style of songwriting. The album is a lot heavier and punchier than Soundtracks for the Blind or My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope, but still keeps the ambition and the eclectic instrumentation. The Seer manages to be just as noisy and heavy as their original no-wave material while also throwing in lighter songs for a much-needed contrast. Thematically, the album is surprisingly cohesive in it’s doomed hellish visions. The album was a major statement from a band that had a long hiatus and an aging leader. Comebacks like that of Swans are rare and even could be considered unprecedented. Gira himself stated, “It’s the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I’ve ever made, been involved in or imagined.”

The Seer was an album good enough to put an old school band back on the map of modern music. It gained Swans a new fan base in the younger generation. However, even as a fan of both Swans and The Seer, I was very skeptical as to what the future held in store. How could Gira and company follow up an album that was the culmination of their entire discography? The Seer seemed like one of those pieces of art that would stand out at the obvious masterpiece in a lengthy discography. How wrong I was.

To Be Kind was gradually hyped up early this year. First, Swans revealed the artwork and released a single (“A Little God in My Hands.”) The artwork, a screaming baby head with a mustard yellow background, was perplexing to me before the album came out. The song was catchy for a Swans release. That is, until the sheets of noise hit following the chorus. The song was enough to get me intrigued in the album. I wasn’t expecting another The Seer, but I was certainly excited for the release. Next, Swans dropped “Oxygen.” This next track was not as catchy as the first, but was captivating and cathartic. I was ready for the album.

When I begun to listen to To Be Kind, the cover art began to make so much sense. Gira’s vocals and lyrics reflect a certain primal emotion. For example, on “Just a Little Boy (For Chester Burnett),” Gira yells out “I’M JUST A LITTLE BOY” repeatedly in a grating whine. The title references Howlin Wolf, who, apparent by his name, had a certain cathartic, primal, and desperate quality to his bluesy yells. Gira’s vocals certainly harken back to that style in their own unique way. The picture of the baby certainly makes sense after listening to this song. It’s both an expression of Gira’s primal childhood instincts as well as a suggestion of timelessness and agelessness. Throughout the album, these basic human instincts are present both lyrically and musically. “She Loves Us,” has Swans in the familiar territory of ranting about love and sex. Here, not unusual for Swans, love is out of the equation. It is mainly about sex. The pounding instrumentals are ominous to say the least.  Lyrically, it is seductive and crude. The song is very animalistic. He repeatedly commands the listener to “come to my house.” The end of the song has Gira repeatedly screaming “your name is fuck! fuck! fuck!” The vocals are grating and cathartic. He is appealing to a human instinct and how we are slaves to it. We are tied by name not to just love, but to sex, to “fuck.” These animalistic traits we have are further explored in the track “Some Things We Do.” In a very repetitive fashion, Gira just lists off basic things humans do (“We seed, we feel, we need, we fight We seal, we cut, we seek, we love.”) By the end of the track, he settles on “We love We Love We Love We Fuck We Love.” This shows that even Gira isn’t cynical enough to discount love in favor of animalistic sex. He believes in this human capacity.

The album’s title track, “To Be Kind,” comments on empathy and kindness. Musically, the song is much less pounding and much more subdued to start. The lyrics mention being kind, lost, “sung by a song that’s untrue,” and, eventually, “to be found in the sound of this room.”  The vocals end with Gira uttering the lines “There are millions and millions of stars in your eyes.” To me, this song is about our basic human duty to find each other, to love each other, and to see the good in each other. The song ends in a cacophonous wall of noise to suggest a sort of transcendence into these stars.

Swans are one of the most difficult bands to “get into.” To Be Kind is another lengthy (just over 2 hours) and noisy album. Just like The Seer, Swans have constructed an impressive, thematically cohesive journey. The album is repetitive but that is largely the point of Swans’ music. The repetitive noise is sometimes pounding and punishing on the ears, but it also leaves a lot of room for the listener to explore the textures and subtleties of Swans’ instrumentation. Unlike many post rock bands, Swans are able to use repetition to build tension and crescendos without boring the listener. Gira’s vocals are much more in the forefront of To Be Kind than they were on The Seer. On this album, Gira has found new ferocity to his low grating voice, which makes this album all the more thrilling. But to say that his voice is all yells is selling it short. He still is capable of phrasing a long drawn out drone from the deepest parts of his range to add a very dark sinister tone to the songs. This is done to perfection on the centerpiece track, “Bring the Sun/ Toussaint L’ Ouverture.” The vocals and the instrumentation both build at glacial pace but what a climax. This track exhibits a complete mastery of the art of tension and release as it takes us through thrilling noise and restraint.

With To Be Kind, Swans have managed to equal The Seer in many ways, but thematically, I find it’s themes to be a lot more relatable. In a large, impressive discography, To Be Kind is certainly a standout. This is a band on a very impressive and unprecedented run and To Be Kind is their latest gem.

DSU – Alex G

by Jack Washburn ’16

When you have a bizarre, anxiety-ridden dream, there’s always the impulse to share it with someone you’re close to, hoping that reliving the surreal experience will help to elucidate its relevance to your life. After all, this anxiety is arising from somewhere; if we can just articulate it with some degree of efficacy, then perhaps we’ll reach a greater understanding of its source.

Inevitably, these explanations of experiences with an already tenuous grasp on our consciousness always come out wrong.  We have to stop and start repeatedly, we can arrive at the general feeling of the dream somewhat, but specifics inherently remain a bit fuzzy, and we might find ourselves adding fabricated plot elements to make the stories seem more interesting and linear, oftentimes without even realizing we’re doing so. And then we don’t know where we’ve ended up, feeling disappointed, as though we’ve wasted our listener’s time.

In all of this, the meaning – if there ever was one – is lost; in a matter of hours following waking up, the events dissipate and only the dreamlike sense of melancholy remains.

Over the course of his first official release, DSU, Alex G’s lyrics read like isolated excerpts from the middle of one of these explanations – dream-like and often confounding, but with an ostensible source within the curious mind of this one supremely talented 21-year-old Temple University student. He’s communicating an ambiguous feeling to begin with, but even then we only get part of the story. And yet, these brief snippets effectively hint at a darker and more fully realized under-current; it’s music that leaves a lot to the listener’s imagination in a way that still manages to be extremely satisfying. 

We know Alex is trying to express something perhaps hopelessly opaque, and yet his attempts to do so over the course of the half-hour running time leave us perpetually engaged rather than alienated.

Still, despite all of this abstraction, there are lyrical threads and motifs throughout the album – death, maturity, mental illness, mutual dependence, illicit transactions, mysteriously repeated phrases like “black hair” and “tripper” – but, rather than giving each song a distinct focus, these themes are spread out from song to song so as to formulate a more cohesive album-length statement about how we communicate with one another (or, perhaps, fail to).

Musically, DSU runs the stylistic gamut, encapsulating most of the styles Alex has tried on for size over his short (but alarmingly productive) career. It’s not so much of a departure from Alex’s previous work as it is a refinement of what has been proven to work thus far. “Icehead” employs his trademark pitch-shifted vocals and “Axesteel” puts his recognizable feedback-streaked guitar lines to excellent use. Other songs are more accessible for those reluctant to embrace Alex’s “weirder” tendencies: “Harvey,” “Boy,” and the epic “Hollow” show Alex flexing his pop muscle without sacrificing any of his unique, sleazy brand of charm, hinting at potential mainstream acceptance, should he choose to embrace that route. The cheesy funk of “Promise” might initially come across as a stylistic outlier (and, indeed, it is the album’s only dramatic left turn), but Alex’s artistic voice is so strong and his compositional style so distinct that the song integrates seamlessly alongside the rest; the second Alex’s unmistakable falsetto enters the picture, all of the seemingly disparate elements fall into place with remarkable subtly. And whereas some artists employ shorter interludes as a quick fix to make their album’s scope seem larger without considering how they specifically enhance it, here tracks like “Tripper” and the hair-raising “Skipper” serve a purpose, offering a brief respite and filling out the album beautifully.

With “Boy,” the album closes on a note that nicely ties together DSU’s lyrical and musical threads into one of Alex’s most accessible and coherent tracks. It also one of the only tracks in which Alex employs the use of his more grounded lower register, imbuing the song with an air of lucidity that makes it such a superb closing track – as if Alex has finally awoken from his dream and is frankly addressing the listener. The key lyric here is Alex’s “baby’s” response to his story of seeing two dogs on the street: “I think you’re funny, you saw what you wanted to see.” It’s the kind of lyric that – in one jarring instant – delicately unravels Alex’s enigmatic persona, in effect illuminating the entirety of his vast and frequently self-referential discography. To me, “Boy” is about the inherent fear of being unable to communicate effectively – a particularly relevant topic considering Alex’s loyal following is growing by the second. If he tells the listener what he really sees through his distorted perspective, he runs the risk of his audience not taking him seriously. “I don’t want people to mix up absurdity with humor,” Alex told Patrick McDermott in a recent FADER profile. “I don’t want to be misinterpreted as joking, cause the songs are really serious to me.” So what Alex’s “baby” tells him essentially exposes his deepest insecurity – that his admittedly bizarre perspective will be interpreted as humorous and self-willed. Alex is only lyrically direct in his music when he’s explaining why he feels such a need to be lyrically indirect.

Because the album is produced and recorded entirely by Alex himself, with only Warren Hildebrand from Foxes in Fiction stepping in to master, critics have made much of Alex’s deceptively simple set up. He uses only one tiny microphone and sticks primarily to a traditional set up of guitar, drums, bass, and his distinctive shaky falsetto. Because Alex is a self-proclaimed perfectionist working on his own, however, these immaculately constructed songs are assembled in such a manner that they never really come across as all that simple. The guitars and vocals are so heavily layered that knowing Alex assembled these songs entirely on his own seems astounding, and yet the mix remains crisp, never becoming muddled – a testament to Alex’s recording and compositional prowess.

Coverage of Alex to date has been quick to note the forebears of his unique sound; in particular, names like Built to Spill, Elliott Smith, and the Microphones have been thrown around relentlessly. I understand that these are easy reference points for one hoping to introduce Alex to a new audience, but it is continually baffling to me that people seem to fairly unanimously agree with these comparisons; for my money, Alex is the rare artist who truly sounds like he developed his sound in a vacuum – a product of a lot of time presumably spent alone. Appropriately, Alex tends to shrug off these comparisons to 90’s indie rock hallmarks in interviews, claiming it’s not the type of music he’s naturally drawn to. If anything, Alex seems to draw influence primarily from his circle of like-minded musicians over at Orchid Tapes, such as Mathew Cothran and his Coma Cinema and Elvis Depressedly projects, but even that comparison feels a bit forced.

Alex’s lyrical style and bizarre production choices are all his own; listening to each idiosyncratic little instrumental flourish and off-key harmony, you’re left wondering what compelled him to place “that”right “there,” but ultimately impressed he knew to do so. The alignment of Alex G with these aforementioned artists positions him as something of a 90’s throwback, but in truth his music comes across as far more contemporary – futuristic, even – than that designation implies.

 Having said all of this, DSU is also an album you can put on and enjoy passively, should you choose to do so. Indeed, it’s a pretty sounding record, impeccably paced and quietly exciting. That is reason enough to pick up this [free] album. However, should you choose to dig deeper, there’s a lot to explore within Alex’s subtly twisted universe. Just take a look at that cover (by Alex’s sister, no less) – the bright colors, the chaotic jubilation of the crowd, the confident stride of the heroic central figure. It’s a triumphant, appealing image, exaggerated to the point that it appears tinted by a sort of dream state.

 A closer look reveals two demonic eyes peering out from under the helmet and a shadow that is proportionally much larger than the figure itself. There’s something sinister lurking beneath the surface here, something nightmarish and potentially catastrophic, but Alex G has the gumption to give us only the tip of the iceberg.


This album is available for free download HERE

The Powers that B – Death Grips

by Tom Loughney ’16

So the other day, Death Grips dropped the first half of their upcoming double album, The Powers that B. True to formthey released it with neither pomp nor circumstance, and I’m kind of glad they did – had there been any hype, I think I would have come away from this record feeling disappointed. The LP, titled Niggas on the Moon, is a bit of a mixed bag. The instrumentation is consistently interesting, and MC Ride’s ruinous voice returns to the forefront of the group; however, many of the same uninspired songwriting techniques from the lackluster Government Plates make a return as well. This record is definitely a step in the right direction, but it still lacks the awe-inspiring POWER of previous Death Grips releases.

MC Ride’s resurgence on this album is a breath of fresh air after his almost cursory presence on Government Plates. His flow and lyrics are as deranged as ever, and it’s nice to hear him using a more dynamic emotional range, instead of his typical constant screams. This lends moments like the second verse on “Up My Sleeves”* the violent impact that I CRAVE from Death Grips. While I’m a huge fan of Ride’s dynamic flow and his lyrics, the album lacks the thematic cohesion found on the group’s other projects.** Exmilitary was about primality, The Money Store was about paranoia and mental fragmentation, and even the slightly less impactful No Love Deep Web had a general sense of menace and torturous violence.*** On this album, however, MC Ride seems to be more content with making superficially demented rhymes that have no meaningful connection to one another. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Ride’s lyrical creativity; however, one of the great draws of Death Grips is their ability to create a consistent tone across a project as a whole. The group’s strong sense of tone gives their albums a concrete form – something that this most recent LP is sorely lacking.

Musically speaking, the album’s instrumentation often gets in its own way – resulting in a loss of melodic and rhythmic direction. Throughout the album, Death Grips utilizes heavily treated vocal samples**** that, when cleanly presented, end up catchy, listenable, and really quite beautiful. Unfortunately, this technique wears out its welcome by the end of the album, due to its presence on almost EVERY SONG. Additionally, in pursuit of a fragmented, kitchy texture, Death Grips mainly creates a mess of relentlessly disjointed percussion and synths – losing a lot of the production’s subtleties in the process.

There are definitely tracks that I LOVE on this record. “Up My Sleeves” is fantastic, versatile, and possesses the POWER that I look for in Death Grips’ music. ”Billy Not Really” has a fiendishly clever hook, even if it is just shallow wordplay, and “Black Quarterback” has my favorite usage of the treated vocal samples on this album. These songs are also quite catchy, despite their esoteric sound. Other songs leave me feeling almost embarrassed for Death Grips. “Have a Sad Cum” is DYING to be provocative, but it’s nothing more than a musically and lyrically tedious track – reminiscent of many of the tracks off of the disappointing Government Plates. “F**k Me Out” suffers from similar problems. “Big Dipper” has potential, but the hook has what are easily some of the weakest lyrics MC Ride has ever written, and the track ends with an overwrought medley of vocal samples and synths that feels uncomfortable and out of place.

Ultimately, I don’t think this is a bad LP. It’s CERTAINLY better than Government Plates – tightening the melodic focus, and granting MC Ride greater prominence; however, their pursuit of a fringe rhythm and sound results in a congealed mess of popping drums and grating synthesizers that drown out each other’s subtleties in a wash of noise. Death Grips has an understandable desire to remain on the edge the genre, but hopefully the second part of this project will reflect more of the cohesion of their earlier work.

(STRONG) 6/10

You can download it HERE off of their website.

*TISK, TISK, TISK / MY TERRACOTTA ARMY
**Excluding Government Plates, because there was so little lyrical content that it’s difficult to say that album had any sort of theme at all
***I have no clue if I’m right or not with these, so if you disagree with me, that’s cool. This is just what I felt these albums to be about.
****Which I assume to be Björk’s sultry voice