Listening 2017: June 6–15
Devo, The Distillers, Junior M.A.F.I.A., Akina Nakamori, Gary Numan, Payroll Giovanni, Zone
The last entry brought older albums to the queue, and this one has even more. Though it put me pretty behind on new releases, I’m glad I’m more eager to turn to older records because I’m the worst when it comes to listening to albums made before the ’90s. I cover four of them here, which for me is a good amount than usual.
Here’s what caught my ear these couple weeks:
Sing Sing Death House by The Distillers (Hellcat, 2002)
Only a year sets apart Sing Sing Death House from Coral Fang, the punk band’s second and third release, respectively, out of their three-album run. The completeness of the latter compared to the former, though, astonishes me. Such a result most likely has to do with Coral Fang being a release on a major label, where an ability to write songs with a sharp sense of form and structure is a given as much as it is a sign of artistic growth. Sing Sing Death House, meanwhile, is a tight release in its own way. While Brody Dalle here may care less about providing full songs than a hook to shout, she still hands in a succinct half-hour rundown of the most gut-punching punk bursts. They’re proudly messy, which makes me curious to how they were received when they decided to clean up their act.
Conspiracy by Junior M.A.F.I.A. (Undeas/Big Beat, 1995)
How two legit hits can come out of a band of amateurs trying on the suits of their New York gangsta-rap heroes only speaks to the business mind of Christopher Wallace, who I assume learned a thing or two working with Sean Combs: that notorious scene of Puff Daddy pushing a Mtume-sampling record as the single to hardcore rapper Biggie’s debut comes to mind. Because most, if not all of the appeal behind both “Player’s Anthem” and “Get Money” — especially the latter’s — is the hook, not to mention its rather flashy loops. Same goes for the third, the Faith Evans-assisted “I Need You Tonight.” Rapping for rapping sake takes them only so far.
The rappers involved do fine world building that lives up to its title of Conspiracy with raps covering paranoia and double-crossing, Biggie’s favorite themes. But again, it’s the things extraneous from the actual rapping that make the non-singles to be more memorable. Straight-up rap track “Realms of Junior M.A.F.I.A.” shines less from the lyrics than the trusted sample of ESG’s “UFO.” “White Chalk” is a rather peculiar one with its stylistic focus nearing horrorcore, evoking more of Southern acts of the time. When they commit squarely to their mafioso role, it sounds exactly like a product by a gang of lesser goons under their bosses wing.
Possibility / Bitter and Sweet by Akina Nakamori (Reprise, 1984; 1985)
Per recommendation, Akina Nakamori’s Best I and II served as a fine introduction to the Japanese ’80s pop royalty. A definite shift in the singer can be heard from the first to the second compilation, her work from 1986 to 1988; four years after her first single, her voice has finally grown to that of a proper ballad powerhouse. But even in Best I, her hits from 1982 to 1985, you can pick up a gradual growth by the way her voice pairs with more flamboyant accents.
I’m in no way an expert to Nakamori’s work, but personally, I pin the point in time in which she began to hit her stride around 1984 and 1985 with, respectively, Possibility and Bitter and Sweet. She sounds more comfortable to swing her voice around in both. While she showcases just how she can deliver in traditional modes through a series of ballads in the former, she tries on more playful get-ups in the latter; Bitter and Sweet works more contemporary pop productions with drum machines, funk bass lines, starry synths and such. Her 1985 record worked much better for me especially because I’ve gone to associate Nakamori as a diva figure, and the glamorous sounds from that album befits that title.
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The Pleasure Principle by Gary Numan / Freedom of Choice by Devo (Beggars Banquet, 1979; Warner Bros., 1980)
I don’t know what this says about me during these trying times, but I’ve lately grown a strong fondness for pop exploring humanness — and more so the lack thereof. For others, both Numan and Devo’s work in these albums perhaps feel too disconnected, but the impersonal mode these records assume from the deliberate machine-like rendering of pop is the very voice they strive to hit upon. The deconstruction of their beloved formats — more singer-songwriter pop for Numan while Devo takes apart the romanticism of rock ’n’ roll — show admiration for the form as well as an eye to critique, mainly what pop tells us (sells us?) about our source of pleasure. And though the present-day has countless improved tools and smoother techniques to get a similar point across, the limitation of the available technology of their era brings an inimitable voice to the records. These prototypes of the man-machine hit a more poignant note than the later versions they inspire.
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Payface by Payroll Giovanni & Helluv (no label, 2017)
Hundreds of rap albums have sold us the cool of a Scarface poster on a bedroom wall. When it comes down to it, though, pretending to be Tony Montana on a record is still kind of a geeky form of play, isn’t it? I thought this while Payroll Giovanni referenced DC Comics superheroes in his song about neighborhood heroes, which during this time full of comic-book movies hits me extra nerdy. While his icon instead rocks chains while in the drug trade, he drives a coupe which he likens to a Batmobile — sleek and extravagant of a metaphor, sure, but a bit kitsch. (“Fuck a Wonder Woman,” if you also want a diss that’s timely.) Payroll also re-works Montell Jordan’s eternal ’90s anthem to fit his drug business in Detroit so it reads, yes, “This Is How We Move It.” These underlining cheesiness about the day in the life of pusher, told otherwise with a brute composure tailored for a gangsta rapper, just about sums up this tape, I think.
Z by Zone (Sony, 2002)
Zone apparently once got stuck with the crude category “ban-dol” because the public could not decide whether the four piece is an idol group or a band. Had they stuck with the exuberant mode of their major-label debut “Good Day” for their debut album, the latter would befit them a lot better. But the power-pop hit was a one off for Z — personally a bit disappointed because it drew me to this album expecting more. They instead stick closer to the earnestness of “Secret Base ~Kimi ga Kureta Mono~,” a staple ballad out of the group’s catalog still to this day.
The album’s sappy mood also calls to mind the dozens of other solo J-pop singer-songwriters who later in the mid-2000s got popular by selling wholesomeness and sentimentality — many of them, acoustic clad. Perhaps it’s a trend, at the very least a micro one? It’s a curious observation I’d investigate further, but even for a sentimentalist like myself, the catalog of some of those artists can be dour to get through.
Others albums that caught my interest…
- Agent Bla: Agent Bla
- Bleachers: Gone Now
- Chief Keef: Thot Breaker
- Day6: Sunrise
- Gang Parade: Barely Last
- Haruomi Hosono: S-F-X
- Mondo Grosso: Nando demo Atarashiku Umareru
- Mozzy & Gunplay: Dreadlocks & Headshots
- My Chemical Romance: The Black Parade
- Ryuichi Sakamoto: Beauty
- Sayonara Ponytail: Yume Miru Wakusei
- Sugababes: Angels with Dirty Faces
- Sister Sledge: We Are Family
- T-ARA: What’s My Name?