Friday, November 30, 2007

This month on, I interviewed DJ Mic Marvelous for my Baltimore club column. And earlier this month, I reviewed a whole mess of local hip hop shows: Tonio, Shadina, TestMe, Skarr Akbar and Jade Fox @ the Latin Palace, the first night of the "Show Me What You Got" MC competition @ Sonar (whose winner, Only, is opening for Redman at Sonar tomorrow), the Elements Party Street Level Podcast release party @ Turntable Club w/ E Major, Soulstice, Bishop, Ogun, Unstoppable Nuklehidz, Jade Fox (again), A6 and Sonny Redds, the Orange & Black Tour @ Fletcher's w/ Bossman, Skarr Akbar (again), Heavy Gold, TestMe (again), Caddy Da Don, Pikesvillain, Mind, ESQ Locution, Unstoppable Nuklehidz (again) and Jade Fox (again and again) @ the Local Highrise, and the Bmore Vibe magazine/mixtape release party @ 5 Seasons with Rogue, Amotion, UnReal, Tha Profitt, B.O.M.B., Ms. Stress, and others.

Thursday, November 29, 2007
It was really just a matter of time before something like this happened. Thanks to Sam for the heads up, it really made my week.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Freeway f/ Scarface - "Baby, Don't Do It" (mp3)

Pretty much every time some moderately successful major label rapper I like drops a new album, I hope for basically what's been happening with Free At Last: it turned out really good despite a lack of label push or a big single, and people are actually taking notice and giving it good reviews. More often than not, either the album just isn't that good, or it is and gets slept on in favor of similiar cases where I think the album is garbage (i.e. The Clipse). But I'm pretty happy to see people rallying around Free; he's always been are really unique and inherently likeable rapper, and I can still remember the first time I heard The Dynasty in my brother's car and there was this bizarre voice on "1-900-Hustler," yelling "F! R! double the E!" I think Zac and I had our Freeway impressions down about 2 years before anyone else I know.

Even though he's barely been on the mainstream radar in the almost five years since Philadelphia Freeway, there was always a sense that people were still feeling Free; DJs still seem to play "What We Do" and "Flipside" and "Roc The Mic" more than almost any other Roc-A-Fella singles from that era, including most of Jay's records. That album in general has aged pretty well, and I still think of it as the best almost-full-length production of Just Blaze's peak era. So one of the big shadows cast over Free At Last, along with the decline of the Roc and the possible ruination at the hands of onetime exec producer 50 Cent, is the absence the producer who made the bulk of Free's first album. Fortunately, it's not really an issue, thanks largely to the Roc's longtime B-team production lineup of Bink! and Chad Hamilton, and dependable dudes like Needlz, Jake One and Don Cannon. Of course, there's also Cool & Dre who, as I mentioned a few months ago, really fell the fuck off, and now that all chances of Dre's rap album ever being released have vanished, dude has become one of those really annoying hook singing producers (his vocals on "100 Million" and Free At Last's "Lights Get Low" make me actually yearn for Pharrell falsetto).

Aside from his voice, Freeway is really entertaining to listen to because of his balance between silliness and sincerity. On the album's last song, "I Cry," he talks about crying about losing his G.I. Joes as a kid and crying over dead friends as an adult with equal sincerity, and somehow it works (although it's kind of weird and confusing how apparently one of those dead friends, who also gets an "R.I.P." dedication in the liner notes is named Neef, but isn't the Neef from State Property). The album's other most dramatic track, "Baby, Don't Do It," features Scarface, which is predictable and at the same time isn't, because as many Mack & Brad tracks as he's done with Beanie, Face has never gone further down the State Prop food chain to collaborate with any of the other members until now. But it's great to hear him and Free on a track together, and it's really helping me get hyped up for that new Scarface album that's apparently coming out next week, which noone was really sure was gonna happen until pretty recently.

Sunday, November 25, 2007
Playaz Circle - "Dear Mr. LA Reid" (mp3)

As much as it's one of my pet causes to bitch about how major label rap albums and getting too short, I have to admit that there are instances where it works. Playaz Circle's debut album Supply & Demand is only 11 songs, but it's just the right length for an album from a couple of no-names from Ludacris's label that noone seemed to think would ever get a moment of fame, aside from the great guest verses Tity Boi's been dropping on DTP and Luda albums since Golden Grain. They even seem to be taken offguard by the success of "Duffly Bag Boy" themselves, early on Supply & Demand stating "you know, it wasn't our intention to drop an album this year." It's like they got so accustomed to noone giving a shit about them for the last 3-4 years they were signed that once they had a hit, they almost resented having to throw together an album quick to capitalize on it. Still, it's probably the best quickie cash-grab Southern rap album I've heard this year, better than Gorilla Zoe or Hurricane Chris or Rich Boy, and while that might not sound like much, it's the kind of small success I tend to enjoy. I might like "Duffle Bag Boy" more than any recent tracks that Lil Wayne actually rapped on (though I'm not encouraging his singing career, and want no more atrocities like "Hello Brooklyn 2.0"), and it's great largely because of Tity Boi and Dolla Boy's verses, so I can't even begrudge them getting on the radio with the same guest artist that everyone else got on the radio with this year.

The album opens with a song called "Dear Mr. LA Reid," which is kind of ballsy, directly addressing the head of their label that probably barely even heard of them until their BDS went through the roof and he decided to give them a release date. It's not hostile and it's not pleading, actually it doesn't even address him to much besides the line "dear Mr. LA Reid, 'Duffle Bag' was just a seed/ I hope you see our vision," just trying to illustrate that they're more than a single to cash in on and then move on from. "Duffle Bag Boy" sounds even better in the context of the album, and there's only a handful of songs that kind of feel like they're near its level, but they do have potential and a ton of punchlines. Or at least Tity Boi does (probably the hardest I laughed at a rap record this year was when he says "I got so women/ I need another dick! (DICK!)" on "#1 Trap Pick"), Dolla Boy is just kind of a boring dude who sounds strangely like Too $hort. But ever since that last Disturbing Tha Peace compilation, I'm come to realize that DTP is probably the best rap superstar vanity label going the past couple years. DTP drops albums consistently whether or not they sell, and Shawnna and Field Mob and Shareefa's last records were all pretty good, and Serius Jones has more potential to make good records than your average battle rapper. Shame they got back with Chingy, though.

Netflix Diary

Saturday, November 24, 2007
1. Avalon
This is the last of Barry Levinson's 4 Baltimore-based semi-autobiographical period films that I've gotten around to seeing, and it might be just because I saw the others first multiple times, but I'd say it's my least favorite among them (although that group still comprises his best movies with maybe a couple exceptions). It's only got occasional flashes of the great dialogue of Diner and Tin Men, and a lot of the glossy, slow-moving sentimental sequences that occasionally bogged down Liberty Heights. Still, interesting meditation on immigration and assimilation with a few great performances, including an early Kevin Pollack dramatic role.

2. "The Wire," season 2
I've watched every season of The Wire on HBO and On Demand now, and I wanted to Netflix and go through them all again to ramp up to the start of the 5th and final season, but that's only a few weeks away now and I probably won't quite get to it. But right now I'm at least going through 2, probably the most underappreciated, or at least most debated, season of the show. Like a lot of people, I have mixed feelings about the Sobotka storyline and feel like in some ways it's a little divorced from the continuum in which most of the other sets of characters exist, but it's still pretty damn good. There's still some of the tin-eared 'street' dialogue that I don't feel like the show really got totally got good out until the last couple seasons, though, and I cringe at exchanges like "yo, that be the exit," "then take that shit!"

3. Minority Report
This is one of those movies where I'd probably heard the premise so many times that I felt like I'd seen it without actually seeing it. Some really good moments and great visuals, but the whole concept wasn't totally executed in a plausible way, and the chase scenes felt kind of forced and tacked-on. J.G. and I found ourselves laughing at how ill-fitting the grandiose John Williams score was for most of the movie, he's a versatile guy but the way he just slapped an Indiana Jones-type theme over everything really just didn't suit the material or the aesthetic.

4. Magdalene Sisters
Another depressing J.G. pick, this one about the terrible shit that the Catholic church used to, and to an extent still does, put young women through. I appreciate the gravity of the story, and it did provoke me to really think about the subject a bit, but like a lot of these kind of films, I come away from it not really feeling like I learned or was shown anything really important that I didn't know about, and it wasn't particularly well made once you strip away its somber subject matter.

Friday, November 23, 2007
Producer Series Mix #8: No I.D.

1. Common - "I Used To Love H.E.R."
2. Jay-Z f/ Nas - "Success"
3. Rhymefest - "Fever"
4. DMX f/ Cam'ron - "We Go Hard" (mp3)
5. Ghostface f/ Sheek Louch and Styles P. - "Metal Lungies"
6. Beanie Sigel - "Man's World"
7. No I.D. f/ Dug Infinite - "Jump On It" (mp3)
8. No I.D. f/ Common and Dug Infinite - "State To State"
9. Common f/ No I.D. - "In My Own World (Check The Method)" (mp3)
10. Common - "Invocation"
11. All Natural - "Thinkin' Cap" (mp3)
12. Do Or Die f/ Johnny P and Ric Jilla - "Be Alright"
13. Rhymefest - "Get Down"
14. Bossman - "You're Wrong" (mp3)
15. Jay-Z f/ LaToiya Williams - "All Around The World" (mp3)
16. Method Man - "Tease" (mp3)
17. Usher f/ Alicia Keys - "My Boo"
18. Bow Wow f/ Omarion - "Let Me Hold You"
19. G-Unit - "Smile"
20. Common - "Resurrection"

I mentioned a couple months ago that the death of Scratch Magazine might spur me the bring back my other big writing outlet for nerdy rap production shit, and here it is. This is one that I'd been working on before/during the series' nearly yearlong hiatus, and decided to finish it after No I.D.'s profile suddenly skyrocketed in the last few months, first from Kanye* mentioning his name 80 times on his album, and then No I.D. himself producing the hardest song on Jay-Z's new album. This is also probably the best of these mixes that I've done so far, and the hardest to choose tracks for because he's got so many fucking great beats.

Ernest "No I.D." Wilson (a.k.a. Immenslope) has had a pretty interesting and varied career, going from producing mostly other Chicago artists in the 90's, including Common's 2 best full-lengths and his own great, out of print '97 solo album Accept Your Own & Be Yourself (The Black Album) (really more of a duo album with Dug Infinite), to doing sporadic album cuts for big East coast rappers earlier this decade (including his first Jay-Z collab 5 years before American Gangster, one of my favorites off Blueprint 2), to hooking up with Jermaine Dupri and co-producing big mainstream hits like "My Boo" and "Let Me Hold You." But he's also pretty consistently made great sample-driven beats, and it's not a stretch at all to say that he probably taught Kanye almost everything he knows about producing.

Elliott Wilson's interview with No I.D. after "Success" really made it sound like this could be the moment where the dude becomes a name brand in and of itself, instead of a footnote in Kanye's career and someone that the word "underrated" is eternally attached to. No I.D. also did a track on the new Ghostface album called "World Champs," but as far as I know that track hasn't leaked yet. And his tenure working under J.D. wasn't all pop and R&B, and includes probably the best track my Baltimore fam Bossman made during the period that Jermaine had him signed to Virgin Records.

* One thing I'd love for someone to clear up for me about No I.D. and Kanye is the whole deal behind Rhymefest's "Sister" and 213's "Another Summer." The former's production is credited to No I.D. and the latter is credited to Kanye, but they're the exact same beat. Not just the same sample, the EXACT same instrumental note for note (Kanye also used the same beat for the studio version of Alicia Keys' "Unbreakable," which was an album outtake later released as a live version on her Unplugged album). Makes me really wonder if their professional relationship in recent years goes deeper than mentor-protege.

Previously in the Producer Series:
#1: Shondrae "Bangladesh" Crawford
#2: Rich Harrison
#3: Kevin "Khao" Cates
#4: Chad Wes Hamilton
#5: Neo Da Matrix
#6: Carl "Chucky" Thompson
#7: Polow Da Don

Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Avec - "In Character" (mp3)

I've got a whole mess of stuff in the City Paper this week: in the local music section, reviews of albums by IMP Records (more info over on Gov't Names) and Avec (who have been possibly my favorite band in Baltimore since I saw them live back in May). And in the film section, reviews of This Christmas (not bad, aside from Chris Brown) and August Rush (perplexingly, almost fascinatingly wrongheaded and awful). I also see my byline on the I'm Not There review on the CP website, but that's a glitch, in the actual paper it correctly says that Ian Grey wrote it.

Monday, November 19, 2007

One of the biggest holiday rituals in my family is that pretty much every Thanksgiving, for as long as I can remember, we watch Planes, Trains And Automobiles. Besides being appropriate to the occasion, it's fucking hilarious, one of the best things Steve Martin and John Hughes ever did, and I think the best performance of John Candy's career. I was thinking about how music is tied into some of my favorite scenes, and thought about buying the soundtrack. While it does exist (unlike the soundtrack to Ferris Bueller, the most iconic Hughes score), it has been out of print for a long, long time, so much that 85 fucking bucks is the lowest price any of the Amazon re-sellers have it listed for. And while the soundtrack does have some good stuff on it ("Modigliani (Lost In Your Eyes)" and "Power To Believe" totally get me choked up), I realized that most of the best songs featured or referenced in the movie weren't on the official soundtrack, and are commercially available. So these are the songs I've been listening to get ready to go home to mom's on Thursday, and hopefully watch the movie for the hundredth time:

Ray Charles - "Mess Around" (mp3)

Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys - "Blues Moon Of Kentucky" (mp3)

Frank Sinatra - "Three Coins In The Fountain" (mp3)

"(Meet) The Flintstones" (mp3)

Yello - "Lost Again" (mp3)

Sunday, November 18, 2007
The latest Corporate Rock Still Sells column is up on Idolator, and I was the least confident about it of any of the three I've done so far, but it got some really flattering feedback nonetheless. Gotta do some more charts and graphs.

Friday, November 16, 2007
Cassidy - "Intro (B.A.R.S. Vs. Da Hustla)" (mp3)

Cassidy kinda won me over with his last album (which deserved better than a C), so I was really rooting for the dude through all the crazy shit that he went through the past couple years that made it seem unlikely he'd ever drop another album. I'll be the first to admit that he does damn near everything possible to come off unlikeable, though: ego tripping about wanting the XXL cover to himself (to be fair, he is too established to share the "Leaders Of The New School" cover with a bunch of dudes who've never gone gold or, in some cases, even dropped an album, but he's just not on that cover star level), and insanely insinuating that he'll sell more than Jay-Z, who, as expected, moved about 6 times as many units as Cassidy last week. Truth be told, I probably like B.A.R.S.: The Barry Adrian Reese Story at least a little better than American Gangster. But then, I'm one of those weirdos who'd rather hear a good rapper at his best than a great rapper at his near-worst. One thing's for sure, though, Cass's production team (Swizz, Bink, Hi-Tek, Neo Da Matrix and Nottz) kills everyone on American Gangster except No I.D. and Just Blaze.

And thankfully, Cassidy makes up for the boneheaded bravado of some of his recent publicity stunts with the first track on the album, which follows the same split personality theme as his first album, as well as the battle-rap-against-himself concept of his second album's intro, "The Problem Vs. The Hustla." It's a cheesy idea, but it works, mostly because neither version of Cassidy (which are completely indistinguishable from each other in every way) pulls any punches, breaking himself down mercilessly with the kind of lines that would get a huge reaction if someone said them to him at a real battle. T.I. Vs T.I.P. would've benefitted greatly had either of his personas had been willing to savage each other as brutally as Cassidy does on here, shit you're almost shocked he's self-aware enough to say like "the record 'I'm A Hustla' was stupid/ cause Jay got more money off that record than you did/ and Swizz got more money off that record than you did" and "you only got a few hits and a couple fans/ and I could get you bodied for a couple grand" and "you went gold on your first disc and I'm A Hustla sold less than your first shit."

The album isn't solid all the way through, and it's kind of disconcerting that, after he beat a murder rap and kept promising that he'd have something conscious and real to say on this album, he spends two of the first handful of songs explaining how he still has lots of guns and isn't afraid to use them (on "Where My Niggaz At") and that he's not a snitch and would never snitch and hates snitches (on "I Will Never Tell (Uh Uh)"). Maybe these are just his natural responses to his situation, but it's a shame that after that ordeal he's still saying basically the same shit every other studio gangsta in the world says on every record. "Cash Rulez" featuring Bone Thugs and Eve is the 4th song this year to jack the "C.R.E.A.M." chorus (after Swizz's "It's Me Bitches," Fab's "Return Of The Hustle," and Wyclef's "The Sweetest Girl"), and I'm getting pretty sick of hearing people other than Meth do that hook. Swizz is more hands off than he'd been on Cassidy's previous albums, producing only 4 tracks (although that's the same number of beats he did for his own album, so go figure), but as I said already, there's a pretty great production team assembled on this album as it is. But this is one of those albums that really would've benefitted from the inclusion of some of those pre-release mixtape tracks, "You Already Know" and "It Is What It Is" would easily trump most of the songs that made the cut.

Thursday, November 15, 2007
The City Paper's been sending me to see free movies again lately, and the first, the parking garage thriller P2, failed to really have anything going for it beyond that 3-word synopsis.

In My Stereo

Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Cassidy - B.A.R.S.: The Barry Adrian Reese Story
Playaz Circle - Supply & Demand
Jay-Z - American Gangster
Mary Timony Band - The Shapes We Make
Jimmy Eat World - Bleed American
Thin Lizzy - Bad Reputation
D.O.G - The Feeling - Bring It Back
Born King - Krad Edis
Mash Infantry - Confidential - Crusade - Level One
Minlus McCracken - Rock And A Hard Place

Monday, November 12, 2007
Kenna - "Better Wise Up" (mp3)

The media campaign that surrounded The Clipse's label drama leading up to their second album was silly for a lot of reasons, but one of the foremost of which that I never saw anyone point out is that virtually every other artist affiliated with the Neptunes and Star Trek has suffered label troubles and botched releases just as much, if not worse (not counting people like Snoop and Thicke who'd already had deals before signing with them). Kelis's second album never even came out in the U.S., and N.E.R.D.'s first confusingly came out in completely different domestic and overseas versions. Spymob's incredibly underrated album Sitting Around Keeping Score was quietly released 2-3 years after it was finished, and then there were guys like Fam-Lay and Rosco P. Coldchain that are still on the shelf almost a half decade after they were supposed to release albums. I don't know if Pharrell and Chad are just really terrible label owners, have lousy luck in that area, or simply don't have the juice to get their more offbeat projects off the ground no matter how many hits they produce for established artists, but Star Trak's track record is pretty damn spotty.

Maybe the saddest case of all of those is Kenna, whose first album New Sacred Cow, got a big boost when MTV2 picked up on his video for "Hell Bent," then was tied up in label politics for 2 years, during which time most of it leaked to the internet and the album's buzz and momentum had all but evaporated by the time it was released in stores in 2003. The fact that it was a dour synth pop album and not straight up R&B, and that it was produced by the half of the Neptunes not named Pharrell, couldn't have helped its mainstream prospects either. But it was a fantastic record, announcing both a promising singer/songwriter talent, and the fact that Chad Hugo can do great, unique things when out of the shadow of his falsetto-happy production partner (I'm sure I just sound like a total Pharrell hater, but it really doesn't feel like a coincidence that my 2 favorite albums with the Neptunes or Star Trak brand on them, New Sacred Cow and Sitting Around Keeping Score, are the ones that Pharrell doesn't sing or play or produce a note on).

Kenna's second album, Make Sure They See My Face, was delayed a bit before being released last month, but it seems like he was taking his sweet time to follow-up New Sacred Cow anyway (btw, did the creepy four-fingered hands on the album cover make anyone wonder for a second if there was some kind of tie-in with Year Zero and "the presence"?). This time around, my anticipation was dulled, in part by the advance track "Face The Gun" that was posted on his MySpace page (which sounds better now in the context of the album), and in part because it was pretty disappointing to hear that the Neptunes had roped Kenna into their for-hire songwriting service, which I might be optimistic about if not for the fact that he'd been paired up with Ashlee Simpson of all people.

For the most part, though, the new album contains the same pleasures as New Sacred Cow, although it is weighed down a bit by some tedious and vaguely pretentious interstitial pieces between songs. One of the biggest and most unpleasant differences on Make Sure They See My Face, though, is that instead of Chad producing the whole thing, Pharrell steps in for two tracks. One of them, the single "Say Goodbye To Love," is pretty good, but the other, "Loose Wires," is a nightmarishly perfect realization of my worst fears about how badly Kenna and Pharrell's differing songwriting styles could mesh. It sounds exactly like a Pharrell song, which in 2007 is pretty much all a song needs to sound awful to me. But with Kenna singing, while still not breaking out of the fake Brit accent that suits his own songs fairly well, yelping Skateboard P-style ad libs like "run for cover!" is so traumatically awful that it kind of casts a shadow over the first half of the album, until Kenna settles into a groove of sticking to what he does best. That's really only the one most conspicuous example of Kenna's vocal performance going out of his comfort zone or range of abilities, though, his voice strains a bit on several other songs. Later on in the album, though, there are two songs, "Static" and "Be Still," with no Chad or Pharrell credits, and some pretty impressive drum programming that implies that Kenna is starting to figure out how to do this just as well on his own.

The new element on Make Sure They See My Face that I really like, however, is Kenna's newfound leaning toward guitar rock. Chad's drum programming on New Sacred Cow was a revelation because of its liberation from the rigid funk loops that had come to define "the Neptunes sound," with cymbal-heavy patterns that emulated loose-limbed rock drumming, and responded to the rising and falling dynamics of Kenna's songs in a pretty organic way. The energy of the drums on the first album was well matched by the distorted synth tones, but on the new one, guitars fill that role on almost half teh tracks, and it works better than I would've expected, particularly on "Better Wise Up." But at the same time, there's really nothing on this album that I love as much as "Siren" or "Freetime." For all the talk in the reviews and promotional campaign for Make Sure about how Kenna is an artist that thinks outside the box, and how there isn't any radio format that his music fits into, there are a bunch of songs on this album (none of which have been singles yet) that would've sounded right at home on alt-rock radio at any point in the past 10 years (although decidedly more in the late 90's than right now).

TV Diary

Saturday, November 10, 2007
1. "Bionic Woman"
Didn't really have any expectations about this show or much interest in watching it when the premiere hype was ramping up, but I was still surprised to hear how widely it was panned. Then I realized that the girl playing the title character is gorgeous and gave the show a shot anyway. And it is pretty much as bad as everyone says. The episode where her character pretended to be British and she got to speak in her real voice was a nice change of pace. Hopefully once this show is cancelled she'll get to stay on American TV somewhere, preferably playing a British person. Watching this I realized that regardless of what I think of Isaiah Washington as a person, he's a pretty lousy actor.

2. "Cavemen"
I'll be honest, I was one of the only people in the world who thought it could be a good idea when I heard that they were turning those Geico commercials into a series. Most of those ads were pretty funny. I think what scared me off initially was the news that they didn't keep any of the actors from the commercials more than the overwhelmingly negative buzz about the pilot. When I finally caught a couple episodes recently, though, it's really not that bad. Certainly not the worst new show of season (cough*Chuck*cough). The problem more is that we're not in an era where a silly high concept sitcom like "Alf" or "Mork And Mindy" (or even "Third Rock From The Sun") can work. But beyond some pretty immediate problems with the premise, most of the dialogue is fairly snappy and well written, it's not like it's some completely witless failure.

3. "Carpoolers"
Bruce McCulloch might be my favorite Kid In The Hall, and recorded my favorite comedy album of all time, Shame-Based Man, but his move toward directing in recent years has resulted in some pretty awful movies like Superstar and Stealing Harvard, so I wasn't sure what to expect from a new sitcom that he's heavily involved behind the scenes with. And so far, it's pretty poor. It just doesn't click. And I've always disliked that cheap TV effect where characters sit in a car in front of a green screen with a moving background to simulate driving, and that makes up for like half of an episode's running time in this show, though. It's nice to see Jerry Minor get some work, though, he's always been one of my favorite members of the Finesse Mitchell Memorial Underused Black SNL Cast Members Hall Of Fame.

4. "Aliens In America"
I haven't gotten a chance to see too much of this yet since it's on opposite J.G.'s beloved "Big Bang Theory" (which is funny, and is growing on me, but which I could still kinda take or leave). Very much a tale of adolescence in the "Wonder Years" mold, except the nerdy best friend is an Indian immigrant and a lot of the complications and jokes stem from that, although thankfully more often in a warm, compassionate way than in an easy stereotype way. Also, it's set in modern times and the kid who plays the main character also narrates, which makes me realize that one of the things that makes a show like "The Wonder Years" work was that there was a distinction between Daniel Stern's voice and young Kevin Arnold's actions. There's something kind of annoying here about the kid saying something in dialogue, and then the exact voice being dubbed in making commentary. Or maybe it's just because I'm not crazy about the actor kid, he's really kind of the weak link of the show.

5. "Back To You"
Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton are both living high on the syndication hog with their previous series, so you know they're only re-entering the sitcom world for the pure love of the game, and I dig that. This show is kind of typical Fox fare in that it's so trad that it feels almost retro, even the crass jokes are only crass by old-fashioned standards. Fred Willard is always funny, though.

6. "Shootout!"
The History Channel is permanently on the TV at my dad's house, and last time I was over there this was on, which has reenactments of various police shootouts and robbery attempts, which could be really awesome if the production values weren't for shit. But the really entertaining part of this was the most hilarious cheapo move ever by a TV show: someone references the movie Heat, and instead of showing a clip from the movie, or even a still or the poster or a picture of the actors or anything like that, they cut to a shot of a VCR, and a tape with the word "HEAT" written on the label being put in the deck. Fucking classic.

7. "Shootout"
Used to be called "Sunday Morning Shootout" but the name was recently truncated to resemble that of the History Channel show, even though it still comes on Sunday mornings. Maybe there's a timeslot change in the offing? But I love this show, I try to catch it every weekend. It reminds me of "Meet The Press" for movie industry buffs.

8. "America's Most Smartest Model"
This really is one of the funniest shows on TV right now. I think I much prefer these vapid VH1 reality shows when they treat them as ridiculously arbitrary game shows (see also "The Surreal Life: Fame Games"), and it's also more fun to watch pretty nobodies with big egos than unpleasantly aging celebrities with slightly bigger egos.

9. "The Next Great American Band"
This show is going down the same toilet that "On The Lot" did over the summer where the premise could potentially make for big event TV and the execution is ok (really, not significantly worse that "American Idol," at least) but the ratings just aren't there. I was gonna bring up the crack a member of one of the losing bands made last week about the show's ratings, but Idolator already covered that pretty well. Some of the band's are kind of guilty pleasure good, some of them are entertainingly bad, and most of the ones that are bad but not in an entertaining way seem to be getting eliminated pretty quickly, which is nice. And I will say this: even though the 3 judges seem to deliberately mirrior "Idol"'s judges, they're each all better judges with smarter and more fair commentary than any of their AI equivalents.

10. "Orangutan Island"
The season of "Meerkat Manor" is over (and thank god, it was getting really exhausting watching central characters die almost every episode, they're worse than "24" with that kind of thing), and on the night of the finale they premiered this new show as an obvious intended kinda follow-up. Of course, orangutans are a completely different kind of subject, and this show is sort of a different bag, more onscreen human involvement and the tone of the narration is totally different. But it really just isn't nearly as interesting, I think I'll wait for the meerkats to come back.

11. "Pushing Daisies"
Still my favorite new show of the season, although that's not really high praise considering the competition. But where I think there were some concerns based on the pilot that this is the kind of thing that would've worked better as a one-off movie than a continuing series, they've really proven from about the 3rd episode onward that there's a lot of mileage they can get out of the premise without it becoming to soapy or too monster-of-the-week. Kristen Chenoweth is pretty consistently amazing on this show, and it's pretty funny now to realize that one of the biggest flaws in last fall's big hyped show, "Studio 60," was that Aaron Sorkin based the Harriet character on Chenoweth, and the character's implausibility (a woman who can do broad comedy, sing really well, and is hot enough to be featured on the cover of a Maxim/FHM-type magazine) rested on the fact that pretty much the only actress capable of portraying that convincingly is Chenoweth herself (who obviously didn't get the job because she's Sorkin's ex and the whole character was his transparent way of working out his creepy issues with her).

Thursday, November 08, 2007
Jay-Z - "American Gangster" (mp3)

I've got a big thinkpiece about Jay's new album in the City Paper this week (this ain't a movie, dog!), although I'm still kinda digesting the album itself. I did, after all, write the article less than a week after most of the record leaked, and only a couple days after "Party Life" finally leaked (talk about saving the worst for last), and still haven't seen the movie. What I don't really understand is, why is the title track just a bonus at the end? I understand why "Blue Magic" is buried at the end, it's garbage and I'm sure Jay regrets making it the first single. Maybe I'm just a Just Blaze stan, but it's probably my favorite song on the album after "Success." The "Ignorant Shit" remix is cool, I always loved that track, but his new verse sounds like it must've been written to a completely different beat, he sounds like a fuckin' robot.

American Gangster is definiter a better album than Kingdom Come, but I think it's by a much slimmer margin than most critics are making it out to be (and for the record, I think KC's best songs are better than AG's best). Jay has a lot of albums that people don't respect as much because they don't seem artistic or conceptually interesting, or have numbers and colons in their titles (In My Lifetime Vol. 1, The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, The Blueprint 2: The Gift And The Curse) but if you actually listen to the music (instead of scanning through it, etc.) he fucking kills a ton of verses on those albums in a way that he doesn't at all on American Gangster, and approaches on maybe four or five points on the album. I wince when I listen to "No Hook," it's such a sloppy performance. Honestly I'm probably anticipating that supposed Dynasty 2 album in '08 more than I was anticipating either of these last two albums, I wanna see the Roc bring the crew love back.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007
As you may have heard, Stylus Magazine closed its doors and ceased publishing last week. Likewise, the Singles Jukebox is also dead, and the last songs I blurbed before it shut down (except the Natasha Bedingfield) were all for the Jukebox's coverage of Radio 1’s Established 1967 covers compilation, which was mostly awful:

Robbie Williams - Lola [6/4.5]
Foo Fighters - Band On The Run [5/5.5]
Mika vs. Armand van Helden - Can’t Stand Losing You [3/3.75]
James Morrison - Come Back And Stay [5/4.2]
Stereophonics - You Sexy Thing [2/1.8.]
Groove Armada ft. Alan Donohoe - Crazy For You [3/6]
Klaxons - No Diggity [4/5.75]
The Fray - The Great Beyond [4/3.25.]
Natasha Bedingfield ft. Sean Kingston - Love Like This [5/4.5]

In the 6 months or so that I wrote for the Jukebox, I believe I rated 133 songs, and I think I reviewed almost half as many albums for Stylus in the space of a year and a half. It was a really good site and I'll miss it, although I feel like I wasn't on the best terms with Stylus toward the end, since I stopped writing reviews about a year ago (not because I minded not getting paid for them so much as that I couldn't justify putting time and energy into them instead of the writing I do get paid for), and I misread an e-mail and blabbed about the end of Stylus semi-publicly before anyone outside the organization was supposed to know. But I'm pretty proud of most of the work I did there, and they had a lot of other writers I really respect and enjoy reading, and hopefully they'll all find other outlets for their writing after Stylus if they haven't already. I've heard that the site and its archives will stay up for a while but probably not forever, so in the next few months I'll probably figure out someway to preserve at least the stuff I wrote, possibly on this blog, so that it doesn't disappear off the internet completely at some point a year or two down the road.

Sunday, November 04, 2007
Radiohead - "Reckoner" (mp3)

Radiohead's never been a big band for me. I hated "Creep" and grew to appreciate them with The Bends (which is, at this point, probably my favorite of their albums, or at least the one I usually want to hear the most), and really enjoyed OK Computer even if I didn't buy into all the best-album-ever hype. Growing up, my brother and I shared a lot of our CDs with each other and listened to the same stuff, but it was usually pretty easy for us to figure out which one of us liked any given band more and would be the one to buy the album. And Zac was always the one with the Radiohead CDs, although I bought Kid A myself because by that point I'd moved away from home to start college.

One of the more interesting things about my brief, undistinguished 3-month tenure as a Pitchfork writer is that it happened to be during the period that Kid A came out. The site was a lot smaller back then, I don't even know what percentage of its current audience were reading it back then, but the infamous "wizard's cap" review was a pretty big deal at the time, the readership really ballooned because they were able to beat all the print mags to the punch and run pretty much the first 'official' review of the album, probably 2 or 3 weeks before its release (those kinds of rush job reviews became pretty common on Pitchfork in the early days of file-trading, and I have to say I really respect them for in recent years starting to run reviews the week of an album's release date or later; the In Rainbows review, with its jokey rating stunt, came only 5 days after the digital release, but compared to a ton of other websites that'd be considered a show of restraint). I remember Ryan Schreiber raving about Kid A to me before the review ran and motivating me to get on Napster for the first time, although I think I only managed to download halves of a handful of songs. And not to clown on Schreiber too much, but I'd ask him to describe exactly how it was so different and unprecedented, and technical questions about time signatures and song structures, and he'd make it sound completely freeform and unpredictable. So it was kind of amusing to me when I heard the album and, aside from a 5/8 or 7/8 here or there, most of the rhythms and structures were very straightforward and, in some cases, more simplistic than their earlier, more overtly 'rock' albums.

That experience kind of cemented my suspicion about Radiohead ever since, that the albatross of making an album like OK Computer, which was very good but generally acclaimed for being more bold and experimental than it really was, is that they probably have felt a good amount of pressure ever since to think outside the box and experiment, even if in a way that was ostensibly about not responding to or thinking about audience expectations. Y'know, in the same way that bands often don't start to indulge in stereotypical rock star behavior until they become famous and feel somehow obligated to. Not that I think Yorke & co.'s tortured artist image is a put-on, but one wonders how much they would've pulled back into their own world if that album had gotten the same reception as a lot of other perfectly good British art-rock albums before or since.

I really liked Kid A or parts of it, still probably one of my favorite albums of that year, but Amnesiac was just so-so for me, and nothing I heard from or about Hail To The Thief compelled me to pick it up. But when the digital release of In Rainbows was announced, with the option of "buying" it for nothing, I had no reason to not at least listen once or twice, and kind of enjoyed being able to approach it in a relative vacuum, without having heard really any of the various live versions of the songs floating around, or their last album, or really much Radiohead at all in the past 5 years.

It'd be really easy to zing this album and say I'm glad I didn't pay anything for it because it sucks, but I honestly am kind of glad I paid zero, because I don't enjoy it a whole lot. In Rainbows is full of very minor variations on the kinds of chugging, pretty drones Radiohead has been making for almost a decade, and the main aesthetic difference is that the guitars are either acoustic or with minimal distortion, in snaky melodic lines over busy, layered percussion, particularly on songs like "15 Steps" and "Reckoner." It's an interesting sound, but I have to admit I don't particularly like listening to it most of the time, and that I'd probably like the guitar parts a lot more they didn't sound so deliberately muted. Some of the percussion ideas (particularly the one on "Videotape") are just plain bad, and detract from the song in clunky, unpleasant ways. And the more overtly trad and/or pretty moments like "Nude" just kind of go right by without grabbing me in any way near what similiar material from their earlier albums did. In a way In Rainbows reminds me of Nine Inch Nails' Year Zeromore than any other album I've heard this year: the artist is known for attention to detail, and this sounds as carefully constructed as any of their other albums, but basic choices as far as mic'ing and mixing sound really tinny and flat (and I'm not talking about the bitrate of the mp3's), and the sequencing does the better songs no favors. It's not news to say that Radiohead are no longer doing what made them initially popular, but I don't think this album is even nearly as good as their first material that abandoned those elements.

Of course, it's impossible to talk about being underwhelmed or disappointed by In Rainbows without acknowledging its almost universally positive reception, or coming off as purposefully contrarian about it. Radiohead have become part of a very small club of active artists, one that mostly consists of boomer touchstone like Dylan, who get every benefit of the doubt when they put out a new album, and reap the rewards of the critical community's cautious reverence. I disagree with the consensus big time, but I at least gave it a few weeks to see if it grew on me, or if the reviews got any more varied or measured, and I haven't even really seen any backlash to speak of. I was so desperate for a halfway reasonable response to this unexciting, forgettable album that I sought out the lowest Metacritic rating and found one (the only one with a score of less than 70%!) that I pretty much agree with.

I'm looking forward to hearing the bonus songs from the 2-disc physical release of In Rainbows just because I'm pretty curious now to see what they thought didn't make the cut (and I wasn't one of those people who thought of Amnesiac as outtakes, nor as equal or superior to Kid A). These songs just don't sound as singular and complete as the ones on, say, Kid A; if you'd told me that In Rainbows was the bonus disc and that the "real" album was the other ones from the session that haven't been heard yet, I'd pobably believe you. Who knows, though, maybe I'll like those even less.

Friday, November 02, 2007
The second installment of Corporate Rock Still Sells, my column for Idolator that started last month, went up yesterday. I've never been the type of blogger that obsesses over hit counts or anything, but I've been really pleasantly surprised by the number of page views and comments I've been getting on these, hopefully I can keep up this momentum and find some different ways to approach this topic. Also I love the graphic I got to use for this entry.

Thursday, November 01, 2007
Gorilla Zoe - "Money Up" (mp3)

I'm not sure whether it's an impressive amount of autonomy granted to a relatively new imprint, or proof that they're being tossed out as a tax writeoff for the parent label, but Diddy seems to have a really supportive yet hands-off approach to Block Entertainment since Yung Joc gave Bad Boy its biggest non-Diddy album in ages. Recently, Block Ent. released three albums in the space of 6 weeks, all after shooting just one video for each and not delaying or heavily hyping up any of them. None of them have been big sellers, but I can't imagine any of them lost money. Out of Joc, Boyz N Da Hood and Gorilla Zoe, Zoe was the only debut album and despite having the hottest single out of them, the odds seemed to be against him. Pretty much the first time anybody heard of him was when he was drafted to take Jeezy's spot in BNDH, which was pretty anti-climactic after everyone from Wayne to Rick Ross to T.I. had been rumored to take the job. Maybe Block figured him dropping at the same time as the group album would do for Zoe what it did for Jeezy, but the stars didn't align quite like that, though he's not doing bad.

Welcome To The Zoo is definitely the most low budget out of the three albums, too. Literally the only producer on the entire album that I've heard of beforehand at all is Drumma Boy (and this album's liner notes are in just about the tiniest, least readable font I've ever seen, which makes it pretty hard to even figure out exactly what the other producers' names are). Well, him plus after getting the album I saw that "Hood Figga" producer Chris Flame co-produced the intro to Jay's American Gangster, with Idris "Stringer Bell" Elba, of all people. And every single guest on Welcome is someone else on the Block Ent. or Bad Boy roster: Yung Joc on two tracks, hooks by a chick from Danity Kane and some guy name JC, and numerous collabs with the other members of BNDH, including three appearances by both Jody Breeze and Big Gee. I haven't heard Back Up N Da Chevy, but all of Jody Breeze's appearances on Welcome To The Zoo make me really wish it was him coming out with a solo album right now (I like Jazze Pha as a producer more than most people, but I gotta begrudge him for not taking a little of that Ciara money and making JB a priority).

It's kind of easy to just think of Gorilla Zoe as a slightly more credible version of Yung Joc's cartoonish distortion of Southern gangsta cliches, but he more or less stays in his own lane and only falls into Joc-style bullshit on the two tracks with Joc (one of them "Juice Box," features perhaps the most disgusting hook of the year: "I make her juice box drip, drip, drip, drip, drip, drip"). Zoe has a really weird grainy voice that sometimes sounds really smooth and relaxed, like on "Hood Figga," but sounds completely different and sandpapery on a lot of the deep cuts (one thing about "Hood Figga": the fact that he references "Gold Digger" and "I Should've Cheated" makes me feel like that song must've been in the can for 2 years before becoming a hit; has Ashanti even been famous since like 2005?). The weirdest thing I realized on my last listen of the album is that the voice that Gorilla Zoe most reminds me of when he gets hoarse is cross-dressing Baltimore club legend Miss Tony. Most of the album is kind of by-the-numbers and forgettable, but when it's good, it's pretty damn good, especially "Money Up," which could very easily follow "Ain't Gon Let Up" and "Crank That" in the recent run of Southern rap hits with hooks built around catchy steel drum-sampling melodies. That beat is a monster, I just wish I could make out the producer's name (I'm pretty sure it says "produced by Win for Self-Made Productions" but it's hard to be sure).