Guante "The Hero" (Influenza)

CB’s Influenza series looks to help dissect the influences that breathe life into music, and in the case of the latest release from Twin Cities-based MC Guante, he not only wears his influences on his sleeve, but has firmly affixed them to a flag which he proudly waves wherever he goes. While being creatively inspired by any number of artists ranging from Toki Wright to Saul Williams, musically the man’s style has developed out of his work as a spoken word performer: A two-time National Poetry Slam champion, he has also been honored by the likes of City Pages, which named him “Best Slam Poet” in 2009. This combination of external and internal inspiration has given him a unique voice that creatively addresses global matters while being respectful of his inner feelings and opinions.

In a time when the idea of a “socially conscious” MC seems to have completely lost its importance, the term largely watered down to a bastardized shell of its former meaning, Guante suggests that, as a matter of fact, simply being conscious is not enough. Sure, without first being informed it is impossible to plant the seed of personal and social growth, but that knowing is simply the starting point: it’s how you act on that knowledge that matters most; a point thoroughly emphasized in the title track of Guante’s new Conscious is Not Enough 2011 mixtape.

In part fueled by the burning dissent in his home-state of Wisconsin, with the release the MC found himself once again turning his attention to the idea that it’s entirely necessary to re-asses not only one’s perspective of the negative goings on in the world, but what can be done to combat any interpreted injustices. One track which confronts this idea head-on is “The Hero,” a song which twists the idea of the superhero in challenging societal ills; it asks us to not simply concentrate on addressing what’s “right” and “wrong,” but what’s causing such social maladjustment in the first place.

Not only does the album serve as a magnificent re-boot of his 2008 release of the same name, but it serves as the starting point for another undertaking which the MC is helping get off the ground: the MN Activist Project. In the album’s final track Guante relates the necessity for the resource, explaining the purpose of the new organization. “We need to return to a culture of organizing in this country, a country that says that when you see a problem you don’t just email the President, you don’t just post a link to that problem on your Facebook wall, and you certainly don’t just ignore it. You get together with some like minded people, formulate a plan and act on that plan.”

To learn more about the MN Activist Project or simply to see the MC live, he has two upcoming dates in the Twin Cities: April 4 at the University of Minnesota’s Whole Music Club and April 7 at Cause, where he’ll be performing as part of the latest installment in the Hip Hop Against Homophobia series. In the meantime, here’s a look into “The Hero” as explained by Guante, himself.


This is one of the songs that I’m most proud of, honestly. I wrote a week ago that we, as rappers, often don’t give our audience much credit, that “political” songs are almost always insultingly simple—platitudes, vague notions of empowerment and empty rhetoric are the norm. But it IS possible to talk about deeper issues within a three or four-minute track. I wanted to write a song about the difference between face-to-face direct service work and the struggle for larger-scale, institutional change.

At the same time, I didn’t want to just shout at people. I like telling stories. I like crafting overarching metaphors and presenting my political views in a more creative way, whenever possible. And I think a lot of people have that conversation, when they’re kids, about what superpower they wish they had and what they would do with it. Would you be the hero, or the villain? Would you protect your city, or fly around the world fighting crime? And to me, that question was almost always about how one goes about fighting for real, lasting change. Batman can punch a mugger in the face, but there’s always another one right around the corner. Spider-Man stays webbing up bank robbers and people who are criminally insane, but no one ever seems to address the question: Where are all these criminals coming from? What is crime? How do we get at the roots of problems—and not just crime, but pollution, war, racism and everything—and not just treat the symptoms? That’s what this song is about—a superhero having that epiphany.

Another reference point for this track is another song about crime, Biggie’s “Gimme the Loot.” I’ve always loved how he plays two distinct characters in that song, just by subtly changing his tone. This song has the narrator, the thief and the superhero, and they each have different voices. I don’t think I did it as good as Biggie did it, but it’s an homage.

I should also mention that this is one of the first songs that me and producer Big Cats! did together (the outro is actually a live recording of our band). It originally appeared as an instrumental on his debut, Sleep Tapes. I had the song written already, heard that beat, and knew that they’d fit together perfectly. It sounds like a superhero song. I’m really happy with how it turned out. This song is a great encapsulation of what the whole mixtape, and really my whole career (haha) is about. It’s about asking deeper questions, using whatever power or privilege or talent we have to try to make a real difference and not settling for band-aids (in activism) and bullshit (in music).

Beyond all that, I just love mixing science fiction, social justice and beats that bang. You can see how this song really sets the stage for the Guante & Big Cats! full-length, An Unwelcome Guest, which really dives into the superhero mythology and radical politics stuff even further. It’s weird, but I think it works.

Phonte and Nicolay at The Listening Room (Nashville, TN)

Sitting in as guests of the Red Bull Music Academy, Phonte (Little Brother) and Nicolay—collectively known as the Foreign Exchange—participated in a Q&A session at Nashville's Listening Room Saturday afternoon. Discussing a variety of subjects with host Sean Maloney of the Nashville Scene, the floor was eventually opened up to the audience for questions. Alternating in answering, each artist revealed a variety of details about their upcoming affairs. Aside from commenting on their upcoming tour, their affinity for self-marketing and their rather liberal perspective on filesharing, when asked by a crowd member about how they've avoided such modern trends as using autotune or layering tracks with a slew of guest contributors, Phonte responded by making an important distinction. "Use technology as a tool--don't use it as a crutch." He continued, "If I can't hit that note live I'm not gonna hit the autotune just for that."

While Phonte and Nicolay went on to respectively participate in a songwriting class and production demo, perhaps the most intriguing information came during the Q&A. Nicolay explained that the duo were presently working toward the release of an "acoustic" album which would document a recent mini-concert that found the group swapping their typical production for such musical standards as a grand piano and acoustic guitars. Shortly after, Phonte went on to reveal (after a bit of prodding from Nicolay) that he would be dropping a solo release later this year. Tentatively set to hit retail shelves September 13, the album will not only serve as the veteran artist's solo debut, but it will also mark the six year anniversary of the release of Little Brother's highly acclaimed second studio album, The Minstrel Show.

Lupe Fiasco "Rolling Papers" Review

Weed enthusiasts are a unique breed. I don’t mean potheads, but people who plan their entire lives around pot; those who roll out of bed, spin Black Sunday for their wake-n-bake session, and make it a point to spark praise for the plant on no less than half a dozen times throughout the day. Those who don’t just smoke trees, but nurture the cottage industry built around the lifestyle. It’s important to remember that this market exists when listening to Wiz Khalifa’s new album Rolling Papers. Not because the album is entirely about smoking weed, and not because Wiz is already this generation’s chosen poster boy for the subculture, but because he’s established himself as a prime candidate to carry the torch (so to speak) for years to come. And as that fanbase has proven in the past, if you roll with them, they’ll roll with you… for life.

Since dropping his Kush & OJ mixtape last summer Wiz Khalifa has been on fire. The man has already survived being spit out from the industry gauntlet once before, has aligned himself with established veterans, pushed a single to the top of the charts with minimal corporate support and has solidified a name for himself as one of the sharpest young stars in rap right now. But in keeping all that in mind, as well as his blossoming role as a celebrity within a niche community, an important distinction appears which must be emphasized: Rolling Papers isn’t the product of an MC, but of a star.

While musically consistent throughout, early on the album reveals two outlying tracks which don’t fall in line with the rest of Rolling Papers. The first comes with the dark beat of “On My Level.” Thematically, Khalifa and Too $hort aren’t doing much here aside from maybe pushing the boundaries of just how much a song can only be about getting fucked up. Wiz raps about drinking while Too $hort later beams about getting sloppy, “Cocaine, mushrooms, ecstasy, GHB, marijuana/She can suck it if she wanna.” It’s not the finest moment on Rolling Papers, and is only made to look that much more unnecessary when followed by the anthemic “Black and Yellow.” Serving as the other unmatched track, the lead single offers more energy than is really heard again throughout Rolling Papers. This is a shame because had the album included another couple heavy bangers it might not suffer from becoming too relaxed.

The Stargate-produced “Roll Up,” which follows “B&Y,” flows nicely, but it sets precedent very early on for the level of engagement which the album demands; which is to say, very little at all. “Hopes and Dreams” isn’t boring, but it further depresses the album’s momentum, leading to a noticeable slump in pace: “Wake Up” is driven by light, airy synth while the crisp beat of “Star of the Show” slowly creeps and the relatively booming bass of “Top Floor” is equalized by its non-existant tempo. None are bad tracks, but they’re only surface-deep in their appeal.

“Get Your Shit” finds the MC advertising his “new girl” over R&B-toying production, and “Rooftops” finds Khalifa tossing out empty taunts, “You tryin’ to copy, I’m tryin’ to innovate,” while failing to lyrically innovate, himself: “Used to not be allowed in the building but now we on the rooftop.” It’s difficult not to think “frat-rap” with “Fly Solo” as the song’s Jack Johnson-like acoustic guitar lazily works with minimal synth in crafting a base for Khalifa’s soft bars; perfect music for hangin’ with your bros. “Cameras” closes the album by doing the pop thing while raising musical similarities to Lupe’s “Superstar” in the process. There’s really not much else going on there.

Looking back to the beginning: Rolling Papers opens with “When I’m Gone,” which introduces the album with a piano build up, a relaxed vibe and a mellow hook which complement Khalifa’s introspective lyrics about his public persona—or at least as introspective as the MC might be capable of. Throughout the LP Khalifa never fails to add a few sharp bars along the way to avoid the limp-MC tag—”I’m sippin’ Clicquot and rockin’ yellow diamonds/So many rocks up in the watch I can’t tell what the time is,” in “Black and Yellow” being a good example—but for the most part Rolling Papersunfortunately falls below his perceived lyrical capabilities. Humorously dropping a Wayne Gretzky reference in “The Race” gives it a free pass (any MC dropping hockey references is fine by me), but there are a number of tracks like “No Sleep” which rely on about as much lyrical substance as Rebecca Black’s god-awful viral hit “Friday,” “Party all day, party all night, say you wanna party let’s party alright.” That’s where it’s important to remember the distinction between MC and star.

If it weren’t for such a starting point, Khalifa’s Rolling Papers wouldn’t hold up as well as it’s likely to. It’s a bit of a cop-out to say that Wiz gets a critical pass simply because he’s not a lyricist first, but another reason that the album is different than, say, Lasers, is that with the exception of “On My Level,” the entire thing actually sounds good. Here you’re getting an album from a young dude who’s co-signed by the likes of Snoop, that stands clear of controversy by steadily branding itself as a party record. Rolling Papers is about getting drunk and having fun while exercising more than enough weed references so as to qualify as a stoner album without becoming overwhelming for non-smokers. Again: all that, AND it sounds good. Is it an artistic achievement? Hell no. But the same can be said for most everything put out by the likes of Cypress Hill and they’ll be dropping another album this year (tentatively titled Cannabis Dream), releasing it some 20 years after their debut! Perhaps that’s not a perfect comparison to make in order to reinforce the possibility of a strong future for the MC, but it certainly leaves Rolling Papers appearing as one hell of marker with which Wiz Khalifa can continue to build from.

Seeking "Spiritual Pollution"

To this day it still might be widely perceived that grunge’s northern reach ended at the 49th parallel in the early ’90s. That simply wasn’t the case though. Signed to Reprise/Warner in 1991 based a single demo tape, Vancouver’s Pure achieved the bulk of their success based on their 1992 full-length debut, Pureafunalia. Produced by Talking Heads keyboardist Jerry Harrison, the album relied heavily on many rock standards of the time, leading Roch Parisien of All Music to explain how Pureafunalia boasts “an anarchic, punk attitude, tight funky rhythms, a splash of 60s psych, and great big hooks combine to beat such British bands as EMF and Jesus Jones at their own game.” Two of the band’s music videos from the release, “Pure” and “Blast,” were nominated for the “Best Alternative Video” award at the 1993 Much Music Video Awards, with Pure’s “Blast” beating out the likes of Sloan to win the award. If the extent of the band’s success can be measured by one single factoid, however, it’s that their track “Tennis Ball” was featured on the soundtrack to BASEketball in 1996. As far as I’m concerned, by that fact alone they were gods among men.

Of those two songs, “Pure” and “Blast,” when hearing them now, I prefer the smoother sounding “Pure,” but I don’t recall listening to them all that much at the time. Same goes for the Soundgarden-y “Greedy,” which was also accompanied with a music video. The song from Pureafunalia that struck me as the most brilliant at the time and has since stuck with me the longest is “Spiritual Pollution.” The track boasts an entirely different vibe than “Blast” or “Pure,” with its infectious guitar riff leading into a simplistic handclap-based rhythm and an earworm of a chorus that never seems to grow old to me. To this day it makes me smile.

There’s a lingering thorn in my side regarding the song though: its corresponding music video has apparently been forgotten by history. Or at least history as far as the Internet’s concerned. I remember it to be hip enough (hip at the time, mind you) that it became an event for me every time Much Music would play it. If a VJ mentioned that it’d be coming up in a playlist, either before the next commercial break or sometime during the next 24 hours, I remained glued to the TV set so I could check it out. (Admittedly, as an elementary school student at the time, this wreaked havoc on my grades.) Yet despite holding such a positive role in my memory bank, it’s apparently nowhere to be found online.

Many of Pure’s early albums are available for streaming online, as are a number of other music videos from the band: “Anna is a Speed Freak” (which was banned on Much Music at one time), “Feverish,” “Me and the Almost Beautiful Girl” and “Chocolate Bar” (which is my second favorite Pure song) joining those previously mentioned. While there was apparently a version of it on YouTube at one point in time, the closest thing to the video that can presently be found online resides on on Pure’s MySpace page. “With a little interview at the front end, this was the lowedst [sic] budget video we made for the Pureafunalia album. Strobes are nice.” But the fucking visuals have been disabled. What gives?

Well, during the hours (yyyyyup, I’ve literally spent a couple of hours trying to track this thing down) of searching online as well as emailing and messaging people with the hope that someone would reply with a tip, I dedicated a bit of time reading the group’s blog posts and scanning the bulk of their MySpace comments. From what I’ve found, the reason the video is nowhere to be found is due to a combination of issues. Writing on Christine Leakey‘s MySpace page, a representative of Pure commented some 357 days ago, “hi Christine, this myspace page is locked now. Apparently the all powerful WMG has their software scanning all uploads and we triggered it. There are a lot more songs on if you use that site.” To which Leakey responded, “damn.. that is so wrong! warner did the same thing to mike trebilcock. he is unable to upload any of HIS music from the killjoys to put on his page.” (An aside: I was also looking for the music video for “Rave & Drool” by the Killjoys this past week… it, too, is absent from the Internet.) Blog posts “Majors vs. Youtube” (Feb. 10, 2009) and “The songs are missing” (March 19, 2009) both explain a bit about the difficult time the band has had dealing with Warner’s blind deletion of their music. A message from “Mark” (possibly Mark Henning who was the band’s keyboardist before quitting in 1994) in the latter read, “For whatever reason, it seems that Warner’s Music Group has tightened its hold on the digital community and now our songs, which have been so happily playing on this site for over two years, are gone.”

In general, it’s really hard to overlook this instance DMCA bullshittery, especially given the minimal number of people who are likely out there trying to view ripped versions of VHS videos taped from late night cable broadcasts, but this one especially pisses me the fuck off. Why? Because, simply put, “Spiritual Pollution” was maaad bonkers back in its day, and anyone who cares enough to want to check the video out nearly two decades later should be able to. Done deal. So, if for whatever reason, this blog post reaches someone who has a digital copy of the video, an old VHS tape, or even a lead as to where I might be able to view it, let me know in the comments or send me an email. In an unlikely move considering today’s everything’s-free culture, I’d also like to mention that I’m willing to pay for it. (Update: It's now online, available below.)

[This article first appeared on Tsururadio.]

Spin Doctors “Pocket Full of Kryptonite”

All that jive about first impressions being the most important moment in a relationship and you’re kicking things off with the Spin Doctors? Really?


For a brief period of time the Spin Doctors were, as the kids say (actually, I can’t vouch for the kids, but I say this quite frequently; kids around the world would be wise to follow suit), trill as fuck; they covered Rolling Stone when doing so still mattered and had more than one platinum album in the States despite being largely known for a single pair of songs. If you want a history lesson on the band, check out their Wikipedia page (now with 100% more John Popper references!), or this post on Consequence of Sound which pretty much covers the exact same stuff. That’s not what I’m interested in though. What I know, love, and (surprisingly still) remember about the band is their five times fucking platinum album, Pocket Full of Kryptonite. OK, but why introduce the series with it? Well, here’s the context:

I was in grade school when the album was first released in 1991, but likely didn’t own it until around 1993 when the band struck commercial gold with “Two Princes” (which for years I thought was called “Two Princesses”) and “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong.” Though I hadn’t quite reached the point in my life where my Walkman (and later, my Discman) traveled with me everywhere I went, this was the period of my young adolescence when I was first introduced to Columbia House Records. I remember scanning the massive mail-outs they would send, each page more colorful than the last, tearing off the little stamp-sized album identifiers, licking them, and slapping them on the order form. For those who aren’t familiar, Columbia House was kinda like a drug dealer that people hated but still buttered up to when they needed a cheap fix. The old adage “the first one’s free, but the next one will cost ya” was never as true as it was with those shady bastards: get a dozen tapes (later CDs) for just one cent! (small print: “you better enjoy ‘em, because for the next seven we’re going to financially rape the shit out of you™”). Anyways, I don’t remember which other tapes I received on that particular go-around with the company, but I do remember sometime later walking through a field with a friend who was on my hockey team, discussing who our favorite bands were. His name was Matt and he loved him some Aerosmith. Come to think of it, we both owned Big Ones at the time of said discussion, so it might have been 1994 when I first owned the tape. Regardless, my response to him was, of course, the Spin Doctors.

Looking back on it, I never fully understood how much of a jam-band they were. Even when I bought their second album (which I purchased from a pawn shop, re-sold, then re-purchased on at least two occasions), it didn’t sink in. Now knowing more of the genre (know thy enemy) it’s not hard to realize that Kryptonite meets the most basic of qualifications to be certified a jam-band record: the album has a fucking 13 minute song on it. Despite my contempt for the Phishes of the world (moreover, their fundamentalist fans), to this day I still think that monster “Shinbone Alley/Hard To Exist” is a solid listen (though perhaps only for nostalgia’s sake). The nine tracks that come before it, though, are where the bulk of my fondness remains.

Like my aforementioned back-and-forth with the group’s second album, the rather shitty (though I can’t actually remember actually listening to the whole thing from start to finish) Turn It Upside Down (which still went double-platinum), I had an ongoing problem with buying music, selling it when I needed money, and buying it again. The majority of the time this was done through some used CD stores, so I didn’t end up losing too much on the deal, but it was still a bonehead habit. I can recall having no fewer than five copies of Kryptonite in my life; the most recent being during my college years; none of which I still own. But what I do keep with me is my affection for the saucy riff and bouncing bass line that peels open the album on “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues,” the gentle simplicity of “Forty or Fifty,” the relative loudness which followed with “Refrigerator Car,” the cool harmonica-rock (I wasn’t kidding about the John Popper reference; the band came from the same scene in NY as Blues Traveler) of “Off My Line” and, of course, “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” and my personal favorite “Two Princes(ses).”

Pocket Full of Kryptonite wasn’t the first tape or record I ever owned, but it remains one of the earliest which still sounds good to my years. The hope is that a lot of other music is shared in this ongoing feature, but there are few pieces which I will hold as near to me as this by the Spin Doctors. If you’ve made it this far, first: thank you. Second: why not share one of your first musical purchases that still bears relevance to you.

[This article first appeared on Tsururadio.]

The Kills "Blood Pressures" Review

Relationships have a tendency of continually changing; a difference which is only made that much more apparent given significant spans of time. It’s been three years since Jamie Hince and Alison Mosshart released their last album together, 2008′s Midnight Bloom, and during the years that followed Mosshart focused much of her creativity on her work with the Dead Weather while Hince devoted his heart to another Moss. In reconvening, Blood Pressures has become a test of their ongoing relationship: the production gaging the cohesion between two friends and musical allies while the outcome serves as a diagnosis of the present health of the Kills.

If you were to base early speculation of what the album were to sound like on interviews alone, it might have appeared a mess, with the pair seeming even that much more removed from one another: Hince basking in Roxy Music’s catalog during the time of the album’s recording while Mosshart was occupying herself with Johnny Cash and the “Southern blues world.” Almost immediately, however, any lingering trepidation concerning the cohesiveness of the duo is quashed as “Future Starts Slow” winds the album up musically while heavily showcasing their vocal chemistry.

Despite the different starting points, musically, Blood Pressures does well to retain a certain level of cohesiveness all the way through. The sputtering intro of “Satellite” cedes to Hince’s crunching guitar and Mosshart’s alluring drawn out “oooooooh”s, each of which provoke an immense emotional reaction. The rumbling sound of “DNA” offers the meanest guitar piece on the album while Mosshart teases with the occasional glimpse of her unrestrained vocals. “Heart is a Beating Drum” and “Nail in My Coffin” both simmer (each utilizing a funny ping pong ball-sounding hand clap), “Damned If She Do” slowly creeps through grungy blues before unbuckling in the chorus (“She come alive when she dyin’!”), and “You Don’t Own the Road” adds a snapping bounce that is unrivaled elsewhere on the LP. Blood Pressures isn’t without its unique deviations however, each stubbornly disrupting the pace of the album.

“Wild Charms,” Hince’s odd 75 second Beatles-eqsue flirtation, is later complemented in the album by “The Last Goodbye.” Discussing the track with Spinner, Mosshart recently explained, “It’s one of those ones that you just sit down with an acoustic guitar and wrote a song and love it so much. It was so kind of straight and normal—sort of like Patsy Cline—that something had to happen and it couldn’t be on a Kills record, but Jamie played around with it and tried different instruments with it. It kind of turned into a Velvet Underground song, if you can believe that.” There is nothing wrong with either song—each is unique and offers evidence of balanced musicianship within the group—but they nonetheless break up consistency on the album. To a far lesser degree, “Baby Says” is also unique in that respect, but only in that it lacks some of the vibrancy that shines through elsewhere on Blood Pressures. Unsurprisingly however, by the time album closer “Pots and Pans” stomps its way into the picture, all is forgotten. Hince’s rigid acoustic picking is mashed with a bottleneck slide and Mosshart’s woeful tale of an exhaustive relationship. Two-thirds of the way through the track Hince crashes in with a dirty electric, driving “Pots and Pans” to its sonic peak while Mosshart chants “These are the days that I’ll never forget/When the dawn dawns on you.” The song is entirely unique on the album—an outlier, for sure—but it also helps redefine the bond between the two musicians, thoroughly reconfirming their compatibility with one another.

“I don’t think any kind of break can fuck with 11 and a half years, you know?” reflected Mosshart in an interview with Vanity Fair earlier this month. The Kills are a durable pair, each on the same level musically as if they were connected via some mystical cosmic force; even after a couple of years of relative separation they’ve managed to pick up right where they left off. Blood Pressures isn’t without its imperfections and inconsistencies, but if the album’s only purpose were to measure the current vitality of the group, it becomes easy to conclude that the Kills are once again alive and well.

Thurston Moore "Benediction"

At this point in his life Thurston Moore could get away with committing murder if he wanted; musically speaking, of course. Not to overlook the handful of solo albums he’s logged over the past two decades, but this year marks Sonic Youth’s 30th anniversary as a band. Without delving into Steve Albini-type babble about what it means to sell out, it’s pretty safe to say that despite flirting with mainstream success, Sonic Youth have done well at living off the commercial grid for much of those 30 years. Add to it that Moore and the band are still making relevant music (and playing the fuck out of it live) at this stage in their collective career and as far as I’m concerned that should lend them a free pass to do whatever they want and call it a jam. If doing that might be considered committing artistic murder and getting away with it, the first cut from Moore’s new solo album would be living a picturesque life as a model citizen (this metaphor’s going nowhere, sorry). Fact of the matter is that the beauty harnessed within “Benediction” is not merely unexpected, but the song is comforting on levels not typically associated with Moore and his largely noise-focused body of work. “Demolished Thoughts burnishes Thurston’s rep as a classic songwriter in ways we never anticipated,” explained Matador co-owner Gerard Cosloy in a blog post a few weeks back. If “Benediction” is any indication, it would certainly appear that way. The Beck Hansen-produced Demolished Thoughts (the album, not the “supergroup” which subsequently failed to really materialize into anything substantial) will be released May 24 via Matador.

Britney Spears "Femme Fetale" Review

Femme Fatale isn’t Britney Spears‘ “comeback” album, it’s not likely to stand as her best album and it’s not a “game-changing” collection of tracks, set to once again reshape her image to better blend in with the shifting pop cultural tide. That being the case, Femme Fetale is exactly what it needs to be. Like many of her contemporaries, Spears’ new release is built around songs constructed by Dr. Luke and Max Martin. Unlike with many of the records that have recently been released by these female “luminaries” working with the hitmakers however, there is a noticeably lack of pretense amongst Femme Fatale‘s tracks that allow them to breathe. The album isn’t a writing team and production crew’s soundtrack to a young vocalist’s romantic rehabilitation and it’s not a bloated collection of pop basics repackaged with an edge and sold as the face of nĂ¼-feminism. Femme Fatale is an album about celebrating the night: music for and about the clubs and the intimate aftermath that follows.

The stadium-sized party anthem “Till the World Ends” and dubstep inspired “Hold It Against Me” each set an immediate standard for the energy level which continues throughout the album. Not unlike the release’s honest motivation, circumventing a potentially questionable back story to sell the record, Femme Fatale often spits in the face of contemporaries whose platforms are guided by pretentious claims of working without vocal enhancement while clearly leaning heavily on pitch shifting. The Ke$ha-penned “Till the World Ends” goes so far as to stagger vocal breaks to help build momentum through to the chorus, using the technique not to correct Spears’ voice, but to accentuate the fade leading into a momentous boom. The song was made to kill in the club and will no doubt continue to do so for years to come.

“Inside Out” teases Matrix-like digital static while vocally invoking a bit of Aaliyah and “I Wanna Go” blends a pulsating beat with an infectious whistling sample which could just as easily have been the basis for an ABBA hit some 30 years ago. “How I Roll” takes a relaxed pace in working bubbling (literally) production under a melody that at times sounds suspiciously similar to Rihanna’s “Disturbia” while adding a fading drawl to Spears’ sugary vocals (“Speakerrrrrrrrrrr”). The hard-snapping “(Drop Dead) Beautiful” settles into place as momentum begins to stall, L.A. rapper Sabi then stepping in for a few forgettable bars: “Got me kinda hot but I ain’t sweatin’ you/Stir me like a pot of vegetables.” It might be valid if one were to complain about Femme Fatale being a bit top top-heavy; the most energetic songs are front-loaded and electricity slowly fades away as the album progresses. Considering the imbalance of momentum however, Femme Fatale still carries on remarkably well throughout the entire release.

“Seal It With a Kiss” is as corny as track as the album has, but it maintains an upbeat rhythm which carries into “Big Fat Bass.” One’s appreciation of “BFB” will largely depend on how you feel about, who wrote, produced and performed on the song. To me personally, at this point in time the man’s career is nothing but one giant ongoing karmic joke, his ever-increasingly popularity serving as some sort of reminder to talented (yet unknown and struggling) musicians everywhere of their apparent misdeeds committed in past lives. All things considered however, it’s likely as tolerable as a post-Fergie track is going to get.

The revving electronics of “Trouble For Me” eventually wind into “Trip to Your Heart”; built on a base of classic house synth, the track utilizes tender vocals which are initially hard to stomach, though the gentle nature of the song goes a long ways in diluting their acidic concentration. “Gasoline” works unremarkable lyrics (“My heart only runs on supreme/So hot, give me your gasoline”) around the album’s final energetic track before a flute (!) floats into a thick bass punch in “Criminal.” The track continues as an acoustic guitar accompanies Spears while she moans, “Mama I’m in love with a criminal/And this type of love isn’t rational—it’s physical.” The unpredictable twist in pace and tone add a refreshing conclusion to the otherwise boisterous collection of songs.

Though lyrical depth and well-crafted production haven’t exactly been mainstays of Britney Spears’ lengthy musical career, her albums haven’t exactly been the most consistent pieces of modern pop music either. With Femme Fatale the former is clearly of little consideration—there is no claim made toward any real meaning to the music and, “Criminal” included, the vocals largely serve as simply another instrument: Spears’ purpose on the album is to sound good with the music that surrounds her. But it’s the music that surrounds her that sets Femme Fatale apart from many of the singer’s past recordings. Though not entirely consistent, it is steady in delivering track after musically relevant track of delightfully vibrant music which pleasantly complements Spears’ contributions. Once again, the album is exactly what it needed to be; which is simply to say that Femme Fatale might actually be worthy of its mighty hype.

The Non-Commissioned Officers “Fire Standing Still” (Influenza)

Simply put, had it not been for a bit of chance the Non-Commissioned Officers would not exist. A phone call from an old friend about an indie film that was set to be produced in Nashville—which would become Make-Out with Violence—drew brothers Eric and Jordan Lehning together from opposite sides of the country, and out of the scoring and subsequent performances in support the film, the band began to take form. Now seven members deep, the group is releasing a new album, Money Looking For Thieves, which continues to find the band bridging pop elements with guitar-driven rock; not quite a “knock out rock assault,” but not some lazy noodling either. One such track from the band’s new release that exemplifies this coming together of influences is “Fire Standing Still,” a rhythmically tireless piece that isn’t above meandering between genres as the song transitions in and out of its chorus. In this edition of Culture Bully’s Influenza series, lead vocalist Eric Lehning elaborates on the creation of “Fire Standing Still,” getting philosophical in describing the evolution of the song’s lyrics. While Money Looking For Thieves won’t be released until March 14, the album is presently streaming in its entirety over at the Non-Comm’s Facebook page. The band will be holding a CD release show for the album tomorrow night (March 11) at Mercy Lounge.


Where: The night before the album has to be mastered and I’m still working out the lyrics for “Fire Standing Still.”

Why: Because the last draft of lyrics was about Joan of Arc and sucked.

I got to the first chorus and Jordan stopped the track. I’ve never abandoned a castle to the sea so swiftly as I fled into the office to unravel newer better words from the music we’d made up. Jordan suggested repeating something for the first couple measures of each verse. Once my own tension aligned with the tension in the music it seemed pretty clear that describing events which imply a narrative was going to be more efficacious than trying to sing a short story. So I just rambled about tension that has no conscious release. Maybe it’s about hell too. The eternal flame can mean hell or undying love. One and the same when sorrowfully exiting the mortal coil. At least according to that movie, Jacob’s Ladder. Maybe going to heaven or hell is an arduously slow process of aeons. Like grade school. Then one day you wake up and it’s time to pay your taxes. Or you have a moment of clarity and realize you’re burning in eternity or bathed in the holy light. I’m not sure there’s an adequate climax for metaphysical tension, at least not in this dimension.

William Tyler Interview

Last year’s release from Nashville’s William Tyler, Behold the Spirit, conjures immediate feelings of warmth. Without a rough edge in sight, the recording serves as one massive gallery, each track standing as a unique showcase for a thought, style, or emotion. Much of the power of the album comes as a result of the years of practice and training the guitarist has invested in his craft — while Behold the Spirit is the first recording of Tyler’s to be released under his own name, he has previously performed and recorded with the likes of Lambchop, the Silver Jews, and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, not to mention his previous solo work under the Paper Hats moniker. Pitchfork referred to the instrumental Behold the Spirit as a “sterling mixture of bravado and dexterity” — words that are true, yet only go so far in defining the remarkable craftsmanship behind Tyler’s immensely skilled fingerpicking. Recently speaking to Tyler via email, we discussed his style, the recording of Behold the Spirit, his memories of Charlie Louvin & a couple of items that remain on his bucket list.

NPR recently used the term “hired gun” when referring to your career—how you’ve floated around and performed with such a broad cast of musicians. Looking back on what you’ve accomplished thus far, what would you label yourself as in those terms?

William Tyler: Well, I hesitate to resort to weapons as metaphors, but I would certainly contend that I have spent many years in Nashville as a session player, both on the road and in the studio. In situations like my experiences with the Silver Jews or Lambchop it’s harder to define the exact role of a “sideman.” Obviously there are contours as to what is delegated and what is implied when you are in a band with a figure like Kurt [Wagner] or David [Berman]. I have been fortunate to usually be in musical situations where there was plenty of room for the players to assert themselves, more like playing in a jazz ensemble than a typical rock or country group.

Having played with so many different people, how did you go about deciding who would accompany you on YOUR album; the players who drift in and out of “Terrace of the Leper King” or the drummer on “The Green Pastures” for instance.

Honestly since I have been so blessed to play with a variety of musicians, many of whom live in Nashville, it wasn’t hard to find help! Scott Martin plays drums on the song you refer to. He is an astounding talent, plays drums with Lambchop, Cortney Tidwell, and a variety of Nashville ensembles like Forest Bride and Hands Off Cuba. With “Terrace” I had the idea to send the tapes to my friend Alex McManus, who plays guitar in Lambchop as well but who lives in Omaha. Alex has always been a hero of mine, a totally original guitar player and multi-instrumentalist. I just sent him the rough tracks and let him go to town, which he thankfully did, via brass and violin.

Is there any sort of narrative that floated through your head when recording the album? Do you feel like you’re ever trying to tell a story through your music?

Yes. Place and history are important themes to me. So are mysticism and language. Whenever they can intersect I find a lot of inspiration, as in the Aramaic speaking Christian enclaves that have buried themselves into the mountains outside of Damascus. Or the forgotten alphabet of the early Mormons, called “Deseret.” Or in a bizarre, hand illustrated nineteenth century spiritualist text “channeled” by a nineteenth century dentist, which is what “Oahspe” is based on. And so on…

Not being a musician myself, I really have no barometer for something like this, and for whatever reason I perceive this to be more difficult when dealing with a purely instrumental album, but how did you know when Behold the Spirit was complete?

Adam Bednarik (the engineer/co-producer) and I spent a lot of time going over each song and trying to deduce which ones needed embellishment and which ones would suffer from it. The recording of the album took a while, since we did it by financial necessity in a rather piecemeal fashion. I think letting the tracks sit for some time helped us with the perspective on what was too much in regards to arrangement. Songs like “Tears and Saints” sounded better left alone and then ones like “Green Pastures” that I really wanted to build up.

I believe you had the honor of playing with Charlie Louvin before he passed. Did you ever get to speak to him on a personal basis and is there anything you personally take away from his life?

I knew Charlie through the sessions for one of the Tompkins Square albums he did a couple of years ago. It was a collection of murder ballads, but throughout the course of the recording Charlie would come up with various off the cuff tunes he wanted to try. Old Louvin Brothers songs, country standards, etc. It was a dream realized. The Louvin Brothers are one of the only recording acts I honestly never get tired of listening to. They always provoke something pure and spiritual in me, some combination of totally sublime harmony and often tragically bleak lyrical themes. Working with him was fun for the most part. He cracked a lot of jokes and smoked a lot of cigarettes. I do remember him referring to gigs as “work.” As in “Where we working tonight?” as opposed to “Where are we playing tonight?”

I read a little about how you settled on using longer acrylic nails for your picking hand. That’s just one aspect of finding your comfort zone, but do you still finding yourself picking up new techniques or approaches to music or are you slowly settling into a pattern of consistency?

I think anytime I find myself settling into a pattern of consistency I start panicking. So while, yes, there is a certain framework of tools and methods that you need in order to be able to do linear things like touring or even recording an album, the musicians/writers/humans I most admire are the ones who refuse predictability. That’s not to say I won’t become incredibly predictable! I perhaps already have. But it’s hard to separate things like using a certain pick, or string gauge, or in my case acrylic nails, which are all tools, from things like finger picking patterns, tunings, or a new instrument, which I feel are all methods. You need your methods to be constantly evolving alongside new tools.

When you began toying with the idea of playing instruments you weren’t locked into the guitar; do you still experiment with other instruments at all? Think you’ll be transferring your skills to turntablism any time soon?

I just got a pedal steel. I told my parents two of my bucket list goals were to learn French and the pedal steel guitar. And I have a feeling neither one is going to be easy! I would like to move in different directions. It’s funny that you mention turntablism, because while I wouldn’t claim to begin to understand that world, I see some continuities between the folk music communities and the electronic communities. My friend Volker Zander, who released the first Paper Hats album, lives in Cologne and knows a lot of the Kompakt/A Musik/Sonig folks. Minimal techno to me isn’t really that far removed from folk guitar, it’s just that the tools and the instruments are different.

Terry Fox

I just finished watching the film about Terry Fox that Steve Nash helped create for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series (Into the Wind). His is a story that I’ve taken for granted—being Canadian it has always been there as long as I’ve been alive—but I suppose I was never of the mindset to appreciate the magnitude of what the man did. Looking back though, I’m not sure I ever really knew.

In the film’s closing moments a comment is made to the regard of us, as Canadians, being in an odd situation where we are constantly struggling to find our sense of identity. This is something I’ve thought a lot about. The longstanding American joke of us being tied solely to “eh”s and “aboot”s aside, the fact remains that there is so little that can be held onto, culturally, that is specifically Canadian that it can create a spiritual void in the construction of building a sense of self. There was a Molson commercial a few years back which tapped into this, but its popularity only aided in the absurdity of having to base one’s sense of national pride on calling a wool cap a tuque.

The purpose of bringing this up isn’t to begin to dissect any personal issues I’ve had with finding my own sense of self (a Canadian born to American parents who is raised under American customs while attempting to maintain an identity that reflects his homeland… how could that possibly lead to internal conflict?), but only to say that I feel now as though I was done a disservice along the way by not being reminded time and time again as to WHY Terry Fox is important. Perhaps at some point in elementary school I was shown a filmstrip or as a young child watched something on television attempting to explain why Terry Fox is important, but I don’t recall.

What I do know is that Terry Fox’s story offers something that isn’t given as much importance as it should. A young man, barely into his 20s, having had his right leg amputated due to cancer that had grown in it, overcoming that horrendous burden and pushing on to so something extraordinary. It has been nearly 31 years since Terry dipped his foot in the Atlantic before taking off on his journey. While his physical goal—running across Canada—was not met, Terry ran 3339 miles in 143 days before having to cut his attempt short. He didn’t stop because of injury or of lack of will. He stopped because cancer had returned, and had spread to his lungs. In those 31 years that passed, the Terry Fox Foundation has raised over 500 million dollars for cancer research. Perhaps this is just my own blind eye toward history becoming more apparent, but I still feel as though any point of celebration such as this man’s legacy should be reminded to near-redundancy. How this legendary story of triumph isn’t a platform for honest national pride and honored at every given opportunity by every media outlet worth a damn (not simply once a year, mind you), I don’t know.

To stand as a symbol of national pride, I feel as though that symbol—be it a person or an event—has to be something that can be proudly broadcast to the world as something that anyone anywhere can identify with. Terry’s test, not only of will but of his physical self, is something that anyone anywhere has to respect. Terry died at the age of 22. Now that I’m familiar with the man’s story, I hope that I can share it as not only a source of human triumph, but as a source of my native country’s symbols of identity. For myself, I hope that I can add that bit of history to the stack of information filed under: “If they can do it, you can do it too.”

Lupe Fiasco “Lasers” Review

It has been over two and a half years since Lupe Fiasco wrapped on the first tracks for what would become his new album, Lasers. To call what followed “drama” might be an understatement: Atlantic rejected the tracks, froze Lupe’s production budget, and the emcee requested to be let go. Atlantic refused to either drop Lupe or his album, fans protested in the artist’s defense, and the label conceded to release the record if Lupe made some serious concessions. He did. If you’re looking for a detailed history lesson, Ology has you covered.

It’s what’s happened recently that adds the most interesting twist to the story, however. Upon Lasers hitting the Internet, fans called bullshit and rejected it, and Lupe responded, commenting via Twitter, “I never thought lasers would inspire so much negativity.” He continued, “Reading the comments and reactions is crushing.” Having already spoken in detail to Complex magazine about his feelings on the recording, Lupe has gone well out of his way to position himself as the victim throughout the entire process. Revealing how little of the album was his doing, and not Atlantic’s, Lupe explained, “A lot of the songs that are on the album, I’m kinda neutral to. Not that I don’t like them, or that I hate them, it’s just I know the process that went behind it. I know the sneaky business deal that went down behind this song, or the artist or singer or songwriter who wrote this hook and didn’t want to give me this song in the first place.” Lupe concluded by putting his stamp of disapproval on Lasers, “As opposed something like The Cool, which is more of my own blood, sweat, and tears, and my own control. With this record, I’m little bit more neutral as to the love for the record.”

So going into the album, be it as a new listener, a casual follower or a downright fanatic, each individual’s view of Lasers has a likely chance of being tilted due to the years of history behind it before a single note is heard. If you’re a new listener, the hope is that the music speaks for itself though, and the reality is that despite all the unfortunate bullshit that’s been handed to the artist the past few years, the music here is still the most important aspect of Lasers. Unfortunately, Lupe and his more negative fans were largely correct in their assessments: Lasers is no where near the album it could have been.

Opening with “Letting Go,” Lupe rhymes about The Struggle while a fairly run-of-the-mill track plays beneath him; nothing unusual for R&B rappers, but something that doesn’t exactly represent what people have come to expect from the talented emcee. “Till I Get There” utilizes loose boxing metaphors while Lupe himself fails to come out swinging with his rhymes, “For the sake of rhyming let’s just say butterfly-E/The truth stings like Muhammad Ali/I tell ‘em tell ‘em don’t homicide me.” “Out of My Head” does the radio-friendly thing, “Coming Up” has a passable bounce, and “Break the Chain” awkwardly dips into techno as Lupe accents the song’s fast beat with a phonetically popping rhythm; as with many of the albums tracks, he doesn’t offer much with the lyrics themselves, however. “Beautiful Lasers” teases substance—the song thematically leaning on the struggle of being consumed by darkness—but it is largely washed away by overwhelming autotune. And while not even John Legend can make things right with “Never Forget You,” nothing ultimately comes close to “I Don’t Wanna Care Right Now” and “State Run Radio”; the weakest tracks of all.

Again though, personal bias of what Lasers ought to be will probably sway your opinion here. If you’re looking at this with little to no expectation or understanding of what Lupe has done in the past, Lasers has a good chance of translating as an average, if not above average, pop-rap album. It has some solid hooks and plenty of salvageable bars along the way to save it from completely drowning. But if you have the remotest sense the rapper is capable of, you might be led to feel like Lasers is an album “that Will.I.Am wouldn’t be caught dead singing along to.” Regardless, there are still some highlights along the way that both sides are likely to agree on.

While its not exactly groundbreaking musically, lyrically the album gets no better than with “Words I Never Said.” Lending support to the theorists who question the legitimacy of the 9/11 attacks and the World Trade Center collapse, condemning the current administration, and lashing out at mainstream media’s increasingly flimsy coverage, Lupe does something with the track that isn’t really heard again on Lasers: he actually feels it. These are honest thoughts genuinely flowing from the mind of the artist here. This isn’t to downplay the suicidal themes in “Beautiful Lasers,” the general positivity of “The Show Goes On,” or the interesting reflection of historical “what-if” scenarios in “All Black Everything,” but Lasers’ single most sincere track is “Words I Never Said.” Sadly, there are 11 others nestled tightly around it.

All history aside, if this is the worst case scenario of what Lasers could sound like, purists might balk at the idea that it isn’t actually all that bad. After all, there are still positive aspects that can be focused on with nearly each track; a cup is half-full kind of mentality. But even when trying to check expectation at the door, Lasers is still no where close to a solid album, and fails to genuinely reflect the talent level of the man whose name is stamped on it. Whether or not it’s his album or one that he made under the direction of the label, at the end of the day it’s still going to count as an enormous strike against for the still widely-acclaimed emcee. In the end, what happens next will be most important for Lupe though: if he’s able to step back up and deliver on a level that his fans expect of him, all will be good. But if he drops another Lasers, “fiasco” might better serve to define the long-term state of the man’s career.