By David Downs Express Music Editor
The Strokes First Impressions of Earth When did it become uncool to rock out? As in run into the pit, dig your shoulders into people's backs, muscle forward, get to the railings, and just rrrrrrawwwwk so hard that security double-teams you? Nowadays, everyone thinks they're renting a little piece of concert floor, and God forbid you enter their personal space to get a closer view. If you see people like this, ask yourself what the Strokes would do, and start throwing some elbows. Their third release expertly shreds and throbs while lead singer Julian Casablancas e-nun-ci-ates four syl-la-bles per mi-nute like a lounge singer. There are at least six great songs on this album. Cherry-pick them and combine with past releases for an Ã¼ber-Strokes mixtape. (RCA) Link to Strokes stream and site
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs Show Your Bones Vice magazine's latest issue says that "weird girls are so much better than normal girls. You're gay if you don't marry one." After falling in love with the second album from New York art rock trio the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, fronted by weird woman Karen O, I'm inclined to agree. Sure, she cuts her hair with scissors and a cereal bowl, and sometimes wears Saran Wrap onstage. But her voice has this combination of slutty experience, exposed confidence, and sheer listenability that says, "You could go home with me if you'd stop being such a pussy about everything." I didn't think CDs could wear out from too much use. I now have evidence to the contrary. (Interscope) Link to Yeah Yeah Yeahs site Link to Yeahs stream
Thom Yorke The Eraser More than 750,000 people bought this inaccessible gem of electronic bleeps, bloops, and haunting vocals this year, so all you bastards who say that electronica is dead, well, you're still right for the most part. However, restored is my faith in the sensibility of the buying public, which seems to be as paranoid and nervous about these modern times as Thom. There's no time to analyze/to think things through/to make sense, he sings on "Analyse." Other songs reference atomic destruction, floods, or the sounds of an electrocardiogram. Seriously, half this album sounds like a Commodore 64 in a bitchy mood, and yet Yorke pulls it off with style.(XL) Link to site/stream
Matmos The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast We all have that friend who's into underground Japanese psych-rock, Brazilian favela reggae, Antarctic drum 'n' bass ... everything. We hate that guy. But if you're going to get weird, at least buy Bay Area with SF avant-garde sound production duo Matmos, two dudes from San Francisco who have much bigger brains than most and an even larger appetite for a weird Friday night. Some go out for drinks; Matmos plays a wet cow uterus like a bagpipe until their eyes water from the formaldehyde. On ... Beast, the two sculpt ragtime, surf rock, film noir jazz, drum 'n' bass, disco, and several other genres out of layered, found sounds. Go get your freak on. (Matador) Link to Matmos site Link to Matmos stream
Bonobo Days to Come A bonobo is a rather affable, horny ape that has more sex and less fights than any other type of chimp, is one of our closest relatives, and is totally going extinct. This Bonobo, however, is a rather affable, largely unknown English downtempo DJ on the Ninja Tune label alongside Amon Tobin and Kid Koala. He put out the sleeper sensation of the year this fall, and though I had no suspicion he might swing into the top ten, he refused to leave my CD player, despite repeated efforts to put something else in. Why? Because this is music for life. We all love to head-bang or shout Bitch! alongside Too $hort, but for the other 98 percent of life that's cleaning the house, cooking dinner, doing the dishes, and Doing It -- Bonobo's your guy. We're talking downtempo, heavily instrumental grooves spiced with samples and vocalists Bajka and Fink. Be a smart, affable, sexual monkey. Get Bonobo. (Ninja Tune) Link to Bonobo site Link to Bonobo stream
DJ Shadow The Outsider Turf Talk and Keak da Sneak! [snap!] /Turf Talk and Keak da Sneak! [snap!] This little bit of audio Ebola from "3 Freaks" requires minimal exposure yet completely infects the brain with no hope of recovery. Such is the nature of hyphy, Oakland's 2006 rap phenomenon. Marin County producer DJ Shadow forsook his reputation for huge hip-hop beats and lush, evocative instrumentals Ã la Endtroducing with The Outsider's handful of hyphy bangers, featuring a bunch of local guests. But Shadow also does punk rock, Coldplay ballads, world-music instrumentals, and "Broken Levee Blues," which has some of the year's dopest guitar work. Plus "Backstage Girl" is the 2006 winner for "Best Rap About Hooking Up With Sluts from MySpace." (UMVD)
Gnarls Barkley St. Elsewhere Like heroin, you're either on it, or off it. There are no weekend warriors with the Gnarls. Mainline it and enjoy the requiem for crappy pop-music pretenders. (Downtown) Link to GB site Link to G.B. stream
Jolie Holland Springtime Can Kill You Recipe for a good memory: Road trip up the Northern California coast; rent a cabin with the lady or gent of your choice; light the woodburning stove; slide this into your disc player, hit "repeat all," and don't touch the boom box for the rest of the weekend. San Francisco star Jolie Holland's youth explains the fresh angle she brings to quaint country folk. This slow-moving guitar-y album grows on you like moss -- preferably undisturbed in the dark. (Anti) Holland site link Holland site stream
Kid Koala Your Mom's Favorite DJ Early November at San Francisco's Mezzanine, and a little Asian guy in a white T-shirt is spinning three turntables simultaneously with no samplers and no headphones. Attendees are so blown away they forget to dance. Witnessing a Kid Koala set will completely reformat your understanding of turntablism, and Your Mom's Favorite DJ is an acceptable approximation of that experience. (Outside) Link to Koala stream Link to Koala site
Ramblin' Jack Elliott I Stand Alone And this year's award for Best Song to Feature a Dying Dog Named "Blue" goes to Woody Guthrie protégé Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Old enough to teach Bob Dylan, Elliott cut this disc for the Anti- label (The Coup) so he could buy a nicer Winnebago. Help him get into a forty-footer and help yourself to the funniest, saddest, most compelling folk album of the year. Period. (Anti) Link to Elliott site Link to Elliott stream
By Nate Seltenrich Express Critic
Comets on Fire Avatar Are the members of Comets on Fire totally out of their gourd? Perhaps. Or maybe they're in complete command of Avatar's blown-out rock fury -- tangled and knotted and blasted by design. "Dogwood Rust" and "Holy Teeth" suggest the former, but mellower blues-tinged numbers "Sour Smoke" and "Lucifer's Memory" seem to say everything's okay. The real test is for the listener to cede control to a band that proves in its opening song to be hell-bent on beautiful, psychedelic chaos. (Sub Pop) Link to Comet's site Link to "Dogwood Rust" MP3
TV on the Radio Return to Cookie Mountain When it comes to Brooklyn's TV on the Radio, most folks fall into one of two camps: They know nothing of the band, or they're sick of hearing about them. This year's art-rock indie darlings have released a triumph so loaded with tension that it takes real work to unpack. The band makes the task fun through stunning vocals, beats, and instrumental breaks that send listeners' souls straight to Cookie Mountain. Soon a third faction shall emerge: those who never want to leave. (4AD) Link to TVOTR site Link to streaming TVOTR
Crime in Choir Trumpery Metier Instrumental prog-rock is a tough sell, but this San Francisco sextet should get the kids begging for synthesizers and saxophones this year. Improving on 2004's acclaimed The Hoop, Trumpery Metier sets a new standard for the genre while continuing to mix math-rock and free jazz into an already experimental palette. Across 42 busily indulgent minutes, Crime in Choir changes modes and time signatures like so many itchy socks. The result is as puzzling as it is arresting. (Gold Standard Laboratories) Link to Crime site Link to Crime stream
Supersystem A Million Microphones
Songs about eagles mating with men, lakes running through valleys, and kids getting high on mushrooms help plant A Million Microphones firmly in this year's top ten. Supersystem pinned itself on the tail of the dance-punk movement with its 2005 debut Always Never Again, but unlike !!!, the Rapture, and Radio 4, it never sacrifices melody for rhythm. Microphones is a case study in cool; disaffected vocals and tasteful pilfering from world and electronic music guarantee a long shelf life. (Touch and Go) Link to Supersystem Link to Supersystem stream
The Thermals The Body, the Blood, the Machine Praise the Sex Pistols for inventing three-chord rabble-rousing. Thank the Thermals for learning to play their instruments. Across The Body, the Blood, the Machine, the Portland trio delivers antireligion and antigovernment messages like grenades wrapped in bacon. Hutch Harris' urgent vocals tumble atop poppy melodies and punk-fueled rhythms. And now we've gotta run/A giant fist is out to crush us, he sings in the hook-heavy "A Pillar of Salt." It's so simple yet so very right. (Sub Pop) Link to the Thermals site
Two Gallants What the Toll Tells If not the best local release of the year, certainly the most anticipated. A headlining performance at Noise Pop, coverage in the Chronicle, and a contract with Conor Oberst's Saddle Creek label elevated the duo's profile as well as expectations for its sophomore album. What the Toll Tells delivers country-tinged indie rock at its own pace; four of the nine songs exceed eight minutes and none offers cheap thrills. Musically it can soothe and thrash. Lyrically, it's deep as a well. (Saddle Creek) Link to www.twogallants.com Link to "Las Cruces Jail" MP3 Link to "Waves of Grain" MP3
Trainwreck Riders Lonely Road Revival Trainwreck Riders rule for anyone who loves country rock but can't bear Two Gallants' literary lyrics and extended tomes. The two bands are close friends and frequent tourmates (hell, they got Tasered and arrested together by Houston police), but the likenesses end there. The Riders are all spit and whiskey, playing music cleverly -- and tellingly -- dubbed cowpunk. Lonely Road Revival could soundtrack a moshpit or a hoedown; both Southern soul and showy solos have their place, but neither emerges victorious. (Alive) Link to Trainwreck site Link to "Xmas time blues" MP3 Link to "In and Out of Love" MP3
Optimus Rhyme School the Indie Rockers Lay underground rap on indie rock and what do you get? Seattle act Optimus Rhyme (nerd reference number one), and some of the most creative hip-hop this side of Us3. MC Wheelie Cyberman raps with aplomb about moderating an Internet message board (number two) and possessing massive Ping-Pong skills (three) over live guitar riffs that sound culled from original Nintendo tunes (four). But the best thing about School the Indie Rockers is you don't need to be a geek to grasp its genius. (Narcofunk) Link to Optimus site Link to "Just Forget It" MP3
Slackers Peculiar Yeah, we know -- ska ain't cool. Get over it, and then check out the Slackers, the best ska band playing today. Peculiar doesn't stop there, fusing rocksteady, reggae, and rock into a deeply satisfying and stompin' good time. The record single-handedly trounces the skanking-and-checkerboard-Vans scene of the mid-'90s revival. Political songs like "Propaganda" and "International War Criminal" lend Peculiar real weight in serious times. Phenomenal sound quality and a hybrid live and studio recording method only bolster its landmark status. (Hellcat) Link to "86 the Mayo" MP3 Link to "Propaganda" MP3
Silversun Pickups Carnavas Fuzzier than your favorite stuffed animal, Silversun Pickups play spacey alt-rock stained with shoegaze and a modern indie-rock aesthetic. The band borrowed not only the Smashing Pumpkins' sound, but also its initials and employment of a female bassist. You'd better believe Nikki Monniger can hold down a mean groove. Keyboardist Joe Lester lays down the requisite hypnotic texture; Christopher Guanlao presides over a kit with an impossibly tall crash cymbal; and Brian Aubert ties everything together with earnest vocals about who knows what. (Dangerbird) Link to Silversun site
You know a local hip-hop trend has cracked the national consciousness when the Associated Press starts keeping a death toll on it. (At the moment, that total number of people who have died attempting to pull off the stunt in which you let your car drive itself while you dance around it, on it, or hang out the window is: two. One guy was from Stockton, the other was from our hyphy neighbor to the north. No, not Richmond. Canada.) The AP's article handily explains the role of YouTube in bringing the ghost-riding trend to the burbs, and, as is befitting an article that has to explain what the heck is going on in the Bay Area to the rest of the nation, recaps the history of sideshow vs. cops, and concludes with a ringing proposition by Oakland's Mistah F.A.B. to turn sideshows into organized, pay-to-drive events. "It would be like a ghetto NASCAR," he tells the AP. Nice.
Spike Lee, in his 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing, managed to examine the whole of black thought on the race question. You had the stuttering savant Smiley, Sweet Dick Willie and his streetcorner sages, the drunken but wise and heroic Mayor, and Buggin' Out, the hotheaded intellectual with the soon-to-be-fatal propensity for fighting symbolic battles over matters of dubious importance -- in this case the lack of brothers on the wall of fame inside Sal's Pizzeria.
You also had Radio Raheem -- the embodiment of stoic black strength. The hulking Raheem wore two four-fingered rings -- one bearing the word "love," the other "hate." The very center of his existence was his giant boombox, on which he blasted Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" at top volume throughout that too-hot day. And the song itself is a character -- it appears in several scenes and acts differently in each of them to move the action along. Indeed, the song's death is the very climax of the movie -- when Sal seizes his Louisville Slugger and smashes Raheem's radio, it touches off the death of Raheem and the riot that changed life on that fictional Bed-Stuy corner forever.
"Fight the Power," the finest song of 1989, which just happened to appear in the year's best movie, was only about half a Public Enemy song. Though there are so many samples of the Bomb Squad's apocalyptic funk track that no one can remember what exactly was layered where, the music (if not the rage of some of the lyrics) sounded like nothing so much as the distillation of the very essence of James Brown. Raheem was black power, and that power was fueled in no small part by the music that James Brown created.
Brown's words seldom reached the poetic heights of other musicians in the black power movement -- he wasn't as articulate Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott-Heron or Marvin Gaye. But the Soul Brother Number One didn't have to be. It wasn't the way he phrased his words that mattered. It was, instead, what he said and the way he said it. He could express four hundred years of slavery and apartheid (and the intent to do something about it) with one wailed "Hyyyyeeeeaaaaah-oooo" or he could just simply, if revolutionarily, command people to "Say It Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud."
He wasn't as militant as some in the Black Power movement wanted him to be. Far from it. James Brown was never one to follow anybody's movement -- he only founded them. He was a big supporter of centrist Democrat Hubert Humphrey and later, like Sammy Davis Jr. and Jim Brown, went so far as to endorse Richard Nixon. (Like Elvis, whom Brown truly respected as an artist, Brown appreciated what Nixon told him he was doing about keeping people off drugs. Yes, I see the irony here, but both Brown and Presley were nothing if not sincere.)
And he also caught plenty of flak from more militant blacks for his explicitly patriotic 1968 spoken-word song "America Is My Home," which came out a few weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King. At almost the exact same time, he had released the landmark funk jam "Licking Stick -- Licking Stick."
This was the year America burned. Riots raged across the country; King's death was followed quickly by that of RFK. The Tet Offensive had just shaken American confidence about the war in Vietnam to the core, and black soldiers were dying in numbers that were out of whack with their representation in the American population. And James Brown went and released a song about how much he loved America. The movement -- some of them the Buggin' Outs of their day -- was not happy.
As Brown wrote in his autobiography The Godfather of Soul, they'd ask him how he could do a song like that after what happened to Dr King. Brown would try to explain that he "didn't mean the government was my home, I meant that land and the people. They didn't want to hear that."
And Brown's personality was too complicated for the lyrics of any one song to capture. Most of the time, you could hear what he was trying to say in the music. 1968 was no exception. To Brown, "America Is My Home" was only a fraction of what he was thinking. He unleashed all of what he was feeling on "Licking Stick." "Meanwhile, my music was getting funkier and funkier..." He wrote. "I took [my music] even further with 'Licking Stick -- Licking Stick.' Pee Wee Ellis, [Bobby] Byrd and I put it together, and I released it at the same time as 'America Is My Home.' It was another one-chord song like "I Can't Stand Myself,' but it had even more of a funk groove. It was a rhythm section tune and exactly what the title said, a licking stick. If the people who were on me about 'America Is My Home' wanted to know who James Brown was, all they had to do was listen to 'Licking Stick.' My music said where I stood."
Once, after appearing at a photo op with LBJ, he was asked by columnist Earl Wilson if he was worried that he would get branded as an Uncle Tom. "No," Brown replied. Wilson asked why not. "Because I'm not."
His music was who he was. He helped prod old-school R&B into soul and pretty much invented funk, lock, stock and smoking barrel. And for the record, funk didn't begin with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Brown himself said in his book that his 1964 single "Out of Sight" was the Rosetta Stone of funk -- the first recording where he initiated his Picasso-like approach to something like cubist rhythm: "'Out of Sight' was another beginning, musically and professionally....You can hear the band and me start to move in a whole other direction rhythmically. The horns, the guitar, the vocals, everything was starting to be used to establish all different kinds of rhythms at once. On that record you can hear my voice alternate with the horns to create various rhythmic accents. I was trying to get every aspect of the production to contribute to the rhythmic patterns."
The music that followed from "Out of Sight" -- a progression from there to "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)" to "Ain't That a Groove" and "Cold Sweat" to "Lickin' Stick" and the "Funky Drummer," the "Popcorn" jams and beyond -- lay dormant in mainstream America for a few years. These were the peak disco years -- roughly 1976 to 1981 -- some of the bleakest years in the history of African American music. It's been written in a few of his obits that he was a forefather of disco. If so, it was a bastard child he didn't want to claim. He hated the simplicity of the dumbed-down beats -- to him, Disco must have sounded as bad as a Westheimer strip mall would have looked to Michelangelo. "Lightweight," "didn't make any sense," "watered-down," and "a lawyer's recording" were just a few of the epithets he hurled at disco in his autobiography. And then, with the invention of hip-hop, James Brown's spirit came roaring back with a vengeance like few in our nation's history.
Go back and listen, first to the 1963 recording of Live at the Apollo, perhaps the longest stretch of pure adrenaline in American music. Then check in on his recordings from a few years later and listen as he changed the way the world danced for the next 40 years and counting. And even that sells him short. He provided the meatiest musical sustenance to a generation you could imagine, and by doing so, moved mountains. By changing the way we felt, about ourselves and about other people, he changed the way we thought.
Brown mostly let his music do the talking for him. Though he had his failings in his personal life, there was no hate in his message to the world. In the late '60s, he could have started riots with nothing more than a few inflammatory words. He didn't -- unlike his spiritual descendent Radio Raheem, love always trumped hate in his soul.
In the end, he transcended the world of mere mortals. I saw him at a shamefully sparsely attended show at what was then Aerial Theater downtown in about 1999, and by the end of the show, which I had expected to expose him to be a doddering old man well past his glory days, I found myself pressing toward the stage with a few hundred others who all wanted to touch his hand, or the hem of his garment, or something. (Never happened to me at any show before or since.)
Brown, never one for unnecessary modesty, knew he had Christ-like powers on stage. As he put it in the liner notes to Star Time, his box set: ''JAMES BROWN is a concept, a vibration, a dance. It's not me, the man. JAMES BROWN is a freedom I created for humanity.''
And all humanity -- black, white, brown, yellow, purple with pink hair and green breath -- is immeasurably the better for it. From every mountainside, let James Brown ring.
By Cole Haddon Express Critic
Dixie Chicks Taking the Long Way
With Taking the Long Way, the Chicks' fourth and best album, the best-selling female band in history turned its back on country music (but mostly just the red states) and, in the process, made one of the purest country albums of the past two decades. That reads like a bold statement, but consider the almost absolute absence of social and political commentary from country since our old outlaws went out of fashion and started dying. It's not as if Toby Keith or Big & Dumb are picking up that slack. (Sony) Dixie Chicks site Dixie Chicks stream
Two Gallants What the Toll Tells What the Toll Tells opens with a bluesy foot-stomper called "Las Cruces Jail" that sounds like Jack White's most infectious work. Two Gallants share some of the Stripes' garage-spare, lo-fi sound, but they consistently get right what the Stripes get wrong. Their often-epic-length numbers work so well because of singer Adam Stephens' narrative passages that, in their folk-tinged Delta blues, bear the holy stamp of Saint Dylan and actually originate ideas rather than regurgitate those of other musicians, like a certain Detroiter we all know. (Saddle Creek)
Decoder Ring Somersault: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack The Somersault soundtrack was this Australian band's first full-length release and its first outing with singer Lenka. The combination of the two -- a mish-mash of synthetic orchestrations, indie-rock guitars, and Lenka's ethereal, often haunting voice -- is sublime in the way that word is supposed to be used. A lot of bands try to evoke emotion, whereas this outfit creates them out of thin air. In fact, without its musical narration, Somersault would've had no real soul at all. (Bella Union) Decoder Ring site Decoder Ring stream
Justin Timberlake FutureSex/LoveSounds Perhaps the greatest mystery surrounding the release of Timberlake's sophomore solo release is where the hell "sexy" went before JT brought it back. Wherever it was, almost every track here so exemplifies "sexy" that the album should come wrapped in prophylactics. A few songs should even be doubled up. Sure, most of the lyrics are so absolutely mindless, you wonder if JT should get to know "literacy" a little better than "sexy," but, after listening to this dense collage of futuristic New Wave, hip-hop, soul, and dance-pop, you begin to realize that maybe Timberlake is his generation's Prince. (Jive) J.T. site and stream
We Are Scientists With Love and Squalor We Are Scientists aren't actually scientists, even though they play the geeky, lab-coat types; their complete lack of self-importance, in fact, is what makes their dance-punk experiments succeed. Call them the next Franz Ferdinand, for people who don't like Franz Ferdinand. That is to say, they make you want to dance, they make you want to pump your fists, and they want you to feel good and maybe even laugh while doing it. (Virgin) Scientists stream/site
Chris Knight Enough Rope Knight can't get a break. Despite his albums being some of the best-reviewed in country music today, he can't get a label to back him up and so he's resorted to releasing his latest -- and possibly best -- independently. Enough Rope's songs, often grim, often dark, are guitar-fueled odes to hell-raising, blue-collar America, and the death of the rural American dream. They tackle reality in a way Merle Haggard would approve of, even if his candor makes Haggard look uplifting in comparison. (Emergent) Link to stream/site
The Concretes In Colour The Concretes' career has been almost as unlucky as Knight's and now, with the departure of lead singer Victoria Bergsman, it seems unlikely this chamber-pop collective will ever release an album as lush, beautiful, or uplifting as this. Harmonies, guitar, brass, and mandolin collide with simple but quirky lyrics to help broaden the dimensions of the current indie-pop movement. With song titles like "Sunbeams," can you really imagine not wanting to dance through fields of dandelions after listening to this? (Astralwerks) The Concretes site The Concretes stream
Ben Harper Both Sides of the Gun With Both Sides of the Gun, Harper had the audacity to release a two-disc CD with only enough songs to really fit one CD. Except, of course, the first disc is about the love of his family, the promise of new days to come, juxtaposed with the second disc that tackles the singer-songwriter's anger over the world he won't be able to keep that family safe from. In other words, optimism versus pessimism. Believe it or not, it works, too. (Virgin) Ben Harper site Ben Harper stream
Rainer Maria Catastrophe Keeps Us Together With this album, Rainer Maria shed the last vestiges of its emo roots and let bassist Caithlin De Marrais take the vocal reins from guitarist Kyle Fischer. She ain't quite an indie-rock queen like Karen O, but her this-side-of-elegant voice is just imperfect enough to make the band's far more affecting and substantive lyrics ring perfectly true. Oh, and this album's "Terrified" just happens to be the best love song of the year, hands down. (Grunion) Rainer Maria site Rainer Maria stream
The Hold Steady
Boys and Girls in America It wasn't enough that the Hold Steady's debut and follow-up were among the ten best albums of 2004 and 2005 respectively. No, the band had to pull a hat trick and release one of the best rock albums of 2006, too. This is due to frontman Craig Finn's snarky lyrics, which are some of the best by an American songwriter working today. Like the Boss' best work, his songs speak to the American experience, albeit the subcultures that exist only beyond the patina of traditional Americana. (Vagrant) The Hold Steady site/stream
Call us crazy, but nothing brightened our holiday season like getting an e-mail from a banker at a San Francisco Wells Fargo telling us that he'd spotted The Talented Mr. Young -- perhaps better known to our long-time readers as the Imitation Temptation, the Fifth Top, and one of the best con men to ever work the Bay Area. His real name is Alan Young, and he's a former West Oakland garbageman who over the last several decades has made a stunning career of passing himself off as various Motown legends and other music industry professionals in order to get people to invest in his business scams and butter him up with treats like fancy dinners and stays in top-notch hotels. He's been busted numerous times, but he's never in jail for long, and for a reporter who loves nothing more than a good tale of chicanery, hearing that Young is back on the prowl is like getting a visit from Santa -- although this Santa's bag of tricks ain't all that nice, and he's the one who ends up with all the presents. The alarming thing is, this time around, law enforcement says that he'll be extra hard to catch.
Young's criminal career began in the mid-'70s, and he's been working the music industry angle since at least 1984. At various points in his illustrious career, Young has passed himself off as different members of the Temptations, the Four Tops, and the Bar-Kays, as well as claiming to be jazz bassist Marcus Miller, the bassist for Luther Vandross' backing band, an arranger for jazz vocalist Nancy Wilson, an associate of Miles Davis, and the son of jazz drummer Lester Young. He often approaches his victims -- usually well-heeled professionals such as architects or art dealers -- in their offices or at bars and restaurants, charms them with his loquaciousness, his ability to sing and play the piano, his facility with Motown trivia, and his uncanny ability to get comped at Yoshi's and get admitted to private aircraft at the Oakland Airport, despite the fact that he neither owns an airplane nor has any real musical credentials. Then he makes his victims an offer they can't refuse. Sometimes Young says it's an investment opportunity -- say for a new music studio, or real estate, or artwork. Sometimes it's a charity gig. No matter what the deal, Young invariably "discovers" that his briefcase and wallet are mysteriously missing, and throws himself upon the good graces of his new partner to cover entertainment expenses for him until his credit cards can be retrieved. Eager to please someone they think is a celebrity, Young's victims have shelled out thousands to put him up at the best hotels in town and buy him clothes, meals, expensive nights on the town, and even drugs and hookers.
While in most cases the point of Young's con was to have a few wild nights at the expense of another, in a few cases, the endgame went much further. He would convince his victim to open up a "joint" bank account with him for their business venture. The victim would deposit his money and Young would promise to have his own funds wired into the account, but instead, he'd actually drain it.
Many of Young's victims are too embarrassed to report the scam, which has enabled him to engineer "passes" through entire business communities during which he amasses an impressive amount of insider terminology as well as the right names and business cards to drop -- all of which helps him continue the con with his next victim. Even those who file police reports may be reluctant to testify, which has made it hard to put Young away for a significant amount of time, says now-retired San Francisco police Inspector Earl Wismer, who worked his case on that side of the bay. "The embarrassment and negative publicity would be detrimental, and they say, 'I don't want to deal with that,'" Wismer says.
When the Express first encountered Young in early 2002, it looked like he had reached his own endgame. He'd spent the previous winter passing himself off as former Temptations member Cornelius Grant, trying to con folks at the Oakland Athletic League, McClymonds High School, and the Glad Tidings Church of God in Hayward. Young was arrested in San Francisco after running up $13,000 in hotel bills at someone else's expense, and at the time, we thought the courts would throw the book at him: he'd been charged with eighteen counts of fraud, impersonation, and forgery, and could have been facing two decades in prison.
But a year later, Berkeley real-estate agents George and Mary Oram phoned us with a surprising claim: Young had been in their office trying to make a deal. (Among other things, he claimed he was in the market for a warehouse large enough for his 27 cars, plus a grand piano, so he could play and sing to them.) The Orams Googled Alan Young, found our article, and gave us a call. All of us wondered, why was Young a free man? Turns out, the Oakland Police Department never filed charges with the Alameda County District Attorney, and the case never went to trial in San Francisco because the key witness was loathe to testify.
Shortly after Young's run-in with the Orams in 2003, and once he had lightened the wallet of a San Francisco gallery owner from whom he'd pretended to buy a painting, he was again busted in a San Francisco hotel. According to Wismer, he was in county jail until this spring. Once again, says Wismer, it was difficult to prosecute Young because there were problems getting witnesses to talk -- either because they were prominent businesspeople reluctant to garner bad publicity for themselves, or because the process of going to court was just too onerous. Ultimately, Wismer says, Young was released for time served without ever having to go to state prison.
Now there are signs that Young is back to his old tricks. Last week he reportedly turned up at a San Francisco Wells Fargo inquiring about opening a $30,000 business account with some "associates" whom he promised to bring in for an appointment later that afternoon. One of the bank's patrons recognized him and warned a staffer to do a Google search, which turned up the Express articles. The bank contacted the police, but since Young hadn't done anything illegal, there wasn't much law enforcement could do. When Young returned later that afternoon, he allegedly heightened bank staffers' suspicions by asking questions about how quickly he could withdraw a lump sum of money from the account, but his "associates" never showed up, money never changed hands, and ultimately, staffers think they scared him off with tough questioning.
Bank staffers noted that Young was using his own name instead of a Motown celebrity's, and investigators say that his most recent passes through the Bay Area show that he's adapting his game -- instead of borrowing a name, he uses his own, but totally invents a wealthy, well-connected persona to inhabit. That's probably a smart move, because this kind of fraud is a much lower priority for law enforcement than a celebrity impersonator. "He knows he'll go to jail if he impersonates someone," Wismer says. "Identity theft is a huge, huge issue, and judges are more likely to put someone in jail for it now than if they dupe somebody."
Worse, the recent rise in violent crime has shuffled law enforcement personnel away from working property crimes. Local police fraud units are already understaffed -- San Francisco has five investigators, Oakland has only two. By necessity, these officers must focus on big-ticket crimes they know will be a slam-dunk for the district attorney: ones that cause huge losses, or target the elderly, or have a particularly high-profile victim. Young's scams are nonviolent, usually cost his victims a few thousand bucks, target the affluent and the middle-aged, and may look, at first blush, like business deals gone sideways. He'll never be public enemy #1.
He is, however, amazingly persistent. He's "as good as it gets," in the con artist game, says Wismer. "He is a social engineer. He will take his con wherever he can. His forte of course is getting people to do what he wants them to do when he wants them to do it, but his game will work just about anywhere and it just depends on who he gets ahold of."
In the past, that's always meant coming home to the East Bay. The Express is currently requesting a more recent booking photo of Young than the one displayed above, because those who've seen him recently says his look changed in jail -- his hair has gone white, for one thing. But if you spot him, give us a ring.
And if a smooth-talking, musically-inclined stranger approaches you this winter and makes you an amazing investment offer, says Lt. Ken Lee, the head of the San Francisco PD's Fraud Department, "It's the old adage: Buyer beware. People can package themselves very well, and it could be an empty package."
Besides, he says, "In this day of the Internet, how hard is it to Google somebody?"
Back to 92510, the East Bay Express news blog.
By Kathleen Richards Express Critic
Mastodon Blood Mountain Just when you thought Atlanta's purveyors of rhythmically complex and sonically dizzying metal couldn't stretch their skills any further, Blood Mountain not only lives up to the standard they created, but surpasses it, too. On its third album and major-label debut, Mastodon unleashes a more focused, dense, and rich tapestry of progressive metal, thrusting its songs into a heady realm that totally rocks. An intensely focused and thoroughly realized effort. (Reprise /Relapse) Link to Mastodon site/stream
Beck The Information Say what you want about the Scientologist, but Beck may be the only contemporary songwriter consistently releasing albums of the creative magnitude that others dream of achieving just once. On his eleventh album, Beck reunites with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich for a reinvigorated concoction of jungle funk, guitar-slapping blues, futuristic soul, and entrancing, cosmic folk employing every sonic detail except the kitchen sink. That may sound like every Beck album, but that's hardly a bad thing. (Interscope) Link to Beck Site Stream Beck
Below the Branches Kelley Stoltz hearts the Beatles in a big way. But luckily, the San Francisco troubadour has the musicianship and depth to expand that crush into an authentic pop masterpiece all his own. Driven by ooh-ooh harmonies, dance-worthy staccato piano chords, and thoughtfully crafted flourishes, Below the Branches is a dynamic, coherent, and invigorating vision of modern sound. Stoltz not only has the vocabulary to imitate his idols, but also the arsenal to put himself among them. (Sub Pop) Link to Stoltz site
Dragonlord Black Wings of Destiny Initially, it's hard to take sinister-looking forty-year-old dudes outfitted in leather harnesses, spike collars, and creepy face paint seriously. But you don't have to. Though it's not their intention, Dragonlord - the ode to Norwegian black metal from Testament guitarist Eric Peterson - comes off as ridiculous but also simultaneously thrilling. From the horse-snorting, chest-pounding, battle-cry intro, Black Wings ... embarks on a nonstop crusade of lightning-quick drumming, thrash-guitar shredding, gothic effects, acidic yowls, and the occasional Ray Manzarek-inspired keyboard solo. Sweet. (Escapi Music) Link to DL site
Gram Rabbit Cultivation Like falling down the rabbit hole, Cultivation is a trippy, psychedelic, countrified, disco adventure through the high desert. Led by the sexy, bunny-eared Jesika von Rabbit, who alternates monotone speak-singing with shouting and purring, Joshua Tree's Gram Rabbit executes its strange, somewhat cartoonish aesthetic quite convincingly. "Bloody Bunnies (Superficiality)" juxtaposes a techie dance beat and flashy rock, while "Angel Song" takes a desert country ballad with ''60s folkie harmonies and inserts distortion-soaked guitar riffs. A fun, bizarre trip. (Stinky) Link to Rabbit site Stream Rabbit
Sean Lennon Friendly Fire Eight years after the release of his debut album, Lennon returns to the limelight with a collection of rainy-day, lovelorn, piano-driven pop songs. Abandoning the eclectic bossa-nova jaunts of Into the Sun, he inches closer to the sound his father was famous for despite prior attempts to avoid just that. Lennon's unearthing and melodramatic expounding of the T. Rex demo "Would I Be the One" makes this album entirely worthwhile. (Capitol) Link to Lennon site Stream Lennon
Eagles of Death Metal Death by Sexy While some bands toil away for years trying to create their magnum opus and inevitably failing, Eagles of Death Metal crank out a thick album of cocksure Southern-rock pastiche in just eight days. Picking up where Peace Love Death Metal left off, Jesse "Boots Electric" Hughes and Josh "Baby Duck" Homme continue to embrace rock's clichés with a silliness that's completely endearing, such as rhyming "cherry cola" with "rock ''n' rolla." Good times. (Downtown/Rekords Rekords) Stream EODM
The Black Keys Magic Potion There's something about the stripped-down, unadorned styling of distorted guitar and drums that makes the orthodox blues-rock of Akron's Black Keys so damn fresh. On its fourth album, the duo sticks to what it knows best, and the results are thick, dirty, and raw. The two touch off a blazing, butt-shaking groove on "Your Touch," and guitarist Dan Auerbach makes his riffs smolder on "Black Door." Crank this shit. (Nonesuch)
Mojave 3 Puzzles Like You Grab your towel: You'll be crying tears of joy or running to the beach (or both) like a giddy teenager when you pop in this disc from Mojave 3, its fifth album in ten years. From the sunny, ''60s guitar pop of "Truck Driving Man" to the shimmering harmonies and country twang of "Big Star Baby," it's clear that the trio has departed from the melancholic ballads they were known for. There's little to dislike. (4AD) Link to Mojave 3
Grandaddy Just Like the Fambly Cat For its last hurrah, Modesto's Grandaddy convinces us it'll be sorely missed. There's nary a stagnant moment on this album, from the laser firing keyboards and chugging guitar rock of "Jeez Louise" to the spacey jam of "Rear View Mirror" that coalesces into a crunchy groove. But by the time singer Jason Lytle wistfully longs to transcend fame with the homey drum machine beats and pluckiness of "Elevate Myself," we're rooting for him. (V2) Link to Grandaddy site Link to Daddy stream
Get wise, then wrap your fish in our bounteous print edition, now including: Chuck D on why he won't ask you to buy his new CD; Green Day's old stomping ground turns twenty; Google Takes Over the Music World in our frickin' huge, page-sized Music Comic; CD Reviews of Roots of Rumba Rock and Nas' Hip-Hop Is Dead; and we critically approve the following events:
The 2006 Edgies A look back at the year that was, from stunna shades to conscious knocks.
By Eric K. Arnold
Since the recent BARS Awards didn't really do the Yay Area justice, it's up to Close 2 tha Edge to present a rundown of 2006 in local hip-hop. This was definitely the year of hyphy, which rose from sideshow soundtracks to club and radio play to every suburban soccer mom's worst nightmare. Without further ado, we present the 2006 "Edgies."
Prolific Producer: Traxamillion The self-professed San Jose "Slapp Addict" delivered one of the Yay's most solid top-to-bottom albums of Â´06, a "who's-who guide to the hyphy movement featuring Mistah F.A.B., the Team, Keak da Sneak, Dem Hoodstarz, Balance, Zion-I, and Too $hort.
Legendary Local: Too $hort Not only did $hort Dog score a huge hit with "Blow the Whistle," the title track from his sixteenth album, he reaffirmed his place in the local scene by moving back to "Tha Town" and taking an interest in future generations with his volunteer work at Youth Uprising.
Boo-Yah Backpackers: Zion-I & the Grouch, Heroes in the City of Dope This collaborative effort presented an alternate view of Bay Area rap, one more concerned with quality-of-life issues than grill-pieces and rims. Amp Live's production was simply phenomenal, while MCs Zion and the Grouch proved intelligence is still relevant.
Economic-Minded Entrepreneurs: The Team
The Oakland trio proved adept at cross-marketing with Hyphy Juice, a sports beverage which not only gave you the energy to scrape through the turf like a trap star, but cured cottonmouth-breath.
Cocksurest Come-Up: The Fillmore SF rap has typically taken a backseat to Oakland, but in Â´06, the Â´Mo evened the score with quality albums by San Quinn, Big Rich, and Bullys wit Fullys (Guce & Messy Marv), finally allowing "the Â´Sco" to swagger.
Superlatively Socially-Conscious: (tie) The Coup, T-K.A.S.H., the Attik A no-brainer: All three had amazing albums well worth listening to, which offered a smart alternative to "going dumb" without skimping on knockability.
Coolest Comeback: Saafir With his fourth album Good Game: The Transition, Saafir went from hood-tested, block-approved street soldier to grown and sexy game-spitter with an inspirational message and an interesting story to tell.
Ballsiest Beat-Jacker: Rick Rock The Fairfield superproducer pulled off an impressive feat by taking an Â´80s song that wasn't all that hot to begin with (Corey Hart's "I Wear My Sunglasses at Night") and upgrading it into an infectious ode to oversize shades (the Federation's "Stunna Glasses") that proved impossible for commercial radio to resist. Ultra-Ubiquitous MC: Mistah F.A.B.
Oakland's crown prince of hyphy earned his stripes by being simply everywhere in 2006: representing at a Commonwealth Club panel, hosting a KYLD radio show (Yellow Bus Ridahs), freestyling for days at the Bay Area Rap Summit and Hip Hop in the Park, touring Europe with DJ Shadow, and appearing on records by Lyrics Born, Zion-I and the Grouch, Traxamillion, and Too $hort. To top it off, he signed with Atlantic, setting the stage for hyphy's second wave, expected in Â´07.
Nicest Newcomers: The Pack Lupe Fiasco has nothing on these grilled-out skateboarders, who came from nowhere to deliver "Vans," one of 2006's most talked-about songs, which launched a fashion trend and introduced colorful punk-rock-influenced style to the urban music scene. Global-Minded Groove: MC Rai, Raivolution This SF-by-way-of-Tunisia album stands as one of the most mind-blowing local releases of this year, taking the traditional music of North Africa and affixing it to a contemporary template which fused dub, electronica, hip-hop, and dancehall into one trance-inducing package. Trillest Trend: Flashing Stunna Glasses Nothing linked the thizz era to its rave scene origins better than the battery-powered illuminated eyewear, the 2006 version of a glow stick. Laced-Up Local Label: SMC No indie label was more involved in Bay Area rap in Â´06 than SMC, who followed up last year's impressive efforts by Guce and Ya Boy with new albums by Balance, San Quinn, Bullys wit Fullys, Eldorado Red, Mac Minister, and the Jacka, to name a few.
Noggin-Nodding National Compilation: Hyphy Hitz Okay, yours truly wrote the liner notes. But check out the track listing, loaded with E-40 and Keak-saturated slangfests, Mac Dre classics, F.A.B.-ulous flows, new stuff by the A'z, even a remix of Da Musicianz' "Go Dumb" featuring the Federation. If you must get stupid, this is the album to do it to.
Sauciest Slang Word: Yee It's succinct, easy to say, and can be used in a variety of situations, from expressions of excited exuberance to a subtle warning that the po-po's on the block, yadahamean?
Haters of the Year: (tie) Lewis Wolff and Ignacio De La Fuente The Fremont A's of Silicon Valley. Need I say more?
Recovering slapp addict: firstname.lastname@example.org
By Rachel Swan Express Critic
Ghostface Killah Fishscale Even the folks who hated on Ghostface for 2004's concept-driven Pretty Toney will have to admit he hit a high C with this year's Fishscale, which will undoubtedly be remembered as a classic. With flowery backpacker beats, B-movie skits starring his alter ego Tony Starks, and several viable radio hits, this album is one of his most accessible to date, though he still goes off the beaten track in "Whip You with a Strap" - a song about getting slapped around as a child - and "Beauty Jackson," which describes Starks' encounter with a '40s noir heroine who uses Revlon face blush and sprays perfume from a nickel-plated bottle. Though you might doubt the veracity of some of these stories, Ghostface illustrates everything in such intricate, minute detail that it's easy to get lost in his flows. (Def Jam) Link to streaming Ghostface Link to Ghostface site
Lady Sovereign Public Warning Welcome to London, a city that probably boasts more surveillance devices than any other in the world, according to recent NPR reports, but also produces the world's most cutting-edge hip-hop. At the crest of this new wave stands bratty twenty-year-old grime emcee Lady Sovereign, who just unleashed one of the most imaginative albums of 2006 - the one that brought London's grating arthouse beats and strident Cockney accents to Def Jam. On Public Warning she combines biting rhymes with weird studio effects -- including ska riffs, clap-claps, and slurping sounds - culminating with the brilliant "Love Me or Hate Me" remix that has the salty tomboy trading fours with her American spiritual twin Missy Elliott. On "My England" she grouses about being under 24-hour surveillance. Go figure. (Def Jam) Link to Streaming Lady Sov Link to Lady Sov site
Lupe Fiasco Food and Liquor Chicago's Fiasco has an anomalous presence on Top 40 radio, considering the intricacy of his rhymes, the elegance of his beats, and his disdain for ghetto fabulousness - which the emcee compares to prostitution on his song "Hurt Me Soul." But he's not necessarily trying to be an iconoclast. In fact, he has a knack for sounding charming and unassuming, whether he's rapping about an absentee father, a cute skater girl, or his ambivalence over the word "bitch." Even the record title indicates this is the work of a real person rather than a rap persona: In the album's opening verse, Fiasco explains that like everyone else in the world, he's got a good side (food) and a bad side (liquor), and sometimes they're impossible to separate. (Atlantic) Link to Streaming Lupe Fiasco
Method Man 4:21 ... The Day After Method Man took few risks in this classical gangsta rap album, which comprises all the elements that have long been Wu Tang's stock in trade, among them Shaolin boxing clips, Five Percenter references, and dense, hooky production. But the emcee is so good at inhabiting his New York mafioso persona - which combines a prosperous second-generation Italian immigrant and a low-class criminal who starts every conversation with either "What the fuck you want?" or "Konnichiwa, bitches!" - that the usual formula will probably never fail him. Not to mention he's a gangster with sweethearts; 4:21 includes several looped elevator beat numbers for the ladies. (Def Jam) Link to streaming Method
Scarface Presents the Product One Hunid Former Geto Boys frontman Scarface and his longtime collaborator Tone Capone - who's famous for producing classic Bay Area weed songs like "Five on It" and choosing the gorgeous looped Donald Byrd sample that made San Quinn's "High Life" a hit - played matchmaker for this album, predicting that Scarface, Missouri emcee Young Malice, and Fillmore's Will Hen would have enough chemistry to come up with something really fantastic if you put them in a studio together. Apparently, it worked. While the raps on One Hunid mostly consist of personal testimonials about life in the 'hood, what makes the album special is the pitch and rhythm of Hen's voice and the music in Scarface's writing, which still pale in comparison to the album's production. The beat on "In the 'Hood" sounds like something being scraped clean, while the R&B loop on "Life's Been Good" shores up the pathos in a song about counting your blessings. (Koch) Link to The Product
Calvin Keys Vertical Clearance Old school jazz guitarist Keys - who changed his name to Ajafika (i.e., "One who has not yet arrived") during the Black Power era, and says he used to shoot craps with pianist Ray Charles when the two of them toured together - evidently increased his commercial viability by finding favor with the hip-hop generation. Like the 2001 free-jazz album Detours into Unconscious Rhythm, on which Keys got down with fellow Wide Hive artists DJ Zeph, Kevin Carnes of the Broun Fellinis, and Kat Ouano, this year's jam-band-oriented Vertical Clearance has a manageable learning curve, and will probably find favor with any fan of Sun Ra or the latest Roots album. (Wide Hive) Link to Calvin Keys site: Link to streaming Keys
E-40 My Ghetto Report Card Who would have thought that a Bay Area staple like E-40 - who's been on the verge of national stardom for decades, but never quite made it - could combine a tinny club beat with a looped Digable Planets sample and render it into an anthem for the hyphy movement? Such was the case with "Yay Area," the opening track of 40's latest, My Ghetto Report Card, arguably the most elegant in a spate of hyphy albums released this year. Featuring guest appearances by Keak da Sneak, T-Pain, Juelz Santana, and the Federation, the album mostly comprises club bangers and junk-your-trunk beats, with the occasional gem: In the clever, wickedly humorous song "White Gurl," 40 and his podnas Bun B, Santana, and Pimp C of UGK mix metaphors for white girls and crack cocaine. It's un-PC and delicious. (Reprise) Link to Streaming E-40 Link to E-40 site
Stefon Harris African Tarantella: Dances with Duke The New York-raised vibraphonist Harris, who taught himself to improvise by interpolating theme songs from The Pink Panther and plunking out melodies on his family's beat-up piano using the black and white keys as a road map, is now one of the most stunning contemporary jazz musicians in the country. His latest revisits Duke Ellington's "New Orleans Suite" (1970) and "Queen's Suite" (1959), giving them more of a baroque, chamber-music feel. Harris' reprisal of Ellington's "Sunset for a Mockingbird" from the 1959 suite- sounds so sweet and bewitching that you can only compare it to falling in love. (Blue Note) Link to Harris' site Link to Harris stream
Saafir Good Game: The Transition If any rap album warrants comparison to St. Augustine's narrative of conversion, it's Saafir's latest, which is structured as a confession of sorts. The album is actually a triptych: Part one includes gritty, club-oriented tracks written from the perspective of Shaft Sizzle, the emcee's playa persona; part two comprises personal testimonials about the thug life; and part three consists of religious and spiritual tunes about Saafir's newfound faith. The zenith is "Devotion," a gospel rap song with a gorgeous hook by Mike Marshall. (ABB) Link to streaming Saafir
T.I. King Even the staunchest underground purists can't really front on Atlanta's Grammy-nominated rap titan T.I. - aka "Tip" Harris - this year. Aside from dropping such infectious radio hits as "Why You Wanna" and the slurry "What You Know," this self-proclaimed "king of the South" produced what might be the year's most wrenching fallen comrades song, a bluesy number called "Live in the Sky." While the self-congratulatory tone of the album's title might scare off newcomers, T.I.'s songs show enough emotional and musical depth to pass muster. King will surely remain relevant for years to come. (Atlantic) Link to TI stream Link to TI site