Sieg uber die Sonne
Okay, so the name Sieg über die Sonne (German for "Conquering the Sun") doesn't exactly have a nice ring to it. And what's up with that album title? Is this an album about algebra? While it's obvious the marketing folk were unsuccessful in getting the duo of Pink Elln and Dandy Jack to change such an improbable name, concern about inconsequential things such as this quickly evaporates once you toss this gem into the CD player. (-)x(-)=(+) is a diverse amalgamation of electronic styles new and old, concocted with a careful craftsmanship that evokes a sense of early-'90s ambient techno, as much as modern nu-jazz, house, funk, and tinkly Detroit techno. It's retro and futuristic at the same time, with a heavy reliance on thick synthesizer sounds. Each track represents a different mood and style. The spacey "Washingtons" launches the listener into the stratosphere, segueing into the nu-jazz polyrhythmic fusion of "Rough." "You'll Never Come Back" is a satin-soft glide through ambient techno plains with pulsating multitextures, percussion, and vocals thrown into a vocoder. "Beat Box" combines taut beats with clipped synth samples, twirling textures, and electro-pop squeals. "Der Klang und Sein Schatten" has a Pete Namlook (a German ambient pioneer) feel to it, with its paper-thin beats, swooning synth builds, and overwhelming sense of calm. "I'm Not a Sound" is a jarring yet compelling pop track, featuring guest vocalist Jorge Gonzalez channeling '80s synth pop duo Sparks or the nasally whines of Gary Numan. Remaining tracks such as "Hot" and "Der Mann von Eben" incorporate icy, funky elements of percolating rhythms and sinewy electro-pop. The album is the duo's first in five years, though both Elln and Dandy Jack stay busy recording with eclectic electronic artists such as Atom Heart and the "Latinotronic" supergroup Gonzalo Martinez. Though unassuming, (-)x(-)=(+) is chock-full of gloriously odd retro/future-electro funk.
As the Diddys and Bubbas of hip-hop's current low-expectation game pick at the art form's 22-year-old, spotlight-bleached skeleton, the genre's Billboard charts shine with proof that -- to riff on a Tribe Called Quest album title -- beats and rhymes don't necessarily mean life.
Or do they? When Dilated Peoples MCs Evidence and Iriscience hooked up with turntablist Babu of the Beat Junkies in the mid-'90s, joining the likes of Jurassic 5 and the Project Blowed crew as the lights at the end of the gangsta tunnel, the underground embraced them for the stripped-down rhythm-and-voice craft on their singles (especially the club hit "Work the Angles"). Their debut album released on Capitol, The Platform, seemed a litmus test of progressive hip-hop's staying power in the major-label game. Thankfully, it wrecked shit, with powerful lyrical work backed by solid beats from producer Alchemist and a number of guests.
Expansion Team, the sophomore set by the trio, finds the basic formula intact, with disciplined rhyme flows and jazz-funk-inspired arrangements. Evidence's sneering, nasal voice still marvelously offsets Iriscience's more grainy and broad tones. But this album has a more sharpened sense of social justice ("Proper Propaganda"), a bit of introspection ("Worst Comes to Worst," featuring lines like "My lyrics take care of me/They therapy/Get shit off my chest"), and some well-rounded accents (the heart-tugging string samples on "Worst" and the roots-reggae touches on "Trade Money"). Topped off with a far-too-rare, old-school-style DJ salute ("Dilated Junkies," featuring Babu's Beat Junkie mates J Rocc and Rhettmatic), Expansion frames a crew willing to live and die by hip-hop's long-neglected creative potential.
Rock 'n' Roll Kamikaze
The Dragons' Rock 'n' Roll Kamikaze desperately wants to represent the hell-yeah side of rowdy rawk 'n' roll, but just ends up proving what's wrong with the genre. The band's greasy attitude toward chicks 'n' booze has been flattened more times than an opossum carcass on I-5, and the time has come to shovel it all off the highway. You're better off picking up discs from Supersuckers or the Unband -- bands that use their sense of humor to hit the mark (and they know how to write catchy songs). If the Dragons have a sense of humor, it's hidden under a beer gut of bad rock and Mario Escovedo's shamefully loud and tuneless vocals. What's left is a watery ZZ Top/Thin Lizzy/Turbonegro mix that has two bright spots -- "Three Steps from the Bar" and "C'mon" -- before the bulb goes out completely. Hard-rock acts like the Dragons, Tricky Woo, and Electric Frankenstein may put on good, sweaty live shows (with their dedicated followers raising a bottle for every thundering guitar solo), but the CDs never carry the same weight with any of these guys. Listening to Kamikaze is like waking up after the show and realizing how thick the beer goggles were when you took that punk home last night. What seemed hot at first is really shabby and all you're left with is a headache. In the words of Kamikaze, "I should've left you the first time that I met you."
Bluebird First Editions
RCA has chosen several back-catalogue items to repackage in deluxe editions, launching a new series under the old subsidiary name Bluebird. Probably the most interesting is Mingus' Tijuana Moods, which the bassist himself declared his favorite recording in 1962. A couple of alternate tracks have already been added onto previous reissues, but this new version includes a second CD devoted to alternates. And a long piece that RCA previously issued only on a compilation, called "A Colloquial Dream," is an early version of "Scenes in the City," a highly effective recitation-with-music that appeared on an album made shortly after Tijuana Moods was recorded (but long before it was released -- internal problems at RCA kept the project on the shelf from 1957 until 1962). The more familiar version may be slightly superior, but this one is extremely strong. Lonnie Elder, who cowrote the text with the great Langston Hughes, does a great job reading. As for the alternates, they offer a fascinating look at the work in progress. More than any other major jazz figure, Mingus took advantage of the opportunities the studio presented to splice together his extremely demanding and complex compositions. Sometimes breaking the assembled parts down will detract from the original effect, but in this case the chance to hear more of a short-lived but particularly exciting Mingus unit pays off with some strong solos by trombonist Jimmy Knepper, saxophonist Shafi Hadi, and trumpeter Clarence Shaw. (Shaw was the classic example of a sideman, sounding like a deity with Mingus but a mere mortal on his own.) Moreover, some untidy original splices have been corrected, and Brian Priestley has contributed excellent notes to a package that will surely get serious consideration for jazz reissue of the year.