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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1992 Pazz & Jop: Between Rock and a Hard Place

Back in November, nobody knew who would win the 19th or 20th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. By January, everybody did — everybody but me. “It’s not good enough, Joe,” I protested earnestly to Crown Poobah Joe Levy, and of that I felt certain. The kvelling about Arrested Development’s 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of… — the first winning album ever named after how long the band shopped for a contract, but not the first to begin with the numeral 3 — started the moment it was released last March. Pumped by a cover that looked as if Dwayne and Freddie had hustled a spinoff from A Different World, I home-taped it, confident that sooner or later one of those juicy titles — “Raining Revolution,” “Blues Happy,” “Dawn of the Dreads” — would grab my mind-ass continuum. But a boring thing happened on the way to the pleasure dome. First, Levy-the-editor found himself unable to land a review — one, two, three fine writers eagerly signed on, then came up dry. And having run the record through my head a dozen times, so did I. Not horrible by any means. Interesting. But too often the beats shambled and the raps meandered, and though I certainly enjoyed “People Everyday” ’s gangsta dis, the rhymes vagued out as well — or, worse still, preached. So I declared the album a Consumer Guide Dud forthwith.

P.S. — Then I moved my car. And one night in May, something relaxed and mysterious punctuated the new jack schwing thwocking out of my Blaupunkt. It was Arrested Development! On “urban” radio! “Tennessee,” great song, how did I miss it? Well, it was the 14th cut on a 57-minute album, and I don’t even know which “Tennessee” I heard — the commercial 12-inch featured four mixes, a subsequent promo three more. But right, I blew it — should have named “Tennessee” a Choice Cut and split. Goofy, deeply downcast, aglow with tragic hope, Pazz & Jop’s overwhelming number-one single is an adamantly spiritual but humbly unpreachy meditation on black pain that stands as a far more startling radio novelty than the number-three “Jump.” If I prefer “Jump,” that’s because popcraft is sacred and “Jump” is an act of God — and because “Tennessee” does meander, even if it seems miraculous as a sunshower after too much slick dance music or hardcore rap.

I’m trying to be nice here. It’s churlish to put down a progressively conceived popular and critical favorite that sounds good on the radio. And compared with Elvis Costello’s Imperial Boredom, the only other Pazz & Jop winner I wished had stood in bed, 3 Years… is a funfest. But those three aborted critical paeans stick in my mind, as do all the wan-to-belittling poll comments, not to mention the interested parties who professed themselves as delighted with its electoral prospects as they had been with Our President’s. “Do you ever listen to it?” I’d ask. Somewhat sheepishly, every one allowed as how he or she didn’t. And this unenthusiasm is reflected in our results. The support for 3 Years… just about duplicated that of our 1989 winner, which was not only a soft-edged rap debut, but a soft-edged rap debut beginning with the numeral 3: De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising got 1050 points from 255 voters, 3 Years… 1050 from 253. De La Soul, however, attracted only 89 voters, Arrested Development 97, so that Arrested Development averaged only 10.8 points per supporter, the lowest ever for a winner; in recent years Nirvana got 12.7, Neil Young 12.3, De La Soul 11.8. Clearly, a lot of people voted for this album because they felt they should, not necessarily as a racial or genre token but simply to reward the band for taking on the thankless burden of rap reform. Tonya Pendleton of The Philadelphia Tribune sums up the feeling: “A welcome relief from the excesses of gangster rap — it’s moving, intelligent music that you can groove to.”

Ah yes, gangster rap. It was a terrible year for gangster rap, whatever that means anymore — street, hardcore, I don’t know. The defamation of Ice-T’s dead-eyed metal sendup Body Count (which finished a hard-earned 31st despite cop-out and antimusicality charges) was only one symptom of a dilemma wracking the rap community, whatever that means anymore — constituency, market, I don’t know. Rap is undergoing a crisis of authenticity that makes Philly teen dreams, Hollywood hippies, punk versus new wave, and who’s got the funk look like style wars. Hooked on sexism, blamed for the violence they prophesied, threatened musically by formal quandaries and brute property rights, the talking heads of black CNN found themselves between rock and a hard place. Over in the middle distance was the white crossover audience for four of the five 1992 rap albums to sell a million: Sir Mix-a-Lot, Wreckx-N-Effect, House of Pain, and triple-platinum Kris Kross. And in their face was the spiritual source of the music, the fast-changing core audience of fucked-over young black males, making an unreasonable demand it was hard for any rapper to gainsay: that rap be for them.

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Inside the rap world — where artists as diverse as EPMD, Black Sheep, Da Lench Mob, M.C. Brains, and Too Short went gold with barely a pop ripple or critical notice — there were two acceptable responses to this ghettocentric demand, both of which courted up-and-coming hards by rejecting the prevailing orthodoxy of jagged, densely explosive, Bomb Squad mixes. Progressives favored the jazzy swing of Gang Starr (Brooklyn, old jack, 43rd) and the Pharcyde (California, crazee, tied for 100th), while a new neotraditionalist faction stuck to the straight-up funk of 105th-place EPMD (who also produced 106th-place Redman and the trippier 78th-place Das EFX), with the so-called soul grooves of 49th-place Pete Rock & CL Smooth splitting the difference. These artists are also diverse — anyone who believes rap is monolithic has never listened to two decent albums back to back — but while none are gangstas, only Gang Starr and Rock & Smooth try any positive messages; the EPMD crew in particular is in de facto rebellion against the calls to self-improvement that trip so readily from the self-appointed race men of the old and new schools, and also against what rappers loosely refer to as “critics,” which means anyone who puts them down. What else can you expect when entertainers barely out of high school become point men in the struggle against a system of oppression that defeated Malcolm and Martin? But it also reminds me of the ’70s, when waves of metal bands led a young, angry, male, working-class audience into its own unreconstructed market niche.

As with metal, I understand in theory and can’t connect in practice — of the 10 albums just cited, only the Pharcyde’s gets me going for more than a cut or two. The same goes for the electorate, where our sizable little contingent of rap specialists — which would be larger if we’d managed to get out the vote in our precinct at the hip hop nationalist Source, where a ghettocentric response to the crisis has long been in full effect — gave the above-named most of what support they received. Raised on college radio, rock criticism’s thirtyish mainstream has its own program — the alternative rap of Arrested Development, Basehead (10th place), and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (19th).

Arrested Development pursues this program consciously, aggressively. AD headman Speech has attacked the sexism of Cube, Quik, and N.W.A in “20th Century African,” a column he cowrites for his parents’ community newspaper in Milwaukee, and was happy to tell an interviewer: “There are a lot of people who look up to rappers, and I want people to be aware that sometimes what artists are saying isn’t always right.” Talking revolution soon-come rather than violence now — “So this government needs to be overthrown/Brothers wit their A.K.’s and their 9mms/Need to learn how to correctly shoot them/Save those rounds for a revolution” — Speech typifies the rarely acknowledged class divisions of a music that seems doomed to romanticize the street even when that’s where it comes from; he’s the kind of young progressive whose parents own a small newspaper. Yet unlike Basehead and the Disposable Heroes, Arrested Development at least squeezed into The Source’s five-page spread of 1993 “Noizemakers” (though they didn’t make any of the 45 EFX-and-Rock-dominated year-end top fives the mag printed). Their Afrocentric rhetoric, and off in the middle distance their multicultural pop reach, should keep them in some kind of contact with the hip hop community. But it would be easier to believe that Speech is strong enough to negotiate the tricky internal politics any grander reform scheme will require if his music packed more firepower.

As for Basehead and the Disposable Heroes — and my own alternative rappers of choice, Philadelphia’s street-leftist Goats (five mentions) — they’d better settle for college radio. And that’s sad — sad for the hip hop community, but also sad for rock critics. To an extent the almost complete absence of non-alternative rap in our top 40 is a statistical blip, but I’m struck nevertheless by the bare 40th-place finish of Ice Cube’s The Predator, which stormed Billboard’s pop charts at number one and went platinum in January. (I’ll take this opportunity to run down 41-50 — Ministry, Klaatu doing business as XTC, Gang Starr, Skeletons, Suzanne Vega, Sade, jazz champ Randy Weston, Lemonheads, Pete Rock, and pomo diva Annie Lennox — and mention that when I totted up the record-breaking pile of 54 late ballots for my own amusement, I didn’t find an Ice Cube in the bunch. In an expanded 307-voter poll, Cube comes in 49th, Gang Starr 55th, Pete Rock 56th. Tori Amos and the Roches also fall off, while Annie Lennox leapfrogs ecstatically to 32nd.) With nothing more epochal than Arrested Development on the horizon, it bodes ill that the Prophet Cube is losing his crit cred, that Ice-T blinked, that Public Enemy’s avowed nonalbum got only one mention, that the nearest thing to another Cypress Hill coming out of left field was AD itself. It means the critics — and the demanding if faddish consumers they don’t so much speak for as provide a clue to — are rejecting rap’s core audience in much the same way the core audience is rejecting them. And though I hate to say it, I can hear why.

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Rap is far too juicy to dry up and go away, and it contributed a respectable quota of albums to this year’s Dean’s List. So of course I recommend Eric B. and Yo Yo and FU-Schnickens and BDP, Kris Kross too. I just won’t claim that any of them was as momentous as PE and Ice-T and Cypress Hill in 1991 — or as the Goats and the Disposable Heroes in 1992. Whether because the sampler has lost its power to surprise, as the easily bored Ann Marlowe believes, or because the copyright wars have squelched creativity, as I’ll argue until there’s a revolution in capitalist concepts of intellectual property, or just because the wrong artists sat out the year, rap felt a little tired. Moreover, the canard that the alternative pretenders lacked beats is hip hop chauvinism of no relevance to the omniverous listener. For me the musical failure is Arrested Development’s rootsy post-Daisy Age, which softens established rap parameters, not the pulse of the Goats and the Disposables, who meld hip hop usages into a longer, steadier rock groove (not so different from the swing and straight-up funk strategies, after all), or the wiggy indeterminacy of the private joke on rap that is Michael Ivey’s Basehead. Supposedly, critics flock to alternative rap because they can relate to its corny “liberal” lyrics, and no doubt some do. Me, I don’t think the lyrics are as clichéd as they’re made out to be, and I go to these records for music first.

Like the listenability test I threw at AD, music-first is one of those criteria that seems so incontrovertibly self-evident it becomes necessary to point out that it’s not. Even the most enjoyable records don’t suit all occasions, difficult and painful ones can reward your labor tenfold when you’re motivated, and sometimes the keenest artistic pleasure is conceptual, which can mean anything from overall structure to formal frisson to the historical or political or ethical or just plain mental excitement of hearing a stranger choose the right moment to do the right thing — assume the right stance, forge the right synthesis, make the right statement. As you stop looking to music for the meaning of life you discover that music per se endures much better than moments do, and so, although the concept album per se is associated with old fartdom, it’s the excitable young who tend to overlook the messy details of what’s actually in the bytes that underlie somebody’s cool move. But that’s neither reason to deny their concepts nor proof that it’s impossible to share them from a distance.

For me, PJ Harvey’s Dry is a prime example. By yoking rock-not-pop late-’60s virtuosity to postpunk neoprimitivism and staking a strong-not-macho female claim on the rockist pose, it’s conceptually powerful two ways, and the music-lover in me would add that the sheer sound is arresting no matter what it means. Unfortunately, I see scant evidence of the profound poet or witchy prankster some also perceive in Polly Jean Harvey, which bothers me more because too often the sound isn’t shaped into fully realized songs (a pop demand, I know — sue me, I want it all). And while I admire her womanism and root for the uprising it spearheads, it’s not my dream come true. So I ended up with Dry midway down my A list. But I’m not surprised that it came in fourth, nor that only one voter was so smitten that he or she (he, actually; Dry’s 23 per cent female support was barely higher than women’s 17 per cent share of the electorate) gave it even 20 points. With something to give now and plenty of promise for later, this is the kind of record that always inspires broad-based critical favor. The cult item was Pavement’s second-place Slanted and Enchanted, which averaged almost 15 points per mention — and which to my ears not only packs the conceptual punch Joe Levy describes but stands up to heavy rotation.

That’s the idea, of course — concept that “works,” to use the subjective critical shorthand of artistic gatekeepers everywhere. To my ears, 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of… doesn’t work, and neither does a rap album I somehow forgot to mention, the Beastie Boys’ fifth-place Check Your Head. Great concept — arty posthardcore band turned world-class rappers address their whiteskin marginality by picking up their instruments again. Problem is, the execution is halfway there at best, and since they’re into New Orleans funk rather than fast garage-rock, it matters — the pleasure and meaning of that style isn’t an idea, it’s the physical reality of the cross-rhythms. But as I know because I’ve asked around, many fans so enjoy the Beasties’ “spirit of playing (and playing with) the grooves” that they listen to Check Your Head all the time. And whatever the limits of the listenability test, I guess I believe the voters also literally enjoy all the other failed concepts to march to the head of the class this year.

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Not counting Lindsey Buckingham (and believe me, we were tempted), these failures were all top-20: Los Lobos’s Kiko (sixth, third including the more middle-American late vote), Tom Waits’s Bone Machine (ninth and seventh), K. D. Lang’s Ingénue (12th), Lou Reed’s Magic and Loss (16th), and maybe Bruce Springsteen’s Lucky Town (18th, though raw critical loyalty certainly helped this ponderous, well-crafted disappointment, a shorter and by most accounts lighter piece of work than its more songful corelease Human Touch, which finished way down at 80). Tastes — and judgments — differ. Others would add or substitute R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People (third) or Neneh Cherry’s Homebrew (13th), albums I say “work” despite their seriousness, or perhaps Lucinda Williams’s Sweet Old World (11th) — maybe even, such is progress, Sonic Youth’s Dirty (eighth). But with Arrested Development setting the tone, few would deny that 1992 was lousy with serious works of art, and not many would declare themselves improved in wisdom by all of them.

More than R.E.M. or Cherry (both high B plusses) or Williams or Sonic Youth (both in my top 10), all my designated failures progressed, took chances, and so forth with their music, the better to frame their words. But their words don’t justify the effort, or the notice. K. D. Lang casts herself as a cabaret singer and reminds us why cabaret singers dig Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Stephen Sondheim — hell, Alan and Marilyn Bergman. When Lou Reed writes about Andy Warhol, I listen; when he writes about death, I try to listen, really I do, but soon my thoughts turn to Michael Stipe, to Michael Hurley, to what’s in the fridge. Set on balancing their Hispanic identity and their American prerogatives at a higher level of expressive fluency, Los Lobos prove their command of folk/rock sonics with lovely settings like “Wake Up Dolores” and “Arizona Skies” and their subjection to folk-rock corn with portentous titles like “That Train Don’t Stop Here” and “Angels With Dirty Faces.” And on Bone Machine Waits is an ace arranger under the thumb of a four-flushing singer-songwriter. When he’s got the cards — “Goin’ Out West” ’s petty delusions, “All Stripped Down” ’s final judgment, “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” ’s parting shot — the Weillian bite of the junkshop music cuts through his plug-ugly vocal shtick and his fondness for literary subjects like hangings and unsolved murders. But he’s always been a beatnik manqué who got away with shit because it impressed pop pygmies, and he always will be.

These are the kind of records rock critics are always accused of falling for — the kind of records Sting makes, you know? But not since 1987 (U2, John Hiatt, John Mellencamp, Robbie Robertson, and the indefatigable Waits, not to mention Tunnel of Love and Skylarking, which worked) have we put up with so much bigthink. Voters noticed the trend, and their explanations make sense: AIDS, the economy, George Herbert Walker Bush. But what I mostly see is people getting older — young adults fending off intimations of mortality by rejecting the evanescent jollies of stance and synthesis for something more substantial, more verbal, more middlebrow. And if AIDS and the economy obviously fed their sense of rampaging limits, I think it’s possible Nirvana had something to do with it too.

In the wake of Nevermind, critics braced themselves for an “alternative” onslaught of unknown dimensions, and if you like you can find one here. Hard-touring perennial also-rans Soul Asylum sold out and broke out; the Jayhawks relocated their Gram Parsons memorial to a major and soared. Play With Toys started out on Berkeley’s Emigré, the Disposable Heroes as San Francisco’s Beatnigs. Rykodisc’s three charting albums put it in a league with every major except WEA, and three archetypally impecunious indies also made their mark — TeenBeat with Sassy pinups Unrest, who actually would have risen to 30 if late ballots had counted; Bar/None with transplanted Kansan Freedy Johnston, who would have gone all the way to 19 if his Midwestern backers had mailed early; and Matador with shockeroo runner-up Pavement, whose disjointly tuneful, perversely unreadable noise/sound collage would have been our biggest indie album since X’s Wild Gift even if the stragglers had pushed it down to fourth where it belonged. On the other hand, Amerindie product disappeared from the singles chart and didn’t even dominate EPs. Seattle’s only album finisher got most of its points in 1991 and inspired the kind of opprobrium usually reserved for Madonna — Pearl Jam was the grunge band scoffers warned us about. And though 1992’s indie albums aren’t as folky as last year’s, Rykodisc gave us one old-timer, one dead person, and one 46-year-old new Dylan, while Freedy Johnston’s uncannily self-assured piece of singer-songwriter neotraditionalism achieves a, well, maturity that most of the conceptualizers on the chart would be lucky to imagine.

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Yeah yeah yeah — maturity, what a drag. But like the man said, it’s only castles burning. And now, in the wake of Lollapalooza and techno and accrued professional responsibility and Nirvana’s dream-come-true-and-then-what and the shift of boomer power from biz to gov (and, oh right, more birthdays than one could once conceive), rock criticism’s thirtyish mainstream is wondering what’s next while various collegiate-on-down cults — fanzine separatists, ravers, trancers, riot grrrls, overly self-conscious pop postironists, maybe even alternative rappers, all sniping and crowing and splitting off and dropping out and climbing back in again — are cordoning off whatever turf their immediate elders will cede them and claiming they’re owed more. This dispute defines itself above all in terms of meaning it — of trying to say something even if it makes you middlebrow, because in the face of death and deprivation, irony don’t cut it — and Pavement sets up on its cusp. ’Tudewise they stand between Sonic Youth, clearly old-guard as of this verbally direct, musically achieved, inexplicably unexciting release, and Unrest, who get over on more stance and less music than any finisher in Pazz & Jop history. Since Unrest don’t lack IQ, they may follow in the footsteps of Sonic Youth and add music gradually, but for now the reaction against their smart-ass pomo irony — not theirs specifically, they’re not that important, but the whole structure of feeling that culminates inWayne’s World, Achtung Baby, and, er, Malcolm X Park — generates high-concept new sincerity as surely as any underemployment epidemic or killer virus.

We’ve seen this split before, of course — middlebrow concept versus pomo irony is a new one, but the poll often pits meaning against pleasure, which usually reduces to albums versus singles. So it’s fitting that another trend to spark comment was the concept album’s obverse, the novelty record — an analysis that reflects the healthy awareness that a good laugh can help you cope every bit as much a profound insight. Still, even though our singles chart featured two songs about butts and two more about jumping around, I’m not sure I buy the theory that 1992 was a big novelty year, especially if we honor Greil Marcus’s strict definition and insist that they be funny — “Jump” and “Jump Around” are delightful (especially “Jump”), “Rump Shaker” and “Baby Got Back” bodacious (especially “Rump Shaker”), but only the KLF’s delicious Tammy Wynette tribute/exploitation “Justified and Ancient” makes me guffaw. Anyway, in the broader sense rap is always a novelty on pop radio, and all that makes this year different is that out of its identity crisis it’s produced more Pazz & Jop chart singles than ever — six of the top seven and 10 of the top 19, including entries from Source faves Das EFX and Pete Rock & CL Smooth. What cheers me most about the singles chart is that that’s what it is. Of the 28 songs in our jam-packed top 25, only eight are from any of this year’s top 40 albums — and just as impressive in an era when MTV and such have replaced radio as a song machine, only three are also on our video list. Although this could also prove a blip, it’s the way things ought to be.

I wish they could be that way for me, but working with your ears is time-consuming. So shortly after discovering “Tennessee” on my Blaupunkt, I bought a newer car with a removable entertainment console, and while this upgrade enriched my music life, it rendered my singles experience more arbitrary than ever. As for albums, well, after you try fending mortality off with meaning for a while you discover why they invented irony, and also why they banned pleasure — men and women who deny themselves Madonna on what are at bottom niggling moral grounds bewilder me. I want it all — meaning and irony and pleasure, in the concept and in the bytes. So I pick and choose — Pavement not Unrest, Freedy Johnston not David Hildalgo, Eric B. not Pete Rock, Wayne’s World not Achtung Baby. Those who know my quiddities may snort at the jewel that crowns my list, although in fact I enjoyed less contemporary Afropop than at any time since the stuff found its U.S. market niche. Nevertheless, the one 1992 release I could always count on for wisdom and fun and pure musical gratification was South African poet-singer Mzwakhe Mbuli’s Resistance Is Defence (87th). Resistance Is Defence is alternative rap at its best. I wonder what Mbuli could do with a sampler.

Get on college radio? If we’re lucky. As you know, Pazz & Jop wasn’t the only place where rock critics’ votes counted this year. The U.S. has a new president, and I’m for him, albeit less passionately than some think meet. But though culture responds as much to image, mood, zeitgeist as to the economic realities not many claim Bill Clinton will change much, I’m not the kind of corny liberal (or convoluted radical) who’s persuaded the musical playing field is about to undergo drastic change. I’m not even certain that the year’s happiest development, an upsurge in self-determined women that I trust will continue until such time as the fascists win, is totally momentous — not with women generating almost half my top 10 but less than a tenth of what follows. Sometimes it’s salutory to make a point of music’s ultimate dependence on substructure, but with all the kvelling going on I feel more inclined this year to insist on its relative independence — even to agree that sometimes it leads the way. So I’ll just pray that rap gets through its identity crisis, that public housing is erected where those castles used to be, and that my mind and ass remain a continuum long enough for me to get my sustenance from whatever happens next — and what happens after that.

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Top 10 Albums of 1992

1. Arrested Development: 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of… (Chrysalis)

2. Pavement: Slanted and Enchanted (Matador)

3. R.E.M.: Automatic for the People (Warner Bros.)

4. PJ Harvey: Dry (Indigo)

5. Beastie Boys: Check Your Head (Capitol)

6. Los Lobos: Kiko (Slash/Warner Bros.)

7. Sugar: Copper Blue (Rykodisc)

8. Sonic Youth: Dirty (DGC)

9. Tom Waits: Bone Machine (Island)

10. Basehead: Play With Toys (Imago)

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Top 10 Singles of 1992

1. Arrested Development: “Tennessee” (Chrysalis)

2. House of Pain: “Jump Around” (Tommy Boy)

3. Kris Kross: “Jump” (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

4. En Vogue: “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)” (EastWest)

5. (Tie) Arrested Development: “People Everyday” (Chrysalis)
Cypress Hill: “How I Could Just Kill a Man”/”The Phuncky Feel One” (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

7. Sir Mix-a-Lot: “Baby Got Back” (Def American)

8. U2: “One” (Island)

9. The KLF: “Justified and Ancient” (Arista)

10. Sophie B. Hawkins: “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover” (Columbia)

—From the March 2, 1993, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

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Gabriel Kahane’s Open Arms

“I’m feeling like a true workaholic right now; my life is unmanageable,” the Brooklyn-based composer and singer Gabriel Kahane says while nestled in a window seat at DUMBO’s ReBar. “But it’s exciting.”

Kahane, who lives in Ditmas Park, is keeping busy; during our conversation he mentions a slew of projects he’s at work on, including a song cycle he’s premiering in the spring, a piece about Alcoholics Anonymous that’s in its earliest stages of development, and a forthcoming collaboration with his father. The list of works he’s already premiered in 2011 is lengthy.

There’s also February House, a musical he co-wrote with college friend and collaborator Seth Bockley. Set to go up at the Public Theater in the spring of 2012, it’s about a house in Brooklyn Heights where, back in the early 20th century, Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee, Benjamin Britten, and a host of other artists lived. “It’s the story of all these sexually othered people making this oddly nuclear family and trying to live simultaneously this very bohemian and yet, on a familial level, very bourgeois way of being,” says Kahane.

How many projects a day do you work on? I ask him. “Hopefully not more than one a day,” he says. “Though the last two weeks . . . “

Ah, yes, the last two weeks. Those have, in part, been spent prepping for the release of Where Are The Arms (Second Story Sound), his second album, which he’s been recording (in between working on his other projects) since January 2010. “I finished it for the first time in September of last year,” he recalls, “and shopped it and had interest from a big label who wanted me to make really significant changes—significant to the point of incorporating material from my first album [2008’s Gabriel Kahane].”

“It’s funny because if that had happened 10 years ago, I would have been like, ‘Sign me the fuck up!'” he recalls. “But now, where you have majors putting out records that sell 2,000 copies, 3,000 copies, 5,000 copies, there’s just no guarantee that it’s going to be any better, and it’s a much worse royalty rate. So I balked.”

The new economy of releasing music gave him the opportunity to go back into the studio and hammer out some more material for Arms; the opening track, the driving, string-accented, falsetto’d “Charming Disease,” was actually the last song he completed. The album hangs in a space between pop, classical, and new music, with different elements—strings, horns, subtly employed background singers—revealing themselves on each listen. “Parts Of Speech” is a tense update of the moody rock that bands like Aveo and Modest Mouse released in the early ’00s; “Last Dance” manages to elegantly unfurl in under four minutes, shifting from a floating spiral of winds and electronics into a taut, pleading track. The final track, “Great Lakes,” is more bar-burner than barnburner, a bit of tragic grandeur that sounds like the nightcap for a regret-soaked evening.

Kahane handles piano, guitar, and banjo duties on the album, and his band is rounded out by Casey Foubert (Sufjan Stevens), Rob Moose (also of Bon Iver), and Matt Johnson (Jeff Buckley). “The big difference with this record is that I was trying to get away from being the piano man, I guess,” he says. “So I had been playing more guitar and banjo and was writing songs away from the piano. Then also for the first time on this record, I think there were one or two songs where I did the normal rock thing, which was writing by recording.”

The “normal rock thing” is the full-time job for many musicians, of course, but Kahane’s smooth shifting between genres provides Arms with much of its richness. He can shift from discussing the nuts-and-bolts of classical commissions to fondly discussing the songcraft of Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated.” (The first time I saw him live, at Rockwood Music Hall, his set included a spirited cover of Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You”; the song had been floating around the Internet for only a few days, putting him ahead of, well, everybody.) Even in the iTunes era, where collections can be shuffled on demand and liking a single genre of music seems like easy line-item fodder for a personal ad, Kahane’s simultaneous embrace of pop and more highbrow-seeming music makes Arms seem both intimate and grand.

“Something that’s very formative to me is my dad is one of the most respected pianists and conductors in the country, but he grew up playing in rock bands,” says Kahane, whose father, Jeffrey, is the music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. “He’s an unusual figure in the world of classical music at that level, in that he takes the Duke Ellington attitude, which is, ‘There’s good music, and the other kind.’ When I was growing up, the record that was on the most was Graceland. Then it would turn that off and he would go play Brahms’ second piano concerto. It’s, ‘Is there substance there?’ Is there emotional substance, is there spiritual substance? Is it thoughtful? Except for the brief interlude where I was listening to House of Pain and Cypress Hill, there was never a schism vis-a-vis of genre in my house.”

Arms‘ sonic depth demands close listening, which is something that’s increasingly difficult in the iTunes era; music is relegated to background noise for firing off e-mails, catching up on Twitter, or being interviewed in a bar. (Two songs on the ReBar sound system manage to break into our conversation: Robyn’s plaintive ode to unavailable men “Call Your Girlfriend” and Animal Collective’s pop-song-in-disguise “My Girls.”) Kahane’s demanding schedule, he admits, makes it difficult for him to keep up on new music in an active way.

“I feel like the time that I listen to new records is when I cook, because I really love to cook, and it’s the only time where I can actually multitask,” he says. “Because I can’t listen to music and write and e-mail. It’s too distracting for me.”

Which might be why he has a public service announcement for overworked listeners—even those people who might be too enmeshed in writing music to take a break and open their ears.

“I just want people to go home and get a glass of scotch and sit down and listen to a record.”

Gabriel Kahane plays Littlefield on September 14

mjohnston@villagevoice.com

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Me and the Devil Blues

Life’s been a bumpy ride for Everlast. By the time his Celtic working-class rap outfit House of Pain’s million-selling 1992 debut spawned the major radio hit “Jump Around,” Erik Schrody had already bounced from Ice-T’s Rhyme Syndicate to solo flop to full-fledged star. But after the next four years, during which House of Pain’s popularity waned under the weight of two less successful follow-ups, Everlast was ready to risk reinvention. So he grabbed an acoustic guitar and struck out on his own. On the day he finished recording the now triple-platinum Whitey Ford Sings the Blues, Schrody suffered a massive heart attack that almost took his life. He was 29 years old.

It’s understandable, therefore, that his latest, Eat at Whitey’s, would portray Everlast as a man with death on his mind. Sonically, it follows in Whitey Ford‘s footsteps. But the singles “Black Jesus” and “I Can’t Move” just aren’t owning the airwaves the way “Ends” and “What It’s Like” did. And though it’s as good as, if not better than, its predecessor, the album’s not bowling people over, either. Maybe its rap-folk hybrid is just too much of the same. Or maybe we just can’t identify with the first-person “Black Jesus” like we can the third person of yore. Because maybe this album’s greatest strength is exactly what’s holding it back: the narrative.

Here we have the honest story of a guy who almost didn’t make it and is now trying to sort his proverbial shit out. The tale begins with a cocky, seemingly indestructible “white devil”—a total rock star living a life of excess, testing his limits, and toying with death. In the eerie “I Can’t Move,” he challenges an inner demon: “Want to get near it, close enough to fear it/close enough to hear it, close enough to say that I looked it in the eye/then it turned away.” But it doesn’t; it stares him down, tears him down, and leaves him defenseless. Only five tracks in, he’s already spinning out of control. Carlos Santana adds hypnotically repetitive, weeping-guitar melodies on “Babylon Feeling” as Everlast rasps: “My heart is broke, my will is gone/Fell in love with a woman named Babylon.” Hokey? No more than when he got shot in “Painkillers” last time out; the shit’s real. More real than that which claims to be, at least. Humbled, beaten down. And he accepts the responsibility.

The guy’s low, so naturally he dwells on his poor decisions. When the Brand New Heavies’ N’Dea Davenport joins for a soulful duet, Everlast is lamenting the girlfriend he cheated on. Soon the introspection pays off and he concludes that (epiphany!) the things he thought made him happy are the very things that are hurting him (“Heaven and hell are one and the same, boy”). Just when he concedes that “We’re All Gonna Die” and begs, “Lord, have mercy on my soul,” BAM! God up and gives him another shot. Everlast ends “Graves to Dig” paying tribute to those who stared down their demons but didn’t walk away: “It’s one for Scott LaRock, two for ‘Pac and Big/And three for all the mothers who got graves to dig.”

Not to add fuel to the Eminem-versus-Everlast single-begets-single-begets-single dis train, but plagued by image issues, chick problems, and racial hang-ups destined to destroy him, Eminem should step back and actually listen to Whitey before picking up his next gun or (allegedly) set of studio headphones. Everlast, as a white man who has appropriated his fair share of black culture, nonetheless plays it much cooler than Em. Oh, he can be controversial, too—the tough-guy verbal warfare’s still there, and referring to himself as a “Black Jesus” won’t win him any popularity points, no matter how catchy his picking and how singalongable his “na na na na” chorus is. The big difference is, Everlast crosses racial lines unostentatiously.

See, Eminem just can’t figure out whether he wants to be considered the whitest black man in pop or the blackest white man in rap, or both. But Everlast doesn’t care either way. He doesn’t give a second thought to the paradox inherent in name-checking Run-DMC while Warren Haynes, a Southern jam man, plays slide guitar and Merry “Gimme Shelter” Clayton wails in “Mercy on My Soul.” The juxtaposition doesn’t come off like a planned social statement because it’s not a contradiction; it’s simply who Everlast is.

By covering Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story,” with Rahzel from the Roots adding some Doug E. Fresh human beatbox, Everlast isn’t just providing a turning point in his white devil’s story; he’s paying respect to the East Coast old school he grew up on. And when he enlists Clayton, Santana, and Haynes, he’s not selling hip-hop out, he’s just paying respect to the rock and roll that, well, he grew up on.

Maybe the plot reads like an episode of Behind the Music, but there’s nothing annoyingly arty or superficially metaphorical here. Eat at Whitey’s is neither a morbid testament of impending doom nor a sappy spiritual reaffirmation of the Preciousness of Every Moment With Which We’re Blessed. It’s just the latest dispatch from a man who now knows that the last thing he said could really be the last thing he ever says.


Everlast plays Irving Plaza February 14.

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Back to the Funkture

The Red Hot Chili Peppers have often inspired volatile reactions to change; it’s as if the public who loves them seeks a reason to hate them. “Everything after Hillel Slovak [the original guitarist] died has been shit.” “MTV’s embrace of ‘Knock Me Down’ was a turnoff.” “The jump to Warner Bros. was a sellout.” And their greatest sin to date: replacing John Frusciante with Dave Navarro— redeemed only by Frusciante’s return on their latest release, Californication. Whatever.

As talented as Navarro is, I’ve cracked my share of Jane’s Chili Pepper/Red Hot Addiction jokes. After all, the image of stoic Gloom’n’Doom Boy dressing up as a giant lightbulb, or participating in the long-gone nearly naked antics of Socks for Jocks, is downright funny stuff. One Hot Minute (1995) was a bit of a bummer, yes. But now fans are calling for a mass denial of the last four years. Bad form.

It’s like a cheap daytime drama plot twist— claiming that the entire season was a dream, that key cast members never really died. Even the band implies the new album is partly a backtrack. With Frusciante back and Rick Rubin producing, the current lineup is identical to 1991’s breakthrough, BloodSugarSexMagik. And so, the argument goes, must be the sound, the vibe, the magic.

True, Californication‘s sweet and slow first single, “Scar Tissue,” recalls “Under the Bridge” like “Taste the Pain” once recalled their cover of Sly’s “If You Want Me To Stay.” The punchy “Get on Top” is a direct descendant of “Suck My Kiss.” But so what? Chili Pepper songs have always been inter-album referential patchworks.

Employ the scientific method, with One Hot Minute as the variable. Listen to every album sequentially, leaving One Hot Minute out; you’ll find moments on Californication that just don’t make sense without it. “Savior” has a definite Jane’s Addiction quality, and Frusciante’s guitar solos on “Easily” and “Emit Remmus” aren’t far from Navarro. Minute was a wallowing, self-pitying temper tantrum, an emotional breakdown for a band that’s been dealt devastating personal blows and gained strength by coming to terms through their music. Californication is a reaffirmation to stand up and fight. Give credit where it’s due: if not for the twisted detour the Peppers took through over-the-top experimentation and loss of control, they could never be where they are now.

Californication chronicles this positive progression— it’s as much a step forward as a look back. Where Anthony Kiedis has traditionally screamed sex, here he practically whispers it. And it’s sexier. Rubin’s more a band-member than ever, as evidenced best by dominant and beautiful multiple vocal tracks on “Californication” and “Otherside.” “Right on Time” and “Parallel Universe” hint at yet another new direction the band might explore— BPM-oriented electroslammers. It’s entirely feasible there’s a little techno styley in this self-proclaimed “Organic Anti-Beat Box Band.”

So count me among those happy that the dark days of Dave are behind us. I could easily talk about how he was the most fuckable badass guitarist they’ve had, but I don’t like to mix my adolescent whips-and-chains arty goth bondage fantasies with my funk. And thank God the fun-lovin’ funk is back. But is it? Flea’s got the full bottom booming on “Purple Stain,” and the first seconds of the disc put their bass in your face. Half of Californication, though, is comprised of the singsongy ballads that pissed off Hillel-era fans to begin with. Some say it’s no BloodSugarSexMagik; I say it’s no Uplift Mofo Party Plan. But it’s a well-written, well-performed, well-produced set of tunes— a perfect balance of the Peppers’ mellow and crazy sides, a great intro for someone who’s not already a fan, and ultimately evidence of the band’s inherent ability to grow and innovate within a realm of music they essentially pioneered.

Wherein lies the real irony of the public’s hypersensitivity to change. More and more, less-talented bands constantly cop the fundamentals of the RHCP metal-punk-funk white-boy-hip-hop hybrid and run away with the fans, fame, and fortune. Note Rage Against the Machine, House of Pain, Cypress Hill, and Korn. Not to mention the most popular band in America for this one hot minute, Limp Bizkit. Who are at least talented (like Kiedis, Fred Durst seems to rap by how words sound)— more than you can say for other popular Chili Pepper offspring like the Inane Clown Pussies.

The extent to which those idiots suck defies description. Catchy? Yeah, like crabs if you sit on a public toilet. In Alternative Press, Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope of ICP ask, “How can someone write that we suck when a million people disagree?” Well, how can a million people disagree when you suck? Why aren’t these million people listening to the real deal? Funk may be, as the Chili Peppers say, color blind. But it ain’t deaf.

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Wandering Minstrel

The CDnow Album Advisor says that Everlast fans should also shop Billy Joel, the Dave Matthews Band, A Tribe Called Quest, the Beastie Boys, Lauryn Hill, and, er, Sammy Kaye’s Best of the Big Bands— maybe the swing revival really is a conspiracy. At Amazon.com, recent Everlast purchasers also bought Cake, Soul Coughing, the Flys, Sugar Ray, the Offspring, and Hole, making clear which side of the modern rock/hiphop divide the former House of Pain frontman works these days. But why isn’t anyone bringing up Sublime? “What It’s Like,” the Everlast single that impelled Whitey Ford Sings the Blues to the upper charts after initial indifference in September, is the first true successor to the late Brad Nowell’s “What I Got.” Not a blatant Sublime rip-off: that’s “Fly” by Sugar Ray, whom Everlast is touring with these days. But a song that uses hiphop beats and a touch of the attitude for the purposes of minstrelsy, in the wandering sense— to communicate, with a lyric and a sound, a dialect, the lore of a distant village.

Nowell lived in the LBC, a California beach town where punks, rappers, rastas, surfers, and God knows who else bonded over drugs, squats, and a city in flames. Everlast’s home is more virtual, spliced together out of perpetually reworked alliances. Associated with Cypress Hill, whose DJ Muggs produced the first two House of Pain albums, he was one of the first credible Caucasian rappers, clinging to Irishness as a fault line between white and black (which in the U.S., for a long time, it was). He’d brag and bluster, then say “top of the morning to ya.” In 1996, he chose the release of their third album as occasion to break up House of Pain, whose lunkheaded side had stopped pumping him. He moved in two directions so divergent that only a few million albums sold could fill the divide, studying Islam, to which he’d recently converted, and aspiring to the haunting odes of Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. Then, when he was nearly done with the album no one had known he had in him, his heart gave out to seal up the drama.

This is a tabloid tale and the single is a tabloid tearjerker, with a homeless man begging for change, a woman whose man ran off walking through protesters into an abortion clinic, and a young guy infatuated with thugs and his .45 who gets shot down, leaving behind a wife and kids.”Ends,” the next Everlast single, hangs in the same crowd: M.B.A.-Ph.D. reduced to crackhead secures gun, only he’s “nervous with the tool” and gets shot down too. Everlast used to act demented— “jump around!”— or assume a gruff wheeze that might have taught DMX a trick or two. Now he speak-raps these stories in his most fatalistic manner and croons the choruses, empathy spraying alongside all the buckshot. Acoustic guitar caresses the funky drums or issues a mournful plaint, keyboards and flutes wink: it’s a knowing sound, a sound that raised hell in its day but doesn’t have to anymore. I prefer Sublime, where the sound was taking a break from mayhem but all too aware it couldn’t resist for very long.

But in both cases, the hits dangle out something a little deeper (cash register ka-ching!) for mainstream audiences than the next novelty or power ballad— a way of combining the sentimentality that the pop experience often feeds off of with hip-hop, one of the least overtly sentimental musical forms ever. 2pac did this for black audiences, which is why the question of his microphone skills was ultimately irrelevant. Nowell and now Everlast are pointing the way for white rappers, that still measly remnant. It’s a satisfying alternative to the usual tacks— crazed posturing, agitprop, art-school surrealisms— because the emotionality anchors the musical hodgepodges, like what the hell, maybe the music industry has seen fit to confer on us a complete human being. Ka-ching! You thought CDnow was wrong to suggest Billy Joel?

The switch-over in styles has provided career resuscitation for Everlast, who told one interviewer that “a year ago, I couldn’t even get anyone on the phone at my label.” When House of Pain broke in 1992, their sonics were fully current, “Jump Around” a spin-off of Cypress Hill’s throbbing membranes. Even the Run-D.M.C. back-and-forth of the great “Put On Your Shit Kickers” hadn’t fully dated. The next album, Same As It Ever Was, took the same textural basics deeper, but fewer people cared because hip-hop’s innovative edge had moved on. The real augur for the future, though nobody noticed, was “It Ain’t a Crime,” the first of Everlast’s story songs and yet another tale of a guy with an anxious finger on the trigger. 1996’s misbegotten final joint, Truth Crushed to Earth Shall Rise Again, stopped trying to keep up musically (DJ Lethal would eventually steal over to the rap-metal Limp Bizkit). Everlast, now far more courtly in his sex songs, shouted out to Jews, Christians, and his fellow Moslems, revealed a creeping discomfort with materialism on “No Doubt,” and exchanged B-boy street sweeping for rhetoric like “X-Files,” which sums up: “Some fiend for ass/Some fiend for cash/Some do the knowledge/Some do the math.” House of Pain fans were baffled.

Everlast didn’t start with much of a hardcore following this time; the challenge for him, as for so many rappers, was how to survive past the inevitable waning of that following— it’s called hitting 30, or maybe 25. Whitey Ford Sings the Blues isn’t especially great as hip-hop: you know you’re in trouble when your most booming track is called “Praise the Lord.” It isn’t even that great as Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson, since Everlast’s lyrics don’t cut very deep and he’s far too monochromatic a vocalist. But as middle-of-the-road pop it’s homesteading barely settled territory. Hip-hop is too revolutionary not to evolve its own form of sappy singer-songwriter confessionalism. This is a start. So, verbal groaners and occasional aural clichés aside, there’s a fascination to cuts like “Painkillers,” where the ordinary person Everlast imagines descending into oblivion is himself. Or the confidently slow-paced, hiphop-
derived chord changes underpinning the sermonized parts of “Today (Watch Me Shine),” or the folding in of archetypes that makes him murmur, during “Death Comes Callin’,” “I think I hear a steam whistle/Lord, when my train gonna come?”

Too bad black artists don’t receive the same validation for their experiments. When I groove on “Ends,” I’m just exercising ears trained by Public Enemy’s roundly dismissed “He Got Game,” autumnal hip-hop at its finest. And for sentiment, what about P.M. Dawn, whose Dearest Christian, I’m So Very Sorry for Bringing You Here. Love, Dad is absolutely drenched emotionally and has a great potential single, “Art Deco Halos”? Finally, I must mention the Coup’s “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Granada Last Night,” which is a story song worthy of Dylan, or at least Dan Bern. Affirmative action works both ways: for the near future, white rappers who are at least marginally qualified are going to get a stronger hearing than their relative talents deserve. That isn’t a slap at Everlast, who I bet would make a similar argument for the merits of his buddy Divine Styler. It’s just what it’s like.

Everlast plays Roseland February 19.

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M.O.T.

Since alleged mensches the Beasties have become preoccupied with saving monks, it’s schlemiels like Busta and Wyclef whom we count on to carry the kishke on behalf of Borscht Belt sensibilities. So it figures that a novelty rap act called M.O.T. has garnered about as much respect as Professor Griff’s solo career. (Well, so much for his old theories . . . )

The half-witted work of Dr. Dreidel and Ice Berg (a/k/a Andrew Rosenthal, formerly half of too-late new-wave parody Martini Ranch), 19.99 is titled in a way that impliesdon’t worry, we won’t hurt you, we only want to have some fun. But while strangely earnest liner notes by manager Meshugge Knight (a/k/a Hits magazine smart aleck Roy Trakin) promise parallels ranging from Lenny Bruce to Fanny Brice, M.O.T.’s opening big-up to pleasures of trayf Chinese food, “Emmes G,” immediately recalls Everlast’s pugnacious persona circa House of Pain.

It should be presumed that any hip-hop satire this side of Chris Rock is gonna be a half-decade outta step; musical allusions here don’t get further than M.C. Hammer or L’Trimm, with a passel of played-out gangsta style. “Double Dutch Lunch” could qualify as old-school genius— that is, if closeted Yid Malcolm McLaren hadn’t gotten there first.

Now, you shouldn’t expect much from an album whose aesthetic highlight is a whistling cameo from beleaguered actor Judge Reinhold, but at least these Hebes are hardcore enough to give a shout-out to Manischewitz’s famously flavorless Tam Tams crackers. Although 19.99 ain’t much saltier, rapzine editors needn’t fear assaults from any schnorrers in M.O.T.’s “Kosher Nostra.” Worst they’ll do is cancel their subscriptions (then buy a newsstand copy for the scrapbook. And to show their mothers).