Tuesday, January 27, 2015
Trying to finish up this little series of year-end posts before we get too far into 2015...
Looking over the music I listened to in 2014, it's clear that I didn't do a very good job keeping up with the latest releases of even just my preferred narrow subgenre of underground hip hop. Thus, reviewing the albums of 2014 for me is as much about what I did listen to as what I didn't and still need to seek out.
Firstly, I already wrote a more in-depth piece about the two albums that were my favorites from the first half of 2014, The Living Daylights and Life Outside the Frame, so be sure to go give that a read.
Musically it was a great year as most of my favorite artists released long-awaited new material, including Bronze Nazareth, Madlib, Cormega, and the Wu-Tang Clan. In fact, looking back on it I spent most of the year listening almost exclusively to these new projects (while dabbling in their past catalogues plus exploring the old blind sage composer Moondog).
Rock Konducta (Parts 1 & 2) by Madlib
Was pining for this for a while. The vinyl dropped last January but those of us without phonographs had to wait until July for the mp3/CD version. Madlib, the legendary producer/sonic-trip-extraordinaire, added onto his mammoth catalogue with this newest edition of the "Beat Konducta" instrumental series, featuring a potpourri of obscure samples from the farthest reaches of 60s-70s psychedelic rock, prog rock, Zamrock, Krautrock, and every other eclectic rock, twisted, tweaked and chopped up into hip hop beats. Totaling more than 80 minutes over 50 tracks, most of them less than 2 minutes long, Rock Konducta is an enclosed universe in and of itself. There's an endless array of miscellaneous snippets, cacophonous blurts of speech, screams, Bill Murray disc jockey riffs, jangling-metal hi-hats, crunching drum lines, badass loops, synth-heavy snoozers, odd offputting tirades, the most random yelps you've ever heard (this tape has a recurrent motif featuring what sounds like a mentally disabled woman bleating "Gimme a dollar!"), ringing alarm clocks or phones, stand-up routines, and every other sonic microcomponent Madlib could cobble together to line this collage of treasures from his rock vinyl collection. There's certainly plenty of skippable material here, but you can easily distill this vast assemblage into a playlist of 30 tracks that are excellent (which is exactly what I did). Or you can listen to the full thing and drift away into the far reaches of Madlib's weird mind.
Favorite tracks: First of all, where the hell does he come up with all these track names? There are 52 tracks in all, none of which have a generic name. Among my favorites are the thumping, mildly melancholy "Motorik Matching", the rugged pysch rock jam "Black Widow", the woodwind orchestral head-bopper "Giant Okra", and the drum-heavy up-tempo controlled chaos known as "Soap Guillotine" on Part 1; deep into the more lackluster Part 2 is my favorite loop on the whole project "Dies Irae" (it's become one of my favorite Madlib beats ever), the rest of Part 2 is unspectacular aside from the rugged fiddle symphony "Teapot", the penultimate percussion showcase "Soon Over" and, of course, the beat tape's closing 30 seconds into which Madlib enigmatically inserts one of the finest, most grave-sounding beats. You'll first need to sit through a 90-second satirical skit of a botched plane hijacking because it's only after that, and a transitional distorted sample singing "though I call from far awayyyy/ you don't listen...," when the Beat Konducta decides to flip on the serious switch.
Tuesday, January 13, 2015
Who knew there was so much fascinating history to be uncovered on miserable old Staten Island? Certainly not I, whose mother spent years working for the Staten Island Historical Society. Nope, never cared.
During the Christmas holiday I spent a week back in my hometown of Staten Island. It was an eventful trip, bookended by some of the worst travel experiences I've ever had (lost luggage on each leg of the journey, thanks United!) but I ended up having a really great time. Got to witness New York City from the perspective of a visitor, which I always find to be an exciting and enlightening experience.
Sunday, January 4, 2015
Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
Zipped through this hilarious little gem on my flight to Portugal in the spring. This was my second foray into Vonnegut and, while my socks certainly weren't knocked off by this book, I'm starting to love the guy. His style of writing is just so damn clear and concise, the humor always incisive. With a rather mundane story focused in middle America, Vonnegut brings the absurdity of our modern existence to light as only he can. Few books have made me laugh out loud as much as this one. Upon finishing it, I planted my copy in the bookshelf of the Lisbon apartment we stayed at. Hopefully it will bring someone else joy and bewilderment.
Cat’s Cradle by Vonnegut
A friend, whose brother had originally insisted I read Slaughterhouse Five last year, handed me a copy and urged me to read Cat's Cradle, which he feels is Vonnegut's best book. Much like Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut's economy of style and constant wit blew me away but the story didn't capture me until a sudden plot twist toward the end. The last 100 pages or so have many quotable lines, here's one of my favorites: "When a man becomes a writer, I think he takes on a sacred obligation to produce beauty and enlightenment and comfort at top speed." There's a strange affect I've noticed when reading Vonnegut that compels you to crave more. I now see why his easily digestible books are so adored. Can't wait to dig into the next one.
Joyce’s Book of the Dark by John Bishop
The premier critical text of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, occupied an inordinate amount of my brain energy for most of the year. While I completed it in January of 2013 (it shows up on my book list for last year), I felt so adamant that a thorough summary review needed to be written that I spent all of 2013 re-reading it, then spent most of 2014 re-re-reading it and writing a review which became one of the longest pieces I've ever written. You can read all about it here.
Baseball Prospectus 2014
The ol' reliable doorstop made some drastic changes with its 2014 edition. After major complaints from readers (myself included) about the 2013 edition with its shortened team essays and run-of-the-mill writing, the BP editors not only brought back the extended-length essays but brought in outside writers to cover each team. They also broke with a long tradition of leaving the essays without a byline, presumably for the appeal of having some well-known baseball writers featured. It made for a great edition of this often terrific annual, but I remain perplexed at the direction it's headed. Bringing in 30 outside writers is a nice gimmick, but I'd like to see the actual cadre of Baseball Prospectus analysts get back to banging out unique, awesome essays on their own like they used to.
Football Outsiders 2014
This book was partly responsible for me winning my second fantasy football championship in a row. I wrote about it a bit more extensively here. It's an encyclopedic annual overflowing with stats and elevated by always impressive analytical essays. The heyday of Baseball Prospectus has passed, the fantastic Pro Basketball Prospectus series got snatched up and turned into online content by ESPN, but the Football Outsiders/Prospectus group maintains its powers. This is a must-read every year for devoted football fans and fantasy football geeks.
Friday, January 2, 2015
It’s been a long year. I can’t recall a point this year when it felt like things were moving along quickly. Time slowed down in 2014. While I was more busy than ever, the months never seemed to zoom by.
This was actually my first full year span spent working full-time. Gradually my distaste for this obligation has faded as I’ve learned to accept its inevitability. It’s also a very good situation to be in, relatively speaking. In a notoriously traffic-clogged city, my commute is 15 minutes, with no highway travel. The office environment is mostly relaxed, my coworkers are cool people, it’s extremely rare that I work more than 40 hours, and it’s a gig that pays the bills. Plus, the nagging 9-to-5 didn’t hold me back from traveling to Europe for two weeks, finding and moving into a new apartment with my girlfriend, playing in a hockey league, playing in tennis leagues, writing dozens of blog posts, socializing, watching a ridiculous amount of baseball, leading a bi-monthly Finnegans Wake Reading Group, lounging aplenty, and indulging all the other luxuries a working class person tends to afford.
More importantly for the purposes of this blog, I consumed many, many movies, read a bunch of books, and absorbed a handful of new hip hop albums. Here I would like to present a little rundown of each of those, starting with film.
In the year 2014 I attended more movies than any other year of my life. My girlfriend and I live in an apartment that's within easy walking distance of two high-quality, meal-serving cinemas so it was something we did almost every other week. Four years ago, as I mostly documented on this blog at the time, I lived within walking distance of Petco Park in San Diego and got to attend something like 20 baseball games that year (when the Padres were a surprise contender all year). This current situation feels sort of like that. World class entertainment is only a short trek away, so I may as well take advantage while I can.
Here are the films I watched in 2014...
Saw it twice in theaters and would love to see it again. While it’s received a pretty broad range of reviews, I tend to side with those who consider it one of the best movies of the 21st century. The deep themes resonate, the suspense consumes you, the intricately designed plot invites analysis (and I don’t mean the “here’s what Christopher Nolan got wrong” kind), the soundtrack mesmerizes, and the father-daughter relationship at the heart of the film rattles your emotions. I think it’s Christopher Nolan’s best work, an admirable homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film you must see in theaters, and a movie I know I'll still be talking about ten years from now.
Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
As I’ve written before, when it comes to art, style rules. With its narrative-threading jazz drums, unbelievably long takes, snappy dialogue, and extraordinary usage of special effects, Birdman has a style all its own. A fast-moving, impressively shot, unique masterpiece from Alejandro González Iñárritu that thumbs its nose at the outlandish explosion of comic book films, this was my second favorite film of the year behind Interstellar.
A film I'd like to see again. One of the premier pop auteurs of our era, David Fincher renders this thriller novel in gripping, tense, confounding fashion. It had me on the edge of my seat throughout and, as with most of Fincher's films, I sensed a smorgasbord of subtextual themes. So much going on in this film, I'd love to see Rob Ager take a crack at analyzing it.
A special film from young director Damien Chazelle, Whiplash is so extremely intense that I was sweating by the end of it. An ambitious drummer in a prestigious music school clashes with an abusive, sadistic and unfortunately powerful teacher/composer. They both strive for musical greatness at the expense of everything else in life, and their showdown is viscerally entertaining.
Thursday, December 25, 2014
Time destroys us
We destroy ourselves
Angels wings clap,
I feel the wind in my cells
I feel the wind in my cells
- Kevlaar 7
Kevlaar was one of my favorite hip hop artists of all time, a poet with a magnificent gift for stringing together intricate and inspiring bars who was also a highly talented producer. He was also a friend. A lighthearted, down-to-earth, humble and extremely intelligent person, Kevlaar would often reach out directly to his fans (I'd just had a text message convo with him a few weeks ago). A beloved friend to many, he was a proud father of two children who he frequently posted about on Facebook and mentioned in songs. He even included a clip of his young daughter saying "I'm learning, daddy" on a track from his first album, and put an image of his son on the cover.
In this blog's five-year history, I've spilled many words on the work of Kevlaar 7. The first piece I ever officially published was a review of Kevlaar's EP Who Got the Camera? for Slant Magazine. He and his younger brother, the Wu-Tang affiliated emcee/producer extraordinaire Bronze Nazareth, have brought an unparalleled approach to their craft and quickly became my favorite contemporary artists, of any genre. Unfortunately, during his career Kevlaar's work was relatively slept-on and underrated for such a great talent. A poet with a vast perspective, his verses were often inlaid with hints of his words living on and inspiring listeners long after his death, hence the title of his first album Die Ageless.
When I heard the news this morning, I had an immediate physical reaction. My heart sunk into my stomach and my hands were shaking. It was complete shock. Kevlaar had always been an active voice not only through his music but through social media, regularly posting articles and news throughout the day. I learned a great deal from him. He had a passion for science, especially astronomy, and was a strong advocate for healthy eating through a plant-based diet. A friendly and irreverent person, he was loved by many. Despite his talents and reputation, he was an extremely humble and accessible guy. I could always rely on him to respond quickly to any text or e-mail. The thought of him being prematurely silenced by death just didn't seem possible. His energy seemed too powerful, too important, too necessary to possibly be taken away. In this tumultuous moment in history, we need poets of perspective like Kevlaar. I feel deeply saddened, a heavy depressing gravity in my chest when I ponder proceeding into the future without Kevlaar 7 actively supplying us with his inspiring gift.
I've been a passionate fan of hip hop music since I was a young kid and once I learned about him (around 2006) there was hardly anyone whose work I looked forward to hearing as much as Kevlaar's. A new piece of music from Kevlaar 7 would always be devoured; played over and over again to catch the wordplay, double entendres, and mesmerizing flow. I can remember a conversation with him a couple years ago where he declared to me that his confidence in his artform was as strong as ever. He felt he could step on a track with any emcee in the world and shine, commanding respect and admiration. I'm convinced he was as good as anyone out there, an individual embodiment of the cutting edge in lyrical hip hop's evolution. If that sounds like hyperbole, I suggest reading some of the analytical pieces I've written about his verses.
In loving memory and reflection on the life of Kevlaar 7 (real name Kevin Cross), I am including links here to the many in-depth pieces I wrote about his work. Rest In Peace Kevlaar 7!!! You will be sorely missed.
I give you power with my words
It's a gift and a curse
Like nursing a dead flower
back to life
I watch you grow
Then let you go
until my final hour
- Kevlaar 7
An analysis of a track Kevlaar devoted to his deceased cousin.
A thorough track-by-track review of Kevlaar's debut release. A very timely piece with meditations on the growing epidemic of police brutality.
(alternate version posted at Slant Magazine)
My first official published article, devoted to an important and far-ahead-of-its-time project.
Re-plant This in Our Handbooks: A Look at the Modern Day Hip Hop Rendition of MLK's "I Have a Dream"
A line-by-line breakdown of one of K7's most impressive tracks, written in a verse which parallels MLK's most famous speech. "I have a dream today that the devil vanished/ re-plant this in our handbooks/ teach our children the answers."
Interview with Kevlaar 7 and Bronze Nazareth
Discussing their work and their album Children of a Lesser God.
A lengthy track-by-track review of his most important album.
Reviewing his last full-length project.