Wednesday, February 5
(K Records, 2003)
Rating (out of 10): 8.5
As has become customary in the rap world, K records (the up-and-coming Olympia, WA underground hip-hop label) are releasing special vinyl-only instrumental and a cappella editions of the Microphones’ newest full length platter, respectively entitled Drums from Mt. Eerie and Singing from Mt. Eerie. Now, I haven’t heard these versions of the album, but I can only imagine how useful they would be for DJs who want to slip some killer breaks and vocal hooks into their old-skool/underground sets.
The Microphones, despite taking their name from revered battle weapon of hip-hop’s past, have made a career of pushing the genre’s boundaries, at times so far as to be confused for "experimental folky indie-pop." Their range is particularly impressive considering that the Mics posse consists of just one man, Phil Elvirum, who juggles production and MC duties. His trademark "lo-fi NW" style has been acclaimed as Washington’s answer to the dirty South, while his "poetic" mic skillz tend toward the extrametrical and somnolent. Some have even accused him of singing rather than rapping, but while his flow is quite tuneful, it’s not really on pitch enough to qualify as singing. For Mt. Eerie, he’s assembled a formidable roster of additional vocal talent, including the sultry-voiced Mirah (K’s resident chanteuse), to complement his storytelling lyrics and sleepy delivery with magisterial choruses of oohs and aahs.
Mt. Eerie is essentially a single piece of music divided into five long cuts, though the points of division are somewhat arbitrary. The titular fourth track, for instance ("in which you watch your killer roll up and kill you. Vultures eat your body and fly off, leaving the peak empty and windy again" – did I mention this is the craziest-ass concept album since Mr. Lif’s I Phantom), starts with a continuation of the dreamy choral singing in track four. Then, two minutes in, it suddenly erupts into a menacing, propulsive ditty which (no joke!) bears an uncanny resemblance to Missy’s "Work It." On "opener" "The Sun," murky, swirling layers of percussion slowly emerge from nothingness, building up from a heartbeat pulse into an otherizing/ever-loving tribal frenzy reminiscent of late-’60s Miles Davis. After 10 minutes, this suddenly drops away, and Phil’s voice makes its first entrance, blathering on (about something deep, I’m sure.) At first a cappella, he’s soon joined by waves of sound – sweet choral vocals and guitars but also more menacing electric and organic noises that eventually overpower and consume the whole business.
Okay, so Mt. Eerie is not really a hip-hop album. Though that much is clear, it’s hard to get much further in trying to categorize it. There’s something epic going on here: transcendent perhaps, bombastic probably, and deeply personal, obviously. But what’s most mystical is how Elvirum manages to tackle his grand, abstract, universal, ill-defined themes and emerge with a record so worthwhile, down-to-earth, and eminently listenable.
(click here for full-length review)
[Various Artists], Almost You: The Songs of Elvis Costello
(Glurp Records, 2003)
Last year, Elvis Costello lost some weight, put on a funny hat, dropped his highest-profile (and least original) album in years, and toured the world fronting one the greatest rock bands since the Attractions broke up for the last time in the mid-90s. As if that wasn't accomplishment enough, Rhino records began the hefty undertaking of re-re-re-releasing his entire back catalog on cd, and he managed to avoid any involvement in the Austin Powers threequel (which, by the way, was better than the first one.) So I don't think anyone would begrudge the man his just desserts: the opportunity to have some of his finest songs "reinterpreted" by a host of unknown artists!
Okay, I'll be nice. From the get-go, Almost You: the Song of Elvis Costello has a leg or two up on the rest of its tribute-album ilk (we're talking about possibly the lowest genre of release currently inhabiting the nations used bins.) First, the label whose "criminally underrecognized" roster this disc is a transparent attempt to prop up (actually, this is only Glurp's second release) has a kick-ass name. Second, like the label, over half of the acts represented are from Texas, a state second only to NY in production of top-notch rawk albums in recent years. More significantly, the songs here are of such high quality that even thoroughly lacklustre cover versions fail to obscure Costello's genius for songcraft.
And lustre some of these versions indeed lack - not least the contributions of "name" artists like Jon Auer (who used to front the Posies) and Fastball (whose glorious summer-of-97 single "The Way" nicked its middle-eight from Elvis's "Two Little Hitlers). The former offers up a strummy version of "Beyond Belief" that strips away all the nuance of the original; the latter are one of several rock bands who simply reiterate the original Attractions arrangements without nearly as much energy. Even the usually impeccable Vic Chesnutt disappoints with a pleasantly twangy but aimless group pass through "Alison." Predictably, the most interesting offerings are those that vary significantly from the original versions, and in this case the most successful are those with female vocalists. I don't know if that's because these just happen to be the best tracks, or only because it's neat to hear Costello's melodies and lyrics sung by women. Either way, this comp's highlights, as far as I'm concerned, are the Damnations languid duet on the Brutal Youth ballad "Still Too Soon to Know," Brenda Kahn's slinky take on "Watch Your Step," the Mendoza Line's mellow "Sleep of the Just," and especially an absolutely gorgeous, mandolin-driven reading of "Red Shoes" from New York twang-lite outfit Hem - the only offering here that can compare favorably to its original version.
While it doesn't have the Destiny's Child cover of "Spooky Girlfriend" that I've been fantasting about since El mentioned the idea in some interview with a big-name rock-mag this summer (there were so many!), Almost You still has its share of worthwhile moments. I would even go so far as to recommend that you listen to it - after, of course, you have fully digested all twenty or so of the original Costello albums.