Apologies to the Queen Mary
By Hal Pratt
I’ve had Wolf Parade’s debut album around for three weeks now, and I still can’t decide about it. Is it an exciting new band with promise of a successful career? Is it an anomaly, one of those one-off sorta cool albums that the band never manages to pull together again? Is it even any good in the first place? I decided I’d quiz my little brother to try to figure it out. All that produced was this strained “is my brother going to follow me around the house talking?” glare, and “Hal, they sound like Modest Mouse.” Good point, Eddie. They do sound like Modest Mouse, and Isaac Brock did produce the album, so maybe I’ll start there.
Apologies to the Queen Mary is clearly indebted to Good News For People Who Love Bad News, though only marginally more so than it is to Make Up the Breakdown or Franz Ferdinand or just about any major indie album of late. Which is the crux of the problem, so far as there is one: I just don’t see why I should care about this album in particular. In any case, it is wonderfully put together.
It opens with the driving, straightforward “You Are A Runner And I Am My Father’s Son,” which, like most of the songs on the album, achieves that wonderful feat of having lyrics that only make sense with the song. Do you really have a clue what “I am my father’s son/ And I’ll build a house inside of you/ I’ll go in through the mouth/ I’ll draw three figures on your heart/ One of them will be me as a boy/ One of them will be me/ One of them will be me watching you run” means? Something about oral sex, seduction, dysfunctional fathers, low self-esteem, childhood trauma… I dunno. But when delivered with boozy swing, histrionic vocals, and vaguely menacing distortion, it seems like it means something – maybe alcoholism and failed relationships. But it works. And you can listen free at subpop.com, so ignore me and go figure it out yourself.
The album maintains this gloaming ambiance, with most of the songs featuring effectively simple drumbeats, choruses full of noisy synthesizers and jagged guitar lines churning under yelping lead vocals (which is primarily what made Eddie think of Modest Mouse), and a happy-go-lucky assortment of song titles: “Grounds For Device,” “Modern World,” “Same Ghost Every Night,” “It’s A Curse.” Their best lyrics by far are on “Fancy Claps,” which builds from some random noodling on a keyboard to a ponderous guitar riff to an amphetamine fueled synthesizer line behind what sounds like the aught-five equivalent of “When I’m Sixty-Four” – “When I die, I’m leaving you my feet/ When you die, you can stand up for me/ We can lie in a homemade canoe/ You can put me in your hair/ I’ll be happy there.”
The album’s best song, “Shine A Light,” opens as every track does, with one instrument introducing the song’s main beat, a guitar in this case. This acts as a nice insulator, marking one song from the next and keeping the album from sounding monotonous, though the songs do tend to share the same structure, a quiet intro slowly accumulating layers of guitars, vocals, and synthesizers until it breaks into a chanted chorus (in this case “You know our hearts beat time out very slowly/ You know our hearts beat time they’re waiting for something that’ll never arrive ”) that ends with an instrumental denouement recalling the introduction. But what makes “Shine A Light” stand out is that, while retaining the usual vocal edge, the chorus is also beautifully melodic, coloring the melancholy chorus with a tinge of hope that, if you’re inclined to make unnecessary connections between canonical literature and pop music, makes you think of Beckett’s Waiting For Godot.
The final two songs of the album wrap up the proceedings surprisingly. First is “Dinner Bells,” which clocks in at seven-and-a-half minutes, far longer than any other track on the album. Amidst a jarringly sparse guitar line, quietly whirring synthesizers, are among the most straightforwardly bleak lyrics of the album, “I’ve made friends with the hangman/ So there’ll be no more winter/ There’ll be no more spring/ And there’ll be no more dinner bells left for you to ring.” Actually, I have no idea what dinner bells have to do at all with all the other apocalyptic lyrics of the song, so naturally they’re what made the title. In any case, the song ends with a funeral march-paced instrumental interlude that fades slowly into silence.
Then the happily uplifting finale opens with another one of the nervy synthesizer lines that are Wolf Parade’s calling card. Building slowly from the morose, wintry penultimate track, “This Hearts on Fire,” has, by its conclusion, sped up, picked up the volume, and leaves you feeling, as they sing that, “it’s getting better all the time.” It never reaches the runaway-train feel that some of the other fast-paced songs have, and instead, cleverly playing with the fire/winter dichotomy between the last two tracks, ends with just enough of a positive note for you to enjoy the album without losing its edginess.
It’s a pretty great album. But… there’s still something missing. Maybe it’s just a bit too well produced. Maybe it’s too comfortably wedged into the mainstream/not-mainstream mold of this decade that it fails to resonate as well as it should. Maybe it’s indicative of the sort of dull malaise that seems so appropriate as the days shorten, politics go into their awkward post/pre-campaign hibernation and we meander through the middle of a decade that, as far as I can tell, never really shook itself out of the 90s. Or maybe the album recalls such a worldview so well that, after listening to it, you’re disinclined to lavish praise on anything. In any case, it works nearly perfectly at what it does, whatever that is.
Vertically Challenged and The Loneliest Punk
By Jake Harter
UK’s 19-year-old Grime debutante, Lady Sovereign, stole the show on last year’s ‘Run the Road’ grime comp, prompting a minor bidding war in the US. Grime is Britain’s interpretation of hip-hop, combing garage beats with shrill, spit-fire lyrics, which together sounds like a scratched hip-hop LP playing at 45 RPM. Lady Sovereign doesn’t live up to the “Feminem” billing, but Chicago’s Chocolate Industries (an auxiliary of DefJam) got their money’s worth producing Sov’s debut solo album. If the lyrical content is narrow – the album after all contains two singles, three remixes and only one new track – her delivery is enthralling.
The first single, Random, has Sov side-swiping far less talented, but far more wealthy American rappers with her devilish chirp. The chorus from the second single, Ch Ching (Cheque 1,2 Remix) sums up this novel approach to rap: “Me na have 50 rings/ But I got 50 things to say in a cheeky kinda way.” Her brags of waking up the neighbors in “Shhh!” seem a bit JV for a champagne swilling, undersized diva, but the whisper-song like production more than compensates. The last notable track, “the Battle” is an 8-minute behemoth featuring Shystie – the one other British female MC who shouldn’t go back to frying up eggs and streaky bacon for Riko, Kano and Dizzee – and the albums most piquant word-play.
She giggles churlishly, growls sexual innuendos and rhymes with an off-kilter sing-song better than all her UK contemporaries. Only Dizzee Rascal boasts production as polished or talent enough to stand up to American rappers. The shifting, bass-heavy production provides a glossy backdrop, worthy of Missy, who also compensates for content with delivery, for Sov’s rhymes and proves that she’s in good hands with Jay-Z and Def Jam. Apparently, she has the Avril, three-beer, onstage crash and burn down pat. This girl-wonder is legal and in America and we should be happy on both accounts.
The Loneliest Punk
As one of the founding members of DC hip-hop outfit, the Pharcyde, Fat Lip never released the solo album he had in mind when he split with Pharcyde in 1995. Here it is, in all its half-assed, mumbled, self-deprecating glory. If only this version edited out the sub-par studio tracks with lame hooks about women either cooking or wearing pumps. Tracks like Joe’s Turkey, Writer’s Blog and What’s up Fatlip? show him at his best, spitting meandering rhymes about his own insecurities over delicious old school disco.
Fat Lip channels Ol’ Dirty Bastard on “Today’s the Day,” growling over a baritone soul sample, lamenting why he can’t assist his folks: “his mother, and his auntie and his uncle; his folks.” The screeching horns and bouncing bass of Joe’s Turkey bring the dark comedy of Fat Lip eating out of a back-alley trashcan, relishing in the comfortable stink of “pork and beans.” The only single that came from the album, “What’s Up Fatlip,” made for a jewel of a music video directed by Spike Jonz, which is featured on the accompanying DVD. Over twinkling piano stabs, a plodding guitar line and a sitcome laugh-track – and in the video, garbed in an oversized clown suit – Fat Lip raps: “Beside the fact/ my voice is wack/ clowns is running round talking bout how they smell crack/ Ain’t go no homies that got my back/ Yeah, I’m a brother but sometimes I don’t feel black.”
Unlike most hip-hop albums, the filler is the best part of the record, spinning half-brilliant offhand comedy out of freestyle rhymes and funk samples. A voice-recording set to soul music about “getting too fucking drunk” and a minute-long funk ode to having “the shit” stand out and more than make up for the handful of amateur tracks clearly thrown together in post-production.
Even when the lyrics are lacking, the humor, honesty and spare production cut through. This is some of the best hip-hop I’ve heard in a long time. So many of these tracks got lost in the wash when Fatlip went solo and that they still sound novel and fresh after 10-years in the gutter makes listening to this album all the better.