Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
Four months ago I was prepared to dub Gang Starr’s latest state of the world address The Ownerz as the quintessential disc of 2003, but that was before Dre and Big Boi blew the competition away, again.
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is a classic record, somewhere between Public Enemy’s It takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back and Boogie Down Production’s Criminal Minded.
That may be a bold statement, but after dropping this bonafide classic after other undeniable masterpieces, the manner in which Boi and Dre seamlessly went pseudo-solo is more impressive than anything that has come from New York in the past five years.
Only a record this brilliant can spark a debate across the country over which disc is more unbelievable, Big Boi’s thumping Speakerboxxx, or Andre’s genre-bending The Love Below. While Dre’s foray into crooning is commendable simply for its ambitiousness, Boi’s offering is even more jaw-dropping considering how much Sir Lucious Leftfoot is slept on.
Love may contain the greatest song to ever be overplayed (“Hey Ya” again and again, please) but it doesn’t have the banger barrage that Speakerboxxx so effortlessly pieces together.
Beginning with the speeding-caddy-slamming-to-a-halt groove of “Ghetto Muzik” and continuing through the spacey anthem, “Unhappy” and the pimp strut of “Bowtie,” by song four one becomes stunned at how, in four consecutive jams, Boi surpassed the brilliance of “Elevators,” “Players Ball” and “Rosa Parks.”
After the breezy single “The Way You Move,” the disc continues to churn out hits like “The Rooster,” “War,” “Church” and apexing at the blistering reunion, “Knowing.” Big Boi even burns Jay-Z on “Hip Hop Rock” (as if there was even a competition on the radio, anyway).
All of this and a disc of Prince covers, too!
It’s time to dub OutKast the ultimate hip-hop group of the Y generation. Only Run DMC ranks higher in my definitive list of rap acts. Many artists are lauded for decades on the strength of one or two discs. They then seem to vanish in a mist of unimpressive follow-ups (Nas anyone?).
Yet these two southernplayalistic ATLiens somehow keep putting out genius material time and time again. Recognize fools, OutKast rocks everything above and under ground.
“Never relaxing, OutKast is everlasting!”
In a year filled with promises of the return of rock (and isn’t that what they say every year?) and less than stellar follow-ups by old heroes, there exists a silver lining in the form of Wonderful Rainbow, the latest full-length by Rhode Island-based noise artists Lightning Bolt.
Lightning Bolt create mammoth sounds, far surpassing what one would expect from two guys playing drums and bass guitar. Drummer Brian Chippendale launches a barrage of snare, kick and cymbal that must be heard to be believed. Bassist Brian Gibson coaxes the most unlikely sounds from his instrument and fingertaps with enough ferocity to rival that of Eddie Van Halen.
The album opens with “Hello Morning,” an introduction featuring distant bass sounds and arrhythmic drum rolls that is free-formed, yet relatively subdued, ending with a screech that launches into “Assassins,” a massive, landscape-flattening sonic assault that could be called definitive (if there is such a thing), Lightning Bolt. Chaotic drum and bass interplay ensues with Chippendale’s distorted vocals buried in the crossfire.
“Dracula Mountain” alternates nursery rhyme singsong with pulsating riffs and the micro-beats o, “2 Towers,” soar into sprawling soundscapes with colossal basswork and shifting backbeats.
The next few tracks are fairly reserved, each with distinctive flavors: the serpentine bass of “On Fire,” the finger-tapping and pulsing prog of “Crown of Storms,” and the hearty, 6/8 groove of “Longstockings.”
Followed by the beautifully melodic (and notably drumless) “Wonderful Rainbow,” the album seems to give the listener a deserved respite and sense of calm. That is, until “30,000 Monkies,” the musical equivalent of schizophrenic word salad, blasts out of the speakers.
Reminiscent of their earlier work, this noise-filled home stretch is rounded out by the plodding menace of “Duel in the Deep.”
Lightning Bolt have crafted artful record with Wonderful Rainbow. While showing an impressive dynamic range and aggressive experimentalism, the band is able to create corrosively beautiful melodies and intriguingly catchy hooks.
It’s an artful blend of screeching mathematical metal, but it is not alienating to the listener. Wonderful Rainbow is something new: a noise-rock record you can hum along to.
-Dustin M. Haberstumpf
Hail to the Thief
There are two perspectives from which to approach Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief. One perspective comes from a musical standpoint. One could easily deduce that Radiohead continues to create sounds with a power and sensitivity that no other band has even approached.
Their continued maturation is apparent, as they’ve implemented the brilliant rock of Ok Computer and the sonic explorations of Kid A into a balanced attack of guitars, drums and synthesizers that they play with a masterful touch.
The second perspective is a more socio-political view. Within the lush harmonies of Radiohead, it’s easy to be distracted from the powerful lyrics provided by lead singer Thom Yorke, one of the most gifted lyricists in the past decade. He wields an ability that is rare in both the scope of his message and the language that he employs.
Using his softly intense croon, he launches a barrage of criticism on today’s society for being willing to overlook the truth in the name of jingoism and nationalistic fervor. The importance of such a critique is emphasized when placed into the context of its June release date, when we found ourselves just a few months into our current debacle in Iraq.
This unique blend of musicianship and intelligence makes Hail to the Thief such a special work. The maddening irony that usually accompanies such albums is that the people who could benefit the most from listening to them never hear them.
Too often social critiques offered by musical groups are written off as irrational, youthful thoughts and ideas formulated from immaturity and inexperience. Their music is disregarded as nothing more than hot air from an irrelevant source.
Nothing could be further from the truth, however, as Hail to the Thief has extended beyond simply an aural experience and served as a beacon of truth to let an entire generation know that they’re not alone in their anger.
Radiohead sees society for all its potential, and the group responds to society’s wrongs the best way it knows how: through ideas stated with the conviction of intellectuals and the expression of artists. In the end, that may be all we have.
The best of the best. The crème de la crème. It’s what all albums aspire to be. Electric Six’s 2003 debut, Fire, does just that.
Fire is an articulate blend of synthetic new wave and neo punk rock. Sultry dance grooves give way to monolithic guitar romps and pulsating bass licks. Electric Six are almost too cheesy to resist. And who could blame them? The band has just as much fun playing its own brand of goofball rock as listeners will have dancing to it.
Songs like “Naked Pictures (Of Your Mother),” and “Nuclear War (On The Dance Floor)” push the envelope between out-right arena rock cheese and archaic disco punk. The Rock-N-Roll Indian’s lightning speed guitar solos offset Dick Valentine’s devilish wail. Guitarist Surge Joebot’s rollicking riffs parlay the maniacal riffing of the Detroit garage rock scene.
Thumping bass converges into rolling techno beats on “Getting Into The Jam” and “Vengeance and Fashion.” Even the occasional sax solo feels right and fits in perfectly with the chaotic break beats of the other instruments.
“Danger! High Voltage” and “Improper Dancing” are what the Talking Heads would sound like if David Byrne and Johnny Rotten and decided to make an album.
“Gay Bar” and “She’s White” are tongue-in-cheek bursts of electronic fun and fury. It may be over-the-top, even a little cheeky, but that doesn’t matter. Electric Six have way too much fun doing it. How could they not? The album has everything from disco dancing to the primal rage of punk. Their influences are proudly displayed and explored with sizzling results.
Electric Six divulge and revel in their own delight and madness. Where else can you find an album with song titles like “I’m The Bomb” and “I Invented The Night”? The Six love every minute of their album, and it shows. Valentine may come off as a serious Rock ‘n’ Roll hellion on the mic, but it’s his underlying sense of sarcasm that shines through.
Fire refuses to give into garage rock standards and steers clear of mainstream sobriety. It’s edgy, it’s goofy and it’s mind-blowing.
Music in High Places
This year could not have started in a better way. Unlike anything ever done by Unwritten Law, the band released its first acoustic album, Music in High Places in January. This album, part of MTV’s Music In High Places series, which features artists performing live in exotic locations, was recorded in Yellowstone National Park.
Compiling new acoustic versions of songs from Unwritten Law’s Elva and their self titled album, the race towards the “Best Album of 2003” came to an abrupt, early stop with Music in High Places.
Although the first real hook on the album comes in the first four drum hits of the melancholic opener, “Before I Go,” it is not until the third track, the radio single “Seein’ Red,” that Unwritten Law’s acoustic performance can truly be appreciated.
It is during the chorus of “Seein’ Red,” when the beautiful aesthetic rings out as front man Scott Russo sings “Follow the leader down,” over two intricate, interlaced guitar parts. From there, the abrasive verses of “Up All Night” are tempered with a smooth, fun-filled chorus.
Music in High Places might be an acoustic album, but that does not mean that the band plays songs without power or feeling. Utilizing strong strumming, powerful bass lines and fluid-like drumbeats, it is impossible to deny the presence created by the band.
The album’s best track, “Shallow,” originally from the band’s debut release Blue Room and also featured on The Oz Factor, illustrates this. Guitar and bass parts impel as harmonic vocals flow above. And to not mention Unwritten Law’s two love songs, “Rest of My Life” an, “Cailin,” would be a crime. These odes magically blend simplicity and sophistication with genuine sincerity.
Music in High Places is an amazingly compelling acoustic album. It is only fitting that this album, recorded live in one the country’s most beautiful, natural landscapes, is of such high caliber.
Maybe it was due to the fresh air or blue skies overhead; whatever it was, Yellowstone Park hosted the recording of 2003’s album of the year: Unwritten Law’s Music in High Places.
– Joe Gettler