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The all-inclusive, ever-changing, and uncomfortably flexible guide to all things music in the 2010's.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Yes - Fly From Here: B

At what point are Yes in their career? The long-running prog rock group has not quite become the triumphant stalwarts of their genre like Rush, nor have they become a parody of themselves through embarrassing late-career albums. The mark that Yes has left on the musical landscape is just as unsure; not quite the “dinosaur rock” that has become the ire of many a modern music maker, but it’s not like you’ve heard an artist cite Closer to the Edge as a major influence in the past five years. Perhaps the best place to look for Yes’s influence is in metal, but, if that is so, the genre only takes the general idea of the group’s music seriously; the subtle and more poppy elements that came to define the group’s best work has all but been forgotten. As far as modern music is concerned, it’s difficult to see whether the sway of one of the greatest bands of all time spans beyond just an ace catalogue.

It is for this and many other reasons why Yes’s first album in ten years, Fly From Here, sits so awkwardly with me. While I fully embrace the idea of a comeback from this technical pioneer, in practice, the advantage/disadvantage spread in the album’s layout is just as contradictory as those aforementioned qualities. Fly From Here’s central concept comes from a song that Rick Wakeman replacement Geoff Downes and producer Trevor Horn had been working on before each joined Yes the first time around for 1980’s Drama. Here, it is presented as a twenty-minute song split into five parts, a presentation that would befit a classic Yes mentality. However, Yes frontman up to this point, Jon Anderson, has bowed out due to vocal complications and has been replaced in the dubious Journey style of recruiting a singer from a Yes cover band by watching YouTube videos. While Fly From Here would indicate a return to form of sorts for the group, it also seems like it’s setting the stage for some serious musical stagnation.

And, unsurprisingly, the album’s quality ends up somewhere in the middle. For however interesting the first five “Fly From Here” tracks are, they do begin to sound like they’re going through the motions with only one familiar vocal melody to draw the listener in. While I appreciate the sentiment of these four tracks, much of them could have been spaced out across the album or just omitted entirely. Luckily, though, the album also features a second half of better, standard Yes songs. BenoĆ®t David, the new singer, sounds how you’d expect him to: an eerie Anderson copy who brings no new musical ideas to the table. Nevertheless he’s competent, especially in the group harmonies, which are dead ringers for the ones on 1983’s excellent 90125. Remaining members Steve Howe, Chris Squire and Alan White all have their moments. White’s percussion is nimble and fresh throughout, Squire’s bass is particularly lush on “Life on a Film Set” and Squire puts in a moving acoustic performance on penultimate track “Solitaire”.

In terms of great, complete statements, though, Fly From Here is seriously lacking. It’s a very uneven album, so for every time you have a genuinely interesting vocal melody in last track “Into the Sun”, you’ve got David singing about riding a tiger on “Life on a Film Set”. The five-part “Fly From Here” series may center on a catchy hook, but I doubt you’ll walk away from the album remembering anything other than it. From the die-hard Yes fans to the ones that have never heard of them, Fly From Here will invariably come off as a disappointment, which again makes me ponder its existence. Hardly a comeback album, but hardly a debacle, Fly From Here shows a Yes that is giving it a harder try than most of its peers, but only coming up with just slightly better results. 



Two months after the second wave of post-dubstep artists inspired debate within the electronic music community, out of nowhere comes lumbering Aaron Jerome, the man behind electronic outfit, SBTRKT. Listening to Jerome’s self-titled debut, it’s clear that the man is operating on the same plane as the purported Holy Trinity of dubstep dilution: James Blake’s self titled, Jamie Woon’s Mirrorwriting and Katy B’s On A Mission. It seems unfair to analyze SBTRKT in constant reference to those three records, but I’m just tactless and hypocritical enough to do so!

SBTRKT, more so than James Blake, Mirrorwriting or On a Mission, tapers to the traditional qualities of dubstep; music not quite made for the mainstream clubs like Katy B’s, but still capable of some pretty affecting grooves. Jerome often features female singers to carry catchy vocal lines and even recruits lauded hip-hop moper Drake to grunt on the “Barbara Streisand”-like “Ready Set Loop”. However, what you will mostly hear on SBTRKT when you are not listening to just straight up instrumental dance music will be Jerome’s voice, which sounds quite a bit like James Blake’s.

Like I mean A LOT like James Blake’s. So much so that it is often distracting. SBTRKT is a very good album; it delivers on many of its clearly identified goals. But the fact that Jerome’s voice has an almost identical tone to James Blake’s throws comparisons by the wayside to make way for debates as to whether or not SBTRKT is simply a more beat-oriented JB offshoot, even worse a mash up record.

Simplified, SBTRKT is just what I described: James Blake’s voice superimposed onto some traditional if tempered dubstep. Its harshness is watered down to suit a more streamlined listening experience, but not so much that it loses its dark edge. The album’s instrumentation is more in line with a sort of downtempo dubstep, like the recent work of artists like Guido, but artists like them tend to make the best music of that genre, so it is very possible that the combination of all these elements will make SBTRKT your favorite of the four records I have mentioned.

Taken as a whole, though, a part of me wants to dismiss SBTRKT because it is very much an album that’s context constantly gets in its way. Regardless, it is a very good product, not as rewarding as James Blake or On A Mission but still worthy of some interest. Perhaps the greatest value in SBTRKT is an indication of the movement from which it was spawned to be sputtering out, because, if artists are going to continue to make music that borrows so liberally from already established artists (or perhaps just James Blake), it’s going to become deformed from inbreeding very, very quickly. But premonition aside, SBTRKT doesn’t quite cross that line, so it’s still OK by me. 


Pure X - Pleasure: B

Get it? X? Pleasure? Ecstacy? Oh man that’s rich.

Music made to be ignored. Don’t bother.             


Gucci Mane - Writing on the Wall 2: B+

Give it time, give it time. I know I said that Gucci Mane’s last release, Return of Mr. Zone 6 was the death knell of the Atlanta rapper’s career, and I still believe that. The fact that the man has followed up that atrocity with his best mixtape to date does not deter me. Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, Gucci won’t go away with one album. Writing on the Wall 2 will regardless be a reassurance to longtime Gucci fans, and, in some sick way, I feel a little bit of goodness knowing that he can still pump out a considerable amount of above average tunes.           

The album, it should be noted though, is not a vast improvement on Return of Mr. Zone 6 because of anything on Gucci Mane’s part. Rounding up, I’d say that the man comes away with one solid line on the entire mixtape; one line that made me think, “Oh man, maybe I’ve been wrong about this guy all along.” In actuality, what helps Writing on the Wall 2 is that Mane’s presence is relegated to the textural or the background entirely. On the album, Gucci steps aside so that the real talents that have gotten him to this point can shine through.

In this manner, almost all the best parts of Writing on the Wall 2 are the beats. Where Return of Mr. Zone 6 and the majority of Gucci’s 2010 mixtapes were attempts at establishing the now hackneyed Drumma Boy/Lex Lugar constant barrage of sound, Writing shows these beat makers agreeing on a style and then branching them out into more tuneful arenas. On “Guilty” and “Tax Free”, Drumma Boy incorporates piano and synths to add more depth to his regular assault of mindless hooliganism. On “Recently”, he even opts for a smooth bassline to make the track flow like an excellent Curren$y song, all the bells and whistles dropping out to fantastic effect when 50 Cent takes the mic for a surprisingly memorable verse. Needless to say, when “MVP” emerges with a sung hook, it’s an unbridled success, making it an immediate album highlight. 

Drumma Boy’s not the only producer here who takes chances with excellent results. Writing is teeming with subtle risks that consistently impress. Many of the tracks surprise with the inclusion of boisterous horn parts. Their presence on “Hard On A Bitch” is a nice, silly touch on an otherwise tame track. They turn “Play Your Cards” into a veritable epic, with a malicious chorus from YC and a ¾ bass on the verses that adds welcome tension. However, it’s “Brrrr (Supa Cold)” that takes the cake on Writing on the Wall 2. Frequent Gucci collaborator Fat Boy creates a rather buoyant hook that’s harmonized vocals borrow as much from The Beach Boys as Waka Flocka Flame. The verses’ light and playful brass make the track sound like the most streamlined thing Gucci’s ever rapped over. Coupled with characteristically unrelenting bass, I’d say it’s the best track Gucci Mane has ever put his name on. The guy sounds so lively in this environment, it’s a wonder he hasn’t made more songs like it.

Although Writing on the Wall 2 will likely satiate Gucci Mane fanatics, it has many obstacles that will inhibit the uninitiated. While many of the record’s beats deserve praise, songs such as the Fat Boy-helmed “Camera Ready” and Lex Lugar’s “Lil Friends” sound like boring, grating Gucci by numbers. And, of course, considering this is a Gucci Mane release, the man is bound to surface from the background to deliver some truly crass, humorless lines. If you can look beyond terribly derivative couplets like “Pussy, pussy, I smell pussy,” then you’re pretty much in the clear for Writing’s enjoyment. However, if you’re looking for a good rap record in the traditional, lyrically brilliant sense, you’ve been barking up the wrong tree for far too long. Writing on the Wall 2’s positives may override its negatives, but, if you’re expecting more from Gucci Mane than cheap thrills, I’m tempted to ask why you’re reading this review in the first place.