Monday, April 8, 2013

Powerful Cats, Public Enemies, and the Ty That Binds

I will be honest: The only other Cat Power CD I have did not grab me at all upon initial listens, so I filed it away among my vast collection of CDs, and now I cannot even locate it to know its name. But now I am eager to find it to see if I might change my mind about it, given how much I adore her new one, Sun. Sun features more explicit charms than the other one I own, so likely the reason why I shunned the other one is because its lo-fi essence eluded me. Sun is shimmering with copious catchy songs that fluidly blend folk, soul and new wave sensibilities. Chan Marshall, the singer-songwriter who goes by the name Cat Power, is an eccentric and mysterious person who has evolved into a kind of cult figure. I do believe that Sun will propel her more into the "underground mainstream" and it should indeed etch her into the psyches of all those who exist on the fringes of hipsterism...those who may appreciate some indie hipster bands but who also know that hipsterism can veer too far into vapidity. Cat Power is anything but vapid, and indeed calls to mind Patti Smith, but without the political polemics. Not that I object to Smith's polemics at all, but Cat Power is more subdued lyrically, and yet just as powerfully musically. Sun should establish Cat Power as a searing force to be reckoned with. 

For a very long time, I have ranked Public Enemy's 1990 album "Fear of a Black Planet" as one of my top 10 albums, and I have also regularly lauded it as a classic up there with anything by Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. It merits a solid niche in the pop music canon, and Public Enemy also hugely deserve their recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. Whatever ambivalence one has about the RRHOF, the way I see it, as long as the institution exists, then it must receive external pressure to induct those truly deserving of it. A RRHOF with, say, pioneers of folk like Simon and Garfunkle but without pioneers of hip-hop/rap like PE would be a travesty. So because PE is so slickly talented, naturally the newest dual efforts by the band are nothing short of astounding. Audaciously inventive STILL, on these albums the boisterous boyz in PE seem to defy age, even though 22 years have elapsed since Fear erupted onto the music scene. The rich dimensions of competing sounds, layering in everything from metallic guitars, majestic horns, spoken-word bits, funky percussion, woozy-bluesy female vocals, old school DJ scratches, angular punk flourishes and whimsical sonics, compose a masterful mosaic that pugnaciously plows through the cowardly boundaries of genre. The main thing that has changed is that the volcanic vitriol so present on past efforts has given way to a more jubilant vitriol...a rage tempered with love, as it were. The political polemic as delivered via Chuck D's gruff baritone and his comic foil Flava Flav's adolescent yelpings is intact, but it is now infused with a mature indignation as opposed to the juvenile menace that made PE so controversial once upon a time. The heroes/stamp motif is played out well on both albums, with periodic enumerations by a wise old soul of unsung heroes such a Sojourner Truth and Cesar Chavez. The most compelling aspect of the albums, of course, lies in how PE delves into modern-day sociopolitical topics such as crushing corporatization, bigotry, immigration injustice, and the vapid rap game so prominent with Jay-Z, Kanye West et al. There are guest vocals and collaborations galore by the likes of DMC, Henry Rollins and Ziggy Marley, as well as with Latino rappers for the rambling anthemic song ICEBREAKER, which roundly denigrates current US anti-immigrant policy. But perhaps the standout track (and there are many among these more than two dozen songs) is "Everything." The song's lyrics juxtapose the out of touch superficial superstar types with everyday people, and the video for the song shines a beaming light onto the interconnectedness of humanity. As such, "Everything" uplifts the soul like no other PE song before it. The only lament I have with these records is that Flava Flav is inexplicably underused and when his talents are on show, they are often misguidedly utilized.  

I went to a Ty Segall show back in January and I was actually surprised at how much crowd-surfing there was. I have always understood moshing to a point, as I have felt the need to mosh myself, though I never have ceded to that impulse (blame broken-rib phobia). But crowd-surfing has never made an inch of sense to me. Your body is basically a surfboard and the crowd's hands and arms are the waves propelling you along. And just like you cannot anticipate the temperamental behavior of the ocean, you cannot predict the crowd's feverish whims. With real surfing, you could drown. With crowd-surfing, you could break your back. I am thinking, however, that I would prefer real surfing to crowd surfing, because at least you can train to be a real surfer, and learn how to navigate the tumult of the sea. With crowd-surfing, you are at the mercy of drunken revelers. I respect the ocean more than I do humanity. But I digress. I do love Ty Segall, though I will say that his album, Twins, as grittily magical as it can be, has limited appeal. The main reason I was surprised by the crowd-surfing is because I consider Ty's elegantly tattered tunes more authentic than typical garage rock. I expect there to be some mild moshing at a Ty show, maybe, or some headbanging, even, but crowd-surfing seems so 90s emo, so Lollapollooza, so Vans-wearing pimple-pocked testosterone teen terror, that I have a hard time reconciling the refined rawness of Ty's songs with the asinine inanity of splayed bodies being passed through a crowd like a hot plate at Thanksgiving dinner. But again, I digress. So Twins is a distortion-lover's wet dream, the songs a murky swamp of bashing, swirling sonics pierced through with bronchial yelps. This is psychedelic punk at its trippiest and thrashiest. Standout track is "Thank God for the Sinners." I recommend spinning it when you're in need of visceral catharthis - but please, forego the crowd-surfing, because that's just fucking dumb. 

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