Westy Gets Mail
Public Enemy, Bill Madden, Action Reaction, The Majestic Twelve, and The Lesser Scene
I am of two minds about Public Enemy as a continuing creative entity in 2006. On one hand, they haven’t had a commercially relevant record for fifteen years. To keep their heads above water as a touring concern they must run a nostalgia show that’s not far removed from a Vegas act, wearing the same outfits and parroting the same slogans with which they made their bones while I was in the fourth grade. But on the other hand, they’re still Public Enemy, the greatest rap group of all time. MKLVFKWR, filmed in Manchester during the deliberately retro-themed Revolverlution tour in 2003, is bizarre but occasionally quite compelling viewing. An almost entirely white audience bangs their heads to full band-augmented versions of scads of It Takes a Nation of Millions… tracks and tolerates lame new stuff, an embarrassingly obviously lip-synched Flavor Flav solo set, and guest shots for Professor Griff’s so-so rap-metal side project and Flav’s Wu-Tang affiliated cousin. While Flav is so out of it it’s kind of poignant, awkwardly miming his lines to a recording for the entire two-hour-plus length of the show, Chuck D remains vocally in fine form. I have no idea why the interminable segment of the show where Chuck takes a breather was left on the DVD, but that’s why they make chapter skip buttons. In addition to the obvious highlights like “Don’t Believe the Hype,” “Bring the Noise,” and an extended “Fight the Power,” there’s interesting reworkings of “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” and “By the Time I Get to Arizona” that rely heavily on the strengths of a good four-piece backing band. PE’s famed bodyguard/dance troupe, the Security of the First World, is still in effect, but reduced to two guys and stripped of their trademark Uzis. The combination of the band’s power-funk inclinations and the technical skill of Terminator X’s successor DJ Lord is in evidence on a forceful workout of the relatively overlooked ’94 single “Give It Up.” It’s a shame that Chuck and his younger collaborators’ ability to breathe new life into the classic material doesn’t extend into making any of Public Enemy’s new material rock. “Son of a Bush” comes across as uninspired as the lengthy chants against George Bush and Tony Blair that Chuck and Griff attempt. Does the world need a DVD commemorating a Public Enemy reunion tour? No. But does the world need Public Enemy? They’re not hurting anybody. And seriously, I can get behind anything that keeps Flavor off the streets.
I somehow managed to miss out on Bill Madden’s well-received 2004 album Samsara’s Grip, but I will be correcting that immediately. Because he’s a sharp lyricist without a traditionally beautiful singing voice, Madden can’t avoid Bob Dylan comparisons, but to my ears the deeply spiritual songwriter recalls a blend of solo George Harrison and Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner (and I don’t mean that in at all a negative way). The most famous person involved in the Gone sessions was drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, late of the Smashing Pumpkins, but there’s nothing at all alt-rock about this acoustic guitar-driven collection. The arrangments and instrumentation indeed scream high-1970s, which suits the material fine. Madden’s vocals are right up in front in the mix and he delivers his lyrics, which tackle serious themes, with conviction. It’s one thing to preach to the converted, and it’s another thing entirely to sing a political song that will impress even those on the opposite side of the spectrum – the title track in particular is marvelous. Indeed there’s not a bad apple in the bunch. Madden sounds particularly strong when he strips things down, as on “Might Have Been” and “Awful Good,” but the Americana-flavored full band tracks are nifty too. This is a really good record.
3 Is the Magic Number
U2 might be the single most pernicious musical influence of my lifetime. Yes, Achtung Baby was great. But everything else they’ve done? Not so much. Of all the sins that can be laid at U2’s door, and there are a lot, the worst might be coming home to roost now – all of the addle-brained former frontmen of crummy emo bands who just this moment are beginning projects that attempt to wed the bad poetry and inept song structures of their old chosen field with the grandstanding, lukewarm synth textures, and torturously unspecific “social awareness” of the Great Letter and Numeral. Action Reaction is the new band from Jason Gleason, who was Further Seems Forever’s singer after Chris Carraba quit to go be Dashboard Confessional. If you remember anything about that band other than that Chris Carraba used to be in it, you’re one up on me. Action Reaction retains a lot of emo signifiers, like songs that try to dodge being labelled as pedestrian by arranging their unoriginal components in random order rather than traditional verse-chorus form and lyrics that are (to avoid engaging them in an unconstructive game of one-upsmanship) simply bad. They replace emo’s thin guitars with generic synth wash and that trademark trebly, undermixed bass buzz with woefully overamplified five-string. On the whole, kind of a lateral move.
The Majestic Twelve
It took less than twenty seconds for this album to annoy me, and that was after a 12-second found-sound intro (about which I was wholly neutral). The Majestic Twelve’s decision to hold the drumroll that begins “Welcome to the City” for exactly one more iteration than strictly necessary was only the first of many things about this record, their second, that I absolutely hated. I don’t want to compare them to the Dismemberment Plan, because I love the Plan and this band in no way, shape, or form touches them, but in a vague, broad way that’s the sound here. It’s kind of a nervous blend of DC math-rock and various synth/dance and hip-hop influences with a vocalist who speak-sings and inhabits a too-smart-by-half sort of persona that’s obviously less than completely fictional. Which is exactly what the Plan was, only the Plan were very good because their singer was smart and interesting and a good singer, while Majestic Twelve majordomo Kenyata Sullivan needs to shut up. Really, dude, shut up. Mix out the vocals and you’d have like a listenable subpar Trans Am album here, but instead you have an unending egotistical ejaculation by a know-nothing frontman who has absolutely no business being the singer in a rock and roll band. The absolute nadir is the brain-dead “Condoleeza, Check My Posse,” which isn’t even clever enough to qualify as satire – the song’s climax, such as it is, comes when an army of Sullivan overdubs harmonizes the names of a bunch of conservative pundits. He doesn’t say anything about them, he just sings their names. Whoa, were I Rush Limbaugh, I’d be feeling pretty burned right about now! With song titles like “American Rage,” you’d think they’d be halfway there as far as finding some interesting things to say, but at no point do The Majestic Twelve move beyond sophomoric pointing and laughing.
The Lesser Scene
The Lesser Scene (EP)
This is the only item I received this week that didn’t include veiled threatening references to the Bush administration in its press kit, pushing it way up the scale in my estimation before I’d even listened to it. First impressions are often right. This is Chicago indie rock of the old school, before the whole vibraphone crowd showed up and ruined everything. Cracked midwestern boy/girl harmonies of the sort Eleventh Dream Day used to do before they became a prog rock band, sturdy chord changes, pleasantly imperfect production aesthetic. The band comes across very much as a collection of different voices rather than the ranting platform of any one demagogue even across a too-brief five songs. Thumbs up for the tinny violins (shades of the sublime first Beulah record), thumbs down for lyrics that are occasionally dippy (“Astro Annie”) and repetitive (“Cultivation”). The last track, “Handle,” deserves particular praise for its lived-in blend of humming organs and numerous vocal strands. More, please.
MARK DONOHUE | Mark Donohue is a prolific freelance writer whose areas of expertise include Rockies baseball, video games, genre television, English soccer, and pub rock. He lives in Colorado, where he cultivates the largest and creepiest private collection of Alyson Hannigan memorabilia in the Mountain West.