Thursday, September 17, 2009

Cymbal #27:: The Saga Continues

"She says, 'you can't repeat the past,'/ I say 'You can't? What do you mean you can't?/Of course you can!' "
-Bob Dylan, Love and Theft, 2001.

Like the aging superheroes of Watchmen, the Wu Tang Clan have climbed into the old costumes and rebuilt the owlship. The year's most awaited album in hip-hop, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Part II, is finally out and sink or swim, everyone wants to do a victory lap. A swarm of bees is forming in the sky.

Raekwon (feat. Inspectah Deck, GZA, Ghostface Killah & Method Man) - House of Flying Daggers - 2009

It's all still there with all its charisma and power intact, the easy references to the mythos like an H.P. Lovecraft story. There's no patina of age on it - check the familiar dread rising in your throat even before the Dilla beat starts ravaging your diaphragm - "I can tell you two things. The Hunter had nothing to do with this. And it was not the work of thousands of men. In fact, (chilling pause) there was only five." The beat starts like a slug to the head. By the time the Method Man is rasping his visions throatily, you're already beyond response.

House of Flying Daggers follows in the tradition of the classic Protect Ya Neck lineup. But where Neck had the gritty sound of outlaws passing a mic around an oildrum fire, Daggers has the plush production of a thousand tower tall machines all pumping out darkness, stamping out blocks of chant.

Wu Tang Clan - Protect Ya Neck - 1993

In my opinion (as someone once told me, there's nothing humble about it), the greatest line-up track since Neck is Triumph. It's a brilliant name. Other MCs may boast; Wu Tang puts forth an exhibition of immense power, from which you cannot tear your eyes. No feat shall be repeated. The show starts at dusk.

Wu Tang Clan - Triumph - 1997

Through the marble arches of the imperial city pass first the exotic and bewildered beasts. Crocodiles on leashes; giraffes on leads. Teams of slaves yoked together march with their heads looking down. Soldiers pass displaying immense riches looted and earned in battle. There are amphorae of jewels, a dead king's head on a cushion. The chariots of the commanders progress regally and sage is burnt to propitiate the gods. At the cool white steps of the Senate, RZA tells breathless stories of battles in foreign lands. The historian's calm description follows in Masta Killas verse.

They're all superlative. But if I had to choose, I'd pick Protect Ya Neck. The Wu Tang may now have the power of emperors, but back when they were in the gutter looking up, their hunger made them vicious and their dreams made them visionary.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Cymbal #26:: Dirty Deeds Done to Great Tunes


It's Dylan's most oriental tune. He's wearing his cowboy boots but his heart in an eastern desert at night. As an album of scenery and sequences, Desire is vastly underrated/overlooked, even by Dylan fans. It has to do with the Dylan you want to imagine. Would you rather have freewheelin', protesting' Dylan, or would you rather have the gravelly explorer?

As a test, contrast this song with "Don't Think Twice". They're both breakup songs. But where the earlier is a song of anger, the later is song of inevitability by a man in love with the mysteries of the universe. This Dylan is a workman, not a captive of his tools.
Bob Dylan - One More Cup of Coffee - 1975

Jack White can't always sustain  the gravity asked of him. Occasionally, it seems like he understands all the tricks but still can't see the soul of the song. To some extent he does - he invites the desert in and as a result it's more distant than the original.

The test of all versions of the song is what is done to the odd line - "
to the valley below". The original uses it to deliver a touch of panache, a little steel to stir the goblet. Jack White does not understand it. It puzzles him. Therefore, he throws it away with a growl.
The White Stripes - One More Cup of Coffee - 200X

Like a 
reductio ad absurdium, if you push a point too far, you will end up with something completely different and wrong.
Sertab Erener - One More Cup of Coffee - 2003

And how wrong. Look at what it does to the test phrase! I can't even bring myself to listen to it all the way through!

How can a tune be out of time? Don't pure concepts exist and function on a higher plane? Is this not the only universally acceptable cast of Plato's theory of forms? If a mathematical ratio can age, then what makes flesh sentient?

But when I listen to Summer Breeze, I sense a distinct time and place. It's not that the music would be a setting for something of a period, but that the period would be a setting for the tune. It's laden with hooks, like a Brian Wilson song, but not as eternal.

Seals and Croft - Summer Breeze - 1972

I really like this doom-metal cover. The riff is nice and heavy and the lyrics don't slide right off the car-bonnet surface like they do in the original. Maybe this was always the ideal viscosity for this song.
Type O Negative - Summer Girl - 1997

Last and definitely least, you can feel 
this little for a song, maybe, if you don't speak the language in which it was written. How can you be so talented and so profligate as to waste away that hook?
Jason Mraz - Summer Breeze

What a w**k.