Dying in Stereo
(Northern State Records)
If Mike Skinner (aka the Streets) has been universally christened "the British Eminem," then the indie hip-hop crew Northern State --three liberal-arts-schooled white women in their mid-20s who go by the monikers Guinea Love, DJ Sprout, and Hesta Prynn (!) --can't help but be seen as "the female Beastie Boys."
That moniker is actually a truer fit for these former Long Island high school chums turned NYC causes célébres than for Skinner, whose only connection to Eminem is skin color. The music presented on Northern State's two releases --Dying in Stereo and an earlier, available-for-download four-song demo Hip Hop You Haven't Heard -- draws unavoidable comparisons to Hello Nasty-era Beasties (it doesn't have the sonic density of Paul's Boutique, but, then again, what does?): It's smart (and smarty-pants) old-school-sounding hip hop from three white, hypereducated New York hipsters, except, right, the MCs are all women.
And except that it's better --more optimistic, more unexpected, more generous in its camaraderie, more righteous in its '80s hip-hop nods, less concerned with establishing codes of cool.
Coming across like Roxanne Shante's secret daughters, Northern State are so old-school that they even have anti-Giuliani and anti-police jokes (one MC warns a male harasser that she'll "get more brutal than the NYPD"). But what is most redolent of hip hop's golden age is the sense of positive momentum: Who else in hip hop lately (if ever) so unabashedly uses words like "optimism" and "possibility" and raps about being "just happy to be alive"? And given the attractiveness of the world they open up to the listener, who wouldn't want to give in to this unfashionable hopefulness?
Like so many hip-hop records, especially on the indie scene, Dying in Stereo is a catalog of culture, with these women partial to baseball (Derek Jeter), contemporary literature (The Red Tent, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay), country music (Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton), and trash TV (Dawson's Creek, Nigella Bites). And the record gets off on rhyme-for-rhyme's-sake (my fave is "psychiatrist" and "archdiocese").
Things aren't all sunshine and light: Dread creeps in on the 9/11-acknowledging "All the Same," with its muted soundscape and entropy-warning chorus ("Round trip and you're back where you started/Waiting at the station from which you departed"). But malaise just can't contend with Northern State's playful, gently confrontational leftism ("The country's gettin' ugly and there's more in store/But don't blame me 'cause I voted for Gore/Keep choice legal/Your wardrobe regal/Chekhov wrote The Seagull/And Snoopy is a beagle") or insistent independence ("It's the DJs and the MCs and the writers and the breakers/Not the corporations and the hit-makers/That keep hip hop fresh/The kids gotta hear it/I move closer to the speakers so that I can get near it/Think you're controlling the world 'cause you're controlling the wealth?/I don't belong to you/I belong to myself").
But Northern State aren't self-righteous about their underground status, like so many "indie" hip-hop acts. They'd like to be stars but not in order to be rich or powerful. They just want the chance to confirm and maybe spur an imagined community, or, as they put it on "The Man's Dollar" in the record's most charming moment: "Are there ladies out there like us doing what we do?/Can't wait to get on TV so that we can see you!"
For more info, see NorthernState.net. --Chris Herrington
Have You Fed the Fish?
Badly Drawn Boy
Sound and subject matter cohere almost perfectly on Have You Fed the Fish?, the sophomore album by fuzzy-hat-wearing Badly Drawn Boy, aka Damon Gough. In this song cycle -- or concept album or rock-and-roll one-man show -- BDB sings about the incompatibility of romantic commitment and pop-music obsession; the music's head-spinning eclecticism betrays a life spent obsessing over music. The lyrics tell the story of misplaced attention and failed affection, and the music, which switches between funk-rock, blue-eyed soul, and spaced-out folk, illustrates it perfectly.
The album's first single is its most representative track. At turns self-effacingly comical and unspeakably tragic, "You Were Right" is a stunning summation of a life devoted to pop music as well as a confession of missed opportunities. In one verse, BDB describes a dream he had of rejecting Madonna's advances; in the next, he solemnly "Remember[s] doing nothing on the night Sinatra died/And the night Jeff Buckley died/And the night Kurt Cobain died/And the night John Lennon died," revealing just how far back his preoccupation goes -- more than 20 years and most of his life.
Unfortunately, not every song lives up to the far-out charms of "You Were Right." BDB lifts that song's lyrics on "Tickets for What You Need," a lively romp that sounds blatantly and desperately Beatles-esque. And songs like the title track and "Bedside Story" feel aimless and unstructured, as if BDB's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to recording got the better of him.
But the high points -- the Marvin Gaye vibe of "Using Our Feet," the '70s strings on "All Possibilities," the messy guitarwork on "Born Again" -- stand out more dynamically than such low points. Fish? retains the off-the-cuff charm and scruffy unpredictability of its predecessor, the Mercury Award-winning Hour of the Bewilderbeast, and while it isn't track for track as good as that debut, it does reveal Badly Drawn Boy's increased confidence and his admirable propensity to take risks.
Sinead O'Connor's first studio album in two years features only traditional Irish songs. Although O'Connor has always blended elements of British folk music with hip hop, rock, and reggae to make her own unique mix, this is the first time she's done an album exclusively of traditional tunes. These songs, some of them quite ancient, are particularly meaningful for O'Connor, who learned some at school, some from her father, and some which have come to represent Ireland itself for her. O'Connor's voice, which she uses as a delicate instrument, would seem ideally suited for these classics. Yet, despite high expectations for this album, the end result is mostly mundane or merely pretty.
The Gaelic title of the album roughly translates as "old style done new," referring to a divergence from the usual a capella versions of these songs. But these arrangements, though sometimes lovely, are not particularly innovative. (Leave it to O'Connor to interpret the old folk chestnut "Peggy Gordon" as a lesbian love song, though.) They come across as quite standard folk arrangements, despite help from some interesting musical guests, including accordionist Sharon Shannon and vocalist Christy Moore. In fact, Van Morrison and the Chieftains provided definitive and far more powerful versions of several of the same tunes covered here on their classic Irish Heartbeat album. The only track which hints at the fierceness and individuality O'Connor usually brings to her recordings is "Oro, Se Do Bheatha Bhaile," a Gaelic tune about a formidable female pirate whose ships terrorized the Spanish and French fleets on the west coast of Ireland in the 16th century.
Recommended for Sinead O'Connor fans only.
-- Lisa Lumb