Iron Mic Coalition
Combining eight MCs, three producers, and one DJ among nine members who also perform solo or in smaller configurations, the hip-hop Iron Mic Coalition comes on as something of a local answer to classic mid-1990s New York collective the Wu-Tang Clan. And though this group's debut album obviously isn't the hip-hop classic that Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers was, the connection runs deeper than mere numbers: The 1st Edition evokes Enter the Wu-Tang with an imperfect sound quality that perhaps accidentally enhances its grimy, DIY feel and with varied lyrical content that feels far more real than the dual paths of conspicuous consumption and violent menace that dominate the mainstream or the self-consciousness that dominates so much indie-rap.
This doesn't mean that The 1st Edition skimps on the beats-and-rhymes basics. Despite the imperfect sound, there's some sharp production here: Check out the way producer Fathom 9's Billie Holiday sample on "Crown" spars with DJ Capital A's scratched KRS-ONE hook. And, amazingly, all eight MCs have distinct sonic personalities: scratchy and conversational (Jason Harris), rough and unhinged (Duke), baritone and smooth (Milk), nimble and precise (Mighty Quinn), nasal and laid-back (Daralic), strident and unpredictable (Empee), low and hazy (Mac), clear and verbose (Fathom 9).
Lyrically, there are plenty of choice battle rhymes: Daralic's "I'm dispensing sucker MC ethnic cleansing" to Jason Harris' "Some MCs is like Laker power forwards, you heard me?/They may be good but they just ain't Worthy" to Quinn's "No optometrist could have seen our coming dominance."
But it's the content that makes The 1st Edition such a durable, compelling listen: the swaggering self-awareness of "Empee's Lament," the bait-and-switch of "Eat Some Chicken," where Mac's lovably literal opening verse skirts stereotypes and Quinn's more metaphorical response rubs your face in them, and, perhaps most of all, the expansive but measured local color of "901 Area Code," best embodied by a Daralic verse that paints a bleak picture of "Gangland feuds and thrown-away .22s/Three-o'clock roadblock, time for curfew/The children are growing up gone berserk too" before letting the sunshine in with "But that's one aspect/Here's another/Those fly girls raised on cornbread and butter."
Encompassing Willie Nelson's going-on-50-year recording career on a single-disc, 20-song collection is a fool's mission that Songs takes on, starting with Nelson's songwriting days in the 1950s (the demo version of "Crazy," later made a standard by Patsy Cline), ending with some of his latest ("Mendocino County Line," a duet hit with Lee Ann Womack), and hitting plenty of his '70s highlights ("Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," "Good Hearted Woman,") in between.
You might assume this disc is a pretty useless exercise in consumer fraud, especially since the title seems to indicate a concentration on Nelson as songwriter yet half the songs are covers. But Songs counters plenty of those assumptions:
First: The attempt to elevate a long-time artist's later material alongside his "classic" work is invariably a forced failure. This assumption is almost always true but not with Nelson, who has quietly produced as much interesting music over the past 15 years as he did the previous 15.
Second: A disc like this will only duplicate music you already have. With great artists who boast human-scale discographies (Bruce Springsteen, the Beatles, etc.) this is usually true, but Nelson's catalog is so massive that only a completist would already have everything of worth. I own about 20 Nelson records, including a three-disc box set and the "definitive" one-disc collection Greatest Hits (& Some That Will Be) and I only own about half the tracks on Songs.
Three: One disc is simply too little music for an artist of Nelson's stature. Sure, but Songs isn't pretending to be the only Nelson you need to own. As someone who rarely finds single-artist box sets worthwhile, I'll listen to Songs more than the Nelson box collecting dust on my shelf.
There is, of course, one assumption that Songs can't counter: In this age of iPod and MP3 CDs, it can't compete with the mix you can make yourself. -- CH
Willie Nelson plays Friday, March 11th, at Sam's Town Casino.
Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out
It's not too far into 2005 and already we've got what will probably be the oddest and most audacious album of the next 12 months: Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out. On this song-by-song cover of the Who's landmark album, former thatdog member Haden sings these dozen tracks completely a cappella, not just providing the vocals but also scat-singing the guitar riffs and bass lines and re-creating the original album packaging. According to the liner notes, it's an idea suggested to her by former Minuteman Mike Watt, who claims she wasn't too familiar with the original album: "Petra," he writes, "would bring an earthiness without any preconceptions and make it new for me."
The album is a stunt, certainly, but the result is still impressive. Haden gently reinterprets many of the songs. "Our Love Was" and especially "Sunrise" sparkle in this intimate setting. But Haden's album is no act of subversion or revisionism: She has a great deal of affection for the source material and is obviously having a ball translating Townshend's songs into a new setting.
Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out doesn't approach the pop durability of the original, but it is a supremely charming, often silly exercise -- a hand-drawn valentine to rock-and-roll. n
-- Stephen Deusner