The perpetual miracle of pop music is the way undeniable cultural eruptions emanate from unlikely or marginalized sources. Whine all you want about plastic teen-pop (which produces its own miracles occasionally) and corporate consolidation, but our most democratic art form constantly renews itself, giving voice to lives that might otherwise remain unexplored.
The latest case in point could be Atmosphere, an indie-hip-hop duo from lily-white Minnesota. Consisting of DJ Ant and MC Slug, Atmosphere has recently released the finest indie-hop record I've ever laid ears on. Slug, the group's 27-year-old, multiracial mouthpiece, has been an iconic figure in the Twin Cities for years now but has recently seen his reputation start to spread nationwide, even drawing rave reviews from such rock-crit gatekeepers as Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus. Lucy Ford, originally released as two vinyl EPs, shows why.
Ant's soundscapes are sharp and tasteful but don't generally call attention to themselves. Rather the music just sets a solid foundation for Slug's impassioned, witty flow -- a deeply personal, excursionary vocal style that may not be "tight" by conventional hip-hop standards but can snap back on beat for moments of head-bobbing abandon.
Slug's pleas and testimonials here can be remarkably introspective and confessional -- hip hop as "therapy on top of turntable riffs" -- but Lucy Ford may also be the most empathetic album in the genre's now 25-year history, a tour de force for an MC with "enough love to pass around and then some."
The album opens with "Between the Lines," a triptych of edgy character sketches. The song begins audaciously with a compassionate yet wary portrait of an overcooked cop ("See the policeman/Notice the lonely man/How do you think he keeps his head on straight?/Feel his rhythm ") then moves on to a potentially psychotic young woman who has lost it at the movies ("Lovely little case study/Castaway cutie/Masturbating in the back of that matinee movie" -- take that, Chuck Berry!) before finishing with a suicidal rapper -- who may or may not be Slug himself -- trying to make it through a tour ("Tonight's the last day/Put the butt in the ashtray/Lock the door and slit both wrists backstage"). The vignettes are separated by the tightrope-walking chorus "I just/Might just/Feel somebody/I just/Might just/Kill somebody."
All over Lucy Ford Slug takes hip hop places it's never been before -- catching a "glimpse of religion" watching a 40-year-old woman masturbating (a motif, obviously) on "The Woman With the Tattooed Hands," taking a road trip to Fargo in a "car full of anxiety" on "Mama Had a Baby and His Head Popped Off," witnessing a grain-elevator suicide on a farm in northern Minnesota on "Nothing But Sunshine."
And Slug also flips emotional tones with easy virtuosity -- playful on "It Goes" and funny on the off-kilter blues "Guns and Cigarettes," deadly serious on the angry treatise "Tears For the Sheep" (which begins "A city of fools/I want to bash whoever's responsible for this incomprehensible lack of passion") and the hip-hop-as-emo "Don't Ever Fucking Question That" (a valentine right down to the "I love you").
In addition to "Between the Lines," the standouts (song-of-the-year candidates) are "Like Today" and "Party For the Fight to Write." The former is a bohemian rewrite of Ice Cube's "Today Was a Good Day" that makes the mundane -- sleep in, grab your headphones, hit the record store, book store, coffee shop, plop down and rubberneck ("In the summertime/Women wear a lot of skin/And if I sit in one spot I can take 'em all in") -- seem somehow visionary. The latter is a propulsive, bass-driven anthem that casts an understanding yet militant eye on the splintering factions in the so-called hip-hop community. On this song, Slug is a spy in the house of bling, mistaken by hip-hop moguls and soldiers as "Happy-go-lucky/Just another face/Head-bobbin' nobody" before he rises to issue a challenge -- "Alright/Get your money right/But tonight I want you to take a side." But Slug spikes the thorny metasong with an inspired, unifying chorus: "Some got pencils and some got guns/Some know how to stand and some of them run/We don't all get along/But we sing the same song/Party for the fight to write."
Half flat-out brilliant and half way beyond filler, this collection of "theory, stories, truth, and myths" might be the most compelling and vital record I've heard all year. Anyone who wants to love Eminem but doesn't think he's enlightened enough should go find this record right now. For more info on Atmosphere check out www.rhymesayers.com. -- Chris Herrington
Never Make It Home
Split Lip Rayfield
There's been an abundance of new-timey bluegrass groups lately: the jazz intonation of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, the country inflection of the Scud Mountain Boys, and the punk infusion of the Bad Livers all represent variations on the genre, while the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou? reintroduced consumers to Ralph Stanley, bluegrass originator and fiddler extraordinaire. The possibility that bluegrass would emerge -- in the 21st century, no less -- near the forefront of alternative country trends seemed highly unlikely, yet popular opinion proves otherwise.
Enter Split Lip Rayfield. Like all "real" bluegrass bands, this Wichita-based group features guitar and mandolin punctuated by a drumless rhythm section of banjo and bass. Bassist Jeff Eaton thumps a stand-up fashioned out of a Ford gas tank -- and he plays it with panache, getting a robust sound from the album's fast-paced opener, "Movin' To Virginia," on through the jaunty title track to the sweet and lowdown "It's No Good."
Replete with kazoo solos and car crashes, Never Make It Home could easily slip into the Southern Culture On the Skids arena of hokum and hucksterism, but the sheer earnestness of Split Lip Rayfield keeps the album grounded. While four-part harmonies dominate all 14 songs, each track stands on its own emotionally. From the wistful chorus of "Record Shop" ("Find your lover undercover/You take all my vices from me/You will soon discover that the road ain't as easy as it seems") to the repentant "Thief" and jubilant, twangy "Dimestore Cowboy," this bluegrass quartet displays natural vocal talent and a flair for songwriting.
Relative greenhorns today, Split Lip Rayfield have the ability -- and propensity -- to inspire the next generation of bluegrass fans. After all, even Ralph Stanley was once a newcomer to the scene. You read it here first: Flash-forward 50 years and I guarantee that Never Make It Home is a hillbilly classic.-- Andria Lisle
Split Lip Rayfield will be at Last Place on Earth on Thursday, June 7th.
The Earth Rolls On
This latest release from Shaver is also likely to be the group's last since guitarist Eddy Shaver died of a heroin overdose on New Year's Eve 2000. The pairing of the late Shaver's aggressive Southern boogie leads with Billy Joe Shaver's (his father, by the way) songwriting and quavery vocals was an unlikely combination that worked very well in the studio. This pairing gave guitarist Shaver's hard-edged playing a thoughtful context to blaze away in, and the rock band format seemed to energize the elder Shaver into a kind of high-energy performance he never gave as a solo singer-songwriter. Father and son benefited artistically and commercially from this sometimes awkward pairing.
Despite losing his mother, wife, and son in the last two years, Billy Joe Shaver sounds anything but tragic here. There's pathos and loss, but defiance and humor figure just as much on this recording. In that sense, The Earth Rolls On fits in with much of Shaver's solo work, where an almost mindless brand of outlaw rebellion prevails. Luckily the defiance is leavened by some very funny lyrics and over-the-top vocals that settle somewhere between a shout and a bray. Hope he keeps the band format now that he's touring behind this record, because Shaver never sounded this lively in his Texas troubadour days. -- Ross Johnson
Billy Joe Shaver will be at the Hi-Tone Café on Thursday, June 7th.
You can e-mail Chris Herrington at firstname.lastname@example.org