The first thing you notice about Southern rap pioneer 8ball's new platter is an almost ascetic level of restraint. Instead of a triple-disc Sandinista-esque lumbering opus like 1997's Lost, we have a relatively taciturn single CD with a mere 15 tracks. And secondly, we have a title, Almost Famous, that is as refreshingly humble and unpretentious as possible in the egoistic effluvium of modern rap. The cover is also a perfect example of the Memphis-born 8ball's newly refined perspective. Instead of a Pen & Pixel-designed image of 8ball being ferried down canals full of glowing "Benjamins" by topless supermodel gondoliers, there is the cuddly mug of the Mid-South's favorite spuddy spitter in full close-up, Andy Williams-style.
On the opener, "Thorn," 8ball intones, "You see them pretty motherfuckas on the TV screen/Live and die for that fake shit on MTV." And just as that perceptive observation is starting to sink in, you end up watching BET's Rap City: Tha Bassment and peep his new video for "Stop Playin' Games," directed by Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst and co-written by the patron saint of the sellout, P-Diddy himself. But it's hard to hold a grudge against 8ball. Partly because it's such an infectious single and he's been at the game for so long but mainly because he's 350 pounds of playa heading for you in a Rolls Royce golf cart. And for every party-anthem head-bobber, there's a corresponding contemplative chin-stroker.
Maybe it's his recent bout with respiratory complications, no doubt abetted by his considerable breadth of beam and his perpetual leaf-chiefing, that has given him such gravity on tracks like "Spit" and "Live This." However, on "Daddy," 8ball has erred on the side of bathos. The chorus -- "Daddy, when are you coming home?" -- is sung by little children. This tearjerker concerns itself with a family torn asunder by the absence of the father, who is either on the road making hit records or dealing cocaine. It's the urban equivalent of one of Red Sovine's sentimental trucker ballads -- call it "Ghetty Bear" if you must. But 8Ball, if you can't tell by his girth, is an Epicurean at heart. So there are plenty of lyrics devoted to hydroponic green-green and, oddly enough, froufrou Grey Goose vodka interspersed with all of the heady verbiage. 8ball's hedonism distances itself from its cousin, bling-bling nihilism, with an anchor in grown-ass-man philosophizing. Some rappers are still sipping on baby bottles; 8ball is nursing a Grey Goose on the rocks.
-- David Dunlap Jr.
More than just another group of make-up artists attempting the Beggars Banquet On $5 a Day program, the Vue (formerly known as the Audience) add personality and metaphorical guesswork to their second glam/blues platter, Find Your Home. Musically, they are a good (and very showy) garage/blues band that knows a trick that most in the genre do not: how to use space. And that space makes for a nod to forebears that don't exist entirely in the '60s. I hear Television, the Dream Syndicate, and Bowie-treated Mott the Hoople floating around in some familiar blues riffing you don't mind hearing over and over again -- specifically a revved-up version of the "ill-advised" electric records made by Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters in the late '60s. Oh, and I mention "metaphorical guesswork" because the lyrics and vocals manage to overflow with the sexual charge of early-'70s glam while being vague in their direct motive.
Rather than a full-on minstrel show slumming around in genres they don't understand, the Vue steal a few licks from the bands that perfected that slumming to begin with (the Stones, the Animals) and then move forward. Find Your Home is all rock swagger but not without the warm dissonance that made early Sonic Youth so good. Plus, they've got the charisma. The Vue are purportedly a fantastic live act (a necessity if you are going this route).
-- Andrew Earles
The Vue will be at Young Avenue Deli on Saturday, December 1st, with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.
"[She] manages to express emotion without screaming, grunting, going out of tune, or using any of the other devices common to singers who attempt to make bad taste a substitute for soul." Stanley Booth was referring to Dusty Springfield's Dusty in Memphis album when he voiced that sentiment three decades ago, but he may as well have been writing about Kelly Hogan's latest, Because It Feel Good.
An alum of what she calls "a billion bands" -- including the Jody Grind and Rock*A*Teens -- Georgia-native Hogan quit the music biz and relocated to Chicago in 1997. When she found a job working as a publicist at Bloodshot Records, the Windy City's alt-country enclave, Hogan realized that she could no longer avoid her true calling. After contributing guest vocals to a bevy of albums by the likes of Alejandro Escovedo and the Waco Brothers, she came out from behind the desk last year to make the Bob Wills tribute album Beneath the Country Underdog, an underrated gem recorded with the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, a collective of musicians including Jon Langford, Neko Case, John Wesley Harding, and Robbie Fulks.
If Beneath the Country Underdog is comparable to a raucous honky-tonk, then Because It Feel Good is a smoke-filled Berlin nightclub. From the album's opener, a stark version of the Statler Brothers' "I'll Go To My Grave Loving You," Hogan sets a cabaret tone with her alternately whispering, then booming, voice. Ably backed by a low-frequency violin and banjo warble, the country weeper becomes a battle cry: "I'd work day and night loving you/And when God calls us both above/Honey, you'd know that you'd been loved." The overall effect is like filtering Tammy Wynette through Lotte Lenya -- and, incredibly, it works.
Cut in Athens, Georgia, with producer Dave Barbe (Sugar, Son Volt) at the helm, Because It Feel Good features a handpicked group of Chicago musicians, including Jon Rauhouse on guitar and former Squirrel Nut Zipper Andrew Bird on violin. The 10 songs that make up the album encompass a wide musical spectrum -- from oldies like the aforementioned Statler Brothers tune, "Please Don't Leave Me" (an obscurity from soulster King Floyd), Nilsson's version of Randy Newman's "Living Without You," and Charlie Rich's understated "Stay" to modern tracks from indie faves Smog and the Bogmen.
Like Johnny Cash's albums on the American label and Cat Power's The Covers Record, Hogan's interpretations of these familiar songs derive new meaning from even the most hackneyed tunes, making the material -- unequivocally -- her own. "Strayed," another brilliant cover, comes from an unlikely source: Smog's low-fi Dongs of Sevotion album. In a perfect world, Hogan's rendition, belted out in a honeyed Southern voice, would rule the Nashville country scene. "I have loved in haste," she laments. "I've been an alley cat and a bumble bee/To your panther, to your wasp/Oh, I have loved while thinking only of the cost."
Range, depth, and carefully selected material all add up to a minor masterpiece. But what puts this album over the top -- the final ingredient -- is crystal-clear: Kelly Hogan has soul. It's obvious that she loves to sing, and she expresses her emotions like a Dixie-fried Dusty Springfield, with grace, guts, and good taste. Why? Because it feel good. -- Andria Lisle