Come With Us
The Chemical Brothers
Back in the mid-'90s, when college radio and club utopians were clamoring for a post-rock revolution, London's Chemical Brothers seemed made-to-order. A lot of the musical innovations of club culture, then and now, seemed forbidding to outsiders, but with 1995's Exit Planet Dust and 1997's breakout, Dig Your Own Hole, DJ saviors Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons produced the first electronica records to please both subcultural specialists and rock dilettantes just interested in big beats. Rowlands and Simons joined Fatboy Slim as the first real "rock stars" of the electronica revolution.
That revolution never really happened, but 2001 saw other DJ acts master the transition from club-born music to the rock-album form --Daft Punk, Avalanches, and, most of all, Basement Jaxx, acts that recontextualize familiar sources in a manner that puts pure pleasure ahead of musicological point-making.
Along those lines, if Fatboy Slim's base sensibility is hip hop meets garage rock, Daft Punk's is disco meets radio rock, and Basement Jaxx's is disco meets funk/R&B, then the Chemical Brothers' is hip hop meets psychedelic rock. This is, after all, the group that, through sheer sonic imagination and good vibrations, managed to do the impossible on Dig Your Own Hole --unite Schooly D. and Oasis.
"Come with us and leave your earth behind," a sampled voice intones to lead off the Brothers' latest, Come With Us, a party platter that splits the difference between the ecstatic rush of Exit Planet Dust and Dig Your Own Hole and the more subdued letdown of 1999's Surrender.
The academic voiceover that announces the title of the lead single, "It Began In Afrika," is silly -- irony that doesn't erase the anthropological white-boy vibe of the duo's approach. But when the drums land with full force, you won't care anymore. And the title tells the tale on the swinging electrofunk of "Galaxy Bounce," which sounds like Dirty South bounce as reimagined by Martians, the booming hip-hop beats undercutting psychedelic frippery. This is the Chemical Brothers at their best. "Hoops" and "Denmark" follow similar sonic patterns with similarly fruitful results.
Other times the duo doesn't fare as well. "Star Guitar" is laid-back to a fault, and the band's use of guest vocalists -- British folkie babe Beth Orton on "The State We're In" and cornball Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft on the closing "The Test" -- is an unwelcome distraction.
Ultimately, Come With Us is a trip worth taking, just don't expect to make it to the promised land. -- Chris Herrington
Gold Teeth Thief
In the liner notes to his 1996 album Songs Of a Dead Dreamer, DJ Spooky wrote, "Give me two records and I'll make you a universe." Jace Clayton, aka DJ/rupture, does more than that on the self-released Gold Teeth Thief (downloadable in its entirety from Clayton's Web site, www.negrophonic.com). Here, he blends a wide variety of styles -- hip hop and jungle, dub and dancehall, North and South African styles, gabber and glitchcore -- into a cohesive whole that provides a glimpse into the world at large rather than a mere escape hatch from it.
DJ /rupture is a master of dynamics who knows when to rev up the mix and when to slow it down, and he has an uncanny ear for juxtapositions. The set opens with the Easternisms of Missy Elliott's tabla-powered "Get Ur Freak On" and QB Finest's flute-driven "Oochie Wally (Instrumental)"; the latter also provides a sonic bed for Jamaican toaster Ricky Dog's (aka Bling Dog's) "Risen To the Top." Ragga meets raga -- how cute. That combo is then overwhelmed by DJ Scud's "Ambush Time," a hard, overdriven drum-and-bass track -- a sort of literal demonstration of how d&b took its sonic language from both hip hop and dancehall only to supercede both in sheer aggression.
The whole disc moves like that. Funkstorung's ghostly remix of Wu-Tang Clan's "Reunited" is languorous but unsettling, and its self-generated tension is exploded by the breakbeat shitstorm of an untitled track by Nettle (another Clayton alias) that impacts like a gunshot at a house party. And Thief's closing sequence -- Muslimgauze's "The Taliban" into Paul Simon with Ladysmith Black Mambazo's "Homeless" into a gorgeous live track by onetime South African exile Miriam Makeba -- has special resonance post-9/11. With Gold Teeth Thief, DJ /rupture has managed to capture something more than your average dance-floor epiphany: The world's a mess, and it's in his mix. -- Michaelangelo Matos
Blues Stop Knockin'
One of the last of that great fraternity of Excello bluesmen -- and a throwback to the days when harp-blowers like Little Walter Jacobs, Jimmy Reed, and Sonny Boy Williamson ruled the scene -- Lazy Lester can still stomp, shuffle, and wail with the best of them. This is Lester's fourth album since his late-'80s comeback, and the swamp-blues harp-man shows no sign of slowing down. Drawing from a wealth of Excello classics -- his own and those of labelmates Lonesome Sundown and Slim Harpo -- with a few standards thrown in for good measure, Lester delivers an energetic set on these 12 tunes.
For a bluesman, it's obvious that Lester is feeling good: From the jaunty "I Love You Baby" through to a rambunctious "Gonna Stick To You Baby" and a rollicking version of Lee Dorsey's "Ya Ya," the harmonica maestro is tireless. And as he makes clear on a remake of Harpo's "I'm Your Breadmaker, Baby," Lester is king of the double entendre -- "You can roll my dough," he growls, before laying into a funky harmonica riff.
While his harmonica chops are tough as ever, Lester's voice is beyond repair. Yet somehow the rust coating his vocal chords adds to the charm. Vocally, he comes across like a swampier Robert "Bilbo" Walker, a down-home bluesman more intent on having a good time than cutting a technically perfect record.
The folks at Antone's put together a crackerjack band for these sessions: Producer/guitarist Derek O'Brien, bassist Speedy Sparks, and drummer Mike Buck make up the core unit, while Austin guitar guru Jimmie Vaughn lends a driving solo to Lester's signature number -- and the album's best cut -- the seminal "Ponderosa Stomp." -- Andria Lisle
For Nearby Stars
Indie rock stalwarts in their hometown of New York City, the boy-girl-boy-girl VPN -- whose name comes from the term Very Pleasant Neighbor, which is WWII code for U.S. allies -- mix the art-rock special effects of Radiohead with the kind of pastoral melodies and pretty pop harmonies favored by midlist Elephant 6 bands and bandwagon Brian Wilson revivalists. Stemming from this potentially promising mix, the problems on the band's second full-length, For Nearby Stars, are many and run deep.
First, the production, with all its bells and whistles, has been buffed too smooth: The rough edges have been filed down so that the sonics have no texture or personality. Slower songs like "Sleepwalking" stall out with little momentum or motion, while the more upbeat, guitar-driven tracks like "The Flood" have little bite or spark.
Austin Hughes has neither the voice nor the songwriting skills to imbue them with any life. His lyrics are too often awkward in their poetry -- as on "Flame," when he sings, "She hangs hope in all the windows, blowing good-intention bubbles through a straw" -- and he delivers them in a thin, vanilla tenor that becomes increasingly annoying as the album progresses.
Searching for a very pleasant sound and style, VPN have inadvertently neglected substance on the flavorless For Nearby Stars. --Stephen Deusner
VPN joins the Frogs and the Oscars at the Map Room on Saturday, January 26th.