The future of rock ‘n’ roll?
Battles”Mirrored” (Warp)Math rock remains perhaps the most perplexing category for a musical genre, and provides little clue as to what it might actually sound like. Battles, which often gets lumped into the category, possesses both a math-rock pedigree (featuring Ian Williams of the vaunted Don Caballero and Dave Konopka of Lynx) and the genre’s flair for technical precision and experimentation with rhythm, structure and progression.But what lies at the center of Battles is a beating heart. Passion burns through every hook and chord, transcending the icy borders of math rock and experimental electronica that the band regularly blurs. The band plays with time signature, meter and harmonics like toys in a sandbox, but none of that matters to an uneducated listener, who’ll be busy bopping to the sticky hooks and breakdowns.Formerly an instrumental band, avant-garde multi-instrumentalist Tyondai Braxton has introduced vocals to Battles, but not in the way you might expect. He loops and pitch-bends his voice into harmonized squiggles and blips, sometimes sounding like a chipmunk D’Angelo from space( “Leyendecker”), and other times creating an entire choir of himself (“Tonto”). While Braxton cuts and chops his voice (a trick he manages to pull off live in stunning fashion), he’s also manning samplers, keys and guitars at the same time. Williams and Konopka juggle instruments the same way, playing guitars, keyboards, laptops and basses, often trading parts in the same song. The only constant is ex-Helmet drummer John Stanier, who is equally adept at balancing future-jazz snare rolls with crushingly huge rock ‘n’ roll fills. When the other members threaten to float off into space or get lost in an atmospheric, looped black hole of their own making, he nails them to the floor with a rock-solid groove. Battles doesn’t really sound like much out there – they truly seem to be crafting a genre of their own apart from outside influence, but without the requisite pretension of most innovators. Most importantly, though, it’s a blast to listen to: Single “Atlas,” with it’s chugging, danceable beat and nursery-rhyme, unintelligible vocals, sounds like a greatest hit on a mixtape from the year 2107. It’s robot rock with a brain and a heart.
– Ted AlvarezThe National “Boxer” (Beggars Banquet)The chamber rock quintet the National broke through in 2005 with “Alligator,” a moody album that sounded more than a little like the Willard Grant Conspiracy gone post-punk. The band earned plaudits for mixing styles and avoiding the “woe is me” shoe-gazer tar pit. Eager to replicate that success, the National hews too closely to established formula on “Boxer,” content to revisit previously explored territory without expanding its sound.Granted, “Boxer” is a big-sounding record, laden with strings, horns, piano, guitar and singer Matt Berninger’s rich voice, each element interlocking with jigsaw precision and buffed to a high black sheen. And given the tenor of the times, Berninger’s worldview is appropriately gloomy – when he sings “we’re half-awake in a fake empire” on the opener, “Fake Empire,” he could be reciting America’s new letterhead-ready slogan – but its effectiveness is weakened when the gloom spreads over a dozen songs. The record’s brighter spots ( “Apartment Story” and “Green Gloves,” which recall the band’s pre- “Alligator” Americana-influenced work) strike a better balance between gloomy and, er, less gloomy. Still, night-black, painstakingly crafted and bloodless, “Boxer” is musical obsidian.- Stephen Haag, L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service
KRS-One and Marley Marl “Hip Hop Lives” (Koch)KRS-One and producer Marley Marl have joined forces, ending one of hip-hop’s most historic beefs. That’s big news for old-timers, but what does it mean to today’s hip-hop fans, many of whom weren’t born when the two legends were squabbling over the superiority of Queensbridge or the Bronx in the mid-’80s?Well, for one thing, it offers the youngsters a chance to get a history lesson – not only one based on facts, but on style as well. “Rising to the Top,” for example, tells the story of KRS-One’s momentous early career about as well as one could ask. But it’s also the sort of succinct narrative that today’s hip-hop, with its focus on sex and regional catchphrases (or both) rarely produces.Likewise, on “I Was There” – a laundry list of notable hip-hop events at which KRS claims to have been present – the old-school beats and old-fashioned bluntness also are a valuable reminder of how great a role he and Marley played in shaping the music.If KRS-One blows his own horn a trifle too often – something he has always done anyway – “Hip Hop Lives” reminds us he has certainly earned that right.- Dan LeRoy, L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service
Sage Francis”Human the Death Dance” (Epitaph)With a steady, bullish flow that almost never lets up, Sage Francis spits rhyme and metaphors with a brand of confidence altogether foreign to most rappers.Rather than prop himself up on silly boasts about cars and women, the MC from Providence, R.I., attacks the microphone with a smart, authoritative voice. Tackling mainstream hip-hop, current events and even his own foibles, he comes across like a man who knows he’s right.His self-assurance is grounded in peerless writing, and throughout “Human the Death Dance,” his second album for the punk-centric Epitaph label, Francis drops line after killer line, making a lyric sheet something of a necessary listening companion.Where Francis suffers is in the music – a point he seems to recognize on “Got Up This Morning,” when he raps, “I work better on page / people say words are my profession.”Indeed, Francis is so intent on destroying pop-rap conventions, such as the glorification of sex and violence, that he often reduces the music to a joyless, didactic drag.He may be right to criticize fellow white rapper Eminem, as he does on “Midgets & Giants,” but at least Slim Shady, for all his faults, knows how to make a memorable record.- Kenneth Partridge, L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service