By Ian S. Port
By Cory Sklar
By Godofredo Vasquez
By Gil Riego Jr.
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Christopher Victorio
By Ian S. Port
Frustrated, by Austin hardcore/post-punk/ditty-pop range finders Starfish, offers a preponderance of great tracks and flaunts many of the finest features of indie rock. On the other hand, it's also burdened by one of the more stubborn, gassy, obese beeves overgrazing that selfsame plain.
Lauds first. Listening to "Two Words," the finest "fuck you" tirade of musical '97 thus far, will make you want to start a rock band, perhaps again. (But for the love of god, stop yourself.) The evidence that sloppy, distorted, drop-D riffing and a vocal hook teeming with derision can still sound duuuuude is heartening indeed. (That is a West Coast adjective, isn't it?) Starfish are one of those rare beasts in the sprawling loud-rock stablery undeserving of the stun stick. Sure, you've heard four-cornered chord progressions like that of the title track before, and the overdriven downslur that constitutes the main riff to "Doo Doo," but with such kick? You've probably grown weary of the whole idea of wedding tuneful vocal lines to distorto-slop, but maybe you've just never heard it done so well before.
Vocalist/bassist Ronna has the knack, and how: The tone of her double-tracked voice is strangely reminiscent of early '60s teeny-bopper sugar, but neither her oft-pissy lyrics nor her crunchy bass touch any of that old goo. Lyrically, Frustrated seems to be something of a candid concept album -- most of the songs are about tour troubles, band dysfunction, and each member's dislike of the others -- but I'm only in it for the riffs. You guys work it out amongst yourselves. Frustrated is thus far my favorite dumb rock album of the year.
Now to my beef. The opening track, "Canada," consists of nothing but eight minutes and 33 seconds of didgeridoo on feedback, the sound of which (fortunately) has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the album. Punching the skip button on your CD player is hardly a daunting task, unless you, like "Canada," are too much of an obtuse stoner joke to find the initiative to move along. But there's a danger, not only among the taste-spoon crew of music journalism, but among the general citizenry, that being greeted by a giant, interminable, one-note kazoo at the head of an album will inspire skipping the whole record. Yeah, "Canada" was probably a prank, and perhaps an earnest experiment, and indie rock used to stumble upon the odd gem while wallowing in all manner of indulgence. But I don't get stoned much anymore, and didgeridoo is best left to hippies in pastures full of sticky green bud, where it belongs. Moooooo.
Erykah Badu represents the latest in an emerging trend of R&B artists who refuse to dumb down their music to accommodate mainstream standards. The 25-year-old Dallas native follows closely in the footsteps of D'Angelo, Tony Rich, and Maxwell in creating a smart, unaffected, and musically sophisticated blend of hip-hop jazz and R&B -- a canny fusion that warrants the conceit of the album's title "izm." And the public seems to agree. Badu's disc moved 160,000 copies in its first week on the market, earning her the No. 2 spot on the Billboard charts, which are renowned for undercounting sales in stores in the black community.
Badu sings with an intonation and delivery that recall Billie Holiday, and writes with a savvy like that of Maya Angelou. The voice occasionally sounds affected, which would be unbearable were it not for the lyrics. Badu's spiritual initiatives run far deeper and idiosyncratically than those of most gospel singers. On "On and On" she sings:
You rush into Destruction
'Cause you don't have nothin' left
The Mothership can't save you
So your ass is gonna get left
If we were made in his image
Then call us buy our names
Most intellects do not believe in God
But they fear us just the same.
At long last, soul music with a spiritual agenda. Some other snippets suggest that Badu's worldview is pragmatically, even grudgingly optimistic: "Work ain't honest but it pays the bills"; "I have a ho/ And I take it everywhere that I go/ 'Cause I'm planting seeds so I reeps/ What I sow -- ya know." Some of her best songs bring a young black perspective to the complications of contemporary romance.
Badu attracted top-shelf talent for her debut, including respected bassist Ron Carter, trumpet phenom Roy Hargrove, Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest, and Philadelphia-based hip-hop jazz masters the Roots. Despite such a heavyweight supporting cast, Badu remains in full control of the spotlight. Her honey-toned voice gracefully lifts songs like "On and On," the first single, and a nifty cover of "4 Leaf Clover." She collaborates with Hargrove and Carter on "Afro," a ditty about going to see the Wu-Tang Clan. In a genre where most debut recordings are intended to show off career potential and giddy charm, Baduizm is a refreshing change, a strikingly self-assured and articulate document. It is the first landmark recording of 1997.
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