Recordings

Dr. Octagon
Dr. Octagonecologyst
Instrumentalyst
(Dreamworks)

Dr. Octagon, aka Kool Keith, is one of the great paradoxes in hip hop. Whether for his work on Dr. Octagonecologyst, the Mo' Wax import recently released in these parts by Dreamworks, or for his role in Critical Breakdown, the 1988 Ultra Magnetic MCs release, he has been dissed more than the police. And with good reason. His rapping lacks vigor. His writing is weak: The rhymes are poor fits for the beats, and he pays little attention to meter. In addition, his lyrical conception is unself-consciously sophomoric; 2 Live Crew was mature by comparison. If forced to live on his skills as a rapper, Kool Keith would have been reduced to panhandling years ago.

He wasn't. His old group was lauded for its production and samples, and this disc reflects a solid progression. Although it may not have been consistent progress: Four years ago, Keith told reporters from Urb that he spent some of the intervening years in a mental hospital being treated for manic depression. Nevertheless, he's everywhere now; he's had a hand in 15 releases in the last 18 months and has remixed a track on the new Prodigy release. Keith, now L.A.-based, has joined with two Bay Area colleagues, DJ Q-Bert and the Automator, to form Dr. Octagon. Although Dr. Octagonecologyst suffers terribly from Keith's weak rapping, its companion disc, Instrumentalyst, is a revelation. It features some of the most hypnotic, surreal sonic collages found on any hip-hop recording. The tracks are diverse -- edgy guitars drive one tune, and a string quartet starts another -- and well-sequenced on the album. The music never feels like it lacks a frontman.

These recordings point out a growing dichotomy in hip hop. A significant part of the music is about a proud maintenance of the inner teen-ager in us all -- a celebration of boisterous rebellion that enables hip hop to cross over to rock 'n' roll precincts far more easily than the stylized vehemence of an Erykah Badu ever could. However, the DJ movement, from Shadow to Goldie to UFO to Tricky to the Chemicals to Krush and back again, is about growing up, but not growing complacent. Swiping music from whatever source feels right without regard to its baggage implicitly accepts the polyglot nature of originality. Rather than defining individuality as something apart from the whole, it defines individuality as something within the whole. Kiss paranoia goodbye -- there are better things to spend energy upon, like finding more cool music. Dr. Octagonecologyst and Instrumentalyst suggest that Kool Keith is pretty adept at being an adult, but he makes a lousy kid.

-- Martin Johnson

Fuck
Pardon My French
(Matador)

In equal proportions, Fuck are about gimmick and contradiction. The band's name says as much -- Fuck want people to pay attention to them. On a record, a marquee, or a flier, the name is belligerent, lewd, and impossible to ignore. Their music, however, is full of beauty, simplicity, and restraint.

On their last two records, Fuck always seemed in control of their dynamics, or the musical contradictions playing between -- not within -- tracks. On the first full-length, early 1996's Pretty ... Slow, the band used spare instrumentation and quiet, breathy vocals to lure listeners into minimalist songs both fragile and elegant. Within those, Fuck seemed content with being soft-spoken. But for every two slow songs there was a more aggressive (hardly the right word, but we're talking context here) number to snap synapses and pull listeners out of lulls. The subsequent Baby Loves a Funny Bunny reversed that pattern, making it a more fun platter with a couple of downright upbeat tunes with catchy hooks.

Pardon My French, the mostly Bay Area-based Fuck's big-time debut on Matador, ditches the philosophy of the last two records. Here, Fuck sound like they want to make their songs more severe and dissolve the soft-hard(er) juxtaposition in favor of grueling sessions of slower stuff. It's more like the torturous somnolence of Low and less like the mood swings of Bedhead.

The record doesn't begin that way. "Li'l Hilda" is a minute-and-a-half wake-up song with a gimmicky alarm clock ringing throughout the entire track. The bell continues until the drums kick in on "Fuck Motel," the album's most upbeat number -- a bass-driven tune with country undertones similar to Pretty's "Hide Face."

But then the record drops from 45 to 33 and lurches toward despair. "Le Serpent" is an uncomfortably serious midnight song with almost hokey biblical overtones. "Bestest Friend" is the remedy, complete with a typical play on language (like "Wrongy Wrong" in the past). Then, for four more songs the record goes deeper. "Compromise" is a depressing take on interpersonal alienation. "One Lb of Indiana" promises a ticket out of sullen city, with a buzzing bass that builds to a weak climax. However, the song breaks and leaves us only with the great lyrics, "All I need is a pound of Indiana."

Finally, "Raggedy Rag," with its Louisiana guitar line and short verse, lessens the emotional load of the album. After that, Fuck are back to themselves. "Dirty Brunette" clocks in as a lyrical heavyweight that doesn't topple its music. Stylistically, "Thoroughfare" is comfortably experimental, featuring horns, organ, xylophone, and muttering background voices -- consistent with Fuck's usual gimmicks and contradictions. Unfortunately, it sticks out on a record that trims both.

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