Heroes, Teens and Hip-Hop

BY KEN WALCZAK

Screw those Kyoto people — this global warming stuff is great. I get to bitch about 20-degree wind chill one day, then moan about 90-degree heat the next. It’s like one long wet dream for complainers.

Of course, not everything about Boston’s new Instant Summer is cause for complaint. For one thing, has finally been given a release date on DVD (Now if only they’d get around to my widescreen Purple Rain petition). The Cleveland Indians are a shocking 11-2. And the CD release calendar is chock full of April goodies.

With that last bit of joyous news in mind, this week’s column is a sort of review/preview hybrid. Think of it as a public service — as a spending guide for a tiny portion of that firm money that will soon be lining the pockets of so many of you. Or, if you prefer, just think of it as the usual self-indulgent posturing. At least it’s posturing with a broader approach, and a generally sunny disposition. First, a few recent gems:

764-HERO – Nobody Knows This Is Everywhere: These guys may be the best indie rock band in America. After three exquisite albums, they are at least serious contenders. Like the previous two, this album features production by Phil Ek, a longtime associate of Built To Spill (Hero’s frequent touring companions, and perhaps their competition for that Best Band statuette). Ek has mastered the art of displaying the band’s slash-and-swoon attack, preserving the rough edges of John Atkins’s guitar work and Polly Johnson’s drumming while simultaneously propelling Atkins’s voice into the lithosphere. The result is a stunning and bizarre kind of immediacy — I can’t speak for anyone else, but I have found snippets of 764-HERO melodies floating around my cranium literally months after my last listen.

Anyway the big surprise on Nobody Knows is that Ek’s magical formula has been modified, and at times even supplanted, without losing any of its power. Songs like “Photographic Evidence” and “Skylines” are pop-infused and charming, conjuring more Pavement than Modest Mouse. “At the Surface” preserves the jagged rock, while “Confetti Confessional” bridges the two styles admirably. Lyrics remain charming little puzzles, as well as pleasantly self-deprecating. Sample mantra: “Everyone’s looking/ For the answers/ But you won’t find anything here.”

Imperial Teen – On: Roddy Bottum (his real name, as far as I can tell) was the keyboardist for Faith No More. He is apparently “best friends with Courtney Love” (I quote www.queery.com; Bottum is also openly gay). His band had a minor radio hit with “You’re One” back in the halcyon alterna-days of 1995, and perfected their sound on 1998’s superb What Is Not to Love. This time they do an end run around the tempting Elephant 6 blueprint, and end up somewhere in contemporary Sweden — which is to say sounding like more-recent Komeda, which is to say awfully good.

There is charm to spare here, but nothing sappy, twee, or precious. Like the best of the Swedes, Roddy & Co. deftly balance hot and cold textures without ever becoming lukewarm. “Million $ Man” and “Our Time” are especially delightful, and “Undone” (no relation to the Guess Who song) may well be a tiny masterpiece. Transcendent moment from the latter: “Put your ear up to the radio!”

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – Plastic Fang: Hailed by many as a return to form for the JSBX; I actually enjoyed the “experimental” Acme, but found myself enamored of this one as well. Maybe it’s the dime horror comic-book packaging, or the numerous (at least 2 and a half, by my count) songs about werewolves. Maybe it’s the superb guest appearance by Bernie Worrell. Or maybe it’s just the sheer thrill engendered by a demented rockabilly riff (think the Reverend Horton Heat fucked up on Thunderbird instead of Martinis) screeching to a halt just in time for Jon’s passionate cry: “I got to get right … with GOD!!!” In any case, it’s the sort of rollicking good time you’ve every right to expect from these fellas.

J-Live – All of the Above: The story behind this man’s debut album, The Best Part, could potentially fill a book. It’s novella length at least. But unlike so many similar tales (Large Professor, 50 Cent, Pacewon), the Live One’s has something of a happy ending. Mere weeks after his debut’s belated release, J-Live has rewarded patient fans with a second 21-track opus. This time the production is strictly on the cheap — no DJ Premier beats, no samples of any significant length, many beats by the MC himself — but for the most part it loses nothing in comparison to the earlier work.

Live himself remains a proficient and clever MC, breaking up his social commentary and (subdued) self-promotion with Rashomon-style narratives (“One for the Griot”), breathtaking experimental wordplay (“Mcee,” featuring a verse of “mostly words starting with M and C back to back”), and even tributes to Kevin Bacon (“Stir of Echoes,” I kid you not). Not all of it hits the mark, but you get so much for your $15 that it’s hard to complain. Plus, “Satisfied?” actually lives up to its advance billing as a refreshing rumination on the state of leftist politics after September 11. Sometimes it takes an underground MC to remind us of enduring core principles: “God is still black/ And bullshit’s still wack!”

Next, a couple more hip-hop releases to keep on your radar screen for next Tuesday, which (as my colleague Mr. Leven notes) is by all accounts a red-letter day:

Cee-Lo – Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections: After witnessing this Goodie Mob member’s recent development as an MC (check the Dungeon Family album in particular), it was something of a disappointment to hear that he would be singing, primarily, on his debut solo album. (He’s been something of a southern Nate Dogg in the past; you may have heard him showing off the pipes on tracks by Everlast or De La Soul …)

But the video for “Closet Freak” has made me a believer. The song is funk of the deepest, tightest kind and the visuals are the height of gorgeous ’70s garish. I’m talking that old Funkadelic aesthetic here, and all the while Cee-Lo purring: “Ooh Lord, you so freaky/ Mmm uh, you so freaky shorty/HA HA!!”

Q-Tip – Kamaal the Abstract [release date tentative]: The follow-up to Amplified has had at least its share of delays, helping to demonstrate yet again the prescience of Tip’s former pronouncements on Record Industry Rule #4080. Which is not to say that the RIAA folks are completely unsympathetic on this one: Apparently Q-Tip has also contracted the singing bug, and will be limiting himself primarily to that mode of expression.

Beyond the curiosity factor, the Kamaal album seems worth copping for the praise (and participation?) it has garnered from members of the OkayPlayer/SoulQuarians cadre (Roots, Common, D’Angelo …). Their advice is worth an awful lot in my book.

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