Tuesday, August 22, 2006

I've Moved!

Read my pointless drivel now at http://wis.dm/danielsalas !

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Tankian Solo Announced

So it looks like System of a Down is taking "a very long break" and Serj Tankian has announced his solo album. Thank god. I'm so pumped. Late 2007 is waaaaay too long to wait. The System of a Down frontman says he's composing every aspect of the album himself, but he's going to be bringing in friends to help out. Hopefully that means ample contributions from Saul Williams, Zack de la Rocha, and Arto Tuncboyaciyan.

If you want a taste of what Tankian can do without Daron, Shavo and John sharing the studio with him, check out his performance of "Charades" at the Axis of Justice benefit concert. This music fan thinks its pretty doooooope.

The Rundown: Quasimoto's The Unseen

In the hands of anyone other than Madlib, a hip hop album MC’d by a fictional cartoon character would certainly be a joke. But Quasimoto is defenitely not joking around, and even comes off as a little scary. There’s something defenitely unsettling about the Madlib alter ego’s debut album, 2004’s The Unseen. As the title might suggest, Quas is an MC with no real physical form, existing only in the pitched-up rhymes of producer Madlib. In print he is depicted in numerous diverse, uncomfortably-whimsical forms, from the primary-colored pigman pictured above to a Hensonesque alien puppet in the video for “Come On Feet.”

So what makes The Unseen so compelling? For me, it’s the world that it paints for the listener. Madlib’s signature production style weaves gritty soundscapes out of heaps of forgotten vinyl, without a polish in earshot. Quasimoto ambles over the loops like a lost and jaded Looney Tunes C-lister who gave up Duck Season for smoking weed and crusing the hood, looking to make mischief. Nevertheless, Quas' cartoon pedigree delightfully shines through every now and then, a prime example being "Come On Feet." He exists in a world of late-night TV and stand-up comedians, loops so old and forgotten that it feels like they were lost for a reason, creating a really alien and uncomfortable vibe. Despite this, it's a total blast to enter this world and listen to Quas flow. The urban circus sideshow vibe really comes through in spades.

Standouts for me include “Goodmorning Sunshine” “Return of the Loop Digga”, “Put a Curse on You”, "Come On Feet" and “Green Power.” But, appropriately enough for a Madlib record, the music is delievered in twenty-plus bites averaging under three minutes each. None of the largely minimalist loops get old, because before you know it you’re on to the next one.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Evils of Putamayo Music, AKA Why Natacha Atlas Sucks

I used to be blind. I used to be the kid who bought Putamayo CDs at Barnes & Noble and thought I was being marginal and hip. Motherfucking Putamayo CDs, also known as “Whole Foods checkout coasters,” are probably some of the most questionable musical compilations ever created. At face value, they’re shambling frankensteins of so-called “world music” wrapped up in a biodegradable case with art scribbled by nameless neo-hippy art school dropouts who are probably doing their best to squeeze out expat existence in Tegucigalpa. The music contained on these albums (which sport titles like “Arabic Groove” and “Sahara Chillout,” capable of making any massage therapist or yoga instructor swoon) tends to be an odd mixture of “folk” collectives, usually composed of the old guard on the verge of keeling over, and an assortment of young and hip “fusion” artists who take their native music and mash it up with rock or electronica or what-the-fuck-ever. Sometimes, the artists included are good and credible in their own right, sometimes they suck. The problem with these albums is how it’s presented. It’s the same problem you find in a lot of American-backed world music; many musicians who may or may not share a common thread pigeonholed into being the representatives of a certain kind of music or cultural heritage, whether it be authentic or not.

Anyway, I used to buy these, thinking that they were the shit. One of the first ones I got was “Arabic Groove,” which featured, of course, the likes of Khaled and some of his Rai-slinging brethren. it also included a track by Moroccan-Belgian (or something) songstress Natacha Atlas, a melodic, slinky cut called “Kidda.” I don’t know if it was her voice or the crazy belly dance hookah exotica backing her up, but I was instantly hooked. I bought up a ton of Natacha albums, thinking that it was authentic middle eastern music. Her songs, filled with pulsating arabic verse and weirdy-beardy middle eastern strings (yeah, I like them and I’m culturally sensitive, but I still think they are very ‘weirdy-beardy) are poppy and very conducive to head-nodding. I thought I was so cool and different.

But the thing is, it’s not authentic middle eastern music. Well...it sort of is. And not. Saying it’s authentic arabic song is like saying that Ojos de Brujo is authentic Spanish flamenco, or that John Lee Hooker is an authentic bluesman. They are not, never have been, never will be. But that isn’t the point. The point is that these artists were raised, enveloped in a cultural space which DID include authentic flamenco, authentic delta blues, authentic whatever. “Authentic” meaning purebred, straight from the past, traditional. Old. They chose to follow a different route, but they took their past with them. And this transformation shouldn’t be considered a dilution of a pure art, unless one misinterprets a hybrid as a purebreed, which is trouble.

Natacha Atlas produces dance and electronic music, like a good Euro musician usually does, but she chose to include her culture within it. “Kidda” is not authentic arabic music. It’s pop music made by an authentic arab. It’s no more or less bona fide than arabic classical, its just different. The problem is when people encounter music which contain certain influences and push it into one category or another, when in fact the borders are really far more ill-defined. As I said before, these mixologists shouldn’t be considered a dilution, they only seem like that if one chooses to put them into an exact category, or into a Putamayo record which bills them as such.

Natacha Atlas, while not making authentic “arab music” in the traditional sense of the word, was making authentic arab music in another respect. She’s an European Arab, with an English mother, born into this strange hybrid culture which pretty much everyone of my generation has experienced all their lives. Her much is the music of Natacha. It wasn’t pure middle eastern, but it wasn’t western, either. It was in a strange, totally creative gray area. And then came along Something Dangerous in 2001, which was the prompter for the title of this entry. Natacha Atlas’ earlier albums, like Diaspora and Ayeshteni, are gold. They exemplify this “Song of Myself” which I have spoken of. SD, however, was the first and last nail in Atlas’ globalization coffin. The wicked men who produced this record decided that their charge needed to break fully into the international scene. So what does they do? They have Natacha sing a trite, stupid, unbelievably lame album full of faux-rap featuring the worst MCs ever and some pointless “put your hands up” drivel. Congratulations, Natacha, you’ve been fully stripped of your own style, you are now a slave of the Putamayo system. It's not a "reinterpretation" of dance music. It's not a "middle eastern take" on electronica. It's just cliched garbage. If I wanted to listen to bump-bump middle eastern inspired stuff, I'd put on 50 Cent's "Candy Shop" and listen to the MC chew his way thorugh that overproduced Persian-string drek. Oh, and don't forget the Pussycat Dolls' "Buttons!" This record was “arabic” music for people who don’t actually want to listen to arabic music, be it old men sitting in a circle with ouds or a young mixed-race woman singing with the force of two cultures. It’s the most generic dance-pop, with the swarthy and exotic vixen behind the mic. You have sold out, Natacha, falling even further than Jedi Mind Tricks did when Ikon/Vinny Paz decided to trade in the mysticism for a nine in the hopes that his new thug style would get him on MTV.

Atlas dropped another album a few months ago, and while I eagerly ran to Virgin Megastore on that fateful Tuesday to sample her new stylings in the shop’s earphones, I was disappointed that it was more of the same. I was hoping that she would return to form, a true 360, but...no. It’s so sad. Natacha’s flow used to be uniquely hers. While I didn’t understand her Arabic or French lyrics, the music itself said just as much. And now, pandering to the global market, she has lost her unique voice, becoming just another Putamayo victim, an artist forced to be defined by her ethnicity, a curiosity, rather than letting it accent her already original art.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Acid Ancestry - The Art of Sako Shahinian

The last time I change the blog name and url, I swear.


I first became aquainted with young Angeleno artist Sako Shahinian when I bought Cool Gardens, the collected poetry book of System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian. I think Tankian is just about the most interesting person working in the contemporary music industry, so I figured that I'd try his poetry as well. The strength of his verse aside, what really grabbed me about Cool Gardens was the accompanying paintings scribbled by Shahinian. Apparently he and Serj go way back (he even gets a shout-out in SoAD's "Sugar").

Sako has a slick website in which you can see tons of his artwork, all accompanied by a fearsome do-not-reproduce-in-any-form copywrite message. When he isn't making stuff for his brothers in System of a Down or doodling advertisements for obscure companies, he pens designs for his own t-shirt line, Rapt Clothing, which I desperately wish was readily available to people outside of California.

I love this guy's stuff. My most-dug images are his portrait of his uncle and his brother, the creepy/funny Crime Scene and the just plain sweet Eye Flower. But in all seriousness I like 'em all. His work reminds me of old-school, orientatlist depictions of the far east, mixed and scratched with modern oblivion and LA grime. Go check out his digs, and look at the T-shirts. This man needs to go far.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Album Review: Vast Aire's Look Mom...No Hands

Yeah, this record was actually released two years ago, but I’ve been starving for new music for a month and a half and eMusic is right there, so hell, I’m going to grab something off of that. And in lieu of the supposedly eminent (the promised summer release date becoming less and less likely) Cannibal Ox sophomore effort, I’ll review the next best thing.

As I’ve mentioned before, when I listen to Can Ox, I listen to Vast Aire. To me there’s no better reason to put on 2001’s The Cold Vein than to listen to his unique pipes and halting, heavily-anunciated flow. On a related tangent, my dad, as a new disciple to the world of hip hop, is a fast fan the Cannibal Ox member’s stylings because of his lack of a mush-mouth, and I’m inclined to agree. Vast stands in huge contrast to fellow group member Vordul Megilah, who bores me to no end. Put up next to Aire, he just seems like an ordinary MC. Not to say he’s a better lyricist or his flow is especially better, I just think that Vast Aire stands out much more and seems all the more original.

I was interested in hearing Look Mom...No Hands to see if my Vast Aire could stand up on his own without Vordul trading verses with him and dense spacehead producer El-P providing the beats. Plenty of people cream for the Def Jux CEO’s stuff, but I just can’t feel it. Like another reviewer (and I’m sure thousands of fans) has said, El-P’s production is so powerful and ambitious that it fights hard with the flows of the MCs to be heard -- to the point of overshadowing them. But maybe Vast shines brightest when he’s forced to climb El’s walls of sound. This album would bring light to the question.

On Look Mom... Vast trades El in for a pretty impressive production roster, one which includes personal favorites Madlib and RJD2, and spits alongside the likes of MF Doom, Aesop Rock, Blueprint, and plenty of others. Since this is meant to be a mini-review and I’ve already wasted way too much time with intros and background, let me get to covering the good and the bad.

When the album shines, it shines. At its strongest, Vast’s Cheshire-Cat slink of a flow rips apart expectations, such as on the title track, the solid, Madlib-helmed “Life’s III Part II (The Empire Striketh)” and the closer “My First Sony.” The crew track “Posse Slash” is overstuffed with MCs, but is well worth it for Aesop Rock’s performance and a decent closer by the host. The imaginatively titled “9 Lashes (When Michael Smacks Lucifer)” is a RJD2-produced diss track aimed at 7L and Esoteric, who Vast has a beef with, for some unknown reason. While I’m not a fan of the unnecessarily dramatic high school vibe of disses, the beat is solid and Vast delivers on the lyrics end. Undoubtedly the best track on the album is the MF Doom collaboration, “Da Supafrienz.” On this beauty of a three-minute track, Metalface and Aire lyrically reminisce about spending Saturday morning in front of the TV over a rollicking and infectious piano loop. Even if you don’t like Vast Aire, download this track off of eMusic, it’s that good.

Unfortunately, those are the only highlights. Boring production strikes some of the songs here, most notably “Pegasus.” Vast Aire runs into some of the same problems he had on The Cold Vein; repeated words and ill-fitting rhymes. While his charisma can usually make up for it, certain instances were too much. While Vast will always name-drop Han Solo and G.I. Joe, Look Mom... felt at times to be simply an extension of Ox sans El-P, with the MC recycling piecemeal some of his more memorable lines and themes from the landmark Can O album. I know that MCs like to have catchphrases, but with Vast it got ridiculous at times. And let’s face it, Cannibal Ox is nothing without El; he’s part of their identity. Don’t try to make your own solo albums be Ox albums, Vast. Keep the sci-fi crap and played-out Wu-Tang kung fu hogwash to a minimum, unless you’re with someone who can appreciate them, like your producer. Just don’t let him rap on any of your tracks.

Overall, it’s a mixed bag. When the album works, it works. Tracks with Aes Rock and Doom are as good and (in the latter case) better than anything that Cannibal Ox has ever done, and it’s nice to hear Vast being produced by Madlib, but I love everything that guy does. However, covering the gold is a layer of gunk. It’s not crap, it’s more like a grayish mold. Uninteresting, and at times distressingly boring. Buy Look Mom...No Hands if you’re a Vast Aire fan, but realize that the MC’s creativity is only in full gear when he’s pitted against El-P.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Aman Yala: Rembetiko of the Month

Aman Yala: Rembetiko of the Month

Check it out, somebody besides me knows/cares about Marika Kanaropoulou!

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Grace Slick Teaches Us to Count

Sesame Street - Jazzy Spies - 2

It's common knowledge that my biggest rockstar crush is on 60s-era Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane (pre-Starship, of course). That being said, I was pretty happy to find this on YouTube. Back in 1970, Grace's brother Jerry produced a series of shorts for Sesame Street covering numbers 1 through 10, with Grace doing the vocals accompanied by avant-garde jazz pianist Barry Zeitlin. I've selected the short covering "2" for display here, but all of them are amazing. If only she had expanded the opening into a full song for an Airplane album or one of her solo efforts. Damn.

The Rundown

Back in the United States, and recovering from a fever.

But hey, here's some cool shit.

A few days ago, while killing some down time in the Czech Republic, I came across "this article" while running a few searches for articles on Dutch West Indian identity. After my weekend trip to Amsterdam (and witnessing the substantial Antillean Papiamentu-speaking population there) I've obtained a renewed interest in the Dutch colonial sphere. Part of it is relative obscurity of the Netherlands' foreign empire; sure, everyone knows about Britian and India, or France and West Africa, but not many can speak about Amsterdam's fingers in the proverbial pies of Indonesia, Suriname and the Caribbean. The other attractor is my personal connection to the Dutch cultural sphere; I come from an old Spanish/Portuguese Sephardic family that's been based on the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao for close to 400 years, and I still carry a Dutch passport. At any rate, I'm primed to learn more about what residual effects a long-gone seaborne Germanic kingdom might have on its former charges.

The article is an ethnomusicological deal, focusing on a jazz outfit called the Blue Apple Trio and their various personal cultural idenities, expressed through their music. One identifies as an Arawak (indigenous population - effectively extinct), the pianist calls himself Cuban (although nobody in his family is from Cuba; his connection is on soul-level) and one considers himself a proud African man. I find this all pretty interesting. I never really thought about it, but Curaçao, along with its fellow Dutch colony Suriname, is a pretty unique cultural zone within the Caribbean. Sure, there are tons of Chinese on Cuba, and Middle Easterners are a huge factor on Trinidad, but no other societies strike me as having the same diversity as Holland's New World. On Curaçao, a tropical island with a Portuguese name ruled over (at least superfically) by Northern European masters and with a population of less than 200,000, you can find Jews, Chinese, Lebanese, Portuguese, Indonesians, and more. Island architecture resembles a cross between gable-happy Low Countries fare and low-slung, long-roofed Indonesian designs. While you tangle with the government in Dutch, you speak to the people in Papiamentu, slave traders' cant cooked with Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and African languages. The Dominican Republic or the Cayman Islands this ain't. Suriname is one of only three majority-Hindu countries in the world, along with India and Nepal. Doesn't that just blow your mind? It blows mine. The article is an excellent primer to the strange miniature society that is Curaçao. I can't wait to go back.