The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

It nearly always happens. You feel that the year’s business has been wrapped up, and then something comes along in the final minute to upset your over-neat construct. This year it’s Phrenology, the extraordinary new album by The Roots.

It was difficult to know quite what to expect from this established firm of rappers and players. Their previous album, 1999’s Things Fall Apart, was among the soberest and bleakest of “organic” hip hop records, though powered by some of the most irresistibly poignant fusion chord changes since A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnite Marauders; a quiet guard to the extravagantly florid The Coup. A probable plunge into worthiness could have been predicted. But not this.

Here is a record which attempts to retrieve a sense of “community” in the beleaguered state of rap, which is conscious of its history and aware of the need to educate new ears, which deliberately looks back and attempts to sculpt new forms out of discredited old musical templates. Where have we recently read this manifesto? Under Construction, of course. So why does Phrenology, with the same approach, succeed so spectacularly, even with the addition of copious descriptive sleevenotes?

Perhaps because the Roots refuse to be imprisoned within the hothouse of purist hip hop and its ultimately crippling history. Of course, as the Belgian lass correctly points out, they know that education is unabsorbable unless accompanied – and to some extent superseded – by entertainment. Where Elliott and Timbaland fail is in their confined stylistic references. Choosing to utilise nothing apart from accepted templates of post-1981 rap, their attempt to rally the troops and discard the guns ends up sounding flabby and self-righteous, fatally undermined by Elliott’s insistence on continued public service announcements and a final aesthetic acceptance of the status quo. It does not exhibit the liberation and mischief necessary to make it great pop, nor does it carry sufficient resonance to work as a back-to-basics rap record or a community statement. This awareness of genre limitations, and the consequent stockroom of clichés, compels authentic practitioners to find wider points of reference in order to remain relevant.

Just how aware the Roots are of these limitations can be demonstrated in the hilarious opening salvo “Phrentrow” which begins just like an over-worthy and desperately dull nu-soul polemic (india.arie, to be specific) – “In the beginning there was me…I was rhythm” announces Ursula Rucker over a solemn quartet of ‘celli before being brutally unseated by the smashing, fuzzed-out drive of “Rock You” which sounds like the Stooges of 1970 playing Wu-Tang’s “Iron Flag.” This is rapidly followed by an even briefer Bad Brains/Minor Threat hardcore tribute “!!!!!!!!” Will worthiness find an anchor on this record?

You almost suspect that it will with the next track “Sacrifice” which essays the timeworn cliché of if you want to get anywhere in life, you need to sacrifice (says who? and why?) and furthermore features Nelly Furtado. Well you will be surprised…Furtado’s voice is mixed back and almost ghostly in its restrained compassion over an ethereal seduction of Fender Rhodes. By some distance it’s her best recorded vocal performance. The irresistibly subtle roll of “Rolling With Heat” follows, the extrovert thrust of guest Talib Kweli nicely undermined by the near-mournful keyboard chordal progression. And we even get a list of all the Roots’ influences and heroes in “WAOK (Ay) Roll Call,” a hall of mirrors within which some 230 names are “rattled off,” culminating, fittingly, in Justin Warfield who, before an ill-advised attempt to become Lenny Kravitz, was responsible for one of the key albums of the ‘90s, My Field Trip To Planet 8, with its pioneering subtle discolation of stylistic norms.

If that weren’t enough, we arrive at even more nods to the past in “Thought @ Work” which has the brass nerve to (a) use the “Apache” loop; (b) paraphrase “Bring The Noise” and (c) make both sound as fresh as tomorrow’s bagels. Alicia Keys is on here somewhere, but so good is this track you scarcely notice her. Unlike Elliott and her “Peter Piper” quotations, the Roots do not find it necessary to thrust the intended significance in your face, free of any possibility of individual interpretation. They merely point out in the sleevenotes that track 3 of Road To The Riches by Kool G Rap and DJ Polo might prove useful research in understanding what is behind this track.

On “The Seed (2.0)” they rock out – but what a contrast to the hamfisted Kravitzisms of Jay-Z’s “Guns & Roses” this is. Almost verging on skeletal post-punk pop musically, and topped by Cody Chesnutt’s less frantic Terence Trent D’Arby-esque vocals (crucially light, almost Timberlake) and a sad guitar refrain which puts one in mind of the Red Guitars covering Roots Manuva.

Next comes the first of the album’s three extended masterpieces: “Break You Off” with extra vocals by Musiq. It starts out as a quasi-drum ‘n’ bass rhythm over a distant, unbearably poignant Bill Frisell-esque guitar synth line (go and remind yourself of how quietly powerful a record Strange Meeting by Power Tools was/is). The mournful atmosphere eventually gives way, with the most grateful naturalness, to a D’Angelo-style slow groove (but with the d&b elements still apparent) illuminated by Fender Rhodes chords straight out of Herbie Hancock and a slowly approaching string quartet which is eventually left to stand alone. Something about the unforced grace of this piece puts me in mind of Saint Etienne at their most “invisible” (“How We Used To Live”).

But even this cannot prepare the listener for the most stunning piece of music I have heard this year, the seven godlike minutes of the triptych “Water.” Structurally similar to the equally phenomenal suite/fantasia on Sly Stone’s “Life And Death” which is the centrepiece of the Chairmen of the Board’s 1974 proto-P Funk masterpiece Skin I’m In. This track goes back to 1979 with a vengeance…and I don’t mean the Sugarhill Gang. Starting off as a distended punk-funk dissertation, what sounds like a forlorn disco diva in the background turns out to be a sample from the Flying Lizards’ “Her Story.” Thus are forgotten connections uncovered. One notes the absolutely crucial presence on this track of the great James “Blood” Ulmer, who ranks with Bailey as the most important and innovative guitarist of the last 30 years, and who coincidentally (or not) was recently cited by PiL’s Keith Levene as a key influence on his playing, both musically and philosophically (the harmolodic impulse to retain and incorporate mistakes, a policy simultaneously but independently maintained at the time by Flying Lizards mainman David Cunningham in his ventures into systems music). Hear how the music dovetails unexpectedly into dislocated electronic squalls and vocal wails (the latter courtesy of Hope Wilson) worthy of the Throbbing Gristle of 20 Jazz-Funk Greats, but hear also how Ulmer effortlessly holds all the disparate musical elements together with his carefully selected sonorities. Another jazz-funk mirage appears briefly on the surface, only to be quickly submerged into a sequence of ecstatic Improv vocalese, Ulmer never letting up in his comments – like the climax of Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln’s “Triptych (Prayer, Protest, Peace)” fed sideways into the discrete loops of Annette Peacock’s “I’m The One.” Of this year’s music, only El-P’s Fantastic Damage even approaches the revelations which this phenomenal piece of music has to offer; its wider implications flow beyond linguistic description, perhaps beyond music.

The gangsta groove of “Quills” brings us back down (or up?) to earth. Relatively lightweight, but the vocal sample is so skilfully and meaningfully woven in and reharmonised that you hardly register that it comes from forgotten ‘80s meta-pop-funk worthies Swing Out Sister. “Pussy Galore” again includes another ineffably sad guitar refrain which underlines the sober complaint against titilation extracted from women in advertising and the media. “Complexity” is a selfless love song which features Jill Scott on vocals. What makes this track so radiant are the spaces built within it – what isn’t played but only suggested.

And so to the third and final masterpiece on this album, the infinite depth of “Something In The Way Of Things (In Town).” A long meditation set against a crepuscular, cyclical Pat Metheny guitar line (derailing into unresolvable harmolodics two-thirds of the way through before returning to its uncertain base), detailing unreachable emotional collapse in a naggingly near-attainable world, and the concomitant awareness of approaching death, Black Thought’s considered declamations ride through you like Hendrix at his quiet peak, like the horse on which Lorca’s progenitor rides to his inevitable death in Cordoba, like the under-acknowledged psychosis of Eugene McDaniel in Headless Heroes Of The Apocalypse.

There are two extra tracks: the first, which I assume to be called “Stand Up, Get Up” is perhaps the most commercial track on the album, a purposeful but still poignant harpsichord line underlying the Dead Prez-esque groove. Even the totally unexpected detour into early ‘90s psycho-rave meets early ‘00s electroclash (which I guess is called “Something To See”) works, not just as a sonic (over-fuzzed) parallel to the opening “Rock You,” but also because it doesn’t sound forced or contrived; it feels like a natural (because curious) exploration of the modern world. It’s a sort of avant-equivalent to Elliott’s “All My People.”

I scarcely need add that this is a mandatory purchase – the sprawling but disciplined de Kooning to Stankonia’s Picasso. The new Common album (due out here next week) is going to have to be damn good to beat this. Now, if you’ll excuse me, some lists of mine need rewriting.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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