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

Monday, February 24, 2003

The irritating Achilles’ heel of the first episode of the new BBC documentary on the history of country music, Lost Highway - I do not need to comment on the attendant irony of appropriating the title of a David Lynch film – was the continuing insistence on the “realness” of the Carter Family, of Bill Monroe’s strange pre-Jimmy Scott asexual singing, of bluegrass, even though the latter was a marketing term dreamed up by Mr Monroe, who as a human being was some businessman, at least until rock (and no mention was made of the attendant irony of the main assassin being Elvis Presley) sucked the whole business under. No, its “tradition,” though younger than World War II, has been appropriated and the quality of “real” is just another marketing tool, such that poor old Alison Krauss – an intelligent and sometimes moving singer and songwriter – is lauded for all the wrong reasons, of adhering properly to Monroe’s template. It was a shame to see Emmylou Harris acting the Wynton Marsalis rôle – she, of all people, should have been the first to see the futility of applying “realness” to this music. It is exactly the over-protective psuedo-purist attitude which wards me off investigating the music further, even though the strangulated harmonies about strangled women sung by the Louvin Brothers (to whom the Everlys owe everything, and to whom Eminem may owe a distant something) substantially suggest otherwise, let alone the astonishing Ralph Stanley.

But let’s talk about “real” without necessarily being earmarked as an unthinking Derrida disciple. Specifically, there are two hip hop CDs set before me, one of which claims to be realer than real, the other a hugely non-ironic mirror on reality.

One is Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ - and the title should be enough to tell you that capitalism comes above saving anyone’s world, nothing with which Dubya would disagree – by 26-year-old Curtis Jackson, aka 50 Cent. This is his major label debut on Eminem’s Shady Records set-up, and it’s been co-executive produced by Mr Mathers and Dr Dre. At the time of writing it’s already sold 1.7 million in the USA, where it’s only been out for two weeks, while by the time you read this – Timberlake at the Brits notwithstanding - it will probably have entered the UK chart at number one. His electro-breakdown diss of fake gangsterism “Wanksta” is already well known through its use in Eminem’s 8 Mile film (and appears here only as a bonus track), and indeed his ironically main selling point is that he is real – in contrast to the supposed corporate cocksuckers like N*lly and N*s, there is no cosy sense of community on this record; it’s the return of unabashed, unashamed and – it must be said – unoriginal gangsta rap. This isn’t to say that it’s a bad record; as a pop record, it’s musically addictive, if not particularly innovative, but Ready To Die it isn’t. On the latter, Biggie was clearly not as hard as he painted himself; the album famously and chillingly ends with him on the other end of the ‘phone shooting himself.

Why does Jackson need to be real? He has had disagreements and fall-outs with pretty well every rapper/rap organisation going; in 2000 he was stabbed in his studio, and two months later was shot nine times in his car, thereafter driving himself to hospital. It’s said that he may have been the intended target and/or the cause of Jam Master Jay’s shooting last year. So he gives a bloody history; and boy is he going to rub our noses in it. Or does he?

The album begins with the sound of a gun being loaded; periodically throughout the album it’s used as a rhythm line. You can tell immediately though why he’s wanted (in both senses) on the dynamic thrust of “What Up Gangsta” – hear the way he turns the word “gangsta” upwards, half sneering, half threatening. He sets himself up as supremely confident and fearless, ready to gun down anyone in his path who disagrees with him, ready not to be messed with…Schwarzenegger in other words, and like Arnie there’s an undercurrent of knowing resentment which drives him on. Eminem guests on two tracks, “Patiently Waiting” and “Don’t Push Me,” and no doubt is glad to have the astuteness of signing up the rapper who otherwise would have been his main rival; here Mathers does what he needs to do.

“Many Men” (“wish death on me”) outlines his reasons for building himself up so firmly, yet it’s strange how his singing voice in its deceptive restraint is strongly reminiscent of Bill Withers. Indeed, much of his rapping is done at low volume, seemingly through clenched teeth, as though he’s biting down on his bullets.

“In Da Club” is the record’s obvious standout; produced by Dr Dre (who certainly must have the longest-running strike rate of any rap producer; 15 years and counting). Its orchestral synth stabs suggest a speeded-up revisiting of Badalamenti’s “Laura Palmer Theme” – and therefore more ominous – and the song could almost pass for an anti-“Hot In Herre.” Here he wants sex, not love (but from the opposite perspective which Neneh Cherry claimed in “Buffalo Stance” all those years ago), and rarely in contemporary pop has the pursuit of pleasure sounded so joyless, so much like a treadmill. He sings and raps as though locked in a pressure cooker. Note the melodic/rhythmic overlap of the “it’s your birthday” intro with the chorus of Eminem’s “Square Dance,” and how it’s brutally undermined by “we don’t give a fuck if it’s your birthday.” No happiness, just make the money.

No release in the drug song “High All The Time” either, which shares similar musical architecture to Styles’ “Good Times,” but the latter’s fake euphoria is completely absent here. It’s as if he has to clock in to see his dealer. After this, the spiral continues downwards. “Heat,” again produced by Dr Dre, brilliantly deploys descending psychedelic organ chords to frame Jackson’s disorientation. Towards the end of the album, the Barry White-sampling “21 Questions” suggests some vulnerability, some desire for love (lyrically and musically it’s a real-life reversal of the doomed New World utopia of Roy Ayers’ “We Live In Brooklyn, Baby”), but the bonus tracks (which, as happens so often with rap album bonus tracks, are the album’s highlights) defuses even this remote possibility. Hear the sneering, almost punkish chant of “NYPD, LAPD, NYPD” which opens “U Not Like Me,” and the unambiguous fuck-yous of “Life’s On The Line” where he comes across like rap’s Millwall (“Nobody likes me…but I don’t like y’all anyway!”). He’ll continue to make you hate him, because that’s how his bank balance will grow; all those piles of Benjamin placed strategically in the sleeve photos – there are references to the Bible, and King David in particular, so it’s clear that the only way he can survive is to become his own god.

Can Anticon provide an antidote to this outlook? Mike Ladd I find an intelligent and enterprising fellow, but also an infuriating one – for every genuinely heartfelt epic like “Feb 4 ‘99” from 2000’s superb Welcome To The Afterfuture, there have been ill-advised enterprises like the Infesticons, whose Gun Hill Road album, and the whole concept behind them/it, I found irretrievably silly (I have not been drawn to sci-fi since the late ‘70s, I have to admit, though loved it before then – don’t get me started on Bob Shaw’s Slow Glass series! – so perhaps I’m just not in sympathy with the general construction of the various ‘cons). The Antipop Consortium’s Tragic Kingdom debut was one of those records which I played and listened to once, applauded it silently for being an intelligent and provocative piece of work, and never played again. So my expectations for the new “cons” record - Beauty Party, credited to the Majesticons – were not especially high; still, many wise friends recommended it to me, and actually I’m rather glad they did, as it seems to me Ladd’s most concentrated and accessible work to date.

As with so many records these days, Beauty Party both recalls and revives the spirit of 1981, in particular the ironic studies of capitalism familiar to fans of Heaven 17’s Penthouse And Pavement, and the avant-disco aura of Ze Records (especially the first, eponymous, and by several million miles the best, Was (Not Was) album). The cover depicts a faux-luxury; a lady sits in her apartment, naked from the waist up; to her left are a glass of Cristal and a chessboard, seemingly with a game in progress. Within the sleeve the credits and titles (and I will not go through the still tedious, if extensive, history of the ‘cons referred to within the notes) are set out in Harrods colours; green background and gold lettering. Thus is the music made approachable, so that you can come close enough to receive the acid flung in your face full-on.

Well it’s not quite as extreme as that, though the second track “Piranha Party (Gentrification Party)” does propose, over a jittery d&b-ish beat, the trashing and burning of houses. The album really gets into its stride, however, with track four, “Prom Night Party,” a blissful slice of mutant disco which again underlines the importance of rediscovering Prince’s ‘80s protegés. The budget is clearly not large, but the groove is entirely surrenderable.

My favourite track, the gorgeously desolate “Brains Party” explicitly summons the spirits of the supreme ‘80s pop ironists (because their irony was so heartfelt) the Pet Shop Boys as they quote from, and reverse, the chorus of “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money)” – here, though, the desperation is more overt, with a need to get the money back off rich, uncaring bastards as an act of revenge rather than one of entryism. The music is fantastically moving; a choir echoes its grief into the vast plains of the chorus – in many ways it’s a “realer” (as if that mattered) vision of what Common proposes in “Come Close” – salvation through subversion.

“Luv Thief Party” sung by Sun Singleton, is superb, if opaque, R&B balladry, the sustained harmonies indicating how great the yearning for whatever they’re yearning for is. And “Platinum Blaque Party” is certainly worthy of Heaven 17 at their most acerbic, its progenitor gloating smugly over his newly-acquired empire, and how sublimely it’s undermined by the admission “I used to study Marx, now I’m studying the wine.” “Helicopter Party” is what I presume to be a jibe at Cristal capitalists (“the death of jiggy in the valley beyond the bling” indeed!) such as P Diddy, the jagged electro groove propelling Ladd’s reflections on towering over the world with its payoff chorus line “who controls the music controls the WORLD!” “Majestwest Party” loses itself in drugs, “Suburb Party” explains why.

“Game Party” seems to be the record’s one outright parody of straight-assed rap as purveyed by the likes of 50 Cent; its groove should prove sufficient to sneak onto Westwood’s show without anyone worrying about what Ladd’s saying. “Parlor Party” is the big finale; an etiolated “Good Times” verse segues into a sudden sunlit landscape as a female chorus sings in blissful harmony worthy of Prince. “San Trope Party” shows the protagonists slowly sloping away from the party, into an uncertain, and probably oblivion-filled, future with its ineffably sad synth refrain and its “sayonaras” and “goodbyes.” They are supposed to be already dead(ened), of course. There’s one PS in an unnamed extra track, wherein one of the female vocalists declaims in mock-solemnity the ancestry and family tree of the ‘cons, before she suddenly overwhelms the silliness and starts screaming through the speakers about the death of capitalism, over the same orchestral coda used on “Feb 4 ’99.” It’s a striking moment, but is it “real” – is its outrage as manufactured as 50 Cent’s manhood, even more so because 50 Cent has real reasons, even if they are ultimately excuses, to maintain at least a façade of manhood?

Ultimately “real” doesn’t enter the equation. Both records are extremely entertaining in their not so opposed ways – and, as with all art, it’s what the listener/viewer gets out of it which matters more than whatever quantity or quality of “reality” was put into it. Once the work’s done and released into the world, it has to do its own flying and is subject to everyone’s entirely different interpretations. And both these records are well worth interpreting. Just bear in mind the footage of the placid, smiling Louvin Brothers strumming their way through “Knoxville Girl” – a murder ballad which was their biggest hit – and remember how complex the intertwining of some aesthetic flight paths can become.

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