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

Thursday, February 27, 2003
SAGE FRANCIS

dc Basehead might yet turn out to be more influential than anyone’s given him credit for; though he may subsequently have got religion, his extraordinary 1992 debut album Play With Toys seems to be a clear template for the activities of Anticon; determinedly lo-fi, its beats present but reluctant to press themselves forward, the subtext of rage under the placid surface, the unspoken politick – all of this has rematerialised in the activity of Anticon’s various practitioners. Different approaches have made themselves known – 1981-style entryism through irony (Majesticons), graffiti-strewn stumbles through an uncertain undergrowth (Themselves); sometimes there’s more of a touch of ‘80s SST about the whole enterprise. Sage Francis is an ally of Anticon, rather than a “member” (as though Anticon were rap’s Dogme), but his album of last year, Personal Journals is the one Anticon record most immediately replayable; highly accessible by Anticon’s standards, yet still avant-garde – and filled with exactly the same ratio of undistilled spite to articulate self-loathing as another comparable record from last year, The Eminem Show.

“Don’t make me laugh” warns Francis in the album’s introduction, before a wistful “Stairway To Heaven”-style acoustic guitar is suddenly overwhelmed by brutal quasi-drum ‘n’ bass beats as he launches into “Crack Pipes.” “I give a 21-gunshot salute with a toy rifle that you bought me – but it won’t shoot,” and that pretty much sets the pace for the album’s slow descent into a pit prior to cautious re-emergence (“Meet me at the AA meeting”). “Different” with its sardonic chorus of “I’m different, so different” is powered by Roni Size-ish double bass undulations as Francis declaims the (non-)events of his life to date. The exorcism continues in the title track, introduced by a Vaughan Williams oboe, after which he lists his facts as though completing a passport to Atlantis (“Sage Francis, 1968-2001/Devoted son, father to none…Catch him red-handed, but only if he’s bleeding”). He then turns his rage upon his father in “Inherited Scars,” his rapid-fire delivery coming on like Danny Kaye brandishing a Gatling gun while ‘60s sax and organ wheeze behind him – this album’s more sober but no less devastating equivalent to “Cleaning Out My Closet.” “Climb Trees” has him wander psychopathically through a world he has decided to populate with hate, and the music chases him all the way – the theatrical staccato of “any! sudden! movements!” – as he unleashes his spleen on some suspiciously unironic targets (to the girls he boasts, “I’ve only got 100 openings – I want to take all of you under my broken wings”).

Yet that sentiment segues neatly into, and is balanced by, the song “Broken Wings” which relies on a bichordal Brubeck piano loop. Here he is singing of a visionary who is being metaphorically caged – a gifted singer and artist forced to ply her trade in a dodgy low-rent club; someone whom he could have freed, but instead he ran away. Now wishing to make amends, he urges her to break out of her “prison,” connect with the world and find real freedom. There’s a striking moment where the piano chords are suspended in an unanchored ether as Francis whispers/urges: “We don’t even need wings to fly.” A distant female voice is heard floating above everything.

After the odd uptempo interlude of “The Strange Famous Mullet Recorder” with its jumpy soprano sax sample, there is a noticeably more placid deployment of saxophones in “Smoke And Mirrors.” With a chorus of “so sophisticated, so cool” uncertain in its bliss, Francis’ doubt wanders among more exalted mirrors (this could very nearly be ECM). But we’re brought back down to the gutter with “Message Sent” – a summary of letters he has been writing from prison, backed by an impossibly moving and sad piano refrain, representing an ideal which can never be reached, mainly because he refuses to reach it. Does he prefer wallowing?

Consider the consequent abrupt nosedive into the gruelling industrial arena of “Eviction Notice” which alternates gleeful yells of “this is a two-parter!” – deconstructing the song as it progresses, if that’s not too contradictory a contradiction – with a cold-eyed study of the death of a relationship, aided by drugs and paranoia, somehow revelling in the depths it freshly plumbs. When the title is enunciated the guitars crush in on you and you feel even more deeply buried than the pitiless climax of Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral - as with the latter, the sounds here are deliberately muffled, the fresh earth being thrown on top of you as you scream with ecstasy.

The rest of the album attempts to dig itself out of the earth. “Pitchers Of Silence” alternates tabla throbs with supra-ironic Bon Jovi quotes. “Specialist” tries to bury its acoustic guitar under an avalanche of beats as Francis ponders the difference between his Other’s heavenly expectations (“The one that I’m with thinks sex is a beautiful thing”) and his perceived pre-ordained failure to live up to them; the undercurrent being that it may all end in blood, but who knows? “Hopeless” is a live acappella freestyle rap which is kind of a Lester Young to Eminem’s Coltrane; the lines more legato, the delivery still emphatic but slightly more etiolated. “Kill Ya’ Momz” is a not very successful attempt to rock out (the payoff being: mom, we love you really – as if it could be anything else; who do you think I am, Throbbing Gristle? Who of course also love their mothers). “Black Sweatshirt” is a quiet ode to a black sweatshirt. “Cup Of Tea” returns to the subject of alienation from his father, the frustration at their regular meetings with “the questions he won’t answer,” settling for the metaphorical cup of green tea.

But he has to let go eventually, and that he does on the full-band rock track “My Name Is Strange” which is the album’s most explicit connection with dc Basehead; Francis’ wavering baritone sounds like an even more displaced Jim Morrison, but the groove is full and satisfying. Finally, he delivers a very touching ode to the impossibility of total escape in “Runaways” where, over a deliberately sterile electronic backing track, he portrays himself as having the urge to return home, even though as a fugitive he will be returning to prison, even though he will be returning to a fixed image where he will still be viewed as a child, for the basic reason that However Far You Go, You Cannot Run Away From Yourself. Clichéd? Expressed in this track, it feels like a catharsis; not the easy homely eulogy with a twist ending of “Green Green Grass Of Home.” His future remains uncertain – and here the regretful yet attacking vocal is where he most resembles Marshall Mathers. Musically, though, this album generally reminds me of the benignly beautiful jazz-funk chord progressions of A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnite Marauders gone ever so slightly sour. Significantly, the whole of the inner sleeve of the CD is given over to handwritten track-by-track annotations (but not lyrics) by Francis in the mode of Cobain’s Journals, the pages almost drowning with the amount of words he crams into each of them. Can one two-chord piano riff say more than any of these words? You would do well to listen to Personal Journals and find out how passionately one needs the other.


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