The existential angst of ineffectual white males is well past new or interesting. The flood of emotional navel-gazing drenching the world of indie rock is a scourge of banal personal misery made public. The Monorchid seemed to exist only to disparage that woe-is-me world. The now-defunct Washington, D.C., punk band used frustrated invectives against rock music and youth culture's loss of vitality to befuddle audiences. The Monorchid were pissed off, sure, but they did something interesting with the exhausted punk formula -- they replaced it with urgent, charismatic, and living sounds.
On this 11-song posthumous recording, the Monorchid squirrel away vicious hooks, then let them rip as aberrant and mutated guitar rock. The group formed after the breakup of vocalist Chris Thomson and guitarist Chris Hamley's highly regarded Dischord Records band Circus Lupus, whose Jesus Lizard-meets-Public Image, Ltd. sound seemed anachronistic compared with the simpering punk of the early '90s. The Monorchid improved upon Circus Lupus' post-punk formula and released a slew of singles following their start in 1995. Early in 1997, their debut album, Let Them Eat ..., was issued as a split-label release by D.C. indie-stalwarts Simple Machines and Dischord. The quintet then took to the road for six weeks, and returned home to record this serrated final album.
Who Put Out the Fire? starts with "X Marks the Spot: Something Dull Happened Here," smearing Thompson's antagonized sneer atop a syncopated drum 'n' bass pattern; chirpy guitars barbed-wire it all together. The twisting and twining six-strings of Andy Cone and Hamley play off one another in the ringing tones and biting fuzz. On "Beard of Bees," the guitarists trade staggering lines and swooning string bends around the lurching and lunging rhythm section. "The Warmers" combines the epileptic-seizure guitar solos and single-note riffs of Black Flag with the steamrolling rhythmic shuffle of Motsrhead.
"Alias Directory" is the Monorchid's most apparent step into pop territory, bursting into the three-chord power-pop of the Kinks' classic "All Day and All of the Night." Drummer Tom Allnutt stomps out the backbeat and bassist Andy Coronado thwacks an urgent swing. Thompson's spittle-soaked vocals bemoan the scene-politics pitted against them: "Could the message be clearer, or the finger-pointing nearer?/ First they steal my thunder, now they want my organs."
Whoever put out the fire missed these smoldering embers.
-- Dave Clifford
It's Dark and Hell Is Hot
It's impossible to discuss DMX's long-awaited and phenomenally successful debut recording without first addressing the rape charges brought against him last month. Although the charges are quite serious, his response to the accusation speaks well of him. He has defended his character, pointed out that he was out of town at the time of the crime, and volunteered to submit a DNA sample. (His reaction is far better than the one given by Tupac Shakur, who defended himself against 1993 rape charges by claiming that the woman had it coming.) Until all the evidence is presented, I'm going to play like the courts and presume DMX (ne Earl Simmons) innocent.
Then again, on It's Dark and Hell Is Hot -- which took many observers by surprise when it debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts in late May (without a peep from Master P and only a trace of Puffy on the disc) -- he raps, "If you got a daughter older than 15/ I'ma rape her/ Take her right there on the living room floor/ In front of ya." That -- from the song "X-Is Coming" -- is just one of several aggressive male personas on It's Dark. Songs like "Crime Story" and "ATF" are pure pulp fictions about criminal intentions, illegal actions, and crooks on the run.
In "Crime Story," a jailhouse daydream, DMX raps, "Put a harness on the dogs/ Load up the weapons/ Murder's on my mind/ Ain't no half-steppin'." And on "ATF" he raps, "Cops on every corner/ I lay back and try an' cruise by/ Who the fuck snitched?!/ It musta been the new guy." These are not the recollections of a criminal, but the work of someone who grew up watching Scorsese gangster epics, blaxploitation films, and kung fu classics.
In defense of "X-Is Coming," DMX claimed that those were not his words, but the words of the song's character. And I guess I believe that too. Not because I'm a hip-hop apologist (middle-class vaguely boho blacks like me have just as many issues with hip hop's narrow concept of "real blackness" as we do with C. Delores Tucker's black puritanism), but I believe it because in the end the record bears the man out.
The tracks are backed with a mix of funky, mostly obscure samples. DMX's flow and writing style show elements of LL Cool J, Tupac's brighter moments, Keith Murray, and Raekwon: The album feels like a piece by someone who has done his homework. Although it's his debut recording, DMX is not exactly a newcomer. The Yonkers-based rapper was originally signed to Columbia in 1992. After years of waiting in line, he got tired and won a release from his contract. That makes DMX part of the next wave of rappers like Killah Priest, Mos Def, McGruff, and Kid Capri, who all grew up with hip hop as a well-established genre. Rather than cling to a single style, they draw on a variety of influences to create something new. It bodes well for the next chapter in hip hop, as long as the law remains a fictional part of the game.
-- Martin Johnson
The Paris Blues Soundtrack
Recorded (according to the discographies) in New York in 1961, Paris Blues is, with Anatomy of a Murder, one of the two celebrated movie scores composed by Duke Ellington with the unacknowledged help of his longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn. This soundtrack might never have happened if Ellington knew how the movie was going to turn out. He was originally intrigued by the idea of a film about two expatriate jazz musicians involved in interracial relationships. But by the time Ellington flew to Paris to watch the filming, the producers had changed the story so that Sidney Poitier ended up romancing Diahann Carroll, and so that Paul Newman slept with and then tried to escape Joanne Woodward. With the interracial plot gone, the movie turned into a film mostly about an unusual guy's typical inability to make a commitment. In a bit of dialogue included on this enhanced Rykodisc version of the soundtrack, Woodward tells Newman that she's willing to take risks. Newman tells her she can get kicked in the teeth that way. "My brother is a dentist," she drawls.
The disc includes four fragments of dialogue and the original 10 musical selections, including a recording of the familiar Strayhorn composition "Take the A Train." This train accompanies the initial credits and brings the vacationing Carroll and Woodward to Paris. The theme of the equally familiar "Mood Indigo" is given to trombone, Paul Newman's ostensible instrument. (Ellington stalwart Lawrence Brown seems to be the real soloist, and this version is one of the highlights of the disc.) For the rest, Ellington and Strayhorn wrote new pieces or arrangements, including "Battle Royal," which like "Wild Man Moore" features Louis Armstrong.
"Bird Jungle" is one of Ellington's exotic numbers: It unfolds over an insistent beat provided by tambourine and other percussion instruments. The rich dissonance over this background shows Ellington's unwillingness to be typecast as anybody's primitive in a movie that would have strong racial overtones. "Paris Stairs" is a suggestive theme with some new sounds, such as a flute peeping over the icy chords and clusters of Ellington's piano. The fragmentary nature of some of the music, though, reminds us that the score was seen as a practical matter by its producers, if not by its composers. Nothing sounds bad here, but little is developed.
As with the original LP, the reissued disc contains no details about the recording, and no listings of personnel. Billy Strayhorn's name is still not mentioned, and we don't learn when members of the Ellington band got together with Armstrong. The holes in the notes will concern Ellingtonians, but this album, which includes an enhanced CD version of the original trailer, is primarily designed for movie fans: Paris Blues is a "different kind of love story," we are told. The soundtrack was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost out to West Side Story. I agree with the Academy.
-- Michael Ullman
It's always easier to love -- to carry out your own amorous agenda -- than to be loved and to submit to someone else's plans. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the loverman subgenre of current R&B. There are hundreds of songs that detail carnal plans, but precious few that celebrate the humility of love's rapture. Most of those few are by Maxwell. His 1996 debut recording, Urban Hang Suite, was a sumptuous blend of '70s Marvin Gaye and '80s Sade, but the message was very different from contemporary R&B. While R. Kelly tried to secure trust for one night of nasty, Maxwell -- or at least the characters in his songs -- was not afraid of commitment. He didn't declare his next move; he asked if he could touch you there.
Embrya, Maxwell's second full-length recording, draws heavily on his debut, but it's not a rerun. Every track leads with sensual veneer, but the songs are brighter and more rhythmically propulsive. The new record also further realizes several of the ideas -- both musical and lyrical -- developed on Urban Hang Suite. "Luxury:Cococure" updates on Urban Hang Suite's "Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)" by accessorizing the bass line with cascading bell-like synthesizer figures and percolating hand drums. The title track expands "Whenever, Wherever, Whatever" with even more trembling falsetto. The dizzyingly titled "I'm You:You Are Me and We Are You (pt me & you)" is accented by a few Spanish verses and Afro-Cuban percussion. Several tracks, especially "Arroz Con Pollo," feature delightfully oblique '70s-style rhythm guitar licks. While the songs flow into one another very nicely, they don't sound alike; the critics who claim they do probably can't tell the members of the Wu-Tang Clan apart.
The major problem with Embrya isn't the details but the larger vision guiding it. As a sophomore effort it's superb: The recording clarifies the man's musical intentions and establishes a solid niche for his style. But now what? The record devotes all of its energy to confirming his position and none to offering a glimpse of new direction. Gaye streamlined his '70s sound and created a lighter, more limber music just before his death. Sade slowed her music down and deepened the dub aspects of it on her only '90s release. Without some movement, Maxwell is on the verge of making himself a Barry White for our times. While it's true that White is one of R&B's finest voices, he has also spent the last 20 years searching for the momentum his career lost at the end of the disco era. Without a little variety, Maxwell could find himself in a similar rut.
-- Martin Johnson