This summer A Tribe Called Quest -- who had brought a unique flair and unpretentious intelligence to hip hop for almost 10 years -- announced that they would release one more record and break up forever. In the beginning, the New York outfit had taken the low-key delivery of Rakim to the next logical step, creating songs that were diverse in musical flavor and often whimsical in lyrical content. Tribe's second and third recordings, The Low End Theory (1991) and Midnight Marauders (1993), were widely recognized as hip-hop classics. Their fourth, Beats, Rhymes and Life (1996), was one of the most deeply spiritual hip-hop albums ever made. In 1998, Tribe is still at the top of their game and there are no internal tensions among Q-Tip, Phife, and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad. So why the split?
Q-Tip said in an interview in hip-hop magazine The Source that the trio had wearied of their record company's middling efforts to promote their music. That's nothing new, and hardly cause for a split. There was, however, a more probable cause implied by Tip, who more or less said that after nine years the group had had its say.
Each Tribe recording has had a theme. Their debut, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, was a hip-hop road movie. The Low End Theory fused Jeep-beats with jazz rhythms. Midnight Marauders cast stones at hip hop's fixation on "realness." And Beats, Rhymes and Life dealt with spiritual matters (Q-Tip converted to Islam before the group began work on the recording).
The Love Movement is about hip hop's obsession with materialism. As with all Tribe recordings, the album rides on Muhammad's strident but muffled beats. Q-Tip's laid-back rhymes contrast with Phife's rushed, raspy delivery. Although Phife is known more for his mainstream hip-hop perspective -- as opposed to Tip's ghetto abstraction -- he fires the first salvo on "Da Booty," raging against rappers who waste their wealth on fast cars instead of educations. Tip expands the theme on "The Love," claiming that he likes a woman in a tight outfit only if she matches sex appeal with an open mind and a strong disposition.
For the first 14 tracks there is little sense of closure, but on "Rock Rock Y'all" -- which features young MCs Punchline, Wordsworth, Jane Doe, and Mos Def -- Tribe sounds like they are welcoming heirs to their tradition. The album closes with six remixes of old tracks. At this point, what had been a good, if slightly somber, affair turns into an all-out block party. For a group so dedicated to the joy of making music, it seems like the right way to go out.
-- Martin Johnson
Unbelievable Truth understands music's inherent potential to capture contradic-tory human emotions, the way that the strain of a voice betrays the real anguish behind otherwise simple words. The U.K. band's profound stateside debut celebrates the inexplicable beauty of melancholy with intellectual instrumentation that falls and rises to each devastatingly honest occasion.
Formed in 1993 in Oxford, England, Unbelievable Truth released a hard-to-find limited-edition single for a tiny local label before graduating to EPs this year, and then finally a U.S. major. One of those early songs, "Building," appears in a rerecorded version on Almost Here. The subtle melodies, exquisitely understated warm noise, and tortured-boy vocals -- sung by Andy Yorke, brother of Radiohead's Thom -- make the song sound like a U.K. version of something off Elliott Smith's XO, minus the indie artifice.
Strongly backed by Jason Moulster (bass, vocals) and Nigel Powell (drums, keyboard, guitars, vocals), Yorke details 11 self-indulgent, poetic introspections throughout the course of the album. The songs, in their simplicity, admit an individual's inability to resolve suffering, calmly reveling in gray areas of the soul where strength generates from loneliness, and power derives from pain. The album's first track, "Solved," wrestles with self-pity against a background of responsive gui-tars and drums. "Thinking of ways to keep my pride from running out," Yorke sings.
Sorrow never sounded so sweet as it does on "Higher Than Reason": "It all needs rebuilding and my hands are scratched and scarred/ So when is it a problem if I take it all so hard?" Lyrics flow with an acoustic guitar hook, intensified by drums dropping in and out of the mix, creating an emotional atmosphere that ebbs and surges at the command of Yorke's textured voice.
"Settle Down" uses the same catchy production tactics as "Higher Than Reason," but lyrically it bears a visual quality that sets it apart from the album's other tracks. Opening with, "You don't move from that graceful pose/ And I never want to close my eyes/ Every move that I make is phony/ And every word I say is lies," the track showcases pop potential and a raw, self-conscious style. It's an effortless moment that narrates the thoughts in Yorke's head, paradoxically both delicate and intense. Just like human emotion.
-- Melissa Piazza
Despite the presence of enough hip British pop musicians to book a small festival, Dr. John's Anutha Zone isn't a depressing attempt to update a middle-aged legend. That's the good news. The bad news, at least for fans of the kind of New Orleans piano attack that the good doctor practices, is that Anutha Zone isn't a piano record, either. Produced by John Leckie (Pink Floyd, the Verve) and J. Spaceman of Spiritualized, the album is a solid, playful, and surprisingly straightforward soul record, one that sounds best with the lights low and the company congenial.
Dr. John's Night Tripper act -- the wild, shaman costumes, the psychedelic lyrics, the attraction to chaos that seemed such an earthy alternative to flower power on classic albums like John Gris -- is mainly for the tourists these days. It's hard to be a hoodoo witch doctor and the official poster boy of Mardi Gras, which Dr. John is this year.
Nonetheless, his marvelous voice is irresistible. The spacious, textured arrangements on Anutha Zone serve his conversational singing style well. "The good Lord knows I've made my mistakes," he sings on the title track. "But he also let me catch a few breaks." God, evil, love, voodoo religion, and the mysteries of the cosmos all figure heavily in lyrics that occasionally border on New Age hokum. "I saw the Christians shed their blood/ I saw Noah fight the ragin' flood/ And as I watched a mammoth drank/ From waters by the tundra bank" is a fairly representative bit of this pap, from "The Olive Tree." But more often, Dr. John plays it straight, and that's when he plays it best: "Hello, God. You know, it's a helluva world down here."
The guest musicians, including the Jam's Paul Weller, Squeeze keyboardist Jools Holland, Supergrass, and Spiritualized, as well as members of Portishead and Primal Scream, generally behave themselves. In some cases, if it weren't for the liner notes, you'd hardly know they were there at all. Weller, for instance, is credited as a guest vocalist on "Party Hellfire," but damned if you can hear him. Spiritualized puts a more recognizable stamp on their contributions, ably paying Dr. John back for his work on last year's Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. And Holland's Hammond organ on the album's best track, "I Don't Wanna Know," isn't flashy, but it is indispensable, rounding the edge off of bluesy guitar riffs and giving the song its mellow '70s soul.
The best word to describe Anutha Zone is one that artists who favor flash and emotion over ability and precision -- like Dr. John --would dread to hear: It sounds professional. But from the opening "Zonata" to the closing "Sweet Home New Orleans," every song is crafted, cared for, and finished. It may not be R&B traditionalist Professor Longhair, who Dr. John idolized, but, praise be to God, it ain't mid-'80s Aretha Franklin either.
-- Brian Alcorn