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Wednesday, Mar 13 1996

All Eyez on Me
(Death Row)

0f course it's too long -- but then, overkill is partly the point here. All Eyez on Me may not be the best rap album ever, but at 27 songs and more than 2 hours, it certainly weighs in as the most rap album ever, and it's an indispensable summary of the potential and problems of hip hop today. As exuberant proof that Tupac Shakur is alive and well after being shot five times and spending nearly a year in the joint, it's more than enough. "Prison ain't changed me," he boasts on "No More Pain." "It made me worse." He's right. Though there's almost too much to take in here -- a banquet of rage, defensiveness, misery, and recrimination against enemies who include old standbys like the police, bitches, hos, liars, and the media -- there's also a hollow feel: That list doesn't include Tupac himself, who bears more than a little responsibility for his predicament.

Still, you could almost forget that point if you let the music carry you away, as it's designed to. This is where Death Row definitively earns all those new-Motown accolades. Not just as a rap or black pop album, but anywhere in the landscape of contemporary music, All Eyez is a monument. Despite the all-star lineup (guests include Snoop, Dr. Dre, Method Man, the Dogg Pound, and the Bay Area's own Rappin' 4-Tay) and an army of producers, everything coheres, as top-of-the-line output from a single hit-making factory should.

I might have missed the odd kitchen sink somewhere, but I caught samples ranging from Richard Pryor to the backward section of Prince's "Darling Nikki," steel drums, and an a capella rap over what sounds like sonar pings, all set atop the West Coast's trademark earth-mover bass, ethereal choruses, and ghostly keyboards. Ambitious enough to sum up everything that's come before (there are allusions to "The Message" and "Sucker MC's") and endlessly inventive, this is a musical earthquake as powerful as PE's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.

But with it comes lyrical content that runs the gamut from A to, well, A. While Tupac sounds at home on Death Row -- on "2 of Americaz Most Wanted" his bellow slides off Snoop's drawl like they've been hanging for years -- I can't help feeling that the label's already started to stunt him. He never weakens, never cops to any mistakes, never lets the walls around him crack. "Don't get mad/ I'm only being real," Snoop explains on "All Bout U," but Death Row's "real" is so limited, so terrified of softness, that it's going to destroy whatever charity and gentleness survive inside Tupac. And that's a shame, because part of what's made his career interesting is his obvious and long-running indecision between being down with the fellas and in with the ladies, between boasting "I Get Around" and counseling black women to keep their heads up. A few albums on Death Row, and that won't be a problem anymore. As De La Soul never said, fuck being complicated. Tupac is hard.

-- Jesse Berrett

Lou Reed
Set the Twilight Reeling
(Warner Bros.)

After two albums of elegies -- plus a nonmusical one for Velvets bandmate Sterling Morrison in the New York Times Magazine -- Set the Twilight Reeling finds Lou Reed singing about rejuvenation and rebirth. As he puts it in "Trade In," he wants "a 14th chance at this life," a dryly self-mocking admission that he's remade himself a few times before, notably on The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts, the albums inspired by his previous great romance, with his now ex-wife (and former manager), Sylvia Morales.

This time the muse is new girlfriend Laurie Anderson, who adds a crucial vocoder bit to "Hang On to Your Emotions." She's probably "The Adven-turer" and certainly the "woman with a thousand faces" of "Trade In." But the characteristically plain-spoken near-poetry she's inspired isn't as important as the humor she's sparked. The funniest (and liveliest) song here is "Hookywooky," in which Reed -- unconvincing and unconvinced -- promises not to throw any of her former lovers off a roof.

"Hookywooky" ends up soaring on a chorale of backup vocals, but it's not exactly "Sweet Jane." It's been a long time since Reed has crafted a melody that indomitable, and there are none on Twilight. Recitations delivered by a man who can still sometimes summon the spirit of doo-wop and Motown, these songs are spare, stripped, and barely melodic. Yet the best of them work the way great rock 'n' roll is supposed to, combining a few simple ingredients into something so much larger.

Though impeccably and even astonishingly recorded -- check the way "The Adventurer" guitar solo spirals in midair -- these tunes are essentially throwaways. Still, most of them are allocated one redemptive hook; whether delivered by vocoder, horns, piano, bass, or -- most likely -- guitar, these terse flourishes give shape to Reed's meticulously raw guitar and transform talk into music. Even when the lyrics are retreads, the words and vocals often achieve a similar alchemy: "Sex With Your Parents Part II (Motherfucker)" doesn't add much to the debate over NEA-bashing senators, but the casual authority with which Reed intones, "Hey ... motherfucker," is devastating.

Lou Reed plays Sun, March 17, at the Warfield in S.F.; call 775-7722.
-- Mark Jenkins

Dirty Bird

Poor Joe Reineke: If Dirty Bird, the third album by San Francisco's Meices, is any indication, the singer/songwriter/guitarist goes through relationships faster than he goes through guitar strings (which, I'd infer, is quite often). Replete with bittersweet remembrances of katzenjammer couplings, Dirty Bird sounds like a musical version of Jack Nicholson's delightfully bilious "Ballbusters on Parade" soliloquy from the film Carnal Knowledge. Imagine the personal ad: "Noise pop troubadour seeks dragon lady for initial enchantment, inevitable breakup, and eventual immortalization in song."

Oh, well -- if his muses are unworthy, at least they're effective. Like any wandering minstrel worth his BMI membership, Reineke is adept at parlaying emotional anguish into compositional booty, always heeding the maxim that, if you can still sing in key, you can't be all that broken up. Those familiar with previous installments of the Meices saga will immediately recognize the MO at play here: propulsive rhythms, bombastic dynamics, punchy power chords slathered with a thick coating of distortion, and wavering, adenoidal vocals that convey a curious admixture of hope, despair, and indifference.

Time and repetition haven't dulled the approach, though. A tighter sonic assault is apparent from the opener, "Wow," a garage rock maelstrom that borrows liberally from both "Sixteen Tons" and "Stepping Stone" but nonetheless retains its own unique charm. Similarly galvanized is "Yeah," its cacophonous bridge offering the plea, "Don't take the guns, when killing's all we've got" (which, though it has little to do with the song's overall narrative, is still a nice sentiment).

Aiding and abetting to no small degree is producer Gil Norton (who manned the board on the Pixies' Doolittle). Though Norton occasionally leads the band astray (i.e., the syrupy string arrangement on "Monday Mood"), more often than not he expands its palette with pleasing results (i.e., the punchy brass punctuation of "Wow"). Dirty Bird's most defining moment, though, comes on "Uncool," when Reineke declares, "Yeah, we got a way with words, but hey, look now, I'm flipping the bird." Point well taken -- sometimes there's no substitute for a bad attitude. Except, perhaps, a good relationship counselor.

-- Tim Kenneally

Rollerskate Skinny
Horsedrawn Wishes
(Warner Bros.)

There's a school of rock that uses sample, delay, and loop as emotional prosthesis. Rollerskate Skinny taps this vein in its warmest, softest spot, yet the band's vulnerability has an uncanny double-consciousness. Horsedrawn Wishes reverberates with doppelgängers: "real" and machine drums, "live" and sampled guitars, layers of voices earthly and unearthly. Such doubling melodramatizes wars of the body and spirit against Catholic blocks, the double-dare urge to control sensuality by submitting to it ("Kill me every way you can/ My body is safe in my hands"); Rollerskate Skinny promises a mind-and-body-meld fuck, and delivers it only in the act of promising. The effect is unsettling, but a leap of faith lands you in deep, thrilling pleasure -- pleasure made heady, sometimes queasy, by its cerebral self-dissection.

To call the monolithic DIY orchestration "overproduced" is to shoot past the mark: Its genius lies in a bubble-gum metaphysics that anticipates and subverts its own excesses -- with, remarkably, poignancy and not the irony of, say, Pulp or Blur. Yet these post-colonial Dubliners do have Britpop cousins: They share with the technodelic Chemical Brothers a spacey synthesis of lavish texture and swooping melody, and with idiot-savant revisionists Oasis phrases (both lyrical and musical) of gloriously inane profundity, like ad jingles that accidentally move you to tears. Their closest relative is My Bloody Valentine, but Rollerskate Skinny scrawls its own name on MBV's wall of sound.

Or rather, the group commits the perfect pop crime: multiple acts of brilliant, untraceable forgery. Everything they do has been done before, but has it been done all at once? A monstrous plunderphonics of wacked-out anachronisms reanimating everyone from Barrett to Bolan, Horsedrawn Wishes finally blows its own ectoplasm overdosing on whatever the Beach Boys were on. Ken Griffin's voice eerily echoes Brian Wilson's as it carefully navigates a morass of sound, surfing the edge of hysteria. Live, Griffin stands dead still, as expressionless as the little plastic man his band uses as a logo, then his eyes widen with amazement at the forces he, or something, has unleashed. A thunderous marching beat pounds, waves of distorted guitar and slightly off-key strings crash and break, and a deranged banshee wails as Griffin muses sweetly, disingenuously, "Nobody ever told me that this sort of thing could come alive." Indeed.

-- Sally Jacob


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