album reviews: Devin the Dude, DJ JS-1, the Postal Service and Brokeback

Ground Original

Rappers have peddled more morsels about crime, girls and success than a black market candy factory, so why are their songs still enticing? The reasons are simple: greed and power. Regardless of one’s occupation, the insatiable drive to make capital flutters inside the mind like a money counter, and most rap music sharpens this tenacity like a pep talk from Gordon Gekko. Rap thrives indulgently in the threatening American libido and quest for superiority.
Except these days a lot of the old dependables like Mobb Deep and the Lost Boyz have faded with the gritty-myth reality of the ’90s. New releases from 50 Cent, Jay-Z and Styles all failed to illustrate a plateau of cutthroat struggle; instead the magazines and radio stations took the reins for them. So, for the time being, beat makers and talent seekers like DJ Green Lantern and Queens’ DJ JS-1 are filling the void, with the latter’s Ground Original dealing exclusively in self-produced bangers (not freestyles) to gage who’s the hungriest while keeping the listeners’ innards growling as well.
Royce 5’9″ returns from the locker room on “Lights Out,” shedding the R&B skirts of his Rock City LP, to boast unapologetically “mics up, light out, real niggas on the prowl, still drink if ain’t mine, real niggas throw up drinks like gang signs,” over a swelling loop of violin and harp strings. The lyrics are nothing new, but that’s the point – changing mindset is a crack in the masculine concrete. Ill Bill from Non-Phixion dents the disc’s consistency by tracing over Eminem’s freestyle style, and Masta Ace cruises steadily through an urban-yarn on “What Am I? Part 1” before Planet Asia and Percee P strike Cali gold as piano keys strike the devil’s hour on “Unstoppable.” The momentum doesn’t let up for another five tracks. As Tragedy Khadafi acknowledges on “Crossbreed,” “Subliminal thugism, I make niggas blood boil, lay them under the earth, under the soil, I’m from QB, 41st side of the East, crime scholar, ride with gorillas and beasts, once we draw blood there can never be peace.” Bitch over the literal meaning of the lyrics, but they serve adequately as fiery metaphors in the job market, sports and global conflict. This is Darwinian theory parked in a Cadillac a block north with bloodshot eyes.
DJ JS-1 has sown a virile pasture of rousing beats for the liveliest rappers in hip hop, both present (Casual), past (Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap) and future (Punch N’ Words) to spar to. Besides the low budget cover art, Ground Original is all shine with plenty of dirt caked on the jewels to remind you of hip hop’s roots and carnivorous inspiration. Sorry backpackers and arm folders, you should remain outside for this one.
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– Hunter Stephenson

The Postal Service
Give Up
Recently, after reading a review of this record on, I couldn’t help but be disturbed. While Pitchfork provides probably the largest collection of independent music reviews, they aren’t always the most accurate, or even the most fair. The reviewer of this particular disc engaged in a practice that their staff seems to love doing: dissecting a few lines out of a particular song and basing the rest of their review on those lyrics. This brings to light an interesting debate, however. Although you may be able to judge poetry by the written word, does a songwriter have to be a poet? Also, can a songwriter use the music and their voice to reinforce what otherwise might be open to criticism?
One of the lyrics in question was “I am thinking it’s a sign/ That the freckles in our eyes are mirror images/ And when we kiss they’re perfectly aligned,” which on paper is admittedly cheeky. Yet, set to the airy dance beats of the featured single, “Such Great Heights,” and sung in Ben Gibbard’s (Death Cab for Cutie) trademark ‘honey on buttered toast’ voice, they are not only credible, they’re genuinely endearing.
The Postal Service consists of Gibbard, Jimmy Tamborello (Dntel, Figurine), and Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley). Gibbard and Lewis sing candied melodies over the synth-heavy pop one has grown to expect from Tamborello. More often than not, the tracks are danceable, or at least inspire a head-bob that would make the boys from the Roxbury proud.
The best example of the all-too-sweet lyrics and vocal melodies synching nicely with the New-Order influenced beats is the track “Nothing Better,” in which Gibbard sings plaintively about the surgeon needed to repair his broken heart, while guest vocalist Jen Wood rebuts with a carefully prepared lecture on the necessity of her departure.
If you are looking for a record with the impeccably crafted rhythms and perfectly synced vocals of Dntel’s The Dream of Evan and Chan (the single by Tamborello and Gibbard that inspired the formation of The Postal Service), you will be slightly disappointed by this record. (I don’t believe anyone expected the duo to be able to put out an entire record reaching the caliber that single – one of the best tracks of 2002.) But if you are looking for a fun collection of breezy beats and cotton candy vocals, you found your favorite CD for the month.
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– James Hush

Devin The Dude
Just Tryin’ Ta Live
Devin the Dude (taking the “Dude” from his first LP in ’98) enters this disc higher than Quasimoto as Zeldar from Zeldar shopping with his crew at Wal-Mart (I’m quoting here, I swear) – then kaboom! Dr. Dre drops a beat, and Devin the Dude gets busy.
DTD has somehow turned Rap-A-Lot upside down, through a couple pounds of ‘dro. G-funked out, seriously, Devin drops non-stop flavor, even some R&B, except this time it’s Reefer & Beer, and everything comes off nice – really nice. Somehow, this album, Just Trying Ta Live, slipped past Life and Art’s radar during 2002 thanks to a thick smoke screen, but it’s time for Devin to get what’s due for real. Unlike DJ Quik’s proper Under tha Influence, Devin has crafted a party record that’s not supposed to be a party record while still being a rap record. Say what? Read it again.
According to the Dude, “me, my penis and a microphone” is all you need to get busy; and he does it, again and again. Premier drops in correct for “Doobie Ashtray” conveniently rhymed with “Why they do me that way?” in the hook, producing a classic. Pg 18
Honestly, you’d think the “bitch & ho” material would wear thin, but the humor here delivers the kind of punch lines that a lot of West Coasters spent their entire careers trying to deliver. For an example, download, “Knuckles Stikin.” Yeah, you can see where that one takes you. The constant “aw shit!” that this album will induce once you put it in your box is more reliable than Miami Subs; serious substance, but funky the whole time.
Wait a sec…(cough, cough) damn…see if you feel this…this album is like a July 4th party in a lawn chair with a full cooler beside you, all the while being comfortably buzzed enough to actually spray beer on every girl that you want to (sorry ladies). As most of this disc was produced in Houston studios like COUGHee POT and the Hippie House (are you getting it yet?) it is nearly inevitable for a little Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik-esque funk to slip through from time to time (consciously or not), allowing nothing to get redundant.
So, lie back with some R&B (please see above…) and let the Dude, rap, sing, mumble, whatever, it all slips together. I’m giving this four stars ’cause that’s how many I can count right now.

– Sven Barth
Looks at the Bird

The first opening minutes of Looks at the Bird were the absolute antithesis of a surprise. Everything I knew about Brokeback I learned from 1999’s Field Recordings from the Cook County Water Table, which was filled with (surprise!) recordings of wildlife accompanied by six-string and upright basses and lyric-less vocals. Brokeback is mainly composed of members of Tortoise (Douglas McCombs) and the Chicago Underground Trio (Noel Kupersmith).
Looks at the Bird begins with standard fare “post-rock” tracks made up of sweeping instrumental parts slowly building to a mild catharsis. It isn’t until track three, “Name’s Winston, Friends Call Me James,” that Brokeback dropped a bomb on me, Jammy James. Precariously balanced melodies perched on bossa nova flavored drum tracks provide a startling contrast to the two tracks before. From here, the disc builds slowly until you get to the brilliantly poppy “The Suspension Bridge at Iguaz˙ Falls,” a song that sounds like it slid off of label mates The Sea & Cake’s newest album, One Bedroom.
This album contains songs that should meet every expectation from this combo. Slow moving, sparse melodies perfect for relaxing at the end of a long day. What really won me over on this record though was the collection of bright, summertime instrumental pieces that blend programmed rhythms, adventurous string work, and the prerequisite keys and vibes inherent to the Chicago post-rock sound.
If there is nothing else motivating you to listen to this record, it is worth noting that Looks at the Bird might be the last recorded material by the late Mary Hansen of Stereolab.
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– James Hush

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