album reviews: Aaron Brown does not listen to Mr. Lif, the Thermals, and Zion I

Mr. Lif
1 Phantom

Never has America sounded uglier than on I Phantom and that’s a good thing – well, especially since Lif has made this image a direct goal. Tracks on I Phantom establish Lif as one of the cornerstones of the Def Jux family, up in the ranks with El-P and RJD2. Lif’s voice, which sounds a little jarring at first (isn’t that usually the case with all the high voice MCs, like Bootie Brown?) is perfectly matched for his staccato flow. Yeah, I sound like a music student trying to make a comment about a rapper; but if you’ve heard Lif before you know what I’m talking about (Enter the Colossus and Emergency Rations being his other notable Def Jux releases).
Where I Phantom succeeds and where Colossus and Rations (both EPs) failed is at establishing nice bass lines for all the songs, not just a solid political base. The fact that the LP is only 47 minutes long and was released one year after Rations speaks volumes about the credibility and craft of each track. The beats are rich, head-bobbing material, but not really club bangers, more on the Def Jux tip, where the ideology is (for those who don’t know) America sucks, but let’s make money rapping about how much it sucks through our own record label.
“New Man Theme” is one of these bob-along anthems more suited for the backpacker or the guy stuck in traffic not content with his caffeine fix. As a matter of fact, the only track that I could really picture some big butts boogieing to is “Status,” but that’s simply because Miami clubs are wack.
So… think about it. This album is really an angry independent man’s group of anthems, but masterfully put together. The production talent is limited (but not limited) to El-P and NASA, but the variety of the beats is not; “Live from the Plantation” mixes three or four premises for entire songs into one blend, a technique not done properly since “Soul Brother #1” off Mecca and the Soul Brother. So, if you want to get angry watching CNN and need a soundtrack, this is for you; it makes me wanna go punch my middle school principle in the mouth.
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– Sven Barth

The Thermals
More Parts Per Million
Albums like this scare the living daylights out of listeners. Slip it in and paranoia starts popping up. Have your eardrums been murdered from attending Rye Coalition and Hot Snakes concerts or does the disc purposely blast out like a smothered crunch and bang of bliss? Either way, More Parts Per Million will leave listeners too happy and far-gone to care.
The first cut, “It’s Trivial,” hits like a storm on dark water, and immediately one’s feet are sliding off a boat’s deck into a swirling pit of indie mutineers and friends at a secret rock club. Above the amps, a filthy denim Jolly Rodger waves in the cigarette clouds as you get “back in place, get smacked in the face” and the numbers go “four, three, two, one.” You ask a stranger, “Who the fuck are the Thermals?” and his eyes smile white before you’re rushed into oblivion.
Trailblazing out of Portland, Oregon, the Thermals are made up of members of Kind of Like Spitting, Operacycle, and Hutch and Kathy, but none of those bands come close to the pots-and-pans nirvana delivered here. Better yet, the band isn’t some foaming pet project, with two more albums left on their Sub Pop contract – that’s the best news I’ve heard in months. More Parts, their debut LP, leaves the car running in the garage, while Hutch Harris’ 100 pound white boy vocals carry more weight on songs like “Goddamn the Light” than a dive full of punks. “Time To Lose” allows Hutch to sing, “I think we’ve reached our limit, and I think we’re getting finished,” over a frenzied guitar before the percussion slams like a high school rain dance.
Decades of rock music have left record bins full of noisy guilty pleasures, but the Thermals lay down cookie cutters into the sludge and offer up a dish of 13 jams with different edges. The intelligence, the abandon, the hooks are all there, everything, perhaps, except the eardrums needed to hear it.
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– Hunter Stephenson

Zion I
Deep Water Slang V 2.0
Deep Water Slang V 2.0 is this Bay Area duo’s follow up to their critically acclaimed 2000 debut LP Mind over Matter. The group is made up of MC Zion and beat maker/DJ Amp Live, forming silver bullet chemistry that really makes Zion I stand out. MC Zion’s flow is best described as a cross between Phife (from A Tribe Called Quest), Common and Talib Kweli. Amp Live’s beats are quite diverse and sometimes unpredictable, mixing the appeal of Hi-Tek, the spacey, stripped experimentation of the Neptunes, and a little DJ Premiere East Coast basics.
The joints that make this album stand out are the more mellow, jazz inspired, self-conscience songs; for example, “Sorry” and “Flow” are two amazingly smooth, piano laced journeys through the depths of the mind. Deep Water Slang V 2.0 also contains songs that inspire and motivate. “The Drill” is a perfect balance between Zion and Amp Live and has just the right amount of consciousness that’s lacking in commercial hip hop. “Warrior’s Dance” featuring Pep Love from Hieroglyphics, with its tribal inspired beat, heavy bass lines and no bullshit lyrics, may just be the best song on the album.
This album has its downfalls though. Occasionally Amp Live goes too far with his creative license, as on “Cheeba Cheeba” or “Le, Le, Le,” where the beat is full of weird and purposeless noises that drown out the lyrics.
Deep Water Slang delivers a solid, challenging yet familiar sound that is refreshing to listen to. It has a timeless quality that isn’t boosted by the trends or disposable beatsmiths that currently make most rap seem like fast food. After listening to an album three or four times, it gets scratched and forgotten without regret because it’s played out anyway. Deep Water Slang V 2.0 is not like that, and is a good investment for any hip hop fan looking to broaden their horizons and up the replay value in their collection.
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– Kevin Jaeger