Thursday, 16 May 2019

Massive Attack ‎– Blue Lines (1991)

Style: Dub, Trip Hop
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label:  Wild Bunch Records, Virgin, Circa

1.   Safe From Harm
2.   One Love
3.   Blue Lines
4.   Be Thankful For What You’ve Got
5.   Five Man Army
6.   Unfinished Sympathy
7.   Daydreaming
8.   Lately
9.   Hymn Of The Big Wheel

Twenty years on from this landmark album’s release and its makers are very much a part of the mainstream, an outfit comfortably capable of selling out the nation’s biggest venues and with enough column inches of acclaim behind them to build a (rather flimsy, granted) ladder to the Moon. But at the time, Massive Attack were purveyors of a sound so new that it didn’t have a pigeonhole to fits its form – trip hop would not be coined for another few years, and this mash-up of dub, rap, reggae and soul caught attentions like few other releases of the time. It didn’t so much hold one by the collar as set fire to their shoes. 
Blue Lines wasn’t produced without persuasion, though, and while it might shuffle to a remarkably assured beat, the then-trio of 3D, Daddy G and Mushroom needed a little coercion to get the puzzle pieces in their right places. The celebrated guilty party: one Neneh Cherry, a star on the back of 1989’s Raw Like Sushi LP, whose championing of this group of Wild Bunch sound system sorts helped seal a record deal. And once Blue Lines was delivered, Virgin set about exploiting its singular content. Hip hop unlike its stateside purveyors, soul without bedroom intent: this wasn’t quite like anything else out there. And the breakthrough would be, while hardly instant, dramatic enough to still be felt to this day. 
Unfinished Sympathy alone didn’t make Blue Lines the classic its standing in so many best-albums-ever charts confirms, but it ensured that the public en masse would give Massive Attack the chance to impress with their myriad approaches to music-making. While its peak position of 13 on the UK singles chart could be seen as something of a disappointment if released today, Unfinished Sympathy’s video clicked with the MTV crowd – Shara Nelson’s determined street-walking was immediately iconic, later referenced (read: stolen wholesale) by The Verve and parodied by Fat Les. Although it utilised samples, uncleared at the time, there was no doubting that the track signalled the arrival of a powerful pop force with unique ideas. It blew the floodgates open, and in the years that followed a thousand lesser acts aping Blue Lines’ melancholy-kissed claustrophobia, bubbling basslines and smoky vocals poured into the world’s bedsits and penthouses alike. 
Of course, focusing on just Unfinished Sympathy doesn’t tell a fraction of the story to be discovered on this album. Horace Andy’s sweet, from-dark-to-light tones on the distant-thundering dread of Five Man Army, the noticeable emotional crack in Nelson’s voice as she delivers the chorus of Safe From Harm, the slinky funk of Lately, Hymn of the Big Wheel’s urban-evensong climax: there’s a wide spectrum of delights spread across these nine tracks. And if you’ve never indulged before – the likelihood is slim, surely – make sure that you slip inside this enduring masterpiece as soon as you can. Arguably, Massive Attack have never bettered this debut – and certainly, they’ve never sounded quite this hungry and fresh since. 
Mike Diver  / BBC Review

Soul II Soul ‎– Club Classics Vol. One (1989)

Style: House, Dub, Soul, RnB/Swing, Neo Soul, Downtempo
Format: CD, Vinyl, Cass.
Label: Virgin, 10 Records

01.    Keep On Movin'
02.   Fairplay
03.   Holdin' On (Bambelela)
04.   Feeling Free (Live Rap)
05.   African Dance
06.   Dance
07.   Feel Free
08.   Happiness (Dub)
09.   Back To Life (Accapella)
10.   Jazzie's Groove

Credits: Arranged By – Jazzie B Keyboards – Simon Law Piano – Simon Law Producer – Jazzie B, Nellee Hooper Programmed By – Nellee

Soul II Soul's pivotal debut album is 20 years young. Make anyone feel old? 1989's Club Classics Vol. 1 has firmly cemented itself in UK soul music history. With their funky anthems, unforgettable lyrics and signature beats, appreciation for the group’s unique twist on classic soul can be found from America (where Soul II Soul hit top 10) to Australia (where they still tour today). 
Chunky, ballsy single Fairplay was both Soul II Soul's first official release and the reason major label Virgin signed Jazzie B's groundbreaking group. Having already created major hype on the underground with their street party soundsystem (Notting Hill carnival still hosts the collective), Fairplay was proof that the Londoners could cut it in the mainstream. 
Twisting voluptuous female soul vocals (Caron Wheeler, Rose Windross, the late Do'Reen Waddell) with rare groove-styled dance beats gave Soul II Soul a niche that would see them win a broad array of fans worldwide. Back To Life (However Do You Want Me), their best-recognised hit, is a classic example of this musical melting pot. 
Keep On Movin' –another key anthem- was the group’s first real mainstream success (Fairplay only made it to 63 in the UK charts) and came at a time when American artists saturated the R&B scene. Founder Jazzie B made his record label more than happy as the track hit number five in the UK and number one on the US R&B chart. 
Much like Bristol's trip-hop supergroup, Massive Attack, Soul II Soul have had a huge and important effect on black British music. Like Massive Attack's Blue Lines, Club Classics Vol. 1 is one of those rare albums that make you want to listen to every single track, over and over, again and again. Something most musicians can but dream of. 
Elle j Small / BBC Review

De La Soul ‎– 3 Feet High And Rising (1989)

Genre: Hip Hop
Format: CD, Vinyl, Cass.
Label: Liberation Records, Tommy Boy , Big Life

01.   Intro
02.   The Magic Number
03.   Change In Speak
04.   Cool Breeze On The Rocks
05.   Can U Keep A Secret
06.   Jenifa Taught Me (Derwin's Revenge)
07.   Ghetto Thang
08.   Transmitting Live From Mars
09.   Eye Know
10.   Take It Off
11.    A Little Bit Of Soap
12.   Tread Water
13.   Say No Go
14.   Do As De La Does
15.   Plug Tunin' (Last Chance To Comprehend)
16.   De La Orgee
17.   Buddy
18.   Description
19.   Me Myself And I
20.   This Is A Recording 4 Living In A Fulltime Era (L.I.F.E.)
21.   I Can Do Anything (Delacratic)
22.   D.A.I.S.Y. Age
23.   Plug Tunin' (Original 12" Version)
24.   Potholes In My Lawn

Co-producer – De La Soul
Producer – Prince Paul

An acknowledged classic, De La Soul's debut album now resides in something of a vacuum. A little like Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, this is a record of such startling originality that was paradoxically to lead the band eventually down a creative dead end. The 'D.A.I.S.Y. Age' message of positivity (shared by fellow travellers like A Tribe Called Quest), was originally put forward as an answer to the increasingly violent, misogynistic world of rap. But one look around today seems to confirm that their message, while both intelligent and deftly put, fell on a lot of deaf ears. But for a brief spell, it looked like Posdnuos (Kelvin Mercer), Trugoy the Dove (David Jude Jolicoeur), and Pasemaster Mase (Vincent Mason) had shown the direction that hip hop should take. 
While the 'concept' of the gameshow around which the album hangs (with producer, Prince Paul weighing in as well) was always a little tedious, what lies in between is still sparklingly different. Paul's use of samples from sources not usually associated with the genre (Steely Dan? Hall And Oates? The album's title was taken from a JOHNNY CASH song!) may seem ordinary now (Kanye West is still trying to convince us he's being original by using 70s AOR - pah), but at the time it was groundbreaking. Ironically it was also what led to the legal minefield that such snippets provide for each new hip hop album as The Turtles sued for the use of You Showed Me on Transmitting Live From Mars. 
And what of the subject matter? Here the issues addressed are hippie philosophy (Tread Water), first love (Jenifa Taught Me (Derwin's Revenge)), drug abuse (Say No Go), body odour (A Little Bit Of Soap), and, amazingly for a rap record, self-doubt (Can U Keep A Secret). It was all delivered in that self-deprecating style with oodles of humour. And while the 'hippie' tag bothered the band for years, it was a palatable blend that could have taken rap beyond material gain and gang beefs. If only... 
Chris Jones / BBC Review

Wire ‎– A Bell Is A Cup... Until It Is Struck (1988)

Style: New Wave, Psychedelic Rock
Format: CD, Vinyl, Cass.
Label: Mute, Enigma Records

01.  Silk Skin Paws
02.  The Finest Drops
03.  The Queen Of Ur And The King Of Um
04.  Free Falling Divisions
05.  It's A Boy
06.  Boiling Boy
07.  Kidney Bingos
08.  Come Back In Two Halves
09.  Follow The Locust
10.   A Public Place
11.  The Queen Of Ur And The King Of Um (Alternative Version)
12.  Pieta
13.  Over Theirs (Live)
14.  Drill (Live)

Credits: Engineer – David Heilmann Performer – Bruce Gilbert, Colin Newman, Lewis, Robert Gotobed Producer – Gareth Jones Written-By – Wire

Wire's return to full-time active duty came as something of a surprise. Colin Newman, Bruce Gilbert, and Graham Lewis (the latter two both separately and as the duo Dome) had been growing increasingly abstract and non-rock in the six years since the group had split up, but 1988's A Bell Is a Cup...Until It Is Struck is, at heart, an album full of pop songs. Admittedly, they're mainly peculiar pop songs full of stream-of-consciousness lyrics ("Money spine paper lung kidney bingos organ fun," goes the chorus of the catchiest song, sung by Newman in a dreamy reverie as if the unrelated non sequiturs were just another love song) and produced in an oddly detached way that emphasizes the atmospheres over the melodies, but they're pop songs nonetheless. Newman and Lewis coat the songs with overdubbed layers of gentle guitars, treated and phased into waves of sound that ebb and flow around the songs over Gilbert's throbbing bass and Robert Gotobed's dancefloor-based rhythms. Arguably Wire's best album and certainly its most accessible, A Bell Is a Cup...Until It Is Struck is a work of modern rock genius. The CD includes four bonus tracks, including a thoroughly reworked alternate version of "The Queen of Ur and the King of Um" and a chugging eight-minute live version of "Drill."
Stewart Mason / AllMusic 

Ambitious Lovers ‎– Greed (1988)

Style: Art Rock, No Wave, Experimental, Fusion, Synth-pop
Format: CD, Vinyl, Cass.
Label: Virgin, Tower Records

01.   Copy Me
02.   Privacy
03.   Caso
04.   King
05.   Omotesando
06.   Too Far
07.   Love Overlap
08.   Admit It
09.   Steel Wool
10.   Para Não Contrariar Você
11.   Quasi You
12.   It Only Has To Happen Once
13.   Dot Stuff

Written-By – Ambitious Lovers
Backing Vocals – D.K. Dyson, Gail Lou
Percussion – Naná Vasconcelos
Rhythm Guitar – Vernon Reid
Vocals, Guitar – Arto Lindsay
Keyboards, Synthesizer (Bass), Drum Programming, Sampler, Producer – Peter Scherer

Sun Ra And His Arkestra ‎– Out There A Minute (1989)

Style: Avant-garde Jazz, Space-Age, Free Jazz
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Restless Records, Blast First, Mute, Torso

01.   Love In Outer Space
02.   Somewhere In Space
03.   Dark Clouds With Silver Linings
04.   Jazz And Romantic Sounds
05.   When Angels Speak Of Love
06.   Cosmo Enticement
07.   Song Of Tree And Forest
08.   Other Worlds
09.   Journey Outward
10.   Lights Of A Satellite
11.   Starships And Solar Boats
12.   Out There A Minute
13.   Next Stop Mars

Featuring – John Gilmour, Marshall Allen
Written-By – Sun Ra

Public Enemy ‎– It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back (1988) (Deluxe Edition)

Genre: Hip Hop
Format: CD, Vinyl, Cass.
Label: Def Jam Recordings, Columbia

CD 1:
01.   Countdown to Armageddon
02.   Bring the Noise
03.   Don't Believe the Hype
04.   Cold Lampin' With Flavor
05.   Terminator X to the Edge of Panic
06.   Mind Terrorist
07.   Louder Than a Bomb
08.   Caught, Can We Get a Witness?
09.   Show 'Em Whatcha Got
10.   She Watch Channel Zero?!
11.   Night of the Living Baseheads
12.   Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos
13.   Security of the First World
14.   Rebel Without a Pause
15.   Prophets of Rage
16.   Party For Your Right to Fight

CD 2:
01.   Bring the Noise (No Noise version)
02.   Bring the Noise (No Noise instrumental)
03.   Bring the Noise (No Noise a cappella)
04.   Rebel Without a Pause (instrumental)
05.   Night of the Living Baseheads (Anti-High Blood Pressure Encounter mix)
06.   Night of the Living Baseheads (Terminator X Meets DST and Chuck Chill Out instrumental mix)
07.   Terminator X to the Edge of Panic (No Need to Panic radio version)
08.   The Edge of Panic
09.   The Rhythm, the Rebel (a capella)
10.   Prophets of Rage (Power version)
11.   Caught, Can We Get a Witness? (Pre Black Steel Ballistic Felony dub)
12.   B-Side Wins Again (original version)
13.   Black Steel in the Hour Of Chaos (instrumental)
14.   Fight The Power (soundtrack version)

Arranged By – Carl Ryder, Eric Sadler, Hank Shocklee
Producer – Carl Ryder, Hank Shocklee
Scratches– Terminator X
Treble Vocals – Flavor Flav
Voice – Professor Griff And The Black To The Future Sample Stars
Performer (Public Enemy) – Professor Griff, The Security Of The First World

Roosevelt, New York is a beautiful social experiment gone awry. As post-war urban renewal squeezed black families into towering inner-city housing developments and whites out into their sprawling suburbs, this hamlet near the south end of western Long Island’s Queens bordering Nassau County served as a template for suburban integration. Blacks and whites cohabited there for years until real estate agents’ racist scare tactics pushed white families to sell at a loss and funneled new black ones into the same homes at inflated prices. The city’s methodical transformation would have a profound effect on Nassau local Carlton Ridenhour, better known as Chuck D. On the short trip from home to nearby Adelphi University, where he studied graphic design, Chuck could watch the soft segregated lower-middle-class black community of Roosevelt give way to golf and country clubs for the affluent, predominantly white Garden City, home to Adelphi and a pair of prestigious prep schools. First-hand experience of racialized contempt, along with a rich education from civil rights activist parents, sparked a righteous ire in Chuck that would burn hot and bright in the following years. 
Public Enemy formed around Chuck’s gig at Adelphi’s student radio station, gaining momentum as he and his friends’ forays into rap music grew increasingly accomplished. Their squelching, skeletal “Public Enemy No. 1” won a fan in Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin, kicking off a lengthy courtship of Chuck, sidekick Flavor Flav, DJ Terminator X and producers Hank Shocklee and Eric Sadler. Two years later, the group caved and signed with the label. A debut album (1987’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show) and a package tour with Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J followed. The music was boldly gritty, if a touch late to the party, scooped by advances in landmark singles by Big Daddy Kane and Eric B. & Rakim released the same year. The live show was gripping, Chuck and Flav stalking the stage as “Minister of Information” Professor Griff cut in with searing political diatribes and the S1w’s, the group’s security detail, performed silent combat exercises with toy rifles in the background. It was black power theater. It shocked American audiences cold. Concerns about P.E.’s image and intent quickly arose: Were they gangsters? Terrorists? Separatists? Yo! stalled out around 400,000 units sold, a modest turnout in the wake of the Beastie Boys’ blockbuster Licensed to Ill, and Public Enemy entered into a contentious dance with the media that would precipitate their greatest successes and their darkest hardships. 
In retrospect, Yo! Bum Rush the Show was a blueprint. What came after it was the work of a well-rehearsed unit keenly aware of its purpose and capabilities. Released the following summer, Public Enemy’s sophomore album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was a brash refinement of the themes of Yo! and a jab at the jaws of detractors, high and low. “Bring the Noise” and “Don’t Believe the Hype” railed against the press, holding up the lurid sensationalism surrounding the group as a warning against trusting anything you read. “Caught, Can We Get a Witness?” is a nightmare where P.E. gets nabbed for sampling. (More on that later.) Nation teemed with a didactic social consciousness too. “She Watch Channel Zero?!” strikes out against junk television, while “Night of the Living Baseheads” addresses the crack epidemic, and “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” leads a draft-dodging conscientious objector through a vengeful jailbreak. Chuck’s booming ministerial baritone sparred with Flav’s piercing yawp in a masterful hero-and-sidekick interplay. The message couldn’t entice the masses without the levity; the levity was gimmicky without revolutionary grit giving it weight.

Nation found a way to expound on the explosive soundscapes of the debut without exhausting listeners or cluttering the mix. Chuck, Sadler, and the Shocklee brothers’ production as the Bomb Squad was as thick as its source material was diverse; it was rap, soul, rock, funk and musique concrète all at once. “Most people were saying that rap music was noise,” Hank Shocklee told Rolling Stone in 1989, “and we decided, ‘If they think it’s noise, let’s show them noise.’” "She Watch Channel Zero?!" pulls its central riff from Slayer’s thrash classic “Angel of Death”. “Night of the Living Baseheads” outfits a stable of trusty James Brown samples with over a dozen assorted soul and rap tidbits and bridges, folding in elements of ESG’s “UFO” and David Bowie’s “Fame”. Snippets of legendary speeches from Jesse Jackson and Malcolm X and stage banter from Public Enemy’s successful European tour formed connective tissue between songs for a unified listening experience that only let up briefly in the middle and finally, at the end. The Bomb Squad built beats like ships in a bottle, delicately stitching tiny pieces of black history into layered blasts of sound. Public Enemy looked and sounded a fright to the uninitiated, but careful attention showed every piece of this black radical machine moving in perfect concert. 
Nation of Millions netted Public Enemy the elusive American audience and platinum sales their debut couldn’t, and it changed the face of rap music. The hip-hop landscape of ‘89-’90 was dotted with sample-heavy sons of Nation. Chuck sent early copies of the album out west to Dre and Ice Cube, and N.W.A.’s landmark Straight Outta Compton cropped up like a gangsta rap rejoinder to the Bomb Squad ethos. (Cube would later tap the team for production on his post-N.W.A. solo debut AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted.) De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising and the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique added a playful, psychedelic charm to the proceedings. Nation’s message of black self-sufficiency resonated through the proudly Afrocentric art of A Tribe Called Quest, X Clan, Brand Nubian and more. Beyond the ’80s, the music of Nation of Millions would continue to find new life in unexpected places: Weezer’s 1996 comeback single “El Scorcho” nicked its “I’m the epitome of public enemy” barb from “Don’t Believe the Hype,” and Jay-Z’s 2006 post-retirement salvo “Show Me What You Got” is a nod to Nation’s “Show ‘Em Whatcha Got.” (Without Public Enemy we don’t get Kanye West; in addition to sampling the Long Island legends liberally, Kanye inherited a bit of his fearless politics and kitchen sink beat construction from here.) 
Critics warmed to Public Enemy in the wake of It Takes a Nation of Millions but remained suspicious of their political affiliations. “If Farrakhan’s a prophet my dick’s bigger than Don Howland’s,” Village Voice scribe Robert Christgau quipped in a year-end roundup, “but that doesn’t make Nation of Millions anything less than the bravest and most righteous experimental pop of the decade.” Others would be less warm as Professor Griff’s incendiary ethics began to strike sour notes. He publicly accused white America of bestiality during a press-filled gig at Rikers Island in 1988 and voiced a shocking disdain for Jews and gays in various interviews overseas. In the spring of 1989, Washington Times scribe David Mills sat Griff down and coaxed out a rant charged with cold, ugly hate speech that would quickly torch the group’s reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. 
Privately, Chuck struggled with how to respond to the controversy. At first, he stood by Griff, then he announced Griff’s expulsion from the group, then, amid a growing media firestorm, he disbanded Public Enemy entirely. The hiatus was short-lived. Spike Lee’s blistering racial relations passion play Do the Right Thing debuted a week after the firestorm with a new Public Enemy song as its theme. “Fight the Power” summarized the mood of both the film and the climate it was released into. It telegraphed the tense discomfort of a New York summer where innocent youth from Central Park to Bensonhurst would pay the ultimate price for being black in the wrong place at the wrong time. By July, the seemingly inactive group had a #1 Billboard rap single, and work was quietly underway on a Nation of Millions follow-up. 
Fear of a Black Planet from 1990 made kindling of the previous summer’s anti-Public Enemy sentiment, quoting the group’s biggest critics in interludes and ribbing them in the songs. “Contract on the World Love Jam” weaves negative news reports into a scene-setting intro; later “Incident at 66.6 FM” sets outraged calls from a Chuck D squareoff with New York political radio host Alan Colmes over sedate keys and drums, playing the grumps for squares without even responding to their charges. A late album Terminator X showcase snarkily titled “Leave This Off Your Fuckin Charts” is a tenacious dare. Elsewhere, Fear pulls the camera off P.E. to speak to community issues. “Anti-Nigger Machine” and “Who Stole the Soul?” levied heavy accusations of censorship while “911 Is a Joke” explored black community police mistrust and “Fear of a Black Planet” tackled apprehension about interracial dating. Sourcing Public Enemy’s media struggles back to age-old racial strife was a brash, heavy-handed play, but Fear’s genius trick was coating its righteous rage in music that aimed to groove where earlier songs seemed to want to maim. 
Fear of a Black Planet finds the Bomb Squad at the height of their powers, assembling deeply intricate grooves out of infinitesimal building blocks. “Pollywannacracka” cycles through a breakneck array of sounds inside of its first 10 seconds and modulates between spacious verses and a jam-packed chorus, bubbling into bedlam whenever Chuck stops rapping. “Fight the Power” manages to cram over a dozen different samples into five minutes of shockingly smooth funk. What sets these songs apart from the last batch is that their structure was often as varied as their list of ingredients. They didn’t just modulate between similar verses and choruses. These compositions breathed, moved, changed from one refrain to the next, from one second to the next. A new sound showed face on every listen. Fear of a Black Planet deftly stated the case for hip-hop as savvy collage art rather than pastiche. Sure, they borrowed liberally from pre-existing music, but these patchwork symphonies bore scant resemblance to their source material. 
It should be noted that none of this can ever happen again. Biz Markie was sued over an unauthorized sample in 1991, and the judge’s ruling required future producers to seek the original artist’s clearance before incorporating a sample into a new composition. Overnight it became forbiddingly difficult and expensive to incorporate even a handful of samples into a new beat. The nightmare of “Caught, Can We Get a Witness?” had become the hard reality. Producers scaled back their creations, often augmenting one choice groove with a bevy of instrumental embellishments. This is how we arrive at the lush live band pomp of West Coast G-funk, the cold synthetics of early 2000s East Coast rap, and the gothic textures of Southern crunk and trap. The early Public Enemy masterpieces remain unique and inimitable now, relics of a world irreparably changed though in a few notable ways, very much the same. 
The strife that birthed Nation of Millions and Black Planet is mirrored in some of the upheaval of 2014. The business of hip-hop has changed, as free mixtapes have supplanted retail albums as the chief method of kicking off a rap career. Artistic freedom can evaporate at the drop of a gavel. (see: Lord Finesse’s pursuit of Mac Miller for borrowing a beat on a free release.) Hip-hop has again had its political mettle tested by social injustices too systemic to deny. Returning to It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet for these just-released reissues is an encouraging reminder of what a hip-hop album can be to the world, a peek back at that one time a rap act pissed square into the mouth of adversity and came away unscathed. Hear the drummer get wicked. 
Craig Jenkins / Pitchfork

Eric B. & Rakim ‎– Paid In Full (1987) (The Platinum Edition)

Genre: Hip Hop
Fomat: CD, Vinyl, Cass.
Label: 4th & Broadway, Island Records, UMC

The Album
1-10.   I Ain't No Joke
1-02.   Eric B Is On The Cut
1-03.   My Melody
1-04.   I Know You Got Soul
1-05.   Move The Crowd
1-06.   Paid In Full
1-07.   As The Rhyme Goes On
1-08.   Chinese Arithmetic
1-09.   Eric B Is President
1-10.   Extended Beat

The Remixes
2-01.   Paid In Full (Seven Minutes Of Madness - The Cold Cut Remix)
2-02.   I Know You Got Soul (The Richie Rich Mega-Mix)
2-03.   Move The Crowd (The Wild Bunch Remix)
2-04.   Paid In Full (Derek B.'s Urban Respray)
2-05.   As The Rhyme Goes On (Pumpin' The Turbo - Chad Jay In Effect)
2-06.   Move The Crowd (Beatmix By The Democratic 3 Feat. D.J. Slack)
2-07.   I Know You Got Soul (Acapella)
2-08.   I Know You Got Soul (Dub) Remix – Patrick Adams
2-09.   Eric B Is President (Dub) Remix – MC Shan, Marley Marl
2-10.   My Melody (Dub)

For a second, forget everything extraneous about Eric B. & Rakim: Rakim’s G.O.A.T. status; the debate over who was actually responsible for their music; the rumor that Eric had to get a steel rod in his spine after the dookie ropes fucked his neck up. After a dozen changes of rap fashion, when kids born in 1987 are graduating from high school, do these records still hold up? Do they deserve your money when more new music than ever crowds the shelves? 
Well, yes. Obviously. Especially since these new masters are retailing for a beyond-fair 10 bucks. (Whatever the quality of the material, charging nearly $20 for catalog items is robbery.) Unlike the bulked-up, slightly lardy Paid in Full reissue from 1999, this edition tacks on a few bonuses without making a big deal out of it. (Full disclosure: I am an original-sequencing purist.) And of course, the music is as essential as the James Brown whose skinny legs supported large chunks of their legacy. 
It’s hard to believe, now that the Neptunes have made zen thrift signify in the nouveau-riche top 10, but these minimal and sometimes unfriendly (though never less than seductive and often galvanic) tracks represented an anti-pop move. You have to rewind back to the mid-80s—not a super time for “urban” music outside of a nascent rap scene still underground enough to need label addresses at the end of singles reviews. Luther Vandross. Anita Baker. Lionel Richie outselling all other black artists of 1984. Is it any wonder in this context that booming kickdrums, garden claw snares, bacteria-disrupting sub-bass, and tales (freaky, funny, raw, and true) seemed the only viable alternative?

Eric Barrier and William Griffin benefited by being in the right place (NYC) at the right time (just as rap began fumbling towards its own sense of importance). Their mentor, Marley Marl, had just begun to work with the digital sampler, a tentative step away from the fixed parameters of both drum machines and house bands, and towards open-ended creative theft. Marl, Schoolly D, Scott La Rock and others had defined mid-80s rap as a crash of stiff, hard, stupid (in the best sense) Linn drums and astounding B.S. rhymes. If it was hip-hop’s garage-rock—a street reaction against the first wave of crossover pop-rap—then it was all but waiting for the kind of intellectual vernacular so beloved of critics to “take it to the next level.” 
Griffin threw his Kangol in the ring from the opening lines of Eric B & Rakim's debut single, “Eric B Is President”: “I came in the door/I said it before/I never let the mic magnetize me no more.” It is one of the 10 or so most famous verses in rap. Rakim’s innovation was applying a patina of intellectual detachment to rap’s most sacred cause: talking shit about how you’re a better rapper than everyone else. He was the supreme exponent of rapping-about-rapping, an almost lost art now that every MC carries a thousand pounds of crack-dealing backstory around with him. 
Rakim immediately projected his self-belief—not so much messianic as matter-of-fact—that he was the best. He got away with it every time he opened his mouth and that voice came out: authoritative, burnished, possessing an unflappable sense of rhythm like a drumming prodigy. You only think of his restricted subject matter as a failing in the wake of Big, Pac, Cube, even Chuck D. You don’t go to Rakim for political insight, inner turmoil, or sex chat. You go to Rakim for an endless display of pure skill. He encourages the grading mindset. The big reason why Nas is runner-up is because he injected some pathos and fallibility into the preternatural control thing. 
Skills, of course, can be their own reward, when put into the service of exciting people rather than showing off. (Okay, or a mix of the two.) And when the records are playing, it’s hard to begrudge them their 30-yard stare. Paid in Full, the debut, is more laidback and funky, though padded at seven vocals and three instrumentals. It reprised the debut single, a moody, atypical fusion full of stark dub-like dropouts, mod stutter effects, and flat production. It’s obvious why they stuck it at the end of the album; at that point, rap was moving so fast that records released six months prior were already old hat. 
The second single, “My Melody,” is pre-“funky” hip-hop par excellence and a 2005 hit in waiting, with little more than a concrete cracking kickdrum and a blunt-edged bassthrob. (Of course, R’s flow would immediately mark him out as an old man amongst today’s shouters, growlers, and mumblers.) “I Know You Got Soul” let some human grit into the man-machine via JB, and momentarily fucked up everyone’s concept of the space-time continuum until cyborgizing old drummers became common enough to show up in Milli Vanilli records. “Paid in Full” was kind of light and fun, even if its subject matter was dead serious. Getting paid for studio work? Not the corner? Not the grind? The future was wide open. 
Both of these albums contain too much filler to get a free “classic” pass, but the highs of Follow the Leader are as high as any rap group has gotten. The title track fleshes out Rakim’s metaphorical conceit via hellish high-speed-chase music. The beats rattle, the bass seethes, the flutes and strings screech like Blaxploitation crossed with the cheap urgency of an Italian zombie movie. But what’s scariest and most exhilarating is how, for all the track’s runaway train momentum, it feels inexorable, implacable, utterly in control of itself. Rakim’s delivery of the final verse may be the most exciting—at least in terms of breath control—slice of rap the genre has yet delivered. (And no, Twista doesn’t count.) 
“Microphone Fiend” rattled sleigh bells harder than anyone until Pete Rock showed up, and the stabbing dynamics of the guitar sample harassed the ear something awful. The chopper blade beats of “Lyrics of Fury” almost render the genre it would help to inspire (jungle) redundant. In this era, when almost all rap was “fast rap,” tracks like these and “The R” were the roughneck alternative to a burgeoning hip-house, beats impacting your body as your mind swam at the density of words. Unfortunately, by the time they released Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em, an attempt to extend the deft simplicity of their debut, in 1990, they were already old news. (Perhaps best exemplified by the cover of 1992’s Don’t Sweat the Technique.) Deposed kings before they'd even hit their 30s, they’ve limped through the ensuing decade about which the most that can be said is that they didn’t scuff up their legacy too much. 
These reissues add a handful of remixes (two on Paid, three on Leader), none essential. The only criminal inclusion is a truncated version of Coldcut’s remix of “Paid in Full” rather than the full seven minutes of madness. (But whatever, it’s overrated anyway.) The covers—with their gold anchor chains, manhole medallions, and customized Dapper Dan jackets—are a nice rebuke to anyone who thinks conspicuous consumption is a new-school disease. The contents are a reminder of a brief period where people thought they could become a millionaire on skills alone, where the reality of that was so far away that no one had to think about what being a millionaire would mean to the culture that nurtured those skills. 
Jess Harvell / Pitchfork

Salif Keita ‎– Soro (1987)

Genre: Pop, Folk, World, & Country
Format: CD, Vinyl, Cass.
Label: Mango, Island Records, Stern's Africa

1.   Wamba
2.   Soro (Afriki)
3.   Souareba
4.   Sina (Soumbouva)
5.   Cono
6.   Sanni Kegniba

Producer – François Breant
Written-By – Salif Keita

Salif Keita's success story reads like an improbable historical novel. Born in Mali and descended from a famous warrior king of the Manding Empire, Keita is an albino, which is still considered bad luck in many parts of Africa. He was ostracized from birth, and his childhood was marred by his father's oft-expressed revulsion. Although it was considered shameful for people of his caste to become entertainers, he must have felt that he didn't have much lose, so he migrated to the capitol city of Bamako bent on a career as a singer. After epochal stints fronting bands like Rail Band and les Ambassadeurs, he moved to Paris during the mid-'80s. His reputation had proceeded him, and he quickly became a fixture on the flourishing African music circuit. Although he was famous in Africa and had achieved a strong fan base among connoisseurs around the world, Soro was his international breakthrough album. The project was produced by Ibrahima Sylla, a visionary who had already discovered dozens of African stars and would later become the driving force behind Africando. The arrangements featured the roiling rhythms, slightly nasal female backup choirs, and traditional percussion typical of Malian music. But these were nearly overwhelmed by attack-trained brass charts, rocked-out electric guitars, overtly synthetic keyboards, and programmed drums. In retrospect, only a voice as powerful as Keita's could have not only managed to cut through the din but make an ally of it. Despite a tendency to sound somewhat dated, Soro preserves the Golden Voice of Mali at an absolute peak of perfection, alternately soaring, laser-like, or caressing. Although this melting pot only narrowly avoids boiling over, it must be placed near the top of any list of the master's most influential albums. 
Christina Roden / AllMusic

Lee 'Scratch' Perry + Dub Syndicate ‎– Time Boom X De Devil Dead (1987)

Genre: Electronic, Reggae
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Music On CD, Zonophone, On-U Sound

01.   S.D.I
02.   Blinkers
03.   Jungle
04.   De Devil Dead
05.   Music & Silence Lover
06.   Kiss The Champion
07.   Allergic To Lies
08.   Time Conquer
09.   Jungle (Original 7'' Version)
10.   Jungle (China Wall)
11.   Jungle (Big Hot Plate)
12.   Jungle (Disco Plate)
13.   Night Train

Backing Vocals – Akabu
Bass – Dr.Pablo, Errol Holt, Evar
Drums – Style Scott
Keyboards – Dr. Pablo, Kishi Yamamoto
Lead Guitar – Dr. Pablo, Martin Frederix
Percussion – Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah, Lee Perry
Piano – Kishi, Steely
Rhythm Guitar – Bingy Bunny, Martin Frederix
Saxophone – Deadly Headley
Producer – Adrian Sherwood, Lee Perry

For those familiar with the work of British dubmeister and producer extraordinaire Adrian Sherwood, the thought of he and Scratch working together sets off fits of near-Pavlovian salivating. This collaboration is excellent, and Perry and Sherwood (both of whom traffic in an idiosyncratic sound and approach to production) sound perfectly suited as collaborators. What helps considerably is the effectiveness of Sherwood's band the Dub Syndicate, who rock a little harder than the Upsetters and create edgier, more brittle soundscapes for Perry to romp through and Sherwood to produce (although it should be noted that Perry had a hand in the production too). Perry's toasting and singing are not as manic as on Battle of Armagideon, but he delivers the goods on tracks like "S.D.I" and "Allergic to Lies."
John Dougan / AllMusic

Steve Reich ‎– Sextet · Six Marimbas (1986)

Style: Contemporary, Post-Modern
Format: CD, Vinyl, Cass.
Label: Nonesuch, BMG Direct Marketing

1.   1st Movement
2.   2nd Movement
3.   3rd Movement
4.   4th Movement
5.   5th Movement
Six Marimbas
6.   Six Marimbas

Composed By – Steve Reich
Engineer – Paul Goodman
Executive-Producer – Robert Hurwitz
Mixed By – Paul Goodman, Steve Reich, Tom Lazarus
Producer – Steve Reich

Although Reich's music during the '80s, as he gained in popularity, was increasingly written for larger, lusher ensembles (with, oftentimes, the concomitant loss of "edge"), he occasionally and happily reverted to more contained compositions such as those included here. "Sextet" is pared down to four percussionists and two keyboardists (the latter including synthesizers) and evokes early pieces of Reich's Drumming while incorporating his ongoing use of longer melodic lines. In five sections, it tends toward a buoyant and jazzy bubbliness, percolating with all manner of busy interaction and wonderfully intermeshed rhythms. One of the new techniques employed is having the vibraphonists bow their instruments, generating long, ghostly tones reminiscent of musical saws but cleaner and more precise. Since this cannot be done quickly, Reich writes patterns that interweave between performers, achieving a kind of hocketing effect where, by playing only every third or fourth note in a rhythmic line, the ensemble can produce what the listener perceives as a fast tempo even as each individual is playing slowly. The closing section is pure effervescent bliss. "Six Marimbas," scored for, unsurprisingly, six marimbas, sounds even closer to the pieces that originally brought Reich to renown and is, in fact, a rescoring of his "Six Pianos" from 1973. The pure, luscious tones of the marimbas make it even more successful than the original and the work is played with obvious delight and rigor by the percussion ensemble Nexus, who includes several members of Reich's working band of the early '70s. In sum, Sextet/Six Marimbas is one of the finest releases of mid-career Reich, entirely without the pretensions that marred some of his other work from the period, and is highly recommended.
Brian Olewnick / AllMusic

Sonic Youth ‎– EVOL (1986)

Style: Alternative Rock, Avantgarde, Indie Rock
Format: CD, Vinyl, Cass.
Label: Blast First, SST Records, Geffen Records

1.   Tom Violence
2.   Shadow Of A Doubt
3.   Star Power
4.   In The Kingdom # 19
5.   Green Light
6.   Death To Our Friends
7.   Secret Girl
8.   Marilyn Moore
9.   Expressway To Yr. Skull

Credits: Drums – Steve Shelley Guitar, Vocals – Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo, Thurston Moore
Engineer – Martin Bisi Producer – Martin Bisi, Sonic Youth

EVOL is, in my mind at least, the high point of Sonic Youth’s career. The opening chords of “Tom Violence” chime in in an odd, twisted manner, and as you allow Thurston Moore’s dragging vocals to take effect, you really feel the full force of what this album is about – it creates atmosphere in abundance, and allows Sonic Youth’s left field song writing style to set in without feeling out of place – a breakthrough for the band. Whilst albums such as “Confusion is Sex” and “Bad Moon Rising” certainly have their merits and are not the worthless relics of the band’s past that some writers would have you believe, it is truly with EVOL that Sonic Youth took a massive step into the history books, and it is unlikely that they will ever look back. 
Kim Gordon, who can often be heard offering banshee like shrieks on various tracks in the bands catalogue contributes one of her best efforts on “Shadow of a Doubt”, a suitable follow up to “Tom Violence”, and one that reinforces the album’s dream-like soundscape, her soft whispering vocals being backed by an instrumental track that flips from the ritualistic chord progression of the first track to the subtle, sugar coated guitar line that render Kim’s whispers more likeable than chilling or alienating. The following track, sole single “Star Power” was not an immediate stand out, but soon enough the frantic, rapid fire sweeps of guitar will get stuck in your head – Sonic Youth doing what they do best and providing an instrumental hook that is equally as catchy  Kim’s casual vocal delivery. Lee Ranaldo offers one of his distinctive tracks with the spoken word piece “In The Kingdom #19”, showcasing the band’s more art influenced roots, and generally adding to the overall impact of the album whilst being a strong track in itself. What’s noticeable about the album as a whole is that, unlike on follow ups “Sister and “Daydream Nation” (which both follow the general formula of this album to a degree), the instrumental passages and guitar feedback never disrupt the flow of the album – not to say that those two albums aren’t stellar in their own right, but on this album one feels Sonic Youth harnessed these exercises most effectively into the album’s overall vision. 
Even the “less than amazing” tracks here – midway duo “Green Light” and “Death to Our Friends” contribute to the album as a whole – although they may lack obvious killer hooks, melody, atmosphere or downright crazy moments (think of the anguished scream on “Marilyn Monroe”), they do not disrupt the flow of the album or beg you to skip over them, and in a way the extended feedback noise sections found on the likes of “Green Light” show how the band has recognised, in the most obvious way, how these exercises are better served as supplements to the whole rather than the whole itself. 
“Secret Girl”, with its lone piano and sombre vocal line, starts an incredible run through to the end of album, whether or not your copy has the cover track “Bubblegum” at the end. “Marilyn Monroe” is host to the kind of chiming, auspicious sounds that for some reason seem to interest me to no end, its cinematic style and characteristic sound playing perfectly into the hands of stunning album “closer” “Expressway to Yr Skull”, a sprawling, hooky song that perfectly sums up the sound and tone of the album.

Anita Baker ‎– Rapture (1986)

Genre: Jazz, Funk / Soul
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Elektra, WEA, Warner Bros. Records

1.   Sweet Love
2.   You Bring Me Joy
3.   Caught Up In The Rapture
4.   Been So Long
5.   Mystery
6.   No One In The World
7.   Same Ole Love
8.   Watch Your Step

Bass – David B. Washington, Freddy "Ready Freddie" Washington
Drums – Arthur Marbury III, Ricky Lawson
Guitar – Donald Griffin, Gregg Moore, Michael J. Powell
Keyboards – Anita Baker, Sir Gant, Vernon Fails
Percussion – Lawrence Fratangelo, Lorenzo Brown, Paulinho da Costa
Saxophone – Don Myrick, Donald Albright
Executive-Producer – Anita Baker
Producer – Gary Skardina, Marti Sharron, Michael J. Powell

Luther Vandross aside, soul music was at something of a crossroads by the mid-80s. Aretha Franklin had been listing since the advent of disco; Whitney Houston had set about her all-conquering pop dance career; and the machine-driven productions of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were becoming formulaic. However, Rapture, made by 29-year-old former Chapter 8 vocalist Anita Baker, reasserted the case for the genre. 
Baker’s first solo album, 1983’s The Songstress – a lush collection of quiet-storm soul – was appreciated by the aficionados, but ignored by the mainstream. By the time she signed to Elektra in 1985, she had been working as a secretary after her old label folded. Together with old Chapter 8 producer Michael J Powell, Baker corralled the best songs and session players to create an expensive-sounding album of – as it was described at the time – “fireside love songs with a little edge”. Baker had wanted to make a jazz album, Powell a soul one, and the creative tension led to a successful compromise. 
Baker’s voice rings like a bell. Her gospel past shines through on Been So Long and You Bring Me Joy. The re-working of The Manhattan Transfer's Mystery is remarkably assured.  It is, however, for three tracks on this album that she will always be remembered: Sweet Love, Caught Up in the Rapture and Same Ole Love. The lyrics, which could border on the trite in another artist's hands, are invested with so much passion and wonderment that they are like updates of old love sonnets.  
Rapture was much-loved when it was released and made Baker the doyen of sophisticated soul. It united highbrow (Rolling Stone and even leftfield UK magazine The Wire loved it) and the popular. It chimed especially with the American public, resting high in the albums chart; and the US industry, winning two Grammys. 
Baker went on to have a long-lasting, multiple-platinum US career. However, nothing since has quite hit the spot as this. Rapture survived being hijacked by the dinner party crowd and over-familiarity. Had it been recorded in the 60s, it would be as revered as Aretha Franklin’s Muscle Shoals recordings or Dusty in Memphis.
Daryl Waeslea / BBC Review

Prince And The Revolution ‎– Parade (1986)

Genre: Electronic, Jazz, Funk / Soul, Pop
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Paisley Park

A1.   Christopher Tracy's Parade
A2.   New Position
A3.   I Wonder U
A4.   Under The Cherry Moon
A5.   Girls & Boys
A6.   Life Can Be So Nice
A7.   Venus De Milo
B1.   Mountains
B2.   Do U Lie?
B3.   Kiss
B4.   Anotherloverholenyohead
B5.   Sometimes It Snows In April

Credits: Backing Vocals – Susannah
Producer, Composed By, Arranged By, Performer – Prince And The Revolution

Whereas 1984’s Purple Rain had seen Prince merge the on-screen and on-record perfectly, remaining a classic to this day, Parade can’t quite claim to be as essential. Again a soundtrack to one of the Purple One’s excursions into cinema, it supports the movie Under the Cherry Moon – a flop which cleaned up at 1987’s Golden Raspberry Awards. The album, though, is significantly better than the messy flick, which featured Kristin Scott Thomas in one of her most forgettable roles. 
Peaking at four in the UK albums chart, Parade is Prince at the peak of his 80s pomp, with The Revolution layering on healthy amounts of funky synths, electric licks and honking horns. This was the last album Prince recorded with said backing group – the first to officially feature them was Purple Rain – but if there was any unrest in the ranks it doesn’t come through here. Many a listener will be familiar with the set’s lead single, Kiss – but the track almost missed the cut entirely, having originally been passed by Prince to The Revolution offshoot outfit Mazarati. Brown Mark and company reworked what was an acoustic demo into a minimalist funk masterpiece; and Prince, on hearing the results, couldn’t resist taking it back for himself. The rest is, so the saying goes, history: top 10s across the globe (and a rash of number ones), a Grammy in the bag and inclusion on every greatest-singles-ever list published since. 
Parade produced three further singles in 1986, although not one of them repeated the success of Kiss. Mountains broke the stateside top 30, wasting nary a second of its 10-minute 12" edit as trumpets romp across the mix (it accompanies the credits to Under the Cherry Moon); but the following Anotherloverholenyohead failed to impact upon any pop countdown, presumably because record store workers couldn’t find the absurd title on their stock list when it was asked for. Girls & Boys, a UK-only release, reached 11, but its pastiche-bordering funk stylings were rather more rudimentary compared to the stripped-back beauty of Kiss. 
Representing Prince’s first use of a full orchestra, and set to a narrative that makes for a very coherent listening experience, Parade does point the way towards the ambition of the man’s next long-play set, the peerless Sign o’ the Times. Here, though, it’s more often a case of nearly-but-not-quite than catalogue must-have. A forerunner to a masterpiece, then, and worthy of digging out. Just be sure to leave the film buried in the past.
Mike Diver / BBC Review

Ray Lema ‎– Medecine (1985)

Genre: Electronic, Funk / Soul
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Celluloid, Mélodie Distribution

A1.   Marabout (Iyolela)
A2.   Ninga
A3.   Nzola
B1.   Peuple Eyo
B2.   Lusala
B3.   Bored Whore
B4.   Dansometer Reprise

Alto Saxophone – Athey Dialopa
Guitar – Samba N'Go
Vocals, Guitar, Percussion, Keyboards – Ray Lema
Electronics, Synth, Producer – Martin Meissonnier
Electronics, Synth, Recorded By – Martyn Phillips
Mixed By – Godwin Logie

Violent Femmes ‎– Hallowed Ground (1984)

Style: Country Rock, Indie Rock
Format: CD, Vinyl, Cass.
Label:  Slash, London Records, Polydor

A1.   Country Death Song
A2.   I Hear The Rain
A3.   Never Tell
A4.   Jesus Walking On The Water
A5.   I Know It's True But I'm Sorry To Say
B1.   Hallowed Ground
B2.   Sweet Misery Blues
B3.   Black Girls
B4.   It's Gonna Rain

Vocals – Victor De Lorenzo
Alto Saxophone, Woodwind– John Zorn
Autoharp – Christina Houghton
Banjo – Tony Trischka
Bass, Celesta, Marimba, Jew's Harp, Vocals – Brian Ritchie
Clarinet, Engineer – John Tanner
Cornett, Sackbut – Drake Scott
Tenor Saxophone, Harmonica – Peter Balestrieri
Drums, Electronic Drums, Percussion, Vocals – Victor De Lorenzo
Lead Vocals, Guitar, Acoustic Guitar, Fiddle, Written-By – Gordon Gano
Producer, Piano, Organ – Mark Van Hecke

A lingering wisdom about Violent Femmes’ first album is that it inevitably landed squarely in the lap of any ‘80s teen that had grasped just how inescapably miserable was the struggle of growing up; the isolation, the hopelessness, the short highs followed by extended lows, the sexual overload, the distasteful omnipresence of authority. Instead of just internalizing this knowledge many naturally flaunted their alienation over this unrelentingly oppressive environment via haircuts, clothing choices, and most importantly artistic taste. 
The strategic reading of Catcher in the Rye on park benches aside, music has proven a startlingly effective way of expressing that unsubtle concept of Not Fitting In. Indeed, music has long been synonymous with youth in revolt, and if circa 1985 one spied a surly, disheveled teen sauntering along the sidewalks of some suburban landscape with a sticker covered backpack and a Walkman, it was a safe bet that they were carrying a cassette copy of Violent Femmes in the pocket of their tattered thrift-store trench coat. 
A true rite of passage, it was also an LP so ubiquitous that I have no recollection of hearing it for the first time; once someone was identified as belonging to the great brigade of young non-conformists it was inevitable that a more experienced member of this community would lend a helping hand and expose the newcomer to the alluring strains of Midwestern anxiety.

And the record was a staple in the store racks throughout my high school years, with vinyl, tapes and then poorly mastered CDs perpetually waiting for kids to scrape together enough cash to purchase their own prized copy. It was a case of a tape dupe being simply inadequate. Throw in the impatience and tempestuousness of its target audience and Violent Femmes very likely makes the Top Ten Most Shoplifted Records of All Time. 
So goes the story and if stopped there it kinda falls into the territory of romantic cliché. For not all disaffected kids dug the Femmes back then. For instance some of my peers, specifically the ones under the heavy sway of The Cure and New Order and The Smiths and Bauhaus (I think it’s safe to call them Anglophiles) considered the sounds made by singer/guitarist Gordon Gano, bassist Brian Ritchie, and drummer Victor DeLorenzo to be decidedly retrograde. 
If that sounds like the stirrings of hipper than thou posturing, please consider in these detractors’ defense that the Femmes basically utilized the same instrumentation employed by Elvis Presley on his Sun Sessions album. And Violent Femmes is also one of the few legit examples of a folk-punk synthesis that paved the way for College Rock and the Alternative Nation, a fact that didn’t endear it to many under the sway of hardcore’s raucous and often didactic din. Or for that matter the indie diehards and the older, heard it before naysayers, many of whom wrote for fanzines and dismissed the group as derivative of The Modern Lovers and to a lesser extent Lou Reed. 
After getting out of high school in one piece I went something like half a decade without hearing that first Femmes album. And when I did return to it I couldn’t help sharing some of that older, wiser perspective, reevaluating that its contents weren’t the deathless dulcet tones so many of us lacking in the necessary experience and insights once so assuredly thought. 
Truthfully, listening again brought out the music’s embarrassing side and the fact that at this early stage the band was willing to coast on sheer nerve instead of raw talent. But embarrassing is no crime (just ask any well adjusted grown-up fan of Misfits) and getting by on nerve instead of skill sounds like punk rock’s raison d’être. In summation, Violent Femmes is a flawed, somewhat overrated, platinum-selling classic. 
Curiously, the record by the band that instilled the most embarrassment, or discomfort, or misunderstanding, or even hostility in the decade of its release is the document that stands up best today. By around ’87 or so Hallowed Ground had been cast aside as a misfire by most and championed by a select few as a major step forward from a trio that had bigger ideas than just rewriting “Blister in the Sun” and “Add it Up” to consistently diminishing returns. 
I say that Hallowed Ground was embarrassing because even to an inexperienced kid from the sticks its opening track “Country Death Song” was impossible to not hear as minstrelsy. Gano may have been the son of a Baptist minister, but his background was far from the Wisconsin Death Trip-styled narrative the song presents; he most assuredly didn’t drown his daughter in a well. The themes plastered all over the first album were unsurprising and in retrospect rather predictable in how they engaged with the prurient. The disturbing in your face morbidity of “Country Death Song”’s role-play on the other hand could really inspire a spell of the fidgets. 
For many that sense of embarrassment easily grew into sustained discomfort, mainly due to tracks like “Jesus Walking on the Water” and album closer “It’s Gonna Rain.” These two examples of unabashed Christian gospel intent were certain to wreak havoc on the tender young Doubting Thomases that populated the Femmes’ legion of fans. That is, the ones who weren’t erroneously chalking it up to parody. But that’s a possible complication when choosing to open an album with an obvious child-murdering fiction; you run the risk of people getting the wrong idea. 
And this sense of potential misunderstanding is one of Hallowed Ground’s defining traits. It’s a record that shifts wildly in tone from track to track, and unlike their debut refuses to settle into one specific mode. Instead, “Country Death Song” summons the Old Weird America decades before it came into vogue (and features Tony Trischka on banjo), “Jesus Walking on the Water” exhumes the celebratory aura of the tent revival (complete with a solid fiddle solo from Gano), and “It’s Gonna Rain” plumbs into a more modern and polished strain of gospel, deftly blending elements from the Caucasian and African-American sides of the tradition. All of the above obviously left scads of listeners downright confused. 
The thing about confusion is that it often sours into hostility. On more than a few occasions did I suffer a cohort denigrating Hallowed Ground as a travesty, and once I even witnessed a cassette copy getting reprehensibly chucked out of a moving car window. What a foul litterbug. And what’s disturbing about this level of dislike is how the record actually includes a pair of tracks that extend and solidly improve upon the sensibility of Violent Femmes. 
The first is “Never Tell,” which takes the choppy atmosphere of the previous LP’s “Do the Kill” and hones it to near perfection. It shapes up as one of the finest examples of Gano’s ability to transform into a devastatingly effective front-man and also serves to pinpoint just how crackerjack these gents were as a band. And for that matter, so does the title cut, which opens with a little bit of Morrison-esque spoken word action, Gano hinting that he might just run roughshod and “petition the lord with pray-ah” before the band kicks in, and with piano lending increased musical fluency. 
Perhaps the problem was that the Femmes were interested in extension and not rehash. “I Know It’s True but I’m Sorry to Say” ends side one in a manner not dissimilar to Violent Femmes’ closing track “Good Feeling,” except it’s considerably less maudlin and a fair bit more grown up. “I Hear the Rain,” replete with Ritchie’s swell marimba manages to up the eerie ante on the preceding LP’s “Gone Daddy Gone,” and what the first disc’s “Please Do Not Go” did for doo-wop inflected street corner busking, “Sweet Misery Blues” does for slyly urbanite blues, inflected as it is with some sophisto clarinet tooting that might even get a small nod of approval from a stodgy old head like Woody Allen. But hey, don’t bet on it. 
“Black Girls” however sorta beckons as Hallowed Ground’s eternal centerpiece of the abandonment of the safety zone. Some folks these days like to champion it as a statement of political incorrectness, but I don’t hold much truck with that concept as I don’t think it was the Femmes’ intention. Instead it still seems like a highly legit topic for a brief bout of songic celebration and some unserious playground smack talk. Furthermore, it’s a grand way to get the skronky alto sax (and game calls!) of John Zorn (as part of the Horns of Dilemma) into the mix, and the track establishes for certain that Brian Ritchie plays a mean Jew’s harp. Just in case you were wondering. 
In 1986 came the lesser if not at all bad The Blind Leading the Naked and then a short hiatus. That same year saw the issue of Ritchie and DeLorenzo’s work with North Carolinian guitar master Eugene Chadbourne on the terrific Corpses of Foreign War LP, and Ritchie put out a bunch of interesting solo paraphernalia on the SST imprint back when it seemed that label was releasing ten albums a month. Before the decade had ended the band had reconvened, but to my ear most of the early spark had been lost as they quickly became an Alternative institution based almost wholly on a few songs from that first record. 
By my last year in high school I’d cozied up nice to the charms of Violent Femmes’ second slab. In fact, it combined with the oddball qualities of Camper Van Beethoven’s Telephone Free Landslide Victory as a double doorway out of the constraints of rock music’s overplayed tropes. But these days Hallowed Ground just sounds excellent, which is all a listener can fairly ask for.
Joseph Neff / Vinyl District