Snoop Doggy Dogg
Snoop Doggy Dogg raps the way Clint Eastwood acts--dryly but deeply. Snoop's a bit more talkative, but his mostly impassive overtones--punctuated by spasms of spontaneous combustion--are pure Dirty Harry.
The essence of Snoop's message is almost subliminal, derived as much from the stomach-turning tension of the long, hissing fuse as from the startling detonation. The impact of Snoop's disaffection is only as great as his potential for disaster: He depends on context. And it is context that is often missing from Snoop's long-awaited second solo album, Tha Doggfather.
More to the point, what's missing is Dr. Dre. The production genius left Death Row to start his own record label last spring, just after Snoop's acquittal in a two-and-a-half-year-old murder case. Bad timing. The collaboration between Snoop and Dre was one of the most dynamic and successful in popular music. It was Snoop's brushfire vocals on Dre's debut album, The Chronic, that cemented the producer's reputation--and sold three million copies. It was Dre's lushly ominous beats on Snoop's first solo album, Doggystyle, that established the Long Beach rapper as a hip-hop icon--and sold four million more.
Tha Doggfather is a production hodge-podge. Eight people spent time behind the mixing board, including Snoop himself. Some of them--DJ Pooh, Dat Nigga Daz, Priest "Soopafly" Brooks--are among the most talented on the West Coast. But none of them is the most talented--none of them is Dr. Dre. It would be unfair to condemn them for that, and it's laudable that each producer was clearly intent on being his own man. But Snoop's style isn't always well-served by the smorgasbord of approaches on Tha Doggfather. Too often there is too little contrast between his subtle intonations and the musically sparse tracks. Unlike his previous recordings, where Snoop's voice was carefully layered atop the mix, it frequently gets lost on this album. The lack of a single producer also deprives the record of a consistent, atmospheric theme.
Nonetheless, there is plenty to like about Tha Doggfather. Snoop's skills, among the finest in rap, are as sharp as ever. On a cut called "Freestyle Conversation," he shows he can keep up with the up-and-comers who arrived while he was on hiatus, delivering a stream-of-consciousness soliloquy with the efficiency of a snare drum. Snoop's themes can get a little repetitive: The odes to sexual prowess and ruthless violence have lost much of their shock value; we're more apt to roll our eyes than recoil in horror. And the invocations of Death Row's dominance don't ring quite so true in light of the label's recent troubles, from Dr. Dre's defection to Tupac Shakur's murder to CEO "Suge" Knight's incarceration.
But Snoop's lyrics foray off the beaten path often enough to keep us alert. Among his most valuable insights are an illumination of the seductive trap of gang life, his embrace of success over turf wars and his rejection of the violent aspects of rap's East Coast/West Coast rivalry. Then there is the subtle victory celebration of his highly publicized murder trial, when in the midst of the album's title track he pauses and says, "I ain't tryin' to floss, but murder was the case that they lost!"
But the best songs on Tha Doggfather are a couple of covers--"Snoop Upside Ya Head," a remake of the Gap Band hit complete with vocals by Charlie Wilson, and "Vapors," a spin on the where-were-you-when-I-was-down-and-out song by rapper Biz Markie. Like a mob boss out of exile, Snoop Doggy Dogg is back, but even though Tha Doggfather sometimes is inspired, it's rarely inspirational. If it falls short of fully restoring the authority and status that Snoop once enjoyed, it positions him to fight another day. Ultimately, it's less an epic drama than a spaghetti Western. Eastwood would understand.
Death Ride 69
Screaming Down the Gravity Well
East Side Militia
(Metal Blade/Fifth Colvm)
Beneath the Skin
There's a gathering host of upstart, independent industrial record labels in America ready to war with the heavy hitters. It won't be an easy fight, since labels like Metropolis, Ras Dva, Cleopatra and 21st Circuitry don't have huge promotional budgets or radio airplay (except on low-powered college stations). The small labels' primary "weapons" are their music, and it is by their music they will live or die.
Fifth Colvm is looking tough. If you like hard-edged, dancey industrial rock with strong female vocals, you won't be disappointed by Death Ride 69's second album, Screaming Down the Gravity Well. Death Ride is the brain child of "The Beatmistress," a.k.a. Linda LeSabre, who plays live percussion and sings in a style roughly similar to Exene Cervenka channeling the vocal richness of the B-52's and making it dangerous.
The album opens with "Needle," an anthemic dance powerhouse, with LeSabre exhorting you to "drop the needle and raise your fist." In "Fucked Up Generation," in which a bouncy, almost junglish programmed/live beat is sliced open by a rough metallic staccato synth line, the chant changes to "Steal it and live/Fuck it and kill . . . the choice of a fucked-up generation." And in the sultry-yet-threatening whisper/moan of the album's title track, LeSabre promises "I will have you/And I will take you/And I will fuck you . . ." Death Ride 69 knows how to temper raw anger with big, fat hooks, be they vocal or instrumental.
Screaming's not a perfect album: LeSabre's one-trick vocal style wears on you after a while, and the intensity and catchy power of the beginning and end of this disc notably lags in the middle. But most of the album is highly original, and the funky drum and wah-wah guitar shuffle of "Super Hot Sister 69" (featuring Thrill Kill Kult's Groovie Mann on co-lead vocals), coupled with the hook-laden, danceable gems listed above make it worthy of the purchase price.
The opposite is true for East Side Militia, the new release from much-hyped "coldwave" industrial dance darlings Chemlab. Militia suffers from, among other things, an affliction we'll call "Matthew Sweet/Black Crowes Syndrome." That's where you listen to a song by a "contemporary" rock artist and find yourself haunted by the nagging sensation that something in there--be it a chord progression, a vocal twist, a guitar riff, or all of the above--sounds just like its counterpart in some song by a 1970s "hard rock" band.
There are a few semipromising moments here: "Exile on Mainline," the album's lead cut, has a respectable dance beat, but the synth riffs are just too mellow and thin, and the thrash/metal guitar riffs just too garden variety. "Electric Molecular" is a KMFDM-style upbeat dance tune with dirty synth comping and smooth female backing vocals, and the dance remix of "Mainline," with its chattering, skipping synths, guitar samples and manic beatbox rattling, gets the blood pumping. But songs like "Vera Blue (96/69)" and "Pyromance" find the band worshiping at the altar of midtempo Blue Oyster Cult and Cheap Trick, a sad distance from anyone's definition of industrial.
The smart buyer will skip past East Side and get Beneath the Skin. Collide's debut full-length release is a multitextured, unexpectedly noisy goth/industrial blend that's really tasty. Yes, the trademark gentle-to-soaring, ethereal female vocals (a la Siouxsie and the Banshees and Switchblade Symphony) are here, courtesy of vocalist/lyricist KaRIN. But what sets Collide apart from the goth pack is the delightfully noisy sample, synth and beat collage work of Statik, the other half of the duo.
Highlights on the disc include the title track, a solid dance number with enough dissonant synthesizer squeals to fill the open spaces in the vocals. "Deep" is the obvious radio cut; good melody, strong hooks and just the right amount of exotic edginess to make it special. So what's not special here? Well, the lyrics fall into the standard affectations, tortured goth-kid mode: "Confined within/I walk the wire/On the ledge/No return." You get the idea.
But that's a minor quibble; this album is remarkable enough in its sheer musical beauty and originality to make up for any lyrical shortcomings. And Collide saves the best for last: At the end of the disc, as if to permanently cement the group's industrial credentials, we get two excellent, dancefloor-ready remixes of the album's strongest songs, "Deep" (done by Christ Analogue) and "Beneath the Skin," mixed by Cevin Key, late of Skinny Puppy.
The latter track will blow you away. Much of the song's original instrumentation is peeled off, and a totally sick, minimalist synth drum line propels KaRIN's singing into a foreign world: goth house! Collide will not only take you somewhere truly new, but also will offer a diagnostic tool for your health: If that last cut doesn't get you dancing, you'll know you're already dead.
About to Choke
Of all the things to say about Vic Chesnutt, the least important are the ones that usually get mentioned first. It's not insignificant that Chesnutt is partially paralyzed or that his boosters include R.E.M., Billy Corgan and Darius Rucker. But what really makes Chesnutt special is that he can't be reduced to a cliche (an example of triumph over tragedy) or a celebrity mascot.
If celebrity endorsements really paid off, Chesnutt would already be a star, since Michael Stipe has long been a champion and produced Chesnutt's 1990 debut Little. About to Choke is Chesnutt's fifth album, and it's not about to make him an MTV staple. Vic's too eccentric, too intensely personal for that. You can imagine him singing "Tarragon" on his Athens, Georgia, porch, swiping mosquitoes between verses. In fact, you could never imagine him living in that just-add-water suburb he sings about on "New Town," a place that reeks of new lumber and cheerful cops who have never made a collar.
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About to Choke is evenly split between songs that feature Vic on guitar or keyboards, with a rhythmic assist from his wife, Tina, and members of the New York band Agitpop. This gives the album a conic variety missing from some of Chesnutt's previous recordings. The finger-picking of "Swelters" is matched with "Ladle," which sounds like Vic fronting R.E.M., and the soaring chorus of "Degenerate," Chesnutt's singular take on dissolution ("I am a rough ball of twine").
Even when he's mostly by himself, Chesnutt stretches further than he's gone before. With its heavily distorted vocal and keyboards, "(It's No Secret) Satisfaction" is 62 seconds of industrial-strength Vic. Its one, barely recognizable lyric line is repeated three times: "Trapped in the flame in the nose of a tunnel." The song is followed by "Little Vacation," featuring walking bass, farting keyboards and a mouth-trumpet solo.
For the skeptic who finds this a little too arty, there's plenty of imagery sand-blasted to its essence: "Secret tequila shots and a patch of morphine/In the morning and in the throes/What a great day to come out of a coma/I've been in the hot seat, sweating it out." If Chesnutt did nothing but dwell on the car accident that nearly did him in 13 years ago, he couldn't live with himself, and neither could we. Fortunately, he's more obsessed with what's right or wrong about every day since then.