The Gray Race
In light of two decades of pithy punk sloganeering, in which the naked expression of rage is usually regarded as a substitute for logic, the eloquence of Greg Graffin has often been lauded as a much-needed voice of intelligence. As co-founder of SoCal punk stalwarts Bad Religion (and, in his spare time, a doctoral candidate who's writing a dissertation on the evolution of vertebrates), Graffin has been credited with offering a new standard by which to measure the rants of his less-erudite peers.
The Gray Race, Bad Religion's first album since the departure of co-lyricist Brett Gurewitz, gives ample voice to Graffin's brain-bending tendencies--perhaps a little too ample. Freed from the constraints of Gurewitz's earthier foil, Graffin flexes his formidable vocabulary. Unfortunately, this is a punk-rock recording, not the verbal section of the GREs, and Graffin proves himself to be far more clever with words than ideas. Would-be bons mots like "charity has a redolence chastity cannot rescind" (from "Spirit Shine") tickle the tongue but ultimately ring hollow, no matter how earnest the delivery.
Worse yet, by cloaking his populist message--which, over 15 tracks, boils down to: We're all tools of an increasingly dehumanizing society run by evil corporate conglomerates and an indifferent government, but if we'd just start thinking for ourselves and stand together, we could be free--in impenetrable academic-speak, Graffin unwittingly detaches himself from the ideology he's espousing. He may purport to speak for the people, but he's also putting words into their mouths. After chewing on the opening lines of "Them and Us" ("Despite that he saw blatant similarity/He struggled to find a distinctive moiety"), one wishes Graffin would throw in a few well-placed "Oi!"s for emotional ballast, particularly when he renders himself marble-mouthed trying to cram his wordy missives into the loud, fast song structures on this album.
Perhaps in reaction to 1994's generally languid Stranger Than Fiction, The Gray Race leans hard on the musical idiom of old-school punk. And, to his credit, Graffin does make eventual strides to marry his message to its medium. As if he suddenly realized that it's difficult to maintain righteous anger when you have to consult your dictionary on every third measure, Graffin tones down the lingual fireworks for the latter half of the album, infusing "Drunk Sincerity" and "Cease" with a welcome directness.
If Graffin is as bright a guy as he's made out to be, he'll pick up on the lesson to be learned from these last three tracks: namely, that an ounce of true communication is worth a pound of polysyllabic pabulum. Class dismissed.
Honky Tonk Amnesia
(Razor & Tie)
For those of you who were lucky enough not to be listening to country radio in the early '70s, Moe Bandy's hard-drinking, rough-and-tumble songcraft may register today as a simple pleasure. But set against the string-smothered backdrop of the countrypolitan sound that dominated country radio in the Vietnam era, the rough-edged traditionalism of Bandy's smoke-slicing fiddle and wry vocals bordered on revolutionary.
Bandy parlayed a lifelong love of dim lights, thick smoke and loud-as-hell George Jones music into a breathless race against Charlie Rich and the Outlaw gang for the top of the country charts in the mid- to late '70s. Fronting a tight, Texas-hewn honky-tonk band, the San Antonio singer cut right through the bullshit of Nashville glitz with tough-talking tunes like "Hank Williams, You Wrote My Life," "Honky Tonk Amnesia" and "Don't Anyone Make Love at Home Anymore," firing an incendiary musical salvo in the general direction of Owen Bradley and the schmaltzmeisters.
Razor & Tie's retrospective Honky Tonk Amnesia thankfully cuts off before Moe moved to poppier fields in the mid-'80s. This collection avoids his posturing duets with Joe Stampley and focuses instead on the crisp GRC and Columbia tracks which stand out in hindsight as onetime oases in a barren country desert.--Kevin Roe
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Massive Attack vs. Mad Professor
For as good an explanation as you'll get of what makes for excellent dub music, try this experiment at home. You will need the following materials: a CD player with a multidisc changer; Massive Attack's 1994 trip-hop classic Protection; and the recently released dub remix version of that recording, No Protection. Here's the procedure: Put Protection in the first slot of your changer, and No Protection in the second. Then play both discs in spiral rotation (first track from both, then second track from both, and so on).
Observations: You'll start with Protection's title track, a languid acid-funk groove with siren vocals by Everything but the Girl's Tracey Thorn, then move directly to No Protection's "Radiation Ruling the Nation," a mix that retains the basic beat and underlying keyboard wash of "Protection" but reconfigures the song's other elements into a barely recognizable but equally captivating variation. Such is the studio wizardry of Mad Professor, London's prodigious godfather of dub. He chops the source material into bits that are then dropped out, accentuated, shuffled, drenched in reverb or simply turned inside out until the original songs disappear and in their place comes a series of reborn textual soundscapes. So it goes as the originals and their reworkings alternate from your speakers.
Educational purposes aside, this juxtapositional listening technique is the best way to hear these two albums at any time. It's a matter of symbiosis: Protection offers the songs, then No Protection comments on them, brilliantly, pointing out all the obscured details--the most minute rings and beeps, the subtlest bass loops. Likewise, Protection provides the context to fully appreciate the Mad Professor's inspired tinkerings.--Roni Sarig