Think Different
Outside the Box with Kanye West and Joy Electric

Okay, I’m back.

Thank you for indulging my week off. I spent most of it glued to CNN, watching the amazing devastation in Louisiana and the jaw-dropping ineptitude of the relief efforts. I know I’m not running a political blog here, but I found that I did have something to say about the events of last week after all, and you can find it in the archive if you want to. If not, I understand completely.

Anyway, the extra week gave me time to polish up the column I’d already written, and I think it’s a better one now. Here it is, buffed up and shiny and ready for the spotlight. Thanks again, and I’ll be back with all new stuff next week, and every week hereafter.

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And now for something completely different.

When I go to the record store, that’s often what I’m looking for – something completely different. That’s why I buy all kinds of albums, from jazz to orchestral to choral to anything else, even though I don’t usually write about them in this space. I can’t listen to the same sounds for very long. If I immerse myself in an hour-long album with guitars, bass and drums, I need to put on something with a string section or an army of synthesizers afterwards. It’s one reason I could barely get through the Misfits box set.

Here’s a confession for you – lately I have grown pretty sick of guitars. Well, not really. I should say I have grown sick of guitars that sound like guitars, if that makes any sense. The whole “here is my drum beat, here is my riff, here is the moment when the bass, drums and guitar all hit the downbeat,” you know? The rock thing. I’m sick of it. I’ve been listening to OK Computer again, and I’m amazed at how infrequently the guitars on that record sound like guitars.

I’m also perplexed as to why, with the infinite variety of sounds available, 90 percent of bands and artists stick with the basic four-piece rock band thing. I have a lengthy history of being satisfied with that if the songs are good, and some of my favorite albums of the year stay within those parameters, but the best records, I think, are ones that make use of what’s available. I hate to keep bringing up Sufjan Stevens, but just listen to the panoply of sounds he’s conjured on Illinois – strings, horns, pianos, banjos, drones, all manner of voices. I like the Foo Fighters, but Sufjan makes them sound like they’re asleep at the wheel.

Similarly, I can’t stand most rap, because it’s lazy. Take a canned 4/4 beat, add a sample, rhyme over it about your bitches, cars and money, and you’re done. No variation in style or sound, just calculated simplicity. And if the focus is supposed to be on the lyrics, then why are they uniformly uninteresting? There are rap outfits like De La Soul (still going!) and the Roots that try to break out of the rut, but as of yet, no one has released a rap record that takes full advantage of sound and scope. There is, in short, no hip-hop Pet Sounds, no elaborate masterpiece that raises the bar.

If I were to nominate one, though, I would probably name Late Registration, the second album from Kanye West. In a lot of ways, West is his own worst enemy – no one could possibly be as good as West thinks he is, which would be fine if he’d shut up about it. He’s his own maelstrom of hype, and often what he says gets more attention than the music he makes. Just last week, his “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” comment made headlines, and very few of the people who fell all over that story are talking about what an achievement Late Registration is.

This album, despite its lame title, is so far ahead of the rap mainstream that it’s coming around for a second lap and ready to pass it again. It is the first rap album since OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below to accelerate the artform – though, to be fair, there are very few rock, folk or pop albums that accelerate their respective artforms, either. But the genius of West’s album is that, unlike OutKast, he doesn’t abandon rap for other forms of music, he brings other forms of music to rap. Late Registration builds on rap music the way the Beatles built on pop – they brought in blues and cabaret and Eastern influences, but never abandoned their pop and rock roots.

West made a lot of fascinating moves on this record, but perhaps the most inspired one was enlisting Jon Brion as co-producer. Before Late Registration, Brion had exactly no rap experience. He’s a former member of the Grays, and has produced the likes of Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann. He’s also written scores for films like Punch-Drunk Love and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Brion has a reputation for chamber-pop played with odd, vintage instruments, and he’s part of a collective of Los Angeles-area musicians that revel in low-key, melodic melancholia.

So he’s not the first person I’d have thought of to produce West’s follow-up to the mildly overrated The College Dropout, but the pairing turns out to be miraculous. West lets Brion do his thing – he plays dozens of instruments, arranges strings and horns, and fills every second of these songs with fascinating, glorious sound. West is likely responsible for most of the beats and samples, but it’s a testament to the unlikely match-up here that you can’t tell where West’s work ends and Brion’s begins. It’s a total collaboration, and it’s unlike anything I’ve heard.

Late Registration is about bringing diverse elements together, and with that in mind, the list of collaborators includes the usual suspects, like Common and Cam’Ron, but also Adam Levine of Maroon 5, and Jamie Foxx. (The latter does his Ray Charles impression on “Gold Digger,” augmenting a sample of the real deal.) He even enlists both Jay-Z and Nas, the famously feuding emcees, on adjacent tracks, and it’s debatable which one got the better song to rap over.

While the record starts strong, and there isn’t a weak track to be found, it ends even stronger. West and Brion save their finest work for the last five songs, a stretch that includes “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” a furious track that draws a line through the drug trade to the music business. “We Major” is a tour de force, a seven-minute groove that erupts with horns and strings, but even more effective is “Hey Mama,” a tender ode set to a sweet beat and a cavalcade of beautifully arranged voices. The album concludes with “Gone,” featuring perhaps Brion’s best string arrangement here – cellos wobble in place of bass notes, violins swoop and dive, and the whole thing works like magic.

I will always be more interested in rap for the music, rather than the lyrics, but West doesn’t disappoint with his words here either. He equates selling CDs with selling drugs in “Crack Music,” a fascinating comparison, and takes on his personal compulsions in “Addiction.” Nothing here is on the level of some of his contemporaries, like Common, but he steers clear of the usual guns and pimps and Bentleys that populate too much of modern rap. West is constantly trying new things on Late Registration, and even when his lyrics fall short, at least you can hear him attempting to innovate, instead of purposely stagnating.

I feel bad for the multitude of hip-hop producers who will have to measure up to Late Registration – West and Brion have made the whole of contemporary rap sound like the walking dead. Similarly, I feel bad for West, who will have to top this next time out. I count it a success if a rap album doesn’t make me want to shut it off after 20 minutes. With this astoundingly imaginative record, Kanye West kept me enthralled from first track to last. I don’t make Beatles and Brian Wilson comparisons lightly – Late Registration is the hip-hop Pet Sounds, the rap Revolver. It may not be as good as West thinks it is, but it is damn near terrific.

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“Something completely different” could easily be the motto for Joy Electric, one of the most idiosyncratic and misunderstood bands I’m aware of.

I wrote a lengthy column about Joy E last year, so I’ll summarize quickly: Joy Electric is Ronnie Martin, singer and songwriter. He composes melodic pop songs, ones that would not sound out of place on the radio, were he to perform them with guitars, bass and drums. Instead, Martin arranges these songs for vintage analog synthesizers. The result is often described as video game music with hooks, which overlooks the works of classic synth-pop pioneers like Gary Numan and Kraftwerk. It’s from this tradition that Martin draws, but he does it better and with more commitment to pure sound than anyone else.

Martin’s music is so singular that it almost makes no sense to compare it to anything but itself. One could say that, yes, this stuff is different from anything on the radio, and expand on that, but all of Joy Electric’s 17 releases are different from anything on the radio in the same ways. The truth is that even within his pocket universe of knobs and wires, Martin has developed a widely diverse catalog, pushing himself at every turn to deliver something different each time out.

Last time, he made a masterpiece – a minimalist, punky wonder called Hello, Mannequin. It was the third volume of what he’s calling his Legacy series, and so far, the sequence is living up to its lofty title. The three Legacy albums have varied in tone and complexity, but all of them stand head and shoulders above Martin’s previous work. Beginning with 2001’s The White Songbook, Martin took his signature sound and exploded it, adding progressive rock influences and an intensity absent from his earlier, poppier efforts.

And now here’s The Ministry of Archers, the fourth Legacy volume, and easily the prickliest and most difficult of the bunch. Where Mannequin was a fully realized, relatively welcoming collection of pop songs, Archers is an abrasive, complex suite that stands with folded arms, daring you to unravel it. At first glance, it seems underwhelming – 10 songs, three of which are instrumentals, in a mere 32 minutes. But keep listening, because Archers slowly reveals itself as a daring experiment gone wonderfully right.

The first thing longtime Joy E fans will notice about Archers is the thick, menacing sound. Martin bought himself a Moog synthesizer, coincidentally releasing this first album featuring it in the same month as the death of the instrument’s founder, Dr. Robert Moog. Martin has used the instrument here to add chunky, wavery bass lines and piercing synth leads, and an overall sense of creeping darkness. Archers is the album that finally turns the Joy in Joy Electric completely ironic – there is very little hope to be found on this record, musically or lyrically.

There is, however, a phenomenal variety of tone and texture, as if Martin perceives a rut and is railing against it. The prog-rock overtones of The White Songbook are here, with synth lines snaking in and around the melodies, but they’re met with noise-solo detonations and some of Martin’s wildest playing. They’re also supporting some of his most inscrutable songs, many of which, for the first time, seem tailor-made for their synthesizer arrangements. The three instrumentals, of course, could not have been played any other way, but the piledriver “A Hatchet, A Hatchet” masterfully navigates its dynamics with cluster-bomb drums, and even a mid-tempo pop song like “Quite Quieter than Spiders” shimmers on its shaky synth groove.

It’s the closer, “Can You Refrain,” that provides the biggest surprise. Here, for what I believe is the first time in 10 years, is a repeating drum machine pattern on a Joy E song, supporting a keyboard figure that sounds like 1980s Doctor Who music. Here also is an extended jam coda full of oscillating dissonance, rounding off a pounding beast of a melody. Martin even makes his breathy quiver of a voice sound threatening: “Unable to socialize, sleep deprived, sloping countenance…” It’s a pretty amazing finish to a slow-build of an album, one that sounds transitional yet somehow fully formed.

Joy Electric is certainly not for everyone, but the musically adventurous should find much to love here. Martin continues to expand and grow the Joy E sound, and he’s restlessly creative – he’s already written all the songs for his next album, tentatively called The Memory of Alpha, and he has a new EP ready for release in November. I said this before, and I’ll likely say it again – there is no one I’m aware of who is making the kind of music Ronnie Martin is making. He’s in a class of one, the best there is at what he does, and even still, he’s never satisfied. He keeps exploring and refining, taking his sound to new places. Martin is something completely different, and that’s exactly what I’m looking for.

Go here to try and buy.

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Next week, the age-old Beatles vs. Stones debate continues.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

When the Levee Breaks
Or, Don't Blame Me, I Voted for Kodos

I am a pretty emotional person.

I wanted to say that right up front, because this is probably not going to be as measured a response to Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath as it could be. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to say yet, but I’m offering fair warning that it might turn into a rant. If you measure this in death toll and sheer size of the area affected, the disaster on the gulf coast is much larger than 9/11, but unlike that catastrophe, I don’t personally know anyone who lost someone last week. So my response to this is really limited to what I read and what I see on television. Anyone who wants to disregard my thoughts on those grounds is more than justified.

But here is what I’m thinking.

We are, as a country, in worse shape than I thought we were.

It’s been four years since Islamic extremist terrorists crashed two planes into two buildings in New York, four years since President George W. Bush was granted enormous power and freedom to launch his homeland security initiatives. And as we, the voters, handed over the keys, we gave him one mandate: make us safer. Some of us were even willing to give up and renounce some of our most basic American freedoms for this cause. In the days and weeks after 9/11, a shattered and broken America pleaded with the guy in charge. Make us safer.

Four years later, I’m not even sure they know what “make us safer” means. Part of becoming safer, I think, revolves around actually having a plan in case of emergencies, and executing it with the precision we should expect from the greatest nation on Earth. Imagine, for just a second, that Al Qaeda decided to blow up the levees in New Orleans. The resulting devastation in that city would have been pretty much the same. The only difference between that and what happened is that Hurricane Katrina let us know she was coming, a week or two in advance.

And we still had no plan.

Thousands of people died, many of them unable to leave their homes. What evacuation efforts did take place found thousands more people packed into the Superdome, with no food, no water, no medical supplies and no promise of escape. Anarchy descended on the region, in the absence of authority figures. I heard tales of people being turned away at the bridges, or lied to about phantom rescuers. I also heard plenty of stories of looting, and of victims turning their firearms on rescue helicopters and hospital vehicles, which makes no sense at all to me.

The pictures coming in from New Orleans last week could have been from the Sudan, so desperate were the images. It was heartbreaking. The hurricane hit Monday morning. Through Thursday, the question remained unanswered: where the hell is everyone? Why aren’t they coming with food, with medicine, with a way out?

There’s plenty of blame to go around, and some of it has to land on New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, who called for an evacuation with no coherent plan to carry it out. Some of it has to land on Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, who supported said evacuation without, seemingly, assisting with its execution in any way. But in my world, being the top guy means you have to take the responsibility when things go wrong, and that’s why I think the lion’s share of the anger, recrimination and resentment must be directed at our president and his gang of idiots, who dropped the ball so completely that it was shameful.

Where the hell is everyone? I can tell you where our president was on Monday and Tuesday as thousands of people were dying. He was on his vacation. Week five of his vacation, to be precise. I can also tell you where our secretary of state, Condoleeza Rice, was on Wednesday night. She was on Broadway, taking in a show. On Thursday, as Ray Nagin was giving his famous radio rant excoriating the federal government for its slow response, Rice was shopping for expensive shoes. What I can’t tell you is where our vice president, Dick Cheney, was. I don’t know. Last I heard, he was on vacation, too.

Some of you are writing this off already as a partisan rant. It isn’t. This isn’t about left and right, it’s about complete failure of leadership. I’d be saying the same things if Kerry had won last year, and if his response to this crisis was as lackadaisical and careless as Bush’s has been. I personally don’t think it would have been – Kerry, at the very least, would have been able, through sheer presence and articulation, to appear concerned and on top of the situation, something that eluded Bush throughout this crisis. Bush is approaching the aftermath of Katrina like a public relations problem, not a national emergency.

Seriously, take a minute and read this.

It’s from a leftist website, true enough, but everything there is sourced and linked. It even points out something that not a lot of people are talking about – the very moment when Katrina and her aftermath became the federal government’s problem. That would be Saturday. That’s right, Bush, DHS and FEMA took complete responsibility for mobilizing aid to New Orleans two days before the hurricane hit.

But that can’t be, you’re saying. I’ve heard FEMA head Michael Brown, and DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay blaming the local governments for not asking for assistance earlier. You’re right, they have been saying that. And they’re wrong, plain and simple. The local government should have had a plan in place, but at least Nagin and Blanco knew they couldn’t handle the situation, and they asked for help. And they received a federal promise.

On Saturday the 26th.

You’ve also, no doubt, heard Chertoff and Brown expressing surprise at the size and the effects of the storm, saying that no one could have known what would happen. No one could have foreseen the levees overflowing, the flood walls breaking. This is patently untrue. For one thing, Nagin and Blanco seemed to have foreseen it, because they ordered the evacuation. The National Hurricane Center knew about it, too, and they told Bush, Brown and Chertoff. And you know, that’s kind of what experts are for – to tell you that these things might, and probably will, happen. It helps if you listen to them.

But Brown and Chertoff seemed thoroughly oblivious through this whole thing. Brown said he only learned about the evacuees in the Superdome on Thursday, after they’d been there for three days. I knew about it before the head of FEMA, and I found out by switching on CNN. That scares me, that I can find out about a national emergency situation from Wolf Blitzer before Michael Brown hears about it. Where the hell was he?

But the complete lack of a coordinated response doesn’t bother me nearly as much as our beloved administration’s refusal to accept an iota of responsibility. On Friday, Bush flew into Louisiana for a series of photo ops, shutting down the airport from which food and water was being delivered. It was then that he delivered his famous speech about Trent Lott’s house, and said that Michael Brown was “doing a heck of a job.” He also seemed as defensive and cavalier as always, betraying no sense that he understood or felt the scope of the disaster.

Soon after that, the effort to blame the locals kicked into gear, with the administration blithely glossing over a couple of big facts: Blanco called for and received a state of emergency on Saturday, and much of the national guard needed for a rescue effort in New Orleans now resides in Afghanistan and Iraq. There is no doubt that more could have been done over the last 20 years to strengthen the flood walls and fortify the levees in New Orleans. There is also no doubt that once the storm breached those walls and levees, none of that mattered.

Or it shouldn’t matter, to an adult. But then again, the adult thing to do last week would have been to stay on top of the situation and offer well-coordinated aid. Failing that, the adult thing to do would have been to admit it, come clean, say “I screwed up, America, and I’m sorry.” But the finger-pointing and name-calling have all but drowned out any contrition that may have existed. Meanwhile, the bungling continues – a thousand or so volunteer firefighters and rescue workers have responded to FEMA’s call, and they’re sitting in a convention center in Atlanta, learning how to hand out flyers and getting sexual harassment training. Seriously.

The name-calling is happening on both sides, too. I can’t think of a single emergency situation that Jesse Jackson has ever made better, but there he is, throwing around charges of racism. I think all of the talk about race and economics is largely a red herring – with no evacuation plan in place, of course the poorest residents were the ones who couldn’t get out, and that a vast majority of them happen to be black is beside the point. I agree with Kanye West that George Bush doesn’t care about black people, in that I think George Bush doesn’t care about anyone besides himself and his buddies, but I also think that making race the focus of this issue diverts from the more serious charge of dangerous incompetence.

Bush is incompetent. Chertoff is incompetent. Brown is incompetent. And what’s worse, they don’t seem to care that they’re incompetent, and they blame everyone else for their own catastrophic blunders. With that attitude, there is no way any of them will be able to keep Bush’s promise, given four years ago this month, to make us safer. Thousands of people died, and they’re more worried about covering each other’s backs. It’s shameful.

I believe in leading by example, even when one isn’t in a position of leadership. I’m just a guy, a regular voter who pays his taxes and plies his trade. But I’m willing to take up my share of the responsibility here. Thousands of people died, and I let them down.

We let them down.

By electing this administration, and turning a blind eye to their incompetence and their shell games, we made a bad situation worse. By not holding their feet to the fire and demanding accountability from them, we exacerbated the situation. When the time came for decisive action, Bush failed spectacularly, but he wouldn’t have been able to fail if we’d refused to re-elect him, or at least kept a close, watchful, discriminating eye on his administration. It’s our fault.

And only we can make up for it.

See you in line Tuesday morning.