The Throne We Should Be Watching

When did KRS-One join the witness protection program?

Have you seen this man? KRS-One is still on point.

He didn’t. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: he’s actually put out seven really good albums over the last five years alone. And yet it feels like he’s disappeared right out there in the open. You would think with so many people lamenting the alleged Death of Hip-Hop that a legend like KRS-One would get recognized for dropping a few instant classics over the last several years.

Music bloggers and casual rap fans wait with bated breath any time Kanye West puts out an album and declare the last and next Roots album a classic and wish to the heavens that OutKast will some day make another album. People are losing their minds waiting for Dr. Dre to finish Detox, the album he’s supposedly been working on for almost 10 years. And yet there’s KRS the Teacha, a unanimous “Greatest of All Time” on everyone’s shortlist no matter the criteria, and he’s not just still alive, or still recording… he’s making some of his strongest albums ever.

Don’t believe me? Go listen to Survival Skills, the 2009 album he made with Buckshot. This is easily my favorite hip-hop record of the last five years. If you click away from this article considering buying one album, it should be this one. It’s just a perfect storm of quality beats/production with the solid 1-2 punch of Kris and Buckshot on the mic.

Still not convinced? Did you know he made an album with Wu-Tang production disciple True Master in 2010? Picture KRS-One doing his metaphysical lyrical lectures over that grimy sound you’d expect from a producer off the RZA tree.

And that’s not all.

Let’s actually rewind and take it back to 2008, when Maximum Strength sounded like KRS-One was still capable of making the classic banger he hadn’t made in over a decade. Following his 90’s peak (his self-titled 1995 album), I Got Next (1997) was a hit but also signaled the beginning of the end. He’d go four years before releasing his next album, the decent but uneven Sneak Attack. The rest of the 2000’s saw a string of 10 lackluster albums that only hinted at his true genius (it’s hard to even fact check; his official discography differs from site to site, adding to this whole witness protection mystery). That’s right, approximately 10 albums from 2001 to 2007 (and those are the ones I’m discarding as mediocre).

So 2008’s Maximum Strength comes out and it’s pretty slammin. Kris sounds sharp, he’s chosen some decent beats. OK, cool. This is probably the weakest of this recent run, but it seemed to signal a shift in the right direction.

KRS-One: Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone.

The following year is when the aforementioned Survival Skills dropped, kicking off a run of collaboration albums that have all been straight fire. It’s one thing for Jay-Z and Kanye to pair up and make one great album (Watch the Throne), or for a legend like Eminem to team up with a lesser-known but respected MC like Royce da 5’9” (Bad Meets Evil: Hell the Sequel ). But KRS-One has now made FOUR such albums over the last four years:  Survival Skills with Buckshot (2009), Meta-Historical with True Master (2010), Godsville with Showbiz (2011), and the absolute ass-kicking Royalty Check with Bumpy Knuckles (2011). [That doesn’t even count the 2007 album he made with Marly Marl, Hip-Hop Lives, cuz I haven’t heard it.]

On top of all that, he also managed to release a solo EP, Back to the L.A.B. in 2010, six hard classic-sounding tracks from the Blastmaster. Fittingly, “L.A.B.” stands for Lyrical Ass Beating, and Kris delivers yet again. This one is definitely a standout among this recent run.

And oh by the way, in January of 2012 he put out The BDP Album with his brother Kenny Parker handling the production. Spoiler alert: this one is really good too. Score it as a solo record, a collaboration, or the first new “BDP” album in a generation, I don’t know. At this point I’m as confused by the details of what’s come out as I am baffled by the fact that all these amazing albums have been largely ignored by the mainstream.

He comes off as confident as ever, and yet he still sounds hungry. The verbal gymnastics are one thing, of course KRS can bring the delivery and work the wordplay on the mic, but the depth and longevity of this man is nothing short of incredible. At the risk of overstating it, it’s an embarrassment of riches. If he was quietly dropping duds and had lost his skills, turned into Jordan-on-the-Wizards without the fanfare, it might make sense. But this is a legendary pioneer, one of the best ever to rock a mic, seemingly at the peak of his powers, and no one’s noticing.

I realize that young guns and one-hit wonders will always be at the forefront of popular culture, especially in hip-hop, and maybe all the awards shows, all-star games, and late-night TV shows have all begged KRS-One to come on and he’s said no. I don’t know. He’s never really played ball with the big record labels, but “going indie” doesn’t (and shouldn’t) disappear an artist the way it may have back in the day.

So why is he practically invisible despite being an undisputed legend doing some of his best work? Don’t we usually celebrate the Jay-Zs and Eminems of the world when they drop a great album? Isn’t that part of why we mark every anniversary of the tragic murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls? Cuz we wonder what might have been, shaking our heads in the silence of their never-recorded classics.

Does KRS-One just choose to operate in the shadows, as he probably did all those years ago as a teenage graffiti artist in the Bronx? Is it simply a matter of the cliché about people not wanting to hear The Hard Truth? Is he too anti-establishment, too spiritual? Maybe. But, just as happened with his Stop The Violence Movement in 1989, once again a positive message in hip-hop is ignored (squashed?) while bling, beef, and bullet holes make the headlines.

Seems unfair; a cultural injustice. If only there were more witnesses.

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Heavy Lifting: Handling Van Halen’s New Truth

David Lee Roth has often quipped that Van Halen, and liking Van Halen, was never “cool.” Then again, Dave would probably be the first one to tell you that most of what he spouts is bullshit anyway.

I am firmly in the camp that finds The Mighty Van Halen to be very fucking cool. Not sure what that makes me, other than an impressionable young rock music fan seeing them live in 1982, when I was 12 and they were peaking and about to jump to the top of the pop stratosphere a couple years later. I was obviously doomed and blessed to be locked in as Van Halen fan for life.

There’s probably a whole nation of VH fans who’ve been chased into the wilderness once the Van Hagar experience ran it’s course after two decent albums (and two weak ones) and Gary “the guy from Extreme” Cherone fronted a limping shell of the band to make the tree-fell-in-the-woods album III. For about a decade, most of us forgot about the reclusive Eddie Van Halen, former guitar virtuoso battling cancer, alcoholism, and his bands’ failed half-assed greatest hits re-packages and reunion tours with Sammy (in 2004) and Dave (2007-08, a more successful outing).

Amazingly, Eddie beat both cancer and alcoholism. And while Diamond Dave was back in the fold, former bassist Michael Anthony had been replaced by Van Halen’s son Wolfgang. Of course some die-hard fans still cling to this notion that it’s “not the real original Van Halen without Michael Anthony and his signature high harmonies,” and that is true, no disrespect to Michael Anthony, but most of these people are just saying that so you know that they are big Van Halen fans who know the name of the fourth guy and don’t call him Mark Anthony. Fact is, Wolfie Van Halen rocks the bass just fine (and being the bassist for Van Halen is not exactly the Rocket Science assignment among legendary rock bands).

So given that backdrop, my excitement at the news of a new studio album was tempered with understandably low expectations. I was glad they were coming back, but really figured the album would likely suck. I wish I could just tell noted Van Halen fan and author/columnist Chuck Klosterman to stop worrying and love the new album, but I do get what he means when he writes “Going into A Different Kind of Truth, I unconsciously suspected my takeaway would be, This is a bad album, but I love it nonetheless. My actual sentiment is closer to, This is a good album, but I just don’t like it, no matter how much I try.”

My version of the backhanded compliment goes more like this: “I am so shocked that this album isn’t horrible.” But that initial reaction was quickly replaced, as the album legitimately rocks. Hard. One of those rare instances where I love it on first listen and it grows on me and gets better.  Oddly enough the only dud is track one, the lead single “Tattoo,” a bland and forgettable mid-tempo song that feels out of place among the heavy jams that fill the rest of the album.

There are double-time metal workouts like “China Town,” “Outta Space,” and “Bullethead.” Other songs like “Blood and Fire” and “Beats Workin” have that signature “bounce” of their catchiest material from Diver Down, but most of it is as heavy as Fair Warning. “You and Your Blues” is the only one that almost sounds like it could fit in on one of those first two (good) albums they made with Sammy Hagar. But it all sounds like classic Van Halen. Much has been written that this album “isn’t new” or that it’s all just old demos. Yes, about 5-6 songs came from old riffs from their 70’s demos. But Eddie and the guys have been mining that stuff for years. Other tracks from those sessions popped up on Fair Warning and even as late as 1984.

While “Stay Frosty” might have flopped for being such an obvious sequel of sorts to “Ice Cream Man” from the first album, it’s saved by what always saves Van Halen: once it again it fucking rocks! (There’s no Magic Music Blogger words to reach for here, so I’m just letting my early teenage Van-Halen-loving self write this one.)

The album lacks a crazy signature Alex moment on drums, but he is solid and thunderous throughout, with plenty of groove. “As Is” and “Honeybabysweetiedoll” are badass funky songs that anchor the middle at tracks 7 and 8. At one point you hear a dog bark in the background, and that’s always cool.

Not that different.

I’m not really loving the awkward title A Different Kind of Truth, or that Commodores-biting train picture on the cover. (Really guys? One of the greatest logos in rock history to work with and you came up with that?) They should have gone with Blood and Fire, with the classice VH logo both in flames and dripping in blood. (Told you a 14-year-old was writing this).

As for the fire, Eddie sounds as hot, fresh and fluid as ever. The infamous “tone,” the crunchy riffs (whether culled from old demos or new), the furious solos… as you’ve likely read elsewhere, Eddie Van Halen really is back. As for the blood, apparently much of the credit for Eddie’s inspiration and motivation goes to his desire to play with Wolfgang. His mom, actress Valerie Bertinelli, recently told a radio station that there probably wouldn’t be a tour or new album if not for Eddie being able to do this with his son. Pretty cool.

Again, for a guy who’s famously had a third of his tongue remove because of mouth cancer, who’s had a hip replacement, has won a longtime battle to get sober…. and now he’s gonna work with his historic nemesis David Lee Roth on a new album?

Blood and Fire: Wolfgang Van Halen rocking out with dad and Uncle Alex.

Before you say it’s just a money grab, consider this: apparently the band said “No” to David Letterman, Howard Stern, the cover of Rolling Stone, and probably a host of other media offers. Why? In 2012, you’d think an aging reunited band would kill for that type of coverage and exposure. They also took what fans and critics have universally panned as the worst song, “Tattoo,” and made that the advanced single. I don’t understand any of this approach, especially considering how good the album is…

The only drawback to mention, is Mr. Diamond Dave himself. Lyrics never mattered too much in this band, and most of his lines are worthy of boardwalk-shirt or bumper-sticker philosophy. While he generally sounds great (he doesn’t push anything too far or high on the record), there’s this…. creepiness about him that has always been there under his circus act, but now he’s pushing 60. And it seems like 10 out of the 13 songs have some cool musical breakdown with weird Uncle Dave making low-voiced whispered advances on your sister. I know he’s the master of the breakdown, it’s just a little too much on this album.

But the power trio that shares the Van Halen name are consistently tight and flat-out jamming hard enough that it’s easy to ignore Dave’s short comings while still relishing in the fact that Van Halen finally came back and made a great Van Halen album. Did anyone think that would happen? For some reason I kinda doubt that they’ll ever make another studio album.

And that’s cool.

Saying Hello to Goodbye

Special to Bums Logic:  Guest columnist Mike Short on the beauty and impact of Steve Earle’s song “Goodbye,” recorded by Emmylou Harris.

Alternative country music is extraordinarily difficult to define. Musical labels can be meaningless and irrelevant at the best of times: after all is said and done, it is about the song. If they are used to pigeon-hole artists, then these generic labels go beyond that – listeners are effectively putting their favourite artists in musical straight-jackets, and setting themselves up for disappointment. But as long as no insurmountable barriers, masquerading as objective arbiters of truth, are erected, then the use of the term ‘alt-country’ as a loose guide, backed up by pertinent example and suggestion, can open up an enriched study of some of the highlights of modern American music.

As an example, let’s think about one particular recording of a specific song – one which, as I grew increasingly obsessed by alternative country, became my favourite song. The subjectivity of this choice of song is highlighted by the year of its release. Emmylou Harris released her album Wrecking Ball in 1995, by which time some of the other landmark alt-country bands had taken shape, made their seminal albums, and in the case of Uncle Tupelo, disbanded. How, then, can one song from this album, “Goodbye,” be considered an inspiration for a musical movement? Surely temporal realities put paid to any claims of significance the song may have? Well, to an extent this argument is magnetic and unanswerable. But the truth is somewhat deeper. Countless albums throughout the history of popular music could have founded a genre. As it turned out (and hindsight is a wonderful thing), some did and some didn’t. What brings a small number of isolated musical coincidences together and helps bring about some sort of loose coalition is a mysterious process. It may be down to overlapping personnel or social change. But in the case of alt-country, the song “Goodbye” at least represented, and even encouraged, the growth and coalescence of alternative country as some kind of organic phenomenon.

Steve Earle’s presence on this recording is no accident, and it is certainly not another celebrity guest spot, adding little but an interesting name on the sleeve: he wrote “Goodbye” himself. He is there to pass on the soul of the song, the essence of its story, from one of America’s great songwriters to the country’s foremost interpreter and shaper.

The song starts with a gentle, unobtrusive acoustic guitar figure, played by Earle himself. There are then some tentative spoken words in the background, and then Earle’s Southern drawl emerges, sounding far more laid back than when he is assaulting us with his usual barrage of acerbic verbiage: “two…one, two, three, four.” On cue, the acoustic introduction is overlaid by a firm but delicate hit of producer Daniel Lanois’ sound, as a rolling, muted, electric band enters the fray. And with that, Earle hands over his tragic ballad to Emmylou Harris and Lanois, to do with it as they see fit. Earle has been quoted as saying that to have Harris perform one of your songs is the highest compliment a songwriter can be paid, and his humility comes through in those couple of seconds: here’s my song. It starts like this. Okay, now it’s yours. The end result is a combination of Earle’s song-writing abilities, and Harris’ genius for interpretation. And what a combination it is. Continue reading →