DJ Spinna and BBE Back At It

DJ Spinna - Strange Games Vol 5 DJ Spinna & BBE Soundsystem
Strange Games & Funky Things Volume 5 – Smoking ’70s Soul and Rare Grooves
(BBE) 2010

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Back on the hunt for the forgotten gems of 1970s soul, DJ Spinna and BBE craft another compelling exploration of hip-hop and R&B’s roots.

Best known for the Beat Generation LPs by J Dilla, Pete Rock, and DJ Jazzy Jeff, boutique British label BBE is firmly established as a premium purveyor of instrumental releases and breaks compilations for crate diggers everywhere. Their Strange Games series of 1970s soul compilations dates back to 1997.  Volume 5 is the first to feature DJ Spinna since 2001’s critically acclaimed Strange Games and Things, and it is a worthy successor.  Times may have changed, but Spinna and BBE’s common focus on the forgotten gems of ’70s soul has not, and this consistency keeps them from being forgotten gems themselves.

According to BBE, Strange Games “represents the blueprint for modern R&B and rap music” and “joins the dots between ’70s soul, ’80s rare groove, and ’90s mass market hip hop.” A few beats will be instantly recognizable to the average rap fan, namely “Faded Lady,” famously sampled by Diamond D and Busta Rhymes, but most of this will be virgin territory for all but soul, disco, and world music experts, and of course hip-hop producers. Other than the notable exception of War, details on many of these songs and artists are frustratingly scant on the web, making this an excellent jump off for your own explorations of these genres.

The first highlight of many is the opener, “Get It Up for Love” by Ned Doheny. A blue-eyed soul singer-songwriter who developed a following in Japan, Doheny is barely remembered stateside.  For fans of Philadelphia soul, the subject of many quality compilations in its own right, check out “I Ain’t Got the Love (Of One Girl on my Mind)” by The Ambassadors, a long out-of-print tune that’s 1998 re-release went largely unnoticed (update: I recently became aware of Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s “I Ain’t Got the Love”, which makes excellent use of this sample).  Other highlights like sampling favorites “For The Love Of Money” by the Philly Armada Orchestra and “Ashley’s Roach Clip”  by the Soul Searchers  are much funkier and feature no vocals at all. The juxtaposition of these two styles, and often the combination of them, is indicative of the overall sound of the Strange Games series.

The Strange Games vibe is laid back but fun, and as one might guess, this is an ideal mix for an after party. DJ Spinna does a great job of highlighting the best grooves and keeping the vibe steady, and his cuts are remarkably unobtrusive. If you would like the tracks in their entirety, there is also a second, unmixed disc included, a common practice by BBE that has further endeared them to beat junkies. The additional disc is perfect for the shuffle-heavy habits of digital music listeners but does have five fewer tracks.  Unfortunately, Merry Clayton’s stellar cover of “Gimme Shelter” does not make the cut.  You are not likely to run out and buy the entire discography of any artist featured here.  In fact that would be rather difficult to do.   Yet this is a solid compilation from front to back, an excellent addition to late-night playlists, and a worthy entry in this series and the BBE catalogue as a whole.

Rating: 7/10

(This review was originally published on PopMatters on October 29, 2010)

So This Happened

LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening LCD Soundsystem
This Is Happening
(DFA) 2010

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So many great new albums have come out since my last post I barely know where to start, but a good place would probably be This Is Happening, the new LCD Soundsystem album that came out May 17.  If you don’t have a copy yet, that’s an error I suggest you correct as soon as possible.

This Is Happening, the follow up to their 2007 masterpiece Sound of Silver, is an amazing achievement in its own right and a serious contender for my favorite record of 2010.  As many artists tend to do when following up an album many deemed “perfect,” they try to rise to the occasion by expanding their sound and taking creative chances.  And as often happens, the resulting record is not as consistent as its predecessor, but its high points exceed almost all of their creator’s previous successes.  “I Can Change” and “All I Want” are textbook examples of these highs, and currently my #1 and #2 favorite songs of the year.

Another cliché of the follow up album, “the polarizing lead single,” is also in play with “Drunk Girls,” the lyrically quotable, but musically annoying “jock jam” that has expanded the group’s popularity with the bro set but become the central focus of those claiming the album’s inferiority to previous works.  I don’t dislike “Drunk Girls” or “One Touch,” the second and third tracks on the album, but in light of the genius that transpires from track four on, their inclusion is a bit suspect, especially so early on where it derails the momentum set by magnum opus opener “Dance Yrself Clean.”

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The Best Album of the Year So Far

Beach House - Teen Dream Beach House
Teen Dream
(Sub Pop) 2010

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Merriweather Post Pavilion was released on January 6, 2009.  The year wasn’t even a week old and people were already calling it the best album of 2009.  It seemed crazy, but sure enough, come December the bigger question was where to put it on your  Best of the Decade list.  January 2010 is a tad early to talk about Best of the Decade, but as we entered the New Year something seemed eerily familiar.  A highly anticipated January release, Teen Dream by Beach House, was already being projected as a potential album of the year.


Jimmy Morris is a fellow music blogger that I follow on Twitter (check out his excellent site Head Underwater) and his bite-sized review on the eve of the album’s official release directly addressed a question that, while premature, was definitely on my mind.  I didn’t hear the album until the next day, and I’m still not sure if I agree with his statement, but they are close enough in quality that I think it boils down to taste rather than superiority.  Pink Floyd has been my favorite band since grade school, and I’ve seen Phish more times than I care to admit in a public forum, so it’s safe to say that I’m pre-disposed to loving Animal Collective.

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Das Racist – Shut Up Dude

Das Racist - Shut Up Dude

Even if you’ve never heard of Das Racist, you might be familiar with “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” their ridiculous novelty track that hit the web in late 2008.  “I’m at the Pizza Hut” “I’m at the Taco Bell” “I’m at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.” While mildly amusing, I’d rank it among the worst songs I’ve ever heard, but its musical quality is irrelevant since it’s just a joke, which is obvious when you hear the group’s non-fast food themed songs on Shut Up Dude, their new mix tape presented by Brooklyn-based fashion designer Mishka NYC.

“Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” is an accurate indicator of the group’s sense of humor, easily their defining characteristic, but what you can’t tell from the call-and-response chorus and silly banter is that Das Racist are actually skilled wordsmiths.  Their rhymes are often nonsensical, lyrical substance is not their m.o., but they’ve got wordplay for days.  The best example of their style, and finest moment in their short career, is “Rainbow in the Dark,” their second single and the standout track on Shut Up Dude.  (the music video is embedded at the bottom of this post)

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Odd Blood and the Great 80’s Debate

Yeasayer - Odd Blood Yeasayer
Odd Blood
(Secretly Canadian) 2010

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I was disappointed when SNL fired Michaela Watkins at the end of last season, the main reason being that Angie Tempura, her snarky blogger character, was so dead on.  There are a lot of people who write in a cynical tone and concentrate on trashing popular movies and music rather than focusing on sharing the stuff they love.  I can understand why, it’s easier to be entertaining when everything is a joke, and articles with a negative slant always draw more comments, and in turn, traffic.  Personally, I’m not a fan and was sincerely moved by Conan O’Brien’s call to “stop the cynicism” in the final minutes of his last episode of the Tonight Show.  Unlike major publications, I have no obligation to review every album that comes out, I simply like writing about music and turning others on to it, so I don’t waste my time writing negative and/or cynical reviews, that’s not what this is.

I like Yeasayer and I like their new album Odd Blood, I do, but opinion has been decidedly mixed in the press.  Is it great, or possibly brilliant?  SPIN seems to think so.  Or is it simply good, or maybe worse? That’s what Pitchfork said. Paste Magazine even ran two separate reviews in a recent issue covering both points of view.  I’m always intrigued by these debates, and Yeasayer’s rising popularity is quickly making Odd Blood the most polarizing album of the year, so while I normally reserve full reviews for albums that I really love, I felt compelled to review one that I simply like.

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Transference – Spoon’s Newest Classic

Spoon - Transference Spoon
(Merge) 2010

Purchase: Lala | Amazon

In the nineties, before the industry was completely in the toilet, major labels made it a habit to sign rising indie bands and drop them shortly thereafter due to lackluster sales.  Many bands didn’t live to tell the tale.  Some bands returned to the indie realm with mixed success.  A few bands thrived, cultivating an even larger following, and one band would go on to release 4 brilliant albums of increasing commercial success and establish themselves as arguably the most consistent indie rock band of all time.  That band is Spoon.

Transference, released this January, is Spoon’s 7th album, and one of their best.  The fervor of the band’s fan base was evident in its debut at #4 on the Billboard chart, but critically, it’s been met with a collective shrug.  The general reaction is, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Yeah, Spoon’ s real good, but we already knew that, okay who’s the next big thing?”  Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve come to take Spoon for granted, and it’s time to wake the hell up.  Transference is not just good, it is GREAT, and it might be the best album released this year so far.

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Danger Mouse + The Shins = Broken Bells

Broken Bells - Broken Bells Broken Bells
Broken Bells
(Columbia) 2010

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Last fall, Paste Magazine named Danger Mouse the “Producer of the Decade,” and with a resume that includes Gnarls Barkley, The Grey Album, Gorillaz, and Danger Doom, I’m inclined to agree. From that resume, it’s clear that he has a penchant for collaboration, and Broken Bells, his new group with James Mercer, front man of indie rockers The Shins, might be his most ambitious one yet. Mr. Mouse, or Brian Burton as he is billed here, started out in hip-hop, but his choice of projects has always been diverse, and in 2008 he moved into rock, producing Beck’s Modern Guilt and The Black Keys’ Attack and Release. Reaction to those albums was mixed, (both underrated in my opinion) and some critics claimed that while his early work succeeded in shattering conceptions of genre, he was starting to settle into an increasingly formulaic style. This complaint has also surfaced in regard to Broken Bells, his first full scale collaboration with a rock artist, but where some see a lack of artistic growth, I see a prolific artist with remarkable consistency.

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