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Richie Hawtin
Decks, EFX & 909
(Novamute)

Featuring an astounding 38 tracks, Decks, EFX & 909 showcases Richie Hawtin's concept of the evolved DJ -- the album stands in stark contrast to his previous downtempo, navel-gazing dance abstractions under the moniker Plastikman. Where previous Plastikman albums such as Sheet One, Consumed, and Artifakts (BC) illustrate an intuitive but academic understanding of the rudimentary instruments responsible for dance music, this non-Plastikman release collects gems of the techno world and frames them within the fluid pulse of black box sounds (specifically, the Roland 909) to create an unrelenting hour-plus of 4/4 techno.

Most of the masters -- people like Jeff Mills, Surgeon, Baby Ford, and Hawtin himself -- are represented. But Hawtin, who was born in England, raised in Canada, and currently lives in Detroit, also draws from relative newcomers Savvas Ysatis and Stewart Walker. As a result, the small-but-vocal dance community (especially anyone living in the 313 area code) will laud Decks, EFX & 909 as the ultimate techno manifesto.

Hawtin, however, doesn't simply rest on his well-known DJ laurels and mix one track into the other like other high-profile DJs who've toured the U.S. recently. Instead, Decks, EFX & 909 rapid-fires through as many as three cuts at a time, most lasting little more than a minute. The beats start clean and lean with Ratio's "Early Blow," G. Flame & Mr. G's "Dumped," and Richard Harvey's "User," shifting into Latin house mode with Santos Rodriguez before going balls out on Jeff Mills's cuts and Hawtin's own Orange material. At what might be termed a climax, Hawtin streams in the acrid screams of '80s British industrial rockers Nitzer Ebb. As much as it might be hated, Nitzer Ebb's 1986 hit "Let Your Body Learn" is just as techno as any track Derrick May ever pressed; in this way, Hawtin's genius mixing skills on Decks, EFX & 909 show us that techno is not a specific sound rooted in a particular period of time but a unique state of mind. -- Heath K. Hignight

Fiona Apple
When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts . . .
(Clean Slate/Epic)

The full title of Fiona Apple's second album is When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He'll Win the Whole Thing 'Fore He Enters the Ring There's No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won't Matter, Cuz You'll Know That You're Right. Thankfully, the album itself isn't nearly as wordy, hefty, or pretentious.

In fact, it's a refreshingly sparse discourse on one gal's evolution from angry teenager to slightly miffed young woman. Apple's 1996 debut, Tidal, was a slow-starting study of the artist as a tortured soul. She wasn't nearly as quick to accuse the world around her as her contemporaries were, and she was always ready to blame herself if appropriate. On When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts . . . Apple declares "I'm gonna make a mistake/I'm gonna do it on purpose." She's still capable of turning the accusatory finger on herself, but the waif-like reckless girl of three years ago has matured into an accomplished singer-songwriter. An album of range has supplanted the discomfited, tentative steps of Tidal, and if Apple intermittently drifts into the maudlin terrain of her reputation ("It's true, I do imbue my blue unto myself," she confesses on "On the Bound"), she at least backs up every word of it with an unyielding earnestness.

The unconventional piano shuffles on When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts . . . serve as Apple's guide. It's certainly more dynamic than Tidal, even without an anchor like "Criminal" (upon whose structure many of the songs here are based). Apple still has man trouble ("Get off now, baby/It won't be long till you'll be lying limp in your own hand," she admonishes one mate), but When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts . . . is resilient, a more brawny and beefier model of assurance and independence. -- Michael Gallucci

Bill Laswell
Imaginary Cuba: Deconstructing Havana
(Wicklow)

Material
Intonarumori
(Axiom/Palm Pictures)

Count on mixologist Bill Laswell to scramble culture and technology in his ongoing mission to bring the exotic above ground. Always fascinated by the Third World (he once processed the music of Bob Marley and has done similar work on First World renegade Miles Davis), Laswell targets Cuba, a country growing less imaginary by the minute, with Imaginary Cuba: Deconstructing Havana. The album features sonic snapshots of performances of Cuban musicians such as singer Raul Planas, guitarist Guillermo Pompa, and percussionist Tata Guines. Like other benign cultural imperialists Ry Cooder, David Byrne, and, way back when, Paul Simon, Laswell inserts himself into a way of life to translate it for U.S. consumption. He evokes an armchair traveler with a mixing board.

Imaginary Cuba is listenable, seamless, unobtrusive, and only rarely attenuated. It's a musical analogue to a trip down Havana's streets at rush hour, and the streetwise cuts showcase son, merengue, blues, technogroove, even eerie dances evoking promenades along Havana's seaside road, the Malecon. Unlike the Cooder-sponsored Buena Vista Social Club and its offshoots, Imaginary Cuba doesn't so much aim to resurrect the fertile music of pre-Castro Cuba as to spread Cuba's current musical word.

Named after the "art of noises" conceived by Italian futurist Luigi Russolo, Intonarumori is a tighter disc than its Cuban contemporary. The tracks span Rammelzee's hysterical, pun-heavy historical meditations (where misogyny always lurks), Extrakd/Eddie Def's randy "Who Wakes the Rooster?", and -- in the only explicit nods to the feminine on either of these discs -- Lori Carson/Bernie Worrell's ethereal "All That Future" and Alicia Blue's stoned-out, liberated "Flow." Tying it all together is "Freestyle Journal," a long series of rap, hip-hop, and trip-hop alternating rhymes and perspectives by Ahill the Transcending Soldier, Phonosycographicdisk, and Jerome "Bigfoot" Brailey.

The album also showcases Public Enemy's Flavor Flav, Wu-Tang Clan's Killah Pries, and Kool Keith a.k.a. Dr. Octagon. While Intonarumori boasts a dizzying variety of artists, its themes -- Pan-Africanism, the need to review history through Afrocentric eyes, the stifling aspects of official white culture -- are perhaps richer than those of Imaginary Cuba. -- Carlo Wolff

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