CD Reviews

The Roots
Hip-hop was born, and thrived, with a DJ spinning breakbeats and MC’s rapping. The Roots practically reinvented it. Fans asked for a hip-hop group with a live band, and the Roots answered. They released solid albums with live instrumentation, yet they weren’t any kind of fusion project – just solid hip-hop. The ensemble was hailed for its live show and toured relentlessly. It crossed musical boundaries and gained a gaggle and a half of fans. Then it went a little too far.

Phrenology, to put it mildly, was a highly anticipated album. On it, the group took some musical risks, which is usually a good thing. They used nontraditional hip-hop beats, compose three-part songs that venture off into space, got Bad Brains punk for a couple minutes, rolled with guitar-driven funk-rock, and tweaked the production of anything sounding like hip-hop as we know it. Why is that not good? Because it doesn’t seem real. Phrenology reads like a rough draft by an author trying hard to be post-modernly clever. The reader just wants a nice story. A couple plot twists are OK, sure, just don’t get carried away. Yeah.

Time to mix metaphors.

Like a difficult book, or an obstinate but attractive cutey, this album takes a little effort. Maybe it deserves to be taken out on a date. Perhaps once it is attentively attended to, it’ll put out with the best eargasms you’ve ever had. I’ll outline a few highlights, and you, the reader, can decide if this is worth a date. First of all, it is certainly an attractive package. Then after a decent intro, comes the fast punk rock. OK, wow, slow down. Now that it has your attention, “Sacrifice’s” beat sounds like Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.” It has a beautiful, inspiring chorus about joy, sorrow and hearts filled with music. On this chorus, guest artist Nelly Furtado is right where she needs to be: barely audible under another singer.

Songs pass, guest MC Talib Kweli sounds good but lost in the overproduced and heavily layered beats. Roots’ MC Black Thought just begins to sound comfortable in the mix by the mid-album high point: the funky, guitar-driven rocker called “The Seed 2.0.” Your ears may perk up again as “Water” trickles into abstract sonic exploration. Jil Scott almost saves “Complexity” before the album ends with “the voice watching death that New Jersey Governor … would love to silence … Amiri Baraka.” Wonderful. Then just when you think its over, here come two hidden tracks: one that sounds like old Roots and the other an upbeat DJ cut session. Wonderful, but too late.

I’m not sure Phrenology can ever please. It doesn’t bring the goods, but it does bring much hope for the future.

dZihan and Kamien
Gran Riserva
Six Degrees / Couch
Forget thick, juicy sausages. Vienna, Austria, is now officially known for its suave electronic production duos. Kruder and Dorfmeister’s work dominates many a tasty hi-fi – and with Gran Riserva, dZihan and Kamien (pronounced JEE-hahn and KAMien) can be added to the mix.

Imagine, if you will, packing up your artistic paraphernalia and beginning a new album in Italy. After a few months you get restless and move on to London. As the fog sets in, just go ahead and move on to Istanbul. Homesick? How about putting the finishing touches on the year and album back home in Vienna.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? As Kamien acknowledges, “It was definitely one crucial year in our lives.” The music is also very nice, perhaps crucial. It certainly goes down smoother than sausage. The duo didn’t take the usual stack of jazz, soul, Brazilian and other tasty records; sample them; drop in a nice butt-shaking beat; call it good and crack a bottle of wine (although they did sample many local wines in their recording journey). These two put to use years of guitar, piano and school band lessons to make a groovy album with some great musical ideas.

Many of the samples they used as base ideas were from recordings their professional musician fathers made in the ’60s and ’70s. Gran Riserva indeed attempts to capture the spirit of that time and transfer it to the present. It mostly succeeds. When it fails, it’s only because it sounds too contemporary and smooth.

The disc’s opener, “Stiff Jazz,” starts with a rumba beat, syncopated piano riffs, solo trumpet and sax. It’s anything but stiff. From there it’s up and down, with more high points than low. Vocalist Daniela spices up the laid-back, housey “Basmati.” “Ford Transit” utilizes an Arabic string section over a trip-hop beat. Jamaican style toaster General Santana livens up “Sliding,” and Ma Dita provides her sensuous voice to two cuts.

There are times, such as on “Deep Kitsch,” when the sounds become sterile and clich퀌�d. Fortunately, an interesting element or two often saves the songs. Riserva also doesn’t seem to choose if it wants to be a mellow or upbeat long player. On the whole, it’s more on the mellow side, but not necessarily bedtime music.

It’s a nice listen, and along with their last effort, Freaks and Icons, establishes this duo as two of the finest sonic manipulators and mood creators around. I can’t wait until these guys decide to cavort around Europe with their musical equipment again.