Black Elvis/Lost in Space
Musically speaking, there are at least two kinds of visionaries. First there are those who, like Kurt Cobain or Chuck D., see how things are in the world and describe those things eloquently. Then there are visionaries like Brian Wilson and Kool Keith who see whole different worlds inside their heads and try to let them out.
In Keith's case, the vision began during his tenure as a member of the Ultramagnetic MC's, a space-age, intergalactic, hip-hop crew whose 1988 song "Give the Drummer Some" contained the "smack my bitch up" lyric that Prodigy sampled to some controversy last year. Since penning that memorable line, Keith has adopted and inhabited characters with aplomb, such as a serial killer on his recently self-released Dr. Dooom and the time-traveling, Jupiter-born gynecologist on 1996's hugely successful Dr. Octagon. Now, having "killed" the Dr. Octagon character on the Dooom record, Keith puts on a plastic pompadour wig and sticks his neck out on his latest release, Black Elvis/Lost in Space.
He may change his look and moniker, but the concepts don't outweigh the music; they just provide different jumping-off points. While Black Elvis is not as unified as Octagon or Dooom, Keith could rap the contents of a medical dictionary and make it sound funky. As Black Elvis he addresses the real-life music industry and an altogether illusory counterpart in which he's as big as the King himself. One minute he anxiously waits for his record to come out, plans the marketing and touring, and demands that his posters be as "big as the Beastie Boys'." The flow of the song is choppy and fast, but Keith never loses direction, even as his fantasies begin to overtake reality. Soon Black Elvis is turning down recording sessions with Prince and drinking beer with Steven Spielberg and Garth Brooks.
His music gives nods to his old-school roots. Instead of sampling a song wholesale (are you paying attention, Will Smith?), he uses simple keyboards and organs, lots of fuzzed Moogs, and basic drum patterns to keep the mix from being cluttered. Tunes are built layer by elementary layer and centered on Keith's outlandish rhymes, which tackle lesser MCs, office work, and conformity and are sometimes nothing more than just colorful strings of words. When he does break out the sampler, it makes sense thematically. "Supergalactic Lover," one of only two tunes on Black Elvis to borrow from another song, bounces on a sample from ladies' man Teddy Pendergrass ("Come Go With Me"), which is fitting because the song chronicles Keith's prowess with the ladies.
But not all of Keith's flights of fancy work so well. "Master of the Game," which features the recently murdered funkster Roger Troutman adding vocoderized vocals, just goes on and on but really goes nowhere after the first minute. That one low point isn't enough to bring down the record; it just shows that even visionaries are fallible. -- David Simutis
Guided by Voices
Do the Collapse
Ever since the introduction of the unfortunate "alternative" designation in the early '80s, an odd assortment of scenes have cropped up around the country to more or less support the use of the word. One of the most interesting areas of activity in the past decade has been the unlikely locale of southern Ohio, specifically the Cincinnati-Dayton region. This fertile ground has spawned the likes of Afghan Whigs, the Ass Ponys, Howlin' Maggie, Scrawl, and the ever-expanding rock 'n' roll kaleidoscope known as Guided by Voices.
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As directed by singer/guitarist/songwriter Robert Pollard, GBV has redefined every genre that's been folded into its shifting and hallucinogenic song structures, from sugary pop to crunchy guitar rock to melodic indie skronk. With the departure and subsequent recording careers of the original members of GBV and perennial contributor Tobin Sprout, it's apparent that the band has become something of a cottage industry, responsible for a variety of releases that are at least marginally tied to the parent band and in many cases are of equal quality and interest.
At the root of all this good noise is Pollard. The release of his latest epic, Do the Collapse, has more than a few fans worried that GBV might be attempting a mainstream stance, produced as it is by former Cars wunderkind Ric Ocasek. What Ocasek brings to the mix is a shade more gloss and a little more sonic whomp, additions that require Pollard to think about his songs and arrangements in something more than two dimensions. Ocasek also comes to this project complete with a great deal of respect for Pollard's previous output, and the potent memory of that hefty but slightly produced catalog is never far from his thoughts even as he brings new depth to GBV.
Fans can rest assured that there is not even a whiff of sellout on Do the Collapse, which is every bit as quirky and obtuse as anything in the band's catalog. GBV still does more with two minutes than most artists accomplish on entire discs. Pollard is an absolute genius at getting to the point melodically. He neither wastes notes nor minces words. From the giddy explosion of the disc's opener ("Teenage FBI") to the gently moving tribute to fallen Dayton songwriter Jim Shepard ("Things I Will Keep") to the entire neopsychedelic second side (highlighted by "Mushroom Art" and "Strumpet Eye"), Pollard has once again made a case for being accorded the status of the American Robyn Hitchcock. His relatively simple chord structures are the perfect backdrop for his ambiguous lyrical gymnastics, the combination of the two being an odd musical interpretation of M.C. Escher's stairs that ultimately wind up where they start.
Guided by Voices has been accumulating glowing reviews and universal acclaim for more than a decade now, and the last three Matador discs saw the band trembling on the edge of the big time. Do the Collapse could finally be the release that shines a broad and deserving light on the amazing work of Robert Pollard. -- Brian Baker