The Coup Party Music
If there was ever a good time to be a Marxist, revolutionary, black militant rapper, now is not it. America is more concerned with the evildoers in the Middle East than self-examination. As such The Coup's Party Music — with songs like 5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO and Ghetto Manifesto — drops with what would seem to be bad timing. That does not prevent it, however, from being the most substantial hip-hop record of the year — on all fronts: beats, hooks, flow, rhymes.
This bears saying: You do not have to agree chapter and verse with Oakland's Boots Riley, the Coup's rapper and lyricist, to become deeply engaged in Party Music. If you like intelligent rap, you should at least be predisposed to an artist who does not glorify pimps, hoes, bling, blunts, Cristal and Escalades. This Party Music is not about the good life; it's about street life, about struggle, about curing society's ills, about risin' up. And much of it can be unsettling: Every search is involuntary/ Every inmate want commissary/ Every bank note is promissory/ Every broke muthafucka finna form a gang/ And when we come we takin' everythang, Riley spews in the incendiary lead track, Everythang. The song struts along with a choppy synth riff and some kettle drum licks that lend a big, ominous rumble. And guess what? You could spin this at a house party and soon enough folks'd be throwin' their hands in the air. Yeah, party music of a different sort.
Much of Riley's inflammatory rhetoric is balanced by reasoned smarts and humor. There's nothing here that that's quite as chilling as early L.A. gangsta rap. His message is not so much recklessly violent as it is bound by a strident agenda. Preachy? Yes, but often so damn clever that you forget he's on a soapbox. (Is you a have or you a have-not?/ When you run outta bullets grab rocks/ Cuz the prison door slam locks/ It don't open when your fam knocks/ Less you rich and have stocks).
Riley shows a sensitive side as well, especially in Clean Draws, a tender missive to his young daughter on how to live life. Life is a challenge and you gotta team up/ If you play house pretend that the man clean up, he murmurs, softening his flow for an intimate feel. Can I get a little scratch right here? he asks, and his partner, DJ Pam the Funkstress, obliges with some turntable curlicues.
Throughout, Party Music strikes a deft balance between hard rhyme and catchy, organic singing (no bought-and-paid-for Stevie Wonder ditties here). The production is thick, funky and soulful — all decorated with cool details: a B.B. King-style guitar lick, a roof-rattling 808 bass riff, a '70s-flavored clavinet part.
I purposely left this part until last, but in the interest of disclosure: Party Music's original cover art depicted the World Trade Center blowing up, which caused quite a post-Sept. 11 stir. Created before the terrorist attacks, the cover was meant as an anti-capitalist statement. That's bad luck, not bad judgement, and nothing that should stand in the way of this fine album getting its due. (75 Ark, www.75ark.com)
Hey Mercedes Everynight Fire Works
Three-quarters of the pioneering underground modern-rock outfit Braid return with a new guitarist, and a style both celebratory and melancholy. What strikes most immediately is how different Hey Mercedes sounds from the current spate of bands weathering (deservedly and otherwise) the emo catchall. Off-time signatures, adventurous guitar lines and inventive arrangements define the hooky material of Everynight Fire Works; granted, these were all hallmarks of Braid's stuff, but here everything is simultaneously more ambitious and rocking. It's also thicker, more lush, undoubtedly thanks in no small part to the textural contributions of new-guy guitarist Mark Dawusk. Never before has producer/fringe icon J. Robbins worked on something so gnashing and guitar-heavy — or so obviously influenced by his former band, D.C. posthardcore heroes Jawbox — and the results are just short of mind-blowing. Everything, from the pile-driving opener The Frowning of a Lifetime, through the beautifully crashing centerpiece Que Shiraz to the stop-and-go dynamic of Quit and off-kilter rhythms of closer Let's Go Blue, reaches its full potential. The writing is top-notch, earnest and utterly iconoclastic but still somehow catchy, and it gets presented perfectly here by dint of a dense-yet-snappy production. In every aspect, Everynight Fire Works just seems more resonant, urgent and important than most of the pop-grounded tuneage it will undoubtedly find itself grouped with. A fitting last-minute entry for Best Release of 2001. (Vagrant, www.vagrant.com)
Various Artist Hank Williams: Timeless
Any tribute album that starts with an invigorated Dylan, concludes with a solemn benediction by Johnny Cash and has Beck, Tom Petty and Emmylou Harris among the artists contributing wholeheartedly in between, is bound to have spectacular results. But the real reason this collection of songs leaves such an indelible mark is the source material. Hank Williams is the most gifted songwriter of all time — just ask Dylan. Williams' ability to pair pathos with humor, anger with regret, to fuse Delta blues with Appalachian country and Beale Street rhythm is what earned him the title of Hillbilly Shakespeare and helped lay the foundation for rock 'n' roll. Williams has also been dubbed the father of modern country, yet not one mainstream country artist contributes to the disc — and rightfully so. Today's radio country, with its maudlin ballads steeped in greeting-card tripe and slick, pedestrian over-production, would label Williams an outcast just as they do his talented grandson, Hank III (who offers a sublimely rocking rendition of Long Gone Daddy). Without exception, all 12 artists rise to the occasion of honoring one of America's greatest legends. (Lost Highway)
The Reverend Billy C. WirtzThe Best of the Wirtz: 15 Years on the Road with a 77 Pianist A volatile goulash of Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmy Swaggart and pro wrestler Rick Flair, The Reverend Billy C. Wirtz is truly one of the South's most awe-inspiring concoctions. With a mail-in minister's license, Wirtz formed The First House of Polyester Worship and Horizontal Throbbing Teenage Desire in 1978, and with piano in tow set out to heal the world. Best of the Wirtz chronciles the artist's last 15 years, drawing from his six studio releases, radio interviews and live performances. Wirtz is a helluva entertainer and a pretty damn good boogie-woogie ivory tickler who goes to great pains to harpoon everyone from Jesse Jackson to Jesse Helms, dotheads, The Christian Coalition, baggy jean punks and over-the-hill potheads. Nothing is sacred with The Reverend. (Hightone).