Common: Electric Circus (2002)


One day it’ll all make sense.

Purchase this album: Amazon

In 2000 Chicago-based conscious rapper Common released his third album, the instant classic Like Water For Chocolate. His first Top Twenty and first gold record, Chocolate’s lyrical depth and tight songs catapulted his ascendance into hip-hop’s big leagues. But his next album was in a league of its own, the retro-rockin’ Electric Circus.

Utilizing musicians and singers from rock, rap and R&B, he filled the album with gurgling organs, backwards noises and distorted guitar solos, the cumulative effect akin to hearing a rap album from 1967.

Adding to the surprises Common doesn’t even show up until the second song. The Zap Mama singers help tilt the carnival feel of “Ferris Wheel” into an ad hoc intro theme, then Common drops the boom-bap in “Soul Power” over a gumbo of spooky voices and violins.

Lyrically he chooses to be more impressionistic than specific, which suits the creepy French spy chase of “New Wave” and the psychedelic gospel of “Electric Wire Hustler Flower”:

Mercury and retrograde,
I’m trying to get niggas in the ghetto paid
While they watch pornos and Escalades,
away from floats and the dope in sex parades
Somebody screamin in my mind, I’m tryin to find if it’s me
Or voices on the master, they design to be free
Same revolt, can’t be found on TV, or radio, its livin in me
Hey lady, that smoke is bothering me
If I put it in your eye, ashes you would cry
All this rap talk is blowing my high
I just came to chill and build with my guy
I try to walk but I stumble off the humble path
This story of a pimp stick that became a staff
You got it, you gotta know where to aim the Mag
Art and opinions are made to clash

When he does focus his thoughts he brings forth the meditative and liquid “Between Me, You & Liberation”. A nearly spoken word poem on death and release, it floats in a midnight pool of jazzy drums and squirmy tones.

Common updates ragtime in “I Am Music” fusing fantastic bleary horns with UFO landing sounds. He also remakes rock’n’roll in the Hendrix homage “Jimi Was A Rock Star” an eight-minute exorcism of piledriving drums and head-bashing fret shredding.

With the right amount of record-label promotion, precisely setting and resetting expectations, this was the album to make his career.

THE FALLOUT: Three weeks after Electric Circus’ release, Common’s record label dissolved. Without adequate promotion it never gained a footing into other music circles, which left it squarely in the hip-hop camp. Journalists and fans dismissed it as un-listenable trash and publicly blamed his then-girlfriend, Erykah Badu, as the catalyst for his hideous transformation. His next album, Be, was a return to acceptance and sales, and free of all Circus’ progressiveness.

Electric Circus is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

See you next year.

NEXT YEAR: More albums, more obscurities, more cultures, and more uppityness.

Yeah, I know “uppityness” isn’t a word, but you know what I mean.

James Brown and His Famous Flames: Sings Christmas Songs (1966)


Funk is…a ham hock in your egg nog.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: In 1966 Christmas albums were strictly the domain of pop acts (think Nat “King” Cole) or smoothed-out rock acts (think The Beach Boys). James Brown was the first Black rock’n’roll or R&B artist to release an entire Christmas album, the aptly named Sings Christmas Songs.

One of five albums he released that year, Brown recorded a surprisingly lush assortment of standards with subtle dustings of breakbeats. Even though this coincided with his ascent into his heavy funk many of these tracks are waltzes. Go figure.

Brown tackles Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” with skittering drums, warm horns and a vocal raspyness that humanizes some of the more trite lyrics. He also serves up a cover of Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas Baby”, in which he oddly tries to emulate Charles Brown’ buttery flow.

He reclaims his own voice in “Let’s Make Christmas Mean Something This Year” where he stops singing and talks to you, the listener, about what he’s thankful for this holiday season. It should be corny as hell but he pulls it off brilliantly.

Rich romantic violins feature prominently in “Please Come Home For Christmas” and “Christmas In Heaven” where Brown gets his croon on and gently pleads (OK, begs) for his baby.

His ode to Jesus, “Sweet Little Baby Boy”, is a surprisingly orchestrated country & western affair, perfect for drinking hot toddies or slow line dancing.

All in all, the perfect holiday package for, well, no one in 1966.

THE FALLOUT: Stylistically out of character and indifferently packaged, Sings Christmas Songs went over as well as coal in a Christmas stocking. He fared exceeding better with his next Christmas album, 1968’s unabashedly funky Soulful Christmas.

All of Sings Christmas Songs can be found on The Complete James Brown Christmas, available from Amazon, and you can sample tracks here:

A groundbreaker in holiday albums, Sings Christmas Songs opened the door for all musical acts to record Christmas-themed concept records. (So in some strange way, William Hung’s Hung for the Holidays is James Brown’s fault. Thanks, James.)

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: The last review of 2005!

Bad Brains: I Against I (1986)


The Black Velvet Underground.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: In the list of unsung musical acts that influenced thousands of popular bands, hardcore pioneers Bad Brains stands alone. Surf the radio for any alternative rock station (KoRN, Red Hot Chili Peppers, System of a Down, 311) college music station (Henry Rollins, Beastie Boys, Rage Against The Machine) or Top 40 station (U2, Madonna, Living Colour) and you’ll find an act that has admitted to biting the Bad Brains style.

Their music was either blisteringly fast punk or extremely relaxed reggae, but in 1986 they unified their approach with the landmark I Against I. Simply recorded but sophisticatedly performed, they wrapped blues, jazz and metal around staccato clusters of Jamaican and African polyrhythms and forged a primal and catchy classic.

Using nothing but guitar, bass and drums and throat they conjured the melodic prog-reggae thrash of “Re-Ignition” and the cosmic starkness of “Secret 77”.

Singer HR comes across a man possessed as he croons, raps and howls in the hardcore operetta “I Against I” while also singing sweetly (if incongruously) in the shifty crime saga of “Hired Gun”:

Please sit down, services rendered
Now we must decide the pay
Bargains to bribes, broken agreement
So much more had but to pray
Next a scam to execute, but a bit too cute
So if you’re looking for adventure
Go check the hired gun for sale

Musically a showcase for guitarist Dr. Know’s uncanny fretwork “She’s Calling You” is an explosion of chunky rhythms, tendril melodies, and muscular shredding.

If anything would move an all-black punk band out of the hardcore ghetto, this album was it.

THE FALLOUT: Critics and musicians fell all over themselves with love, but I Against I did not escalate Bad Brains into the mainstream. On the other hand, when your fans sell half a billion records while keeping your name alive, I guess that counts for something.

I Against I is available worldwide from Amazon, and you can sample tracks here:

An unexpected masterwork from an unexpected band, I Against I shockingly sounds as fresh as this morning’s news, and way more rewarding.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: James Brown puts the big hurt on Bing Crosby.