I'm particularly pleased this week to present exclusive downloads from two of the year's most critically acclaimed records, Madvillain's "Madvillainy" and M83's "Dead Cities, Red Seas and Lost Ghosts." I've always been uncomfortable saying things like "one of the year's most critically acclaimed records," but now that I've discovered Metacritic, I feel a good deal more confidence making such pronouncements. Metacritic compiles reviews for films, books and recordings from an impressive array of publications, grading each review's positivity on a scale from 1 to 100, and then averaging all the results to come up with a film, book, or recording's "metascore." "Madvillainy" and "Dead Seas" are 2nd and 4th respectively on the list of the best-reviewed recordings of 2004. So soak up the critically acclaimed music, people.
Also, if you liked the Silent League's "Breathe," featured a few months back in this column, you'll enjoy the two live MP3's they've just posted on their Web page, New Obsession and "The Catbird Seat."
"Accordion," Madvillain, from "Madvillainy"
Madvillain is a collaboration between Madlib (producer) and MF Doom (MC), two of the most distinctive artists in today's underground hip-hop scene. Despite critical raves, "Madvillainy" hasn't quite generated the level of buzz that would translate into many sales outside of the core audience of underground hip-hop enthusiasts, which is unfortunate, because this is a record that could appeal to a much broader audience and even open a door (a small, oddly-shaped back door) into hip-hop for many who have never found a way in before. Happily, Madvillain's label has offered Salon an exclusive download of my favorite track off of "Accordion." Here Madlib, who gets most of his source material from old soul and jazz records, samples a beautiful, elliptical accordion track (off of a record by the electronic artist Daedelus -- where he took the accordion sample from, I have no idea) and adds a loose, spare beat that's every-so-slightly out of time with the accordion. It's a gentle, swaying, entirely unhurried and un-funky backdrop for MF Doom to rap over. Doom is not an MC you listen to for rhythmic inventiveness or dazzlingly creative rhymes, and the content of his lyrics tends to be too oblique to be easily understood -- scanning the lyric booklet is a little like reading John Ashbery in sporadic rhyme. And as with Ashbery's poetry, the effect is cumulative. Phrase after phrase of half-sense, near-sense and nonsense, all delivered in Doom's rhythmically lazy, sedate drawl can lull you into a dream state where his words are music, floating free of logic or reason. A single track gives only the sketchiest idea of that effect, so I hope you'll consider buying the whole thing to experience it in full. Go straight to the source, Stones Throw Records.
Salon Exclusive Free Download: "Accordion"
"Run Into Flowers," M83, from "Dead Cities, Red Seas and Lost Ghosts"
On their debut record, M83 (the French duo of Nicolas Fromageau and Anthony Gonzalez) set about exploring the rhapsodic, romantic possibilities of tacky synthesizers, trying to create epic soundscapes out of a palette of cheap, patently unromantic sounds. It's extraordinary the extent to which they succeed. And it's a very odd experience to be emotionally overwhelmed by music assembled from sounds with the kind of skin-deep sheen that one normally associates with artifice, heartlessness and techno. "Epic" really is the key word for me in describing M83's music, not structurally (few of the tracks are exceptionally long) but emotionally and spatially -- every gesture has a vastness to it, an epic sweep that justifies the frequent comparisons to My Bloody Valentine. Last year when I was on tour in France with Elysian Fields, M83 opened for us for a stretch of nearly two weeks. It was always intimidating coming onstage after hearing music of such immense grandeur. "Dead Cities, Red Seas and Lost Ghosts" generated enough excitement upon its release last year by Goom Disques that Mute Records is now reissuing it, and has offered Salon an exclusive download of the first single, "Run Into Flowers." This download no longer available.
"The Love Song, K-Os, from "Joyous Rebellion" I'd never heard of K-Os (pronounced "Chaos") before this week, but apparently he's a Canadian-born rapper/singer/producer who is preparing to release his second Astralwerks record, "Joyous Rebellion." So far, two singles are out, "B-Boy Stance" and "The Love Song." "B-Boy Stance" is a raging, faux-old school rap, with a great beat sampled from James Brown's "Funky Drummer." But I'm more drawn to "The Love Song," in part because it's such a lovely example of the increasingly common merging of hip-hop and pop (if it weren't impossible to say "hip-pop" clearly, I'm sure it would already be a common phrase). There are the many collaborations between rappers and pop/R&B singers (the singers taking the choruses, the rappers taking the verses), but more intriguing are the artists who handle both roles (and the production) themselves, notably Outkast's Andre 3000 and Cee-Lo. That is the category that K-Os falls into, and while it doesn't sound as though he's as dazzling a rapper as Andre or Cee-Lo , to judge by this song he holds his own as a singer and producer. "The Love Song" is based around a very pop four-chord progression banged out on a far-away piano, around which K-Os weaves some lovely string parts that have a warm, reverb-heavy, not very hip-hop sound. It's a beautifully produced track, atmospheric and unusually well-blended, but also sparklingly clear and vibrant. (iTunes, RealPlayer, MusicMatch)
"Verandi," Bjork, b-side from "Hidden Places" single Here's a little something for those of us eagerly (impatiently, rabidly) awaiting Bjork's upcoming "Medula." "Verandi" is an out take from the "Vespertine" sessions, but this song has warmer blood in its veins than anything on that glorious ice-sculpture of a record. The warmth comes courtesy of Jolly Mukherjee, a Bollywood composer and singer, who co-wrote the song with Bjork. Mukherjee provides filmic sweep and melodrama, and, of course, a hint of exoticism -- and it works so well with the theatricality and emotional grandness of Bjork's musical persona that one hopes for further collaborations. Thanks to the excellent, unusually eclectic (and all legal) MP3 blog Fat Planet for pointing me to this track. Free Download: "Verandi"
"Helped Us Sleep," West Dakota, from "West Dakota"
I have no idea where this band is based, but something tells me that they're not from either of the Dakotas -- it seems that people who are fascinated with the Midwest are rarely actually from the Midwest. I do know that they are on the very small and very excellent San Diego-based Swim Slowly Records, which makes them label-mates of The Robot Ate Me, a band featured in this column a few months ago. At first blush, this is a pretty typical low-fi indie bedroom tape, but then, stealthily, the oddities begin to build up: an unexpectedly brash banjo sound, the cryptic lyrics (just 15 words: "And you helped us sleep/ It was a friendly game/ But you hid the pieces"), and the extraordinary way they use silence and space in the middle of this song -- not in a restrained, tasteful kind of way, but in a purposefully awkward, disorienting, playing-with-your-head kind of way. Free Download: "Helped Us Sleep"
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Have an opinion about this week's downloads? Check out the Wednesday Morning Download thread on Table Talk.