BIG TONE - THE DROUGHT

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Album: The Drought
Artist: Big Tone
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Detroit, or The D as those in the know call it, likes it's hip hop like it likes it's streets: grimey. Well that might be a bit offside as I've only ever driven by Detroit, not actually been in it, but it looked mighty grimey in 8 Mile. What I'm trying to say is that Detroit produces hip hop that is for the most part, pretty non-commercial. Royce 5'9, JayDee, and Slum Village have all come out of Detroit and had some success, but they've done so making music that is tilted more towards the underground than commercial rap sounds. Next out of the Motor City to try his luck at the big time rap game, is Big Tone, a rapper/producer who's releasing his debut album, The Drought.

I believe Big Tone did all the production on his album, and really, I'm not mad at it. He usually has some boom bap drums in the mix, which gives his tracks an old school sound. He's also a fan of samples and he mentions the jams he sampled for the beat on One Hour Session, but they're bleeped out to preserve his secrets. Or perhaps it's because they didn't clear the samples. Unless I'm mistaken, the drums are from Express Yourself of NWA and Charles Wright & Watts 103rd Street Rhythm fame. Tone does use a few of the sped-up soul samples that people seem to be shitting on since Kanye drove them into the ground, but it doesn't bother me much. I mean, they still sound cool. The fact that Kanye "Sweater Vest" West used a crapload of them shouldn't ruin it for everyone.

Good Ole Days reminds me of a Ghostface track with the soul samples playing in the background the whole time. Girl is a catchy ode to the independent ladies built on a drum track that almost sounds like a beat box and a bouncy baseline. Come My Way and Turn My World are a couple jams that use the "sped up soul samples" I mentioned earlier, but they're really both just classic hip hop beats with deep banging drums, so I enjoy both. Perhaps the only beat that didn't work for me is It's So Hard as it sounds a bit like a Karaoke backing track.

Lyrically, Big Tone is sort of a solid blue-collar MC. Tone speaks on his world, on getting his rap game hustle on in the D. He's got a good flow and he keeps things pretty realistic, not thugged out, so it works pretty well. But I would suggest that the next time out, he might want to investigate some different subject matter. Girl is a positive jam for the ladies, and Good Ole Days talks about Tone's memories of back in the day, but the rest of the songs all seem to be variations of kicking it in the hood and trying to make it in the rap game. Which is I guess where Tone's at these days, but it does sort of blend the songs together.

Quick thought: if you're an unknown MC (outside your hometown) and putting out your debut album on a small(ish) record label, you might want to re-think titling a song Rap Stars. Especially when it's the most generic song on the album and features a guest MC (not sure if it's Phal or Beej) who sounds like a cross between a female MC and Lil Romeo.

Of his debut, Tone says "'The Drought' is my 'Illmatic'. It's my 'Reasonable Doubt'". Pretty big expectations for your debut, but if Big Tone goes on to do big things, the comparison might ring true. That won't happen unless lots of people hear this album, so if you're looking for a straight-ahead hip hop album with some underground style, The Drought is worth a listen.


KING ELEMENTARY - KUDZU

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Album: KUDZU
Artist: KING ELEMENTARY
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There are two ways to look at King Elementary’s debut CD release, kudzu. The first is to look at the fact this garage rock influenced band sports no members above the age of 18. Sounding much more advanced than their age, the disc draws on inspiration from the Hives, Sonic Youth, Nirvana and Fugazi (not like every other garage band alive, but still).

Looking at it as a group of 18 year-olds, it is easy to look past the vocals and focus on the strong rhythm section and the bourbon drenched vocals of Morgan Jones. The bass and drums (Will Randolph/Andrew Fox)push forward the tracks well, better than a lot of much more “mature” bands playing the same style of music.

The opener, For the Birds is a good track that only fails in its simplistic chorus. The simple chorus lyrics made famous by the Hives falls shorts, taking away from a solid song. “Thief of Heart is a solid track that let’s the guitar work of “” dominate the track, and the “ba,ba,ba’s” will have anyone singing along.

The band slows it down with “Hit the Mirror”. The intro sounds similar to the glory days of Nirvana, but evolves into their own unique sound. Rebecca is a straight up Sonic Youth song. Any fan of the band will appreciate the changes and pulsating drum/bass combination mixed with pleasant guitar noise. “Sand and Romance” shows another style for the band, unfortunately for me, the style reminds me of Audioslave.

“Satisfactory” is the first song that I wasn’t really feeling. The lyrics and cadence of the vocals was weak, and took away from the catchy riff. “Far Too Familiar” suits the bands style, and Jones’ vocal range much better. It’s perhaps my favorite song, and really rocks out, and includes a solid breakdown, which is not always easy in these types of songs. “We Defy Gravity” starts with an interesting dueling bass/guitar riff, and keeps it interesting for the duration of the two minute song. This perhaps illustrates what I liked about this CD. They try lots of musical ideas, and aren’t pigeon holed into one style.

It is easy to say that these 18 year olds have produced a record that is much better than the majority of high school bands who spend their jam sessions covering the Hives or Jet. The songs show a strong musical background, and the originality needed to continually create existing material.

The other way to look at the band is just that way, as a band. The release shows the potential that music fans are looking for in new bands. The debut release is strong enough to get people excited for what is yet to come for these guys. No one has experienced life enough to generate top shelf lyrical content at age 18, but the music and the vocal stylings are much stronger than most garage rock out there today. No matter how you judge them, you can expect great things from this band, and will enjoy this CD.


ABANDONED POOLS - ARMED TO THE TEETH

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Album: Armed to the Teeth
Artist: Abandoned Pools
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We reviewed the pre-release Reverb EP of the Abandoned Pools only to find the full-length in our mailbox only a month later. The full length included the single tracks, Armed to the Teeth, Sooner or Later and the Catalyst. I’ve already put in my two cents about those tracks, so just read the original review.

Lethal Killers opens the full release, and draws in the listener. The high-pitched, simple guitar riff matches with (Eels founding member) Tommy Walter’s vocals. Right away, the production of Gareth Jones (Depeche Mode and Interpol) and Tommy stands out. Both seasoned professionals in the music industry, you expect nothing less. The next song, Rabble, is a slow melodic jam that throws in the obligatory guitar effects made popular by bands like Blink (and every pop-punk outfit since). The lyrics are that of heartbreak, so 90% of music lovers will enjoy the track.

When I first heard the EP for this album, I wasn’t sure if the songs were strong enough to make a full release, but after hearing the new songs on the full length, it became obvious that the Abandoned Pools left their strongest material for the album. Tighter Noose is a catchy track, layered in keyboards, strings, and guitars. Tommy’s vocal range and use of falsetto helps craft a song that screams movie soundtrack (or something closing out an episode of Six Feet Under). As the guitars, drum and bass kick in, the song takes a new life, and the final addition of cello helps make this song one of the strongest on the album.

Hunting seems to be molded after the Clarity sessions by Jimmy Eat World. Although I am a huge fan of that album, I don’t think it works as well for the Abandoned Pools. The drum machine style beat, and vocal intros just don’t seem to mesh with the pop-punk Treblecharger style the band does so well. The song on its own is fine, I just think the song stands out from the rest of the album as a radio single attempt,

Sailing Seas has a nice bass line, and the Death Cab style layering on the tracks makes this a sure hit with the kiddies. This would be classified as the “Soul Meets Body” of Armed to the Teeth. It’s catchy, without forcing the band to totally recreate itself hoping to find the magic combination that fills the airwaves. This is my favorite song on the album, and although we at herohill respect the copyright laws and supporting all bands, if you want to download a track to see if you like the Abandoned Pools, this is the one.

Renegade finds the bands experimenting with strings and textures again. It’s a little too chaotic and unfocused for me, but fans of bands like Perfect Circle might find this track interesting. Maybe Then Someday starts with a nice string/piano intro, before the bouncy, guitar riff kicks in. This song is way too radio-esque to me. I could easily see Hoobastank singing this song, or those clowns that sing about not being a perfect person. Fittingly, the album closes with the Goodbye Song. The piano/string heavy arrangement allows Tommy to pour out his heart about a failed relationship. Some might find this song a bit hoakie, but I actually like it. It seems to close the album in the right way. Tommy has taken a long hard path to get to this point in his musical career, and I think people should appreciate the fact his songs aren’t a cash grab, but just the music he is into making. If you are tired of the pop punk vibe, and looking for some catchy songs with some nice string/piano arrangements, take a chance on the Abandoned Pools.


KANYE WEST - LATE REGISTRATION

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Album: Late Registration
Artist: Kanye West
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Ahh, Kanye. The man, the myth, the super rap legend is back. His sophomore album continues his college fixation with the Late Registration moniker, so it's only fitting that I'm late with this review. As such, I'm sure you've heard all you need to know about this album. But I'll give my opinion anyway. In brief, here it is: The Louis Vuitton Don has avoided the sophomore slump with this album, but his grating personality threatens overpower the good things it has to offer.

Here's the thing, I can deal with Kanye not being the most skilled dude on the mic device. He's got a style that works for him, and he's a clever dude, so you want to listen to him and hear what's coming next. But now that he's, in his own words, a "rap legend", he's starting to spend too much time talking about how awesome he is and how badly people want to take him down. I know there's a long tradition of MC's bragging about their skills and how they're the best, but generally you get the sense that a lot of that is shit talking. With Kanye you know he believes what he's saying. In fact now he can't even be self-deprecating when he tries. On Diamonds From Sierra Leone he talks about losing at the Grammies and then whining about it. He mentions "throwing a tantrum like he is 3 years old" and says "You gotta love it though somebody still speaks from his soul". Um, not when their soul is whining about not winning a Grammy. Didn't Chuck D once say "Who gives a f@ck about a god damned Grammy"? Times have changed.

In my opinion, the beats, or the overall sound of this album is it's strength. One of the best examples of this is Touch The Sky, with it's horns and rapid fire bongo sounding drums make it impossible to resist. Why aren't there more horns in hip hop? Seriously, seeing as how horns pretty much make any beat better, I think they're under-used. Producers of the hip hop world take note. Addiction is another track that makes good uses the bongo's to good effect. It's paired with a uptempo guitar loop and some spacey sounding drums to produce a track that almost sounds like some 70's future funk.

Bring Me Down also has a decent beat, sounds like a movie soundtrack with some orchestra cello and piano over minimal snare drums. However, Kanye should've got someone else to sing the hook. I'm not really buying Brandy singing about how everyone is trying to bring her down. Mary J. singing about her troubles, yes. Moesha? No. The aforementioned Addiction is an example of Kanye trying to get creative with his delivery, but it doesn't work. He's far from the smoothest flower in the biz, so him trying some forced stuttering ("I'm c-c-coming over, cause it's n-n-never over") is just annoying.

Mr. West is clearly a man who is believing his own hype. We Major is 7 and a half minutes long. The last 3 minutes is Kanye ad-libbing, over the decent, but not standout beat. Really no need for that. Kanye isn't James Brown telling Maceo and Clyde Stubblefield to freak the funk. At the very least, put your extended shout out track at the end of the album.

Despite my complaints, I think this is a decent album. No earth-shattering hip hop developments here, but it will get repeated listens from me. This album has been out for over a month now, so I'd say most people who are really interested in it already have it. Which in turn sort of makes this review and my Kanye griping semi-pointless. But hey, I had a few things to say, so I put it out there anyway. If you can't see past Kanye's ever-expanding ego, I'd say you'll enjoy this.



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