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Something to look forward to: The Roots
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August 29, 2006 was a big day for me. Sure, in a year I won’t remember what happened, but for the few weeks leading up to it, the number was etched in my mind as the day the Roots’ new album, Game Theory, would hit store shelves. It’s not often there’s an album that I will go out and buy the day it is released. For these albums, I’ll try not to sully my mind by reading reviews or sampling tracks online; I want to savor the experience of slipping the disc into my stereo and hearing the music for the first time.


For years, I rarely got around to listening to new music at all; if I was at the record store, I was hunting around not for the latest releases but for some obscure Taj Mahal or Dr. John CD. Music that was hard to find somehow seemed more worthwhile to me, or at least it made buying an album seem more like an accomplishment and less like a transaction. But no matter how thrilling it might be to discover a rare collection from a long-dead artist among the stacks of bootlegs at the flea market, I soon realized it couldn’t quite match the anticipation of new music unheard by anyone else. It’s something like the excitement of seeing a just-released movie in the theatres: the film may not be as great or important as all the classics, but it provides a new, shared experience filled with tantalizing promise. More importantly, it gives us something to look forward to.


That desire for true anticipation—and, to be honest, some sense of community within the often isolated world of music collecting—contributed to my eventual engagement with more modern music. Being the obsessive person that I am, it didn’t take me long to imbue new releases with the same importance I had once reserved for past masterworks. These unrealistic expectations more often than not led to disappointment; no new album can match months of fantastic predictions. In reality, my favorite albums have been ones that I chose through gut instinct, say, after hearing the name of an artist discussed by someone else, or by being drawn to a certain CD cover. My calculated purchases, those I’ve anticipated for weeks or months, don’t necessarily become my favorites. My early experiences with the album are usually colored by my enthusiasm; I’m stubborn enough not to want all that energy to have been for nothing.  But the months or years since those significant buys shed light on what the albums really mean to me, and whether they were really worth the effort. If my favorite music usually comes to me by chance, why must I spend so much time forcing it? Maybe by looking at how some of my most anticipated albums of the past several years have aged, I’ll be able to temper my expectations for this latest purchase. Or maybe not.


Barenaked Ladies, Stunt (July 7, 1998)
Then: Sometimes, you have to be honest about your past. So here goes—I cried a lot in first grade, I wore a rat tail with pride, and I used to have a huge obsession with the Barenaked Ladies. Having cut my teeth on my brother’s copy of Rock Spectacle (before the roles shifted dramatically, Josh passed down some decent musical tastes—of course, I also have him to thank for the Fine Young Cannibals), I became a superfan almost overnight. It wasn’t long before I had crowned Gordon one of the finest albums ever, and anointed Page/Robertson as the second coming of Lennon/McCartney. “One Week” may have been the lead single on Stunt, but it was deep cuts like “Alcohol” and “Call and Answer” that boosted it to Born on a Pirate Ship status in my mind.


Now: “Chickity China, the Chinese Chicken…” Ok, so I may have slightly overrated Page, but he did (does?) have a knack for quirky pop song.  No matter what the social ramifications, I can’t deny that the music has a certain innocent appeal. Sort of like how I still watch Boy Meets World.


Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, Burn to Shine (September 21, 1999)
Then: I may or may not once have met Innocent Criminals’ bassist Juan Nelson’s daughter online. Though the teenager tried to convince me to meet her backstage when Ben and the band came to my college, I was able to resist the invitation (and possible practical joke). Had it been my high-school self, though, I’m not sure I could’ve held back. Along with Sublime, Harper was the be-all and end-all of modern music for me during a certain period; his first three albums had permanent status on the center console of my car. Burn to Shine, his major-label debut, was likely to cement his status in the minds of others, and so I was worried for him. Judging from the frequency with which I listened to it that first month, I shouldn’t have been concerned—though it had a different, more rock-centric feel to it, I thought the album held more weight than the average new release. Harper was still above criticism.


Now: While I still can’t resist “The Woman in You” and “Suzie Blue” (and, on a very happy day, “Steal My Kisses”), much of this album feels like an attempt to show how many styles Harper can pull off.  I certainly can’t listen all the way through like I could seven years ago. It’s worth noting that this was the last Ben Harper album I listened to extensively—it always amazes me how I can put all of my listening energy into one artist, only to allow him to drop from my mind. Upon hearing “Better Way” on the radio, I had to ask who it was.


Beck, Midnite Vultures (November 16, 1999)
Then: At 17 years old, I wanted to defy the logic of all sex laws. I really, truly did…and I saw no irony in anyone putting that desire on record. It didn’t matter that it was sung in falsetto; Beck had always been a bit of a jokester in my book. Heck, I learned my first Spanish phrases from Mellow Gold. When I slipped this disc into my car CD player on the way to school, I could taste the “Peaches and Cream” of which he screamed, and knew this was destined for heavy rotation at the monthly bonfires I shared with my nerdy friends.


Now: Maybe this album should’ve been named Stunt. With a little more cultural education under my belt, this seems far more like a cheap parody of a genre than a truly joyous offering. Besides the fact that the songs don’t hold up to repeated listenings like most of Beck’s material (with the exception of the highly addictive “Debra”), it just all seems almost mocking. It’s like when I found out wrestling was fake; I can’t quite appreciate it anymore, even if it is done well.


Spoon, Kill the Moonlight (Aug 20, 2002)
Then: It gave me some weird sort of satisfaction to see Kill the Moonlight displayed prominently at the end of the aisle along with the other “hot” new releases at Newbury Comics. Since I’d been listening to A Series of Sneaks and Girls Can Tell pretty much all summer, Spoon had become sort of my new project. I’ll admit, “Small Stakes” threw me for a loop—its choppy, minimalist sound scared me enough that I turned off the road into a Home Depot parking lot to wait it out. Once I got past the horns, I decided it was the sound of a new direction, one that I could definitely get behind. 


Now:  I’m always looking at the clock when I listen to this one, because its short running time is over way too soon. But I think that’s what makes it worthwhile…and certainly worth beating myself over the head with.


Talib Kweli, Quality (November 19, 2002)
The Roots, Phrenology (November 26, 2002)

Then: One of the things I was most looking forward to during my semester abroad in Scotland was the prospect of picking up all sorts of music I wouldn’t be able to get stateside. But I had no idea that I’d be spending much of my time lusting after two albums I could’ve procured quite easily at home. As luck would have it, Kweli, the Roots, and Common were all releasing highly-anticipated albums at that time—in the US Every time I went to the store in Edinburgh, I was turned away empty-handed.  Finally, these were both available (somehow, I held off on Common’s Electric Circus; God was smiling upon me on that day).


I was ready to be extremely disappointed with Phrenology, given all the negative press and message-board bashing I’d been soaking up as I waited impatiently. But I wasn’t disappointed.  I can recall walking the streets of Edinburgh with “Rock You” blasting from my cheap Discman, and thinking the Roots had hit gold. (My roommates didn’t feel the same way—they turned it off at “!!!!!!!”.)  Quality was another story.  Though Dave Chappelle’s “Keynote Speaker” remains one of the funniest album intros ever, I felt that Hi-Tek was sorely missed on this one. In fact, as much as I tried, I couldn’t listen to much of the album that first month, save for “Get By”, “Good to You”, and “Guerilla Monsoon Rap” (my first introduction to some guy named Kanye West).


Now: I have a good excuse for skipping over every song from Quality when it comes up on my iPod—something in the transferring process affected the sound quality. But that’s just a cop-out; I have no interest in most of these songs anymore, except for “Guerilla Monsoon Rap”, where Pharoah Monche puts in a great performance. Sadly, I’ve been turned off of Kweli for the past several years, even if he did invent the Nike swoosh.


Meanwhile, Phrenology‘s “Water” (the first half, at least) is routinely stuck in my head, as are “The Seed (2.0)” and “Rollin’ with Heat” (appropriately, featuring Kweli). None of this changes the fact that the whole album concept makes little sense. 


Spoon, Gimme Fiction (May 10, 2005)
Then: I couldn’t afford to have this album suck. I’d already stuck the free promotional sticker on the plastic storage unit I lug around with me during every move, and you know how hard those things are to remove. It was also my birthday present to myself, so I was in line to be doubly pissed if things went awry. Thankfully, from the first plodding notes of “The Beast and Dragon, Adored” to the impeccably-placed hand claps in “They Never Got You”, this was an easy album to love from first listen.


Now: I’m hoping that, thanks to Gimme Fiction, the band has finally surpassed the Chicago nightclub in terms of name recognition. Without “Sister Jack”, it’s pretty much a perfect album. It also sounds about ten times better live, in case you’re considering a trip.


Common, Be (May 24, 2005)
Then: Even if Common essentially left Chicago before I planted myself here, I’ve felt a connection with his music in part because he name checks places I recognize. Besides, it doesn’t hurt that “I Used to Love H.E.R.” is pretty much the anthem for conscious hip-hop. Though others had blamed his lack of commercial success on sparse production, I’d been pretty impressed with many of the songs on previous albums, particularly Like Water for Chocolate. I wasn’t sure he needed to ride Kanye’s coattails to fame, but I figured it was worth a shot. I felt even more confident in this after watching the two on Chappelle’s Show doing “The Food”, though I’ll never understand why that version was put on the album. Other than that, I had no complaints—this was in many ways the perfect summer CD.


Now: As much as it surprises me, I have to give Kanye the credit for any repeated listens of this one. Though I definitely enjoyed Common’s new “basement” sets at his live show, where he basically ignored his older tracks in favor of running through the new album entire, I quickly tired of hearing him talk about his daughter, God, etc. But I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of the opening bass line, and I’ve done some of my best weightlifting with “Testify” as the soundtrack. That’s not saying much, but it’s something.


People Under the Stairs, Stepfather (April 18, 2006)
Then: I’m going to go on record saying that O.S.T. is my favorite hip-hop album of all time. So this had no chance of living up to my expectations, especially after the excruciating four-year wait. It’s not surprising that I was sorely disappointed upon first listen. The sample-heavy style seemed like a caricature of the PUTS sound, as if Double K and Thes One wanted to prove their old-school influences to any new listeners. If there was any song that epitomized this, it was the disjointed “Pumpin’”. At least the DVD was hilarious.

Now: This one has grown on me a lot. I’d put “Crown Ones” and “Tuxedo Rap” next to pretty much anything they’ve done, and it flows far better from track to track than I originally thought. It’s a celebration of everything they’d worked on up to this point. And if you do one thing this year…watch “The Ice Castle”, produced by Thes One. You’ll thank me.


As for Game Theory, well, obviously I can’t trust my first impression. It took me a few days of forced listening to get into it, and it now feels like the strongest Roots album top to bottom since Things Fall Apart (as everyone seems to agree). The stretch from “Don’t Feel Right” to “Here I Come” has been a semi-daily ritual for me ever since late August. But the real test, I guess, will come down the road, when it has to compete with the hundreds of other albums that once held some status in my collection. Until then, I’m counting the days until Brother Ali’s new release. I hear it’s gonna be great.

Ben is a writer, editor and partly reformed music snob living near Boston. He has a website, like everyone else.
 
 
 


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