Gold Chains Without the Bling Bling
Back in the ‘60s there was a huge influx of white, middle-class young adults who were transfixed by the blues, a genre created by lower-income African Americans to express their own varied life experiences. The ‘60s generation knew that if they were to merely emulate their mentors, it would be condescending and even a little racist (not that it stopped some of them). Instead they kept the poses and tropes of blues and adapted them to fit the entirely different form of alienation of youthful rebellion. Artists such as the Yardbirds, Big Brother & The Holding Company, and John Mayall’s revolving band of Bluesbreakers, created different types of music that pretended to be the blues but were really something quite different.
Something similar is happening with rap music at the moment. A new generation of white, middle-class young adults has grown up with hip-hop, and is now attempting to figure out how to perform the music without appropriating a culture that they have no business appropriating. With the rule-proving exceptions of Eminem and the Beastie Boys (sometimes), the White Invasion of hip-hop contains very little actual hip-hop. For all of his genre breaking, Beck has produced perhaps one song that could be seen as a straight-up hip-hop track (“Hollywood Freaks”). Trip-hop took the beats and abandoned the rhymes. Rap metal is more the later than the former. Even the new breed of “alternative hip-hoppers”, with Atmosphere being perhaps the biggest name, sounds like a different style of music than, say, the “alternative hip-hop” of A Tribe Called Quest or De La Soul. This is not to denigrate any of these trends, except maybe rap-metal, but to show that mixing cultures leads to fascinating (and necessary) musical mutations.
So, even if the results are uneven, it is good that San Francisco native Gold Chains has shifted his approach from his earlier releases. His choice in giving long-time cohort Sue Cie billing on When the World Was Our Friend highlights how Gold Chains plans to stray from his glitch-hop beginnings. The music is smoother and more soul influenced than the harsh, but intriguing, electronic world of earlier EPs and the full-length Young Miss America. His early faux-braggadocio has become less hip-hop parody and more punk energy, and he even allows for a little romance (whether it is with a woman or with the entire state of California).
While changing approaches is a good idea, particularly since Gold Chains’s earlier work flirted with novelty act status, When the World Was Our Friend is not an impressive album. The opening track, “Better Together”, a true duet between Gold Chains and Sue Cie is a powerful example of the confidence-filled rap-yet-not-quite-rap that Gold Chains pioneered on his earliest EPs. While making no embarrassing efforts to pretend that he has the flow of better MCs, Chains pulls the track off through sheer willpower and his ability to write rhymes as intricate as “mixer full of bleachers putting x’s where the seas is / fresh breezes blowing across the decks courtesy of gc’s”. The track not only announces the album, it also announces Chains and Cie’s new professional relationship (although in the guise of yet-another-pickup song). Any momentum that this anthem could provide the album is immediately dashed by the droning “Come to Cali”, consisting entirely of a repetitive industrial drone and a repeating robot-from-hell voice compelling the listener to “Come to Cali” over and over again. Chains expands what could have been an interesting one- or two-minute-long interlude into a four-minute epic placed right at the album’s starting gates. It is a momentum killer which the album only barely recuperates from.
The majority of When the World Was Our Friend ranges somewhere between the dull and the pleasant, with only the summer come-on “California Nites” bursting through increasingly uninspired production work and mediocre lyrics that only occasionally resurrect the wit of the opening track. In Gold Chains’s attempt to bridge countless genres, he mentions about a half-dozen influences in the publicity material, he has unintentionally dulled the power of his music. With so many influences working at once, they all tend to neutralize each other leaving a soggy mess of undistinguished quasi-rap, quasi-house, quasi-pop, quasi-rock songs saved only by the occasional moments of goofy brilliance (such as Cie’s Dramamine-referencing chorus on the otherwise unspectacular “Shoot Straight”).
Perhaps it is the naïve side of me which tends to see almost all movement as progressive, but Chains seems to be on the right track as far as moving into a new direction. In the competitive indie music world, unlike the mainstream music world, standing still is admitting defeat. When the World Was Our Friend‘s failures lie squarely on the album’s execution, not on Chains’s attempts to mature as an artist. Despite the lackluster production and lyrics, the album contains just enough sparks to show that the Chains/Cie collaboration could be long and fruitful.