[19 October 2004]
Since 1993, the California independent label Gold Standard Laboratories have made a name for themselves releasing some of the biggest names in experimental underground music. From grind legends the Locust, to dance punk pioneers !!!, to the elegant pomp of Pleasure Forever and the Rhythm of Black Lines, GSL has refused to be pigeonholed. Over the past year, the label has continued to defy any preconceived notions by releasing a hip-hop single by Subtitle and an experimental free-for-all by Omar A. Rodriguez. Free Moral Agents, with their full length Everybody’s Favorite Weapon, finds GSL continuing to expand their musical vision.
Founding member of Free Moral Agents, Isaiah Owens has quite a track record behind him. Currently filling the spot behind the keyboards in the Mars Volta, Owens was also a member of ska-punkers Sublime and has done session work with funk legend Shuggie Otis and roots reggae act Wailing Souls. There is no doubt that these acts have played an instrumental role in shaping the sound of Everybody’s Favorite Weapon, but unfortunately the group—which includes Jeff Harris (systems operator), Mendee Ichikawa (words and backing vocals), and the mysteriously named J (words and vocals)—still seem to be grasping at a unified sound.
The ten tracks comprising the group’s debut full length veer wildly from trip-hop to soul to funk to straight ahead hip-hop. The opening title track jams on an alcohol soaked soul groove before veering into what only can be described as new age music, before a brief rap comes in from out of nowhere to close the song. While all these styles could be unified into something compelling, Owens and company fail to move cohesively from style to style, creating a listening experience both confounding and jarring.
Other songs are ill-advised experiments such as “Underwater Reverb”, a misguided foray into dub that comes across more as studio tomfoolery than a fleshed out song. “What’s Your Bloodgauge” is tepid, minimal electronica fused with thick, if uninteresting beats. “Gem from a Broken Rock” brings back memories of Portishead, mixed with a more pronounced hip-hop flavor, but again, this tracks fails due to the band’s incessant need to experiment. Tellingly, the only track that succeeds is “Talk Show Host” (sorry Radiohead fans, its not a cover). Not surprisingly, it is the shortest cut on the disc, yet the most effective. A simple combination of soul grooves and hip-hop rhymes, the track possesses an energy and flow missing on the rest of the album, and thankfully doesn’t delve into unnecessary experimentation.
While Owens has cut his teeth with some legendary artists, he and co-writer Jeff Harris have yet to develop their own songwriting. Everybody’s Favorite Weapon veers wildly, and sometimes incoherently, from style to style without any particular rhyme or reason. Free Moral Agents haven’t yet found a way to take their disparate influences and combine them in a compelling fashion, let alone one that makes sense. There are flashes of promise throughout this disc, but unfortunately this is material that would’ve served a better purpose as demo material rather than the first statement from a new band.