Music

The Roots: undun

It's undun that truly signals the Roots are every bit as capable of maturing with grace, pride and praise-worthy work as those consistently unpredictable rockers from Oxfordshire (Radiohead).


The Roots

undun

Label: Def Jam
US Release Date: 2011-12-06
UK Release Date: Import
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undun is a deceptively tough nut to crack. On its surface, undun feels like another step in the mature, indie-oriented direction the Legendary Roots Crew set their sights on with last year's How I Got Over. The production is full of pianos, somewhat abstract Radiohead-like interludes and soul hooks from longtime associates Dice Raw and Bilal. Aside from a few tracks, it's a notably subdued album, particularly during its opening and closing sections. But when you start to approach on its intended level, as a story album about a deceased 25-year-old Philadelphia man named Redford Stephens (a name that alludes to the band's affection for Sufjan Steven's Michigan album), things start to get a little muddled.

For starters, liner notes were eschewed in favor of interviews and an iPad app. The app -- which I admit not being privy to due to a lack of the proper technology (it also works on iPhones and iPod Touches, neither of which were in my possession over the weekend) -- contains a series of photos, music videos and interviews that act as a biography of sorts for Redford. That content acts as a bridge for the listener between the ideas the band threw around in the studio and what led up to their decision to tell this story, sort of like featurettes that might accompany a DVD to better explain side plots and background narrative. Without this information, undun becomes a uniquely challenging release thanks to the band's decision to tell Redford's story in reverse, from death to the beginning of his ending.

Prince Paul's A Prince Among Thieves started with the death of it's main character Tariq, but followed with a chronological story of how he arrived there. The Roots have decided to Memento the experience, doing everything backward. They've also stipulated that every voice on the record is inside Redford's head, delivering different interpretations of the events and ideas leading to his death much as a person's brain plays against itself. But what's really interesting, to me, is what happens when you play the album itself backwards, essentially forcing the story to play chronologically. In both formats, the album begins with the protagonist asleep, on one end a physical death ("Redford Suite") and on the other metaphorical ("Dun"). In either format, "Lighthouse" and "The OtherSide" act as guiding lights for the character; in reverse, "Lighthouse" finds Redford adrift in the ocean of urbanity, anticipating his demise with "The OtherSide" revealing his welcoming attitude towards death (a theme throughout the record).

If heard according to the tracklist, the inversion of these concepts makes equal sense, with Redford wondering what the worth of life is before finding himself facing an appraisal soon after. Many of the songs work this way, playing dual roles depending on what order you choose to experience them, and it makes for a really interesting album. The best expression of this duality is in the "Redford Suite", which can be heard as either: A) Redford's soul leaving his body and ascending / descending (the third and fourth movements seemingly leave this up to the listener to decide) to its destined spiritual resting place or B) the tumultuous nature of Redford's dreams, from which he awakens to the daily stress of having two brothers, one dead and one incarcerated who anticipates Redford's joining him soon.

Conceptually, this album is full of exciting ideas musically and lyrically even if its core isn't far removed from Masta Ace's seminal A Long Hot Summer. But in can also be a tough nut to crack. Maybe tougher than it deserves to be. Because the songs are often more thematic than structural, it's challenging to completely follow the Roots' train of thought and see undun as any kind of linear storyline. The skeleton is there, but over more than a dozen listens I have to admit I feel like I get the same experience either way I listen to the album. If it weren't for ?uestlove's outline on the Okayplayer forum or the press coverage emphasizing its novella nature, it would be easy to hear undun as simply another Roots album. Progressive in sound as all Roots albums are, but just another album nonetheless.

And in that sense undun is in some ways a step back from How I Got Over, as Dice Raw is given even more hook duty here and either provides just enough chutzpah to see the song through ("Lighthouse", "Tip the Scale") or nearly butchers it ("One Time"). The hooks in general are a bit of a struggle to get through, as "I Remember" isn't much better with its anonymous female vocal echoing dully many times throughout the brief three-minute track where a Gary Porn verse or more of ?uest and Khari Mateen's quite beautiful instrumental could have been. Casting every artist on the album as Redford Stephens also lends to its immediate inaccessibility as a concept, being that their voices sound so different and the subject matter so interchangeable. Especially with the brief, Illmatic-matching runtime, undun sprints through its motions so quickly that it could easily be interpreted as an EP addendum to How I Got Over by those unwilling to put in the time necessary to connect all of Redford's various dots through the lyrics and iPad app.

To undun's sizable credit, however, these gripes have a comforting ability to sink into the greater whole of the album. My personal favorite way to experience this album is as a playlist, with the album first played in reverse and then immediately ran back as the album proper. Redford is dreaming, awakens, makes his terrible life decision, dies and then has his final moments flash before his eyes, played back in reverse order ala Nas' "Rewind". I'm not sure if the Roots intended the album to be playable in this fashion but I guarantee that it most certainly is, and I'm equally certain that this is a first in hip-hop if not album making in general.

Despite its various faults undun is righteously solid, no doubt indebted to the atmospheric work of Sufjan Stevens and previous collaborators like Dirty Projectors and Jim James while maintaining that undeniable Roots edge that can only come from the drumkit of Ahmir Thompson, the vocal chords of Tariq Trotter and the more than capable limbs of their six cohorts. Particularly striking for ?uest is his free jazz duet with D.D. Jackson on piano, "Will to Power", a move that I'm not sure ?uest would have felt free to explore just a few years ago. The Roots certainly aren't the band that made Illadelph Halflife, Things Fall Apart or even Game Theory anymore, but it's immeasurably refreshing to know that they don't have to be. Their sampling of Radiohead on Game Theory has led to them being championed as a sort of hip-hop parallel to the group in the years since, but it's undun that truly signals the Roots are every bit as capable of maturing with grace, pride and praise-worthy work as those consistently unpredictable rockers from Oxfordshire.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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