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

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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