Music

The Coup: Sorry to Bother You

Photo: Todd Cooper

On communism's rhetoric of eschatology, and why dick jokes beat slogans.


Sorry to Bother You
Label: Epitaph
US Release Date: 2012-10-30
UK Release Date: 2012-10-29
Label website
"The modern communist’s dream of a completely equalitarian society is a secularized, but still essentially religious, version of the classical religious dream... Its religious quality is attested by its emphasis upon catastrophe."

-- Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man & Immoral Society

Even if they broached the taboo topics of politics and religion, I bet Boots Riley, the Coup’s chief rapper and organizer, would get along famously with Garth Brooks. Brooks has friends in low places, and Riley’s got love for the underdog. Brooks once showed up in boots (hey!) to ruin his ex’s black tie affair, promising, "Honey, we may be through / But you’ll never hear me complain." On the new "My Murder, My Love", Riley hopes his ex's new guy fits the tux, adding, "Let me clarify things with the way I strut / So I can shout with my mouth shut." He’s apologetically titled the Coup’s sixth album Sorry to Bother You, and if you buy that, maybe you'll believe Garth Brooks doesn’t mean to cause a big scene. They’re both big-hearted populists, in other words -- everymen who humanize their lofty ideals when they laugh, love, fuck, and drink liquor, causing trouble and mending fences when necessary, and piling on the musical hooks. Squint and you can imagine Riley nodding along to Brooks’s feel-good equality hit "We Shall Be Free".

If Riley had actually written "We Shall Be Free", though, his version would have differed slightly. Both men agree on the problems -- Brooks yearns for the day "when the last child cries for a crust of bread," while Riley hears "stomachs so loud it’ll cancel the speech" in the Coup’s punchy single "The Magic Clap". It’s the problem solving that’s tricky. Since Riley’s a communist, he favors protests and collective action. (He’s been heavily involved in the Occupy Oakland movement.) Not only that, he often raps about an upcoming capital-R Revolution, in which the people will take over the means of production and share equitably in the wealth they create. This Revolution will likely include weapons and killing rich people. The video for one of Sorry’s best songs, "The Guillotine", ends with an Uncle Pennybags type losing his head.

In interviews Riley tends to deflect the implications of violent protest by pushing it off to the future somewhere, a catastrophic event horizon beyond which everything will change. Which, when you think about it, corresponds to Garth Brooks’s vague gospel-derived eschatology: "We shall be free." How? "Have a little faith." When? "Hold out." It’s Revolution vs. Revelation. At least the Coup is courageous enough to discuss Revolution’s gory details. But the question should be, how do eschaton-obsessed musicians use all this stuff aesthetically? And the answer is as symbols.

Which doesn’t mean their apocalypses are pretend. In art or in life, the thing about symbols is that they’re absolutely true, whether or not they bear any relationship to literal reality. "The symbol participates in that to which it points," says theologian Paul Tillich. Well before they materialize, leftist revolutions and religious apocalypses change how their believers talk, how they act, how they strut. "It’s gonna be ending with us winning / You already know," sings Coup vocalist Silk-E in "This Year", an encouraging anthem. (Or, as Christian rockers Thousand Foot Krutch put it, "The End Is Where We Begin".) The fact that people’s revolutions have actually happened doesn’t change their symbolic value at all, though it might determine some of Riley's aesthetic details. Guillotines, for instance. The lady with the gun in his logo. The name "The Coup". Riley wants his music to participate, to help bring about Revolution. "My painting isn’t finished till it kills you / And it makes you feel more powerful than pills do," he says in the agit-punk "You Are Not a Riot", sounding like Andrew W.K. teaching an art appreciation course.

Until that glorious day arrives, Riley uses Revolution as a hard edge against which he caroms his song ideas. The Coup’s hard rocking "Long Island Iced Tea, Neat" -- have I mentioned Sorry is mostly a rock album with rapping? -- isn’t just any drinking song featuring nude bar dancing and Ice Cube shoutouts; it’s a post-riot celebration, "a toast to the folks who let action speak." The impressionistic "Violet" recounts a magical night tearing through the city with a prostitute; over meditative strings and guitars out of Bush’s "Glycerine", Riley and Violet "made a promise we would never settle," kind of like in Bruce Springsteen’s "No Surrender" if the goal was taking down pimps and cops.

That’s another similarity to Christian music: Riley loves taking tropes from pop and rap and twisting them to his ideological ends. He closes this album with "WAVIP", a straight-up bass/drums banger where Riley, Killer Mike, and Das Racist storm the club -- and the one percent -- with cries of "We’re all VIP / I’m talkin’ every motherfucker in my hood and me." Compare to Sinéad O’Connor’s recent album closer "V.I.P.", where she stormed the club with Biblical judgment and poor people. "A face that never was nor will be kissed / Will show you what a real V.I.P. is," she seethed. Joke that needs a punchline: Garth Brooks, Sinéad O’Connor, and Boots Riley walk into a club...

Speaking of jokes: since Steal This Album in 1998, each Coup release has traded away more laugh lines for slogans, narrative complexity for protest songs, wacky non-sequiturs for points. This may mean they’re getting worse, or it might just mean Riley’s learning new tricks. In a recent eMusic interview, Riley worried that his earlier work seemed "disconnected" and said of his new lyrical focus, "There are still different things that are funny and humorous, but it’s not just a punch line for the sake of having one." For me, the punchlines on Steal This Album were the best way of connecting to Riley’s philosophy. When he threw in dick jokes, or kept coming up with outrageous ways to insult his crappy car, or mocked his own hook in "The Repo Man Sings for You", he flung open the door of communist ideology to anyone with a sense of humor. (It helped that I was living in minimum wage poverty with a crap car right around the time of Nader for President and the WTO protests.) "Breathing Apparatus" remains one of the great rap songs because it blends political analysis, a vivid sense of location, and the sheer pleasure of hearing men in love with their own exuberantly funny words.

A Sorry song like "Land of 7 Billion Dances" is still musically exciting, with its rat-a-tat drums and guitar from co-producer Damion Gallegos. (The video features some great Bay Area dancers.) But lyrically, aesthetically, it closes the door. Riley alludes to hosting a meeting -- "If this your first time here, raise your hand" -- and then rattles off a bunch of slogans. You long for the details of that meeting: the refreshments, the secret meeting place, the scared looks of the minimum wage kids attending, anything. Riley writes better slogans than most -- he’s certainly more coherent than the union reps I met with years ago -- but slogans tend to shut songs and imaginations down. As does the heavy-handed allegory of the album’s biggest clunker, "We’ve Got a Lot to Teach You, Cassius Green".

Still, Riley’s got the hooks and musical chops to make this a pretty good record. The madcap kazoos on "Your Parents’ Cocaine", syncopated swagger of "Guillotine", and eerily grooving "The Gods of Science" are all impossible to forget and easy to love. Riley’s lyrics go to unexpected places -- "Even mountains are in flux", he says at one point, sounding like Zen master Suzuki. The band’s garage-funk rhythms kick; horns and strings are well deployed. True to form, Riley’s best line is scatological: "I’m too damn drunk to continue this debate / Cuz I can’t articulate and I need to urinate." No matter how well you immanentize the eschaton, real life intrudes.

7

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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