If you receive a demo that includes the banging of a broomstick, how good could the album really be? As it turns out, it can be extremely good. In fact, it could one of the year's best.
I want to talk to you about Nino Moschella's music. And when you're done reading this, I think you ought to buy his album. But first, I want to tell you about his album cover.
Not long ago, Josette Compton wrote a wonderfully insightful PopMatters feature article titled "From Classy to Ashy". The article explored a disturbing trend in hip-hop CD covers -- the covers aren't appealing. As CD covers are still potential marketing tools, just like videos, tour dates, t-shirts, and so forth -- the article is timely and relevant, so much so that I started rifling through my hip-hop stash to conduct my own little study.
The cover that stands out the most so far? N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton" and its utilization of the artistic viewpoint of di sotto in sù (seen directly from below) so that the self-proclaimed "boyz-n-the-hood" appear to be standing over you (the viewer) as you presumably lie face up on the pavement. With Eazy-E pointing the barrel of a gun straight at the camera (i.e. you), it's a daring image indeed (See it here). Most groups shy away from blowing away their fans. Not NWA. That's why they had "attitudes".
But that cover is also masterful, employing the illusion of viewpoint perfected by early Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) in his frescoes painted on the ceiling of a tower chamber in the Ducal Palace of Mantua. Think of Andrea Mantegna as the Terrence Trent D'arby to Sandro Botticelli's Michael Jackson, okay? Mantegna painted his Palace fresco so that the room, a tower chamber, would appear open to a cloudy sky through a circular opening in the ceiling, like Xzibit showed up for an episode of Pimp My Castle and installed a big round sunroof. The painting depicts four women, three little boys with wings, a large peacock, a planter that looks like it could fall right on your head for a hefty negligence suit against the Castle, and a dark skinned brotha in a turban who looks an awful lot like NWA's MC Ren. Check out Mantegna's work here, near the bottom of the page, when you get a chance. The ceiling fresco is here.
In any event, Josette Compton's article was right on -- hip-hop CD covers are a big snooze. And guess what? Soul and R&B album covers don't look much better; they're either glossy close-ups of the singers or plain ol' group photos. For every imaginative and extravagant Earth, Wind & Fire album cover, there's one that's equally dull.
There is, however, one album cover for 2006 that advertises the music within and still tickles the fancy. This honor belongs to the cover of Nino Moschella's The Fix. This is one CD that should be judged by its cover, because the cover sheds light on the man and his music. It is here that we first encounter Mr. Moschella, his face photographed at an almost three-quarter view, rendered as a black-and-white facsimile. His eyes are fixed resolutely on some point "out there" in our (the viewer's) world. He's focused, perhaps even serious, in spite of the playfulness marked by the remainder of the cover.
Unlike most portraits, this one of Moschella has no hair. Instead, his head ends abruptly, as if he were O-ren Ishii from Kill Bill Volume 1 and the Bride, mad with vengeance, showed up with her Hittori Hanzo sword. His name rises out of his forehead, just above the wrinkles over his eyebrows, and the "O"s in both "Nino" and "Moschella" are planets with a single ring. His name introduces color to the picture, bringing a warm contrast to Moschella's stark black-and-white face and his all-black clothing. His black hat resembles that of a mime, like Charlie Chaplin gave it to him as a gift with a silent, "Here, Kid, catch," and Moschella's cover photo captures him in the middle of taking off that hat, perhaps to greet and introduce himself to his audience.
Then comes the weird part -- there are blue tree branches veining out of his head, or behind his head, or something equally bizarre. I wanted to check the credits to see if Salvador Dali had something to do with this, that's how surreal it is. Yep, it's weird, but it's also very cool.
Don't worry -- I won't do the impression of Sigmund Freud I've been itching to do. But the cover's imagery makes the statement that this guy's got a lot going on under his hat. The trees symbolize his ability to "branch out", in the performance of his music as well as his thirst for experimentation. Moreover, Moschella has perfected the art of anchoring his songs around a chord, a beat, or a bassline and then letting that simple seed germinate and expand into something altogether more complex.
Take one look at that album cover and you're bound to say, "Is this guy for real?" Well, Moschella must have anticipated that, because the album's first song, "Are You For Real" provides the answer (which is, "Yes", by the way). Evoking a bouncy, almost circus-like background, "Are You For Real" challenges you to keep your foot from tapping and your head from nodding. Moschella's vocals, on this song and throughout his work, are mostly understated, in a range and style that recalls Sly and the Family Stone while frequently flirting with a Princely falsetto. For the most part, the strategy works, blending Moschella's voice into the soundscape, making it as much of an instrument as the bass, the synth, or guitar. The downside is when the vocals merge with the music, the vocals get lost and the lyrics seem forgettable. After listening to the album endlessly, I believe it's a classic. Yet, there aren't many lyrics that I can quote from memory, with the exception of the inspirational "If You Believe (You Will Be Strong)".
Nevertheless, Moschella's quite a good lyricist. For example, check out his trip down memory lane in "Moved On" as he remembers "way back when" to a time when the "little boys were gentlemen". Now it's time to move on, the song says, because he's "been dependent on you for so long". Who exactly is this "you"? The song keeps you guessing, cleverly, lending itself to a variety of interpretations. You know he knows who he's addressing, but that's not the point. The point is, he (or at least the character in this song) has grown up over the years and has learned to shed his dependencies. Of course, "Moved On" fits neatly within the theme of the album in terms of having, or needing, a "fix" or having "fixations".
Yet, as compelling as his lyrics are, Moschella's music is even better. In "Moved On", Moschella's architecture of sound has its foundation in a crisp, thumping bass line and a honky-tonk of what sounds like an organ. The bass and percussion go thump-thump-thump like somebody's beating on your speakers from the inside out, while that organ sound grinds like a songbird between the rhythms. It's exquisite, right down to the demure whine of his guitar solo. "Better Off" and "Inside Yourself" use similar techniques, beginning with smart bass lines and branching out to include a wide variety of sounds.
There are other treats as well, creating a fresh mixture of arrangements. "No One" emphasizes an array of percussion, much like the end of Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough" -- you know how it sounds like there's keys and change and pencils and Popsicle sticks clanging together in somebody's pocket? Yeah, that's what Moschella deftly pulls out here. The title song, "The Fix", offers rubber band funk over heavy drums, while "Decisions" turns to blues and "We Will Soon Be Free" stutter steps its way through a singular guitar riff that eventually catapults into a full-fledged climactic solo. Meanwhile, "Strong Man" bangs with the hardest drums this side of the Pacific, similar to the Lenny Kravitz tune "Come On and Love Me" from his Are You Gonna Go My Way release. "Better Off" is another bass-driven vibe, this time with a bass line that -- don't laugh at this -- has the same punch as the theme from the sitcom Night Court. See that? It's easier to hum Moschella's melodies and riffs than it is to recite the lyrics.
According to Ubiquity's press kit, he's also beat boxing and recording the bangs of a broom handle. Recorded completely on his own and in his own surroundings, Moschella conducts all the instruments and vocals. Ubiquity's press release wasn't exaggerating -- there are many similarities between their California draft pick and Prince's early Minneapolis funk. The demo-style feel of Prince's For You and Dirty Mind certainly come to mind.
As far as nitpicks, I only have two. Mainly, some of the songs are too short. The music is so good, it's a bitter pill to swallow when a song gets you right in the groove and either fades out or abruptly ends. For example, "The Fix" could have been longer; same thing goes for "In Your Bedroom". However, the slightly irritating "Didn't You See Her", at two minutes and fourteen seconds, was a wise choice for making an early exit. My second nitpick is the final song, "Holding On". Other than Moschella's tender singing, there's little to recommend it and, as the last song on the album, it's an odd choice for ending such a freshly crafted body of work.
Nevertheless, The Fix is a great listen. My sister's already requested that Moschella add her to his friend's list on MySpace. I'll take it a step further and request that you add Moschella to your music collection.