Man in the Mirror

(Free download at rhymefeststore.com)

Legacy Recordings must have thought it would make for good music—or at least a good marketing gimmick—to have Will.i.am, Akon, and Kanye West remix some of Michael Jackson’s songs for the 25th-anniversary edition of Thriller that’s coming out next month. But faced with material that’s so culturally monumental and sounds so dated—it’s hard to believe how rinky-dink the synths on Thriller seem now—the guest producers either lost their nerve and applied only the barest gloss of up-to-date sounds (Will.i.am‘s approach) or threw caution to the wind and ran roughshod over the originals (Akon rewrites the verses to “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” replacing Michael’s vocals with his own ode to Auto-Tune, and throws in his trademark prison-door-slam sample for good measure).

Rhymefest’s new mix tape, Man in the Mirror, is a much more interesting treatment of MJ’s work. These are freestanding tracks, not remixes, each built around a loop from a Jackson or Jackson 5 song, and little of the source material is instantly recognizable to a casual fan. Though it samples the King of Pop as though he were a mere mortal, Man in the Mirror is worshipful in its own way—in the skits Rhymefest talks with a Michael Jackson impersonator (about the way other races see black people, about the pressure he feels to put thug shit in his rhymes), and he sounds so sincere that it doesn’t feel tacky. This mix is also a lot more fun than the Thriller retreads. Rhymefest isn’t the most nimble MC, but he’s got a sharp sense of humor and irony, and his unfancy flow gets a boost from his smart-ass wordplay—not to mention the guest turns from Wale and Talib Kweli. The producers—including the shit-hot Mark Ronson—are clearly thrilled to be messing around with some of the most primo R & B of all time, and they bring their A games. Man in the Mirror is packed with thrills no record exec would dare dream up: “No Sunshine” uses a quick loop of the vocals from the original song’s bridge to create delirious chipmunk-soul mania, and the skit where Rhymefest asks the fake Michael Jackson for his advice on groupies and relationships flirts so openly with cheap-shot humor that when it doesn’t take the low road it’s like watching a tightrope walker not quite fall. Download this while you still can.


East to East


Manishevitz superfan John Darnielle (of the Mountain Goats) recently commented on his blog that they’re “the sort of band who often give up in the face of history . . . because people don’t get what they do.” Quirky pop geniuses are historically prone to burnout, and that makes Adam Busch’s long-awaited fourth full-length with his band Manishevitz, East to East, especially satisfying. Not that the music isn’t plenty satisfying on its own. The songs’ foundation of chugging, bluesy proto-punk—played with the kind of taut understatement I usually associate with 70s session musicians—is gilded with lyrical guitar leads worthy of Tom Verlaine and topped by Busch’s poetic lyrics, delivered in a manic yelp. Though it’s easy to compare Manishevitz to canonical bands—not just Television but the Velvet Underground and Roxy Music spring to mind—East to East doesn’t sound retro so much as timeless. It’s not hard to imagine these songs coming out of Cleveland in 1979, or New York in 1967, or some other town ten years from now. I’m not as intimate as Darnielle is with the whole Manishevitz catalog, but I’m not inclined to argue with him when he calls this album the band’s masterpiece.


Look Alive


There are times when you understand that a decision’s a mistake even as you’re making it. When a CD has a painting of a crucified, four-armed alien grey on its cover, I should know better than to insert it into my laptop. But this time I started wondering: What if this isn’t just a band with bad ideas? What if it’s an actual insane person with terrifically bizarre ideas? That would be exciting! Alas, Paper Arrows are anything but nuts. Most of the songs on their imminent debut album are generically sensitive alt-rock. The ballads, sodden with bland emoting, are more saddish than actually sad, like a breakup montage in a TV drama—which is to say, they’re not very deep and everything they’re trying to do has already been done to death. If I were an episode of Grey’s Anatomy I’d be in love with these guys.


Bill Dixon With Exploding Star Orchestra

(Thrill Jockey)

Rob Mazurek’s big band, packed with ringers from Chicago’s improvised-music scene, is hardly symphony huge, but it sprawls the way an orchestra should—rather than crowding every bit of sonic real estate available, the musicians plant themselves in enough different places on the map that you know they could swarm over all of it if they wanted. The guest of honor on this album, 82-year-old trumpeter Bill Dixon, helped pioneer free jazz in the early 60s but has never limited himself to it—and neither do these three long pieces, which sometimes spin out into free blowing (or, for the haters, “formless atonal squawking”) but derive their impact from ambitious structures and deft arrangements. Even rolling 13 deep, ESO’s a tight combo, and as far out as it gets, it never flies out of control. At times the music is almost cinematic: “Constellations for Innerlight Projections (For Bill Dixon)” veers from cosmic, textural psychedelia to full-blast raging to an almost comically uptight and traditional big-band passage that’s begging for Busby Berkeley-style choreography.



(K Records)

This noise-funk collective might seem like an odd signing for K Records, the world’s most respected purveyor of ultra-twee pop. But it kinda makes sense. Label head Calvin Johnson looks like the uptight straight man in a John Waters movie, but he’s actually devoted to ass-moving grooves (see Dub Narcotic Sound System). And the members of Mahjongg look like art-punk weirdos who play with painted cardboard and effects pedals, but they’re actually devoted to ass-moving grooves. The first track on Kontpab, “Pontiac,” repeats a compact matrix of polyrhythms for five minutes, adding layers as it goes, lulling you into a dream state that leaves you unprepared for the strange robo-funk of “Problems,” which is equal parts 80s synth soul, African highlife, and deep Aphex Twin-style weirdness. The rest of the album follows suit, with cross-cultural conglomerates that sound the way Blade Runner‘s Los Angeles looks—haphazard and utilitarian, familiar enough to make the foreign elements stick out even more strangely, and all kinds of steamy and dirty. “Kottbusser Torr” and “Mercury” could be huge dance-club hits, provided the clubgoing population starts doing either much better or much worse drugs.    v

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.