Common – “Be” (2005)

April 21, 2010 at 8:31 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles)

Over the past fifteen years or more, the quality of most hip hop (as well as rock, R&B and pop) has gone down considerably. Most of what passes for rap these days is just recycled beats, watered-down pop choruses and a lot of negative, empty posturing. One of the major bright spots during this time, though, has been Chicago native Common, and this album, released in 2005, is his most focused, concise and entertaining record. Even the title is about as concise as you can possibly get.

Expertly produced by the talented but always-insufferable Kanye West (with two songs helmed by the late, great J Dilla), Be is strong from start to finish, and puts most other rap albums in the past decade to shame, and a lot of other releases, as well.

Kanye might not be the genius that he constantly reminds us he is, but he shows excellent taste in samples, and is clearly one of the most imaginative producers in today’s music scene. He, along with the sadly-missed Dilla, creates a soulful, melodic musical stew to which Common adds his considerable rhyming and verbal skills. Common proves in album after album that he is much more intelligent, thoughtful and “real” than all the cartoonish gangsta-wannabes out there who just perpetuate negative stereotypes and values, and endlessly flaunt their wealth. Hip hop could use more good men like Common, who hearkens back to the golden age of the genre, when De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest were creating highly-inventive platters of wax. Then again, Common has been around since the early ‘90s, when he was going by the moniker Common Sense (shortened later in the decade), so he came of age during that era, and carries some of that spirit, if not the humor, into the present day. He does it without sounding like an anachronism, either.

Be was the follow-up to his wildly uneven, highly-criticized but fascinatingly adventurous 2002 release, Electric Circus, which had a strange, psychedelic Hendrix vibe at its core. Coming after the highly-lauded Like Water for Chocolate, though, it just seemed to puzzle most of his fans. Be seemed to mark somewhat of a retrenchment for him, yet it yielded absolutely nothing in the name of creativity. Kanye and Dilla simply brought Common back from the wilderness, and focused him, with often amazing results.

Picking out individual songs on Be is pointless – this album is better experienced by listening to it as a whole. Still, certain songs stand out; “They Say,” featuring a memorably-sung chorus by John Legend (one of the leading lights of R&B these days) is one highlight; “Testify,” featuring a great sample from Honey Cone (of early-‘70s “Want-Ads” fame) is another. “The Corner” benefits from an appearance by proto-rap legends The Last Poets, waxing nostalgic. “Faithful” finds Common struggling to stay faithful to his woman, but clearly determined not to blow his last chance at true happiness. Unlike most rappers, Common is not afraid of showing a more sensitive side to his personality (talking about finding love from within, for example), without coming across as a wimp.

Only the finale, “It’s Your World Part 1 & 2,” featuring an appearance by Common’s father (as on albums past), and poignant statements made by several school children, gets a bit overblown but still ends the album on a strong and touching note.

This was one of those albums that I listened to once or twice, at the time of purchase, and then filed away, without giving it much of a thought. Two years later, I pulled it out and listened again, and all of a sudden it hit me like an earthquake. How I didn’t see its greatness the first time around is a mystery. Once it hit me though, it became a frequent visitor to my car stereo – where it remains to this day. Some albums don’t reveal their greatness on first listen. This is definitely one of them.

Jay Mucci

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Marshall Crenshaw – “Field Day” (1983)

April 21, 2010 at 7:21 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles)

 

The Imaginary Sophomore Slump

Sometimes the stars, the moon and the sun all align perfectly for a songwriter and they write a batch of songs that make you stand back in amazement at their utter brilliance. This is what happened when Marshall Crenshaw recorded his perfectly-realized, once-in-a-lifetime, never-to-be-equaled, self-titled debut album in 1982. Every song was an instant classic, with not a false note on the entire record. Songs like “Girls” (with its exquisitely-rendered harmonies), “There She Goes Again” and my own personal favorite, “Mary Anne” (to name just three), were wonders to behold, with melodies so logic-defyingly catchy, once lodged in your brain, they can never be forgotten. Yet, the album was unleashed onto a mostly-unimpressed listening public (though the critics ran out of superlatives when praising it in the music press). Remember, this was the age of Duran Duran and Culture Club, and Crenshaw, with his nerdy Buddy Holly look and sound, simply didn’t fit in with the whole burgeoning MTV ethos. He simply looked too clean-cut, boyish, and nice.

In a perfect world, every song on Marshall Crenshaw would have burned up the charts. Even the home-demo recording, “You’re My Favorite Waste of Time,” relegated, unfairly, to a B-side, would have found a home on the radio (at least in a more polished version). But it wasn’t to be. And so in 1983 Crenshaw got down to the business of recording his sophomore album with big shot producer Steve Lillywhite (who helmed the first three U2 albums, among others) and made Field Day.

So how does this album compare to his debut? Well, if this is his so-called “sophomore slump,” then wouldn’t every songwriter like to be in a slump such as this? No, the album is not as perfect as the first. Lillywhite’s production is a bit heavy-handed at times, and clearly not the best choice for someone like Crenshaw (the production on the debut was always sympathetic to the song); clearly the drums could have been turned down in the mix – they are a little too loud for these types of songs – though compared to most of the over-produced, sterile albums coming out during the ‘80s, this one is almost minimally produced. And yes, some of the songs don’t quite equal the ones from the previous album. On top of that, there are only ten songs this time around – two less than before – though that’s mostly due to the longer running times of each.

Still, if the first album hadn’t existed, Field Day would have been looked at as what it was: a brilliant, melodic opus, filled with more than its share of perfect pop songs. Instead, it will forever, unfairly, have to live in the shadow of its slightly-superior predecessor. For anyone who first heard Crenshaw through this album, though, they would have been heaping the same kind of praise on him, as he was showered with the year before. This album had everything the debut had: great songs, wonderful performances, top-notch singing and arrangements. And looking back now, even the production doesn’t seem all that much different than the previous album – it just merely sounds like a slight concession to then-current radio considerations. Still, Field Day seemed to miss that last little extra bit of indefinable greatness that Marshall Crenshaw possessed in abundance. You find yourself humming these songs for weeks afterward, as opposed to months. But when it comes to songwriters and albums this good, it really does come across like mere nitpicking. Saying Field Day is not as good as the debut is like saying The Godfather Part II is not as good as the first Godfather – when it comes to that level of quality, nobody but the biggest fan would even notice.

First off, the album begins with one of his all-time greatest songs, “Whenever You’re on My Mind,” a song that had been kicking around since 1979. This is another one of his perfectly-written creations that should have made him a star. The song has everything you could want in a single: a memorable, catchy chorus, simple but effective lyrics, and absolute conciseness. It blew most of the songs that were clogging up the airwaves out of the water. Still, hit-making stardom eluded him nonetheless. Why this song didn’t make it to his debut is unexplainable. It’s just as good as any of the songs on there, and better than a few (as good as his version of “Soldier of Love” was, he should have relegated it to a B-side; he had enough good songs of his own).

“Our Town” is another winner, with a memorable chorus and great singing by Marshall, that could have been a hit (if only…). “One More Reason,” “For Her Love” and “Monday Morning Rock,” also, make very strong impressions. There clearly isn’t a bad song in the bunch, and despite the slightly gimmicky production on album closer “Hold It,” it’s almost impossible to say anything bad about this album.

It’s very easy to eventually run out of superlatives when writing about Marshall’s first two releases, and cross over into “gushing” territory. When it comes to Crenshaw, and this album, though, I’ll gladly gush. He really was that good. And if every artist goes through the so-called “sophomore slump,” nobody got the message to Crenshaw. Thank God.

Jay Mucci

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