Part three of my top eleven records of 2008. In this edition: reaching to make connections that do not really exist!
Sometime near the end of eighth grade I joined BMG music club, drawn by an offer of 12 cassettes for the price of one. Among my choices, I’m happy to say, were classics like Wu-Tang’s debut and PJ Harvey’s “Rid of Me.” While sharing very little in terms of style and mood, both albums were… well, I hate to use the word, but they were gritty like nothing else I had really heard to that point in my life. They were raw. Wu-Tang’s unpolished, hungry mien felt more honest than most of the supposedly hard-scrabble punk bands I listened to at the time, while Harvey’s album sounded great, raw in its emotions, rather than its sound. They were, and still are, visceral records – music for the blood more than the mind. Both albums, in their own ways, opened doors onto new worlds of music for me.
Wu-Tang Clan’s “Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers,” is without a doubt one of the most important hip-hop albums of the 1990s, but in 1994 I had no concept of what effect it was having on the rap world. In fact, I had no concept of hip-hop culture at all, outside of a love for Digable Planets and a general disdain (since corrected) for the G-funk style that dominated radio and MTV in the wake of “The Chronic.” To be honest, I wasn’t really interested in learning more about hip-hop until I heard Wu-Tang’s debut album. Instead of the busy, bright, melody-heavy rap I was used to hearing – with its high-whining synths and repurposed Funkadelic choruses – the Wu brought dark, spare beats and little else. Muted samples of pianos, strings and stabs of soundtrack noise add texture, but the rough beats and rougher voices are all listeners have or need for most of the album. Even songs with more frenetic arrangements, like ODB’s introduction “Shame On A Nigga,” drop everything but the voice, bass, and drums for extended stretches. I had expectations of what rap music sounded like and what kind of character it had, and Wu-Tang completely destroyed those preconceptions.
Whereas the Wu-Tang broadened my hip-hop horizons, in the end it only helped redefine that with which I was already somewhat familiar. PJ Harvey’s “Rid of Me” offered me something else entirely. Like the Afghan Whigs’ “Gentlemen,” the Harvey record was a revelation unexpected. It was my first “difficult” record. It took work to wrap my fourteen-year-old brain around the music and the lyrical themes. Listening to it now, that notion seems laughable, but to my still-developing ears, this was a hard album to get used to. For the most part, it’s not catchy, and the songs do not always follow traditional verse-chorus structures. The angst in the lyrics and their delivery is more mature, more complicated than the ‘my-parents-just-don’t-understand-me’ frustration I identified with in the grunge music of the previous few years or the full-bore anger of the punk and metal I was weaned on. I knew that I liked this album, or at least I thought I did, but I had to figure out how to listen to it.
My efforts were eventually rewarded. In science, when one finally masters a difficult concept, understanding it on a fundamental level, it has two effects. First, it adds a new dimension to the concepts that came before it, and second, it reveals a whole new set of concepts to be tackled. Likewise, coming to terms with “Rid of Me” changed the way I heard much of the music I had listened to before that album. More importantly, I could see new musical vistas spread out before me, new challenges to tackle. Music that I would have simply written off or been intimidated by before now became a puzzle to be solved, further doors to unlock.
It didn’t have to be “Rid of Me” – surely every music lover has a similar album in their past. I can’t help but wonder if “Nests,” the latest album by She Keeps Bees, might be a mindset-changing album for some budding musicophile. Drawing comparisons from most reviewers to the PJ Harvey classic, “Nests” shares something of the feeling of that earlier record, though it is quieter. Where “Rid of Me” howls, the volume never quite reaches a shout on “Nests.” Vocalist Jess Larrabee sounds a little like Harvey, but more importantly, she delivers her lines with the same sort of convincing passion. The comparison is somewhat overstated, but it’s a good bet that to fans of “Rid of Me,” this will feel like a familiar record, despite the sonic differences between the two pieces.
She Keeps Bees is a duo that sounds like a duo. Though having virtually nothing in common stylistically with the roughneck Wu-Tang brand of hip-hop, it evokes their classic debut in its strong, spare arrangements and dark palette of sounds. Often, Larrabee’s smoky voice hangs out on its own, accompanied only by muted guitar or sparse percussion, if at all. Even at their busiest, the songs leave wide-open spaces for every element, letting the vocals sit comfortably in the cleverly simple music.
“Nests” is not “Rid of Me” or “Enter the Wu-Tang.” In fifteen years, it is doubtful that I will be writing about this album. Right now, though, it is captivating me, not just because of the ways it brings other old favorites to mind, but also because it is a great record in its own right.