The Joys of Influence
Recent songs that showcase masters and apprentices.
When Vashti Bunyan's initial singles were met with yawns, she did what any British folk singer in 1968 would have done: She set out for the Hebrides—in a horse-drawn wagon—in search of Donovan, who was living on the Isle of Skye. * Nearly two years later, she wrote an album about the experience, and, 30 years later, she discovered (via the Internet) that people cared after all—Bunyan had become a cult figure in fringe folk circles. Her young admirers, Animal Collective, are known for their swirling, psychedelic pop songs, but here they play the role of the dutiful backing band. "It's You" features Bunyan's trembling whispers gently pushing their way through a scrim of majestically off-kilter strums. The highlight is "Prospect Hummer," a joyous country lollop wherein Animal Collective's wobbly harmonies are offset by Bunyan's free-form sotto voce.
Be (G.O.O.D./Geffen, 2005)
The Chicago rapper Common has always seemed like an old soul trapped in a young (and often gaudily clothed) body. His best records yearn for an impossible return to a time of loftier principles or, in the case of "Corners," a time when he could dwell on the minutiae and small salvations of everyday life. On this teaser from his forthcoming album, Common turns ethnographer, unpacking the rituals and exchanges of the street corner—"We talk shit, play lotto and buy German beers/ It's so black, packed with action that's affirmative." He stands on the shoulders of Harlem's Last Poets, who, in 1969, were in their fiercely articulate prime. They saw the same scene but summoned a more elaborate vision. "The corner was our magic, our music, our politics … Our Rock of Gibraltar, our Stonehenge, our Taj Mahal," they urge, reminding their young charge of those who stood before him.
Even in the 1960s, Marianne Faithfull never had a pretty voice; today, she has the raggedy, hoarse sound of someone who barely survived a decade of the Rolling Stones. Poison is Faithfull's second album of collaborations with younger artists who defer to the frail, tattered elegance of their elder muse. Jon Brion carefully tiptoes around her on the brittle, music-box waltz of "City of Quartz," while the usually dreary Nick Cave provides a swooning backdrop for "Crazy Love." The most inspired contributions come from P.J. Harvey: Her spare arrangements on "The Mystery of Love" allow Faithfull to revel in her proudly imperfect voice, while the raspy guitars of "My Friends Have" provoke Faithfull into a classy, been-here-before swagger.
Queens of the Stone Age
Lullabies to Paralyze (Interscope, 2005)
Few bands understand the power of the riff as well as the Queens of the Stone Age. So, when the group recruited Billy Gibbons of the 1970s hair farmers ZZ Top to guest on "Burn the Witch," the invitation was in earnest. That song is the standout track from their recent album, Lullabies to Paralyze. Gibbons is better-known nowadays for his Father Time mien than for his guitar playing, and, according to rumor, his milelong beard actually became entangled with his guitar strings during the recording. Even so, Gibbons' boogie-woogie soloing brilliantly counters the band's dirgelike sound. He gives the song a dazed, bluesy feel that complements singer Josh Homme's fantastical lyrics about witchcraft, the afterlife, and secret scraps of paper cast down wells.
Hip-hop's ritziest have collapsed the master-apprentice relationship into a pyramid scheme, and none make it seem more natural than—in descending order—Dr. Dre, Eminem, and 50 Cent. Here, 50 and his G-Unit disciples congregate over a delicate, bubbly track borrowed from the Trammps' "Rubber Band." G-Unit may be known for their flash and bullet-perforated bodies, but here they opt for lyrical modesty. A pint-sized 50 frowns over his stolen bike; Lloyd Banks wheezes about "that little TV you had to hit on to get a picture"; Tony Yayo and Young Buck paint portraits of the artist as a young drug dealer; and The Game thanks Dre and 50 for plucking him out of Compton. The track originally appeared on the debut album from The Game, whose relationship with 50 recently hit some road bumps. Whither The Game? Worry not—he always has Black Wall Street, his own team of followers.
Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College. He is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman, about H.T. Tsiang, his imagined rival Pearl Buck, and the often contentious community of Americans writing about China in the 1930s and '40s.
Audio excerpts from: Prospect Hummer © 2005 Fat Cat; Be © 2005 G.O.O.D./Geffen; Before the Poison © 2005 Anti-; Lullabies to Paralyze © 2005 Interscope; The Massacre © 2005 Shady/Interscope. All rights reserved. Photograph of Billy Gibbons on Slate's home page © Dave Allocca/Reuters/Corbis.