Ghostface Killah Fishscale
Rappers are the biggest blabbermouths in pop history, and great rap songwriting is often an exercise in splendid excess, with MCs pouring out verses that spill over the edges of meter that constrain traditional pop songs. No one today capitalizes on hip-hop's expansion of pop music space-time quite like Ghostface Killah, the loud and lovable Wu-Tang Clan rapper whose fifth solo record is out today. Fishscale is an instant contender for rap album of the year, and part of what separates it from the pack is the fact that there's a lot more of it: more off-kilter rhymes, more comical (and heart-wrenching) stories, more asides, more details, more, more, more. Ghostface is the world's most discursive MC, and all that meandering keeps his songs fresh. There are lots of raps about cocaine dealing these days, but how many rappers lavish verses on elaborate recipes for cooking up crack rock?
The production on Fishscale (by Just Blaze, J Dilla, MF Doom, and Pete Rock, among others) is, like Ghostface's rhymes, cluttered and grimy, a proudly earthy New York sound. But you could listen to Ghostface's songs a capella. There's music just in his ragged flow, and you can get lost in the gonzo poetry of songs such as " Be Easy," which flits from boasts about footwear ("So what, come on, now some of y'all people/ Might know me from my wallabies,") to obscure similes ("I stick it up like an iced cake robbery/ And when I'm done, y'all can finger nail file me"), to dinner orders ("Yo babe, hurry up with those collard greens"), to puns on advertising slogans ("Quick to pick a honey up, shit, the flow's Bounty"). There's more to chew over in those lines than in other rappers' whole albums, and that's just one little chunk of one verse of one song. There's more, more, more where that came from.
Last year, Prince revived his commercial fortunes by playing the codger card, wrapping his songs in the timeworn sounds of midcentury soul music and railing at hip-hop. ("Take ur pick—turntable or a band?" he sneered in "Musicology.") It was a savvy marketing move, playing to the prejudices of older record buyers, but it was also a betrayal of his legacy: Prince's whole career had been based on sonic surprise and subverting musical formulas.
3121 isn't a great Prince album, and it contains its fair share of genre exercises—songs like " Satisfied," which is the kind of ridiculously virtuoso old-fashioned boudoir ballad that Prince can write and record in two hours flat. But there are flashes of Prince the innovator. The single " Black Sweat" is a furious piece of electronic funk that, like many of Prince's classic singles, lays emphasis on the musical bits that usually recede into the background. In this case, he boosts the hi-hat way up in the mix, so that the song becomes a kind of sparring match between the hissing cymbal and the falsetto vocal. The title track is even weirder, a lurching dance tune filled with squeaks, bleats, wobbly synth fanfares, and multitracked vocals. It's a better strategy than the last time: Instead of moaning about the rappers who've stolen his crown, Prince is trying hard to out-funk them.
The Little Willies The Little Willies
Norah Jones' career is a case study in the bad results of excessive good taste. Her albums reek of refinement—elegantly arranged roots-inflected music, elegantly performed by Jones in her icy vibratoless croon. Not for one beat of one bar does anything unpredictable occur, nor is any kind of catharsis feinted at. It's a very pretty, very empty sound, and a waste of Jones' talent.
This side project, a country cover band (the group's name pays tribute to Willie Nelson), features several of Jones' New York musician pals, including singer-songwriter Richard Julian. It's meant to be freewheeling, but as parties go, it's awfully uptight, an anal-retentive hoedown. Jones' taste, as usual, is impeccable. The Little Willies have chosen great songs, including tunes by Nelson, Hank Williams, Kris Kristofferson, and in a detour north of the Mason-Dixon Line, "Love Me," by the Brill Building stalwarts Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. But Jones and company are connoisseurs without insight; Jones delivers Nelson's " Nightlife," a great, bluesy song about hard living, without a trace of vinegar in her voice, and Julian similarly bungles Williams' existential lament, "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive." Even worse is the album's " comedy song," a tall tale about Lou Reed, um, cow-tipping, complete with Jones and Julian trading cornpone banter over the fade. ("You really think that was Lou Reed?" "Sure it was! He was wearing black Levis!") Excruciating.
Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan Ballad of the Broken Seas
Ballad of the Broken Seas revives one of the more delightful pop subgenres: the Beauty and the Beast duet. You know the drill: A willowy chanteuse is paired with a dissolute he-bear—a pretty, ethereal voice paired with a croak—and noirish, or horny, or noirishly horny music results. The touchstones are Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood and, especially, Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. More recently, Polly Harvey and Nick Cave gave it a whirl.
Here the principals are Isobel Campbell, formerly of Belle and Sebastian, and Mark Lanegan, a growler who fronted the negligible grunge band Screaming Trees, and they do the tradition proud. They've studied their Sinatra and Hazlewood: Campbell glowers on the album cover beneath Nancy's beehive hairdo, and the music is Hazlewood-style Old West gothic, with finger-picked minor chords, sawing fiddles, and blasts of reverbed guitar and pedal steel. They pull this off with tongues in cheek, but never topple into kitsch—not even when Campbell answers Lanegan's raspy spoken verses by cooing a chorus in Latin. And in songs like " Ramblin' Man," a dusky setting of the Hank Williams standard, they exploit the dramatic possibilities of the duet form, as Campbell's whispered verses subvert Lanegan's macho man braggadocio. Note to the Little Willies: This is how you do a cover tune.