By Chris Parker
By Jesse Marx
By John Baichtal
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Jesse Marx
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Tatiana Craine
By Judy Keen
In that light, what I heard in the Wu-Tang Clan's visceral street soundtracks was not only black men claiming the camera--and thus the right to represent themselves in public discourse--but also the beginnings of the sort of group affinity and forgiveness that made the Million Man March so intense for its participants. Both enormously important themes illustrated, thanks to the rappers and producer RZA, in startlingly inventive textures and colors. Still, I'd recommend neither Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... nor Genius/GZA's Liquid Swords without reservation: one, because the stories they've chosen to tell mythologize literal dead ends; and two, because the other sex is not included, as they weren't with the March, in the general rapprochement. Women instead continue to show up only as "French Vanilla" fuck bunnies, victims, or symbols of a nagging, virtuous conscience--"don't go chasing waterfalls," as the lovely but suffocating TLC hit put it.
Coolio's justly huge "Gangsta's Paradise" was a way more open-ended ride, mostly because it dared to sit on the faultline between despair and grace, alienation and connection, rap and pop--slighting neither party in its tumultuous couplings. Just hearing the insistent opening strings made my breath catch; the single brought four minutes of suspense and no resolve. Similar un/balancing acts roused Palace, the Sea and Cake, and Pavement to their best albums ever, in a year not notable for white rock-boy achievement. With one leg in the po-mo indie aesthetic and the other in, respectively, outlaw country, dubbed-out soul, and classic rock, these guys found appropriately uneasy grounds for their vacillating deliberations on male identity, hetero relationships, and the experience of sex. It was a wry pleasure to hear the male voice so intentionally troubled and inconclusive.
I may as well admit, though, that I was most stirred this year by the sleight-of-hand of female artists--especially the happy harpy triumvirate of Polly Harvey, Björk, and the Mekons' Sally Timms. These women pulled practical jokes on genres: Harvey dismantling the blues' devil in a red dress; Björk singing a vast humanity into techno; Timms making easy listening anything but. Each in her own way pondered the puzzle of estrangement, framed on Harvey's To Bring You My Love in the language of myth, Christianity, and romance; and on Timms's To the Land of Milk and Honey through the idea of exile. The conclusion in all cases--I'm thinking particularly of Björk's delicious remake of the standard "It's Oh So Quiet"--was that connection was both impossible and essential, that refusal to acknowledge relation with an Other only results in the death of an aspect of the Self.
I don't want to imply that these albums espouse some happily-ever-after psychic marriage across the lines of gender, politics, whatever ("everything," pipes up Morissette, "is just fine, fine, fine"). Rather the songs speak of a commitment to passionate and playful process, however maddening, humorous, silly, cruel, and ultimately transformative people interacting with each other must be. This commitment signals the quiet expiration of rock & roll's coherent, individualistic "I"--there is no voice that is not mutable, related, multiple. That does not mean Polly, Björk, and Sally are not opinionated and angry performers, only that they know their opinions, anger, and performances will move and change in relation to, and with, the world. I keep wanting to make a case for the political and social relevance of these communiqués. But all I can really say is that they inspired me, and I'm thankful for it.
1. PJ Harvey To Bring You My Love (Island)
2. Björk Post (Elektra)
3. Sally Timms To The Land Of Milk and Honey (Feel Good All Over)
4. Palace Viva Last Blues (Drag City)
5. Massive Attack vs. Mad Professor No Protection (Circa U.K.)
6. Aceyalone All Balls Don't Bounce (Capitol)
7. Helium The Dirt Of Luck (Matador)
8. Cesaria Evora (Nonesuch)
10. Raekwon (Guest Starring Tony Starks [Ghost Face Killer]) Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (RCA)