The Big Chill
Kill the Vultures
The Careless Flame
Living in the Twin Cities in the late fall months gives you a chance to bear witness to an annual metamorphosis, one that almost looks like the process of decay in action: green shifts to gray, globules of spit linger crystallized on dirty sidewalks, and the fresh coating of snow that arrives every so often mainly serves as a new conduit for exhaust stains to swath the city in an Ingmar Bergman palette. The dissolution of local indie-rap icons Oddjobs seems to have worked the same way: Summery throw-your-hands-etc. party rhymes were jettisoned in favor of an atmosphere that bristled like the hip-hop equivalent of a jaw-clenching "fuck it's cold," and Kill the Vultures was born. "The first record was just a culmination of frustration with ourselves and the traditional approach to how we made music," remarked Alexei Casselle (a.k.a. MC Crescent Moon) during an initial phone interview. "We came from a more straightforward hip-hop group, so we were more concerned with people partying and doing the hands-up at our shows than really trying to say something or get a message across." The message, in this case, was a cathartic racket of stressed-out Americana bone-rattle, the kind of rap where the handiest reference point was Tom Waits.
Like its self-titled predecessor, The Careless Flame is less boom-bap than thud-clank, though it does come out at a more atmospherically opportune time than the debut, which dropped amid the encroaching warmth of spring '05. Crescent Moon—who's going it alone on the mic for this installment, since fellow MCs Nomi and Advizer are living out of town—has a commanding grumble of a voice, like Aesop Rock with a bit more clarity and coherence. And that voice does pretty much whatever it wants to, using the beat as a suggestion instead of a guide. "There's no real point where he's doing a normal hip-hop delivery. There's not a lot of flipping or double time or anything like that," said producer Stephen "Anatomy" Lewis. "From a rhythmic standpoint, it's simple."
But with that simplicity comes a certain weirdness. On the first track, "Moonshine," Crescent Moon mutters over a steady lope of a beat, his voice a carefully measured deadpan that sounds like Run-DMC grumbling the blues circa '83 ("I got moon, shine/drink it all the time/goes down rough but it's good for your dime"). "How Far Can a Dead Man Walk," on the other hand, closes the record with a heatstroke-afflicted beat where the vinyl crackle sounds almost as prominent as the percussion; the rapper fights it off and staggers breathless verses of desperation that play against Sean Behling's free-jazz skronk in some sort of three-way rhythmic game of keep-away. Casselle spends the bulk of his songwriting time composing on guitar (his other primary group, Roma di Luna, is a dust-bowl folk duo with his wife, Channy Moon Casselle), and his ideas translate intriguingly into Anatomy's production. Sometimes the guitar's at the forefront, blending sultriness and anxiety as in the Middle Eastern acoustic melody of "Days Turn into Nights," and sometimes it's a fossil buried beneath almost-painful slabs of junk-bop bass.
The Careless Flame also sounds a bit more natural in the way it captures a particularly Midwestern sensibility of things crumbling in the cold, which could owe a bit to the fact that it was recorded in the Twin Cities instead of a sun-proofed Berkeley flat with black curtains over the windows. Coming from a place where the agricultural-industrial boom that built its economy is surrounded by modern inner-city life, where graffiti-covered grain elevators are being demolished to make way for upper-income housing, the album expands Kill the Vultures' sense of rap as river-town Americana. "We're making American music, so it only makes sense that blues, gospel, and other roots tie into what we're doing," Casselle stated in an e-mail follow-up. "The Midwest is a melting pot within itself—the images spread from cornfields to condominiums removing urban culture to spikes in the crime rates that rival any major city per capita. All of these directly effect us and, in turn, our music."
It resonates even when the lyrics aren't specifically tied to the Midwest: "Strangers in the Doorways," where gear-grinding jazz pushes sludge through subwoofers and lyrics evoke a watery city that's starting to smolder, is reminiscent of Katrina—but also of the 1997 Red River flood, which dominated local news when Oddjobs were just coming up. "Dirty Hands," meanwhile, was inspired by a person Casselle met in California: "a homeless junkie in Oakland who was always playing his harmonica and singing for change outside my work. He wasn't pretty, and neither was his one-eyed bulldog—but when he sang he was more honest than I felt I could ever be. Had a horrible temper and he usually didn't remember we'd met the day before or the day before that. He stole my bicycle and then tried to sell it back to me the same day." But the song itself, coming from the perspective of an observant outsider who "ain't ready for your kind of clean," describes the kind of figure who could crop up anywhere, warding vulnerable people away from exploitative suits even as he's sizing them up for the taking.
Kill the Vultures' origin story plays out a bit like an admission of unhappiness with the ideas of traditional hip-hop structure, and even thrown in among the most left-field joints from the notoriously art-twisted Stones Throw catalogue, the album's a bit difficult to register in a rap context. But in an environment where boxcars roll through the heartland covered with Krylon bomb graf pieces straight out of Style Wars, The Careless Flame clicks in a way that bridges the gap between inner-city rhymes and rural folk art without pandering or pretense to either genre. "As long as we keep speaking up on issues that mean something to us," says Casselle, "be it personal, political, spiritual, et cetera, the music will remain urgent and full of fire." Here's one party-rap verse to live by: We don't need no water, let the motherfucker burn. Gotta keep warm somehow.
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