Chief Keef: Nobody

The anthropomorphic cartoon moon is in the seventh house, and Glo Gang has entered its Age of Aquarius. The evidence is all there on Chief Keef’s Instagram which, in recent months, has been filled with dozens of commissioned and original works of art. They’re mostly portraits of himself and his friends, in varying degrees of trippiness. Often, they’re depicted (by what seems to be Glo Gang’s in-house artist, a silver-bearded Angeleno called Bill Da Butcher) as members of a cheery cartoon solar system; Blood Money, Keef’s cousin and the Gang’s eldest member, who was shot and killed in Chicago last spring, is memorialized as a tattooed moon with angel wings. There’s a collage of Keef as a Viking skeleton holding America in a cage (he calls it “Americun Shakedown”); a sketch of a dread-headed Mount Rushmore; a triptych depicting a G-rated Keef engaging in water sports. Last month, Keef helped curate a gallery show in collaboration with media company FRANK151, to which he also contributed original artwork. He’s turned his Los Angeles home into his own private museum, obsessing over the minutia of presentation (“Trying to see if I should keep what’s up up?”)—this from the guy whose preferred mode of self-expression, not so long ago, was “Emojis”.

Then again, Keef’s thorough immersion in his own universe of aesthetics echoes his musical agenda since the release of his divisive major label debut two years ago. Since then, the Chicago ex-pat has refused to be understood on any terms other than his own, rejecting anything remotely resembling his 2012 crossover hits in favor of abstraction and obscurity. He drowned the crowd-pleasing hooks of Finally Rich in Auto-Tune and promethazine (he’s blamed critically panned 2013 mixtapes Bang 2 and Almighty So on the latter) and probed the outer limits of vocal performance. Yips, skrrrrts, and gurgles took the place of coherent language. He became obsessed with making beats, an entirely non-verbal mode of expression; on October’s brooding, distorted Back From the Dead 2 tape, released a week after the announcement that Keef was dropped from Interscope, he produced 16 of its 20 tracks. Nobody, his long-awaited sophomore album, released suddenly and without much fanfare, is similarly experimental, and equally devoid of any conventional hits. But where Keef’s spent the last two years attempting to hide in plain sight, stubbornly obfuscating his own thoughts to compensate for his discomfort in the spotlight, Nobody is, at its best, strikingly lucid. Maybe his recent passion for visual art has rekindled an interest in direct expression. Maybe he’s just growing up.

Finally Rich, as an album title, was aspirational as much as it was declarative, harnessing the laws of attraction to will fortune into existence. Nobody is a similar statement of purpose, but this time, the goal is to disappear. It’s not hard to understand Keef’s preoccupation with obscurity. Thrust into the public eye in 2012, he became a stand-in for Chicago’s ills more than an artist in his own right. His music had always been characterized by themes of loyalty and betrayal (trust only your inner circle—the rest are dangerous); hysterical media attention only reinforced that. If you’re going to be misunderstood anyway, why not ensure it? Equal parts knee-jerk trolling (he’s still a teenager) and defense mechanism, he hurtled towards oblivion, in what looked a lot like a downward spiral.

Nobody, much like BFTD2, is a dispatch from this void. But BFTD2 functioned as a submersion into his new aesthetic, more concerned with style than meaning; it narrowed in on weird grooves, unorthodox rhyme patterns, mood over everything. Almost in spite of its mission statement, Nobody is sharper, clearer, and more purposeful. It’s a neat 12 tracks, some of them less than two minutes long, executive produced by Glo Gang’s 12 Million. A handful feel more like sketches than completed works. But its high points have a clarity unmatched within Keef’s last two years of work; at times, he’s straight up vulnerable. He may not be coming back to earth any time soon, but he’s looking his audience in the eyes.

Keef’s lyricism has gotten slyer. His wit seems sharper; sometimes he cracks subtle jokes at his own expense. On “Pit Stop”, an album cut on par with any of Finally Rich’s, he quips, “Watch out, I’m 18 and I’m driving fast!” In the context of his public traffic arrests (in 2013, pulled over for driving 110 in a 55, he told police, “Well, it’s a fast car, that’s why I bought it”), it’s the equivalent of Taylor Swift winkingly acknowledging her reputation as a crazy girlfriend on “Blank Space”. “Twelve Bars”—a hypnotic burst of chimes that, like much of Nobody, is a closer descendent of cloudy cult favorite “Citgo” than anything else on Finally Rich—is a play on the drill canon as much as it is an exercise in wordplay. It nods to the drill canon, only to subvert it with novelty bars like, “Driving 12 cars at one time!”

But on “Hard”, one of the album’s two emotional cornerstones, Keef goes beyond crafty in-jokes and bares his soul. Over a beat somewhere between 40’s sulky symphonics circa Nothing Was the Same and the wispy New Age chirps of Lil B’s Rain in England, Keef delivers two of his most vulnerable verses to date (along with some pretty impressive bar-for-bar lyricism). “She don’t accept me, but she speak to my watch/ She won’t look at me, but she see I go hard,” he sings, honing in on the romantic insecurities that have emerged in Keef’s work for years now, from 2012’s “Save That Shit” to 2014’s “No”. He shrugs at his success, recognizing it as more of a burden than a blessing—everything’s pointless anyway. “Money ain’t that much, I’ll give it up… Life ain’t that much, I’ll live it up.” He’s at once proud of his ability to support his people and wary of being used: “Everybody eat, I’ll bill it up/ Baby I’ll keep my mouth closed, I’ll seal it up.” Even its title references the unflinching ubermasculinity that characterizes drill and its proponents, and beyond that, the temperament expected of black men from a young age. In early interviews, Keef claimed to be 16 going on 300; he’d long since been a man, but in many ways remained immature. These days, he’s just a world-weary 19.

It’s Nobody’s title track, though, that gives the sharpest insights as to where Keef’s at these days. Initially teased on Instagram last summer, with its Kanye West feature and threadbare Willie Hutch sample, “Nobody” hinted at a return to the old, coherent Keef. Instead, it’s as sonically inscrutable as ever. The snares are decidedly off. Kanye’s contributions don’t go too far beyond that 15-second clip. Listeners wondered if there’d been some mistake, if the track was unfinished, if Kanye had signed off on this at all. It doesn’t matter: “Nobody” isn’t about Kanye, it’s about Keef at his rawest and most honest. “They thought I was a joke,” he burbles with a melancholy that suggests he reads the comments. It’s Keef’s most clear-eyed dispatch yet from the void into which he’s hurtled himself. “I can’t fear nobody… I can’t hear nobody… I can’t see nobody,” he mewls, almost giddy with loneliness as he watches his surroundings fade to black, romancing the abyss. Things aren’t perfect, but they’re better than the alternative. It was awfully dreary, anyway—being Somebody.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork

Leonard Cohen: Live in Dublin

“Are you humoring me?” asks Leonard Cohen with a warm grin shortly after the first intermission of Live in Dublin, a new concert film and triple album captured in September 2013 at the Irish venue now known as 3Arena. He’s partway into “Tower of Song”, originally from 1988’s I’m Your Man, where he plinks out a rudimentary keyboard solo over canned percussion, in between vocals about Hank Williams a hundred floors above him and being “born with the gift of a golden voice.” He adds, “If these are the crumbs of compassion that you offer to the elderly, I am grateful.”

If audiences have been humoring Cohen, who was 79 then and is 80 now, for his age, they’ve been doing it for decades; on “Tower of Song”, he also admits to having an “ache in the places where I used to play.” In fact, Live in Dublin is only the latest live album since Cohen returned to the road in 2008, having been swindled out of his savings by a manager. He previously released the closely similar CD/DVD collection Live in London, documenting a show from that first year of touring. And there was 2010’s Songs From the Road, compiling a somewhat different set of songs from various 2008-2009 performances. Whether Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979, Cohen Live (drawing from 1988 and 1993 tours), or Live at the Isle of Wight 1970, live material from the supposedly not-so-golden-voiced songwriting giant is hardly lacking.

There’s still plenty to recommend on Live in Dublin—in all earnestness, at that. For one, though Live in London has shipped more than 200,000 copies worldwide, odds are that for many who might like this package it will be their first live Cohen recording. Besides, compared with the already-magnificent London set it adds several songs that wound up on 2012 studio album Old Ideas, making this a closer to exhaustive document of the perhaps no-longer-touring artist’s legacy; though you’ll probably get more replay value out of the audio component, the quality of the video—billed as Cohen’s first to be shot in high-definition—is a noticeable improvement. Mostly, though, anyone curious about Live in Dublin might at least want to stream the audio or rent the video because, whatever similar releases came before, it’s one monumental tower of a song.

Nothing here changes the foundations of Cohen’s narrative, but as with any archetypal legend, it’s made for retelling. The Jewish-Buddhist poet from Montreal whose songs are often best known through others’ covers reminded crowds on his money-making tours that—despite a perhaps overstated reputation for aloofness (watch him doing standup comedy in 1965’s Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen)—he’s a gifted and generous interpreter of his own work. His speak-singing style has grown deeper and gruffer, but not unbecomingly so, particularly amid so much use. His songs, as former backup singer Jennifer Warnes once told the author of a 1994 Cohen biography, aim to reach “the place where God and sex and literature meet,” but his work since returning has had mostly just the artist’s advancing years in common with death’s-door albums such as Bob Dylan‘s Time Out of Mind or Johnny Cash‘s (Cohen-covering) albums with Rick Rubin. He’s still more of the darkly humorous standup comedian. Yes, he skips off stage.

For all the talk of literature that attaches itself to Cohen, it’s striking when digesting his work at such great length how greatly he prizes the concept of song. His most famous composition, “Hallelujah”, in a verse left out of the Shrek-immortalized John Cale (and thus Jeff Buckley) versions but kept in here, envisions standing “before the Lord of Song, with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah”; toward the end of the Dublin encore, he refers to the joy of being “united with you in the spirit of song.” Whether on 1967’s “Suzanne”, where “you touched her perfect body” (but only “with your mind”), or 1974’s “Chelsea Hotel #2”, where “we are ugly but we have the music,” physical reality can be a flawed vessel for this spirit. On “Anthem”, a song from 1992’s The Future that featured on Trent Reznor‘s Natural Born Killers soundtrack and precipitates Cohen’s first traipse off the Dublin stage, he sings, “Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack, a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.” Perfection is impossible, he explained around the time of song’s release, noting that imperfection is “where the resurrection is.”

Cohen’s fatalism doesn’t prevent him from at least striving toward perfection. Longtime collaborator Sharon Robinson, who sang backup during the recent shows along with English duo the Webb Sisters, in her new photograph book On Tour with Leonard Cohen describes the concerts as a “detailed snapshot” of Cohen’s life’s work, “meticulously put together” and requiring “a Zen-like focus.” The virtuosity of the backing band, which includes an additional six musicians along with the singers, is a further expression of Cohen’s graciousness onstage. Despite the self-conscious artifice of “Tower of Song”, the rest of the performances are based in rootsier music, whether American folk, rock, jazz, and blues or European traditions (Spanish guitarist Javier Mas also plays lesser-known instruments including the bandurria, the laud, and archilaud). Cohen’s willingness to stretch his songs to their limits with instrumental and vocal solos means these concert recordings can’t be as lean as 2002’s The Essential Leonard Cohen—the Dublin set consists of 30 songs lasting about three hours, and the video portion adds three Old Ideas tunes performed in Canada—but in ringing the bells that still can ring, it’s perhaps truer to Cohen’s philosophy.

One more aspect setting Live in London apart from studio Cohen was his joyful interaction with the audience, and if anything that has intensified on Dublin. By the encore’s opening “So Long, Marianne”, he’s eliding words in the chorus as if startled by the crowd’s jubilant belting of the 1967 song; “You sing so pretty,” he says. And much as Cohen is willing to trust his songs to cover artists and to world-class bandmates, he also brings “the spirit of song” by closing the night with someone else’s: “Save the Last Dance for Me”, most famously recorded by the Drifters in 1960 (none other than Lou Reed worked with Doc Pomus, who cowrote the song with Mort Shuman, and Reed has said the song was written on the day of the wheelchair-bound, polio-stricken Pomus’s wedding, to a Broadway actress and dancer). By this point in the recording, my first time experiencing the concert, I was expecting something sublime, and that’s what I got, though not in the way I expected: The stage lights shine on the audience members, who do much of the hook-singing work for Cohen. Forget your perfect offering.

Cohen is a genially commanding stage presence, falling on his knees at crucial moments and doffing his cap for his accompanists’ solo turns. The Old Ideas songs, sprinkled throughout the set at just the right intervals, are naturally at home, capped with the wry God-speaking-to-a-man-named-Leonard “Going Home”. Otherwise, the songs you know and plenty of songs you should know better are probably here. There’s the apocalyptic The Future title track and the organ-drenched take on 1969’s “Bird on the Wire”, the smoldering Robinson co-write “In My Secret Life”, off of 2001’s Ten New Songs, and same pair’s bleak 1988 I’m Your Man collaboration “Everybody Knows” (used by Guns N’ Roses as  intro music on some Use Your Illusions shows). I’m Your Man‘s disco-funk “First We Take Manhattan”, covered by backup singer Warnes with Stevie Ray Vaughan as part of her influential 1987 tribute album Famous Blue Raincoat, runs right into a powerfully restrained take on that album’s title track, originally from 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate (“Sincerely, a friend,” Cohen signs off this time).

Paradoxically, on the songs at greatest risk of overexposure, it’s often the instrumental interludes, not Cohen’s poetry, that make my hair stand on end, further justifying the songwriter’s faith. This is especially the case for “Hallelujah”, bringing to mind another less-covered lyric—one that underscores where Cohen differs from the trickster likes of Dylan: “I’ve told the truth/ I didn’t come to fool you.” For the last time, no, the good people of Dublin weren’t humoring him. There might not be a single perfect, all-encompassing Cohen recording, but there’s this. “You can add up the parts/ But you won’t have the sum,” he sings on “Anthem”, and despite his failed tax-avoidance retirement strategy, I’m inclined to trust the Zen priest in the bolo tie and fedora.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork

Wilco: Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracks 1994–2014/What’s Your 20? Essential Tracks 1994–2014

Near the start of Alpha Mike Foxtrot, a 77-track collection of rarities, alternate takes, and live tracks from across Wilco’s 20-year career, Jeff Tweedy can be heard worrying about whether he has a place in the long line of great singer/songwriters that came before him. “You already know the story, the chords are just the same,” he sings, accompanied by strums and warbling cassette ambience. “You already know I love you, now I sound like what’s-his-name.”

When he recorded the demo of “Someone Else’s Song”, Tweedy was entering a scary new phase of his musical—and personal—life after the dissolution of alt-country heroes Uncle Tupelo, in which he mostly played second fiddle to fellow frontman Jay Farrar. And in 1995, the same year the demo was originally released, the then-28-year-old became a new husband and father, with little name recognition and no discernible life skills other than writing and singing songs. But even on that imperfect artifact, a lot of what would later define Tweedy as an artist was apparent: the casualness, the anxiety, the almost-uncomfortable sincerity. Meanwhile, the randomness of the recorded-over cassette’s pops and hisses could be heard as an accidental precursor to the unplanned abstractions that would later elevate Wilco to the realm of America’s most innovative rock bands. So just as the early take on “Someone Else’s Song” catches a vulnerable songwriter at an especially vulnerable moment, its overall message is resolute, with Tweedy spinning his referential concerns into confidence: “You can’t stop me, I want you to know/ I know it sounds like someone else’s song, from a long time ago.”

Both Alpha Mike Foxtrot and the 38-song What’s Your 20? best-of compilation offer compelling timelines of Wilco’s unlikely evolution from somewhat-generic roots rockers, to quasi-pop studio mad men, to soothsaying rock’n’roll deconstructionists, to spasmodic guitar adventurers, to epiphanic jammers, to a comfortable, if less exciting, combination of all those previous guises. What’s Your 20? is for the neophytes—it’s a very reasonable place to start for future generations facing down Wilco’s full catalog on Spotify. Alpha is for the die-hards, the ones who may have a yellowing ticket stub from the band’s fall 2001 tour in a drawer somewhere, who know all the words without thinking, who want to live through this band once again, but in a skewed, newish way.

Every track isn’t some kind of lost classic, and not just because every track has already been released in some form, whether as a B-side, on a soundtrack, or via the band’s website. Even Tweedy himself acknowledges some of the lesser moments here with off-the-cuff, generally-on-point track-by-track liner notes: He describes a scattershot remix of Summerteeth’s “A Shot in the Arm” by David Kahne (aka the guy who rejected Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and dropped Wilco from Reprise Records) as “a dated mess [that] doesn’t have anything to do with the feeling that I had about the song,” and confesses that the horny, cringe-worthy “Old Maid” is drummer “Glenn Kotche’s least favorite song in the entire Wilco oeuvre.” Running nearly five hours, Alpha plays like a clearinghouse more than a finely-edited set but, largely thanks to its bevy of well-chosen live tracks, its sidelong view of Wilco is worth a peek.

Though Tweedy first gained attention as an acolyte of classic country and folk, it’s his penchant for upending convention that has proven to be most enduring. This restlessness was there from the beginning; though Uncle Tupelo were known for their reverence to songwriting tradition, they also weren’t afraid to bust out a blitzing punk version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”—or a country take on the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog”. Alpha highlights this rip-‘em-up aesthetic early on with two versions of the small-town ode “Passenger Side”, from Wilco’s 1995 debut, A.M.; the first jangles and twangs tastefully while the second turns the song into a pop-punk screecher in the Replacements mold.

This contrarian strategy—taking a quiet song and exploding it live, or vice versa—offered a way for Wilco to make their early songs, along with the band itself, more slippery and less susceptible to pigeonholing. Another great example of this from Alpha is an aching guitar-and-piano take on A.M.’s “Box of Letters”, which reveals the hurt underneath the kiss-off’s biting album version while reminding us of the warmth of Tweedy’s determined shrug of a voice. Eventually, the band figured out how to combine its multiple musical personalities within one song as Tweedy delved further into himself to tease-out a fresh kind of indirect writing based on improvisation and subconscious connection.

“For a long time, I thought if I wrote a song that anybody could sing, I’d succeeded,” he told The Chicago Reader in 2004. “Then I started losing interest in that and started feeling like I wanted to write stuff that only makes sense if I sing it.” A watershed example of this approach is Summerteeth’s “Via Chicago”, which morphs from a downtrodden ballad to a tumbling feedback squall while Tweedy nonchalantly dreams of murder. It’s not a Bob Dylan song, or a Neil Young song, or a Tom Petty song. It is a Jeff Tweedy song, a Wilco song. The track is rightly included in What’s Your 20?, though the early demo of it featured on Alpha is just a static, stepping-stone take that Tweedy himself calls “sad and miserable.”

A huge factor going into Wilco’s ever-changing sound throughout their first decade was the band’s ever-changing lineup. For instance, the change from Summerteeth’s maximalism to the focused austerity of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot can in part be attributed to the band recruiting known experimenter Jim O’Rourke to mix Foxtrot at the same time as they were losing touch with multi-instrumentalist, producer, and overdub impresario Jay Bennett. Later on, Bennett’s ouster would lead Tweedy to flex his lead-guitar muscle on the brilliant A Ghost Is Born. And it’s this middle period filled with personnel switches and personal tumult—Summerteeth, Foxtrot, and Ghost—that still stands as their greatest work.

Considering Foxtrot’s lofty status within the history of Wilco—along with its sign-of-the-times label drama, it’s still their best-selling album by a wide margin—it is somewhat underrepresented on Alpha. The box set boasts a few relatively well-known outtakes, but in light of Foxtrot’s painstaking gestation, which had the band trying songs out in many different styles to see what stuck, it would have been interesting to hear a few previously unreleased attempts at those beloved tracks.

The material culled from Wilco’s ambitious and fruitful time making and playing Ghost is more substantial, peaking with three consecutive 2004 live tracks featuring their fleshed-out six-man incarnation, which remains intact to this day: 10-minute motorik blast “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, eerie deal-with-the-devil update “Hell Is Chrome”, and the monolithic and bipolar “At Least That’s What You Said” all spotlight Tweedy’s stunning distorted guitar work—oddly one of the band’s most underutilized assets—which combines the majesty of Television’s Marquee Moon with the spontaneity of free jazz great Albert Ayler. The sheer emotional audacity of these solos cannot be overstated; 21st-century rock guitar does not get better than this. After figuring out how to get the most out of abstracting his lyrics and arrangements on Foxtrot, Tweedy did himself one better by eliminating language altogether on large swaths of Ghost, replacing it with six-string bursts that said just as much, if not more.

Whereas material from the first five Wilco albums make up the lion’s share of Alpha, the band’s last three records are only represented by about a dozen tracks, which seems about right. Because while those albums, especially 2007’s earthy Sky Blue Sky, contain great individual songs, they don’t coalesce the way Wilco’s best albums do. Perhaps the stability of their lineup has made it harder for them to make exciting left turns, or maybe Tweedy grew tired of constantly pushing himself and his audience to uncomfortable places. Even the singer himself recently admitted that their last record, 2011’s The Whole Love, “was taken for granted a little bit, not necessarily by critics, maybe by ourselves.” After 20 years of Wilco, Tweedy is seemingly no longer vexed by the prospect of overcoming someone else’s song—though surpassing his own is only getting tougher.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork