Thursday, April 13, 2006
GHOSTFACE KILLAH | Fishscale | Def Jam
Fishscale, which refers to highest-grade uncut cocaine, reintroduces us to the equally undiluted Ghostface Killah, the Wu-Tang Clan’s fiery righteous thug. The hottest commodity on Fishscale isn’t pure Colombian, but pure breath: Ghostface’s flow is uninterrupted and irreproachably itemized.
Now in his mid-30s, Ghostface has maintained a long run without running on empty, and that is because at his strongest, he hooks without a hook. Each album has its one seeming airplay attempt—Fishscale’s wounded warrior tale being “Back Like That” featuring Ne-Yo—but those cuts are the minority. Examples of Ghostface’s long-form style spectrum bookend the album: The insistent “Shakey Dog” conveys the shutterbuggin’ authenticity of an anxious heist, while the MF Doom-constructed “Underwater” floats surrealistic, stormy free association.
Fishscale’s highly prevalent activity, of course, is one that can carry as much jail time as profit, and that is, again, dealing coke. But that trap music revels in the perks of the trade, while Ghostface documents the downs with paranoid songs such as the infectious “Kilo” and the squalling “Clipse of Doom.” We hear of the details, not the dividends, and without excessive boasting.
All these swaggering narratives wouldn’t work, of course, if it weren’t for the dusky, scuffed beats laid down for Ghostface. Listening to Fishscale, you might find yourself fidgeting with your nose like you’d done a rail because the soul samples used throughout the album crackle with so much must you can almost feel the dust. (TW)
THE MINUS 5 | The Minus 5 | Yep Roc
To list the names of the participants on the seventh album from Scott McCaughey’s ever-evolving Minus Five ensemble—including members of Wilco, the Decemberists—would take up way too much space.
As always, the assembled gang includes R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, offering his services as sideman. But unlike the past dismal 10 years of R.E.M., the Minus Five has never been accused of being boring or tedious. Instead, each album offers a number of delightful curveballs including this dandy treatise on the dangers of middle age.
Here, McCaughey’s looking down the barrel of life with a clear head and bloodshot eyes. When he pulls the trigger, the resulting carnage recalls an uneasy mix of Mark Harper’s pub-rock and the literary violence of Warren Zevon filtered through acerbic, mid-’60s Dylan. (LVS)
BILLIE HOLIDAY | The Complete Verve Studio Master Takes | Verve
It is difficult to separate Billie Holiday’s art from the circumstances of her too-brief life, especially during the final decade, when the ravages of alcoholism and heroin addiction seemed to seep through cracks that had developed in her voice. The pain often hinted at in her groundbreaking recordings for Columbia and its sister labels in the ‘30s had come to the fore by the time she recorded for concert promoter Norman Granz’s Clef and Verve labels between 1952 and ‘57. Yet her keen musical intelligence—an almost magical ability to make songs more profound through subtle shifts of pitch and swing of phrase—remained undiminished.
Granz rescued the vocalist from six years at Decca Records, where she was often saddled with hackneyed studio orchestras, and placed her in all-star jazz combo settings, much as John Hammond had done two decades earlier. With Granz, however, her tempos were generally slower, and the material was better because he was not beholden to pressures from song pluggers.
On “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” she is sublimely playful, following “vanilla” with “chocolate, strawberry” instead of the “sarsaparilla, sassparella” in Ira Gershwin’s lyric. The Gershwin tune is from a series of 1956–57 sessions that rank among the most magnificent of Holiday’s career. (LH)