"You're Doo," Nightmares & Daydreams
It's been a disappointing summer for hip-hop beef, and the situation hardly improved when New York MC St. Laz dropped "Rhymefest Diss" in an attempt to start something with 'Fest. The track was about as interesting as its title, and Rhymefest didn't even bother responding. But a 19-year-old self-described cornball named A.J. Crew, raised in Ohio and based in Chicago, stepped to his defense with "You're Doo," titled after a line from St. Laz's track. Crew isn't jumping in because he thinks Che needs the help—he admits he's got less chivalrous motives: "Blogs wondering why Crew is dumbin' down / A few reasons / One, my album's coming out / That's the cheapest of the plugs I know / But St. Laz is the weakest of the thugs I know." On "Doo" and on the album in question, Nightmares & Daydreams, Crew shows a lot of potential—he's got a talent for punch lines and a way of mixing long lyrical flows with chopped-short lines that places him stylistically somewhere between Cam'ron and Kool Keith. The kid probably won't start catching ears outside the mix-tape scene till he develops a little more microphone presence—and stifling the homophobia would help too.
DUDE 'N NEM
(Beat Bangers/The Orchard)
A hybrid house/rap beat, ringtone rave synths, an Auto-Tuned female vocal hook, a bunch of rhymes about clubs and women—in the hands of the Black Eyed Peas those elements add up to chart-dominating juggernauts as bland as they are popular. In the hands of Dude 'n Nem, though, they add up to "Sounds Sexy," which, while not exactly brilliant, is at least charming. Yeah, the single is an obvious attempt to get play in the clubs (and on the charts), and yeah, it's a bummer to see the same two spectacular weirdos who gave us the giddily brilliant "Watch My Feet" taking their cues from master panderers like Will.i.am and company. But even when Dude 'n Nem aim for middlebrow they throw in some stupid-smart kicks. The female vocals in the hook are in Spanish (or, in later versions, French, Hebrew, Portuguese, Hindi . . . ) and the duo respond in their own half of the chorus by admitting they have no idea what the woman's saying. I can't explain why, but that joke just doesn't stop being funny to me.
Training for the Gameshow Host
You may know Mr. Russia from the hundreds of stickers affixed to seemingly every available surface in any venue and bar in town that slants even vaguely toward "rock." All those stickers had me certain that they were one of those bands that throw themselves headlong into self-promotion—you know, three different T-shirt designs, constant MySpace updates, a half dozen e-mail blasts before each gig—before they even know if they've got anything to say musically. Mr. Russia has an interesting two-basses-and-a-synth lineup, but the first songs I heard weren't similarly original and always came up a bit short on hooks. But their new EP, Training for the Gameshow Host, available as a free download at mrrussia.net or as a free CD at their shows, shows a bit more vision. The tunes don't get stuck in my head for days on end or anything, but I give these folks props for a semiradical reinvention of their sound—inspired, according to front man Ivan Russia, by Brooklyn art-punk squad These Are Powers. They've replaced the synthesizer with organ and piano, and they're working a lot harder to create interesting textures.
THE PART FIVE
Leering Castles of Crates
I was never offended by Pedal Steel Transmission (or their later incarnation, Hummingbiird), but I could never really get down with them either. So many of their songs ended up suffocated by the band's attempts to make them sweeping or cinematic (or whatever they were trying for) when they would've been better off left alone. With his new band, the Part Five, PST guitarist and singer Gary Pyskacek seems to have come to the same conclusion. "The Thoroughs," from a single called Leering Castles of Crates, starts with 30 seconds of noodly fingerpicking, then bursts into roughed-up, stripped-down postpunk that sounds like it was put it to tape as soon as somebody came up with two chords and a bridge. The B side, "Sweet Enemy," spends too much time plodding along in self-conscious meaningfulness, but it eventually ditches the heavy vibe and emerges as another unfancy pop song. Simplicity suits these guys.
"Metro Puppy Love," "Uptown"
Psalm One has been pretty quiet since 2006's The Death of Frequent Flyer (Rhymesayers). That makes her an oddity at a time when other MCs seem to release new material every week—a situation that's created such a glut of music online that an artist can be the hot new shit one month and a has-been the next. But the former chemist is a pretty unforgettable personality, straddling the line between backpacker and street rapper and earning her audience without stooping to Lil' Kim-style sexploitation, so maybe she doesn't have to worry about shelf life quite as much as the average MC. It's good to have her back, and the time away doesn't seem to have dulled her skills. On "Metro Puppy Love" she boasts about what a badass she is, gives women advice on playing with dudes' minds, and gets loopily autobiographical—"I'm terrible / You know I'm so flaky / Croissant-style / Taters with the gravy." (She's the rare rapper who pronounces croissant the proper French way.) And check out the way she goes in on the organ-heavy beat to Drake's "Uptown"—she tackles the song with a laid-back drawl that sounds like she isn't even sweating it.
Waterhens are just begging to be compared to Neutral Milk Hotel—rough-edged songs, homey recording quality, politely oddball instrumentation like accordion, glockenspiel, and musical saw—but they don't actually seem to be one of the many indie groups trying and failing to recapture the epic magic of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. This four-piece—originally a solo project for ringleader Quintin Nadig—works on a smaller, more intimate scale. With its patient pacing, bittersweet mood, and intimate sound, Waterhens' Ridgeland sounds like a descendant of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, except more whimsical than grim. And in the way the music hangs together—not just as a formula or a sound but a gestalt—it also feels like the record right before a band does something truly great.