Clipse | Hell Hath No Fury (Re-up Gang Records/Star Trak/Jive)
Jarvis Cocker | Jarvis (Rough Trade)
Karen Dalton | In My Own Time (Light in the Attic)
Clipse | Hell Hath No Fury
Hell Hath No Fury, album deuce from the Everly Brothers of trap rap, might be the best hip-hop record of the year, and it's definitely the bleakest. The album's perfection is myriad, but throughout the mood stays reflective--this Virginia duo holds a coke mirror up to the face of America and shines our collective unease back at us. Brothers Pusha T and Malice spit through snarls--not a surprise, since they've spent most of the past four years embroiled in a music-biz fiasco that'd make most artists give up. Instead they kept toiling, sans official album release, and put out a pair of classic mix tapes chock-full of fin de siecle grit (the first volumes of the We Got It 4 Cheap series), earning an anxious fan base that was hyping Hell Hath No Fury as the album of the year long before its release. By the time the record finally came out at the end of November, Clipse had little left to actually prove. All the same, the 12 tracks on Hell Hath are sharp and lean, with no cheesy club bangers, no egregious whole-posse cuts, no interminable skits filling the cracks--there aren't even cracks to fill.
The first single, "Mr. Me Too," is terse and tense. Producers the Neptunes retool half the beat from "Drop It Like It's Hot," slow it to a somnambulant tempo, and pit it against an ominous tone burst that fades away like an exhalation. The Neptunes' steez is notoriously minimalist--their tracks make Gucci Crew songs sound like Phil Spector by comparison--and with Clipse, their collaborators since high school, they push it even further. Song beds are frequently limited to just two elements, an antsy beat antagonized by an unsettling minor-key sample: Indian flute, didgeridoo, a single decaying synth note, a sour squeeze of accordion. Beats drop out for too long or verses get stripped to the kick, leaving you in suspense, hanging on a rhyme like "Break down pies to pieces / Make cocaine quiches" ("Ride Around Shinin'").
Hell Hath No Fury drops more snow knowledge than a Tom Skilling weekend forecast, but Clipse have insisted in interviews that the album's positively myopic focus on coke is metaphorical. Beneath their glinting vision of trapocalypse lurk survivalist screeds--the fury of the hustle is a comment not just on the struggle of a music-biz come-up but on the lack of options in racist America. --Jessica Hopper
JARVIS COCKER | Jarvis
If a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, then I'm guessing that anybody who so much as carried an amp for the legendary British pop group Pulp can at least write a snappy tune. And front man Jarvis Cocker, well, he's such a charmed storyteller I'm surprised that one of the unpublishable expat writers in his adopted hometown of Paris hasn't tracked him down and shoved him under a double-decker tourist bus, just out of envy. I'm living a three-hour train ride away, and sometimes I'm tempted to do it myself.
Cocker's just-released solo debut, Jarvis, is an exemplary piece of decadent pop--I'm sure the master tapes are sitting under a glass dome at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Sevres. Former Pulp-mates Steve Mackey and Richard Hawley appear on nearly every track and also play in Cocker's live band; onstage they tend to stick to bass and guitar, but in the studio they added all kinds of bells and whistles. Though fans enamored of Pulp's skeevy, slash-and-burn side may recoil at the shimmering vibraphone, slithering 60s-girl-group rhythms, and sighing string section, nothing here is gratuitous or slick, and Hawley doesn't skimp on the snarly guitar. Each note of the arrangements is carefully chosen but casually executed, and the overall sound is golden and intimate, as though the gang were gathered on your balcony, strumming away.
And sharpening their teeth. Cocker made his name with rapier lyrics, and on Jarvis he doesn't disappoint. The standout is "From Auschwitz to Ipswich"--it may be the millionth song comparing modern Western civ to the declining Roman Empire, but given the timing of the album's release and the deadly spin Cocker puts on the tocsin ("'They want our way of life' / Well, they can take mine anytime they like... / Nobody's going to win"), it sounds like all those other bands were jumping the gun.
But not all the lyrics chafe against the tenderness of the music. Two devastating numbers seem to be written to dead people, and my favorite, "Big Julie," stars a sullen girl who finds a song on the radio that takes her "miles away from this sad town." She's "Floating beyond time / Like the greatest people in the world all springing up and feeling fine... / Yeah, form an orderly queue when Big Julie rules the world." It's impressive when a writer can persuasively adopt the viewpoint of the opposite sex, doubly so when he can outfit her with both a resurrection fantasy and a revenge fantasy in the space of a few lines. This is an album you can live inside for weeks, trying on all the different outlooks and emotions Cocker calls up--and though his words might sometimes unlace your nerves, his lush, sweet pop songs are sure to knit them back together. --Ann Sterzinger
KAREN DALTON | In My Own Time
That's Karen Dalton standing between Bob Dylan and Fred Neil in the famous 1961 photo that recently turned up again in Martin Scorsese's Dylan documentary. A half-Cherokee Okie, she moved to New York's Lower East Side in the early 60s, when the folk revival was just gearing up. In his liner notes to the reissue of her 1969 debut, It's So Hard to Tell Who's Going to Love You the Best, Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders called her the "real thing," setting her apart from the wealthy bohemians who dominated the revival: "She was the only folksinger I ever met with an authentic 'folk' background," he wrote. On that stripped-down acoustic album, captured in a single take--Dalton hated recording in studios and performing onstage, preferring to pick with friends at home--she tackled a Stax number and a Jelly Roll Morton tune, but most of the songs were clearly connected to the folk scene.
In My Own Time, originally released in 1971, when Dalton was 33, and reissued last month, was her second and final album. She soon faded from public view, and died destitute in 1993 after a long struggle with drugs and alcohol. Except for the presence of standards like "Katie Cruel" and "Same Old Man," you'd hardly call it a folk record--in fact it sounds like pop, with an electric band playing somewhat generic country-flavored blues-rock arrangements of everything from the Marvin Gaye hit "How Sweet It Is" to the George Jones tune "Take Me." But Dalton's sensibility was still folk through and through: like a mother cooing lullabies to her baby or a couple belting out old faves as they dry the dinner dishes, she'd woven singing into the fabric of her daily life. And whatever she sang she had the rare ability to transform.
Once you hear her voice, you won't soon forget it: a tight, strangely dry warble, it makes Dalton sound like a woman twice her age. Billie Holiday's a fair enough reference point, but as an interpreter Dalton doesn't take after anyone. With her liquid phrasing, she often completely ignores bar lines, extending certain passages, clipping others, stretching rhythms and melodies almost to their breaking points but always leaving the song recognizable--her ambiguous quaver on the chorus of "How Sweet It Is," for instance, subtly insinuates the shape of the original ascending line.
Dalton has become yet another cause celebre of the freak-folk scene--Devendra Banhart is a huge fan and contributed a muddled essay to the liner notes--but her art is too big to settle comfortably into a single subculture. Like Dylan before her, she made sense of the whole sprawling territory of American popular music--rock, folk, jazz, country, blues, cabaret, and whatever else she could wrap her voice around. --Peter Margasak
For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.