Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Personal Histories

By Noel Murray

DECEMBER 8, 1997: 

LL Cool J Phenomenon (Def Jam Music Group)

When Joni Mitchell released Blue in 1970, the record was hailed as a triumph of confessional songwriting in a warm, acoustic setting. Sure, popular music had embraced autobiography before (listen to the Folkways recordings sometime), but Mitchell's songs were a revelation--self-deprecating and lacerating in equal measure, literate little stories of love and egomania. Blue was the first pass in what would become a veritable strafing of introspective songs by sensitive young men and women, willing to bare their souls at the drop of a guitar pick.

LL Cool J's Phenomenon is sort of an autobiographical record; of course in rap, what else is new? For the most part, if a rap song isn't actually autobiographical, then it's at least a remarkable simulation. The difference here is that LL has interspersed his boasts and come-ons with the song "Father," a more straightforward tale of growing up. Other songs on the album--like the title track, for example--offer little that hasn't been heard in a hundred other rsum raps, but "Father" deals directly and remarkably with LL's childhood.

This direction is not entirely new to rap either--boyhood party raps go back as far as Grandmaster Flash and Kurtis Blow--but this new song has a refreshingly humble bent. "Father" recounts, in fine detail, what it was like to live with an abusive parent ("all I ever needed was a father," he raps at his absent pop), ending with the revelation that "I ain't mad at you daddy." In between, LL describes his father's brutal beatings, sparing no gore or raw nerve. This truly is the hip-hop equivalent of Mitchell's confessional songwriting.

If only the backing tracks were worthy of the painfully honest lyrics. Although LL Cool J is a charismatic star with a robust voice and a good rap, musically, he has always been about a half-step behind. He began his career by copping moves from Run-DMC, then he proceeded through Public Enemy and Dr. Dre. Now he's dancing around in the land of Puff Daddy: "Father" has "elements" of George Michael's "Father Figure," and a bombastic gospel choir on the chorus, an unnecessary addition that obscures many of LL's rhymes.

Looking back
LL Cool J, something like a phenomenon
Photo by Wayne Maser

A sample-heavy album, Phenomenon is predigested and bland. The hooks are there, but they're not reimagined in a new context--they're just borrowed. Repeating a chorus or a riff from a familiar song makes the new song sound D.O.A. while also diminishing the freshness of the original. It's hard to pay attention to the words when you're numb from the mix.

Mike Watt Contemplating the Engine Room (Columbia)

Mike Watt is far more inspired. From his days in the Minutemen, then fIREHOSE, and now as a solo artist, Watt has careened from jazz to punk to funk to country, often before reaching the first verse of a song. On his latest, Contemplating the Engine Room, he returns to his preferred three-man-band format, from which he coaxes an intimate, tightly controlled sound. The music is toe-tapping, catchy, and appealingly nimble, stepping across genres with grace and intuitiveness. Much credit goes to Watt's sidemen--Nels Cline on guitar and Stephen Hodges on drums--who manage to channel the spirit of former Minutemen D. Boon and George Hurley without blatantly aping their sound.

But it isn't the music that's getting Engine Room glowing write-ups--critics have long known Watt as a visionary bassist and composer. Rather, it's the album's concept. As Watt himself explains on the sticker that adorns the CD cover, his latest piece is a punk rock opera, the libretto of which follows three guys working in the engine room of a boat during a 24-hour period. The jargon-filled lyrics compare his father's years in the Navy with his own time touring the country as a member of the Minutemen, in the early days of American alternative rock.

For Watt, who has always had a penchant for catch-phrases and in-jokes, this premise gives him plentiful opportunities to expand his personal code language. Here, his regular usage of the words "spiel," "econo," "crux," "masons," and "Pedro" (referring to his hometown of San Pedro, Calif.) has been augmented with seafaring terminology: "black gang coffee" (a brew heated up on the ship's engine), "boilerman" (the guy who mans the ship's boiler, also a code name for D. Boon), "fireman" (the engine-stoker, also code for George Hurley), and "topsiders" (punk rock fellow travellers).

Some of this verbal game-playing is awkward, some is embarrassingly cute. This has always been the case with Watt. But his passion and commitment to his muse are above reproach, and as such his eccentric wordings and restless musical explorations are downright endearing. Anyone who's ever seen him play live, or has had the pleasure of talking to him for more than five minutes (which any fan can readily do after his shows), can't help but admire Watt's gruff but big-hearted persona.

Contemplating the Engine Room filters that persona through a story--one that draws lines between points that Watt has charted before, in songs about San Pedro and his own love of music. This is a different kind of autobiographical songwriting from the work of James Taylor or Carole King or even Ice Cube. Watt's heart is on his sleeve, yes, but not in service of confession, self-pitying relationship songs, or legend-building. Instead, he's celebrating the joys of his life--hanging out with the guys and doing good work, just like his Dad did. As different as it may be from Blue, though, Contemplating the Engine Room makes the same kind of connection with listeners--by using lively words to reveal personal truths.

Pulsars (Almo Sounds) With all the discussion about synthesizers and sequencers in the rock press this year, the time has come to consider the role of the synthesizer in pop music history. The sound broke through in the '70s, when The Who used looped synthesizers to give "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" a feeling of stark emptiness, while Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer embellished their prog-rock compositions with a futuristic edge. Synths blazed into the '80s, reinvigorating popular music with a multitude of gimmicky sounds before sailing out again on a tide of one-hit wonders. Now in the '90s, electronica has been touted as the answer to an era of sludgy guitar rock.

The common thread? Leaving aside the populist, DIY possibilities of electronic music-making, the hook of the synthesizer over the past three decades has been just that--its hookiness. The instrument has repeatedly been used as a tool to grab the ear during the times when popular music is in a rut.

Now here's Pulsars, a Chicago band that sounds similar to such alterna-pop combos as Butterglory and Small Factory, save that its music is awash in the bleeps and boops that only banks of keyboards can provide. In "Tunnel Song," the first full song on their debut LP, brothers David and Harry Trumfio pound out a minimalist ditty that breaks into an expansive, echoing chorus straight out of an O.M.D. song (right down to the distant, filtered voice whispering, "talk radio...is phasing out"). This sets the pattern for the rest of the record--silly pop songs with semi-novelty lyrics, dressed up in as many '80s technopop poses as Pulsars can remember.

Damned if it doesn't work like gangbusters, though--partly because of the nostalgic appeal, and partly because of the thematic edge in David Trumfio's lyrics. "Technology" deals with the obsolescence of a decade-old computer, while "Runway" offers the spectacle of an advanced subculture destroying all the tiny minds who gather around their escaping rocket ship. (In true Depeche Mode style, the sci-fi stories in these songs can easily double as relationship metaphors.) Even better are the sweet "Silicon Teens," a paean to an obscure British techo-pop group, and the pleading "Save You," which pays tribute to the ability of music to reach into the suburbs and touch young lives.

Pulsars is not a completely satisfying listen; like a lot of ear candy, too much can upset your chemical balance. It's best to sample its pleasures casually, a few songs at a time. But in its finest moments, this light charmer is reminiscent of and even equal to some of the best synthpop of the '80s--Yaz, say, or Thomas Dolby.

It was Dolby, of course, who commented that he wanted to show the world that synthesizers didn't need to sound like "a crate of moribund wasps." Times have changed, and yet, at a time when electronics are being used to make music sound colder and more aggressive, it's nice that a band like Pulsars is around to show us the options. They remind us that synths can still be appealingly goofy and surprisingly human.

Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, Have a Ball (Fat Wreck Chords) The gimmick is a familiar one--take a bunch of old, well-known, preferably kitschy songs, and reinterpret them in a seemingly incongruous genre. Big Daddy turned '80s Top 40 into '50s skiffle; The Coolies remade Paul Simon's oeuvre in a dozen different alterna-rock styles; and Dread Zeppelin blended Page and Plant with Marley and Tosh, as sung by Elvis. Sure, it's good for a laugh, and it's easier than writing original music, but what makes these experiments interesting (with the exception of Dread Zeppelin) is the way the songs can take on new lives.

Me First and the Gimme Gimmes' bright idea is to revamp some of the cheesier hits of the '70s. Thus, Kenny Loggins' "Danny's Song" becomes a thrash workout; Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" becomes a thrash workout; James Taylor's "Fire and Rain" becomes...well, guess. The Green Day-ification of these familiar chestnuts works pretty well, for a couple of reasons. For one, MF & GG are bright enough to keep the proceedings brief. The 12 tracks here clock in at under 30 minutes total, and few cuts exceed three minutes. Thrash gets boring quick, but the band doesn't play long enough to wear out their welcome.

More importantly, the songs are better than you might remember. Who knew "Seasons in the Sun" had such tongue-tripping verses and such a wistful air? Or that "One Tin Soldier" could be as inspiring as it was always intended to be? The songs that come off the best are the ones that were strong to begin with. "I Am a Rock" and "Fire and Rain" thrive when shouted over crunching power chords, and "Rocket Man" is absolutely thrilling, especially as the "think it's going to be a long, long time" coda races to a conclusion.

What does all this prove? Well, mostly it shows how much fun it can be to roast old chestnuts on a fresh fire. But this mini-genre of cover bands also suggests that maybe the old saying is wrong: It's both the singer and the song that matter.

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