Reviews and Suggestions

CD Review: Dead Poets – Starving Artist (Level Media House)

dead poets webLet’s face it: since the early 1980’s rock and roll in all of its’ forms has been pretty much passe. The chords have all been struck, the modes and scales shredded and re-shredded like yesterday’s coleslaw and all the melodies sound re-hashed and unmemorable. And while there are plenty of bands and artists that excite me musically, they aren’t exactly paving any new ground. They simply do what they do well enough for me to think they have what it takes to make some noise in a big way. Some excel at what they do so much it almost makes me think they have a chance at setting the world on fire and come with something totally transcendent down the line. A select few make me believe that rock and roll might have a chance. Most however, just do the bar band thing and are competent enough to get to a certain level but no higher (hello John Mayer – I am looking at you!) as they carve out a niche for themselves and their coterie of hipper-than-thou fans, most of which would rather keep their “new discoveries” to themselves anyway lest people they find uncool (ie. THE PUBLIC AT LARGE) also somehow enjoy their music, comfort them by saying they “wouldn’t be understood” anyways. But, rising above the din and reconfiguring all of modern music has been the arrival of rap/hip-hop music – bringing the vitality of the streets and combining it with technology to create a style of music both primal and futuristic and discombobulating everything that has come since.

What most refuse to understand and even less care to admit is that the only true innovations of the past thirty or so years have come from rap and hip-hop. Sure, the form has it’s antecedents in popular music but by-and-large the artform has been the last true new wrinkle in modern music. Hybrids of rap and rock etc. don’t count of course, as they are blendings of two previously existing things. But the fractured beats, layered loops and samples, and, most importantly, the street poetry have revolutionized music and changed it forever from the very first time the Sugarhill Gang opened their mouths to spit rhymes. And while the ingredients that make up rap and hip-hop such as slice-of-life lyrics, trenchant beats and catchy hooks are not new, they have been used to create a new form of music which has been the catalyst for just about every musical movement since. Let’s face it: from 1980 onward all artists have either been influenced by rap and hip-hop or have pursued a musical path noteworthy only for the total absence of it. What were the sub-genres of hair metal and grunge if not Caucasian-dominated musical forms bound and determined to run in the opposite direction due to the fear of the rock establishment to hop on board and embrace it.

The musical forms of rap and hip-hop excite me lyrically much more than musically, as really great artists like Biggie Smalls, Tupac, and De La Soul among many others have always seemed to be very deep poetic souls with a lot on their hearts and a lot on their minds, with their poetry and their message the most vital part of their music. I do, however, have a profound respect for how the producers are able to use loops and samples to “build” a track from the bottom up. Often after hearing a track I catch myself wondering what the musical tapestry woven behind the lyrics would sound like by itself. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen much with this CD though the artists seem strong from a lyrical standpoint and why wouldn’t they, since Mark-uz MidKnyte (Knyte) and Lazarus (Laz) of the duo both grew up in the birthplace of Hip-Hop, the Bronx, New York. The problem for me on this CD was the music and production, which sounded bland and pedestrian to me as I was looking for something special to define the duo.

The first song, Resurrection, has an almost funereal feel to it. The beat pounds as if people are marching, yet the keyboard parts suggest the music one might play at a funeral, much like a dirge. The lyrical flow is defiant, exciting and energetic with a very strong delivery about the struggles a person has to go through to survive. The song Too Many Mics has the music mixed way in the back with the lyrics up front over a very simplistic beat featuring mostly snare hits and very simple bass lines. While the production is very solid, this song is mixed in a way where it really wouldn’t sound too hot on the radio. Music is too far back in the mix to really hear too well. The song On The Grind has the best hook out of the ones featured so far, and features beefed up production values that would lend it self well to radio. Once again, simple beats with snare hits and simple bass, not a lot of variation in the beats between songs. The lyricists and rappers seem very talented, I think it’s going to take a name producer to get some tracks out of them that really have their own personality. At least on these first three songs, they run together and sound so much the same, it is hard to tell one track from another. Tickled Pink has a more banging beat with some cymbal crashes and piano riffs to liven up the proceedings a bit. Very long track but the catchy hook keeps it running smooth. Very engaging and radio-ready. The song Step Up increases the production ante yet again with decent sound effects and a great, hooky keyboard sample woven through the song that suggests a dream-like melody. Great drum beat opening to the next song, Irresistable, with the bell of a ride cymbal being looped repeatedly and driving the track as the chime is used almost to snap the listener from their complacency and forcing them to notice the powerful lyrics underneath. As the album progresses, I am noticing that most of the cuts sound very similar in terms of production and also backing tracks and other instrumental accompaniment. While each has maybe a subtle shading or two with some different instrumental highlights, I have been experiencing heavy ear fatigue no doubt due to the tracks pretty much sounding the same. The production seems to be geared more for the impact of singles, than the album concept as a whole, which does make sense as the rap/hip-hop game is geared to single success, not necessarily towards albums as a whole.

While this album may be destined to only be a momentary blip on the screen of rap’s musical dominance, this is nonetheless the work of two lyrically-gifted artists who need to find a more sympathetic producer who can take their skeletal songs and flesh them out and hopefully create something original with them. As it stands, this CD seems to sound not all that much different from the various local crews present in every metropolitan city. I guess I was expecting something revelatory in either style, presentation or substance and have sadly received nothing groundbreaking in any respect, at least to my ears. While many lyrical gifts are present, the act needs a total change-up from a musical and production standpoint to give them some sort of shadings which would sound unique in some way. Though some tracks do stick out and each track on it’s own sounds passable, nothing really leaps out at you as anything extra special. Not a bad album though, and the pair will no doubt be able to build on this release.