Dead Prez

Information Age: Deluxe Edition

[Krian Music Group]

Rating: 3 stars

The cover art adorning Dead Prez’s “Information Age” is telling. In the center of the disc’s central image sits the Buddha, in stoic repose, a lotus flower resting in his lap. Behind him lurks Uncle Sam, peering ominously over one shoulder, while flames surge over the other, and a sea of fists raised in seeming revolutionary fervor poke from the earth at the Buddha’s feet. The dichotomous coexistence of all of these heavily loaded symbols goes a long way toward encapsulating the genre-busting work of Dead Prez, the long-serving politically incisive rap duo made up of M1 and Stic.Man. It’s a fearless, far-reaching, controversial and highly intelligent strand of modern hip-hop that is Dead Prez’s raison d’etre.

“Information Age,” now available in its deluxe, expanded format, is a bold album, even by Dead Prez’s standards. First off, it’s a collection that embraces a synth-pop approach to its sonic layering, rather radically marrying European pop standards to a distinctly urban African-American aesthetic. This is personified right out of the box by “A New Beginning,” which combines glitchy synths with a rhyme that offers a laundry list of modern civilizations’ seemingly insurmountable failings, of the social, political and environmental variety. All of this gives way to a straight pop chorus, sung by guest Anthony David.

Things proceed apace from there, as M1 and Stic.Man lay out a holistic approach to life that places a clear-headed, drug-free and actively informed worldview as paramount to personal and collective survival within the mess that Dead Prez sees as this present-day “Information Age.” “What If the Lights Go Out?,” the Zen-inflected “No Way Is the Way,” “Intelligence Is Sexy,” “The Awakening” – these tracks reveal the influence of rap revolutionaries such as Afrika Bambaataa and Chuck D, even amid the ever-present synth-pop sheen.

It works remarkably well, even if the combined effect of repeated listenings is a slightly ominous sense of foreboding. Kudos to Dead Prez for reminding us that hip-hop was initially much more than mere mainstream entertainment.

– Jeff Miers


José James

No Beginning No End

[Blue Note]

Rating: 3 ½ stars

José James made his name as a jazz singer, but with “No Beginning No End,” the singer is clearly intent on spreading his wings. A soul-stirring gumbo uniting R&B chord changes, hip-hop grooves and jazz harmonies, the record is a subtly radical marriage of seemingly disparate idioms.

Fitting, then, that fellow jazz maverick Robert Glasper is on board as both pianist and co-composer, as is fretless bass legend/producer Pino Palladino, who has played with everyone from Jeff Beck and the Who to D’Angelo and Adele. Together, the musicians craft surprisingly inventive tunes that refuse to bow before conservative preconceptions of what makes pop music pop music.

James has forebears in this department, of course – D’Angelo being perhaps the most significant among them. Like D’Angelo, James has a gorgeously emotive high baritone that is able to navigate the hairpin turns of R&B without stooping to the oversinging that often plagues such endeavors. (Knowledge of jazz will do that for you.)

James can channel his own take on Marvin Gaye’s velvet soul (“Bird of Space”) or the effortless funky soul of Ray Charles (“Do You Feel”) with equal facility. Elsewhere, James stands on the shoulders of giants like Bill Withers and Sly Stone (“Trouble”), but it’s his main collaboration with Glasper, “Vanguard” – an ode to the famed New York City jazz club the Village Vanguard, where the two musicians composed the track with Glasper seated at the venue’s storied grand piano – that makes plain James’ ability to blend his influences into a forward-looking, wildly inventive new hybrid.

– J.M.


Yo La Tengo



Rating: 3 ½ stars

It’s possible at this point to consider Yo La Tengo as a musical version of Michael Apted’s long-running “The Up Series,” documentaries that since 1964 have followed the same 14 children as they’ve grown and changed. Started in Hoboken, N.J., by guitarist husband Ira Kaplan and drummer wife Georgia Hubley, Yo La Tengo has been documenting lives through music for a quarter century now, creating solid, virtually unimpeachable rock ’n’ roll that offers a model for dual creativity.

On “Fade,” the 13th Yo La Tengo album, the couple works through complicated emotions with as much elegance and grace as ever. A gentle record featuring strings, humming keyboards, the gorgeous roaming bass lines of longtime member James McNew and the occasional muted brass section, “Fade” is classic Yo La Tengo: honest, unpretentious and, above all, catchy.

At its best – the delicate “Cornelia and Jane,” the feedback-heavy cruise-pop song “Paddle Forward” and the rhythmic, orchestral closer “Before We Run” – “Fade” offers reassurance that the band and the couple at its center are as solid and creatively stable as ever. The family that plays together does, indeed, stay together.

– Randall Roberts,

Los Angeles Times


Christopher Owens


[Fat Possum]

Rating: 2 ½ stars

“New York City,” the third song on Christopher Owens’ debut solo album “Lysandre,” is kind of an opposite-universe version of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” It’s a sax-soaked tale of turning tricks in the big city, but it zips along a major-key melody with a mix of hope and devastation.

That blend has been the hallmark of Owens’ writing since his time fronting the indie- rock band Girls. “Lysandre” isn’t much of a departure, but it does broaden the range and refine the writing that made him a troubadour of millennial drifters (and those who go to bed with them).

“Lysandre” starts with a Ren-Faire flute melody that suggests a joust with preciousness is to come. But then the record, which was allegedly written in one fevered day, skips off into Bill Withers acoustic ambience, Belle & Sebastian-style twee-pop and occasional nods to acid-casualty classic rock. There’s some overly emo mulling on “Love Is in the Ear of the Listener,” where Owens wonders “What if I’m just a bad songwriter?” He’s not, but Conor Oberst does that sort of meta-self-criticism better.

Overall, though, “Lysandre” is a fresh start for a writer with a fine ear for the way happiness and heartbreak intertwine.

– August Brown,

Los Angeles Times