Friday, August 28, 2009

Shad - The Old Prince

As far as white people go, I'm pretty white. I own a messenger bag. I live in Missouri. I play perhaps the whitest instrument in music: the mandolin. But I'd like to think I can appreciate good rap. I've taken it upon myself to become familiar with all types of music, and in doing that I've found out that I actually like most types of music, rap definitely included.

A nice thing about hip hop is that there's really not that much to it, as far as requirements for comprehension. Sure, there's a certain vernacular to become familiar with (women are sho'ty's, hos, etc.), most of which requires a sense of leniency toward grammar, legality, and women's rights, but besides that there are relatively few barriers to appreciation of the genre. Basically, there are two intrinsic elements to rap: rhymes and beats. The more satisfying the beat and the more obscure or unlikely the samples used, the better the song. Lyrics are judged based on vocabulary, difficulty, imagery, or even just the level of insult if the rapper is dissing someone. A particularly good flow should make you think "Oh snap!" or something like that.

Now, I'm not a huge fan of Soulja Boy and his ilk, and if you listen to Shad you'll know why. Shad is a Canadian rapper (yes, he's black), which is rare in itself, but even rarer is his talent. Listen to his flows and you witness true lyrical genius. I was playing his album The Old Prince when I started this post and I had to turn it off after a few minutes because I would stop writing and just listen in awe. The things he can do with words are just sick. Absolutely engrossing. And it can be about anything. Many of his songs have a playful streak to them, like the title track "The Old Prince Still Lives At Home". I was first introduced to Shad by the music video for it, which takes most of its imagery from the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Definitely worth a watch.

Shad's also got his serious side, and his songs frequently discuss "the issues". He's gifted with an eloquence, however, that negates the usually blunt nature of political rap songs. His song "Brother Watching" is a fantastic call to action. The entire album is clean. Shad even mentions Jesus. If you're looking for the next Fiddy, Shad will definitely disappoint. But if you want truly skillful hip hop without all the annoying lines about sex, violence, and civil disobedience, this might be as good as it gets.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Greencards - Fascination

You may not know this about me, but I love bluegrass music. I play the mandolin, and I was basically raised on the stuff. Well, like any other genre of music you have the traditional on one hand and the groundbreaking on the other. Bluegrass has always been stuck in the past, some would say, and for the most part I agree; there's too large a constituent of genre fans still clamoring for the same exact Bill Monroe sound, fifty years after its heyday. But there are alternatives. Newgrass Revival started bringing rock and jazz elements into the genre in the seventies. Chris Thile and Nickel Creek brought bluegrass into the pop/country and, later, alternative segments. Bela Fleck has, through utter mastery of the banjo, created a subgenre of intelligent, aware, new acoustic jazz.

Despite this, bluegrass seems destined, and content, to stay obscure. As the audience ages and shrinks, the relatively small and feeble bluegrass-focused record companies are becoming less and less willing to take risks, leading to streams of well-meaning but derivative bands that can't hope to expand their demographics. It's incredibly frustrating, as a musician, to see this vicious circle play out.

But there is an alternative: The Greencards, a group of young, virtuosic artists taking the bluegrass world by storm. The Greencards have completed their transformation from envelope-pushing traditionalists in their sophomore project, Weather and Water, to groundbreaking acoustic alternative rockers with this fourth project, Fascination. Made up of mandolin, violin, and electric bass, the trio can still claim their folk moniker, lacking drums, but are otherwise left free to experiment. Where other bluegrass bands would most likely fall back into traditional mores, The Greencards all but eschew the genre's overused chord progressions, soloing conventions, and melodies, instead developing a more modern sensibility.

The group hasn't left behind everything, however. Bluegrass has always required a high degree of musicianship, mostly owing to the hurtling speeds at which some songs are played and the skill to play with many different musical instruments in one ensemble coherently. As if it weren't already evident from seeing one of their shows, I've gotten the opportunity to jam with these guys (or "have a pick", as they call it), and I was totally awed by their mad skillz.

With Fascination, The Greencards have become what I hoped they would be from the beginning: a band incorporating bluegrass instruments to stray past the boundaries of the traditional music those elements have been mired in, but doing so in such a way as to garner merit in their own right. The album is by no means perfect, but if songs like "Davey Jones" and "Fascination" are any indication, the group is straying into very delicious territory. Carol Young's vocals are extremely potent, channeling equal parts Krauss and Krall in some instances. The songs just feel new, which is more than I can say for a lot of bands.

Perhaps bluegrass will never "break out" in the pop field, but The Greencards have proven that, at least musically, it already has.