Sheep & Goats: Thi’sl, Owl City, Drive-By Truckers, and More!

Featured, Music, Sheep & Goats — By on September 6, 2011 at 1:46 pm

In Chicago radio news that sort of affects you, my Sunday morning drive-to-church jam, “Street Sermonz With Keno”, has been cancelled. Week after week, Keno Greer has been playing a mix of gospel, Christian R&B, and holy hip-hop that’s musically equal to any other three-hour block of time on its home station Power 92 (“#1 in the STREETS!”). Canton Jones, Mary Mary, Kevon Carter, Kirk Franklin, Ty Tribbett, Tedashii, and the Ambassador have all shown up in these pages, and they’re all contributing to a cross-country musical scene that’s as adventurous and accomplished as anything else out there, even if only for one song at a time. Here’s hoping some other Chicago station wises up and gets Keno’s show back on the air. In the meantime, I’m pretty sure you can still listen to him in Grand Rapids, MI, on 91.9 FM, or in Lansing on 100.3 FM/1580 AM.

I hadn’t heard this guy on Street Sermonz, but he’d fit right in…

SHEEP OF THE MONTH:

Thi’sl
Beautiful Monster
(X Hustler)

Besides all the Jesus talk, there are two basic differences between Thi’sl’s stupendous slap of ghetto noise and comparable epics from Jeezy or Gucci: 1) no cussing, and 2)-count-’em-two Momma songs. Good call — Momma songs sound even better amid a bunch of music that Momma would HATE. There’s a lot of ugliness here, especially in the first half, more ugliness than the bigger-name Christian rappers on Reach Records allow themselves — beats built from gunshots and guttural “HUNH!”s, layers of synth screams offset by chimes and theremins and all sorts of melodramatic hokum. Even Thi’sl’s chorus hooks revel in his worldly trappings: “Let them guns go POW!” “Money! Money! Money! Mo’… / Trynna stack that paper from the ceiling to the flo’!” This is radical stuff for holy hip-hop, but it’s also loose and refreshing, not at all concerned with toeing somebody else’s imaginary line of acceptability.

Over all this noise, X-hustler Thi’sl rasps out gritty details, bloody bodies in the streets and babies searching through rubble for their Moms. His mission is letting brothers and sisters know he’s legit — a tactic that gets old pretty quickly when Rick Ross uses it — and then showing them that Jesus is the way out. And here’s the great thing: that contrast actually helps him aesthetically. It mixes up the light and shadow in his songs, lets them breathe. When the martyrs in his crime stories proclaim, “I signed up to DIE,” their freedom speaks louder than their bravado.

This is Christian music that comes out of the trenches, like Holy Soldier: “We born in the ghetto, we raised in the ghetto / They call us rock stars ‘cause we wave heavy metal.” Thi’sl speaks to the unchurched first, and if the choir wants to listen — well, he won’t wave his heavy metal at them, at least. He might even make them rethink the value of those nihilistic Jeezy and Gucci epics. Like, maybe those secular guys aren’t merely reveling in their hustler tales. Maybe they’re showing us how the hopelessness of the hustle is wrapped up with the revelry, depicting why it’s so easy to get sucked into the game. At its best, gangsta rap is nihilism that lays bare a nihilistic real-world system. It sounds exhilarating, and it can make you feel like some sort of amoral superhero. And Thi’sl’s music is ultimately different for one reason: he found a Way Out.
(CARPOOL CAUTION: This album is more intense than most Christian rap. Thi’sl himself calls it “grown folks music”.)

OTHER SHEEP:

Henri Pousseur
Parabolique D’Enfer
(Sub Rosa)

For some haters, this atonal electronic mix is no doubt the sound of hell — which, in Mr. Pousseur’s conception, is apparently shaped like a parabola. For those conversant with the poet, gun runner, and friend-of-Haile-Selassie’s-dad Arthur Rimbaud, this work may shed new light on his later life in Ethiopia. For the rest of us weirdos, it’s the deepest hour-plus of freeform noise released this year. (Please note: it was actually recorded in 1992 — remember the Elvis stamp?) Alongside all the blips and skrawwks you’ve got chanting Ethiopian choirs, who are interrupted by angry blasts of squall, which melt into flitting synthetic insects and chimes. The music crescendos and morphs in gestures that are unpredictable but obviously intentional. At times it even settles into regular rhythms that are sort of catchy and bouncy. This isn’t a put-it-on-everyday type album, but once you put it on, it’s hard to turn off.

Richard Smallwood
Promises
(Verity)

Rev. Smallwood’s such a gospel music institution he’s got credits in one of my hymnals — and I’m Lutheran! As assured-if-not-varied as the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, Promises sees Smallwood knocking out 13 Promise Songs that are relentlessly catchy, warm, distinctive, in-the-pocket — all that stuff gospel seems to do without trying, except when it doesn’t. Behind that ease lies the command of a lifelong master who can ramp his band-choir-strings through one crescendo after another, and who can pack a profound theological concept into the four-word title “Facts Are, Truth Is”.

Drive-By Truckers
Ugly Buildings, Whores, and Politicians: Greatest Hits 1998-2009
(New West)

These guys and gal are a big floppy mess, a wad of hair soaked in Sterling Bigmouth and meat juice. The rhythm section bashes out backbeat after backbeat, and the guitar riffs tend to be what other bands call “chord progressions”. There’s always some stray guitar or pedal steel wheedling over the top of everything else, a little lost stream of consciousness. Singer/songwriter/guitarists Mike Cooley, Patterson Hood, and Jason Isbell sound like they’re discovering their songs as they go, and often as not they neglect to include a chorus. Despite their claim that Lynyrd Skynyrd is “America’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band”, the Truckers are way more Neil than Ronnie. But they’re also uncommonly great—or they can be, when they don’t sacrifice their immense power and start imagining they’re in the short story business. On studious tunes like “Zip City”, they fetishize their “attention to detail” like they’re writing for Granta or something. Absent compelling music, lyrics just aren’t my thing. But if you can deny the surreal thunder of “Sink Hole”, “3 Dimes Down”, and especially the sublime “Let There Be Rock”, maybe rock isn’t yours.

Brad Paisley
This Is Country Music
(Arista Nashville)

Not as good as his last one, but still better than most country albums in this lackluster country year. If not for all his drinking songs, Paisley could maybe get play on Christian radio. He had a sizable AC hit with 2009’s “Then” — well, OK, Delilah played it — and some of these new ones ponder Christian life in remarkably subtle ways. And has anyone else ever appreciated a spouse so well in song? Even if they don’t explicitly mention God, his marriage songs should be made available to couples ministries nationwide. The highlight is “New Favorite Memory”, in which Paisley snaps mental photos of said spouse over hazy guitar distortion, thick with longing. Speaking of which — if Paisley DID get on Christian radio, he’d instantly be the best guitarist there since either Phil Keaggy or Rex from Whitecross, I haven’t decided which.

SHEEPISH SINGLE:

Ke$ha – “Shots on the Hood of My Car”

File under “Idealist Ke$chatology”. Fresh from triumphantly co-writing Britney’s “Till the World Ends”, Ke$ha imagines what she’ll do when it’s time to stop dancing FOREVER. It all starts as standard-issue, if pretty, transgre$$ion — K goes joyriding with her friends and jumps the fence to the Hollywood sign, just like when she snuck into the Stones concert with Harold. Only this time — what else? — she’s consumed with a vision of Garveyite apocalypse. She’s 10 miles (or wherever) from the city, watching (Hollywood) Babylon burn, just like Louie Culture and Capleton and U-Roy before her, only with no hint of judgment; she’ll be blown into oblivion with everybody else. All the burbling polyphonic euphoria at the end sounds so communitarian, it’s easy to forget all those suffocating suckers downtown who aren’t blessed with friends and Scotch. But that’s OK — this is the apocalypse from inside the Scotch-haze, and as such, it chokes me up. And here’s the other me-choker: How long can she keep this up? Where “this” equals “exploring wildly different facets and implications of a coherent persona”? I suppose the end-times imagery might be a portent that she’s running out of ideas, because where can you go from there, but at this point point I’m holding my breath with every new Ke$ha song, and “Shots” makes it feel really good to exhale.

GOAT OF THE MONTH:

Owl City
All Things Bright and Beautiful
(Universal)

It’s not so much the music — Adam Young certainly knows his way around a synth, and he’s got a good ear for melodies and bounce. No, it’s the guy’s inexhaustible supply of cringeworthy lines and animal metaphors that makes me wanna feed his precious ass to a flying alligator. (Metaphorically.) He even has the musical temerity to include a “No Rap Version” of “Alligator Sky”, presumably for fans who list “everything but rap and country” under their Facebook musical preferences. His obsessions with dreaming, outer space, and making like a tree and leaving suggest that he’d instantly become way less annoying if he switched to kids’ music. Of course, the bar there is still pretty high — They Might Be Giants’ Here Come the 123s has better jokes and deeper life lessons than this hokum.

OTHER GOAT:

NewSong
One True God
(HHM)

Apparently as bored by their music as everyone else is, these veterans stake out bold and brash positions on their 17th (!!) album: pro-Muslim (“The Same God”),
pro-Socialism-and-gay-weddings (“This World Is Ours To Love”), pro-Battistelli (“The Way You Smile”), covering Bon Jovi (“Love Is the Medicine”), even barking orders at God (“Move”). Singer Russ Lee is sort of like Daughtry, in that their voices are irresistible in ways that are completely inexplicable to me and probably disqualify me from having any tastemaking authority. So I abstain. Also I’m asleep.

Some of the above thoughts, opinions, and exact words previously appeared at PopMatters and The Singles Jukebox.

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