Thursday, November 8, 2007

Review of the Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust!

Alright guys. Let's just back away from the last few posts with all the unpleasant comments they generated and move on to something I'm sure we can all love. Saul Williams's new album:

The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust!

I'll admit I was leery at first because while I liked some songs of his previous album, it was by no means my favorite, but I still wanted to support this new "label-free" experiment Trent and others are working on. I'm happy to say that my fears were completely unnecessary, and this album totally rocks! Download it for free or download it for $5, the choice is yours, but just DOWNLOAD IT! The cover of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" is almost worth the $5 on its own, and you shouldn't cut yourself short in the sound quality on this one or any of the other heavily layered tracks. Free 192kps mp3 = crap -OR- $5 320kps mp3 = much higher quality. Or even go for the $5 FLAC lossless audio, but be prepared to use a conversion program to get it to play.

You can clearly hear Trent's NIN influence in the music, and he is credited on most of the songs. If a person were to listen to Year Zero and this album back to back, I don't think they'd be surprised to learn they were recorded about the same time (both being worked on while Saul was the opening act during the [With_Teeth] tour). Both are beautifully layered with "noise," but where Trent makes his lyrical points blunt with NIN, Saul speaks in wide-ranging metaphors cleverly concealed in catchy, dance-able beats so that his "message" isn't completely overpowering. I recommend listening to the whole album before specifically reading the lyrics; it makes it easier if you can hear the flow as you go. Saul has a sense of humor about studying lyrics so closely though. If you're reading through them in iTunes, when you get to the last song, instead of lyrics you get "enough already. Stop reading and dance" and then a plug to his other book The Dead Emcee Scrolls ("available now in bookstores" he tells us).

While I like all the general topics brought up throughout the songs (standing up for yourself, problems with political authority, self doubt, etc), I wasn't so keen about all the "N" bombs being dropped. It's just not my style and therefore not normally something I even give a chance, but after reading a bit from a document included with the leaked tracks, you realize he's intentionally trying to make you feel uncomfortable.

"The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! is the lovechild of Trent and me. The NiggyTardust concept sets me free to do more on stage with costume, etc. than one might expect from a regular Saul Williams show. It allows me to put my theatre training to use. I've also thought long and hard about all the discussion surrounding racial epithets etc. and chose this title as a means of furthering the dialogue while also showing how creativity will outlive and outshine hatred of any kind."
He's wanting to change the interpretations and negative connotations surrounding it. That's commendable and should make for an interesting show when he goes on tour to support this release. So our dear RoRo was onto something. Saul's taking it back, y'all.

But like Saul said, "enough already" on over-analyzing words because the music is pretty amazing too. "Sunday Bloody Sunday" has been overhauled into a bouncy, up-tempo beat that is infectious. It started with just tapping my foot, but by the second round of "oh, oh, oh"s, I was singing along. This one sticks in my head all day and is definitely one of my top three picks. While the majority of the other tracks have that NIN-influenced abrasiveness or sound "hard" because of the delivery of the vocals (e.g., "Black History Month," "Convict Colony," "Break," "Skin of a Drum," "The Ritual"), the songs that really stood out and blew me way were the softer and self-doubting "No One Ever Does" and the simply structured "Banged & Blown Through." I love the vulnerability of the keyboards and the soft texture of the vocals in "No One Ever Does." And while the drumbeat of "Banged & Blown Through" is strong, the falsetto backup vocals manage to still make it feel vulnerable and it gets me every time. That's not to say I don't like the harshness of the other songs mentioned above because I do. In fact, I would say it's the perfect set up to make these softer tunes really jump out at you.

I feel the album artwork is also worth mentioning. I felt that leery sense again when I heard Rob Sheridan had a hand in it, but it's not as bad as all that. The booklet is included with the download as a .pdf file, and much of it reminds me of what was briefly shown in Saul's book (s)he, only with color. Even the lyrics, handwritten in most cases, add to the eclectic group of artwork. There seems to be a running theme of Roman-inspired horses, a few images of Egyptian Gods, and this little voodoo-looking guy. You can clearly see him on page 26 of the booklet, but notice that he's also hiding behind a layer of paint on pages 17 & 27. His little eyes peek out at you. Kind of creepy, no? My point here is that anyone concerned with this new manner of music distribution and seemingly inevitable extinction of album artwork or booklets needs only look through the included .pdf file to see that it will be okay. Perhaps that makes me old school, but I like looking through that stuff. It enhances the tone of everything else. I'd like to think of the much criticized ARG as Trent's online (albeit elaborate) version of Year Zero's "album artwork."

Overall, I think that Trent and Saul mesh well together, and I hope they stay close for future projects. Their two styles and passions (music and lyrics/spoken word) compliment each other. It's been fun delving into this album and its layers and layers of content, and I can't wait to see what else is waiting to reveal itself in subsequent listens. Bottom line people: YOU SHOULD GET THIS.


b.c. bishop said...

Great review, Iris. Seriously -- well done.

This record has been on repeat on my computer/car stereo/laptop/home stereo since I downloaded it on November 1st, something that no record has done for me since college (11 years now, peeps).

Easily the best record of the year in my mind -- and yes, that includes "Year Zero".

Compelling is the only word I can use to adequately describe it. Glad Iris did better.

And for the record: "WTF" and "Niggy Tadust" are two of the best things you will ever hear.

b.c. bishop said...

"Niggy TaRdust" is also pretty sweet.

Danny Angel said...

Yeah great review makes me want to check it out after I get done listening to Kreator's ENEMY OF GOD cd.

On a side note - has anyone read this (or something else by him):


Phenomenal stuff.

Iris said...

Thanks guys. I've been busting ass on this since yesterday trying to pinpoint what exactly it is that makes me so in love with this album rather than just say "I like it because I like it". I guess I found out it's not any one specific thing but the combination of all things mentioned in the review.

I know it's still kind of early on but has anyone heard or seen anything reported on the number of downloads so far? Free vs paid? Whatever the turn out ends up being I'm sure it isn't going to stop Trent from trying to go further with this method when the next NIN album is ready to go but I do hope it's done well so far.

Yeah BC, "Niggy Tardust" is the shit! Keeps me smirking the whole way through. Especially the refrain. I mean, could they find a more pathetic sounding guy to say "nuthin"? I'd like to think it's Rob Sheridan. And although Trent's not credited on the backup vocals for this song I'm sure it's him singing behind Saul on the "When I say Niggy, you say nuthin. Niggy. Niggy." part. Which also sends me into giggles because for some reason I always picture him in his dorky khaki shorts with black socks outfit. Sorry Trent, but you'll always be just a white boy from PA to me.

maise said...

I'm telling ya, I still haven't recovered from watching Trent perform with Saul Williams at the Voodoo Music Festival just after Katrina, during which Trent sang in falsetto, "Tell me, where my niggas at?" during "African Student Movement."

I'm still collecting my thoughts on Niggy Tardust and will have more to say on it probably tomorrow, but I do have to go a bit OT to bring you this news:

So Prince apparently has contacted the organizers of Prince Fans United and wants to talk. He asked them to host a "response song," which they apparently refused to do. So Prince created and posted his song, "PFUnk," without further comment. Go take a listen. You'll be scratching your head as to what it all means, but you have to admit, the song is funky as hell.

Iris said...

Has Prince always sounded like a chipmunk on helium?

maise said...

Yeah, that seems to be a newer development. Plus, I should probably warn y'all, this song is like half an hour long. Or something. I like it, though...better than anything on "Musicology."

Anonymous said...

While I've never been much of a Price fan, I do love that he is now communicating solely through song.

How does he tell the maid she fucked up laundering the sheets again?

maise said...

"OW! Oh Shee-et. The water's too hot now! Break it down now! The washing machine should be cool...bring the funk! The washing machine should be cool...bring the funk! Don't make me fire you! Funky funky music!"

Anonymous said...

Maise, do you also envision him blindfolded and shirtless, prowling on all fours as he gives the Haitian maid this what for?

Zeemort said...

Now why doesn't Prince have his own Chris Crocker?

Or is all the crazy in his 'fandom' taken up by Prince himself?

Ro said...

Sadly, JR, now that Prince is all Jehovah Witness-y, he won't even sing all the lyrics to his dirty songs. (Maise and I saw him a couple of years ago, and when singing "Cream," he stopped in the middle, giggled to himself, and made the audience sing the rest even though we really didn't know the words.) So the only prowling he'll be doing is with a pamphlet in hand....

Iris said...

Interesting bit found from Teitan/Trent:

Here's some misc info regarding Saul's record to share with you from my perspective.
Part 1.

Black History Month
A Thavius track originally titled "Banana Peels". Probably my favorite track on the record and one I pushed to be first. Also one I had very little to do with musically aside from some arrangement work. This was always the first track I'd play for people from this project to freak them out. Try it on nice speakers REAL loud and you'll see what I mean.

Convict Colony
One of the first tracks we worked on together. We began the process of experimenting together by me giving him I think 10 tracks or so of stuff I had around. Some of it was new, some were orphans from various other projects and none of it was written with Saul in mind - I was just fishing around to see if anything inspired Saul. He came back with the intro drums from a demo I gave him (I think from a Tapeworm track) chopped up into the basics of what you now hear. It was so much better than what I gave him and unexpected - I was sold on the idea of pursuing the relationship and off we went.

This track arrived on my doorstep while we were mixing the record. Saul had been working on this and when I heard it I knew it needed to be included. We had two rooms set up at Chalice where we mixed the record. Alan was mixing in the control room while I was set up with another rig in the small "live" room finessing various tracks and whatnot.
The relationship between Saul and myself had grown to a place by this time where we trusted each other's sensibilities and could get things accomplished without second-guessing everything too much.
And by the way, for those wondering how much Saul did vs myself in terms of the music - every track so far on the record is virtually unchanged from the way I first heard them aside from some finessing.

Sunday Bloody Sunday
We were halfway through the mix when I realized I was caught up with my duties in the second room. We discussed playing around with some covers and threw some ideas around. We did two - you've heard one. Saul suggested SBS and I spent about a week wrestling around with the right way to pull it off. It probably sounds more like a NIN arrangement than I would allow NIN to sound these days, but in this context I felt it was the right thing to do.
A record as sonically and lyrically complex and challenging as this one needs moments of accessibility to anchor things together and I think this performs that function well.

Born in the woods of Malibu in a small place I was staying in from the simple challenge: can we make a piece of music Saul can flow over that combines unusual time signatures without sounding like math-rock? Atticus and I did the chorus by recording several 2-bar long heavy rock "songs" we then sampled and performed on the MPC. Fun to do and I still get goosebumps when Saul sings verse 2.

Another true product of collaboration. Born from two pieces of music I gave Saul spliced together - the verse was a fairly new thing and the chorus was from an unused Fragile track. Never would I have considered the two coming together and NEVER would I have imagined those lyrics involved! If you ever get access to the multitracks, I'm sure you can hear lots of laughing in the background. The vocoder over the end makes me smile every time. Very fun to work on.

More later - the coffee is wearing off.

pokeydots said...

Shock-a-lock-a boom! That was creative move by Prince to post “PFUnk”. I always love Funk.

Iris said...

Oooh...and here's some more behind the scenes on the song collaboration from Saul's POV. Interesting stuff and funny too. Check out the entry about "Convict Colony".

maise said...

Thanks for the link, Iris! That's some very revealing and amusing stuff. My favorite line: "What kind of African pills has Trent been popping?!"

Lav said...

I've been a little late keeping up with you guys but I just caught up with this.
What the shit? Am I supposed to pay $5 for this download or just grab it for free? Why are they doing this to me?

Iris said...

Lav spend the $5. Trust me! It's totally worth it.