Thursday, July 30, 2009

Album reviews - Wallis Bird and Mos Def

FROM Tuesday's Limerick Chronicle: Many thanks to guest reviewer Ger Fitzgibbon for his interesting insights into the world of Mos Def...

Mos Def - ‘The Ecstatic’

(Downtown Records)

IN the past ten years, the mainstream has chewed away at the edges of some of hip hop’s finest craftsmen, and the genre has suffered because of it.

In 2006, when he released the utterly uninspiring ‘True Magic’, Mos Def forced many purists to gasp a sharp breath and avert their eyes. Once the finest exponent of the cut-and-paste sample with the hard political question, Dante Smith seemed to be on a greasy slide to the middle.

Thankfully, ‘The Ecstatic’ has tethered the thinking man’s hip hop leviathan back to his base. Mos Def’s fourth solo album is a masterful return to form, and one that has come not a moment too soon.

The overlapping production of Madlib, Oh No and Mr Flash (plus another posthumous appearance from J Dilla on ‘History’) pulls the sound of the record in different angles, with Bollywood samples in ‘The Embassy’ contrasting with the bombastic synth in ‘Life in Marvellous Times’.

But throughout ‘The Ecstatic’ there is a simmering energy that is driven by some of Mos Def’s finest lyrical flow in years. He, like Q Tip before him in 2008’s opus ‘The Renaissance’, seems invigorated by the pragmatic joy of the world view of Obama’s America - ‘And we are alive in amazing times/delicate hearts, diabolical minds’.

‘The Ecstatic’ may not reach the stratospheric heights touched by ‘The Renaissance’, but it takes a admirable shot nonetheless. It is, however, a tad unsettling to think that the skill required to execute such a polished hip hop record today lies in the hands of probably less than two dozen men, many of whom are scraping 40.

Still, if Mos Def can continue to summon this sort of prolificacy, we will not have to wrestle with the death of hip hop just yet.



Wallis Bird - New Boots’


IT CAN’T be easy to be Wallis Bird; acoustic guitar-toting dynamo, a whirlwind of energy and whitticisms - leading the way for the new batch of Irish singer songwriters in her inimitable style.

It can’t be easy because of her very obvious independent streak; this is the type of girl who would likely tell some big-wig record company exec to go and jump if she was asked to bend her music to some mainstream bent.

Bird, from Wexford, surfed into 2008 on the back of some gushing reviews for her debut album Spoons and strong word of mouth on her exuberant live performances, before playing sold out tours of Ireland, the UK and Europe, and supporting acts as diverse as Gabrielle and Billy Bragg.

Spoons was a triumph to her individuality; a superbly crafted acoustic pop album that was often whimsical but also capable of erupting with a harder edge, and there was plenty of bite to her lyrics.

Bird had already recorded Spoons when she signed with Island Records - a deal that fell apart last year, a marriage destined not to work, the spiky singer reckoning that they did “f*ck all with it”.

Now, after much soul searching, Bird is back with excellent follow-up New Boots. An album that is at times overwhelming due to it’s incredible energy, it nonetheless firmly underlines the potential displayed on her debut.

The theme running through this 13-track offering is of a performer living on the edge, one searching for love, that may be just beyond her reach. Capable of running the gamut of memorable female front women from Joni Mitchell to Chrissie Hynde in the blink of an eye, there is affection and anger here in equal measure.

Unsurprisingly there is a harder edge to this second album; see the bassy-funk of La La Land and the visceral energy of opening track Can Opener, which features a spine-tingling yelp from Bird. The jazzy Travelling Bird has plenty of bite, while first single To My Bones screams of radioplay potential.

By contrast the whimsical acoustic groove of An Idea About Mary, the emotional When We Kissed and soaring Measuring Cities showcase a singer and songwriter capable of combining the sweet with the sour.

This Bird is too wild to be caged up - and more power to her.



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