Thunder Dreamer: Capture

Evansville, Ind. is the Hoosier State’s third-biggest city, but its metro area spills over into southern Illinois and northern Kentucky, making for a jumbled geographic identity. Compared to its surroundings, Evansville is an urban hub, but its economy has traditionally thrived on shipbuilding and refrigerators, symbols of erstwhile American greatness. Evansville is a unique corridor between the Rust Belt and the south; it voted Trump by a wide margin. “Everything seems to die here… People get discouraged and stop trying,” said Thunder Dreamer drummer Corey Greenfield in a recent interview, reflecting on a city that’s so quintessentially American, it can seem invisible at times. With this in mind, it’s easy to see why a young rock band would have broken up with Evansville. Some of Thunder Dreamer did just that. But Capture is all the more powerful as a story of their eventual reconciliation.

Whatever Evansville lacks in industry infrastructure, it’s clearly been a tremendous incubator for a band looking to avoid the sonic hivemind of a scene. Capture echoes geographically-evocative artists from its Midwest surroundings while maintaining a singular center. Within Thunder Dreamer’s sound are the fidgety dashboard confessionals of Boys Life’s road-trip cult classic Departures and Landfalls; the mesmeric stoner emo of their northwest neighbors in Cloakroom; and early Mark Kozelek, Jason Molina, and My Morning Jacket, with the latter stepping outside the grain silo to take in the boundless vistas.

Thunder Dreamer have embraced “Midwestern” as a descriptor, identifying with its underlying humility and landlocked yearning. The bands they recall made grand, expansive, sprawling music that no one would call grandiose or epic. Most of the eight songs on Capture push towards five minutes and beyond with post-rock patience and the force of pop. They take after the landscape with slow, sloping escalations towards welcome pockets of bustle rather than relying on codified crescendo-and-crash dynamics; it’s less Explosions in the Sky than slow-burning bonfires in a secluded rural clearing. The songs are all given proper heft through analog production, capturing firefly flickers of guitar, misty reverb, and crackles of heat lightning to create an overall ambience of an overcast July night. It’s a summer album for the way most experience it outside of the coasts: a thick, palpable atmosphere that feels enveloping rather than oppressive and a dusk that seems to last infinitely.

Singer Steven Hamilton has noted that bands in Evansville actually do a disservice to themselves if they play too many local live shows. So while Capture is a traditional rock record, it lacks that dynamic of crowd-sourced pressure. Thunder Dreamer benefit from this in ways, though: “St-Malo” juxtaposes calm and claustrophobia, appropriating the walled-in, battle-torn beauty of its namesake, while the brisk and chiming single “You Know Me” has an unusually developed musculature for dream pop. Still, Capture’s standout quality is Hamilton’s forthright and crystalline vocals, a surprising contrast when “heartland rock” typically evokes the realm of mutters and drawls. It’s not slick by any means, but Hamilton lends Capture an alluring elegance, particularly on the luxurious mope of the title track. At points, it does slightly resemble their heroes in Mock Orange, the only band of note to previously arise out of Evansville and also one that rarely toured and never settled on a specific sound.

Hamilton’s voice is an effective instrument for what he calls “sad words to fit sad notes.” And whether he’s delivering plainspoken, classic emo heartbreak (“Why Bother”) or local xenophobia against refugees (“Living Like the Rest”), it’s never heavy-handed. However, Hamilton admits lyrics sometimes came at the last minute, and there’s certainly a discrepancy between them and the group’s painstakingly crafted instrumentals. But Capture benefits from its reliance on ambience for evocation. It’s a record of young men learning to live with the implacable fear emanating from the crossroads of America, rather than running from it.

First Hate: A Prayer for the Unemployed

First Hate’s A Prayer for the Unemployed finds its way into the world on Escho, the Copenhagen independent label that first released—and whose owners continue to manage—Iceage. And while perhaps it’s a little unfair to hold up a debut album as emblematic of anything, it does seem to neatly encapsulate how the city’s underground scene has changed over the last half-decade. Back in 2011, Copenhagen was all angry young men making visceral punk and industrial music that spoke its intent through cryptic lyrics and heathen runes. But that period lasted for barely a blink of an eye. Before long, Iceage’s singer Elias-Bender Rønnenfelt was exploring plaintive synth music in Vår, and Hannes Norrvide had embarked on the long road to transforming his former solo project Lust for Youth from misanthropic noise into a sort of romantic Balearic boyband.

And now there is First Hate. A Prayer for the Unemployed finds Anton Falck Gansted and Joakim Nørgaard building bright, synthetic pop music from yearning melodies, sparkling Euro trance keyboards, and padding club beats. One obvious touchstone is the Pet Shop Boys, with whom First Hate share a taste for smartly observed vignettes of complicated love and metropolitan living (and you sense Neil Tennant might see an album title like A Prayer for the Unemployed and happily claim it as his own). But they still have the sense of a band who rehearse in Copenhagen’s graffiti-plastered practice space Mayhem, and part of the appeal of this record is in the tension it draws between DIY practice and pop sensibility, juxtaposing underground temperament with choruses that soar. 

There are echoes throughout of the scene that spawned them. Gansted has a voice that’s a close ringer for Rønnenfelt’s—proud and surly and a little bit sensual, as if just roused from sleep. Songs like “Bullets of Dust” and “Supernumerary,” so pretty and urbane on the surface, seethe with undercurrents of lust, confusion, and teenage melodrama. Perhaps their defining moment so far is “The One,” a sashaying piano house track with notes of New Order’s “Temptation,” in which Gansted picks over a relationship that has lapsed into stares and silence. The early verses find him trapped in a cage of indecision. But as the song winds towards its climax on peals of harmonica, a female voice enters the frame: “If I’m not the right one/Tell me what you’re waiting for…” Suddenly the clouds part, and Gansted closes the song with a brief spoken word segment that is decisive and without mercy. “Life is not always about keeping your promises,” he intones. “Life is about following your heart.”

There is a recurrent caddishness to First Hate, the sense that these boys would break your heart and dash off without a moment’s hesitation. But alongside arrogance there is empathy, and the feeling that First Hate want their music to reach out and actually mean something to people. “Copenhagen MMXIV” is an immaculate ballad directed towards a heartbroken girl as she takes a nighttime passage through the city, drawing comfort from the lights of distant windows. Meanwhile, the title track brings to mind another, rather more high-profile Dane, MØ. A song about hope and self-care for a generation overlooked, its breathy synths and clarion-call melody lines recall one of Diplo’s more gently euphoric productions, and its chorus shuns any hint of cynicism or subversion as it pirouettes off towards the clouds.

Moments like this raise questions. Like: will First Hate end up a DIY pop band, or an actual pop band—and does anything, beyond a fanbase, really separate the two? A Prayer for the Unemployed doesn’t quite feel like the finished article. Slightly front-loaded, its boldest moments are dispatched early. Still, there is something potent in First Hate’s mix of innocence and ambition. Too savvy to be naïve, but too wide-eyed to feel fully mature, right now their youth is the source of their power.

Bryson Tiller: True to Self

Bryson Tiller knows his origin story. Since the breakthrough success of his 2015 debut album, Trapsoul, the Kentucky-born R&B singer remains committed to that come-up narrative. He worked at Papa John’s, threw a song on SoundCloud that grabbed Drake’s attention, turned down the offer to sign to OVO, and instead signed with RCA and ended up with two Top 40 hits (“Don’t” and “Exchange”). True to Self, Tiller’s sophomore album, which was surprised-released a month early, tries to offer new dimensions to that story arc while reconstructing the dividing lines between R&B and every other genre.

Over the last year, Tiller’s R&B peers PARTYNEXTDOOR and Tory Lanez tried to find new roots in dancehall, and the Weeknd went further into the pop machine. On True to Self, Tiller isn’t so much of a globalist. Instead, on “In Check,” he samples Brandy’s mid-’90s hit “Missing You,” then further gambles by putting samples on the album from Faith Evans, Ice Cube, Mary J. Blige, and Tweet. The album’s credits read like a ’90s old-school station in much the same way ’70s and ’80s funk and soul provided the backbone of hip-hop and R&B two decades ago. 

More precisely, Tiller’s roots can be found in Bobby Brown or the post-new jack swing machismo of Jodeci, rather than the buttoned-up slickness of a Boyz II Men or Babyface. “Don’t Get Too High,” an early album highlight, uses an uncredited Travis Scott sample from his 2014 song “Backyard,” as Tiller talks down to a former fling, “Woah, you make me feel how I make other bitches feel/Like you be cool without or with me here.” There is just the slightest hint of self-awareness that shows Tiller can see through his own nonsense.

Before the lines of R&B and rap fully blurred, a rapper on an R&B song would bluntly state its emotional themes, while the singer would only offer hints. Tiller’s generation has streamlined the workflow, so he turns on a dime from the struggling ex-boyfriend to an aggressive rap star. But it’s Tiller’s pettiness, rather than romance, that drives True to Self, as he adjusts to the trappings of fame. “Somethin Tells Me” hinges on that tension as a bedroom drama morphs into a lament on the grief caused by fame and success. Tiller reveals little more about these privileged concerns than Drake has already done over the last decade—in fact, he sounds the most comfortable at the shallow end of the emotional pool.

The 1998 SWV hit “Rain” is sampled on the opening interlude of True to Self to try and establish a new tone for Tiller’s world. Rain is a powerful trope in R&B: Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” video, the raindrops on Trey Songz’s 2010 album Passion, Pain & Pleasure, New Edition’s late ’80s hit “Can You Stand The Rain,” and Prince’s classic “Purple Rain.” Rain stands for emotional change and vulnerability and True to Self tries its best to follow through on that idea. Except, he struggles to let his guard down, and ironically, operates best when he keeps it up. Tiller comes off not as the passionate lover, but as the sappy everyman—too bland and full of tropes to be the new hero pouring his heart out in a thunderstorm. Maybe that’s why his personal narrative that he holds so close feels wrung dry. 

Swet Shop Boys: Sufi La EP

On Swet Shop Boys’ debut LP, Cashmere, the duo of Himanshu (ex-Das Racist) and Riz MC (Rogue One, a couple episodes of “Girls”) broached issues affecting the South Asian diaspora. Suffused in their rhymes were passionate threads about racism that Heems and Riz tackled with nuance, empathy, and humor. Perhaps most importantly, they also wrote bangers in the process; cuts like “T5,” “No Fly List” and “Zayn Malik” were clearly built for car stereos more than dissertation workshops.

With the Sufi La EP, Himanshu and Riz have now turned their attention to lighter fare. They draw more inspiration from Kid ’n Play than Public Enemy across six tracks of mostly party-rap powered by Redinho’s South Asian sample flips. Riz and Himanshu still have dense, double-time bars and unhurried punch lines, respectively, though Riz hangs back a bit on these songs, while Himanshu ventures out on his own. The most noticeable difference, though, are the lower stakes—a loose, playful energy that treads a thin line between heartfelt camaraderie and just fucking around. 

Despite these ambitions, Sufi La still has plenty of high points. The EP’s lead single, “Thas My Girl,” manages to stick the landing where the duo’s previous attempts at party anthems failed. The aptly-named opening number, “Anthem,” serves as a theme song of sorts, with Himanshu bragging about Riz’s successes (“He went from acting unruly, now he acting in movies”) and screaming “fuck the Pet Shop Boys” with all the swagger of a cartoon villain. Riz tries to match his bravado but toward the end of his verse, can’t help but dip into self-reflection, wondering if he’s been held back by his ethnicity or benefitted from its novelty (“I think, what if I was fairer skinned, had less of the melanin?/Would I get more work or would I not be worth anything?”). It’s a signature Swet Shop Boys move: a string of boasts followed by a contemplative sigh.

“Birding,” a solo Himanshu endeavor, is easily the goofiest song on the EP and one of its best, even without Riz to play foil. Inspired by the Mughal emperors’ pastime of birdwatching, the song’s minimal beat, built from little more than a bird call and shuffling drums, feels like an airy response to the current flute-rap zeitgeist. Himanshu ends nearly all of his couplets here with a species of bird, finding both obvious puns (“I’m on the block like I’m coke or heroin/Fit very colorful, tricolored heron”) and more tongue-in-cheek constructions (“She don’t like you, she said you was a peasant/She said I’m classy like a ring-necked pheasant”).

Not every track on Sufi La clicks. “Zombie” sounds like a sequel to the tabla-heavy “Half Moghul Half Mowgli,” though its central conceit—immigrant-hating nativists cast as the walking dead—feels a bit ham-fisted. Album closer “Need Moor” also falls a bit flat as the pair provide meta-commentary on their own lifestyle, weaving a cautionary tale about what unchecked greed and libido can do to a touring musician. It’s a fine rap song, but their observations on fame feel rather pat compared to, say, Vince Staples’ recent explorations of the topic.

Sufi La can’t help but feel a bit unrefined next to the group’s more polished full-length. The rapping here is noticeably less sharp, so much so that it’s easy to imagine many of these songs didn’t make the cut for Cashmere. But Sufi La serves as a reminder that Heems and Riz MC have range—that neither fit neatly into a box as joke-rapper or conscious-rapper. But just like the rest of us, Swet Shop Boys sometimes need a break from politics.

RJ: MrLA

Regionalism in hip-hop is one of its greatest achievements. These sounds and signifiers tie together generational experiences like time capsules of micro-cultures contained within a larger unique one. Though the homogenized internet has rendered some regional (mostly southern) sounds ubiquitous, West Coast hip-hop hasn’t wavered. From L.A. to the Bay, their respective styles, both characterized by funky lowrider basslines, have outlasted commercial assimilation without getting swallowed up and regurgitated ad nauseam. It is in this lane, along this open stretch of California highway, where RJ shines.

The Los Angeles rapper first captured his city with a slew of local hits—the biggest being his 2015 single “Get Rich”—that proved his mettle without a major label or blog cosigns. Now, with steady assists from his 400 Summers label heads YG and DJ Mustard he uses MrLA to expand his sound, replacing some of the street-acclaimed grittiness of his O.M.M.I.O. mixtapes with radio-ready selections. He’s aiming for clubs far beyond Cali when he declares he “came a long way to ball in your section” on lead single “Brackin.”

MrLA feels like summer in a way only West Coast artists can portray. It’s spacious and carefree but never far removed from the season’s more sinister side. It opens with a FaceTime call inviting him to the set with the promise of dice games and other festivities. As RJ heads out of the house, a souped up car starts as “Blammer” morphs into the soundtrack of rolling through the hood, windows down, the sun beaming. The single-note piano and stripped down g-funk courtesy of DJ Mustard and frequent collaborator Authentic coupled with RJ’s cautionary melodies set the perfect scene—at once laid back and urgent.

Authenticity bleeds through RJ’s lyrics, never betraying the truth of his own tangled existence for better and worse. On “Want Me Broke,” he confesses being “stuck swinging in between unity and egos,” a recurring theme throughout. He isn’t encouraging trouble, but he’s prepared for it nevertheless, always one foot in and one foot out. It’s fitting for an artist who, in a 2015 interview with L.A. Weekly, acknowledged the potential for stereotyping. “People have different moods and do different things in a regular day, so why judge them in only one light?” he said. “I’m not just a gangsta rapper. I go through different moods, and the music reflects that.”

MrLA resists the urge to stay in only one pocket. The Ty Dolla $ign-assisted “Is It Mine” ventures towards the breezy pop lands Ty and Mustard are already familiar with. “Blindfold,” which shares half of its real estate with Migos’ Quavo, finds RJ dabbling in dirty south swagger he undoubtedly picked up from his time in Atlanta. Unsurprisingly, he’s at his best when’s basking in hometown pride. The “Gin and Juice” sample and Schoolboy Q feature on “Hennebeeto” are shameless in its dignified L.A. rap roots to create one of the album’s more memorable tracks. The sturdy production of RJ mainstays Larry Jayy and Swish, the latter who also anchored YG’s Still Brazy in Mustard’s absence, also help give the album continuity.

The bittersweet quality of regional rap is knowing that no matter how loud you play it or how hard it rattles the speakers—or, worse, earbuds outside of car-centric cities—it’s not hitting the way it does at home. RJ’s music, like that of his predecessors, is an esoteric experience, a vehicle thrusting listeners into a world not their own but just accessible enough to enjoy. Fleeting as the summer, MrLA is over quickly—the details become fuzzy and only standout moments remain as nostalgia sets in. Fortunately, in this case, a 270-day wait isn’t required to run it back.  

Danzig: Black Laden Crown

Being a metal singer is physically demanding, and even the most seemingly triumphant of them know you can’t slay age. Rob Halford knows it, James Hetfield knows it—does Glenn Danzig know it? His “metal Elvis” voice isn’t what it used to be, and he is his voice. It hasn’t kept him away from touring—the Misfits reunion finally happened last year, after all—but his performances have suffered live and in the studio. He’s not known for being self-aware (except for when dealing with photographers at shows), and an eccentric like him can’t be too self-aware. That doesn’t excuse his sloppy wreck of a covers album, 2015’s Skeletons, or the fact that he put footage of one of his teeth falling off into his “’68 Comeback Special” homage “Legacy.” But perhaps he has found a critical voice within. Black Laden Crown is Danzig’s strongest album in some time, because he’s mostly built it around his own limitations.

Many of the song here are on the slower end of the metal-blues he pioneered with his first three records, and his aged croon needs that slack. “Last Ride” feels like it could have come from the in-the-round jams on the “Danzig Legacy” television special—it’s primitive and laid-back, his lack of self-awareness working in his favor at last. He doesn’t overextend himself, gliding over the swampy buzzes of “The Witching Hour” and the pounding chugs in “Skulls & Daisies.” Like the more extreme bands he’s taken on the road over the past decade, his vocals are becoming more textural and less the main focus. That actually works, as Crown has his smartest writing in years, keeping his youthful demons alive, if not running amok. He may have matured, but we don’t want to him to grow up.

While Crown exists to show that there’s optimism about Danzig, “Devil On Hwy 9” is an argument to be cynical (and it wasn’t the wisest choice as the album’s lead single). Vocals notwithstanding, it lands among his most charging songs, like “Dirty Black Summer” and “Am I Demon.” He wants to capture the biker spirit he’s singing about, but when he tries to rage, he’s just hoarse. There’s none of the warmth fused with menace that he once singularly commanded. He should heed “Eyes Ripping Fire” as a better model for what he can do in a more rocking mode, as its sludgier pace meshes better with his moan. Even if “Devil” is the only real misstep on this record, it confirms the worst fear about him: he just isn’t built for the more driving songs anymore.

Guitarist Tommy Victor deserves a lot of credit for Crown’s successes. The mechanical playing style that suited him in Prong was initially a mismatch for Danzig’s heavy blues, and 2004’s Circle of Snakes tried to graft both styles to no avail. 2010’s Deth Red Sabaoth made headway into restoring the classic Danzig sound, and while it would be presumptuous to say he’s transformed into O.G. Danzig guitarist John Christ, this record is the closest Victor has sounded to him. Repressing your own style to ape your most beloved predecessor would seem like a disaster, but Victor has loosened up, scaling back on the pinch harmonics and embracing fluidity. The title track also shows how Victor takes the pressure off of Danzig to go grand, furiously soloing where the singer would once howl into abandon.

Danzig III: How the Gods Kill will turn 25 in July, and Danzig is well aware; he says he’ll play more material from that record in his upcoming live shows. On Gods, he found a tenderness in his dark craft, focusing on slower songs—which is also what works with Crown. The anniversary might overshadow this new album, and that may have been a welcome distraction in the past—but Danzig is, for once, on the right path here. His thunder has quelled, but his ear is sharpening again. And it’s that ear that made some of the most approachable yet enduring metal of the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Obnox: Niggative Approach

Lamont Thomas has made seven Obnox albums in as many years, and they’ve all been bold expressions of his wide vision. But his third, 2014’s Louder Space, was a true breakthrough. The hip-hop and R&B strains that course beneath his noisy one-man garage rock came into sharper focus on that record, his first made in a proper studio. It also showed that Thomas could delve deeper into specific sides of his persona—in this case, by crafting legit rap jams—without sacrificing the many styles of which he’s capable.

The three Obnox albums that Thomas made after Louder Space were solid and diverse, but Niggative Approach feels like its true spiritual follow-up. The album is heavily focused on beats—Thomas has drummed in many vital Cleveland post-punk outfits—and filled with earworm-ready grooves. If Louder Space was his hip-hop album, Niggative Approach is his funk platter, bubbling with big bass lines and filled with studio touches like horn sections and keyboard accents. There’s still a lot of punk spirit here; the album’s title nods to hardcore legends Negative Approach, whose singer John Brannon opens and closes the album with spoken exhortations to Thomas. But Niggative Approach is first and foremost about groove.

Many of Thomas’s grooves are so simple and powerful they feel instantly classic, as if he plucked them from some hidden vault of magic funk tricks. They also help create some of the most upbeat music he’s ever made. After Brannon’s brief invocation, Niggative Approach opens with three tracks ripe for blasting from car windows while cruising down beachside strips. “Hardcore Matinee” is positively bouncy, while “Jack Herer” sounds like a dream take on Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead.” “State to State” soars on a funky guitar line, chiming keyboard chords, and Thomas’s multi-voiced hums. Things even get romantic during “Carmen, I Love You,” a groove-ballad that Thomas could’ve sung while lying on the grass staring at clouds.

Balancing that early sunniness, Niggative Approach gets denser, noisier, and more complicated as it progresses. Thomas melds different styles through masterful layering, piling sounds onto each other so that they merge and fuse rather than blur or obscure. In tracks like the slow-building “You” and the haunting “Beauty Like the Night,” he builds walls of sound by letting each element—echoing vocals, wavy chords, rattling beats—settle against another. At his most extreme, as on “Audio Rot,” he buries everything so deep it sounds like the song is playing a few rooms away. But that’s the exception on Niggative Approach, which mostly maintains a crisp clarity no matter how thickly Thomas boils his sonic stew.

Thomas takes risks on Niggative Approach, which is pretty standard for him; nothing he’s made as Obnox has ever played it safe. Yet the boldest aspect of this album is how unabashedly hooky it is. Past Obnox albums were more about ebb and flow, alternating catchy jams with shorter jams or abstract interludes. But here Thomas doles out blow after blow, happy to jump quickly from one feel to the next. In less experienced hands this could be a recipe for listener fatigue, but Thomas continually finds new angles, maintaining diversity even as he’s charging full steam ahead. On Niggative Approach, his knack for variety and nuance is the strongest it has ever been.

JJ DOOM: Bookhead EP

Key to the Kuffs has aged into excellence in the nearly five years since it first came out. It can still feel a little weird hearing MF DOOM with a couple MPH off his fastball, but that only puts more stink on his trick pitches—like his how’d-he-rhyme-that internals and a thematic villainy that’s never felt more at home on some off-the-grid corner of the Deep Web. And while Jneiro Jarel never went as far afield as Madlib or subverted classic hip-hop and R&B like DOOM’s own production did, his beats weren’t afraid to be at least a bit unnerving—just a notch below the potential to be an Organized Noize for the West Coast bass crowd.

It might’ve been the Butter Edition that made it a bit clearer: Released a year after the original August 2012 pressing of Key to the Kuffs, the limited edition expanded reissue tacked on a bonus disc with four outtake tracks and five remixes that brought in some serious indie-crossover star power. That disc got another limited run on its own as a 12” picture disc half a year after that, and while it wasn’t exactly impossible to find, it seems like it nearly slipped through the cracks. That release, the Bookhead EP, is getting another lease on life from Lex Records. It’s not really any different from the Butter Edition bonus/2013 12” that came out a few years back, but it deserves another go-round as one of the best releases to feature DOOM’s name this decade.

As a short but potent dose of hook-free haranguing, the title track has aged into a strong fan-favorite deep cut with one of the better JJ beats to come from that whole collection. DOOM rapping about escaping from the grind by losing himself in reading (”From the mean streets of the ‘Can I get a dollar, dude?’/Above measure, the singular pleasure of solitude”) would be a pretty good public library PSA if Jarel’s beat didn’t lurk like the synthesized soundtrack to leafing through the poetry books of Aleister Crowley. “Pause Tape” is a little less focused, featuring DOOM at his most thematically free-associative (“Quicker than a sleight of hand, like, damn/Telepathy and telekinesis, faster than Instagram”). It’s also one of two tracks (along with the quickie “The Signs”) where Jarel has enough time on the mic to turn his workmanlike voice around a few unlikely turns of phrase (”Never compromise, keep it real/Never peek at you/Rolling through the jungle/Glowing eyes like a kinkajou”). Then there’s “Viberian Son,” the counterpart to the “Part II” instrumental that showed up on Key to the Kuffs. DOOM’s verse is practically a cameo, but his lines about talking to your kids instead of hitting them register more memorable than Del the Funky Homosapien’s scattershot phrases.

”Bookhead” aside, and no slight to Jarel, the major draw here is the collection of remixes that fill out the EP’s later stretch. The indie/art-rock contributions ramp up DOOM’s griminess in oblique ways without losing sight of the fact that the tracks are supposed to knock. Dave Sitek collabed with Jarel on one of the better remixes on 2010’s Gazzillion Ear EP, and that formula pays off again with the Sitek remix of “Rhymin Slang.” More a customization than a transformation, it pares back the synth riff that made the original seethe and foregrounds the tape-hiss low end and adds some more expressive drum kicks and a brief Latin percussion breakdown that gives the UK-banished DOOM a postcard from New York. Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke turn the unlikely target “Retarded Fren” into a lurching chamber music nerve-rattler that toes the orchestral line between suspense-thriller score and “Looney Tunes” gag. And the plinky, clunky robot piano funk of Beck’s take on “Banished” is Exhibit Q of what he could do if he decided his Midnite Vultures mode was more worth resurrecting than Sea Change.

That said, the two most fascinating remixes are the ones that inspire what-ifs, coming from two acts known for putting distinctive fingerprints on their production work for rap artists. BADBADNOTGOOD have done more thrilling work in recent years than their remix for “Guv’nor,” but it still fits DOOM’s more diabolical side. And “Bookfiend,” the title cut reworked by Clams Casino, gives us a glimpse at the villain in Jack Kirby mechanized Day-Glo environs, cloud rap where the atmosphere’s laced with crackling cosmic rays. Either one of these acts could make for a revelatory full-length collab with DOOM, new frontiers for a vet who feels weathered by experience without necessarily feeling straight-up old. For now, we’ve got one-offs like the ones on this EP to keep us guessing—which is what DOOM does best, anyways.

Patti Smith Group: Easter

In early 1977, the Patti Smith Group was on tour opening for Bob Seger, as part of Arista Records’ ham-fisted strategy to push Smith into the mainstream. She had just released her second record, Radio Ethiopia, while Seger was touring against Night Moves. While the PSG were steadfast in their resolve to win over the crowds, they were fighting a losing battle. Lenny Kaye—Smith’s guitarist and majordomo—would later say about Radio Ethiopia, …that wasn’t an album of songs. It was an album of fields.” Fans who paid to hear “Old Time Rock and Roll” were not ready or willing to open their minds to the Smith and her band’s mix of esoteric, ecstatic punk-flavored garage-rock, performed by a bunch of scruffy, black-wearing hoodlums led by a woman who conformed to no one’s gender expectations but her own.

At a Tampa stop in January, Patti Smith whirled into final bars of “Ain’t It Strange.” As the song reached its climax, she spun, lost her balance, tripped backward over a monitor, and fell off the stage onto the concrete floor 15 feet below. Miraculously, she did not break her neck, but she still emerged from the hospital with two cracked vertebrae, broken bones in her face, and 22 stitches to close the wounds on her head. Smith interpreted the incident as God’s response to her constant challenges (“I feel it was his way of saying, ‘You keep battering against my door and I’m gonna open that door and you’ll fall in’,” she told Melody Maker a year later); but in matters more mundane, her fall cancelled the tour and obviated any support for the struggling Radio Ethiopia.

Smith’s injuries would confine her to bed rest for weeks before she entered into intense physical therapy in lieu of spinal surgery. She took to the challenge of PT with gusto and insisted to her doctors and to anyone else who would listen that she would be ready by Easter Sunday. She even had a new poem, called “Easter,” as a representation of her return to battle. 

After the commercial failure of Radio Ethiopia, there was an unspoken understanding that the next record needed to move Smith’s career forward. Smith was the first downtown artist to sign with an uptown label with her seven-album deal with Arista Records. She thought she could handle the Arista’s demands by insisting (and getting) complete creative control, but she also understood that she would lose her access to the kids she wanted to serve if she was not able to translate her vision into something for the masses. “When we started, we believed we had responsibilities that nobody else was taking on, to take this work that erupted in the ’50s and take it somewhere,” she told Circus in 1978. This was the kind of statement for which Smith would be pilloried by peers and the press, but this wasn’t just a front—she meant it.

So after working with John Cale on Horses and Jack Douglas (Cheap Trick, John Lennon) on Radio Ethiopia, she chose to work with a new producer named Jimmy Iovine, because she liked what he’d done as an engineer working with Bruce Springsteen. It was a deliberate business decision, no matter that she would later insist that the album was “more communicative. I don’t like the words accessible and commercial.” Lenny Kaye would back her up: “There was no conscious drive to sell records, that was our last thought.”

It made sense that Smith and Kaye would publicly try to disavow intent. “Ambition” was a four-letter word downtown, even though every single band that ever set foot on the CBGB’s stage hoped that it was a step up. But Smith and Kaye were sufficiently immersed in rock’n’roll history to know better. If Easter hadn’t been successful, Smith would have been dismissed as a one-hit wonder, post-punk also-rans. Even as early as Radio Ethiopia, the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau noted that Patti was “caught in a classic double-bind: accused of selling out by her former allies and of not selling by her new ones.”

The band entered the studio in November of 1977. On the shortlist were songs that were road-tested, such as “Space Monkey,” “Privilege (Set Me Free),” and “Rock N Roll Nigger,” as well as a handful of newly written songs. “Rock N Roll Nigger” was both Smith’s original choice for the album’s title as well as for its lead-off single, which was naturally a nonstarter for the label, much to Smith’s dismay. Unfortunately, out of the material Smith had assembled for the album, it was the only song strong enough to be a single. 

This was when Iovine went knocking on Bruce Springsteen’s door, asking about a certain outtake languishing in his archive. Smith was at first reluctant to even listen to the demo, wanting to write the record with her band. Iovine tried to sell her on the idea by suggesting that he loved the thought of a woman singing from a man’s point of view; Springsteen added that the song was in her key. One night, while waiting for a late-night phone call from someone she was romantically involved with, she decided to listen to the cassette, “…and the words just tumbled out of me,” she told Zig Zag later. By the time she recorded “Because the Night,” Smith already knew she had her hit single, and the rest of the album fell into place.

Smith could try as hard as she wanted to disguise or disavow her ambition, but Easter was not an accidental assemblage of material. It wasn’t an “album of fields,” it was an album of huge songs—songs that would effectively showcase the heart of the Patti Smith Group. So, yes, the album unironically opens with “Till Victory,” the kind of battle cry that made the cognoscenti roll their eyes at Smith and her band, and she doubles the cynicism by also using it as a petition to the mighty, announcing her return, and her intent: “God, do not seize me please, till victory,” Smith sings with the kind of iron-clad conviction that would make you follow her anywhere.

Even the cover concept was Smith’s twist on sex appeal; while it was probably the first major-label album cover to show a woman with unshaved armpits (which Arista tried to airbrush out), it was created with the object of selling records. After that inimitable Robert Mapplethorpe shot on the cover of Horses and the black-on-silver abstract by Judy Linn that graced Radio Ethiopia, for Easter, Smith went with Lynn Goldsmith, who had just founded the first photo agency that focused on celebrity portraiture. Smith would even tell Rolling Stone that she had masturbated to her own album cover: “I thought if I could do it as an experiment, then 15-year-old boys could do it, and that would make me very happy.”

But Smith’s version of “Because the Night” was an absolute monster of a hit. What she forged lyrically out of Springsteen’s unfinished, unwanted demo was an anthem of frank and unapologetic desire. In 1978, a woman wasn’t allowed to be an overtly sexual being in public unless she met the standards of the male gaze; if she did, there were always repercussions, and there would be constant attempts to diminish her power and/or her legitimacy. The fact that it went to No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was on every FM radio station, especially the ones who never played her before, was righteousness incarnate, as would be Easter’s eventual ascension to #20 on the Billboard 200.

The other love songs may not be as legendary as “Because the Night,” but their complexity is vital to the story being told on the album. The first line of “We Three”—“Every Sunday I would go down to the bar where he played guitar”—speaks absolute volumes. It is Smith’s history, it is rock’n’roll history, it is a quiet sentence whispered with a veneer of the innocence of early love, then immediately contrasted with a torch ballad, decisive and resolute, the expression of unresolved ardor, the saga of her relationships with Tom Verlaine and Allen Lanier. It’s not tragic so much tinged with the sadness of resignation, but it’s not the type of love song women had been writing.

Smith then flips the switch to “25th Floor.” This is when the woman in “Because the Night” takes out a match and lights the whole damn place on fire. “Love in my heart/The night to exploit/Twenty-five stories over Detroit,” she sings, tales of unabashed emotion in the ancient Book Cadillac Hotel in the Motor City, where she and Fred “Sonic” Smith had taken rooms. “25th Floor” then transmutates its closing ecstasy straight into “High on Rebellion,” the title of which is accurate and illustrative. It is about another important relationship, this time a treatise about Smith and her electric guitar: “…I never tire of the solitary E and I trust my guitar…” The band manifests its own chaos effortlessly behind Smith, before the exemplification of that solitary E fades out slowly.

On the subject of treatises, we come back to the literal black sheep of the album. “I haven’t fucked much with the past, but I’ve fucked plenty with the future,” Smith intones in “Babelogue,” plucked from Smith’s 1978 Babel, which firmly represents her artistic manifesto, issued with the pulsing energy of a heartbeat. “In heart I am an American artist and I have no guilt,” she cries as the music and the energy builds to a crescendo, before crashing head-on into “Rock N Roll Nigger.” The song is intensely rousing and absolutely spits fire, and as a rallying cry for those who feel like they were also “outside of society,” everything about the song is awesome except the title, which is the opposite of awesome.

Even in the ’70s, the slur was not something any reasonable person was going to feel comfortable yelling out loud, or feel comfortable standing in the middle of a large group of people yelling it out loud, even if the music and the performance are otherwise electrifying. Smith has been explicit over the years in her justification behind it: “The redefining of an archaic slang term as a badge for those contributing on the fringe of society was not favorably embraced,” she wrote in 1996. For someone as intelligent and empathetic as Patti Smith, this is the one moment in this otherwise triumphant record that just does make any sense. If, in 40 years, your attempt at the redefinition of a word that is pejorative and hurtful to a large part of society is unsuccessful, how, as an artist, do you not try something else?

The legacy of “Rock N Roll Nigger” overlaps with the Patti Smith the iconoclast. Though Smith placed the song an album that embraces and subverts the vast spectrum of rock, underneath all of Easter is Smith’s ambivalence with rock as an art form. It is insufficient. The men for whom she wrote, the women for whom she sang, the labels to whom she catered, all are miniature underneath the soul of Smith which Easter seems to capture in spite of the limits of rock’n’roll. A hint is hidden in plain sight at the end of the liner notes, a quote from the New Testament: “i have fought a good fight, i have finished my course…” are the last words of Paul the Apostle before his martyrdom. Smith may not have known that she would soon retire as “r.e.f.m.” (radio ethiopia field marshall), but the possibility was on the horizon, and it feels like she was trying to make her departure easier by leaving clues, early warnings for her fans that she was getting ready to say goodbye.