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In today’s hyper-accelerated world of sound, technology is like a mechanical bee, speeding the natural cross-pollination of musical styles. It used to take years before genres would mutate into new forms, but with the touch of a sampler button, African drums, heavy-metal guitars, and funk bass lines are mixed and matched like clothes off a rack. But of all today’s hyphenated genres and mongrel forms, from hip-bop to techno-pop to ambient dub, the most suspect is rap-rock, because for every innovator like the Beastie Boys, there are nine nauseating 311s.
Indie-rockers Getaway Cruiser give props to hiphop and R&B in the promotional literature for their self-titled major-label debut, and they even enlist the efforts of hiphop producers the Butcher Brothers and call upon two rappers to give their music cred. But Getaway Cruiser’s natural style of rigid, Velocity Girl-like pop trips up their rhythm ‘n’ blues intentions.
While Getaway Cruiser don’t make the mistake of trying to rap themselves, they do use Sony’s cash to bring in Pras, the third Fugee, for their first single, the crunchy guitar number “I’m Fine (I Find).” But Pras lags far behind the talents of Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill; his rap is so weak he sounds famished for words. In the first verse, “Give me a moment in time/To keep my peace of mind/To make up my mind/Find a broad who wouldn’t mind” he mumbles like a man thumbing through a rhyming dictionary and being baffled at how it works. Later, he blathers on about Prada boots, Armani suits, and Bertolucci watches as if he’s making a cameo for Puffy rather than for a pasty quintet formed at the University of Michigan. Pras’ words add nothing to the song, unless you count his line “Give you more spins than the average playlist” as the real reason for his appearance.
Former Ultramagnetic MC and current Dr. Octagon-er Kool Keith is the other guest microphone fiend. And although Keith is an excellent wordsmith, he’s also certifiable; he’d probably rap for stale bread and a place to sleep. On “Wasting Away,” Keith begins his part “Psychologically messed up,” but at least he sort of references the subject of the song. “Wasting Away” also features singer Dina Harrison feeling “Cold and ruthless/Sometimes I feel so/Young and useless” while “The telephone is ringing/But no one here is answering.” Keith references Harrison’s depression with “Rapping metaphorocious/In the dark halls bring the psychosis/The phone is ringing/But only just a hallucination” before moving on to BMX bikes and Julius Erving’s Afro.
Getaway Cruiser even cover Tony Toni Tone’s “Let’s Get Down,” but their version is so strained it might as well be called “Let’s Sit Down.” The accordion melody is a nice touch, but where the three T’s swing, Getaway Cruiser plod with power-chord choruses as Harrison’s pale voice unsexily emits “Come on let’s get down (In my black Chevrolet).”
Their desire to be part-time hiphoppers stems from Detroit radio in the ’70s and ’80s, an amazingly open forum where electro mixed with New Wave and punk dueled with prog over the airwaves. Even today, Detroit’s eclectic mix of sounds from public radio, college stations, and the Canadian Broadcasting Company is the sort of thing 30- and 40-something Washingtonians, weaned on the original WHFS, would die for.
“We listened to the Electrifying Mojo, a DJ on WJLB in Detroit [in the ’70s and ’80s], who’d play the B-52s right into Morris Day & the Time and then some early Detroit electro stuff,” says Drew Peters, Getaway’s co-founder with brother Chris and bassist Mark Dundon, in the band’s press release.
If Getaway Cruiser had their way, they would have their own hyphenated genre: ambient-soul-rock-hop, which certainly sounds intriguing. Too bad the music isn’t. Many cross-genre bands suffer the same malady: graft-itis. Artists figure that by appropriating a genre’s signature sound and grafting it onto a song, they are transforming their staid tunes into grand experiments. Sugar Ray sweetened “Fly” by dropping dancehall toaster Sugar Cat in at the chorus. (Those innocuous Orange County punk rockers seem to be a bunch of lunkheads who laughingly went along with whatever their major label suggested, and with one hit, they’re chuckling all the way to the bank.) But Getaway Cruiser’s members are more convinced that their hybrid of rock and rap is a unique and true success: This is their sound, their vision, one that they’ve pursued and refined like true musicians. While the members are wholly in love with the music they attempt to appropriate, earnestly urging support for the Rhythm & Blues Foundation and the Delta Blues Museum in the CD’s liner notes, the band has no personality of its own. Technology permits and encourages genre-hopping, but it still takes talent to twist the knobs properly.
The members of World Standard are more dignified knob-twisters. The Japanese trio investigate country music through an electronic filter on their debut CD, Country Gazette. Except for the likes of Ry Cooder, John Fahey, Ennio Morricone, and A Small Good Thing, ambient country is a ground seldom trod in the electronica and soundtrack worlds. Produced by former Yellow Magic Orchestra member Haruomi Hosono, Country Gazette evokes the wide open spaces of a virtual West, one inside a computer simulation or the universe Robert Conrad inhabited in the sci-fi western TV show The Wild, Wild West.
“Country Gazette will take us to nowhere on the banjo sound,” writes Mikado Koyanagi in the liner notes, but band leader Sohichiro Suzuki makes sure the album is more than just a collection of aimless banjo pickings and reverb-soaked slide guitars. Whereas Getaway Cruiser adapt sequenced hiphop rhythms and robotically play along, World Standard co-opt country trademarks and then warp them into a signature style, creating cosmic campfire music for space cowboys. On Country Gazette, slow guitar arpeggios, twangy banjo lines, maudlin mandolin plucks, and pedal steel strums creep like sand dunes backlit by a glorious orange sunset. A storm threatens to blow in on the nearly nine-minute “Montage: Lonesome Hobo-Land,” with its distant thunder rumbling menacingly in the distance.
World Standard’s music is largely vast spaces: As banjo and dobro notes open up wide, evocative melodies, guitar chords are strummed and sustained, hung out to dry until the last bits of sound drip off the strings. “Billy Strange Country” invokes slumberland with its pedal steel swooshes and banjo vibrations, while “My Low-Chuned Banjo” sounds like outer-space hobo music, something Dick Spottswood might play in the year 2050.
But not all of Country Gazette’s songs live in the country: Tracks like “Good Red Road” mingles dub sound effects with groovy bass lines, somehow sounding like a background score to a ’60s heist picture, while “The Lonely Driver 1952” summons traditional Japanese music played on western instruments, as a jazz drummer brushes away the time.
The strangest track is “Cowboys Don’t Cry (Hank Williams Lost Lyrics).” Rather than attempting to be a country singer, vocalist Mina intones Williams’ words in a deep-voiced deadpan. (The effect is almost as strange and disconcerting as the computer-generated voice of Stephen Hawking on Radiohead’s OK Computer.) With no emotion, Mina reads, “Listen to me all you cowboys/When I die will one of you sing?” It’s an ingenious take on country music’s often stagy sentimentality. Mina stays within his expertise, claiming Williams’ words as his own and making them resonate. If Mina were to insert a twang into his heavily accented English, however, the effect would be as comical as Pras rapping with the mixsters from Michigan.CP