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March 4, 2009 |

By TK Burton | Music | March 4, 2009 |

neverbetter.jpgP.O.S.: Never Better

Thanks mostly to the careful and talented hands of label Rhymesayers Entertainment, Minneapolis has quietly established itself as one of the nation’s best and brightest sources of independent hip-hop. This movement has mostly been lead by well-known (and well-respected) artists like Atmosphere and Brother Ali.

But now, with his third full-length album Never Better, the punk-influenced P.O.S. has crafted what may be the label’s magnum opus, a masterpiece of intensity and social conscience spit through a flow that is vibrant and powerful without being incomprehensible, rude, or, most importantly, unsympathetic.

P.O.S., real name Stefon Alexander, is a unique beast of music, a rapper raised and active in the punk rock scene, member of hardcore bands like Building Better Bombs and also a founder of hip-hop outfit Doomtree. He is the synthesis of his environment and his influences, focusing heavily on beats and lyrics, but utilizing the power of shouting gang vocals and electric guitars to emphasize his emotions. At times, the songs are heavy, like the furious chorus of “Purexed” or the bombast of “Drumroll”, easily the album’s highlight. The song begins with a breathless beat, shot through by a distorted guitar that carries the listener through a hellish, jagged soundscape, until the collected voice of the MC in question brings everything into a calm focus.

Previous P.O.S. releases have hinted at a raging inferno in the heart of the man himself, but with his newest album, he’s really let the fire spread, burning through every track and melting anyone foolish enough to be caught in the way. His aggression empowers, rather than belies, his intelligence. He gives himself a soapbox the size of a skyscraper, and he shouts down the flock of average men in a way that is focused and revelatory.

When he invites friends along for the ride, as on the fist-pumping “Low Light Low Life”, P.O.S. doesn’t merely hold his own; he asserts himself, and manages to rise on the updraft of their talents like a bird on the wind, always soaring without making his guest stars seem slighted or marginalized.

It’s so refreshing that, while Lil’ Wayne’s creative but messy flow and Kanye West’s compositional but mostly thoughtless prowess boost so many unimaginative artists onto the summit of the Top 40, there are still musicians as inventive and moving as Stefon Alexander, pseudonym P.O.S., who reminds us that artists are not the genres they are pushed into, nor are they all the flat corporate mannequins made to imitate talented people.

In short, Never Better sounds like a revelation, and if it is, then P.O.S. is the prophet of a new generation. Listen for yourself, and believe.
Christian H.

Twotongues.jpgTwo Tongues: Two Tongues
[Vagrant Records]

Oy. One gets a little tired of the constant parade of indie / hipster pop-rock supergroups. It seems like every other month or so a couple of members of random bands get bored, get on the phone and start a side project. Sometimes it’s fabulous (Bright Eyes, Swan Lake), sometimes less so (Crisis), but the endeavors are unquestionably self-indulgently curious. The newest one, Two Tongues, is a group formed by members of Say Anything and Saves The Day. I confess, I’m actually pretty enamored of Say Anything — something about their wryly cynical, droll scrappy emo-rock really gets me going. I thought In Defense of the Genre and … Is A Real Boy were pretty sharp albums. I’m less familiar with Saves The Day, but I do know they’ve never really caught my attention — a man can only handle so much emo before he starts to lose himself completely.

All of which leads me back to Two Tongues’ eponymous release. Here’s the short version: It’s surprisingly and refreshingly rockin’. It completely snuck up on me, to be honest. While I’ve always enjoyed the sardonic, yowling cry of Say Anything singer Max Bemis, Saves The Day’s Chris Conley has never really hooked me. That trend, for the most part, hasn’t changed, but what makes the album work is the music itself. Filled with bright, poppy beats that can easily detour into hammering rock, and mixed with heavy power chords and catchy choruses, Two Tongues can be rather addictive. It’s too soon to tell if I’ll still be listening to it a few years later (I still throw in … Is A Real Boy when I need a dose of acerbic pop-punk), but right now it’s got me in its clutches. Not every song is a hit — the ballad-y “Try Not To Save Me” is a watery attempt to get Bemis and Conley to harmonize and it doesn’t really work. In fact, my Conley prejudices are hard to shake, since most of the tracks where he’s the lead singer don’t do it for me. “Dead Lizard” has some nice Rush-like sensibilities to it, but Conley’s nasally lamenting is a little off-putting. However, when Bemis jumps in and starts to shake the track up at the 1:25 mark, it gets a shot of much-needed passion.

“Come On”

The opener, “Crawl”, is one where the duet-stylings actually work much better. By combining Bemis’s hoarse crying out with Conley flexing his voice a little more and thus sounding less whiny, the song really demonstrates the right model for them. Coupled with Coby Linder’s driving drumwork and some great scratchy guitar work with a subtle melody that makes its way through the song, it flips back and forth between rock and pop seamlessly. “Interlude” is a random throw-in featuring vocals by Sherri DuPree of Eisley, but it’s a nice, soothing intermission that serves to break the album up a little. “Wowee Zowee”, works with a solid bassline and an infectious beat that you will tap your foot to, but the lyrics get a little too precious for my liking (“Don’t let go / It’s dangerous / To turn away / From the bonds we built between us”). The next track, “Come On” brings them back to their punk-rock, head-tossing best.

Overall, Two Tongues is a solid contribution to the genre that manages to display its best traits, while for the most part leaving out the twee navel-gazing that can make it so aggravating.

diao1.jpgMando Diao: Give Me Fire
[Universal Records]

I was worried. Despite my previous gushing about Mando Diao, I was a little bit worried about this record. The lead single, “Dance With Somebody,” sounds nothing like anything they’ve ever done. To be honest, it put me off my optimism a little at first. It’s a risky proposition to call a rock album “danceable,” and I find that this conceit goes wrong far more often than it goes right. Working with producer Salla Salazar (of the Swedish hip-hop group The Latin Kings), though, Mando Diao has put forth an album that showcases their retro-rock songwriting chops while managing to keep the rhythm section front and center.

I suppose that this could be considered the “right” way to make a danceable record: make percussion the real star. The songwriting, overall, is as strong as it’s ever been; the melodies are still infectious and the harmonies are still sweet. At the same time, it feels like every cymbal crash, every bass drum thump, each snare roll and every shake of the tambourine is performed with purpose and aplomb. Give Me Fire’s production is top-notch, keeping the beats crisp and prominent without taking away from the melodic nature of the music. Instead, the flawless drum work helps bring out the buzz and growl of the guitars and the raw energy of the music. Even “Dance With Somebody” has grown on me, despite the album version being a little long (maybe because the sound effects in the chorus make me feel like I’m in the middle of an Egg Shen/Lo Pan avatar fight).

The record’s style and influences run the rock and roll gamut, beginning with the dark and dirty “Blue Lining, White Trenchcoat,” and moving sharply into the aforementioned “Dance With Somebody.” “Gloria” adds a touch of disco-rock before the jazzy feel of “High Heels” evokes “Minnie the Moocher” (look it up, or Boo will kill you). The album has an atmospheric feel—not “atmospheric,” as in weird sounds and not much else (I’m looking at you, Animal Collective), though. Rather, the varied (but always rooted in classic rock) style creates a mood not unlike that of a Tarantino movie. Layers of horns, strings and keyboards give the songs the kind of depth that is almost always missing from so-called “garage rock;” it’s these little touches that take Give Me Fire from good to great. The style might change from track to track, but the songwriting is sharp enough to keep the album flowing just the same; from the softer “Crystal” to the clap-inducing “Come On Come On,” and from the bouncy “Go Out Tonight” into the distorted, driving beat of “You Got Nothing On Me.”

You can call it “danceable” if you like; it certainly has the beats. When it comes right down to it, though, Mando Diao’s Give Me Fire is simply a mature and excellent record from a rock band in its prime. It’s nice when a band actually exceeds my expectations, especially considering the bitter disappointments of late. (Thornley and My Name Is Bruce in the same week? Seriously? Come on, universe.) Now, if they’d just schedule some shows in the States, my plan for world domination will be complete!

Wait, what? Never mind.
Sean K.

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TK Burton is the Editorial Director. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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