Light In Our Lives
Shop Around Ö part 39

Naturally one of the joys of shopping around is stumbling across unexpected sources of bargains. To my delight one of our local chainstores was having a clear out of DVDs, CDs, and videos. I did wonder for a moment whether they were closing down, but apparently they are just making way for the Christmas stock.

It had been ages since I had bought anything in there, but I picked up a few treats. These included a copy of the most recent Sleater-Kinney CD and a live DVD of The Roots and friends, with change from a fiver. The interesting thing is that in the normal course of events these are products I would not have even considered buying. Both Sleater-Kinney and The Roots are admirable in their own ways, fiercely committed and independent in all the right ways. Theyíve created some great records. I can understand why people believe in them, but there is something of a but.

One of the buts with the latest Sleater-Kinney set is that itís pretty heavy. All the reviews have made a point of saying so. That put me off for a start. But itís great in many ways. Sure, itís heavy, but itís a howl of rage and despair and disorientation, and occasionally itís almost as great as Utís Griller. Occasionally itís almost oppressively heavy and Goo-ey, but the lyrics are superb. Occasionally itís brittle and vulnerable, and for those moments very special. And I could easily have missed it.

I most certainly would have missed the Roots DVD. Itís just them and some of their colleagues performing to a specially invited audience in NYC last summer. So itís pretty celebratory, and thereís lots of hip hop cliches, but just as many moments of magic. For me, the star of the show was Jean Grae, whom I have to confess I wasnít aware of but her performance sent me scuttling off to check out her back catologue. I found a copy of her pretty recent This Week set, which I absolutely love. Itís tough and touching and smart and snappy. She is just like Sleater-Kinney I guess in her determination to do things in her way, make the most of the way with words sheís blessed with, and raise things way above the normal lowest common denominator.

For a reason I canít quite put my finger on, it made me want to go and dig in the crates for the long forgotten Nonchalant set, Until The Day, from almost 10 years ago. Itís one of the great hip hop records, but I know it wasnít universally liked because it was a bit preachy and Non mixed her raps with some smooth ríníb singing and arrangements. She was just way ahead of her time. But at the time there were people like the supposedly so way ahead DJ Vadim saying keep ríníb out of hip hop. How daft does that sound now?
After that set Nonchalant never lived up to her potential. This was mainly to do with record company politics, which is a story rather too familiar, and one day someone will sit down and compile a list of the sets that are languishing in the vaults as a result of contract wrangles. One of the few subsequent releases from Nonchalant was a collaboration with the Roots. Another great list, and one more likely to be in circulation, would be the many records the Roots crew has been involved with.

There is a sense with the Roots that there is an over exaggeration of the importance of keeping it really real and a snobís reliance on the worthiness of live instrumentation. Thatís a little unfair. It would indeed be very wrong to suggest the Roots were stuck in some, ahem, roots rut. They were, for instance, very involved in and responsible for the adventuresomeness of Commonís Electric Circus, where the beats are like something Dr Octagon or the Anti-Pop Consortium would once have been lauded for. Itís that Common record from a few years ago with Stereolab among the faces on the front, and Laetitia providing the backing vocal track for one of the numbers. And while thatís a great talking point, itís elsewhere on that record that the real magic and strangeness occurs.

Be, Commonís new record, is rather more straightforward, but none the weaker for that. Kanye is at the controls most of the time, and logically the overall sound and feel is that supersmooth toughness and ultra-assured confidence that so typifies Kanyeís own work. Itís a fine line. One step further lies hollow arrogance. But their work is so sinewy and sage that they get away with it. And if it gets these guys and their brand of hip hop heard then thatís fine. The reign of Kanye and co continues.

Meanwhile Kanyeís comrade Jay Zís organisation has been behind the best pop song of the summer, and the daft joyousness of Rihannaís 'Pon De Replay' is just what the worldís been needing. Itís almost in the class of 'Uptown Top Ranking', Bow Wow Wowís 'Go Wild In The Country', and any of Kelisí recent hits. How can anyone resist it? Jay Z knew a winner there. The great news is that the accompanying Music Of The Sun set contains a number of similarly irresistible reggae/ríníb-fied lovers pop froth which occasionally slips into Beyonce-light flights but whoís complaining? We need some light in our lives.

© 2005 John Carney