Album Reviews: “Rising Down” and “When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold”Posted: May 1, 2008
Been a little while since I’ve written on music, and even longer since I’ve done an album review for a new release. I picked up two albums earlier this week that unexpectedly complimented and contradicted each other, and as a result I’ve spent a lot of time listening to them back to back. They warranted a double review.
I know most of the readership probably doesn’t give two shits about hip-hop, but if it’s any consolation, the Roots and Atmosphere have both always skirted with crossover appeal. The Roots’ “The Seed 2.0” enjoyed heavy rotation on rock stations for a time, and Atmosphere’s “The Keys to Life vs. 15 Minutes of Fame” showed up (for no reason I can tell other than they’re on an indie label… or maybe that Slug is half white?) on a Punk-O-Rama volume. Both groups could have easily churned out a chart-topper years ago, but have instead opted to hold tight to their underground appeal by touring incessantly. In their new releases, the Roots’ “Rising Down” and Atmosphere’s “When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold” mainstream appeal is flirted with and rejected, albeit differently.
“Rising Down” opens and closes with recorded arguments from the 90s between the Roots’ two staple members, MC Black Thought and drummer ?uestlove, and their manager. As the opening argument degrades into a screaming match, the drums of the title track kick in, heavier than expected. The tone only gets heavier and darker with the bass and distortion heavy second song “Get Busy.” This opening sets the stage for the rest of the album — aggressive and serious. Even the on the minimalist “75 Bars,” ?uestlove’s drumming gives the track a certain “you-could-get-your-ass-beat-to-this” flavor. Hard to believe this is the same Roots that recorded “Break You Off” in 2002 or “You Got Me” in 1999.
When looked at on a song-to-song level, the album is fairly weak. There are no tracks as catchy as “The Seed 2.0,” fun as “Here I Come,” or iconic as “The Next Movement.” As an album though, this is by far the most focused thing the Roots have ever done. After the swaggering and aggressive opening, the next three tracks retain the same anger but soften the heavy blow of the music, letting the lyrics shine through. By the very end, on the appropriately titled “Rising Up,” the tone has become almost hopeful, an appropriate way to end an otherwise bleak album.
The middle three tracks are the stars of the show — “Criminal,” “I Will Not Apologize,” and “I Can’t Help It.” These complement each other in a way that they can only exist as a triplet. The lyrics gives some testament to the bitterness of the songs even when isolated:
From “I Will Not Apologize”:
“When we talkin about pimpin or sipping old english brew or whatever they think we do
Sprayin double uzis cause you know they think we live in zoos”
From “I Can’t Help It”:
“My life is on a flight that’s goin down
My mother had an abortion for the wrong child.”
Before I move ahead to Atmosphere’s “Lemons,” you probably need to know a little more context. The Roots, as focused as they’ve always been on live shows (which, if you’ve never seen, could turn you into a fan if you aren’t already), have always played and recorded with a full band, favoring the natural sound of guitar and drums over the processed sound of sampling. Atmosphere, meanwhile, is traditionally the duo of MC Slug and DJ Ant. Atmosphere tried out the full band sound for live shows, but didn’t use them on recordings until “Lemons.” With that in mind, I was expecting a sort of Roots-like approach to the newest album. I was very wrong. Instead of the yelling that opens “Rising Down,” “Lemons” opens with the tinkle of a music box.
The first track “Like the Rest of Us” is only vocals, piano, and a very soft backbeat. The second, “Puppets,” keeps the piano and rhymes but turns up the energy marginally with a soft clap and (not until half-way in) a heavier back-beat. The album leads you in slowly and softly, and carries through with a focus on story-telling and confessional lyrics. The closest thing to aggression the album ever attempts is “Shoulda Known,” which, as the video indicates, sounds less like anger and more like a bad high.
Like “Rising Down,” you won’t find too many of Atmosphere’s best songs on this album. Nothing as funny as “National Disgrace,” visual as “The Woman with the Tattooed Hands,” or as raw as “Pour Me Another.” There’s even one song that’s just bad (“Your Glasshouse”). However, “Lemons” doesn’t have the same degree of focus as “Rising Down.” The tracks could easily be shuffled without losing any effect. The album’s highlights are scattered throughout. The previously mentioned “Puppets” is a quality mellow rap. The single “Guarantees” gets lots of mileage out of variations on two chords and some witty lyrics about a dead-end job (“No overtime no pay holiday/ Months behind on everything but the lottery”). The upbeat “Wild Wild Horses” is one of the few tracks to take full advantage of the band, with funky verses and horns over the singable chorus. “The Waitress” features Tom Waits beat-boxing (uhh… why not?) and a Jethro Tull-esque flute. Not your typical indie rap features.
It’s a somewhat scatter-shot effort, but it’s genuine through and through. Maybe it’s the loyal adherence to an indie label, but Atmosphere manages to be prolific without ever seeming tired. Good or bad, there’s a honesty running through all of Slug’s lyrics which has made me a pretty devoted fan.