Seeing Sounds

By Miles Marshall Lewis • Jul 13th, 2008 • Category: reviews

So N*E*R*D’s back, flaunting all the appropriate characteristics for the ideal postmodern pop-rock band: an effortless mélange of hiphop, rock, and 80s synth music married to an ironic attitude. The description sounds a lot like Gnarls Barkley (a duo likewise hard to characterize), but N*E*R*D predated that group by four years with their first record, In Search Of… (overrated, but “Rock Star – Poser” and “Lapdance” rocked on). Off the new record Seeing Sounds, the retro-sounding “Windows,” with Motown-like handclaps and “do do do” harmonizing, is the only song that might bring Gnarls Barkley to mind. The rest is far too energetic and futuristic to be anything but pure N*E*R*D. It’s the perfect soundtrack for the jumpy girls with coke joneses playfully satirized on the first single, “Everyone Nose (All the Girls Standing in the Line for the Bathroom).”
Lead singer Pharrell Williams is celebrated mainly for his phenomenal talent as a producer; his distinct touch is famously all over most of Madonna’s latest, Hard Candy. This makes sense, because his lack of singing chops sometimes makes N*E*R*D harder to appreciate. Poor vocals weigh down certain songs — “Yeah You,” for example — like an anchor; because of his voice, it’s hard to know if he’s seriously seducing or just fuckin around. N*E*R*D’s lyrics are also trite and secondary to the music. “Everyone Nose” takes coke use as its subject (“cut you open and you’re all white,” Pharrell sings), but most of Seeing Sounds deals with hookups and partying.
Beats redeem the album though. The agitated triphop drumming on “Anti Matter” complements the song’s New Wave guitars nicely, creating a standout. “Kill Joy” uses the old-school Sugarhill Gang-like rhymes of N*E*R*D’s Shay effectively and, like most of Seeing Sounds, the bridge contrasts the original melody sharply. More than anything else, N*E*R*D continues to be a fly storage room for the more experimental sounds that producer Pharrell Williams can’t hawk elsewhere.
Miles Marshall Lewis

Neo-Hoodoo: Art of a Forgotten Faith By Valerie Cassell Oliver

By editor • Jul 10th, 2008 • Category: reviews


Neo-Hoodoo: Art of a Forgotten Faith
The Menil Collection, Houston
June 27 – September 21, 2008

With this second major exhibition at the Menil Collection since his arrival in 2006, Franklin Sirmans has reignited the conversation surrounding art and spirituality. Drawing its inspiration from Ishmael Reed’s novel, Mumbo Jumbo written in 1972, Sirmans traces the vestiges of an African spiritual sensibility throughout the Americas and over two generations of art-makers.

The beautifully installed exhibition that features thirty-three artists mostly working in installation, opens with a sculptural work by Nari Ward entitled, Liquorsoul (2007) a repurposed metal neon sign whose inverted letters have been reordered to illuminate the word, soul. Ward’s wall work juxtaposed with Marepe (Marcos Reis Peixoto)’s lighted floor sculpture, Aureolas, (2007) and James Lee Byar’s gilded brass free-standing sculpture, The Halo, (1985); sets the overall tone for the exhibition. Primarily an ode the religious syncretism created by Africans brought to the Americas, there is also the celebration of artistic practice that have fused the intuitive impulse with that of formalism.  The result is an alchemy of sights, sounds, and smells that evoke the palpable traces of spiritual, political and artistic awareness.

While much of the work was culled from existing collections (including the Menil), others were either created or re/created specifically for the exhibition.  Most striking are those works that have the innate ability to viscerally induce the syncretism of a formalist approach to art-making and the resonance of spirituality.  A new installation work by Amalia Mesa-Bains, The Curandara’s Botanica, (2008) envelops the viewer’s senses with the strong scent of lavender and the gleaming of glass beakers and stainless steel. The work suggests an updated conjure house whose modern day curandara (conjure woman) retains the power of her ancestors.  Jose Bedia, Las Cosas que me Arrastum (the things that drag me along), 1996/2008, a large wall drawing connected to two wooden canoes filled with bones, glass, cloth and wooden objects also draws upon the ancestral world and the spiritual traditions of this Cuban roots.  Radcliff Baileys’ Storm at Sea, (2007), a floor installation of undulating piano keys upon which a model Spanish carrack -the sailing vessel used during the Atlantic Slave Trade - is precariously poised. In the background a wooden sculpture of Chango looks on longingly for those taken from the shores of Africa. For their simplistic buoyancy, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform) 1991 and William Cardova’s la casa que frank Lloyd wright hiso para atahualpa, 2008 are standouts as well as works by Terry Adkins and Kcho. The likely artistic shoe-ins for such an exhibition like this, Ana Mendieta and Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons do not disappoint particularly when juxtaposed against the photographic work of Rebecca Belmore and 2007 performances of Regina Josè Galindo.  Overall, this exhibition is a must see and its catalogue with essays by Robert Ferris-Thompson, Arthur Danto, Julia Herzberg, Greg Tate, Quincy Troupe and an interview between Sirmans and Ishmael Reed, is a must-read for anyone interested in a unique twist on politics, spirituality and their presence in contemporary art practice.Neo-Hoodoo: Art of a Forgotten Faith,The Menil Collection, Houston,June 27 – September 21, 2008

Val Cassell

Honoring Our Mothers by Sarah Elizabeth Lewis

By editor • Jul 10th, 2008 • Category: reviews

We often try to keep time positioned vertically, aligning our personal histories, created years or even minutes ago, to direct our new present. Our lineages remain straight up and down in our creative process too; mothers and fathers support children who might take collective dreams forward. Yet
vectors find strength if we torque their lines.

MacArthur winning Photographer and Photo Historian Deborah Willis and Photographer Hank Willis Thomas, a mother and her son, are showing us how it’s done. Creating photographs for the first time together after pioneering work on their own, “Progeny,” their current exhibition at Bernice Steinbaum Gallery in Miami, is more than a familial collaboration; it is honor paid through pictures. Not only does the show include work made by each individually, it pays homage to “mother wit” displayed below the lips of those who received it: “Believe him the first time,” “Kill them with kindness” and “Know what you are saying but don’t say everything you know.” One line in particular positioned next to a pregnant Mecca Brooks, a member of the Willis family, “They don’t tell you the water doesn’t stop,” takes on national significance given the tragedy of hurricane Katrina. It was there that our community had to lend support to one another, this show subtly remind us, mothers to sons, sons to mothers and on and on throughout the ages, throughout our world.

Sarah Lewis

There’s A Rising Goin’ On Down’ by Douglas Kearney

By Douglas Kearney • Jul 9th, 2008 • Category: reviews

So a new Roots album dropped on April 29–16th anniversary of the Rodney King verdict and subsequent LA Riots. Smart asses.  Cover image looks like a cross between Buckwheat and Fantasia’s Chernabog flying over Tara.
In 2006, Game Theory had me convinced the murk missing from new and improved digitally sterilized hippity hop could return to above ground albums. Said murk could then signify more than shoestring production, function instead as a grimy sonic patina for a psychological landscape—and turn listening into a way of thinking through Riot smoke. Scrawly cover w/ChernaBuck? Buckabog? and cheeky release date said maybe the thoughtful murk was back.
It’s back and better on Rising Down.
I submit to you that Rising Down is There’s A Riot Goin’ On with a faded 9/11 bumper sticker on a past-prime and GPSed gas-guzzler broken down somewhere between a war protest and a whut. It seems The Tipping Point’s Sly-jack on “Star/Pointro” and Game Theory’s titular track’s Stone quotes were part of a ritual du cheval.
Game Theory rocked its paranoia in a broader American voice (it takes two to play a game of hangman, whether you’re using pencils or people). Something didn’t feel right, but what? Rising Down seems a more specifically focused Black protest. As I told my wife, it’s like going to a crowded barber shop in a hood near a Black college and the patrons are watching CNN.
Consider the post-Imus middle finger in the virtuosic “75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction).” OR the re-tasking of party chant and classic dance-jam metonymic phrase beautifully defaced by Jazzy Jeff’s digits in “Get Busy.” OR Black Thought, Truck North and Saigon’s racial profiling plaints on the somber, country-tinged “Criminal.” OR the conflation of school shooters, child soldiers and suicide bombers with each other and a virulent kind of minstrelsy on the stunning “Singing Man.”
This album is so steeped in a deeply critical (versus cartoonishly performed) Black® thinking that The Roots include an oral footnote explaining how “yelling” works in many black cultural interactions. What they shouldn’t have to explain (and don’t) is how Rising Down’s contextualizing track “The Pow Wow” is  the raw sound of Panic!!!!! (not Illadelph Halflife’s track of the same name); rather Black folks’ centuries old anxiety when crossing swords with a white institution (in this case, the music industry) and the familiar yet dreaded sense that things are about to fall apart, that we must codeshift or else. Here, The Roots choose “else.”
On Riot, when Sly sings: “My only weapon is my pen” (“Poet”), he makes a statement of voluntary disarmament. That album’s silent “There’s A Riot Goin’ On” neither celebrates nor condemns the burning buildings. It does not codeshift, it watches. Sly’s efforts to bridge Soul (meaning black) to Rock (meaning white by then) had succeeded (even as The Roots’ efforts to broaden their audience have) and there in the midst Sly stood, watching the optimism of the 60s bleed out black at Altamont.
Check how Riot’s “Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa” undoes Greatest Hits’s “Thank You (Faletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” by transforming the brash rally-funk of “Faletinme” into the wounded, sullen mutter of “For Talkin To Me”; then listen to how The Roots “Becoming Unwritten” becomes “Unwritten” or how the joyful Go-Go-esque closer “Rising Up” attempts to reverse the world weary drone of opener “Rising Down.” Yet by choosing a musical idiom (and a guest, Wale) from Washington, DC, the sonic relief of “Rising Up” busts loose in the shadow of the capitol—The Roots seem well aware of what happens when the powers that be don’t feel like letting one be oneself. Agin.