Aural Pleasure

Macy’s Parade

Macy Gray is gifted with the ability to climb inside a conventional R&B track and breathe life into the whole moribund enterprise. Yet even her boundless idiosyncrasies are not enough to save the over-produced, half-baked banality that afflicts the balance of this album.

Gray’s talent is such that you could seemingly wind her up and set her loose, yet perpetually she’s afflicted with sub-par material. (It doesn’t help that her lyrical skills distantly trail the originality of her voice.) There’s no change in that here. However, a track such as “Okay” showcases the promise of Gray’s overwhelming charisma. Opening with a martial drumbeat reminiscent of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” a slinky bass and piano line appear, heading immediately upstage, reserving the spotlight for Gray’s mesmerizing, multi-tracked vocal theatrics.

Album openers “Finally Made Me Happy” and “Shoo Be Doo” are just the kind of jazzy, paint-by-numbers R&B tracks that Gray’s magnetic presence is designed to uplift, but mostly her oddball flavor is smothered in string-laden arrangements so overwrought they’d make Burt Bacharach blush. Nothing epitomizes the unfortunate and too-often-craven tone so perfectly as her breakbeat-fueled, thuggin’ anthem, “Ghetto Love,” which opens with a sample of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” and heads downhill at light speed from there.

— Chris Parker


Diamond Mining

In a previous incarnation, Arizona iconoclast Chris Pomerenke was one-half of the dada-pop duo Lush Budget Presents the Les Payne Product, wearing a white, nuclear-reactor jumpsuit and playing drums with one hand while he stabbed at a tiny keyboard with the other. Eventually, Pomerenke and his musical comrade James Karnes made history by creating Less Pain Forever, the only documented case of a band forming a tribute band to itself.

Les Payne — and Less Pain, for that matter — was a brilliantly surreal group whose inspired mayhem never fully translated to disc. Pomerenke’s new project, Runaway Diamonds, is nearly as minimalistic as Les Payne, but by employing stately piano and rinky-dink drum-machine beats, it places Pomerenke’s self-help lessons, his poisoned-chicken-soup-for-the-soul remedies, front and center, where they deserve to be.

Pomerenke embraces life’s absurdities in much the same way he delights in the ridiculous nature of most three-minute pop songs. It’s his deadpan ability to mock and empathize at the same time that keeps you coming back to Runaway Diamonds’ debut CD.

Right off the bat, with “Is This E-Mail an SOS?,” Pomerenke reveals: “I started working for the man when I was just a little kid/ it hurts, it hurts.” There’s something in the way he repeats “it hurts” that makes you want to crack up, yet he never drops his mask of sincerity, never turns the song into an outright parody. He also sees something of himself in a sad hummingbird who “hurt his little brain” by thinking too hard.

What Pomerenke is after is a kind of free-form slacker transcendence, the idea that you can meditate your way to higher consciousness, but if you want to cheat and achieve the same effect with drugs, give that a shot too. He’s something of a desert Zen master, preaching the idea that grace can best be achieved when you stop trying; that thought inhibits feeling and effort thwarts pleasure. But the advice that he imparts — “quit your job, take your mom and your dog for a walk in the park” — is the practical stuff of everyday life.

There are musical precedents for Runaway Diamonds: the garage electronica of Le Tigre, the bare assault of Elvis Costello’s “Pills and Soap,” and even the flowery chordal flights of Ben Folds. But between Gabe Hernandez’s eloquent piano playing, Pomerenke’s droll narratives, and the Greek chorous of backing singers (Andrew Lockwood, Lisa Marmur, Yolanda Bejarano, and Riana Riggs), the results feel utterly fresh.

— Gilbert Garcia


 Busy Bee-Hive

Some people thought Kid Rock broke creative ground in 1998 with the lyric, “Bawitdaba da bang a dang diggy diggy.”

Catchy? Absolutely, but nearly 20 years earlier a man named David Parker was laying down exactly the same jabbing “words” on a relatively fresh music scene called hip-hop. And like Kid Rock, who chooses not to go by his given name Bob Ritchie, Parker was better known around his circle of fellow New York rappers as Busy Bee.

Traffic Entertainment/Strong City Records has released an enhanced version of Bee’s 1988 album, Running Thangs. Regarded as his strongest release, the update of the original songs — including “Suicide,” “Converse,” and “Get Busy” — features new mixes and a bonus track with the music video to “Express.”   

Back in a time when emceeing was more about quick wit and humor than anything else, Busy Bee easily filled the bill, gaining a reputation as a comedian on the mic by asking the crowd, “What’s your favorite restaurant?” or “If you love your mom, then say ho.”

On his ode to women, aptly titled “Murder,” Bee takes on trifling females with anecdotes that seem tame and maybe even corny compared to Ice-T or Eminem: “Girl named Patty drived a black Caddy/ the girl was so fine I wanted to kiss her daddy.” But wrapped around a simple beat and a solid hook these lyrics are a means to an end for today’s rap game.

Busy Bee also predated and anticipated the war of words between artists such as Jay-Z and Nas by staging actual emceeing throwdowns on the streets of Harlem to establish bragging rights, most notably with Kool Moe Dee of “Wild, Wild West” fame.    

An obscure hero from an era when hip-hop was more innocent and less hyped, Busy Bee will serve as an adequate old-school teacher in Emceeing 101.

— Ryan Markmann