Hello there, stranger. Sitting by this fire is real cozy. Could ya do me a favour and toss that hardwood in there, just to give it a kick? Hey, while you're at it, toss me that saddlebag from over behind that rock. Yeah, that's the one. The wind has gone somewhere tonight and quite frankly, it's a little bit lonely out here on this island.
(Out of the saddlebag comes two CD's. One of them reads "Hawksley Workman" and the other reads "Buck 65")
Hawksley Workman has returned and it's hard not to know about it -- Universal Music Canada has plastered his face everywhere, including on the front windows of HMV (a record chain from Canada?). This weeks "Hour" (a free weekly here in MTL) has Hawksley's mug on the cover. He is even getting some media attention south of the border and across the Atlantic (apparently the British press can't get enough of this guy).
Media blitz aside, I feel that his new album "Lover/Fighter" is somewhat of a let down. For those of us that have been following his curious career path (his original press bio said that he used to be the janitor of a dance academy and he would live in the studio and dance all night, or something to that effect), "Lover/Fighter" couldn't be anything but a disappointment.
There are still some great songs here--highlights include "Smoke Baby", "Anger as Beauty", and "Tonight Romanticize the Automobile", all epic tunes that blow the roof right off your house. Where the album descends to the level of us mere mortals is in the production. Hawksley has said himself in interviews that he is something of a "control freak" and the shiny, U2-esque production of his latest LP has proven this tenfold.
I'm not saying that I don't enjoy the pride of Ireland--Bono et al. have grown on me over the years, especially since the grunge explosion died down and it was OK again to branch out into mellow without crossing Bon Jovi's path. The only problem is that "Lover/Fighter" sounds subdued, even in its loudest moments. Hawksley is aiming for the cheap seats, trying to convince everybody of his genius, and despite a great selection of songs and impassioned playing (he plays nearly every instrument on the album), I can't honestly say that I prefer it to his other albums. He's pulling his punches and that might sell him some more albums but it won't result in the critical success he's longing for.
You have to take risks when you're making art, and I think he's trying to colour inside the lines and go for the "safe bet". Perhaps a fitting metaphor for Hawksley's new album would be a Deer head mounted to a wall. When you first see a deer running through the woods, it is easy to marvel at the speed and grace of the buck. Somehow, the deer just doesn't look the same once you've shot him and stuck him up on the wall of your den. I have the somber opinion that "Lover/Fighter" was mixed down and recorded in such a manner that it has killed the spontaneity and vitality of Mr. Workman's main strength, songwriting.
I hope that Hawksley brings in some help next time to man the boards. Aside from that, I don't see any smoke on the horizon. He will only improve, and Canadian music will be the better for it.
Buck 65 is another one of those musical luminaries, a "control freak" just like Hawksley, only he's been at this a lot longer. He's been DJ'ing since the early 90's and he released his first album in 1997 on his own label ("Language Arts").
His latest release "Talking Honky Blues" is a masterpiece, not inhibited by safe production values or sure-thing mixing. A fair comparison would be Beck hanging out with DJ Krush and Johnny Cash, all sharing a 40-ouncer of Johnny Walker and trading war stories.
The first time I tried to get down a solid account of this album, I was stumped. It's hard to type when your head is grooving to a good beat and you've got nothing left to smoke, especially when the words you're hearing are so masterfully spoken. Buck 65 is deep, a musical traveler without a home. (In one interview, he said he has no home address because he's been touring for so long).
Plus, he raps about houseboats and tramps and rusty water tanks. How many rappers do you know that tell a story like this? (Eminem is the only one I can think of off the top of my head but he's far more obsessed with hatred of his parental lineage to produce anything remotely artistic these days.) He talks about his father removing snow with a flame-thrower, about Blue Jays and trains, about everything without feeling the need to tell off anybody or attack his detractors.
The Hip-Hop orthodoxy down at The Source will probably write off Buck 65 as a whack MC with a slow flow and a couple of interesting beats but if they do, they'll be missing the point. He is proof positive that rap can be taken to new levels, when posturing and machismo is put aside in favour of poetry and ideas. I'm not saying that Nas or Jay-Z are going to be sweating -- nobody would even THINK of trying to unseat 50 Cent from the Hip Hop Throne -- but Buck 65 represents one of the latest in a recent uptick in Well-Made, Conscious rap (Although infinitely more political, Dead Prez is definitely another one to watch out for. Also on this short-list of amazing rap is K-OS, a Torontonian who takes it to a higher level on his album "Exit").
Here's hoping that Buck strikes gold again like he did on "Talking Honky Blues". It took years of floating down this river before we found the goldmine, but "Fast ain't always better than slow / you know". Go and buy his album! (or download it on Kazaa, whatever suits your fancy.