The Roots “How I Got Over” / Maximum Balloon “S/T”

Ever since I heard Santana’s “Supernatural” I’ve held a deep hatred for the collaboration album. You know, the album where an artist features a different guest on each track, creating an album that resembles a soda-pop-suicide?  I just can’t fathom the true creativity involved when an artist pops into the studio for an afternoon and is gone the next.  After seeing “The Promise”, a documentary on the year long toil and turmoil that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band endured while recording “Darkness On the Edge of Town”, I can’t imagine the same commitment in the buffet style approach to the art form we hold dear to our hearts here at BDWPS: the album.

These guest appearance albums are common in hip-hop, where I guess they are more likely to work since the rap tradition has always grown out of family  tradition of helping up-and-coming lyricists and supporting those that have your back.  But even this can be a downfall at times. For example, Big Boi’s 2010 release is 70% incredible and 30% mediocre due simply to the likes of Jamie Foxx, Sleepy Brown, and Janelle Monae breaking up the high-energy romp that General Patton has frolicking through most of the tracks.  Two other recent albums from 2010 show the collaboration album at both its best and its worst.

Maximum Balloon
“S/T”
[DGC, 2010]

RATING: 5

Last year TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone released a solo album under the moniker Rain Machine and the results were sometimes intriguing, but more commonly hum-drum and lacking. As discussed in my review of the album, it’s difficult to match up to the magnitude found in the works of TV On the Radio.

Despite this, fellow bandmate Dave Sitek tried his hand at a solo album a month ago using the name Maximum Balloon.  The project allowed Sitek to expand the layers within his sound and let loose, creating a synth-pop jog that lends its self to the sounds of 80s artists like Prince and Talking Heads. You can tell that Sitek is having fun, free from the pressure that goes with being in a world power band like TVOTR and having to follow-up classics like “Return to Cookie Mountain” and “Dear Science”.

Yet, I can’t help but feel that Sitek may have felt TOO liberated with his music. Instead of holding his own, each track features a new vocalist ranging from Karen O to David Byrne, and even inviting his band mates Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe in to sing on a few tracks.  The result is a wide range of sound without a real focus guiding it forward. Sitek’s backing tracks aren’t signature enough to make this sound like one single artist known as Maximum Balloon; it resembles a movie soundtrack more than anything.  Sitek is the DJ at a high school dance, standing to the side providing the background music to a sea of prepubescent make-out sessions, none of which who are taking note of the “killer mix” on the speakers.

When his bandmates step in to sing, it sounds like a TV On the Radio song. When Karen O steps up to the mic it sounds like a Yeah Yeah Yeah’s song.  But even these songs aren’t strong enough to stand-alone and would likely be consider b-sides for a TVOTR or YYY album.

Kyp Malone on “Shakedown”, a real crowd pleaser…..:

There are a couple high-points on the album, including the Aku assisted opening-track “Tiger”, and “Apartment Wrestling” – the best song due to David Byrne putting Sitek’s music in a full-nelson and making it his bitch.  While other artists on the album seem tentative and bored, Byrne does what he does best and dominates the final track. If only he’d gone all 10 rounds and saved Sitek from a less than stellar showing.

Does anybody else wish Byrne would join TVOTR in the same way legend Johnny Marr joined Modest Mouse?:

The Roots
“How I Got Over”
[Def Jam, 2010]

RATING: 8.5

I worried that Jimmy Fallon had ruined The Roots like he’s done over the years to so many SNL skits and movies.  When I first heard they would be the house band for a show that features more awkward interviews than Magic Johnson’s talk show, I was confused. How did this help The Roots? What did they get out of being on late, late night?  Even playing at ten o’clock for Conan would be a stretch simply because I don’t see how any steady gig like this would help their music or their cred in the rap community.

Then I heard their 2010 release “How I Got Over” and it all made sense. By playing nightly within the confines of a show that no one watches, the band was able to continue honing their craft through a medium that also provided them with the chance to meet a variety of artists (somehow Fallon’s show has had an absurd list of artists coming through the studio including a performance by Bruce Springsteen AND Neil Young together).

These two elements are evident on “How I Got Over”, where track after track features another guest appearance to go alongside the bands compelling jams.  The difference with The Roots approach to the collective-style album is that there is never a question who’s album this is: the band firmly has its fingerprints deeply pressed into every nook and cranny of “How I Got Over”.   When The Monsters of Folk softly sing an opening prayer on “Dear God 2.0”, ?uest Love’s pin-point drumming responds like a voice from beyond; when John Legend soulfully croons on “The Fire”, Kamal Gray’s constant pulse on the piano is the fuel that keeps the flame burning; when the sample of Joanna Newsom’s “The Book of Right On” appears on “Right On”, Black Thought plays the perfect anti-thesis to her distinctive voice,  punctuating his point right on cue.

Instead of letting their guests over-stay their welcome, they seem more like accents to The Roots live sound, now featuring much less of the sampling seen in past works. The band’s nightly practice sessions on live television have obviously assisted within track after track of tight instrumentation.

Beyond the fact that this is an album of guest appearances, it’s also a pretty extraordinary work as a whole.  While many of the band’s past albums have focused on the ills of the world, this is an album of triumph and optimism. “How I Got Over” is exactly what the title says: a narrative of getting over the set-backs and adversity that one will face in a lifetime.  Instead of wallowing on the negative, the album continues with a constant from song to song: keep your head up and move forward. This many seem like a corn-ball, inspirational poster in music form, but The Roots handle it like true craftsmen, building the story from the bottom up.  Each song leads into the next with the narrator rising up throughout, starting at the bottom where it delves into the hardships of growing up to the ghetto, and eventually elevating from one song to the next toward an adulation that arrives near the end with songs like “The Fire” and “Tunnel Vision”.  Now if only the band could rise up from the evil clutches of Jimmy Fallon.

This is what happens when you hang around Jimmy Fallon too long:


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