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The Roots’ ‘Things Fall Apart’ Turns 15

This review was originally published at antiquiet.com.  You can read it in its original form here.

15 years ago today The Roots released Things Fall Apart, easily among their finest records. While it’s a damn good album by a band that’s been making compelling hip hop (and putting on one of the best live shows of any genre) for the past two decades, what might be most interesting about Things Fall Apart is what it failed to be, and how in the end it didn’t really matter.

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Things Fall Apart was supposed to be the start of a new era for The Roots. Three albums in with a moderate hit under their belts, this should have been the work that pushed them over the edge. With the newly formed Soulquarians, this record was also supposed to introduce the world to their vision for music in the new millennium. Albums by Erykah Badu and D’Angelo were waiting in the wings and Things Fall Apart was to be the first shot fired in a string of would-be classic records. In practice Things Fall Apart was successful, though it fell shy of its grand ambitions.

roots-tfaThe record produced a hit with “You Got Me” and ended up going platinum, but that was pre-file-sharing, and the single peaked only at #39. And while the Soulquarians went on to produce some great Neo-Soul albums, the movement was looking more like a footnote by the time the mid-2000s rolled around. Interestingly, though, drummer and bandleader ?uestlove seemed to have seen this coming. The album starts with an excerpt from Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, a heated exchange on the characters’ frustration at not reaching the audience they want. The final shot is “you grandiose motherfuckers don’t play shit that they like, if you played the shit that they like the people will come!” countered by another voice (not from the movie): “inevitably hip-hop records are treated as though they are disposable; they’re not maximized as product even, not to mention as art.”

It’s this dichotomy that informs The Roots’ approach here, and might help explain why the album never attained those grand ambitions. Things Fall Apart desperately wants to connect, to be a part of the fabric of Hip Hop, but is unwilling to do it on anyone else’s terms. What it seems the Roots intended to do with Things Fall Apart and the Soulquarians records in general is to internalize and expand on their heroes (Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, etc. according to liner notes). Their humble quest was to make timeless music and have it resonate with the world. All bullshit, numbers, and context aside, that doesn’t really matter, because what we have 15 years later is a great Hip Hop record.

Which might be a bit of an undersell. Musically and compositionally Things Fall Apart sees the Roots at the height of their powers. As a pure headphone experience, not many records even aspire to what The Roots pull off here. The bass is luxurious, the pocket in every song extra-deep allowing details to skitter in and out from ear to ear. The arrangements are complex but never feel overstuffed, every part has its place, though it might take you a few dozen listens to hear each one.

Take “Act Too (Love Of My Life)”; what starts as a simple three-note horn melody is doubled, then tripled. Sampled female vocals add rhythm, a syncopated bass line wafts in from three closed doors away, and by the time you work out what’s happened the parts snap into focus, Black Thought’s verse is front and center and what should have been a ho-hum by the book buildup becomes something much more. That’s not even considering the lyrical contributions from Black Thought and Common (including Common’s near thesis statement in the line “when we perform it’s coffee shop chicks and white dudes”) or the gorgeous Philly Soul string section the track sees itself out on.

Every song on display here stands up to similar dissection and if nothing else, this record deserves a revisit for that reason alone. And though Things Fall Apart didn’t quite live up to its makers lofty aspirations, The Roots didn’t need it to in order to reach the level of universal respect as musicians and cultural ambassadors they’ve strived for. And they didn’t even need to rewrite history to do it, they just had to sign up as the Late Night house band for an SNL-dropout.

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A Look Back At Call Me Lightning’s Soft Skeletons

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This review is something of a Look Back, where I feel compelled to write reviews for albums long past their prime buzz period.  Mostly because I’m a slouch who’s missed out on countless great records, but at least partly because the deluge of music made available makes keeping up with everything virtually impossible.  The Look Back is a chance to shed some well deserved light on albums that flew under my radar.

Call Me Lightning – Soft Skeletons

I am two and a half songs into my first ever listen of Call Me Lightning’s Soft Skeletons and I’m overtaken with a familiar feeling.  Instead of some flowery prose on how it feels I’ll give it you my current gist succinctly, “Holy fuck this is awesome.”  And for some reason, instead of leaning back, turning up the volume a couple of notches and basking in the all out punk glory that is this record, I feel compelled to try something new: an in-progress-record-review.  First, a summary of how we got to be two and a half (now three, I suppose) songs into this record.

We started with “Meet the Skeletons”, a pulsing back beat with a descending riffage gradually building tension.  The song offers no release though, that’s what track two is for.  “Billion Eyes” followed.  I listened twice.  It comes in a bluster, furiously grooves, slides out with energy high.  “Bottles and Bottles” charged out of the headphones and into my fragile mind next and halfway through this song I feel it necessary to comment.  So here we are.

You could argue, and I’d agree, that reviewing a record while listening is foolish, unfair to the artist, and that if I’m writing about the music, I couldn’t possibly be giving it the full attention necessary to have an informed and trenchant opinion on it.  That this is an exercise in misguided exuberance.  And you, faithful, hypothetical reader, would be right.  But seeing as I have already set about writing about rock music, I would argue that my guide isn’t well calibrated to begin with, and seeing as I have now spent roughly two songs justifying this exercise it’s time to get to it.

Call Me Lightning are a rock (you could call them some flavor of punk if you’d prefer) band from Milwaukee.  They make music that inspires either boisterous moshing or vigorous head bobbing while considering your existential insignificance, depending on the individual.  Soft Skeletons is the kind of album that inspires speeding tickets, enthusiastic beer drinking, and vaguely drunken post-midnight conversations on the nature of fucking up and the universe at large.  Drum fills punctuate just about every rousing chorus, spidery guitar figures meld with straight ahead hard charging riffs, the bass lines punch through the mess and accomplish the exceedingly tricky feat of buoying the rhythm section while melodically filling out the arrangement.  And then the vocals.  All manic energy and joyful desperation, the sound of someone on the brink of their grip on life lost in the catharsis that is the glorious noise this band makes.  I am now on “Shook House Shakedown”, a distillation of what they are doing so well.  The repetitive guitar riff marches with mechanical precision, the rhythm section is a drunken war elephant pushing ahead in a violent tumble, each beat recovering it’s stance before stumbling yet again.  The bridge is all menacing bass drive punctuated with the singer’s last breaths of sanity.

Sometimes catharsis comes in the skyward release of sing-alongs, harmonies, and ostentatiously important lyrics.  Often times more  appealingly, rock and roll can give us release through the reckless abandon, boundless energy, and manic reveries this album provides.  Not often do bands capture that feeling so well, but with Soft Skeletons, Call Me Lightning have done just that.