Musings on music, old, new, popular and obscure. Post punk, metal, hip-hop, funk, and rock in general. A music fan with a desire to lose boundaries on what should and should not be listened to writes about experience in music from a listener's perspective, hopefully unhindered by prior expectation.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

I'm Trying to Free Up Them Wings, Trying to Bear Some Teeth -- Doomtree

In case you ignore the titles, I normally leave their origins something you have to look up. However, this time, the lyrics are from a set of those I'm often found quoting, even if just in silly places like Facebook statuses, and I'm going to repeat them:
I'm trying to free up them wings
Trying to bear some teeth
Insignificance ain't no signature I'm trying to leave
Part of the reason for emphasizing them is that they appealed to me on a visceral, happy level--they reference "wings and teeth," the logo seen above for this group of people from the Minneapolis, Minnesota. They're found in the collaborative work "Traveling Dunk Tank," from the False Hopes collected album released in 2007. It's the 12th False Hopes, actually, the name of a series of releases they began when they started, functioning as internal or demo releases, interspersed between "full" or "official" releases. That said, I listened to "Knives on Fire," the second track from False Hopes [XII] (as it's labeled in my digital collection) over and over and over and over and over before the album was released for those of us who ordered it.

Doomtree and I are oddly entwined, albeit from a distance in many senses.

The story starts, for me, with a bit of background on my expansion into musical genres. In high school, I was simultaneously working on my classic rock snobbery (loving the usual suspects--Floyd, Zeppelin, Bowie, etc.) and the typical disdain for rap that follows it. Indeed, I'd pulled from a dictionary a secondary definition of "music" that negated some rap by requiring the presence of melody (of course, this was stupid--plenty of rap has melodies, and, despite the insistence of the snobs who never left that snobbery, it's not always "stolen," either). I didn't listen to much of anything else, though I'd started to briefly touch on metal, and some electronic music.

In college, however, I decided to begin expanding, dipping the smallest of toes into jazz, as well as buying my first Lyle Lovett album (thus pushing me toward country, too, the other semi-inevitable hatred of modern rockers, though it may recieve allowances more often). I asked someone for recommendations for rap one day, possibly even getting word back from my friend Matthew¹ (who had definitely listened to them), but someone for sure recommended Atmosphere's Seven's Travels from 2003. I got into that album quite quickly, having found it--as I did many things in those days--on eMusic. I moved on from there, eventually, ending up with both vinyl and CD releases from that group, who are from Minneapolis, MN themselves. I moved into the Chapel Hill/Durham area in 2005, which meant I was consistently approximately next door to the venue that hosts almost any indie act in America you can think of at some point, the Cat's Cradle. My schedules quickly filled with shows to attend in those years. Enough that, sometimes, I look back through my music and suddenly realize I've seen this or that person or band live (Gang of Four, Feist, !!!, Mastodon, Electric Six, Rakim, The Format, Steel Train, Piebald, Pinback, Priestess, Eels, Mogwai (twice), The Mountain Goats, Brother Ali (twice), Minus the Bear, and just last week, Drive-By Truckers--to name a few).

Atmosphere's major single from that album (and one of my favourites from it): "Trying to Find a Balance." Interestingly, this album was released on punk label Epitaph, to the dismay of many who refused to consider rap anything musical or of value. Many were angry and insisted that this was the downfall of Epitaph, or some kind of indicator that the label had "sold out" (I have no idea how a LABEL can do that, but apparently they did!)

About six months after I moved out here, on October 19th, the day after I started work at my long-time occupational home of Borders Books and Music, I saw Atmosphere live. They'd just released You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having two weeks earlier, and in it included a sampler of artists from the label they were on and manage, Rhymesayers. The opening acts, Blueprint and P.O.S. were on that sampler. I listened to both of those tracks to get an idea of what I was in for if I possibly could, and Blueprint made sense immediately but didn't light a fire under me. P.O.S.' track was a bit more strange, and took a bit to catch, but when it did...holy cow. That track, incidentally, was "P.O.S. Is Ruining My Life":
I went into that Atmosphere show looking for Atmosphere, who were becoming my stand-by rap group, as I'd dipped toes into Aesop Rock but found Labor Days a bit too schizophrenic and dense to penetrate, Brother Ali, labelmate and friend of Atmosphere who appears on a few Atmosphere releases who I liked a lot (I mentioned two concerts up there, plus he opened for Rakim, so technically three!), and Sage Francis, who seemed to be in a weird pseudo-off-beat style to me that I couldn't quite make sense of, though more linguistic people I know found both of the weirder ones--Aesop and Sage--better rappers. I figured I'd like P.O.S. all right, sure, but I knew what I was there for.

P.O.S. came out by himself, backed only by DJ Turbo Nemesis and, as they say: he killed it. He'd break off into a capella verses from his new album, probably a few tracks from his first album, and I didn't know a damn one of them--with the one exception--and I was definitely captivated. He fell back twice between tracks to the same verse, "This stuff is so ridiculous/Funny so fuckin' sick of this/Consistent lack of vision/From children claimin' they're listenin'" which led someone in the audience to say, "You already said that!" I'd only heard the run of this guy's stuff this very night and I already wanted to punch that random guy in the audience right in the face. I was sure P.O.S. was aware of that and was just emphatic about the concept outlined.I actually still have the typed responses I sent my friend Brian that night when I got home.²

His albums were not even remotely available in local stores at the time, and I was not yet in the habit of grabbing anything from merch tables at shows, so that was it for a time, the common reflex of "well, they were the openers," stayed long enough, but about six months later, P.O.S. was headlining a show at the Cradle on February 18th, 2006--the first time an opener immediately inspired me to see their headlining show. Luckily, Audition came out January 31st, so I had time to start listening to it (a lot) beforehand. It was six months after the show, and I managed to recognize songs immediately, they had made such a strong impression on me. Slug--emcee (rapper) for Atmosphere--makes a few appearances on the album ("Bush League Psych-Out Stuff" where he sarcastically puts down every member of Doomtree in the intro, then again in "Bleeding Hearts Club (MPLS Chapter)") and that also helped familiarize the album for me.

The venue was wildly empty, which was a bloody shame (and I tend to think reflects why he tends to show up at the smaller 506 now, though I kinda think they might be nearing Cradle level sales again, or maybe I'm just projecting their awesomeness into the minds of more of the public than is actually aware), but P.O.S. had two openers, Mac Lethal (who ended up not making a huge impression on me) and Sims. Now...Sims. Sims was another member of Doomtree, the collective from which P.O.S. originates, and I'm not sure if I knew that going in, but he was the opener for the whole thing and I immediately went for his then-only album, Lights Out Paris, focused mostly on two tracks that made the strongest impression, "Key Grip (Fax)" and "15 Blocks."

He was ridiculously friendly and signed the album for me,  writing "Doomtree + R.C. + Sims = :)"

Needless to say, I wandered up and snagged P.O.S.'s first album as well--first official release, anyway--from 2004: Ipecac Neat. As with many rap albums, guest appearances were pretty rampant, but the names were all meaningless to me in large part, as I'd barely been listening to rap at all at the time, and sure didn't know the Minneapolis scene very well, though Sims makes an appearance in "Lifetime...Kid Dynamite." A tired-seeming P.O.S. easily agreed to a signature on the CD, so mine has forever had "YEAH RIGHT!" scrawled across it in huge tag-style letters--the disc itself, that is. It's a reference to a song from Audition, "Yeah Right (Science Science)" which ends with P.O.S. himself laughingly relaying: "That's how dudes, dudes go, "YEAH RIGHT!' and girls go, 'Yeah right!' Right? Okay. I'm done," after the song itself turns to "SCIENCE!" "YEAH RIGHT!" at its end.

Now, of course, I began to seek further. Two artists who were really good? Why not look into the rest of them? Sims rolled his eyes at himself when I showed him that little "equation" he'd written before, but he should probably give himself a nice solid pat on the back: naturally I heard them say "Doomtree" plenty in their songs, but that seemed to actually, well, equate them enough to tell me Doomtree itself should be explored. It was a while before I really got around to it, sampling bits and pieces here and there, until early 2008 when I finally ordered False Hopes #12, the collected album with tracks from and by everyone in the crew, the one that had "Knives on Fire":

That was what unplugged the drain and let funds flow freely from my bank account to Doomtree. A trickle at first--I pre-ordered the first full-fledged crew album, the self-titled Doomtree, pre-ordered Dessa's book (yes, really), Spiral Bound (which actually wasn't spiral bound), pre-ordered P.O.S.'s third album, Never Better, ordered the Doomtree Blowout live DVD and False Hopes #13 release a bit late the next year, 2009.

That self-titled album contained one of the nicest full-crew videos there was, with a set of verses from each member and appearances from the producers as well, "Drumsticks." "No Homeowners" was the first full-crew track I heard, at the end of Sims' Lights Out Paris, then later re-mixed for release as the "(Renter's Rebate)" on the 12th False Hopes.

In early 2010, P.O.S. came back to Chapel Hill and the Local 506, this time bringing a different crew member, Dessa, as well as non-crew Astronautalis (who I really, really liked, for the record, and also recommend--he guests on P.O.S.' last album in a hidden track). This gave me the chance to pick up Dessa's two releases at the time, her own False Hopes EP and her new album A Badly Broken Code.

Now, there's an interesting story here that has to fit somewhere and is perhaps best here:
Pre-orders for Dessa's book were given, at the first thousand or so, a "message in a bottle" in the literal sense, as well as a signature. My copy arrived, but, alas, with no message in a bottle. I shot off a short e-mail inquiring politely and accepting that I'd just been too late in line. I got back an e-mail from Dessa herself telling me this was "totally wack" and would be corrected. Not long after, I got something new in the mail:

 That is a thoroughly personalized envelope from Dessa directly, which contained a small bubble wrap pocket containing a message contained in a bottle.

I mention this now because when I went to that show, I introduced myself to Dessa as the guy who didn't get the bottle and she knew exactly who I was. Admittedly, this was two years ago, but let's put it this way: Dessa has 17,000+ fans on Facebook. I have friends up in Minneapolis who ran into her at their workplace there, and she told them (and they told me) it was actually P.O.S.'s mom who was packing these, a fact I carried with myself for a bit of time with some measure of guilt.

After a few of the early "unofficial" releases (Deity for Hire/Deity for Re-Hire from Mike Mictlan comes to mind immediately) went out of print, so early last year before Sims' second album came out, I gave in. What do I mean? I mean I opened a box, when Sims' Bad Time Zoo came out and it had this in it:
Yes, ALL of this. Well, not The Point.

 That's everything left I'd not gotten around to ordering up to that point. That poster is on my wall now. 

In 2010, I was set to attend a November show from the entire crew at the Local 506 in Chapel Hill, but for personal reasons (comforting a very upset friend), I let my ticket ride and left an empty space at the venue that night. I got a huge hug from the friend who knew what a big deal this was to me, but worried somewhat that I might not get to see the whole crew together without a major roadtrip involved.

Only in February this year, that changed. They came back to the 506, as a whole, touring behind the new crew album (which I had pre-ordered): No Kings. This time, well, I was going, no question. For the second time--the last time being at the P.O.S./Dessa show--someone I used to work with and had recommended Doomtree to showed up, by my hand, this time with another new person in tow, making me heady with the idea I'd somehow started a viral movement--even if a tiny and very, very slow one. Both of those shows left a handful of confused people believing I knew the members very well. It did help that I had an even bigger pile of stuff than seen above when I came in to that show, all tucked into a Beatles messenger bag. I didn't take a picture of ALL of it together, but I did take pictures of all of it in groups later. I spent the entire day leading up to the show posting their videos to my Facebook, one-by-one, each hour.

To make that crowd of photos make some more sense, here are the members of Doomtree and my general impressions of them:

P.O.S. - "Pissed-Off Stef," "Product of Society," "Promise of Stress," "Piece of Shit," etc. Stef is often seen as the captain of the ship, even if only in articles and the sense that he co-released via Rhymsayers for his last two albums. Stef comes from punk circles before rap, which tends to show in his music. He's been in a punk band as well, Building Better Bombs--and I've heard that, amusingly, he was like me and disliked rap in the early days only to become a rapper (er, not that I've become a rapper or have any hope to). He will drop references to rock bands periodically, like Dillinger Escape Plan, Isis and Minus the Bear (for whom he did an excellent remix of the song "Knights" that I love). At the last show, to prove a point to other people, he wandered up and "milked" my elbow. Which was odd. He also told me (assuaging my guilty conscience) that his mother did the packing as occupation, so it was no worry (I suppose I just thought, "Ack, I got someone's mother possibly yelled at!") You can even find, though, acoustic and live electric guitar versions of that first song of his I heard.

Sims - Something like a mix of street rap and indie rap sensibilities, never showing off, or at least never sounding like it. Often sarcastic and politically incensed in song, but happy and smiling whenever I've spoken to him off stage. He had a very long conversation with me after the crew show, and ended up practically making me feel like the important one there.

Cecil Otter - The most difficult for me to follow, in the Aesop/Sage sense, which means I tend to think of him as the more poetry-oriented (perhaps I'm also influenced by the first track on Rebel Yellow, "The Poet Is Rapist,"³) and most lyrically dense of the crew. I like his stuff and listen to all of it regularly where I often sift through Aesop or Sage, though--plus, he told me at that show that he was responsible for the symbol that forms the cover of the crew album, the crown with a stroke through it, from earlier days and other forms of signature, which made me re-evaluate this perception a bit further. And he was very relaxed and down-to-earth when I talked to him at the crew show this year.

Mike Mictlan - The most traditional of all, and I don't mean that in a bad way. I once spent a while trying to look up a quote from P.O.S. regarding battle rapping and the idea that one should not ask him but Mictlan for such things, but never could find it again. I'd like to have such a thing, as it helps for those who miss Mictlan--his "solo" album was performed with Lazerbeak doing all beats, so they both have equal credits on it, and it seems to have been less visible as a release. For no good reason I can think of. I tend to suspect his time in Los Angeles helped influence the battle-rapping and the more traditional style of rapping he employs--not that, I need to emphasize, it should be taken as "generic," as it is very much not. Mike might've been the most quietly touched and appreciative of my having so much of their stuff with me (if you look at the link there, you will even see that he thanked me for it explicitly when he signed my copy of Hand Over Fist).

Watch for cameos from the whole crew, even though they don't have a prominent role in the song itself.

Dessa - The lone female in the crew, and she's far from a token, so don't make that mistake. Dessa mixes a bit more R&B into her work than anyone else, and she sings rather well in that, though my introduction to her came from her verse in "No Homeowners": 

Synchronized sinking
A single-sided die a tire fire
I'm sick of this sickness
I want a signal, a symbol, a sign

The sinners are seeking asylum
Senate is set to deny them
Sun at the center is dimming
Spinning in silence
Synapses sing with science sitting inside us
Citizen's sinuses ring with sirens
If singing is violence
It goes thanks, T.S., but the world ends like this
Not a bang, not a whimper, but a sibilant hiss
She's been on NPR lately and gets a lot of attention as a very pretty woman, but unfortunately her appearances seem to be attracting an obnoxious element of "ew, rap," that doesn't seem to be aware that she did rap herself and that she seems very happy onstage with the rest of the crew. I don't know--it annoys me, which I guess brings us full circle for me, now defending rap against other genres! She has been, like Sims, super, super nice to me, leading some to believe at the first show I saw her at to ask if I knew her personally, and meaning she generously agreed to make a video greeting for a friend who could not make the show for personal reasons.

Paper Tiger - One of the primary DJs/producers behind the crew, who has also released a False Hopes as well as a full (primarily instrumental) album of some quality tunes, Made Like Us. I've always taken his beats as more ethereal and peculiar, which fits the songs it drops behind without a question. "2nd Day Back"--from Made Like Us--has one of the most forlornly beautiful, warm, nostalgic feelings I've heard.

Lazerbeak - The other primary DJ/producer, whose name appears more prominently on occasion--such as the Hand Over Fist album. Beak told me I was his favourite person at the crew show for having my stacks of anything and everything (not pictured are my also-signed "pizza boxes" from the deluxe editions of No Kings and Sims's Bad Time Zoo). He released a sort of indie rock album, Legend Recognize Legend, in 2010, to the confusion of many of us who expected something like Paper's Made Like Us. He delivered Lava Bangers this year, though, and fulfilled that (and talked with me about shooting himself in the foot by delivering in that order, as now we'd've thought a Beak album would be like LRL, not instrumental).

I cannot recommend any hip-hop collective (not a weasel word: no rappers or producers, either!) more than I recommend this group of folks. I've known at least three people who maintained that no rap would ever do anything for them (up to and including my father), and could only turn one, but I did it with these folks. Do yourself a favour and, if you don't know them or feel you don't like rap, don't run away first thing. Listen to some of these tracks, they're worth it. Support this group if you like them. You can tell I do, and I've not been let down (sidenote: Dessa's book is good, too, so not even there!)

Back to Post ¹Who you may remember from talks about At the Drive-In, or, now perhaps you should know him for his own work in music, which I advertise because it's good, not because I know him--if that were why, I'd've mentioned it when he encouraged me, instead of procrastinating until I realized I mentioned him enough here I ought not to be a jerk. Oh, and he's going by different names now. I have no idea which to use, actually, so I just stick with what I know. He's the fourth member in the list on that page.

Back to Post
"and actually P.O.S. was pretty fucking amazing"
 Regarding the obnoxious audience member:
"and I just wanted to yell 'HEARD THE WORD 'CHORUS' FUCKWIT?!'"
It wasn't actually the chorus of that song ("Half-Cocked Concepts") but the sentiment remains the same: there is not some rule against repeating a phrase in music. In fact, it's often the norm. So that should not have been a surprise.

Back to Post ³I'm going to air my brief grievance here: the analogy doesn't work, as you can walk away from a poet, plug your ears, turn off your stereo, radio, etc. It's not remotely comparable to rape and as a result the track is kind of discomforting and kind of angering to me, as I've had too much experience with what that does to people to accept the inherent (albeit unintentional) downplaying of the seriousness that follows. It basically functions as a rearrangement of the perception of poetry without recognizing the ramifications on those who have rape as the stronger thought in their minds. I don't hold this against anyone and I like Cecil too much to make this a big deal, but I skip that track without hesitation and do not like it at all. For those that have triggers, it would be monstrously triggering.

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