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Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
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Robyn - Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
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The Walkmen - Lisbon
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Fat Possum
Wu-Tang Clan
8 Diagrams

Rating: 7.3/10 ?

January 18, 2008
Let us pretend for a second that not all rock critics can successfully avoid being thrown askew when our favorite bands do Weird Things. I might be wrong, but I think people read us for the second guess, to be convinced that something's worth staying with even after a slightly sour first listen. But we're not above human; we have five senses, and sometimes even the most refined of 'em misses the forest for the trees (not that all critics are refined, and usually regarding Jenny Lewis, are total boobs). So I'm not ashamed to make myself one of RZA's targets, and no level of smarts or training could escape me from being flat-out confused by the motherfucker.

Lots of folks speculated about the difficulty of this cult-classic-to-be, though it seems like the word of mouth is neg-a-TIVE (dropping from 23 to 85 in one week on the Billboard 200 ain't a good look for supposedly vital "C.R.E.A.M." dreamers). Me, I hear a solid record with a lot of unnecessary burying going on. "Rushing Elephants" is a banger, not mash, and should blare like one as such. I don't think even admirers can deny this thing would crunch in hi-fi. Or at least 36 Chambers-era mid-fi; it's not like these dudes were quite Timbaland to begin with. What we get is murk. Tasty murk, yes, but a bit mismatched. Sleater-Kinney's decision to let Dave Fridmann mix everything in the red? Killer. PJ Harvey and Steve Albini flicking dirty razors left and right? Scuzz genius. But those ladies fought for their aural space. The closest RZA's boys get to truly filling up that audio is when Ghostface Killah's stressed moan drenches a track now and then. Now bereft of their brashest character, the other top-class MCs present are more known for shadowing the background and working the edges. Unless you're so 1995 you think GZA or Method Man are still a threat to Soulja Boy on club playlists. So yeah, it's admirable that RZA did 8 Diagrams his way in an age where Beanie Sigel and Kanye West are exploring their synth-pop sides. But it's also pretty douche that you can barely hear the melting harmonicas on "Campfire." Other goodies that get lost in the mix: "a man who came to kill [who] gets knocked out," and pretty much any percussive element.

There is, however, one extraordinary exception. "Wolves" seems like an oddity at first, but in three listens it establishes itself as everything one still hopes for from the Wu camp. George Clinton guest-stars as a rocking-chair swamp daddy, jabbering on the porch about Red Riding Hood's foe who "made a widower of Grandpa" in his brilliantly off-timed grumble, and a doomy beat offsets itself with mariachi horns floating in from RZA's latest hookah binge. The underrated U-God and Masta Killa (and the somewhat overrated Method Man) take it from there, and damn me if it doesn't balance the Wu myth in tandem, equidistant between goofy cryptograms and cold-eyed threats.

For a few tracks this vibe really does sustain in the middle, before half falling apart again. I want to compare this act of audio defiance to Zen Arcade, but with the producer's hippie-mystic leanings, it's more likely he meant Person Pitch. I'm not a fan; I expect shy indie rockers to swath their tunes watery out of shyness, not an eccentric legend to disguise half-committed beats. Still, it would be too easy to point to the squarely linear The Big Dough Rehab and call it what I wanted, because it's atypically (and terminally) unweird for the usually enticingly oddball Ghostface. What to do? Let's call 8 Diagrams one to grow on and hope six years from now RZA develops his new sound, that Wu fans aren't expected to suspend disbelief anymore than they already are. 8 Diagrams is intricate, inoffensive, interesting. With the right homegrown accessory, it may even grow hypnotic. But it's mash.

Reviewed by Dan Weiss
Dan Weiss is the music editor for LAS. Formerly an editorial intern at CMJ and creator of the now defunct What was It Anyway?, his work has appeared in Village Voice, Pitchfork, Philadelphia Inquirer, Stylus and Crawdaddy among others. He resides in Brooklyn where he enjoys questionable lifestyle choices and loud guitars.

See other reviews by Dan Weiss



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