Ming & FS
The Human Condition
On their 1999 debut, Hell's Kitchen, Ming & FS pasted together industrial-strength beats that sounded as if they'd been found rusting in some NYC alley. It was a raw record, mixing a tough hip-hop bounce with disorienting jungle breaks. But unless you're a fish, rawness is a tough sell; this, their sophomore effort, is a cleaner, more fashion-runway/commercial-ready sound. Now, instead of blending two hard styles to get something even harder, they've rediscovered melody—not to mention what the kids in the clubs really want to hear. "Uncle Bubble" is a simple, lighthearted, garage/two-step number that no Hell's Kitchen devotee would ever believe is a Ming & FS track (the hardcore kids'll think it's weak, but it's still got a beat large enough to make Moby duck). "Freak" dabbles in Fatboy Slim-like electro funk, while "Some Die" rolls like a breakbeat-era slab of modern jungle, complete with the obligatory underground female vocalist (Ada Dyer of Naked Music here). Sometimes they spin out into more colorful psychedelic nonsense. The scratched-up title track is wonderfully out-of-focus lounge music, while you'll wonder what's really on Winnie the Pooh's mind as he asks with desperate curiosity, "Is there honey in that box?" on the Orb-like closing track. A little scattershot and rickety in places, the record nevertheless stays on the rails because Ming & FS actually understand song structure (FS is a well-schooled jazz pianist). And though they're a bit more polished, the beats are still strong enough to carry the load.
Here's to Shutting Up
Superchunk's eighth album, written well before Sept. 11, contains some surprisingly topical material. While people have been searching for any remotely relevant lyrics to help them cope, Mac McCaughan just comes right out with "Plane crash footage on TV/And I know that could be me." The line appears as the disjointed chorus of "Phone Sex," a song about a spurned long-distance lover, but if it doesn't make you think about sitting wide-eyed in front of CNN for an entire day, then you probably didn't. Later, in "Out on the Wing," an anthem to graceful aging, a fear of flying is expressed as a sort of disbelief in the benevolence of technology while a fretful, charging chorus deadpans "Airplanes are heavy/Ships deserve to sink"—you won't hear lines like these on Clear Channel stations any time soon. Superchunk helped put Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on the college-radio map in 1991 with the Steve Albini-produced classic No Pocky for Kitty. Their storied denials of major-label suitors and founding of Merge Records made having their poster in your dorm room just that much cooler. Now their songs are slower and contain string arrangements, and Mac sings in a falsetto that makes him sound identical to bassist/backup singer Laura Ballance. None of this will surprise anyone who came back to Superchunk when producer Jim O'Rourke shined up the pop melodies on 1999's Come Pick Me Up. Here's to Shutting Up is really the same kind of record, with more of a garagey, chugging-along feel that holds your attention. So if you, like Superchunk, have swapped your grungey angst for contemplative introspection, give it a spin.