In 1999, the Roots were in limbo. The Philadelphia hip-hop band had released three critically acclaimed albums but were still considered something of a novelty act, featuring a big guy with a big Afro on drums (?uestlove), a sharp but unshowy MC (Black Thought), two beatboxers (Rahzel and Scratch), and a stellar live show—all anomalies in the gilded age of Puff Daddy and the million-dollar sample clearance. The Roots had by this time amassed a faithful cult following, but none of it translated to mainstream success. They were selling more records and slowly moving beyond their dedicated base of jazz and traditional rap purists, but their career wasn’t headed anywhere in particular.
Reflecting these tensions, the Roots opened their fourth studio album, Things Fall Apart, with dialogue from a scene from Spike Lee’s 1990 film, Mo’ Better Blues, in which characters Bleek Gilliam and Shadow Henderson—played by Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes, respectively—debate the state of jazz music. Gilliam doesn’t want to sacrifice his creative vision to pander to crowds, and he thinks black people should come to his shows simply because he’s making black art. “That’s bullshit,” Henderson quips. “The people don’t come because you grandiose motherfuckers don’t play shit that they like.” The clip seemed to acknowledge the Roots’ reputation: They were too smart for their own good, too self-aware, and they were getting in their own way. It was as if, from the very beginning, the band sought to be misunderstood, to find somewhere to hide from the mainstream.
As unique as the Roots were—they were a hip-hop band, after all—their music still had traces of what was popular at the time. Their 1995 album Do You Want More?!!!??! featured the sort of laid-back jazz feel that Digable Planets had perfected the year before on Blowout Comb. The Roots’ follow-up, 1996’s Illadelph Halflife, was more aggressive and confrontational, taking lyrical and sonic cues from the Wu-Tang Clan. But the group was searching for something different. Before the release of Things Fall Apart, they had positioned themselves as a sort of remedy for the excesses of Bad Boy’s empire, which in those days became an all-too-easy target for the backpacker set. In their satirical 1996 video for “What They Do,” the Roots mocked the sort of rap video stereotypes popularized by director Hype Williams, thumbing their collective nose at champagne bottles and mansion parties. Acts like the Roots wanted to give listeners the “real shit,” but while they and others criticized Bad Boy’s gravitational pull, their art-rap aesthetic was its own form of marketing. They just hadn’t figured out what they were selling. While the Roots thought of themselves as the anti-establishment alongside acts like OutKast and the Fugees, those groups sold millions of records when the Roots were struggling to go gold.
By 1997, before the sessions for Things Fall Apart began, drummer and bandleader ?uestlove was exploring new opportunities beyond the Roots. He was more concerned with recording D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Common’s Like Water for Chocolate than he was with his own group. It wasn’t that he wanted to leave the Roots, but still, his outside projects created resentment amongst band members who questioned his focus. “In my head at that time, the notion of a Roots album was a distant third,” ?uest wrote in his 2013 memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues. He was spending time with Voodoo engineer Russell Elevado, learning new ways to manipulate sound to give his own music a more granular, less studied feel. He wanted to be a heralded producer like DJ Premier and J Dilla, but his band’s work felt remarkably clean—even sterile—in comparison. The best rap of that era had to feel at least a little gritty: Though the Notorious B.I.G. was signed to Bad Boy, his 1997 album Life After Death had plenty of dark, violent narratives. The Wu’s massive double album, Wu-Tang Forever, was full of woozy street bangers, courtesy of the group’s production team, with the RZA at the helm. Realizing he needed to improve as a producer, ?uest learned how to play drums “dirty,” taking Dilla’s lead and dragging his percussion just a bit to make the beat seem off-kilter.
The genesis of Things Fall Apart can be traced back to a hangout ?uest had with Premier, Dilla, and D’Angelo, where he played them a rough version of a Roots song called “Double Trouble” and got disinterested head-nods in return. Determined to bolster the track, ?uest recorded drums to two-inch tape, looped it back through the soundboard, and tweaked the EQ to give it a feeling of distance. “It was a turning point in my understanding of my own career,” ?uest wrote in his memoir. “I knew that the other guys respected me as a drummer… but I also wanted them to respect me as a producer and a songwriter.” In its finished form, “Double Trouble” is arguably the centerpiece of Things Fall Apart; rapper Black Thought finally had a hard-charging instrumental to match his verbal dexterity, and guest Mos Def—fresh off his outstanding solo debut, Black on Both Sides—matched him bar-for-bar.
Things Fall Apart is where the Roots figured out who they were—it wasn’t “just another Roots record,” and if the group was going to fail, they were going out their own way. “Table of Contents (Part 1)” illustrates their new willingness to take risks: The breakbeat is messy and the mix is intentionally pinched and lopsided, but the track’s feeling of chaos is an ideal table-setter, opening the record on a tense and uncertain note. On “Step Into the Realm,” the drum loop fades in and out, but the rhythmic instability makes the rappers’ audibly distorted vocals sound even more urgent. If the Roots’ first three albums mastered the meeting point between jazz and rap, this was the first time the band went psychedelic, opening up new possibilities sonically and lyrically.
D’Angelo’s 1995 album Brown Sugar and Erykah Badu’s Baduizm from 1997 were the blueprint for new-school soul music, and Things Fall Apart applied those ideas to hip-hop proper. In this aesthetic space, artists with different approaches could find new ways to be creative together, and a new movement was being born. “You Got Me,” the lead single from Things Fall Apart, found a crooning Badu next to rapper Eve from the Ruff Ryders over a lilting guitar figure and strings. The classic arrangement and eclectic mix of voices, paired with ?uestlove’s typically propulsive and cutting backbeat, sounded both old and new, looking backwards and forwards simultaneously. The Roots were pushing the limits of their sound, establishing a lane for D’Angelo, Common, and Badu to do the same. By building a musical community and mastering the art of collaboration, they figured out how to cross over and keep their soul intact.
Things Fall Apart was the Roots’ most successful record, and after years in the shadows, they were finally getting radio airplay and touring as headliners. The album went gold two months after its release and hit platinum in 2013. In addition to its commercial success, it served as a launching pad for new voices, like Roc-A-Fella rapper Beanie Sigel, who debuted as a guest artist on “Adrenaline!,” and Eve, whose “You Got Me” appearance was her most prominent feature at the time. The relatively unknown Jill Scott wrote the chorus for “You Got Me” and was slated to sing on the track until MCA Records pushed for a bigger name (Badu) to appear in her place; soon, Eve and Scott would release their own platinum-selling albums.
Despite being a breakthrough for their band and their scene, the Roots didn’t immediately build on Things Fall Apart’s success. Powered by D’Angelo’s sultry “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” video, Voodoo became a phenomenon, and ?uest spent most of 2000 on tour as the singer’s drummer. By the time the Roots re-grouped, ?uest’s closest peers were pushing their sounds to new places. D wanted to learn guitar; Common and Dilla wanted to experiment with electronic textures. The Roots responded by moving away from the movement they helped create; their follow-up record, Phrenology, was essentially the anti-Roots album, with a heavy emphasis on rock. And while it alienated the Roots’ core fanbase, Phrenology performed well, pushing the group further into crossover territory. The Roots became a more regular presence on TV and radio. Soon after, Rahzel and Malik B. left the group for good. In 2006, Dilla died at age 32 from complications of lupus, and the Roots’ album of that year, Game Theory, kicked off a series of releases with a darker tone, including 2008’s Rising Down, 2010’s How I Got Over, and 2011’s undun. Having secured a gig as Jimmy Fallon’s backing band—first on “Late Night,” then on “The Tonight Show”—the Roots finally and completely entered the mainstream. But they used the freedom to experiment and make the music they wanted.
Things go in cycles, and the approach the Roots pioneered came back around. In 2015, the “next movement” the Roots mentioned on Things Fall Apart seemed to arrive. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly—a densely lyrical and allegorical exploration of Blackness and struggle, set to a live-jazz soundtrack featuring dozens of collaborators—is hard to imagine without this album in its rearview. Artists like Robert Glasper, Thundercat, Terrace Martin, and Kamasi Washington channel the same creativity as the Roots, D’Angelo, and company, banding together to push rap, jazz, soul, and more into atmospheric new places. The spirit of Things Fall Apart is in the air.
Looking back on it now, this record feels like both a love letter and a fond farewell to the Roots’ early days, acknowledging that they needed to evolve to stay relevant. And some of the album’s continued relevance is painful. Its closing poem, “The Return to Innocence Lost,” details the fate of a young man seemingly doomed to fail since birth. He dies tragically, leaving nothing but thoughts of a life that could’ve been. Nowadays, black men are dying at the hands of police with alarming frequency, and we’re left to mourn the dead in hashtags and shared articles, wondering what’s next—or who’s next—in this seemingly endless war. Things Fall Apart imparts a similar tone, even if the band didn’t address those issues directly. The black and white cover art, taken in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn in 1965, depicts a young black woman running from a waiting police officer, her face twisted in fear. The scene is sadly familiar 50 years later. As the Roots teetered between fame and purgatory, virtue and failure, Things Fall Apart captured the intensity of a group with everything to lose and the world to gain.
Since their 1983 debut Knees and Bones, the Long Island-based Controlled Bleeding’s 30-plus albums have spanned a dizzying array of genres including noise, industrial, no wave, prog, psych, dub, and jazz (just to name a few). Likewise, Larva Lumps and Baby Bumps—the band’s first album since 2002, and also their first since the deaths of key members Chris Moriarty and Joe Papa—cuts a wide swath through musical styles. But at this stage of a four-decade career defined by relentless exploration, it would be too easy for Controlled Bleeding to rest on the audacity of its kitchen-sink mentality alone.
Bandleader Paul Lemos imagined the album's grotesque cover art (by musician/visual artist Gregory Jacobsen) would fit the music because he found it “simultaneously beautiful and revolting.” But even if Larva Lumps contains its fair share of sonic provocation, its deeper allure lies in the band’s ability to rein in and unify their musical appetites. For someone who appears to have first resorted to noise because of his limited musical skills, Lemos has grown into a seasoned bandleader who can extract near-miraculous levels of flexibility from his supporting cast while also keeping it raw, like a compromise between the trebly chicken-scratch sound of classic Chrome and the layering of modern Swans.
If you were to play this album on shuffle along with the band’s back-catalog, it would be difficult to distinguish the new material from the old. Larva Lumps’ gaunt, boxed-in production sounds mistakable for a low-budget indie-label recording from the late ’80s or early ’90s—the kind that just couldn’t be mastered to sound very “full” on CD. That said, the band is undeniably patient, even where latter-day members Chvad SB, Mike Bazini, and longtime drummer Anthony Meola’s programming lean more towards youthful passion than refinement.
The psych-rock of opener “Driving Through Darkness” sets the tone for the rest of the album. Over a hypnotic, uptempo groove, jousting organ and guitar lines recall ’60s garage stylings that Can would have bastardized decades ago, or Obits would have done this century. Lemos and company could easily have settled for a genre exercise. Instead, the song surpasses its own stylistic trappings as it ramps down towards its conclusion. When the drums drop out and Lemos drops twinkling harmonics over a gurgling bass line, it’s a rather convincing impression of Yes’ Steve Howe at the beginning of “Roundabout.”
That decision at the end of “Driving Through Darkness” underscores the subtlety and taste that Controlled Bleeding sustains throughout Lava Lumps' two-disc sprawl. (The first disc contains studio material recorded over a four-year stretch, while the second disc consists of live-in-the-studio recordings helmed by underground production icon Martin Bisi). On roughly a third of the album—“Carving Song,” “Swarm,” and the 23-minute noise opus “The Perks of Being a Perv”— the band uses high-pitched static as if it were a weapon. Light years away from the unbridled retching of Knees and Bones, however, these tunes actually hold together thanks to Lemos’ tight arrangements.
As a seasoned composer, Lemos never allows the songs to lose their pulse or their sense of space, and his affinity for both becomes even more apparent when you measure the noise- and rock-oriented tunes against the melodic ones. On “As Evening Fades,” for example, he laces a picturesque piano loop with clean-toned guitar work that verges on new-age jazz. A younger act with something to prove might not have been able to resist marring the song with uglier sounds. Larva Lumps has plenty of those, but Lemos clearly understands the value of not forcing them into the picture. It allows even the most caustic moments to reveal the beauty at its core.
Whenever Katy Goodman and Greta Morgan hang out, they dream big. After hiking past Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory one night, the former Vivian Girl and Hush Sound leader, respectively, stayed up for hours discussing astrophysics, science fiction, and the perils of inter-dimensional love. The next morning, Goodman and Morgan—the latter also makes atmospheric pop as Springtime Carnivore—turned that intergalactic brainstorm into 2013’s “Space Time.” It was an intense, Spectorian ode to zero-gravity heartbreak: “While our souls seemed to fit/The planets weren’t aligned,” they sang, “And so we’ll never meet in this space-time.” The song marked their formal debut as Books of Love—but with Goodman hard at work on La Sera’s dreamy Hour of the Dawn and Morgan gearing up to tour with the Hush Sound, they couldn’t stay long (or perhaps, the planets weren’t aligned).
By early 2016, another laid-back jam session ensued in Morgan’s backyard. The women were playing around with harmonies, ad-libbing over their favorite songs. Morgan tore into a Misfits cover—the crude, foreboding “Where Eagles Dare”—and Goodman followed suit, prompting a dramatic transformation. Danzig’s uniform snarl (“I ain't no goddamn son of a bitch”) had blossomed into a honeyed, if foul-mouthed, duet.
Intrigued by this contrast, Goodman and Morgan started looking at other punk songs through a pop prism: a study presented on their new collaborative punk covers album, Take It, It’s Yours. Besides the aforementioned “Where Eagles Dare,” the record includes reinterpretations of Bad Brains’ “Pay to Cum,” the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” and the Replacements’ “Bastards of Young,” among other famous tales from the gutter. Some are gussied up with marimba and vibraphone; others sound straight out of Laurel Canyon circa ’65. All of them are prime listening for a late-summer pool party, and none of them sound punk at all. Yet, by hitching unruly sentiments to pleasant arrangements, Goodman and Morgan gesture towards a wider disconnect between text and subtext. And one could argue that unity by way of disunity—a mentality of us vs. them—is what punk’s all about.
Across Take It, It’s Yours, the duo leave the lyrics and broader melodic outlines of its source material alone. They’re more interested in thematic reconfigurations than they are musical re-enactment: how does punk’s visceral, acerbic sentiment manifest when it’s incubated in a loungier space? As it turns out, this palette is largely owed to the project’s cinematic spirit: “We wanted these songs to fit on the soundtrack of a desert-noir mystery film,” Morgan joked in an interview, going on to cite the lauded composer Ennio Morricone as a key influence on the album’s expanded soundscapes. Tarantino should give it a look: between the twangy slide guitar leads on “Pay to Cum” and the Jam’s “In the City,” and the spaghetti-western shuffle grafted onto Gun Club’s “Sex Beat,” he would find plenty to work with.
Goodman and Morgan’s shared penchant for ’60s pop remains a cornerstone of their collaborations, manifested in dulcet point-counterpoints and bubblegum hooks. They’re covering bands that represent the opposite, but these friends have more in common with their heroes than you’d expect. After all, listening to the original versions of the Buzzcock’s “Ever Fallen in Love?” or Blondie’s “Dreaming,” with their impassioned choruses and deft chord progressions, you might never guess they arose from the underbelly. Regardless of scene or background, everyone can appreciate a spirited ode to fallin’ in love with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with, because who hasn’t? The problem is that the duo’s version isn’t exactly spirited: a wan, lazy tango wiped clean of the Buzzcocks’ panic-stricken tempos and manic chatter. Here, Pete Shelley’s frantic lamentations (“We won’t be together much longer/Unless we realize we’re the same”) scan as glum resignations; it’s hard not to yawn as the hand-wringing sentiments drift off on the women’s soaring contraltos.
Their mission proves more successful on the opener, a haunting, slide-heavy take on Wipers’ “Over the Edge” that gracefully exposes the aching heart of the Portlandians’ war against the establishment. “Grow up and be a man,” Morgan croons, Goodman echoing in her stead, “Drop dead right where you stand.” When Greg Sage spat that screed in 1983, he was chastising society. That two women are now the ones casting out this sardonic, hyper-masculine directive only provides further testament to their clever choice to reinterpret not only this song, but similarly carnal numbers like “Where Eagles Dare” and “Sex Beat.”
Take It, It’s Yours may be one of the comfiest cover-sets in recent memory, but beneath its chilled-out façade lurks an identity crisis. On one hand, the duo’s stylistic declawing of Danzig and company offers new ways to revisit and expand upon the decades-old punk canon—in terms of sonic contrast as well as gender and generation gaps. But in taking inherently gnarled, messy songs—ostensibly composed in opposition to the status quo—cleaning them up, and having them play nice, Goodman and Morgan have relinquished the urgent energy that made them feel so impactful to begin with. Think of the record as a well-behaved, happy-hour riot: the rebellion doesn’t amount to much, but at least there’s the escape.
In techno, few records are more iconic than “The Bells,” a 1996 track by Jeff Mills. Relentless and reduced, it exemplifies the building-block nature of Mills’ art as something meant to be layered across three or four turntables. Thanks to its queasy, carnivalesque melody, it also stands easily and proudly on its own. Kornél Kovács’ “The Bells,” the title track of his debut album, doesn’t sound anything like Mills’ version: Where the minimalist classic is stern and hard-angled, Kovács’ is cheerful and easygoing, flecked with chimes, warm strings, and peppy vocal samples. But I would be surprised if the precedent for his choice of title didn't at least cross Kovács’ mind. Given his fondness for sampling vintage disco, he’s cleary a guy who knows his music history. Someone coming from underground dance music, like he does, can’t title a record “The Bells” and not be reminded of the original. Which makes it something of a cheeky maneuver—a shot across the bow that leaves a rainbow tracer in its wake.
Kovács likes to have fun with references: His 2015 track “Space Jam” was a tribute to Quad City DJs’ theme to the 1996 Michael Jordan/Bugs Bunny film, for crying out loud. He likes to have fun, period. As a co-founder of Stockholm’s Studio Barnhus label, he’s spent the past six years developing a quirky aesthetic that draws freely from disco, Italo, freestyle, and easy listening. But his idea of fun is different from the kind of “fun” that you tend to find in dance music. In fact, there isn’t a lot of fun in dance music right now. Stone-faced cool rules the underground, while the antics prevalent in commercial EDM—marshmallow masks, cakes to the face, garish pyrotechnics—are too cynical, too calculated, to qualify as innocent or carefree. But once upon a time, when disco ruled, a single could reasonably be expected to elicit smiles on the dance floor, and that’s the impulse driving Kovács’ debut album.
The record opens with a beatless, 98-second snippet of Kovács’ 2014 single “Szikra” that glows like a cotton-candy lamp, but after that it’s all about dizzy rug-cutting, darting through loopy disco bass lines, spongy funk keys, and oohing-and-ahhing choral pads. “Gex” is conga-line mayhem on a heaving cruise ship, all flushed cheeks, flailing arms, and lifejackets lodged in chandeliers. “Dance… While the Record Spins” stacks staccato harmonies into brittle configurations, yielding something like Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” on laughing gas. And “Pop” evokes childlike innocence from pastel squiggles over a skipping, jacking drum groove, like an Akufen track smeared in color crayons.
Not everything is so chipper. “BB,” one of the album's highlights, exemplifies one of The Bells’ key contradictions. The beat is a cracking disco break broadcasting basement-party vibes at their most unhinged. But a more sorrowful undercurrent flows beneath its cathartic rush. “Szív Utca”—Hungarian for “Heart Street”—is equally bittersweet, and the slinky “Dollar Club,” tugged between crisp drums and weepy keys, balances a playful spirit with more melancholy vibes. You could imagine any of these tunes getting played by DJs like DJ Koze, Michael Mayer, Superpitcher, or any other selector with a winking sense of humor and a bleeding heart. But while it is music made first and foremost for club play, there’s enough variety here to make The Bells a satisfying listen on the headphones. The loping, dem-bow-patterned “Josey’s Tune” sounds like Kovács’ take on DJ Mujava’s “Township Funk.” Not only is his rhythmic sensibility is far more nuanced than most of his peers’, he is a master of both texture and empty space. His sound breathes even as it giggles.
Even the saddest, slowest song here, the closing “Urszusz,” comes off like something from a children’s cartoon, rendering a watery, Harold Budd-like piano melody with wide-eyed wonder. It’s followed by a moment of silence and a bizarre hidden track that sounds like a voicemail message chanted in sing-songy, heavily accented English. “What’s his name, Kornél Kovács!” sings his exuberant and quite possibly inebriated caller, over and over, with great gusto. It’s the kind of thing you might wake up to on your phone after a long, blurry, and indescribably fun night, and it’s the coup de grace for an album that brings good times back to dance music.