Reviews: Tori Amos, Duck Sauce, Ratking

Read our reviews on the terrific new Tori Amos album, and two really strong debuts from Duck Sauce and Ratking.
Tori Amos

Tori Amos, Unrepentant Geraldines

Unique artists that make a musical home in the fringes, those who have, by their instinctive weirdness, forged a singular path that almost willingly contradicts everything else going on in the world, really do have their work cut out for them. At least when it comes to playing the long game. David Bowie, Björk, Tom Waits and Tori Amos all sprint to mind, and while all have been wildly successful in their respective careers, all have gone through extended rough patches during which their art didn’t widely connect with the rabid fan bases they culled during stretches of unparalleled brilliance. Once that happens, the artist attempts to rediscover the form that made them famous and the output is usually, at best, a blurry facsimile of the original.

Bowie broke the curse in 2013, at the age of 66, with The Next Day, an album on par with his best – an achievement most only dreamed possible. Apparently 50 is the magic age for Tori Amos, whose magnificent new album, Unrepentant Geraldines, isn’t so much a return to form as it is a return to identity. Her most recent alt-rock offerings, 2007’s hit-and-miss American Doll Posse and 2009’s frustrating Abnormally Attracted to Sin, both felt uncharacteristically self-conscious. It was as if for the first time in her career she was playing the character of Tori Amos instead of simply being the Tori Amos that allowed unprecedented access into her unvarnished, divisive truth, which had made her a deity to fans who used her voice to represent their own (and the butt of countless jokes for those who dismissed her as kooky, discomforting and abrasive).

Unrepentant Geraldines finds Amos exploring what it means to be 50, a woman, a mother and a wife, and she explores those themes through her relationships with visual art. Unlike Gaga’s Koons-loving, bombastic Artpop, this “art pop” is a stripped down, Cezanne affair that is challenging, uncomfortable and frequently stunning. Piano and voice dominate the album, and both are in rare form here. The gentle, folksy “America”, the best song about American complacency since The National’s “Fake Empire” wonders, “Why did they all lay down to sleep through the now?” “Trouble’s Lament” is a raucous, western-tinged call for women to give trouble a home, to allow defiance to be a part of their stories.

Nearly everything on Unrepentant Geraldines works. “Selkie”, “Oysters” and “Weatherman” are emotional, piano/voice ballads, all of which stand up against Amos’s best tracks. “Giant’s Rolling Pin” is a droll, Beatles influenced NSA takedown for the post-Snowden era. The fidgety, electro-tinged “16 Shades of Blue” and The Police infused title-track, “Unrepentant Geraldines” prove that even though she’s rediscovered the muses, Amos remains as experimental and quirky as ever. Folks will either freak out over this album or abhor its very existence, and that is exactly what makes it so good. For the first time in 12 years, Tori Amos isn’t trying to please anyone. [Matthew M.F. Miller] B+

Duck Sauce, Quack

In insisting that nothing about Duck Sauce is serious, A-Trak could have pinned himself and fellow quack Armand Van Helden into a corner of singled pop novelty, the kind that comes around and floods America and the world for about 10 minutes and then delves back into the recesses of the zeitgeist. Still, Duck Sauce have maintained their sheen through the effortless fun of their almost yearly singles (“aNYway,” “It’s You,” the omnipresent “Barbra Streisand”) and their raucous live sets on the festival circuit. And while no one should doubt the subtle musical ingenuity behind Duck Sauce, it still raises eyebrows that the duo could put together such a consistent and well-made album. The whole thing is glued together with a series of skits that actually do well to get a laugh out of the listener (surprisingly, as comedy skits in musical albums should have died out long before Chris Rock's asinine appearance on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). Topics range from a prank call to a Chinese restaurant, a to-a-T New York radio plug spoof, and ode to a Wu-Tang staple, only flipped to for the modern yuppie. The skits themselves embody the spirit of the work, and actually are welcome respites from the sometimes monotonous underflow of the modern dance album.

The singles of electro-treated disco and bubbly house are still there, and are interlaid with the guiltless interplay recipe that has made the Duck Sauce formula a musical windfall in the age of electronic maximalism. “Everyone” features A-Trak’s brother Dave Malkovich of Chromeo frame as the silly and suave Teddy Toothpick, jiving though police sirens and disco grooves laid with Philly synth and bass. The battery house glory of “Goody Two Shoes” ebbs and flows so organically that a bodily response is pretty much mandatory. Best among the new tracks is “Radio Stereo,” a blistering anthem where Franz Ferdinand and The Specials lovechild funk punk is as big and boisterous as anything else on Quack, or anything that’s come out this year for that matter. The track could easily fit in any of the past three decades’ dance scenes, which is what makes Duck Sauce’s brand of classic hip hop/electro funk/house disco so damn fun. They make what is quite complex musical structures look easy, almost juvenile, and package them in shiny production gift wrapped for the masses over the airwaves or PA system or turntable. If that’s what all that we get out of Quack, that’s really all we need; a guilt-free but well thought out, just-have-a-good-time dance album. As one of the hilarious skits so wonderfully points out, “It’s like Mel Gibson meets ancient aliens.” That sounds about right. [Dorian Mendoza] B

Ratking, So It Goes

NYC-based trio Ratking – teen MCs Wiki and Hak, producer Sporting Life – have made one of the year’s most exciting rap records in the Vonnegut-checking So It Goes. Here’s a rap album with a classic recipe, composed from the same machine beats and clipped samples as hundreds of its predecessors and marked by the same submerged bass tones and cloudy aura as dozens of its peers – and yet it’s an album that steadfastly refuses to stick to the script.

From the urban legend that gives the group its name to the minutiae of Wiki and Hak’s lyrics, So It Goes is an album steeped in the idea and the reality of New York. Grim as the city can be, the Empire State of Mind is one of boundless possibility, creativity, and innovation, and accordingly, Ratking’s fierce allegiance to local hip-hop’s history results not in pale imitation of their old-school inspirations but to some admirable genre-bending (and I’m not even talking about the bleak, smoggy King Krule collaboration “So Sick Stories”). Ratking sound the way Death Grips might have sounded if they’d followed through on the rap element instead of gravitating toward industrial noise, or if they cared more about connecting with audience than alienating them.

So It Goes comes as close to hardcore as an album with this sonic palette can: dense, immediate, energetic, and uniquely inclusive. Wiki and Hak do engage in some standard flow (and when they do, it’s always worth parsing), but much of the time, they spit striking, quotable, repeatable mantras at high volume and higher velocity while Sporting Life’s percussion tracks zip in any which direction and samples undulate and fold back on themselves. For an act whose BPMs never once broach danceable territory, these kids(!) make music that sounds impressively, thrillingly close to entropy. [Samuel Tolzmann] B