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Thursday, April 03, 2003  
Electric Circus

In which Common goes mad.

Not sure exactly what happened in the time since 2000’s excellent Like Water For Chocolate, but it appears to have had a rather odd affect on one Lonnie Lynn. Where before there was socially-conscious jazz-inflected hip hop born of a solid foundation of Tribe Called Quest and parental discipline, now there is… Psychedelic rock? No, not quite… But nearly.

From the sleeve on in, Common is positing himself in ambitious and almost alien ground, his fresh beard and bald bonce heavily echoing the look of Isaac Hayes, while the Peter Blake-meets-René Magritte artwork calls to mind the eternal albatross of modern rock, Sgt fucking Pepper. And exactly whose visages grace the sleeve of this unusual record? Why, the usual suspects, of course. Mary J Blige. Erykah Badu. Richard Pryor. Louis Farrakhan. Q Tip. Pharrell Williams. Pharrell Williams? Yes. What about ?uestlove? Present and correct. Ditto Bilal, Cee-Lo, Jill Scott and the ever-present Lonnie “Pops” Lynn. Oh, plus Jimi Hendrix, Prince, Pino Palladino and Stereolab. Stereo-fucking-lab? Yes. The sadly departed Mary Hansen is featured, as are Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier. Why? Because, like almost everyone else on the sleeve (not strictly true, considering there are 86 faces cut from various places and pasted onto the album’s cover), they guest on ‘Electric Circus’.

Which makes for a rather fractious and disjointed album. Largely gone are the live horns and sampled pianos of his last couple of albums, replaced occasionally by a smooth, modernistic, post-ecstasy hip hop production. Or they would be, had Common not used six producers / production teams over the course of the 13 new tracks here. As soon as you think the album has found some kind of overall groove or tone, a new sonic character is added, spinning your head back on itself. Opener “Ferris Wheel” is minimalist found-sound post-rock minimalism, a throwaway instrumental intro of the kind normally associated with forgettable maximalist UK indie rockers. “Electric Wire Hustler Flower”, meanwhile, was not written by Primal Scream circa ’87, but is a shouty psyche-hop rocker thing with, yes, more effects laden guitars. Any music writer who has ever used the adjective ‘insistent’ in a review (lord knows I’m guilty enough) was wrong; from this point onwards the word can only be used to describe Soul Power, all weird electric guitars and futurist block-party four/four beats that do not stop. “Come Close” featuring Mary J. Blige does, indeed, come close to past peaks like “The Sixth Sense” and “The Light”, but its identikit Neptunes production means it could be by just about anyone, especially this year.

What the hell else is there here then? A track called “Aquarius” (presumably as in ‘age of’) with widdly Pink Floyd guitars and a pointless hippy stench; the old-skool weed anthem “I Got A Right Ta” (sample lyric “I got a right ta get high”, ooooh, dangerous) which contains a rock ‘n’ roll harmonica solo. The awkward shag-happy electro of “Star *69”. The Stereolab aided oddness of “New Wave” (Laetitia cooing in French while Common yelps “it’s a new wave / come on!” in the background). The frankly fantastic spazz-jazz egotism of “I Am Music”, Jill Scott, Common and what may be the alien lounge band from Star Wars jitterbugging all over the shop, an incantation to Bob Marley, Billie Holiday, Sly Stone and God.

It seems that while the rest of the hip hop universe has either blown out on cocaine or entered the post-ecstasy dancefloor age, Common has embarked on an eclectic journey towards post-hallucinogenic spirituality. If the rest of this album suggests this, the final two tracks, “Jimi Was A Rock Star” and “Heaven Somewhere”, confirm it in alarmingly insane-sounding, 19-minute double-whammy. The former of these is a very stoned sounding 9-minute psyche-hop-trip-rock trance garble that walks the precarious line between the entertaining and the very disturbing, begging for Jimi to set us free. Quite. “Heaven Somewhere”, on the other hand, is a very boring, piously tuneless, ten-minute hymn to the glory of God, replete, of course, with Isaac Hayes-style spoken-word portentious intro. (The English release of this album has the radio edit of “The Light” tacked on after the last track. It doesn’t quite fit, oddly enough.)

So, is this genius or is this madness? As enjoyable as it is on occasion, I’m inclined to side with the latter. Marvin Gaye tried it. Richard Ashcroft tried it. One of them did a fantastic job, the other did not. Common sits somewhere between the two. Odd. Very, very odd.

4/03/2003 11:37:00 pm


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Nick Southall is Contributing Editor at Stylus Magazine and occasionally writes for various other places on and offline. You can contact him by emailing auspiciousfishNO@SPAMgmail.com

All material © Nick Southall, 2003/2004/2005