hese past few weeks have been musically taxing for me. Not because I haven’t enjoyed music in that time, but because I haven’t been able to. Due to some cruel twist of fate, every music delivery device I own decided to fail in some way on me. First, it was my home stereo (blasted out a speaker). Then, as I was packing for a vacation on the West Coast, I found that my portable CD player had been irreparably fried by battery acid (Note to consumers: Don’t buy the discount batteries at your local dollar store.) Forced to spend the majority of my vacation in a music-free environment, my planned celebratory cruise through my neighborhood, listening to the albums I copped was cut short. Instead, I was greeted with a smashed back car window, an empty dash and a lingering moldy smell from days and days of water damage.
I had to be resourceful during this time. All of my listening was done with a self-conscious awareness of loss and longing for my old devices. I dusted off my old cassette/radio walkman for long drives and shuffled through the stations searching for that hidden gem. I hummed forgotten songs that re-implanted themselves in my brain like carnival ride jingles. I listened to CDs through my laptop’s crappy speakers. When I had the chance, I listened to Spacesettings. For that week I had no idea whether the album was bad or just sounded bad due to my lackluster stereophonics. Consequently, no other album was as difficult to form an opinion on.
Headset is a project that, conceptually, has everything going for it. Plug Research founder Allen Avanessian dusts off his rolodex to hook up DNTEL/Postal Service mastermind Jimmy Tamborello with the hot talent, helping him forge a new angle on left-field urban electronic music. Like most, I thought, “Shit, if Tamborello can make 80s synth pop sound new again, surely he can do the same to progressive hip-hop.”
Well, the answer is decidedly mixed. There are moments of brilliance, no doubt, scattered handsomely throughout this album, but the overall effect is one of frustration, and not simply the frustration associated with great musicians struggling to come up with interesting ideas, but the frustration we all experience with music as a whole. The frustration I felt after realizing my enjoyment of recorded music was dependent upon a convoluted assembly of circuits, wires and plastic was the same frustration that builds throughout listening to this album. It leaves you feeling broken, hopeless and craving more.
There are, however, moments that remind me why I’m drawn to self-consciously “progressive” music such as this. When an artist stumbles upon a good idea in the midst of the muck, it sounds that much more powerful. “Grasping Claw” features one of the albums few up-tempo numbers, highlighted by Lady Dragon’s unexpected (but totally welcome) Japanese rap. It’s a smile-inducing moment that merits further inspection. When you realize Tamborello and Avanessian have mixed not one, but two different vocal tracks in either headpiece, you can listen as Lady Dragon’s vocals dip in and out of synch with itself. Only if Tamborello had decided to sprinkle more of these moments throughout the album, I could have ignored the weak songwriting.
Another successful moment occurs when the producers back off and just let the hip-hop speak for itself, as they do with “Jaw Modulation”. The track’s broken-sounding blunted jazz beat is the perfect antidote to the rest of the album’s just-plain-broken jazz. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have Beans spit on a track either and here he comes up with some keepers like “You caught your nose in your ear, sneezed and blew your brains out / Just like spectators who felt the rush, like sugar at my disposal”. He may be the only MC out there nowadays that can still make that academic free-verse flow sound convincing, and he certainly steals the show here without much competition from Metalogic and nonGENETIC.
Your enjoyment of this album is almost totally dependent upon your masochistic hip-hop listening patterns. If you find yourself dipping into self-consciously “difficult” music more than “accessible” because you like to cringe as much as smile, then Headset should satisfy. But if you wandered here in hopes of a DNTEL/Postal Service style take on blissful hip-hop, you’re going to be disappointed. Better to buy yourself a new pair of speakers and get that Kanye West album.
Reviewed by: Gabe Gloden
Reviewed on: 2004-07-09