kay, the “novelty act” bullshit stops here. And while we’re at it, how about cooling it with the trite Beastie Boys comparisons? They remind me of Sleater-Kinney more than they do the Beasties, anyway; if not musically, than certainly in terms of their sensibilities. Of course, I realize that linking Hesta, Spero (known formerly as Guinea Love) and Sprout (she’s apparently dropped the “DJ” part) to Corin, Carrie and Janet runs the risk of seeming even more painfully obvious than the Beasties comparisons, seeing as how, well, duh, both Northern State and Sleater-Kinney are female trios. At the same time, though, I can hardly think of two groups for which gender is such a central, inescapable issue.
Both Northern State and Sleater-Kinney have the skills to lay to waste any preconceived notions about girls with guitar or mics, but neither shy away from tackling long-established stereotypes and prejudices head-on. Some of my favorite Northern State songs sound like the sort of dis tracks you’d expect from, say, Jay-Z or 50 Cent. But it’s not Nas or Ja Rule they’re lobbing their barbs at—it’s a cultural paradigm that would have them labeled, at best, Beastie Chicks and, at worst, a novelty group (which might as well be the same thing).
Admittedly, some of their stabs at social commentary come off as heavy-handed, didactic (there are several mentions on All City of trying to “heal”), or occasionally down-right dumb (“sexism like racism and racism is ill” is the new album’s most cringe-worthy lyric), though more often than not, they’re funny, articulate, and just plain welcome (“Godamn you just caught me in medias res / Lemme take my mic out my attache case”). At one point, they clarify, “This is Northern State / Not Girls Gone Wild”, but they still clearly know how to have a good time. And it’s genuinely infectious.
The beats this time around are stronger and considerably more varied—boasting production turns by the Roots’ ?uestlove, Pete Rock, and Muggs, though the tracks helmed by lesser-known producers or by Northern State themselves are no less interesting—than on last year’s Dying in Stereo, which shined more as a showcase for the vocal and lyrical interplay between the three MCs. All City opens with Northern State chanting, jump-rope style, “you heard the one one one / About the girls girls girls girls / They grabbed the mic mic mic / They tore it up up up”—for my money, a better opening then “This is the first song on our new album”. Then a slightly eerie violin comes in, and they compare themselves to Chang Kai Shek, admit to Kazaa-ing, and dedicate the song to “all the girls who love hip-hop”. The next track—which I’d nominate as the best they’ve recorded to date—“Girl for All Seasons”, sounds like a perfect hybrid of “99 Problems” and All Hands on the Bad One’s “#1 Must-Have”; “I can’t do this and I can’t wear that / Are my hips too big, does my ass look fat?” echoes “And I think that sometimes must have wished / For something more than to be a size six”, while Muggs’ amped-up chorus rocks shit harder than Rick Rubin. On the album’s final track, “Summer Never Ends”, the girls share the mic with Har Mar Superstar (of all people), and the result is endearingly light-hearted and playful in the same spirit as the White Stripes’ duet with Holly Golightly on Elephant’s closer.
Perhaps All City’s most pleasing triumph, for fans of Northern State’s earlier stuff, is that the colloquial character of the Hesta and co.’s voices is in no way diluted by the more polished music accompanying it. They seem as comfortably at home amidst the contrasting sonic layers here as they did rapping over Dying in Stereo’s more typically old-school beats. For those cynical bastards who complained about the debut being musically “bland and fey, with no low-end or hooks to speak of”, if they can’t dance to this one, they’ve just got two left feet and that’s their own damn problem—not Northern State’s.
Reviewed by: Josh Timmermann
Reviewed on: 2004-09-16