Staff Trax: Big K.R.I.T., Ian Brown, The Mekons, .357 String Band, AFI
Big K.R.I.T. -- "Hometown Hero"
It's been a great summer for independent hip-hop, and Mississippi-based Big K.R.I.T.'s free-to-download K.R.I.T. Wuz Here mixtape is as fine an example of that surge as you're likely to find. The above "Hometown Hero," which revels in indisputable street cred despite being offered over a melodic, piano-heavy beat, stands as the tape's crowning achievement, with K.R.I.T. shrewdly announcing his arrival on the scene. But, unlike so many other rappers, he does so tepidly, comparing himself to Friday Night Lights' tragic hero Boobie Miles, a prodigious high school football talent in Odessa whose world is turned upside down when he suffers a knee injury during his senior season. (That's actor Derek Luke you hear at the song's start, in the form of dialog samples from his portrayal of Miles in FNL's film adaptation.) Unlike Miles, who was too proud to see any potential problems in his life goal, K.R.I.T. appears all too aware of the pitfalls that can come with pursuing rap stardom. Like Miles, his talent is great (K.R.I.T. produced this track as well). But unlike Miles, he's watching potential roadblocks too carefully to allow himself to fall victim down the line. Consider this an impressive debut from a rapper we're going to be hearing about for some time. --Pete Freedman
If you took a wager in '96 about which of the Stone Roses would have a successful solo career in the wake of the band's breakup, Ian Brown would've been an easy choice. I mean, have your heard the dude sing live? He has a voice ready made for studio magic. In the 15 years since the band broke up, he's the only member of the band to really go on to boast a solid career. Mani found steady work with Primal Scream, sure. And John Squire was arguably the group's creative powerhouse, but he's done little other than art, a Seahorses album and two solo albums. Ian, meanwhile, went on to embrace his love of electronica and American hip-hop and has combined the two into a powerful electro mix that has resulted in several great solo albums. --Lance Lester
One of my favorite albums of all time is The Mekons' Rock 'N Roll, the 1989 release from the mercurial English punk act The Mekons. Jon Langford and crew were still mixing in elements of country and folk--as they had been for several albums--but the majority of Rock 'N Roll was unadulterated, loud and politically charged. Like Gang of Four, the politics of The Mekons dealt with the effect of capitalism on a personal level. "Destroy your safe and happy lives before it is too late / the battles we fought were long and hard / just not to be consumed by rock 'n roll," sings Langford on "Memphis, Egypt." The song seems to condemn and celebrate rock music at the same time. Heady stuff indeed. Although The Mekons are still around making albums, they have never approached the greatness of Rock 'N Roll. In their defense, not many other bands have either. --Darryl Smyers
When someone as lethally gritty as Hank Williams III proclaims that a group is "raw, real and dirty, on and off the stage," then it's safe to say that said group is a band of rebels. Milwaukee's self-proclaimed "streetgrass" outfit, The .357 String Band, is indeed a band of acoustic outlaws. While amps are rarely needed for their shows, the spirit in which they perform is always cranked to 11. Their latest album, Lightning from the North, is pretty insane. --Kelly Dearmore
In my review of the recent Green Day/AFI show, I admitted that I was not a fan of AFI's musical direction from Sing the Sorrow on. But, before I start to sound like a clichéd punk rocker who hates a band once they sign with a major label, let me just say that I find AFI's output on Nitro Records way more immediate and striking. Before they ever recorded a note for Sing the Sorrow, AFI had five albums and two EPs under their belt. I don't blame the band for expanding their horizons with a major label defense fund (their final indie record sounded like they were running in circles of their past), but I can't say the sound they came up with was as good as their earlier efforts. Take a listen to "Totalimmortal" from the All Hallows EP and compare it to any song from Crash Love to see what I mean. --Eric Grubbs