Live: El-P Really Isn't All That Irritating

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You can't really see it in this picture, but he's started looking a lot like Jack Bauer since he lost the goatee

El-P
Bowery Ballroom
March 22, 2006

So El-P has a new album, and it supposedly adresses existential ambient angst in post-9/11 New York, although I have a nagging suspicion that all that is just a nicer way of saying that he's finally gotten around to recording another album of arrhythmically stuttered bellowing and disorientingly busy synth-shrieks. Admittedly, I'll Sleep When You're Dead is going to take some time to unravel, and I haven't really committed much effort to it yet, not when there's a new Crime Mob album and everything. But I've spent enough time with it to know that it's just as frustrating as it is impressive; for every ominous epic churn like "Tasmanian Pain Coaster," there's an obnoxiously bloopy nasal harangue like "Drive." As a producer, El-P is almost too gifted for his own good, rarely stripping things away to their barest economical boom when he can pile discordant layers of noise on top of instead. On a few recent albums by Def Jux compadres like Cage and Mr. Lif, he's finally been easing up on the hectic ugliness and settling for a relatively simple jerky boom, but he unfortunately only brought that new sense of restraint to a couple of tracks on his own new one. As a rapper, I like him best when he's on some fired-up, angry stereotypical rap shit, as on Aesop Rock's "We're Famous," where he blasted the fuck out of some random indie-rap dudes. I'll Sleep When You're Dead mostly finds him spitting tangled, tortured sci-fi morality tales, and I'm just not that interested in that stuff. Bias alert: I'm generally just not that into the Def Jux dystopian maximalist take on indie-rap; given the choice, I'd take the earnest, Midwestern emo-rap of the Rhymesayers label any day. But El-P lords over his chosen subgenre with kingly authority, something that became painfully obvious when I saw the parade of Def Jux goofs who opened his record-release show at the Bowery Ballroom last night.

Def Jux usually structures its live shows as traveling revues, at least until the headliners come out. That means you never have to sit through more than like twenty minutes of any given group, but it also means you get a huge range of horrible rapping. Half of last night's opening acts never identified themselves, at least not that I could hear, but that's probably for the best. I did like the big fat guy who came out just before El, mostly because his raps were slow and emphatic and clearly pronounced and because he used tracks with actual basslines. Yak Ballz looks and sounds exactly the way you'd expect that someone who calls himself "Yak Ballz" would. He also wears those fingerless My Chemical Romance skeleton-gloves, bugs his eyes out, raps over guitar-heavy tracks, and sprays silly-string into the crowd, all of which was admittedly fun to watch even if I can't imagine ever sitting through one of his records. Hangar 18, though, remain one of the most comically irritating live rap groups on the planet, sort of an amazing achievement in its own right. Basically, the duo just does vaguely rhythmic yelling over thudding static. One of them can sort of rap, which just makes everything worse because he really should know better. I can't believe I still haven't seen UGK and I've sat through these doofuses more than once.

After the random-ass chaos of his opening acts, El-P felt like something of a revelation, mostly because he's apparently been taking lessons in aggro theatre from his boy Trent Reznor. He's touring with a live band now, and you can't hear the drums or keys or bass over the dubby clangor of DJ Mr. Dibbs, but they all sure look imposing onstage. El's live show used to just be him and a hypeman (usually Aesop), and so it was great to see him make the aesthetic leap into an actual stage show. His entire backing band takes the stage in army fatigues and ski-masks, and the stage has swivel-mounted spotlights and hidden strobes and eerie rear-screen projections. When the lights go down, that cover of "Mad World" from the Donnie Darko soundtrack wafts out, and it sounds even more eerie now that it was in that one videogame commercial. And when El-P himself finally emerges, he's wearing an orange prison jumpsuit with fake blood all on his face. An entrance like that gives enough early momentum to keep the show feeling like an event even as the band-members gradually get hot and peel off their ski-masks (though the drummer impressively managed to keep his on the whole time). Last night, that momentum kept up while El ran through most of the new album's first half and a few oldies, only finally dissipating when Dibbs' inevitable extended scratch-solo segment came up. Dibbs always plays rock songs and tries to incite moshpits, but last night he just threw on a quick guitar loop and left his turntables, and the ensuing pit was pretty understandably weak. ("It was better than Miami, anyway," someone onstage said afterward.) El-P still doesn't rap on-beat, and he doesn't really try; he mostly just huffs and shouts, which drives me fucking nuts. But he holds the stage with real enthusiasm, a rarity in the low-charisma zone of indie-rap. The obligatory Def Jux cameo parade was more fun than I would've expected: Aesop Rock rapping over cotton-candy house music, Cage so drunk he could barely stand - though I really could've used an appearance from Mr. Lif, the best rapper on Def Jux, who never made it to the stage even though he was definitely in the building. For the encore, El-P brought out his entire Weathermen clique to do "Left It To Us," the fiercely exciting posse cut from Cage's Hell's Winter, one of the finest moments from everyone involved and a strong way to close out the night. Every Def Jux show eventually reaches the point where it begins to feel like an endurance test. That moment arrived later last night than it usually does, and that's all I really could've asked for from this guy, especially considering that I don't particularly like him or anything.

Voice feature: Rob Harvilla on El-P
Voice review: Scott Seward on El-P's Fantastic Damage

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