Illinoize, Arthur Meyer, and the Donald P. McMahon Project

In addition to the whole indie publishing thing, I dabble in music criticism. (Not music itself, of course, because I don’t have much talent beyond some so-so karaoke chops.) Generally I’ve stuck to Amazon reviews—which are easy to be snide about, even though they’re possibly the must consequential new writing form of the past few decades, in terms of influencing decisions, democratizing criticism, etc. But I’ve also had a few pieces published in Newcity, so I’m a professional of sorts. Also I was recently picked to write the album-of-the-week selection for a fun little email circle called the Donald P. McMahon Project, run by a guy named Arthur Meyer. The album I picked—Illinoize, a Sufjan Stevens/indie rap mashup—deserves to be a little more widely known, IMHO. (And I’ve been busy with Infinite Blues and slow to post new blog content lately.) Anyway, here goes:

It begins with dancing piano, the high familiar glistening sound of Sufjan Stevens on the keys. But then: a deep rap voice, Aesop Rock as a solid counterpoint to the airy ivory. By and large, this dynamic persists throughout the album: ballast for the balloon, the weight of the world and the lightness of flight. And I can’t get enough of it.

I’m a grown-ass man, forty now but with plenty of residual morals from the twelve-year-old Boy Scout I used to be; for much of my adulthood I was practically an RIAA posterboy, so averse to unpurchased music that I avoided mixtapes entirely. (The four years I spent at West Point certainly helped me along that path; my classmates and I were honor-code-bound to avoid anything that could be labeled theft, so while our civilian peers were gleefully burning CDs and then venturing out into the wild new terrain of Napster, I was stuck buying $17 CDs at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square.) I missed some of the landmarks of the genre, like Danger Mouse’s career-launching Grey Album. But fear of not hearing a noteworthy album softened my morals slightly over the years; it seemed silly to avoid taking something for free if it couldn’t be purchased anywhere, and if the artists themselves wanted people to check it out.

So eventually I set out on an exhaustive tour of the once-forbidden mixtape realm. I liked The Grey Album, but I also learned that Jay-Z had donor-fathered a ridiculous number of others; it seemed any DJ who got bored in the lab could take the a capella version of the Black Album, pour it in the test tube with some unwilling other partner, and release the resulting offspring into the world. (The Slack Album—Jay-Z vs. Pavement, The Black & Blue Album­—Jay-z vs. Weezer, and on and on ad nauseum. Too many to evaluate, but enough to make you tire of the concept and blasé about Danger Mouse’s genius. In fact, a quick Google search tells me there are far more of these orphan children than I’d remembered, way too many to ever get to know—although I will confess a certain curiosity about The Kenny Z Album—Jay-Z vs. Kenny G.) Wugazi’s 13 Chambers was more to my liking; the energy of the Wu-Tang Clan and the power of Fugazi came together like a one-two punch to the eardrums. But the mixtape I keep returning to, the one I can’t go more than a few months without hearing even after having it in my library for eight years, is Illinoize.

It’s an inspired, sly pairing—indie rock and indie rap—made all the more so by Tor’s willingness to cycle through different rappers and rap groups, some (like Outkast) more famous than Sufjan Stevens, and some (Brother Ali) less so. But every one’s impeccably chosen. And while many people beat their good ideas to death, Tor understands how often less is more; this collection clocks in at seven tracks and just a whisper over half an hour. There are certainly high points—for me, it’s tough to top the way the high piano falls into the vocals on “John Wayne Gacy Jr. / Specialize”, or the way the mournful horns make the vocals more melancholy on “The Tallest Man / I Like It”—but it all works wonderfully.

It made me curious enough to check out some of the rappers. (I love Outkast as much as, if not more than, the next guy, and as an indie-minded person I’m pretty much required to like Sufjan Stevens, but most of the other musicians here were new to me.) But it also still strikes me as better than the sum of its parts; I listen to this more than I listen to any of its components, certainly more than the Brother Ali album I picked up based on his amazing rap sample here, and more even than Outkast’s ATLiens or Stevens’ Illinois. (Granted, I don’t know if I like it quite as much as Aquemini or Stankonia, but that’s a damn high bar for any album to clear.) It might seem overwrought to say this, but even though Tor hails from Canada, he’s put together an album that feels like America itself at its Obama-era best: a coexistence of cultures, black and white feeding into and riffing off of one another, and more interesting in their interplay than either one is alone.

I still like to buy music, but I’m weird about it; I love this album enough to be more than a little curious about Tor’s other output, but I also love it so much that I’m afraid I’ll be disappointed by his original compositions. I know enough about the music business (and entertainment in general) to see how financially merciless it can be to anyone who’s not in the stratospheric top tier with Jay-Z and the like. One loose social-media-level friend of mine played and toured with an artist who had multiple albums that earned lofty high-sevens and low-eights from Pitchfork, and glowing New York Times writeups. That friend now has an MBA after his name on LinkedIn, and since he’s apparently retired to financially greener pastures, I can only assume Tor isn’t raking it in, either. (Which I can totally relate to, given that I write every day and have published a few books but still have to pay the bills with a nine-to-five—this is commiseration, not condemnation.) So I should buy something from Tor, given how happy he’s made me with something I got for free. Yes, I should. Yes, I should.