(Epitaph; 2007)

By Dom Sinacola | 7 February 2007

If we're going to talk about trends -- and Busdriver does, picking from popular veneer, "Y'all want to see / Tits and ass / Street grit and sass / As beatniks smoking grass on holiday" -- then we must speak like we're on the cusp of something worth talking about. If Fear of a Black Tangent (2005) just kept solidifying the staying power of a market already popularized by hyper-literate, sprawling avant-hip-hop (quoth B.d.: "nonsense rap") from the likes of labels Mush, Anticon, and Lex, then the arboreal spread of these artists and producers is only growing further, in confounding, latticed paths, from the roots of its "old school" behe-moth-er. Of course, even such a description would be, as 'driver untangles, "Riddled with neo-expressionism omitted words and arty erasure," but the pretension is vital nowadays anyway. As Why? or Buck 65 or Edan or the members of Subtle push their patent on skewed hip-hop into more overtly pop and rock instrumentation, structure, and delivery, only bloated ambition can satiate this niche itch, this desire to have rap assimilate instead of get assimilated. Just as Subtle's For Hero: For Fool can only tackle the socioeconomic climate of the middle class, among other things, through an enormous pastiche of genres, Busdriver compulsively writes concise electro-pop songs to explain his presence in modern hip-hop (and every twist that turns). We're talking survival, which is one of the prime things I've understood hip-hop to be about, and which is, marketably and only ostensibly, antithetical to major motion picture pop. Or so I've understood. Inside RoadKillOvercoat, Regan Farquhar's fourth LP and first for Epitaph, the two, survivalism and ephemera, meet, making the album as typically ripe as a Busdriver album should be.

Which means his music is sometimes dense and frustrating, or frustrating because the density is sometimes a measure for density's sake. He's up front about his laboring style and admits to the exigencies expected in such a fury of consonance and internal rhyme ("My journal entries are irony-laden / And tirelessly self-loathing") but comes out punching in equal drive, chastising listeners complacent in their listening habits, yapping under a latently violent Boom Bip beat, "This is what you have been billed for / Dancing on the kill floor / To vibrant woofer, clients butchered to a film score." As such, Busdriver piles easily into a difficult rapper category, and it doesn't help when simple images he spits are hard to decipher because a word like "dishes" has its emphatic syllable flipped during an otherwise kosher chorus. I mean, c'mon.

I know I'm being picky, but because I expected a challenge, I went ass backwards into the thing. I took the production first and decided that of the two on the boards, between Boom Bip and Nobody, I enjoyed Boom Bip's work more. Even though Nobody helms eight of the twelve tracks, his beats can become overloaded and tripped up, but that could just be because I like Busdriver's sinister side above all, and Boom compliments that stalking cadence nicely. Black Tangent was serious and indulgent, maybe even extreme, but it was something of a triumph for the kind of Busdriver ready to chew on your neck. And it's a fun record, too, but a scoop of playfulness that diddled all over Temporary Forever (2002) was taken away. Maybe I still eat it up because I take myself too seriously, but maybe RoadKillOvercoat's too damn catchy to deny, a fantastically pedicured amalgam of every side and thing Busdriver thinks he can effectively be. It mostly turns out well.

So, Busdriver makes a blunt take on pop music, paring down track numbers, structure, and collaborators, as compared to his previous outings, in order to emphasize verse-chorus verse and an audacious singing voice. For example, "Sun Shower" is a base of devious synth and dungeon bumps that becomes adorned with piano, a shuffling overbeat, and shards of light guitars, entrenching the almost fey brick in the realm of power pop and digestible catharsis. Similarly, "Dream Catcher's Mitt" holds nothing back; Busdriver loosens his normally gnarled tongue to follow an acoustic guitar figure and to counter sheets of strings, bassoon, and other requisite orchestral flourishes. Even with the MC's Colonel Sanders tone grueling up -- or dissolving -- the sugar in these arrangements, the results are both insanely satiating and wholly predictable, an interesting facet to grasp considering Boom Bip's behind the album's most obligatory un-hip-hop numbers. The results paint Busdriver playful but still lend a sense of ironic distance to the potshots he takes at himself and at the majority of conformist music consumers. In "Ethereal Driftwood" he assures that he knows what "you" want, but the chorus relents, "I don't have what you want / So won't you accept my humble offerings?" Aware of the conventions of pop music rendering the "genre" so mutable, the economic mantra morally and artistically bankrupt , Busdriver latches onto the desperation he's sure must be at the heart of every pop musician of such an "ethereal" breed, drawing out basic cash cow antics like race assimilation and image sale into further amorphous terrain. Sometimes he's bittering up already bitter medicine.

For "Ethereal Driftwood" Nobody's backing swerves from a buzzing wall and thanks God to have reached the rubbery lynchpin of the song. Busdriver leaps and laughs over the blipping fray, "But I gave them a protagonist / The color of cinnamon and mahogany / Filtered through award-winning cinematography / And the motherfucking discography of a G," only to dull his bite through the absurdity of his carnival barker bleating. It's that absurdity that also curbs the pique of cheese in such tutu-towing cuts like "Go Slow," where CocoRosie's Bianca Casady makes Chan Marshall's warble seem safe, and "Secret Skin," where Farquhar teaches us all about our own visible skin, singing in descending double counts, "Under that thin veneer, there is a buried sun / An aptly engineered, new planetarium." This stuff's encouraging, hopeful even, but too often Busdriver bounces between snark and sincerity, making both seem manipulative. Maybe it's self-deprecating that he calls out hippies, corporate drones, and race-baiting tastemakers as the champions of ultimate manipulation while using the method himself, but for an album already burdened with the suspension of disbelief over the guy's new-found knack for kinda-rap, the result's pretension chafes.

And, if it helps, I never meant to forge such a distance between Nobody and Boom Bip, because not only does Boom Bip's "Mitt" milk convention to the point of "ambient vocals" swarming at the end, but the two producers have arguably, successfully fused their strengths into a confident whole. If Nobody takes one side of Busdriver and Boom Bip the other, RoadKillOvercoat is the happy medium, smooth, luxurious, and tasty in simpler bites. The dream, then, is "Kill Your Employer," aggressive but restrained, tempered with a structure that would have destroyed a similarly ambitious Tangent track like "Happiness ('s Unit of Measurement)." While nothing here is as exciting as "Happiness" or as purely giddy as "Avantcore," it's rare that maturity in an artist means something calmer and more sentimentally bare. Pop, in all its vague glee, isn't resignation for Busdriver, or for any experimental hip-hop artist, really, but just a culmination of threads and a promise for a honed output. It's the logical step, matter of fact; I'll spare you the equations.