15 January 2010

15 Years On: P.M. Dawn - Jesus Wept

25 Dey - Year 1388

I can hardly believe it's been nearly 15 years since this album was released. I can already hear the derisive snickers from the 'real' hip-hop crowd, but hear me out, O.K.? I know, P.M. Dawn 'are' a joke to most hip-hoppers and possibly always 'were'. Unlike the Beastie Boys, who managed to claw back their cred after Check Your Head was released in 1992, the Dawn never returned to the dizzy chart heights they scaled with their first full-length, Of The Heart, Of The Soul, Of The Cross..., released in 1991.

After their string of hit singles and then a much-publicised (at the time) beef with KRS-One, the Dawn's second full-length, The Bliss Album?, was released. While most of the tracks continue "Of The Heart"s spacey R&B/hip-hop hybrid, a couple of them show the duo in a near defensive mode after the KRS-One bust-up. Plastic sneers at thug-rap poseurs (remember, this was 1993 and the West Coast 'gangsta rap' phenomenon was all the rage, following Dr. Dre's The Chronic record)--with a dig at KRS-One in the breakdown. "Think I don't know about hip-hop", Prince Be spits, "well what's this..", as DJ Minutemix scratches different tempos. The Nocturnal Is In The House also presents a harder edge (for the Dawn) and a bit of a cynical look at the group's fame: "The ego, the frame, remain unemployed/But they screamin' at me, they wanna be my freakazoid" and "I'm burnin' up son, I think I got the fever/Don't believe the hype 'cause if you do it might deceive ya", attest to the pressure of maintaining their sanity in the "Yo Mtv Raps!" sphere and maintaining their cool in the face of the beefs and some rather homophobic rants.

So they disappeared for a while - aside from a one-off cover of Jimi Hendrix's You Got Me Floatin', which was released on the tribute album called Stone Free in 1993. They returned in October 1995 with Jesus Wept (named after the shortest psalm in the Bible).

The title seems to sum up the contents of the record. Gone are the playfulness of the first album and the occasional anger of the second. In their place is a meditative questing and a sort-of soulful angst. Be's Chrisitianity was hinted at on the first two, but reaches full-flower on "Jesus Wept". Not to worry, though. He doesn't Bible-bash or holy roll--in fact, almost the opposite...he's as unsure of 'God' as a lot of critters, but he wants to believe (like in that X-Files UFO poster). In the intro. to the album, a sample taken from It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown states "...even if you are a fake, don't tell me..I don't want to know." Downtown Venus, the second track and first single, sets up the psychedelic feel of the rest of the record perfectly--making excellent use of a sample from Deep Purple's cover of Hush. You can watch the original video here (though you have to sit through an advert first).

My Own Personal Gravity has a hazy, mellow feel that channels Hendrix, except for the lack a flash guitar solo. Instead, it has a backward-guitar figure that could be right off of The Beatles' I'm Only Sleeping. It could almost be an out-take from Electric Ladyland. Forever Damaged (The 96th) samples Joni Mitchell's Don't Interrupt The Sorrow (from her most experimental record, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns) and contains a tasteful steel drum solo--yes, a steel drum. The track mutates into a kind of down-tempo Caribbean folk-rock. The Puppet Show comes off as a trippy Motown tune, that wouldn't be out of place on The Temptations' Puzzle People. The 9:45 Wake-Up Dream continues the inner-space journey, with a funky organ riff and some nice acid-guitar runs.

Elsewhere on the album are gentle acoustic moments. Sonchyenne, a Joycean pun on the word sunshine, evoking both Jesus (as the alleged 'Son of God') and the Native American Cheyenne tribe. A Lifetime's lyrics of "What's a human/what's a lifetime?" remind me of Robert Heinlein's quote about what a human should be able to do. The weakest tracks, it seems to me, 'are' Miles From Anything and I'll Be Waiting For You. Both seem to be typical Dawn 'smoove' ballads and don't really innovate their sound at all. Having said that, they're probably on par with any of the decent R&B tunes of that year. I do like the way the lyrics can be construed as multi-level, much like Richard Thompson's mid-70s 'love' songs. 'Are' they about a woman, or a deity, or Be's 'higher self' (what Aleister Crowley referred to as "The Holy Guardian Angel")..or all three?

Then there's the final track - which really shows the ambition of the group. Fantasia's Confidential Ghetto is a suite of three covers, and not slavish ones, either. 1999 sees Prince's glam-funk party call-to-arms stripped to just a piano and acoustic guitar. Be sings it in a world-weary fashion, even singing "Tonight I'm gonna cry like it's 1999" at the end of the last chorus. A piano figure lifted from the 1970s Schoolhouse Rock animated short Rufus Xavier Sarsparilla announces Talking Heads' Once In A Lifetime. It's funked up good, even more than the Heads' early 80s experiments. It's almost as if Al Green is repaying them for their version of Take Me To The River. Coconut uses a Three Dog Night (from Mama Told Me Not To Come) sample and even a snippet of The Fabs' Flying for a woozy cover of the Harry Nilsson tune. It's probably the most 'faithful' of all three, but it maximizes the trippy aspect of the song. Brilliant.

The Dawn had a top-notch band for the sessions, but an MVP citation must go to guitarist Cameron Greider for the nice, jazzy solos and folkie strumming. Despite the record being a spiritual heir to the Native Tongues posse's output (if not musically), it was largely ignored. "Downtown Venus" had a very modest showing on the singles chart, but '95 was the year that Trent Reznor wanted to shag everyone like an animal, while wearing his crown of shit, upon his liar's chair. Smashing Pumpkins sang about bullets with butterfly wings and Rage Against The Machine were raging against machines. Gangsta rap was still flourishing and no-one wanted to listen to Be's questing gnosticism. The Dawn were in the company of The Orb and Spiritualized, whose '95 albums also received low-key praise (at least in the States).

P.M. Dawn disappeared again (aside from another one-off--the single Gotta Be..Movin' On Up) and surfaced in 1998 with Dearest Christian, I'm So Very Sorry I Brought You Here, Love Dad, their entry in the awkward long album title stakes. The tone went from sombre to near-despair and the music veered even further away from orthodox hip-hop. The hipster mafia 'were' probably correct...it's not necessarily hip-hop, but a trippy hybrid of R&B, psychedelia and ambient--in "Jesus Wept"'s style. They were quiet throughout the Noughties, with just the obligatory record-company stop-gap, The Best Of P.M. Dawn, released in 2000. A follow-up album, reportedly called P.M. Dawn Loves You, has yet to be released. Prince Be suffered a massive stroke in 2005, but still managed to appear on the U.S. teevee talent show, Hit Me Baby One More Time (which the Dawn won) and a tour of small clubs in 2006. Minutemix left the group after the TV show and their cousin, Dr. Giggles, joined up for the '06 tour. At the moment, Doc G. is the only active member of the group.

So while I wait for "P.M. Dawn Loves You", which may turn out to be another Smile or Get Back..or the follow-up to Loveless, I'll spin "Jesus Wept". It seems to be one of the definitive psychedelic hip-hop records to me..even if it 'is not' really that to others.


4 comments:

Singing Bear said...

This is fascinating. I never knew anything about them, apart from hearing a single many moons ago. Must try and catch this 'Jesus Wept' album. As an aside, it's funny how The Beastie Boys (who I like a lot) gained credibility. They do deserve it but you couldn't see it coming in the early days. Always makes me laugh to think that the British tabloids thought they were a threat to the nation's 'yoof' for five minutes! Thanks for the PM Dawn tip.

The Purple Gooroo said...

I really liked them...still do. If anything...at least they tried to do something different.

Shame that the newest record *still* hasn't been released..it's supposedly been in the can for over a year now.

I can get you a copy of "Jesus Wept", if'n you're interested :)

Singing Bear said...

Cheers, mate.

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