The Grooms of God
Agitprop! Records, 2007
Take the soul of Prince, the mercurial energy of Eminem, the electro-noisiness of Xiu Xiu, and the Gothic complexity of The Arcade Fire, put an unfailingly queer lyric reminiscent of the ACT-UP era on it, and add a some street-smart drag queen diva-tude, Judith-Butler-ized Buddhist equanimity, and a twist of piano bar sophistication, and you can start to imagine Juha's newest album, The Grooms of God. It's all that and a lot of bass.
It's a tightly-knit, complex, and highly analytic album with a roughness, honesty, and immediacy that makes it an essential listen to anyone concerned with the development of hip-hop, independent music, or queer art.
The Grooms of God is a concept album that opens with a quotation from Thich Nhat Hahn: "No discrimination against the garbage in favor of the rose." The generally hyper-sexual lyrics soar in both imagery and cadence, relating a diverse array of emotions and experiences while returning periodically to the theme lain out by Thich Nhat Hahn's quotation with a twist ubiquitous in Butlerian queer theory that sets out to achieving such equality by celebrating the sexual, the animalic, the ignoble, the transgressive. In "Dip Dip" it's "You say I look you up and down like you're a piece of meat - so put your face to the plate and peep the meat deep"; in "Full Grown (Saturn Returns)" it's "God love everyone but is partial to queer vegan hottie multi-racial anarchists... so ponder this: my Blessed Body"; in "Boodball" it's simply "Did you even realize that you are the DNA of God?"
The lyrics work when taken as a body of work instead of focusing simply on wordplay; there are few lines that I'd expect anyone to declare their loyalty to by asking that they're written on their tombstone. Yet it's hard not to want to listen more closely to what's being said after a few engaging lines jump out because of some of the more creative production techniques used on this album. The Eminem reference in the first paragraph of this review probably won't be all that popular on an LGBTQ blog, but the similarity between his mixing, vocal treatments, and repetition and Juha's are striking.
The lyrics blend harmoniously with the beats - while the tracks display a large diversity of talent on Juha's part, the choice of a Gothic aesthetic and the maintenance of it adds to the weight of the already heavy message. I mentioned before the strong usage of the double bass and bass guitar, but the elementary melodies in minor keys over a backdrop of strings, keyboards, accordions, horns (in a couple tracks), and electronica lend to a compositionally baroque sound over which Juha lays down some soul.
Oh, and the soul! Far from cold and detached, Juha's roughness of voice and non-traditional vocal style make the often abstract message intimate and urgent. He's not working in demonstrating the range of soul greats like Marvin Gaye, Prince, or Eartha Kitt, but developing something a bit different, definitely working in the larger independent music tradition that prefers inspiration to traditional skill.
The main strength of this album is the diversity of the tracks. "Akhar Virgin" is a funky, rough, and fast soul track about sex with an engaging toy piano melody that makes the album worth its time in and of itself. "Weasel (A Begging Brother in Line)" mixes an Eastern beat into a Western idiom, with fast verses working into a slow and thoughtful chorus in which the vocalist ponders "thought it was a match stick struck in my mind, that I was just a begging brother in line." "Ain't Nothin Goin on but the Rent" is a Gwen Guthrie cover whose bluesy beat, repeated keyboard loop high in the mix, and prostitution references make it sound like it was coming straight from Madonna's Erotica album. And "Paul in Swan Lake" is a simply breath-taking recounting of an old lover lost to AIDS set over the theme from Tchaichovsky's "Death of a Swan." So vivid, passionate, and real is it in its rejection of the standard AIDS narratives that when Juha sings "And when it comes to leaving planets, why wait?" echoed several times, one takes the sentiment personally.
While marketed as "hip-hop" and "soul," it seems reductive to place this album in any genre box. I don't mean that it "transcends genre" in the way that Dave Matthews said he did by producing soft rock that all sounds the same, I mean that the intellectual nature of this album can appeal to a wider audience than those people who are particularly tied to any specific genre. I could see The Grooms of God causing hipsters in Minneapolis to jam while listening to it on their off-brand mp3 players, Californian hip hop fans from across that genre's spectrum to become engaged in this album's lyrical content, and queeny Parisian intellectuals to dance in their underwear (actually did see that one last week).
So, yes, I think this album is awesome and essential.
For more information, visit Juha's website.