Way back in 1990, a virtually unknown band called 2NU2 (Two New Two), hit the charts with a quirky, yet unbelievably cool song called This Is Ponderous. That track is still getting a surprising amount of airplay nearly 10 years later, as all the classic tracks always do & in this case, it’s well justified. Imagine my surprise recently when an email arrived asking if hEARd would review the band’s forthcoming album. Of course you already knew the answer to that before the question was even asked. The forerunner to the album, which is called 2NU2.Com, is the 4 track EP Command Z, which features a reincarnation of that famous track "This Is Ponderous", which is pretty cool in itself, but the original for some reason still remains an enigma by itself, all things falling into the right place at the right time.
The focus for this EP should be on the newer material, especially the lushly constructed opener "Crossroads" & "The End Of The World", which again both take an eclectic look through the band’s eyes at the world outside.
Similarly, the album sports some superb production & wonderfully unusual effects on both music & vocals. The ironically titled "Zen’d Lullaby" opens up & shows that the band are still ahead of their time. People adventurous enough to take a step into the musical unknown will truly appreciate the album. On the other hand, many mainstream music listeners should also find the whole album accessible.
Probably the most fascinating track here is "Swansrok", which although a little bizarre in the beginning, with it’s car accident sound effects, is an inspired number which draws you to it, in similar fashion to some Tom Waits excerpts.
Once again, "The End Of The World" is another standout, a serenely soothing yet disturbing narrative set again to a backdrop of cool sounds.
Nearing the end of the album, another couple of standouts happen easily along, with "Stalker Valentine" again a little eccentric, in the same way that King Missile can be, here presenting another slightly disturbing story set to extraordinary blues backdrops, as is "Then Again".
Again, 2NU2 show with both releases, that they will be a force to be reckoned with. Perhaps in another 10 years, we’ll all be hearing songs from this album as well as This Is Ponderous.
2NU2 is one of the most original, fresh, professional sounding, ahead of the curve bands we’ve heard. They combine musical rap lines with accomplished singing and perfect storytelling speaking lines, all supported by hip-hop dance tracks and impeccable musicianship throughout several musical styles. The message is profound and direct. In "Zen’d Lullaby" the words go by, ’Jimmy Killed Bobby, Cuz Bobby Killed Mim, Now Mim’s Momma’s Gonna Kill Him. Bepop. Hiphop. Cockadoodle Do. Soon Mim’s Mamma’s Gonna Die Too. Gonna Hate Our Fate Til We Suffocate, And Daddy Won’t Tell Us Why." "Mad Man’s Fit", the fourth track, has more of an alternative rock groove riff going for it - and the groove is behind the beat and wicked - the lyrics chronicle putting up with a metal band on the next apartment floor, ’Metal Freaks, Jeez How Can They Live With All That Noise? I’m Calling The Manager. Wait....I Can’t. I Haven’t Paid My Rent." There’s a gem in "The Submarine" - as the speaking story of how our hero finds beer cans, turns them into a submarine and begins his own language - hilarious and mesmerizing. Finally, "The Island" pushes a calypso/reggae groove with words that speak of a woman who ’can burp her own name.’
Tongue in cheek, much of it, but the overall impression of 2NU2 is fascinating. This is truly a musical project/band with a foot ahead of today’s sound. The combine elements of some of the finest music genres and put them out with brilliance, while the voices and singers compel the listener to memorize and enjoy. Great, great record.
There's a category of popular music small enough that it is rarely recognized as a unique form and even more rarely receives popular airplay. It's a distinctive approach to music that pays homage to the ancient art of storytelling. This form features words spoken with instrumental accompaniment. Its history extends back in time to when travelling bards carried the news, speaking and singing it from town to town. It has been with us since humans first began to speak and make music.
If you think about it, you'll realize you've heard more songs of this sort than you ever realized. Usually, you will have heard these spoken word performances called something else. It has been recorded since we started to record music. Do you remember these? Jimmy Dean performing "To a Sleeping Beauty," "Big John," and others. Walter Brennan's classic "Old Rivers." C. W. McCall's "Convoy," "Roses for Mama," "Rubber Duck," "Wolf Creek Pass," and others. "Teddy Bear" and "Phantom 309" and "Giddy-Up Go," just three of Red Sovine's many spoken hits. And this is just some of many in country music. The phenomenon spans jazz, blues, rock, and every other genre and sub genre. Today, a very high proportion of hip hop and pop songs are either partially or wholly spoken.
The word "poetry" is anathema to music purists and often to the music-buying public. As can be seen by the songs I've listed, spoken word releases most often pretend to be something else. The artists choose to categorize themselves by the style of their backup music or sung chorus sections rather than admit out loud that their work is spoken word, is storytelling. There is a small group of artists doing something they narrowly define as spoken word performance, but they tend to be at the very "artistic" end of the spectrum. Their esoteric performances tend to further remove spoken works from accessibility and acceptance by the public. If it wants acceptance, it must be called jazz [or some other musical genre] but never spoken word and certainly not poetry.
That's a shame. This is a very ancient and very exciting form of the art and the artists who write and perform it should receive greater recognition.
Even so, once in a while one of these pieces will break through and receive popular airplay. Two prime examples are Les Crane's recording of "Desiderata" released almost thirty years ago and the more recent "Everyone's free to wear Sunscreen." Most, however, receive little airplay and the artists tend to have smaller, if appreciative audiences. Perhaps if the industry would recognize spoken word performance as a separate and very powerful art form rather than attempt to lump it into various musical genres, it would get the exposure and recognition it deserves.
Why would I take up my space and your time with such a lecture? Because so many of the releases that cross my desk these days include spoken word pieces, and excellent ones at that. Most pretend to be something else. Worse, reviewers indulge this pretense. I recently read a review of a release on which, of fifteen tracks, seven are spoken word pieces and only two blues numbers, yet the writer reviewed this release not as spoken word (or perhaps mixed) but as a blues release.
The group 2NU makes spoken word performance. This is not hip hop. The music behind the words ranges from jazz and blues to reggae to rock to something electronic and experimental. Where there is a sung chorus, it is clearly intended as a transition and not the main song. The spoken vocals are powerful and emotive. It is they which carry the songs. 2NU has been making this music since at least 1991, when their song "This is Ponderous" rose to number 46 in the Billboard top 100.
2NU2.COM features twelve well-conceived contemporary spoken word pieces, fourteen if you count two transitional pieces also included. Will this release get the airplay it deserves? It's hard to tell, since the group is very open in saying what they do is storytelling, spoken word.
Those interested in hearing the best spoken word performance being done today will want to hear this release. From beginning to end, 2NU2.COM epitomizes the quality of which this form is capable. Jock Blaney's voice is rich and powerful, his readings evocative and at times moving. The music, spanning and sometimes mixing several genres, is an interesting blend of real instruments and electronics.
"Stalker Valentine" is a bizarre, frightening yet very humourous song that also rocks along, carried by a solid slow blues background. The performance, both spoken and sung, has that not always subtle but very wry Lyle Lovett edge to it, providing a strange counterpoint to the dark content of the piece. Here's just one example: "I have to move now because I've written your name all over the walls in red paint and it won't come off...." I can imagine this song being played on campus radio stations all across North America. I have my doubts it will get that airplay.
More than forty years ago, Skeeter Davis released a quiet rockabilly hit, "The End of the World." 2NU has created a rich, bluesy rendition of this same song featuring gutsy female vocals and an R&B horn section. Like Puff Daddy, only far better, Jock Blaney inserts additional verses telling the story of lovers no longer together. The result is to turn this old pop song into a six minute emotional powerhouse.
Humour and fantasy are at the centre of Blaney's art. "The Submarine" tells the tale of a man who builds a submarine out of beer cans then sails into a dark fantasy reminiscent of "The Yellow Submarine" or a grownup version Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are." The speaker in "The Island" has a "melodiously configurated rastafarian dream" that falls somewhere between the worlds of "Shimmy, Shimmy, Koko Bop" and a Warner Brothers cartoon. The exotic female singing and wild vocals in the background enhance the sense that this dream takes place in Toon Town.
"A Father's Day" takes a more traditional approach, sounding very much like the work done by Jimmy Dean in the Fifties. This is a sweet, sensitive evocation of a man grown old and reflecting back on his life. Memories are selectively mixed to pack a lifetime into just over four minutes. In the process, the listener discovers an empathy with this old man as he relives the special moments of his life. Blaney's quiet reading and the peaceful keyboard background meld perfectly to bring the character of the old man to life. This is another piece that deserves to receive far more airplay than it probably ever will.
Forget your preconceptions. Forget that you think spoken word is just poetry and that you hate poetry on principle. If you want to hear music that stands up not just as spoken word but as music and art, if you want to experience some of the best spoken word performance out there, then make it a point to hear 2NU's new release. It's worth the risk.