Friday, April 25, 2014

album review: 'retrohash' by asher roth

You know, there are certain one hit wonders that really don't deserve the title. Upon further research, bands like a-ha and Semisonic and Chumbawamba and Dexy's Midnight Runners turn out to be far more than just 'Take On Me' or 'Closing Time' or 'Tubthumping' or 'Come On Eileen'. Just because they managed to capture mainstream attention for a brief, shining second doesn't mean their larger body of work wasn't worth considering, or that the band could or should solely be defined by their one hit.

And then there's Asher Roth, who released 'I Love College' in 2009 and immediately fell into the trap so much worse than the one-hit wonder: that of the Novelty Song artist. Where the song might have captured the zeitgeist for an instant before immediately becoming an instant punchline - or hell, it might have been the punchline upon release. The later reconsideration that can redeem some one-hit wonders is much less likely with Novelty Song artists... and to be fair, it's not like some of them deserve the additional attention. Does Asher Roth deserve reconsideration?

Honestly, I'm not sure. Going back to revisit Asher Roth's debut album Asleep In The Bread Aisle wasn't entirely a pleasant experience. Sure, the production was pretty good and I liked the college-rock inspired instrumentation, but I couldn't exactly call Asher Roth a great performer. Technically, he wasn't exactly impressive as a rapper, and his stoner-douchebro affectation really got insufferable after only a few songs, mostly because it was plainly apparent that Asher Roth wasn't trying. And while there are a few acts that can make 'not trying' work for them, Asher Roth wasn't one of them, half because his lifeless flow didn't have the wit or punchlines to back it up, and half because the tracks where he did try were easily the best on the album. But even with that, I couldn't say that I really liked that album - it was smug, crass, and unbelievably petulant at points, and I really wasn't a fan of Asher Roth's style - the Beastie Boys had spent their time pretending to be and satirizing dumb frat boys, so to see Asher Roth do it somewhat unironically wasn't exactly pleasant.

But to be fair to the guy, he has finally gotten around to releasing his long-delayed sophomore album, and he's claimed that it's a major shift in direction. And while I'm never one to take an artist on his word, I gave Retro Hash a listen - how did it go?

Well, I'll be blunt: this album is a mess on every level, and the more I spend time analyzing it, the more I find elements that flat-out do not work. The fact that it took five years for Asher Roth to put out this record blows my mind - but all of that said, it's a mess worth talking about because there are elements that could have made this record really something special if tuned a little more effectively, possibly even elevating the album into cult classic territory like its primary inspiration.

But before I get to that discussion, let's get the major elements that just don't work very well out of the way first, starting with the instrumentation and production. Now I'll admit, I've got a soft spot for the quasi-psychedelic guitar melodies that underscore a lot of this album, and I'm not going to deny that they mostly fit the stoner persona Asher Roth is trying to create. And when the production goes for a rougher, earthy, lived-in feel with crackling fuzz, echoing lo-fi effects, and deeper beats, it works for me. Hell, even some of the spacier guitar lines weren't bad. But for the most part, the production shoves the guitars to the back of the mix and puts a selection of very stiff beats and electronic effects that really don't feel cohesive with the feel of the album, especially on 'Tangerine Girl', 'Pull It', and 'Something For Nothing'. But by far the worst element in the production is the backing vocals on most tracks: they are so lazily off-key and poorly performed that they become a constant source of irritation.

Granted, they aren't the only vocals that annoy me, and that takes us to Asher Roth. His rapping is so-so, if I'm being honest - the flows are simplistic if containing some okay detail and a load of corny lines, and you can tell he's either not trying or trying way too hard to not to look like he's trying. Either way, it's not an affectation that works for me, but what gets even worse is when he tries to sing. Some of the worst tracks on this album are when Asher Roth tries to croon and fails miserably, and considering he brings on other singers for his hooks, I'm baffled why he thought singing was a good idea. And since he's upstaged by the rappers he brings onto this album, I'm confused why he didn't put more time into his bars to make them distinctive or all that interesting from a lyrical perspective.

So this leads to the big question: what is this album about? Well, after the first three listens, I had no clue. There were slightly mean-spirited break-up songs, songs about pursuing one's goals and careers, one awkward and terribly love song, and a whole load of smoking weed. On a thematic level, the broadest look at this record would just be as another stoner rap record, with Asher Roth trading the douchebag style of his first album into that of the laid-back stoner you all knew in university that just preferred to camp out in his room and get high, surrounded by posters of Bob Marley and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

And then I noticed the song 'Dude', which is directly inspired by the eponymous character from the Coen brothers film The Big Lebowski - and suddenly, this album started making way too much sense. In short, RetroHash seems to be at first glance an album celebrating that iconic character and placing Asher Roth on the same degree of effortless cool. And it makes a lot of sense - the stoned, existentialist celebration of inanity and just living harkens back to Jeff Bridges' character of a man left behind from the hippie era and who, well, abides. And while Asher Roth never directly says the iconic catchphrase, you can tell with songs like 'Fast Life', 'Be Right', and 'Parties At The Disco' that he's trying to emulate it.

But there are problems with this, the first of which being Asher Roth is not Jeff Bridges or the Coen brothers, and his miscellaneous commentary about modern life, even in the little details, really don't add up to anything beyond vague hippie pablum. And even then, it feels disingenuous when you have songs like 'Pot Of Gold' - if you're trying to tell people to avoid the fast life, why are you then trying to live some brand of it yourself? And coupled with songs that seem to mull more on Asher Roth's relationships or the state of his career - which is something The Dude never really cared to do - he doesn't embody the persona convincingly. What's even worse is that the relationship songs really unintentionally paint Asher Roth in a bad light: 'Pull It' is about coping after a breakup, and yet the chorus is so nondescript it first came across to me as a bad fart joke. 'Something For Nothing' is a song about how Asher Roth wants a girl to give more of herself to the relationship, and it's a song that really comes across as self-centered. All of this adds to a much more self-conscious portrait of Asher Roth than the slacker he's trying to portray, and combined with the lack of genuine lyrical flavour, it rings really hollow to me.

But then again, maybe I'm giving Asher Roth too much credit, and there isn't some higher ideology or purpose behind this record than just an album about relaxing and weed. But on that standard, it's not a good example: it's alternatively inane and not clever about it or sour in a really unappealing way. I'll admit I'm not a fan of the slacker dude persona as it is, but Asher Roth sure as hell didn't improve that image for me. And on top of the uninspired lyrics and frustrating production, the album reveals itself as a collection of poorly articulated ideas mashed together into less than the sum of its parts. Maybe some sense of humour could have saved this record, but perhaps Asher Roth's biggest mistake is taking this way too seriously. So with that, 4/10, and even if you're a fan of this sort of material, there's better stuff in the genre than this. Skip it.

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