Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Gil Scott-Heron – Me and the Devil

And, of course, the most interesting thing I know about this feller is that his dad played for Celtic…


Martin Skidmore: You’d have thought that his position as a godfather of rap might have given him good opportunities for attention, but he’s been invisible for a long time (his last album was in 1994). This comeback sounds like an old bluesman (his voice sounds very worn and roughened) singing with Massive Attack — the sensibility here is entirely Robert Johnson. This of course is a very good thing, and I have some residual love for Gil, so I hope this is a successful return.

John Seroff: I was lucky enough to see Scott-Heron live recently. He was forty-five minutes late and made bad dad jokes for almost a half-hour on stage until he finally sat down and threw himself heartily into moving, astonishing, musical genius. The voice is still there; it’s the focus that’s scattered, and that says a lot about what does and doesn’t work with “Me and the Devil”. Scott-Heron’s hard-earned rasp plays well enough on this ill-advised Robert-Johnson-by-way of-trip-hop tribute, but the song itself sounds arduous and deeply inessential; some sort of Spare Ass Annie curiosity, a deep cut best reserved for trivia competitions and wiseguy mixtapes. I love Gil forever and ever but who really needs to listen to this?

Anthony Easton: Satanic, not in the camp sense, or the teenage rebellion sense, but in the ghostly shadow, endemic crossroads, of Johnson’s hounds and McTell’s cold dark ground. Ghostly — Heron has been haunted, and will haunt. You can “bury his body” but the spirit will rise from the dead. He will never die.

Martin Kavka: The video ends by showing Heron reading “The Vulture.” Forty years later, the power of that poem has not abated. No trip-hop Robert Johnson cover can even come close. The juxtaposition makes me sadly wonder whether the entire I’m New Here project is just a craven attempt to market a tidy package of suffering to an audience who can experience some ersatz redemption once the album ends and they happily discover that they are not in a cell on Rikers Island.

Alfred Soto: Surely it’s not Scott-Heron’s fault that he sounds like a Gnarls Barkley sample on his own track. The frisson of tension, especially at the 3:30 mark when the spoken-word portion begins, comes from tone: a Leonard Cohen type examines the issues he helped bring to light with something of the old disgust, as if Barack Obama’s presidency called up the ghosts of the Nixon administration. While not particularly effective, it’s memorable: nostalgia at the service of outrage.

Matt Cibula: Please to ignore the “spooky” video and just focus on the sounds Gil Scott-Heron is wrenching out of his heart. I haven’t heard anyone make a Robert Johnson song sound this scary and threatening since Robert Johnson. Extra point for subbing out Johnson’s casual domestic violence.

Anthony Miccio: I’m embarrassingly unfamiliar with Gil Scott Heron’s oeuvre, but I’m going to guess most of it doesn’t sound like a tinny trip-hop remix of “Way Down In The Hole.”

Alex Macpherson: Ominous trip-hop production frames Gil Scott-Heron’s unsettling, blackened blues well, but it’s his own wracked croak that compels most on “Me And The Devil”; the voice of someone who’s lived to tell more tales than most.

Chuck Eddy: Production is big and dubby and trips its hop moderately deep but, uh, Gil used to be a pretty great songwriter once, and after 16 years (actually, more like 26 since he did anything anybody much cared about — “Re-Ron” was ’84), not to mention a few notable wars and presidents he’s yet to sink his teeth into, you’d think he might come back with something more thought-provoking and devastating than a Robert Johnson cover. What happened, did he just read Mystery Train or something? Also, sorry, but changing Johnson’s “beat my woman ‘til I get satisfied” to “seed my woman…” feels like a whitewash. So basically, better than that Michael Franti hit last year, but not that much better. Still crossing my fingers about the new album, though I should probably know better by now.

David Moore: There’s a little sideways smile that comes through the gloomy trip-hop and macabre blues imagery. On this track (and its accompanying album — highly recommended) the tone bounces between triumphant and sadly reflective, funny and sour, coldly straightforward and totally cracked. Not surprising that in addition to the neo-blues and spoken word stuff he managed to write an excellent Leonard Cohen song (“I’m New Here”), too.

Tom Ewing: Nasty, boiled-larynx blues shouting over a trip-hop backing which, if I’m being honest, tries a little too hard to abrase. But even if there’s a faint whiff of 1998 about the music, Heron’s ranting is alive and hag-ridden enough to make the record more than just an exercise in style.

Pete Baran: Pop birdwatchers should be happy that Gil Scott Heron has returned, having to make do with Robin Thicke too much recently. If you heard “Me and the Devil” in a dream you can be pretty sure that it’s just about to turn into a nightmare.

Alex Ostroff: One veritable legend covers another. How could the result be anything but brilliant? Every aspect of this Robert Johnson update radiates dread, from the rasp of Scott-Heron’s voice, to the chopped & screwed vocal treatment, to the lumbering buzz of the bass. In other hands, throwing a master like Gil Scott-Heron over 2step beats might have sounded like a desperate grasp for relevance or trendiness by suits, but it’s a surprisingly intuitive decision. If anything in 2010 expresses sorrow, ache and gravitas equivalent to that of 1930s blues, after all, it’s the twisted soundscapes of dubstep. The production sets the mood without ever domineering the mix, allowing Heron’s affecting performance to bubble up through the murk.

Edward Okulicz: Easy to like, easy to admire but frustratingly imperfect; the vocal performance here is cracked enough to be plausibly from the pits of hell and it’s a well-selected piece to update too. The choppy trip-hop menace that backs it keeps time behind but sounds shockingly dated and flimsy. It needed to be dark rumblings, brimstone and evil shards of bass; instead, it’s 1997 and Death in Vegas are remixing the Sneaker Pimps with a sample of an old bloke on top!

8 Responses to “Gil Scott-Heron – Me and the Devil”

  1. I may have rated up slightly (though I don’t think it’d make a difference in the end) for the album itself, which is more layered and adventurous overall than this particular track. Of *course* I didn’t know this was a Robert Johnson cover, or that “I’m New Here” is Bill Callahan. (Scott-Heron’s is better, but that’s just because I can’t stand Callahan’s voice.) Why would I look something like that up?

  2. I have a feeling the average would have dropped two points if this was credited to an ex-member of Alabama 3.

  3. “dropped TO two points” would be closer.

  4. xp Or maybe better yet, and ex-member of Primitive Radio Gods. (Or, uh, Moby.)

  5. I think I should have given it [8] rather than [9], which I probably gave based on how good the album is (and, uh, how it made me dig out old GSH stuff and fixate on “Home Is Where The Hatred Is” for a while). But still a high mark.

  6. i was really excited to hear this but can’t get into it at all. it sounds too much like the theme song from The Wire (not the actually blues one but one of the later “electronic” variations). i just really don’t wanna hear this kind of thing over a Massive Attack-esque breakbeat

  7. Haven’t decided which album I like more — Gil’s or Ke$ha’s. They’re both probably worth keeping — for reference, if nothing else. Ke$ha’s is definitely catchier, with way livelier beats and singing, and probably has more clever lyrics. (Current pick hits: “Ki$$ And Tell” and “D.I.N.O.$.A.U.R.”) But Gil’s is kind of beautiful, and far more useful for putting on when drinking one’s first cup of coffee and reading the morning paper. Also, the fact that it’s less than a half-hour long is absolutely a mark in its favor — In fact, if you deduct the parts where he’s just talking, it’d probably just count as an EP. Think I generally prefer his talking parts to his singing parts, though. But I’m not going to argue with all the people who insist “New York Is Killing Me” is the best track, seeing how I got the heck out of that place last year.

  8. …Er, actually, “beautiful” is probably overstating things. The album’s kind of boring, too. But in the right situation, when kept at an unobtrusive volume, his voice and the moody trip-hop effects fill up the background well. (Boy, I’m really damning it with faint praise, aren’t I? But believe it or not, I really do kinda like the thing.)