The title of DJ Logic’s new album is a stumper: What does logic, the science of abstract reasoning, have to do with Zen, a Buddhist philosophy that honors direct intuition through meditation? Despite the apparent paradox, Zen of Logic is an excellent title for this release, which skirts the often arbitrary border between instinct and intellect, between booty and brain. Logic (né Jason Kibler), whose prodigious cutting and scratching skills helped establish the Bronx as a hip-hop mecca in the ’80s, is in the elite rank of DJs called “turntablists” — a highfalutin title, maybe, but one that makes a useful distinction. Logic doesn’t just collect obscure LPs and make club-thumping collages out of them; he concocts new percussive and melodic possibilities out of existing sounds and improvises, in the manner of a jazz musician, with players who use conventional instruments.
Assisted by a fantastic crew that includes bass heavyweight Melvin Gibbs, jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter, the Antibalas Horns, keyboardist John Medeski, and underground MCs SubConscious and Creature, Logic assembles an eclectic arsenal of tribal funk, mesmeric dub, scorching soul, scuzzy grime, and delirious world beat, all generously peppered with analog hiss and crackle. Among the CD’s highlights are “9th Ward Blues,” a rubbery swamp-boogie rave-up that incorporates snippets of a blues vocal, a fractured harmonica sample, and a reverb-drenched guitar hook; the self-explanatory “Afro-Beat,” which combines a twanging Jew’s harp, jubilant Afro-pop horns, and haunted-house organ; the bhangra-flavored “Something Distant,” with its deep and dirty, almost subliminal bass and dissonant mélange of exotic instruments; and the avant-dub excursion “Hope Road.”
Although Logic has been accused of being overly cerebral, at its best Zen of Logic achieves enlightenment by completely obliterating the brain/body barrier.
On Cold as the Clay, Bad Religion frontman Greg Graffin shows his softer side with a set of mostly acoustic folk songs, a mix of traditional numbers and traditional-sounding originals. Although the shift from SoCal hardcore to old-timey balladry isn’t especially novel — X made it more than 20 years ago by way of its acoustic side project the Knitters — Graffin makes a decent enough folkie. To his credit, he doesn’t affect a twang, and he lets the songs’ stories unfold naturally, without a lot of Hee-Haw histrionics. He has a nice, flexible baritone, with just a kiss of a rasp, and, unlike so many punk-rock screamers, he can sing on key. He sounds especially good with guest vocalist Jolie Holland, whose sweet-sour harmonies season four of the songs.
Indeed, Cold as the Clay has a lot going for it. In addition to Holland, Winnipegger pop-punk politicos the Weakerthans back Graffin on four tracks, and the other musicians are highly competent, too. The songs range from Springsteenesque anthems (“Don’t Be Afraid to Run”) to stripped-down salvation ditties (“Talk About Suffering”), with liberal smatterings of banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and sympathy for the working man, be he a miner, a cotton-picker, or a fallen soldier. Bad Religion co-founder Brett Gurewitz, who produced and mixed the album, keeps things spare, clean, and spontaneous, and Graffin no doubt felt comfortable with his buddy of more than two decades at the soundboard.
In fact, everyone sounds comfortable — too comfortable. The weird old America, the spooky, gory, inexplicable one that suffuses Alan Lomax’s canonical field recordings, is absent; instead, you get the family-friendly Burl Ives treatment, pleasant, avuncular tunes that won’t induce nightmares or homicidal fantasies. An album that contains no fewer than three songs about killing women for no good reason should sound a bit more dangerous, a bit less Prairie Home Companion. You’d think an old punk would know better.