Archive for April, 2008

Coping With Babylon

babylon.jpgTitle: Coping With Babylon: The Proper Rastology
Artist: Various
Format: DVD; Region 0 ; NTSC ; Dolby digital surround sound
Label: MVD Visual
Catalog No.: MVD4617
Date: 2007

Coping with Babylon is an intriguing documentary that presents a fresh perspective of Rastafarian worldview. Directed by Oliver Hill, this film attempts to shatter the stereotypical pop culture imagery of modern Rastas. Framed in historical context, Coping with Babylon features a mixture of celebrity Rastafarians, leaders and every day Rasta’s discussing their “levity” and how it is affected by modern society.

The film opens by deconstructing the concept of Babylon through visual images of material excess and interview excerpts from celebrity Rastafarians including Mutaburka, Luciano, Beenie Man, and Freddie McGregor. After quickly assessing reggae’s contribution in spreading Rastafarian philosophy, the film briefly discusses the evolution of Rasta ideology, crediting Marcus Garvey, Leonard Howell and His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Salassie as the key figures in the development of the belief system.

What sets Coping with Babylon apart from other documentaries on Rastafari is that it goes beyond the historical and musical connection and dives deep into the belief system by addressing the divisions amongst the different orders of Rastafari. The film features a discussion of the more established orders of Nyahbinghi, 12 Tribes and Bobo Ashanti, citing a lack of unity as the central problem facing modern Rastas. Barry Chavannes, professor at the University of the West Indies and noted Rasta scholar, provides the lone academic perspective and only non-Rasta point of view. Also featured is Dermot Fagan, leader of the School of Vision. Fagan presents an interesting example of how Rastas assimilate current events into their worldview. His insight on the microchip, freemasons and the Illuminati binges on conspiracy theory and unfortunately dates the film.

Coping with Babylon: The Proper Rastology is a solid documentary with a run time of 80 minutes. The DVD contains a subtitle option that makes the Jamaican Patois easier to understand. By no means does this film present a definitive explanation of Rasta ideology; however, Hill’s approach to the belief system sets Coping with Babylon apart from other films on the subject.

Posted by Heather O’Sullivan

View review April 9th, 2008

The 3 Tenors of Soul: All the Way From Philadelphia

3tenors_soul.jpgTitle: The 3 Tenors of Soul: All the Way From Philadelphia
Artists: Russell Thompkins, Jr., William Hart, Ted Mills
Label: Shanachie
Catalog No.: 5768
Date: 2007

 

Whether back in the days of bell bottoms, penny candy (that actually cost a penny), red light and quarter parties, and afro picks with fist; or the present day of ‘70s parties and steppers sets…if you were asked to compile a playlist of music, you knew it was not complete until you added some selections from such legendary groups as the Delfonics, the Stylistics, and Blue Magic.

Growing up during the early ‘80s on Chicago’s Southside, I can remember waking up on Saturday mornings to the sounds of the vacuum roaring and the radio blaring as my mother cleaned the house. After running to the kitchen to get a bowl of my favorite cereal, I would rush to the area of the house that my mom was in to watch as she put on a show. As she cleaned, she would sing along with the radio as if she were in grand concert. “Ready or not, here I come you can’t hide…, God bless you, you make me feel brand new…, Let the sideshow begin, hurry, hurry, step right on in…” These early morning experiences would serve as my introduction to the lush Philly sound. I would received further submersion within the Philadelphia sound by listening on Sunday afternoons to Chicago radio deejay Herb Kent “The Cool Gent” as he played “dusty records” which often featured the Delfonics, the Stylistics, and Blue Magic.

Recognized as one of the foremost groups of that distinctive “Philadelphia sound,” the Delfonics were formed in 1965. Comprised of brothers William “Poogie” and Wilbert Hart, and friend Randy Cain, the Delfonics have graced us with classics such as “Hey Love” and “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind” featuring William as the lead. In 1968, the union of lead singer Russell Thompkins, Jr. (previously a member of the Monarchs) with the members of the Percussions gave rise to the Stylistics. This group was responsible for hits such as “You Make Me Feel Brand New” and, one of my personal favorites, “Betcha By Golly Wow.” Blue Magic was formed in 1972 when Ted Mills (originally brought on as a songwriter) was paired with a group of guys from a North Philly neighborhood. Blue Magic is noted for songs such as “Sideshow” and “Three Ring Circus.”

The 3 Tenors of Soul: All the Way From Philadelphia brings together three of the best known lead tenors of the Philly sound. Thompkins, Hart and Mills offer the Soul enthusiast ten audibly pleasing tracks. Throughout each of the tracks, the 3 Tenors of Soul masterfully and artistically use their golden tenor falsettos to weave images of days gone by. In addition, the 3 Tenors have included collaborations on three of the songs: All The Way From Philadelphia (with Hall & Oates), A Love Of Your Own (with The Average White Band), and Where Are All My Friends (with Bilal). As a side note, Bilal is also from the North Philly neck of the woods, as well as a member of the neo-soul tradition.

While all ten tracks are great, I found the following to be the most audibly stimulating: Grateful (track 3), featuring Ted Mills on lead vocal; A Love of Your Own (track 5), featuring Russell Thompkins, Jr. (with The Average White Band); and Where Are All My Friends (track 9) with lead vocals by Ted Mills with Bilal.

Though the accompanying liner notes provide a brief glimpse into the history of each group, they do not provide the consumer with the facts or characteristics of what exactly constitutes that distinctive Philadelphia sound. Nor do the notes provide an explanation for why William Hart is not featured as a lead vocalist save for when all three tenors are featured. Nevertheless, if you are new to the Philadelphia sound and would like to understand the concept behind the music, I would suggest you do a little research. Check out John A. Jackson’s book A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul in particular. Additionally, all of the research materials Jackson used in compiling his award-winning book have been deposited at the Archives of African American Music and Culture, as described in the Winter 2007 issue of Liner Notes.

Overall, The 3 Tenors of Soul: All the Way From Philadelphia is a good buy for the lovers of the falsetto register. And for those who find it annoying, just remember these words from the liner notes: “it’s a Philly thing!”

Posted by Terence La Nier II

View review April 9th, 2008

Sessions

craig.jpgTitle: Sessions
Artist: Carl Craig
Label: K7 Records
Catalog No.: !K7224CD
Date: 2008

Carl Craig is one of the most innovative techno DJ/producers to come out of Detroit. A product of the “second wave” of DJ’s who followed in the footsteps of techno pioneers Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May, Craig has traveled the world spreading his unique brand of Detroit techno that is infused with elements of jazz and soul music. His innovation approach to production has enabled him to work with the likes of Herbie Hancock.

Craig has released over fifteen albums under various pseudonyms and aliases (all are listed on his Wikipedia entry). Sessions, his latest CD, is a combination of some retouched classics as well as previously unreleased material. The double disc includes over twenty tracks that are diverse enough to keep your ear interested but blend well enough to create a seamless listening experience. The tone of the project reflects what it is like to hear Carl Craig DJ in person. He uses his mixes to bring the listener in, and then builds the energy to a climax before slowly releasing you. Sessions does a good job of using Craig mainstays and new works to achieve this arc.

I admit that this double disc project can be a little overwhelming. At times it can feel like a lot of music to get through, especially since Sessions presents one long seamless musical experience. That means there’s no easy point to turn it off until you get to the end. But if you take the time to listen to the layers of texture that Craig adds to songs like Theo Parrish’s “Falling Up” and his Grammy nominated remix of the Junior Boys “Like a Child,” you can easily hear all the musical intricacies that make techno so great to listen and dance to.

Techno music is many things to many people. But by the standards of most fans, Carl Craig is one the best DJ/producers around. If you’ve never given electronic dance music a chance, Sessions is a great place to start. Its a solid project that gives a sampling of the different sounds that Craig has introduced and popularized through techno. For those who are long time techno fans, it will remind them of how great techno and electronic dance music can be.

Posted by fredara mareva

View review April 9th, 2008

Eleventh Hour

11th.jpgTitle: Eleventh Hour
Artist: Del the Funky Homosapien
Label: Definitive Jux
Catalog No.: 881562
Date: 2008

After years and years of delays, Del the Funky Homosapien has finally resurfaced on the hip hop landscape with Eleventh Hour, his fifth solo album. Over the last nine years, Del has been an enigma. He randomly popped up on compilations and group albums, but was virtually absent from the hip hop scene. Released on indie power-house Definitive Jux, Eleventh Hour is Del the Funky Homosapien’s comeback album.

After being introduced to the hip hop world by his cousin Ice Cube, Del released his debut album I Wish My Brother George Was Here (1991) to much critical acclaim. He followed that up with No Need For Alarm (1993) which was very well received and introduced his crew, the Hieroglyphics. Del’s third solo album, Future Development (1998), was issued by his crew’s own Hiero Imperium Records after the rapper was released from his contract with Elektra. It is often seen as his best work. In 1998, the Hieroglyphics released their first crew album, Third Eye Vision, which established the collective as an underground force. In 2000, Del’s fourth solo album, Both Sides of the Brain, received mixed reviews. He subsequently followed that up with Deltron 3030 (2000), a concept album that has become an underground classic. Since 2000 Del has been relatively silent, except for a notable appearance on the Gorrillaz debut single “Clint Eastwood.”

Minus a few exceptions, the long-awaited Eleventh Hour was completely written and produced by Del which, if anything, gives it a high level of cohesiveness. The album opens up with “Raw Sewage,” a superb song that features minimalistic production and braggadocio rhymes. Although his flow is a tad lazy, the song still sounds like its from the Both Sides of the Brain era, when Del was at his finest. The next song, “Bubble Pop,” is representative of what plagues this album–complex, but underwhelming production combined with an uninspired delivery from Del. “Back in the Chamber,” “Foot Down,” “Workin It,” and “Str8t Up and Down” all have these same characteristics. They are not bad songs, just uneventful. There are, however, other highlights including the laid-back “Last Hurrah,” the smooth “Hold Your Hand,” and the up-tempo Ladybug Mecca collaboration “I Got You.”

Eleventh Hour is a mediocre release from a very talented artist. After listening to this album and comparing it to previous efforts, it became clear that part of what once made Del and the Hieroglyphics so great was their youthfulness. This is not to say that the crew is too old to make good music (see Opio’s 2005 album Triangulation Station), but Del’s pseudo-nerdy braggadocio rhymes do not sound as good coming from his 35-year-old self. Combine that with hit-or-miss production and you get the disappointment that is Eleventh Hour. Hopefully Del’s forthcoming Deltron Event II will make up for this release, just as Deltron 3030 compensated for Both Sides of the Brain.

Posted by Langston Collin Wilkins

View review April 9th, 2008

Dead Letter Perfect

dead_letter_perfect.jpg

Title: Dead Letter Perfect
Artist: SoulStice
Label: Wandering Soul Records
Catalog No: WNSOUL009
Date: 2007

 

SoulStice is one of the more talented hip hop artists native to Chicago. His knowledge of both the books and the street is evident in his meaningful lyrics, but in case you had any doubts, he also earned both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree from the University of Illinois in Electrical and Computer Engineering. By utilizing his skills behind the microphone and the mixing board, SoulStice has written and recorded his own music, driven by his passion for hip hop.

After generating a significant following in Chicago and the Midwest, SoulStice moved to the Washington, D.C. area where he has given many performances and made several appearances on mix-tapes. He has since earned a large following on the East Coast, and has had the opportunity to work with Oddisee (a producer who has worked with several hip hop artists including Talib Kweli and Jazzy Jeff) and Bring It Back, a production team out of Virginia. SoulStice has also given several performances in the UK, where he has a respectable fan base, and has shared the stage with several prominent artists, including Wu-Tang Clan and John Legend. His sound has frequently been described as a blend of Chicago soul and East Coast boom-bap.

SoulStice hit the top of both college radio and club charts in 2003 with his first single, “the Melody,” from his debut album, North by Northwest: Solid Ground, which he publicized, marketed and distributed all on his own. He followed up this banger with the double-single, “Always / The Quickening,” which topped both college radio and club charts in 2005. Although SoulStice has spent some time away from the Windy City, there is no doubt of his Chicago roots in his latest album, Dead Letter Perfect, which was released in 2007.

Dead Letter Perfect kicks off with an old-school vibe on “Southside Ride,” clearly representing SoulStice’s Chi-town origins in the track’s title. If his cunning wordplay and rhymes aren’t impressive enough, the excellent production and soulful sounds certainly seal the deal. As the name implies, the song is smooth and excellent for chilling or taking a drive. When track two arrives SoulStice rhymes, “Hey! You can take it high as you wanna go, I can see us rise with the vibe and it’s wonderful,” in the appropriately named “High as You Wanna.” The faster tempo and brilliant imagery of this track makes you feel like you are right there, face-to-face with SoulStice, listening to his story, proving the claim of his rhyme to be true – it is wonderful.

SoulStice then progressively slows it down a little bit with the tracks “Be Perfect” and “Book Of Days,” in which his lyrics draw a picture of his experiences in your mind. Accordingly, in “Be Perfect” SoulStice rhymes, “I gotta vendetta, and a story to tell; it’s a little bit of heaven if you’re going through hell,” and “I am just getting started, got no time for spittin’ garbage,” in “Book Of Days.” The dark beat and sound of the fifth track perfectly matches the insightful lyrics of “World’s On Fire,” which features Haysoos.

In the next two tracks, “Not Perfect” and “Be Strong,” SoulStice goes back to rhyming about life and hardships, with lyrics that should really hit home with most listeners. In “Dreamer,” the eighth track, he rhymes, “They say that I’m a dreamer, I gotta rhyming fever; I keep speaking through the speaker so these lines will reach-ya.” SoulStice continues to lay it out as he sees it in “Like This, The Time and Get It Right,” with each line leaving you gripped to his story. “Still Love,” the twelfth track, includes several cleverly worded rhymes about life in Chicago such as: “I’m from the Chi’ where the basements at, where it’s so hot and so cold the pavement cracks.” The next track, “No Chance,” at first seems to be a typical boasting track declaring SoulStice’s elite status and permanent residence in the hip hop world, but a close listen to the lyrics reveals a motivational message as well: “It’s not about where you start, it’s what you choose to become.”

The album concludes with an upbeat finale on the tracks “Recognize” and “The Quickening.” SoulStice declares this is the perfect album, but that is up to the world of hip hop listeners to decide. There is no doubt, however, that this album is well written, recorded and produced and that SoulStice is a very talented lyricist.

Listening to Dead Letter Perfect leaves you with a lot to think about. The complex rhymes and wordplay are filled with imagery and tell the listener a story through SoulStice’s socially aware, world-conscious lyrics. His choruses stick in your head without being too catchy, and you’ll want to listen to these tracks over and over again to capture all the complexities in the verses. If you like socially conscientious hip hop and creative word-play, you will really enjoy this album, but if you’re looking for a generic club-banger type production, this may not be for you. Dead Letter Perfect is an album for thinkers, but if you’re in the mood for dancing, throw on some top 40.

Track Listing:

1. Southside Ride (produced by Oddisee)
2. High As You Wanna (produced by Analogic)
3. Be Perfect (produced by K-Salaam & Beatnick)
4. Book of Days (produced by Oddisee)
5. World’s On Fire featuring Haysoos (produced by Oddisee)
6. Not Perfect featuring Olivier Daysoul (produced by M-phazes)
7. Be Strong (produced by SBe Audiologist)
8. Dreamer (produced by SBe Audiologist)
9. Like This (produced by Oddisee)
10. The Time featuring Stef (produced by SBe Audiologist)
11. Get It Right featuring Oddisee and Olivier Daysoul (produced by Oddisee)
12. Still Love (produced by M-phazes)
13. No Chance featuring Wordsworth (produced by Analogic)
14. Recognize (produced by Bring it Back)
15. The Quickening” (produced by Oddisee)

Posted by David Goldberg

View review April 9th, 2008

Classic African American Gospel

si-gospel.jpgTitle: Classic African American Gospel
Artists: Various
Label: Smithsonian Folkways
Catalog No.: SFW CD 40194
Date: 2008

Classic African American Gospel offers a broad overview of black sacred music ranging from traditional spirituals to contemporary gospel hymns. This collection of post-1940 field recordings was hand-picked from the Smithsonian Folkways vaults by prominent ethnomusicologist Kip Lornell (author of Happy in the Service of the Lord: African American Sacred Harmony Quartets in Memphis), who also produced the CD and wrote the extremely informative liner notes. Lornell’s stated aim was to “highlight the diversity of African American gospel music releases on Folkways [the label founded by Moses Asch in 1948] and Smithsonian Folkways [the Smithsonian Institution acquired the label in 1987 following Asch's death].” The 24 tracks selected for inclusion certainly achieve this goal.

There are several broad styles represented on Classic African American Gospel, including a number of spirituals, most sung without accompaniment. Highlights include: “Low Down Death Right Easy” performed by Dock Reed in 1950 (track 16); and “Been in the Storm So Long,” a moaning spiritual that dates from the antebellum period, performed by Georgia Sea Islands native Mary Pinckney (track 22). Of particular interest is “Soon, One Morning” (aka “Somebody Calling My Name”), performed in a call and response style by Rev. Willie Gresham with his congregation at the Greater Macedonian Baptist Church in Athens, Georgia, in 1977 (track 7). Many African American spirituals were used during the Civil Rights Movement, and a prime example is “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” performed during a rally by activist Fannie Lou Hamer in 1963 in Greenwood, Mississippi (track 21).

The vocal quartet/quintet tradition is well represented by “Oh Lord, I’m So Glad I Got Good Religion,” performed by Alabama’s Starlight Gospel Singers in 1954 (track 2); “Dry Bones: Ezekiel Saw the Wheel” performed by the Missionary Quintet in Nassau, Bahamas, in1953 (track 8); and “Moses Smote the Water,” recorded in 1945 by the Thrasher Wonders of New York City (track 6). Interestingly, two of the Thrasher brothers featured on this recording later joined the Drifters, the famous group founded by Clyde McPhatter in the 1950s.

Also of particular interest are the selections demonstrating the influences of jazz and blues on gospel music, many performed by musicians better known for their secular recordings. Examples include: “Just Got Over At Last” by noted blues singer/pianist Little Brother Montgomery (track 5); “Oh, What a Beautiful City” (aka “Twelve Gates to the City”) by blues vocalist and harmonica player Sonny Terry (track 11; this is quite different from the well-known version recorded by Golden Gate Quartet); and “If I Had My Way” with the Rev. Gary Davis on vocals and guitar (track 5). On the jazz side, there is a fabulous rendition of “Where Could I Go” by Sister Ernestine Washington (a well-known C.O.G.I.C singer) accompanied by a dixieland style jazz ensemble featuring New Orleans trumpeter Bunk Johnson, recorded in 1946 (track 10; this gospel hymn composed by J.B. Coates was later covered by Elvis). Another fascinating performance that bridges jazz and gospel is “It’s Time to Make a Change” by Madison’s Lively Stones, a trombone “shout band” representing the unique house band tradition of the United House of Prayer for All Peoples church (track 24). This selection really opened my eyes to a whole subgenre of gospel music, which comes from a tradition similar to the “sacred steel” (i.e., steel guitar) music of the House of God church, as popularized by Robert Randolph and the Family Band.

Perhaps my favorite tracks are those emanating from the Pentecostel or Holiness denominations, with their sanctified shouts, strident call and response singing, and guitar and tambourine accompaniment (the previously mentioned tracks 10 and 24 also fall under the Holiness category). Prime examples include: “You’ve Got to Move,” performed by the Two Gospel Keys (Emma Daniels and Mother Sally Jones) in 1945 (track 12); “Don’t Let his Name Go Down” performed by the First Independent Holiness Church of God and Unity in Marion, Alabama in 1954 (track 20); and “Let the Church Say Amen” by Elder Charles D. Beck of the Church of God in Christ (aka C.O.G.I.C) from 1956 (track 13). “Holy Ghost” by Juanita Johnson & the Gospel Tones (track 9) is a somewhat more contemporary version from the 1970s, with Hammond organ accompaniment, while “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” by Bishop Bowen & the Combined Gospel Choirs (track 14) features a preacher leading the call and response (Lornell also makes note of a hilarious parody recorded in the 1920s by medicine show entertainers titled “I Heard the Voice of a Pork Chop Say”).

The contemporary gospel mass choir movement is represented by two recordings from 1998, including “Thank You, Lord” by Alvin Dockett & the Blessed (track 3), and “We Praise Your Name” by the famous Mississippi Mass Choir, founded in 1988 (track 19). Last but not least, “He’s My Rock” from 1959 (track 17), is a wonderful example of a gospel hymn performed in an urban style by Brother John Sellers in 1959, which showcases the introduction of the Hammond B3 organ, along with guitar, bass, and drums (played here by none other than famed jazz/R&B drummer David “Panama” Francis).

The compilation is highly recommended for classroom use, and for anyone else desiring a brief overview of African American sacred music. If you’re interested in further study, the liner notes offer a selected bibliography, discography, and videography. If you’d like to learn more about pre-1950 gospel music recordings, I would highly recommend the fabulous Dust-to-Digital 6-CD box set, Goodbye, Babylon. Also, Document Records, a company based in the UK, specializes in reissuing early gospel and blues music. One final note, all of the selections on Classic African American Gospel were drawn from full-length albums which are all identified in the liner notes and available for purchase from Smithsonian Folkways. If something really peaks your interest, you’ll know where to go for more (I just ordered the complete Saints’ Paradise: Trombone Shout Bands from the United House of Prayer and can’t wait to hear it!).

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review April 9th, 2008

Tell It

tellit.jpgTitle: Tell It
Artist: Georgia Mass Choir:
Label: Savoy Records
Catalog No.: SCD7130
Release Date: 8/21/2007

 

A Traditional Voice in the Present

This latest recording by the Georgia Mass Choir is a representation of how traditional gospel choirs maintain their significance in contemporary times. Although the CD cover features a photograph of the choir in conventional gospel robes, the fifteen tracks on the album incorporate musical styles ranging from grass roots church vamps to contemporary gospel grooves (e.g. Tye Tribbett) and neo soul vibes. Consequently, the album may resonate with both the purist and the evolutionary-minded gospel music consumer.

The title track, “Tell It” (track 1, although it is listed as track 3 on the back tray card), reflects this idea. The vamp is sung by the choir using traditional triadic harmony while the instrumentalists, led by music director D. Titus Robertson, re-harmonize the sustained groove, resulting in the necessary tension which moves the section forward. “It’s Not Over” (track 5) exemplifies sacred/secular fluidity by combining neo soul and Philly soul instrumental styles with the gospel message that illustrates the sovereignty of God.

For the gospel purist, “He’s A Battle Axe” (track 4) presents the quintessential African American performance practice: call and response between the soloist and choir, a simple two and four beat pattern in the drums emulating the typical hand clapping and foot stomping of the traditional Black church, vocal timbre variations and switch leads. Notable mention should be given to “I Want To Be In Your Will” (track 10) for its commentary on the social conditions of worshippers who thirst for the will of God over their lives. This song not only represents the general message of the artistic expressions on the album, but ultimately the essence of gospel music, which speaks to the social and spiritual needs of the church.

The Georgia Mass Choir successfully merges sacred and secular terrains without marginalizing their traditional gospel audience. However, beware of the filler tracks with songs that seem to meander. For instance, “I Got A Right To Praise The Lord” (track 6) is a static presentation that may be more acceptable in Sunday morning devotionals where more time is allowed for musical development. “I‘ve Got To Tell Somebody That Jesus Lives” (track 7) is fairly loose regarding groove conception, imparting a kind of jam-band feel to the choir’s accompaniment. “I Go To The Rock” (track 11) is a cover that does not fit the artistic mode of Georgia Mass. This song demands a higher level of musicianship – the vamp section is over one minute and thirty seconds long without any significant vocal variation and the instrumentalists (as in the previously mentioned track 6) tend to overplay, which shifts the song out of character.

Overall, Tell It is a must for all who aspire to understand the broad spectrum of African American performance practices within the sacred context and the significance of traditional gospel choirs that continue to contribute to such expressions.

Posted by Tyron Cooper

View review April 9th, 2008

Roamin’ and Ramblin’

honeyboy.jpgTitle: Roamin’ and Ramblin’
Artist: Honeyboy Edwards
Label: Earwig
Catalog No.: CD 4953
Date: 2008

That bluesman David “Honeyboy” Edwards is still recording at age 93 may be in part because he got a rather late start. Born in 1915, Edwards played and toured with such blues luminaries as Tommy Johnson, Big Joe Williams, and the mythical Robert Johnson in the 1920s and 30s. But he wasn’t recorded until 1942 when Library of Congress folklorist/archivist Alan Lomax and Fisk University scholars John Work, Lewis Jones, and Samuel Adams ventured to Coahoma County, Mississippi to document music and folklife. Edwards was one of several musicians recorded for the first time in those sessions, along with fellow guitar players Son House and Muddy Waters. These were the same sessions that Lomax would write about nearly fifty years later in The Land Where the Blues Began. Sadly, those recordings were shelved at the time and only released years later.

While Lomax’s account is both myopic and ethically dubious (the Fisk scholars receive scant mention in his book, leading some readers to believe he did it all alone), there is something to be said for Edwards being at the beginning of The Blues. While “blues tunes” existed in various repertoires, the image of the guitar wielding, twelve-bar moaning bluesman has a solid lineage in Edwards. His latest recording Roamin’ and Ramblin’, his fourth for Chicago’s Earwig label, casts Edwards in a familiar light. Guitar/harmonica duos comprise most of the album, with a few solo tracks and a few backed by washboard and drums. Edwards himself (like his Coahoma neighbor Muddy Waters) embodies the general shift in the Blues from the Delta upriver to Chicago, but his style is not transformed clearly as Delta blues and Chicago blues. He still plays a “downhome” style, sometimes electrified, and the harmonica parts are clear proof of both his love and appreciation for Memphis and Chicago influences on the tradition.

Here Edwards is helped out by a host of different harp players, including Bobby Rush, Walter Horton, Michael Frank (also his agent and producer), Billy Branch, and Johnny “Yard Dog” Jones. If those names aren’t familiar it is probably because they’ve suffered the same delay in fame Edwards did, but this is also a sign that Roamin’ and Ramblin’ is record for a real blues fan, not a Time-Life musical tourist.

Most of the tracks were recorded in fall of 2007, but they are interspersed with recordings from the Coahoma County sessions in 1942 as well as Chicago sessions from the mid-70s. Also included are bits of conversation between Edwards and various players on the sessions, recalling old friends, and how to make a blues shuffle from a slow rhythm, which add a familiar, cozy feeling to the record.

Edwards may be old, but he’s no dinosaur. While some might argue that this album is more of the same old thing, the blues fans who know the history, hear the changes, and see the continuity will appreciate the clear artistry which is deployed in an ever subtly changing form.

Posted by Thomas Grant Richardson

View review April 9th, 2008

New Amerykah Pt. 1

badu.jpgTitle: New Amerykah Pt. 1 (4th World War)
Artist: Erykah Badu
Label: Universal Records
Catalog No.: B0010800-02
Release date: February 2008

Erykah Badu has graced us with yet another record full of her own unique brand of nu-soul. The four-time Grammy winner’s latest offering, New Amerykah Pt. 1 (4th World War), brings back the same cerebral realism that made her famous. It will come as no surprise to her fans that she collaborated with fellow Soulquarians Bilal, James Poyser, and ?uestlove on some of the production for this album. Moreover, in featuring Madlib, 9th Wonder, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Bilal, and Ty & Kory on “Master Teacher,” Badu brings together some new talent with her fellow hip-hop and nu-soul veterans. Consistent with her reputation, Badu makes this New Amerykah sound like the beautiful, excruciating, hopeful place that it is. Whereas records from Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones conjured the 1960s in 2006, Badu leans more toward a 1970s sound here-not in a Jay-Z American Gangster neo-Blaxploitation kind of way, but with all the harmonic complexity of Mahavishnu Orchestra and all the smoothness of Marvin Gaye.

The opening cut imitates an advert: “More action, more excitement, more everything,” and Badu delivers all that and more. There’s a distinct cynicism in beginning this record with “Amerykahn Promise,” and as she fleshes out exactly what she means by that, this album unfolds a painful story of our current national psyche. “The Healer” takes us into Badu’s world of pseudo-Rastafarian shamanistic hip hop. “Me” pre-emptively soothes the coming pain with sublime Moogy synths and mellow horns beneath her plush croon, ending with a section of free-rhythm autobiographical boplicity.

The meat and potatoes of this record lie in the typically Erykahn harmonized vocal vamp of “My People” followed by three tracks of hard-edged poetry on “Soldier,” “The Cell,” and “Twinkle.” Having shouted out to her “boys in Iraqi fields” and decrying dirty cops, she ends “Twinkle” with a rant that refuses to leave people alone with their microwaves, flat-screens, and 20-inch wheels:

“I want you to get angry! I don’t want you to ride, I don’t want you to protest; I don’t want you to write your senator because I won’t know what to tell you to tell him. I don’t know what to do about the recession and the inflation and the crime in the street. All I know is that you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, “I’m a human being, damn it! My life has value!”

She follows up with the flavors of a 70s-style R&B lament and a mellow bossa beat on “Master Teacher.” By this point in the record, she anticipates the kind of blues that can come from such a cynical outlook: “If I could get over that hump, than maybe I will feel better.”

“Telephone” gives us more of those ethereal synths and flutes that Badu’s listeners have come to expect before starting into “Honey” with the same commercial featured on the first cut. In between layered vocal vamps that funk artists would have put in the horn lines, her outro invites us to “please stay tuned for New Amerykah Pt. 2 (Return of the Ankh) . . . please stay tuned for your special ingredient.” For my money, we get enough of the special ingredient in the chorus of this, the best cut on the record. The final track, “Real Thang,” feels out of place; it features the only rapped verses on the album in an anti-climactic remix.

For fans of Erykah Badu, this minor detail will only detract negligibly from an otherwise outstanding body of work. For newcomers to her music, this is as apt an introduction as any of her other records. She’s honest, despite the hurt that such honesty often lends her lyrics. Time will tell if that sting will ease off in Return of the Ankh, but considering her previous work, I doubt it. I anticipate the other half of a project that encompasses all of the sensitivity and smart realism she’s come to be known for. As for now, New Amerykah Pt. 1 delivers another welcome dose of thoughtfully edgy music to an already clever artist’s repertoire.

Posted by Peter J. Hoesing

View review April 9th, 2008

Karibu

karibu.jpgTitle: Karibu
Artist: Lionel Loueke
Label: Blue Note Records
Catalogue No: 12791
Date: 2008

Since 2002, guitarist Lionel Loueke has been drawing the attention of jazz fans and concert-goers alike. That was the year he joined Terence Blanchard’s band, and the group went on to record two successful albums, Bounce (2003) and Flow (2005). Since then he has recorded two albums under his own name, including Virgin Forest (2007), and one with bassist Massimo Biolcati and drummer Ferenc Nemeth (they would eventually become members of Loueke’s regular trio). In 2007 he performed a solo gig at the Bonaroo Music and Arts Festival’s Somethin’ Else Jazz Club. But perhaps his greatest achievement has been performing as a member of Herbie Hancock’s band (Hancock’s Grammy winning 2007 release River: The Joni Letters features Loueke on guitar). Being recruited by a musician who has been on top for forty years is definitely a testament of the skill Loueke possesses.

March of 2008 marked the next big step for Lionel Louke, when Blue Note records released his major label debut Karibu. This album combines many influences from the eclectic tastes and diversified experiences of Louke. Growing up in Benin, Louke became aquaninted with traditional African styles as well as Afro-Pop music. He eventually became exposed to George Benson and desired to incorporate jazz into his playing. Deciding that he wanted to formally study music, he then went to the National Institute of Art in the Ivory Coast and then on to Paris to study at the American School of Modern Music.

Many African sounds can be heard in Loueke’s music. The tongue clicking and bouncing rhythms are dead giveaways of his African roots, while the advanced harmonies and refined forms demonstrate his musical education as well as his fondness for and fluency in jazz. Karibu finds him in the company of his aforementioned regular trio. They play as if they share a brainwave. Many of the tunes are in odd meters but they never feel or sound like it. The interplay between the members of the trio makes even a deranged meter such as 17/4 seem completely danceable. This stability is not hurt by the two guest artists either. How could it be, when the guests on the album are the great jazz men Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. They each play a tune with the trio and both contribute to a quintet number.

The album opens with the title track, “Karibu,” which can be felt in two but there is a more complex structure underlying that basic beat. The rhythms are the most prominent part of this piece. The melody is very bouncy and the rhythm section supports Louke very well as he displays his George Benson influence by singing along in a falsetto voice as he solos and even as he plays the melody. The many harmonic twists that he navigates with his instrument and voice during his solo prove that this man is truly playing what he hears. The bass solo from Bialcoti is melodic and retains the groove even after the other two members leave him unaccompanied. After the solo the opening melody is reprised in full, even with the Methenyesque opening segment.

“Seven Teens” is a tune that features the 17/4 meter as well as pianist Herbie Hancock (the work was written while Louke was on tour with Hancock). Without taking the time to count the beats one would never guess that this is an odd meter. The piece feels very natural when played by this group. Even when it switches to unaccompanied sections and sections that sound free in general, there is a subtle groove churning underneath the interplay. Hancock’s solo is brilliant. He plays some very dense harmonic ideas but they fit the groove so well that the dissonance or tone clusters never stand out in any way but a good one. At 4:05 into the track, the listener can hear one member of the group shout “Woo” as if they are urging Hancock on. After the piano solo there is a section that is for general interplay/drum feature. It’s hard to label it one or the other because while the drums are the prominent instrument, the other three men are contributing equally. The piece closes with some strong rhythmic playing from Loueke and a restatement of the melody.

“Skylark” is a standard written by Bloomington’s own Hoagy Carmichael. This treatment is beautiful and fresh. Louke solos beautifuly and melodically. Once again his vocals can be heard accompanying his playing. Bialcoti contributes a melodic solo as well, and the interplay between him and Nemeth is akin to that of Scott La Faro and Paul Motian. Reinterpretations such as this one are the reason musicians continue to play standards that are decades old.

The next track “Zala” is not a particularly memorable melody but the arrangement’s shifting of moods and the trio’s interpretation of Loueke’s writing make it worth the listen. One can hear the sophisticated soloing of Loueke accompanied by his falsetto once again on this track.

“Naima” is another reinterpretation. This time Louke draws upon the John Coltrane repertoire and sax man Wayne Shorter. The opening is filled with sounds. Loueke starts by playing percussion on his guitar and then strums the strings behind the nut for a high pitched ringing sound. The group eventually settles into a rocking half time groove. Shorter doesn’t waste any time. After making his first statement he starts breathing new life into the fifty year old tune. Following his blowing is a section that relies on group interplay. Then Shorter takes the lead again. Eventually they restate the head and play it out with sparse playing from the rhythm section.

“Benny’s Tune” features many of the same elements found elsewhere one the album. The greatest difference, though, is the contrast between the melody and backing rhythms. They alternate from being together to seeming as though they are in a conscious fight. This effect makes the compostions interesting. The fact that Terence Blanchard has made this a part of his live repertoire is a testament that this piece may be one of Loueke’s stronger tunes.

The next track, “Light Dark,” features both guest artists with the trio. The general idea of the piece is that it alternates between light and dark harmonies. This is a concept that Loueke claims to have learned from Shorter, although the technique can be traced back to the early works of Duke Ellington. This particular piece doesn’t sound like a Shorter or an Ellington composition, but is somewhat similar to the late 1970s acoustic stylings of Herbie Hancock. There are no soloists on this track. The whole piece is somewhat of a structured group improvisation, and the resulting effect is beautiful intensity. There is nothing ultimately free about this piece, either — the group is too locked in to think of it as free jazz. But from start to finish, “Light Dark” will keep the listeners attention.

What would a jazz musician be if he didn’t play the blues? “Agbannon Blues” is Lionel Loueke’s response to such a question. Though this may be labeled as a blues, it is certainly not typical. There is a funky groove that insists to all listeners, “Nod your head! Tap your feet!” However, when one nods their head or taps their foot, they notice that something isn’t right. This particular blues tune is in 13/4. Listening to a backbeat groove like that leads one to think that there is a simple funk feel happening, but it’s more than that. Loueke navigates the time signature while soloing as if he’s lived his life in 13/4. On this track, though, he may be outshined. Drummer Ferenc Nemeth solos over an ostinato set up by Bialcoti (and eventually Loueke), and he keeps the groove happening and makes many musical statements. Listening to this solo, one could just hear James Brown call out, “Give the drummer some!”

The closing track, “Nonvignon,” sounds like an African folk song. The melody has a very singable style to it, and the soloing by Loueke is in the same vein. He starts off playing very melodically and then adds some dissonant harmonies to this melodic style. Towards the end of his solo he works in a dazzling display of guitar technique. At this point, he quits singing along because the guitar work is so intricate. After Louke winds down, the trio restates the melody. This is a good closer for the album because it brings the listener back to Africa, where the album started with “Karibu.”

Lionel Loueke is well on his way. Being in cahoots with the such keepers of the flame as Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter and young exalted talent Terence Blanchard definitely establish him as a player with skill. Leading his own exceptional trio makes him a noted bandleader. This major label debut is the icing on the cake. Loueke truly has his own voice and it is heard loud and clear on Karibu.

Posted by Ben Rice

View review April 9th, 2008

Johnny B. Goode: His Complete ‘50s Chess Recordings

chuckberry_complete50s_recordings.jpgTitle: Johnny B. Goode: His Complete ‘50s Chess Recordings
Artist: Chuck Berry
Label: Hip-O Select/Geffen Records
Catalog No.: B0009473-02
Date: 2007

 

Looking backward from 2008, it is possible to believe for an instant that Chuck Berry’s recordings were standard rock and roll fare. When “Maybellene” hit the airwaves in July of 1955, however, it marked a defining moment in the evolution of rock, a point that would so dramatically shape its course that music from that time can seem self-evident today – as if to say, “yes, rock does this and rock does that, just as it always has.” But when Berry began recording, the guitar did not so completely dominate the genre – it was only through the work of seminal figures like Berry that it would eventually come to replace the roles formerly filled by the piano and saxophone. Not only did Berry invent a distinctive guitar style that would become standard rock technique, however – he was also an expressive singer, a songwriter whose lyrics captured the ambitions and desires of 1950s middle-class America, and a consummate showman. In the early days of rock, when these tasks might be divided among many people, Chuck Berry did it all.

We can listen to the beginnings of this story on Hip-O Select’s recent 4-CD box set Johnny B. Goode: His Complete ‘50s Chess Recordings, produced by Andy McKaie, compiled by Andy McKaie and Fred Rothwell, and digitally remastered by Erick Labson. McKaie and Rothwell dove deep into the Chess vault to unearth 103 Berry tracks that span the years 1955-59, and in addition to immortal hits like “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” and “Johnny B. Goode,” the 4-CD set includes B-sides of singles, alternate recordings that originally appeared on foreign releases, and even 15 previously unreleased tracks. But when Berry’s stint with Chess stretched through 1974, why stop at 1959? Well, according to Rothwell, the original plan was to compile a 14 CD box set of all of Berry’s Chess and Mercury recordings from the mid-fifties until he finally left Chess in 1974. Unfortunately, however, that project was vetoed by the bigwigs at Universal and the present set was devised as an acceptable compromise. Johnny B. Goode was apparently released in a limited edition set of 5000, and if it sells well the plan is to compile a follow-up set of ’60s recordings up to Berry’s departure from Chess to Mercury in 1966.

Despite its oddly generic title, the documentation and format of Johnny B. Goode is clearly intended to appeal to a collectors/aficionados market. All tunes are arranged in chronological order on the set, leading to such juxtapositions as 5 back-to-back versions of “Sweet Little Sixteen” (out of 13 that Rothwell reviewed) and sets of 2 or 3 takes of many others. This makes listening to the set more than a little overwhelming for anyone but the most hardcore collectors. Collectors will eat it up, however, and will appreciate the insert booklet as well. Fred Rothwell, who is also the author of Long Distance Information: Chuck Berry’s Recorded Legacy, wrote 13 pages of liner notes highlighting the significance of Berry’s innovative work and this is followed by a complete track listing with accompanying musicians, songwriter, and Chess catalog numbers provided for each. The booklet ends with a singles discography detailing release dates and Billboard chart information for each tune.

The chronological arrangement overall is an effective way to organize these tunes, because it takes the ear on a musical journey into and through the 1940s swing; boogie woogie piano; the blues of T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, and Elmore James; and the country music Chuck Berry listened to growing up in St. Louis. These influences came together to form the high-energy, guitar-driven, blues-based bedrock of Berry’s individual style, which, in turn, became recognizably and fundamentally rock and roll. Beginning with the T-Bone Walker-derived riff that opens the driving Maybellene, with its characteristic solo guitar bends and quick-fire diads, we are lead through all the chart hits and well-known favorites as well as those of a different hue, including the dark and spooky “Down Bound Train” on disk 1; instrumentals like Berry’s hoppin’ rendition of “How High the Moon” from disk 2; the extended (about 11′ apiece) “Long Fast Jam” and “Long Slow Jam” from disk 3; and the Latin-inflected “That’s My Desire” from disk 4. A special mention goes to Johnnie Johnson, whose brilliantly complementary piano playing appears on most of these recordings.

Check out Johnny B. Goode: His Complete ‘50s Chess Recordings for a comprehensive Chuck Berry introductory experience and a widely-ranging glimpse into the roots of Rock, or buy a greatest-hits compilation if all the multiple takes turn you off.

Posted by Anthony Guest-Scott

View review April 9th, 2008

Welcome to the April Issue

This month we’re featuring the new Chuck Berry box set issued by Hip-O Select, Johnny B. Goode: His Complete ‘50s Chess Recordings, which showcases Berry’s distinctive guitar style and documents a defining moment in the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll. Next up are new releases from vocalist Erykah Badu, African jazz guitarist Lionel Loueke, and a compilation of old and new tracks from 93-year-old blues legend Honeyboy Edwards. Two new gospel releases are profiled – the Classic African American Gospel compilation from Smithsonian Folkways, and Tell It by the Georgia Mass Choir. We’re also featuring reviews of Dead Letter Perfect by Chicago rap artist Soulstice, along with Del the Funky Homosapien’s long awaited release, Eleventh Hour, and Sessions by Detroit Techno wizard Carl Craig. Wrapping up this issue are two new DVDs: Three Tenors of Soul: All the Way from Philadelphia, and the documentary Coping with Babylon: The Proper Rastology which features various reggae artists.

View review April 9th, 2008

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