Archive for July, 2008

The James Brown Reader

Title: The James Brown Reader: 50 Years of Writing About the Godfather of Soul
Editors: Nelson George and Alan Leeds
Publisher: Plume (trade paperback edition)
ISBN: 978-0-452-28946-8
Date: 2008

“In the middle of the twentieth century, Brown was a member of a historic generation of entertainers who pushed the boundaries of American song, dabbling in gospel, blues, jazz, country, and the emerging sound of rock and roll. From barrelhouses and tent shows, from bars and churches, a new attitude toward performance was concocted, just as the civil rights movement was stepping onto the national stage. Brown would become one of the many to embrace “soul” as a style, making secular salvation his stock in trade. Along with impassioned vocalizing, he developed a flamboyant onstage persona-part street dancer, part boxer, part preacher-that would redefine showmanship for his generation, and which resonates to this day.” - Nelson George, excerpted from the preface to The James Brown Reader.

The James Brown Reader: 50 Years of Writing About the Godfather of Soul is a “must have” for all JB fans (which should be just about everyone on the planet). Nelson George (author of The Death of Rhythm and Blues, Post Soul Nation, and Hip Hop America) and Alan Leeds (JB’s former tour manager) have compiled over four decades of articles about the Godfather of Soul into one concise volume, supplemented by photos from Leed’s personal collection as well as a Time Line (p. xiii-xxxii) and Discography (p. 303-313), both annotated by Leeds.

The content is organized chronologically and divided into five chapters by decade, beginning in the 1960s. Articles are drawn from a variety of sources including newspapers (Chicago Daily Defender, New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, etc.) and periodicals (Rolling Stone, Variety, Rock, Soul, Goldmine, Village Voice, Downbeat, etc.), along with an occasional excerpt from liner notes. The African American view is interjected by various writers ranging from Nelson George to Chuck D, Vernon Gibbs, and journalists from the Chicago Daily Defender. Given the plethora of press coverage surrounding the life of James Brown, the task of selecting articles must have been extremely daunting, but Leeds and George have done an exemplary job.

What is most notable about this compilation is the care taken to select writings that position Brown’s career within the greater sociopolitical context of each era. George alludes to this agenda in the opening paragraph of his preface:

“It was the Jim Crow time, the early decades of the twentieth century, when stifled dreams, cruel barriers, and institutional racism were the American way. Brown was just another dirt-poor Negro boy dancing for money in a redneck town, yet somehow cultivated strong self-esteem within a system devised to quell just such a quality. Not surprisingly, young Brown bumped up against the barricades of whiteness, entering the penal system, an enduring destination for self-satisfied black males who didn’t know their place.”

Not surprisingly, the articles that follow delve not only into the life and music of JB, but also racism, segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, drugs, the black experience in the music industry, and the gradual awareness and acceptance of black music by white America. For example, here is an excerpt from a wonderful piece by Albert Goldman titled “Does He Teach Us the Meaning of ‘Black is Beautiful’?” (New York Times, June 9, 1968):

“Talk about your Black Power. Take a look at James Brown, Mister. That’s right, James Brown, America’s Number One Soul Brother. To whites, James is still an off-beat grunt, a scream at the end of the dial. To blacks, he’s boss-the one man in America who can stop a race riot in its tracks and send the people home to watch television. Twice he worked that miracle in the terrible days following the murder of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

Then there is the poignant article “Pleas, Pleas, Pleas: The Tribulations and Trials of James Brown” (Village Voice, Feb. 21, 1989) by Ivan Solotaroff, who tries (unsuccessfully) to interview Brown in prison following his three year sentence on drug charges and aggravated assault (outdoing OJ, Brown led officers on a two-state, 80 mph car chase from his hometown of Augusta, Georgia to Aiken, South Carolina). Here all of the details of Brown’s legal problems as well as his drug addiction are laid bare. But as Solotaroff notes, the odds were heavily stacked against Brown from the beginning, and that he was able to (mostly) transcend these odds and change the whole course of popular music was downright miraculous:

“Among the handful of performers who arose unfiltered out of what was openly called ‘race music’, Brown was one of the few to escape death on the road, death by drugs, death in prison, the living death of golden-oldie status, or the retreat into the obscure immortality of gospel. Twenty years before rappers appropriated him, 10 before disco digitalized him, Brown anticipated the future of black music by stripping his sound to pure rhythm, blueprinting Pan-African pop, a worldwide explosion against which the Beatles and Stones are a circumscribed, Anglo phenomena. At 53, James Brown, the man who taught us all how to dance, was rocking the pop charts (“Living in American, No. 4), and last year only Sade’s “Paradise” stopped Brown from topping the R&B charts for the 18th time.”

The book concludes with two articles published posthumously. In “Perry Man Remembers Visit to Graceland After Death of Elvis” by Woody Marshall (The Macon Telegraph, Aug. 16, 2007), Brown’s business manager, Perry Davis, tells the story of Brown’s frantic efforts to charter a plane to Memphis the day after Elvis died in order to pay his respects to the singer and his family. At Graceland, where Elvis is lying in state, an overwrought Brown encourages Perry to follow his example and touch the body to “bring closure.” Perry draws upon this experience following the death of Brown. The closing article, “James Brown and His First Family of Soul” (Waxpoetics, Feb/March 2007), offers recollections by Alan Leeds, who ponders “just how different the world would have been were it not for James Brown.”

Co-editors Nelson George and Alan Leeds, along with Vernon Gibbs, discuss the book, James Brown’s upbringing, and his influence on the world of music in this video:

The James Brown Reader is really a more of a collection of provocative and extremely riveting short stories, perfect for the beach or those short subway rides to work. But I’m telling you straight up–you won’t be able to put this book down once you get to the office.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review July 18th, 2008

Innocent Youths

Title: Innocent Youths
Artist: Earth, Roots, and Water
Label: Light in the Attic
Catalog No: LITA032
Release date: February 19, 2008

Light in the Attic records has uncovered another gem from the vaults of Summer Studios as part of their Jamaica to Toronto series. Located in the suburbs of Toronto, Summer Studios was the brain child of Jerry Brown, who recognized the wealth of local talent in Toronto’s rapidly growing Caribbean Diaspora. Summer Studios opened its doors in 1974 and attracted a revolving cast of star musicians including Leroy Sibbles, Stranger Cole and Jackie Mittoo.

At the foundation of the studio was a group of young musicians that came to be known as Earth, Roots and Water: Adrian Miller, vocals; Anthony Hibbert, bass; Colin Suban, drums; Matt Shelly, guitar and vocals; and Tony Moore on keyboards. In 1977, Brown put the finishing touches on the first long playing record from Summer Studios, Innocent Youths, which really showcased the talent of this house band. The release of the record led to a succession of live performances that culminated with Earth, Roots and Water opening for The Police on their first North American tour.

The seven track CD reissue, remastered from the original tapes, features a mix of roots-infused dub that speaks to the levity of Rastafari, as well as the new sounds that were being crated through the technology of dub. One track that really stands out is “Lou Sent Me,” a mix of the roots/dub style with soul that really sets it apart from Jamaican roots/dub. There is a quality of optimism that is intrinsic to the music of Innocent Youths – bright, hopeful tones that are indicative of the promising opportunities that life in Toronto had to offer.

The Digipak CD features original hand drawn black and white illustrations by Ato Seitu, as well as a deluxe booklet with extensive liner notes. For more titles in the amazing Jamaica-to-Toronto series visit the Light in the Attic website.

Posted by Heather O’Sullivan

View review July 18th, 2008

When Life Gives You Lemons

Title: When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint that Shit Gold
Artist: Atmosphere
Label: Rhymesayers Entertainment
Catalog No: RSE-0095
Release date: April 22, 2008


The Minneapolis group Atmosphere has been an underground powerhouse for over a decade. While never scoring a hit single or album, the group has been able to secure a legion of dedicated fans all over the world. Consisting of rapper Slug (Sean Daley) and producer Ant (Anthony Davis), Atmosphere’s music ranges from the most abstract to the extremely personal. Over the last two years, Atmosphere has released a string of EPs, building up anticipation for their new album, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint that Shit Gold, released on their own Rhymesayers Entertainment label.

Atmosphere took a minimalistic approach on this CD, a switch from their previous full length album, You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having (2005). The sound moves back and forth between somber and mellow, as Slug teaches life lessons with his unintentionally poetic rhyme style. The album’s tone is set by the opener “Like the Rest of Us,” which features Slug musing about life over sparse drums and an atmospheric piano part. “The Skinny” is a cleverly disguised song about cigarette abuse. “Shoulda Known” is the album’s lead single and has Slug rhyming about his favorite topic, dysfunctional relationships.

“Painting” opens the heart of the album. On this song, Slug brings you into the dark recesses of depression over a majestic beat centered around a magnificent lap steel guitar performance. The up-tempo “Your Glasshouse” finds Slug vividly depicting the state of being hungover, aided by a menacing synthesizer melody. The next song, “Yesterday,” is by far the album’s best track and definitely one of the strongest songs in Atmosphere’s catalogue. Slug is at his best when he lyrically presents emotions that the typical person struggles to simply comprehend, let alone put into words. “Yesterday” is the perfect example of this. When initially listening to the song, it sounds like one of his typical tracks about an ex-girlfriend. The final lines reveal that he is speaking to a recently deceased father, whether it is his or not is unknown. When paying careful attention to the lyrics, you see that Slug is presenting a cautionary tale about what can happen when we get too consumed with our own lives. During one particularly compelling moment in the song, Slug raps:

And when you left, I didn’t see it comin’
I guess I slept, it ain’t like you was runnin’
You crept out the front door slow
And I was so self-absorbed I didn’t even know

The narrator was so self-absorbed that he did not realize his father was dying until it was too late. Slug appears to warn the listener against being so engrossed by their own lives that they neglect the world around them. Later in the song, the narrator says to his deceased father, “Leaving me is the probably the best thing you ever taught me.” So, in a redemptive manner, the narrator learns to embrace life through the death of his father. Slug’s thoughtful lyrics combined with a beautifully simple piano-laden backdrop makes “Yesterday” one of the best hip hop songs in recent years.

The album closes with a number of strong tracks including “Guarantees,” “The Waitress,” and “In Her Music Box.” Aside from the very mild redundancy in terms of beat and content, this is a flawless album. Atmosphere has created a collection of songs that towers over most others in this creativity-deficient hip hop landscape. Time will tell where this album stands in the annals of hip hop, but it is a noteworthy addition to Atmosphere’s rich legacy. When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint that Shit Gold is a must have for anyone who enjoys intelligence, creativity, and emotion in their hip hop music.

Posted by Langston Collin Wilkins

View the music video for “Guarantees”:

View review July 18th, 2008

Tha Carter III

Title: Tha Carter III
Artist: Lil Wayne
Label: Cash Money Records
Catalog No.: B0011033-02 IN02
Release date: June 10, 2008

Remember when Kanye West’s back-to-back albums Late Registration and Graduation couldn’t be paralleled, especially not by another hip-hop artist? It turns out that popularity is a fickle thing, which is only one of many points of interest in Lil Wayne’s new record. After tracks from his originally planned release in 2007 leaked worldwide, the New Orleans native decided to collect all of the extant material on the internet and release it as The Leak. He saved only the Kanye-produced “Comfortable” for the official album. Despite his efforts, the full album still leaked about a week before its official release. None of this injured his sales or his popularity.

Lil Wayne trades in witty rhymes built from familiar phrases, and the fans who listen to him know these phrases all too well. Many of the tracks on this record offer clever quips based on the clichés of hip-hop’s most vulgar vernacular. In “Mrs. Officer,” Carter twists NWA’s controversial lyric “Fuck tha Police” into a sexual fantasy about a female cop. He puts on examination gloves for “Dr. Carter,” in which he treats a “patient with weak flow” as a double-entendre for a rapper whose rhymes could stand some treatment from the good doctor.

With parts of the record literally resembling a pissing match, it’s difficult to take Lil Wayne seriously during the more serious moments in tracks like “Tie My Hands.” Here he departs entirely from the tone of the rest of the album for a lament about his hometown and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. However, this wide variety of themes befits an artist whose popularity over the past year has been bolstered by numerous mixtapes between official albums. His diversity of material and his willingness to experiment have been his greatest assets.

In his videos, on his website, in all that he does, Lil Wayne embodies all the bling-bling avarice, street toughness, and juvenile naughtiness of hip-hop while simultaneously using clever lyrical turns to lampoon those very same images. As evidenced by rough giggles between lines, his particular brand of witty rhyming is one that knows its own slyness and humor. Although he tips his hat to Kanye and others throughout this record, he still dares to enjoy latest victory in a poetry slam of global proportions as if he always knew it was coming.

Yet Carter’s ribald lyricism and cocky disposition do little to detract from his popularity. He sold a million copies of this record in its first week on the market and over 1.5 million copies in the first month, eclipsing Coldplay on the U.S. pop album and singles charts. Time Magazine named him the “best rapper alive.” Millions of fans and one of the world’s most widely read periodicals can’t lie, right? With much of his more substantive material already available through leaks, Lil Wayne has something in mind that Time didn’t think of: being the “best rapper alive” was never as important as knowing his audience.

Posted by Peter J. Hoesing
http://artclecticacademic.wordpress.com/

View review July 18th, 2008

Santogold

Title: Santogold
Artist: Santogold
Label: Downtown Records
Catalog No.: 70034
Release date: April 29, 2008

The eponymous solo debut from Santogold has attracted a lot of buzz for its infectious beats, fresh blending of diverse genres – and enough debate over what to call Santogold’s style to raise significant questions over the racial politics of genre labeling in the music industry. Online retailers such as iTunes and much of the press have lauded Santogold (aka Philadelphia native Santi White) as a rising star of hip-hop, rap, and/or R&B, largely because she is young, black, and talented. The only problem? Santogold herself doesn’t identify her music with those genres. In a recent interview in The Lipster, she complained, “It’s totally racist. Everyone is just so shocked that I don’t like R&B. Why does R&B keep coming into my interviews?”[1] (Whatever she may protest, however, it’s worth noting that Santogold wrote and produced an album for alt-R&B artist Res in 2001).

Here Santogold talks about her influences, stylistic blending, and the inevitable comparisons with M.I.A.:

Santogold’s musical career certainly points to alternative, rock, and punk leanings. She has a music degree from Wesleyan University, worked as a rep for Epic Records, was frontwoman for the Philadelphia punk-ska band Stiffed, and has toured with Coldplay and Björk. The sounds she presents on Santogold cover a wide stylistic spectrum, including New Wave, dub, ‘80s pop, punk, rock, reggae, and yes, even hip-hop. She seems to switch from one musical personality to another with each new song, bringing up inevitable comparisons to other female artists. The jungle drums, video game synths, and hip hop bravado vocals on “Creator” suggest M.I.A. (who shares Santogold’s producers Diplo and Switch), while “My Superman” channels the slinky dark bass and New Wave growl ‘n wail of Siouxsie & the Banshees. Santogold’s gift for catchy pop emerges in “Say Aha,” reminiscent of the ‘80s bop of Cyndi Lauper, and the ska-touched “You’ll Find a Way” sounds like a lost Gwen Stefani track from No Doubt’s peak. By contrast, “Lights Out” has an easy guitar-driven rock sound with coolly detached vocals similar to Liz Phair around the era of whitechocolatespaceegg.

None of this is to suggest that Santogold’s chameleon sound is derivative. She moves between styles and genres so effortlessly that these similarities seem more like evocations than imitations. The lyrics reflect her own journey as an artist, often dealing with maintaining identity and integrity in the industry-ruled performing world. In “L.E.S. Artistes,” Santogold decries the pretention of New York hipsters (“L.E.S.” stands for “Lower East Side”), while also questioning her own choices: “I can say I hope it will be worth what I give up / If I could stand up mean for all the things that I believe.” On “Creator,” she boasts “Got no need for the fancy things / All the attention that it brings / Tell me no, I say yes, I was chosen / And I will deliver the explosion.” Blended with her narrative voice are eclectic blends of electronic and acoustic textures, a clear understanding of how to craft a successful pop hook, and some eminently danceable beats. It’s no surprise that there isn’t a genre term to describe Santogold’s sound-this is the root of both her industry-labeling conundrum and the appeal of her music.

Posted by Ann Shaffer


[1] Rebecca Nicholson, “Santogold and the Genre Problem,” The Lipster; Internet site, http://www.thelipster.com/articles/3323653, accessed 9 July 2008.

View review July 18th, 2008

The Blues Roots of the Rolling Stones

Title: The Blues Roots of the Rolling Stones
Artists: Various Artists
Label: Snapper Music
Catalog No.: SBLUECD047
Release date: March 10, 2008

“We got heavily into the blues – Chicago blues particularly because every major, modern blues artist was coming out of Chicago. . . we weren’t writing our own songs then. We were just playing mostly blues & rock ‘n roll-Chuck Berry, Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters stuff.” – Keith Richards

“We used to watch Chuck Berry films over and over and over to see how he would play certain licks. Keith [Richards] and I would go to the cinema like 6 or 9 times just to see the Chuck Berry section. . . to see how he put his hands on the guitar, and how he played this part and this solo.” – Mick Jagger

The Blues Roots of the Rolling Stones is Michael Hendon’s valiant effort to bring together the most formative blues and rock influences on the members of this seminal rock band onto a single disk for Snapper Music’s Complete Blues series. Included among them are, of course, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry, Jimmy Reed, and Bo Diddley, but also Buddy Holly, Slim Harpo, B.B. King, Blind Boy Fuller, Robert Johnson, Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell, and Robert Wilkins.

Far from a smattering of well-known singles from these (mostly) heavily-compiled artists, Hendon’s liner notes make clear that the songs selected for this compilation were chosen carefully. Throughout, Hendon expends great effort to explicitly connect each song to the Stones and thus support the reason for its inclusion – usually either because the Stones frequently performed and/or recorded the song or because it is emblematic of the sound of a particular artist that was an important influence on the band.

Appropriately enough, the disk opens with Muddy Waters’ “Rolling Stone” and closes with another of his classics – “I Want to be Loved” (a version of which appeared as the B side of the Stones’ first single). The songs of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley formed over half of the Stones’ early set lists, and Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” was also featured on their third album (The Rolling Stones, Now!, 1965). Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee” was featured on the Stones’ first album (England’s Newest Hit Makers, 1964) as was Jimmy Reed’s “Honest I Do.” In addition to this more urban-centered blues/rock spread, I especially like the attention paid on this compilation to the Delta/country blues influence on the Stones’ sound. One of the highlights in that regard is Robert Wilkins’ crackling 1928 recording “Rolling Stone – Part 1.”

Though Stones enthusiasts will undoubtedly notice omissions on The Blues Roots of the Rolling Stones, I think it is a perfect starting point for those who wish to trace the British blues explosion of the early 1960s back to the sounds that inspired it.

Posted by Anthony Guest-Scott

View review July 18th, 2008

Richmond Blues

Title: Richmond Blues

Artists: Cephas and Wiggins

Label: Smithsonian Folkways

Catalog No.: 40179

Release date: July 29, 2008
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The guitar and harmonica pairing of John Cephas (guitar) and Phil Wiggins (harmonica) is a sound familiar to fans of the great Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, but these days the blues stylings of the Piedmont region (the Appalachian foothills that run from Richmond to Atlanta) get less attention than the electrified virtuosity of Chicago blues players, or the so-called “authentic” allure of Delta Blues players. This could be because Piedmont Blues doesn’t always sound like “the blues.” Sometimes it sounds like country, other times like ragtime, and sometimes like folk balladry, and that’s precisely what makes Richmond Blues so much fun to listen to.

The diversity of sound is not a novelty, nor is it extreme, and a thorough listening will ground the sound of the record in the blues for sure: the blue notes on the guitar, the wailing bends on the harmonica, and AAB blues structure of many of the songs, and the overall down and out theme reminds the listener that this music was born from hard times, but played to ease them. Built around Cephas’s finger picked acoustic guitar and singing, accentuated by a second “voice” of Wiggins’s harp, Richmond Blues rolls along from the opening title track, through blues classic “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad” to the romp “Step It Up and Go,” all the while keeping your foot tapping. In addition to the up-tempo stomps, they slow it down for the plaintive, “Prison Bound Blues,” and a take on the classic “Careless Love” that may break your heart.

Cephas and Wiggins, who have been playing music since they were children, and playing together since the late 1970s, have been a mainstay in the Virginia/D.C. area for years, and have had great exposure at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington. This latest release, their 14th together but the first for Smithsonian Folkways, captures the live spirit that makes you wish you had run across these master musicians busking on the street corners. As described by their long time producer Joe Wilson as “urban acoustic blues,” their music is at once tradition, and thoroughly modern.

Richmond Blues is released through Smithsonian Folkways as part of their new African American Legacy Series, an effort in anticipation of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and shows great promise for future releases of master musicians that exemplify styles and traditions not always recognized by less sophisticated and informed labels. Liner notes are provided by scholar and writer Barry Lee Pearson, whose book Virginia Piedmont Blues chronicled Phil Cephas in great detail. The notes provide information about the performers, their history of learning and playing music, as well as a brief but well written history of the Piedmont Blues tradition. In addition, each track is given a short biography as to who played it before, how it was played, and how it fits into Cephas and Wiggins’ repertoire. As a nice bonus for musicians listening, it also indicated what key each song is played in.

Richmond Blues is a rare treat, and one that transcends the dedicated blues fan-base and could appeal to a great variety of roots music fans, without in any way compromising the music. It’s unfortunate that regional styles like this, played by working musicians are often relegated to the small labels that need some detective work to find. Smithsonian Folkways has once again offered music the broader public might not otherwise hear (like they did with Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, as well as countless others) and should be commended for it.

Posted by Thomas Grant Richardson

View review July 18th, 2008

Classic Piano Blues

Title: Classic Piano Blues from Smithsonian Folkways
Artists: Various Artists
Label: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
Catalog No.: SFW 40196
Release date: June 24, 2008

Encouraged by the warm reception received by previous releases in its classics series, Smithsonian has returned to its vaults to compile and release Classic Piano Blues from Smithsonian Folkways. Intended as an introduction to both blues piano and the recording work of Folkways’ founder, Moses Asch, Jeff Place and Richard Burgess have selected twenty representative performances by legendary artists including Memphis Slim, Speckled Red, Champion Jack Dupree, Huddie Ledbetter, and Victoria Spivey.

True to the Folkways tradition, the audio content is supported by extensive liner notes. The accompanying booklet begins by presenting a history of blues piano combined with a discussion of Asch’s role in recording a number of legendary artists. Focusing on the rise of blues pianists from the rough environments of nightclubs, juke joints, and gambling houses, Jeff Place’s brief history makes for a light and interesting reading. Although the details will probably be familiar to well-established blues piano fans, the essay will function as a welcome introduction for newcomers to the genre.

In addition to an overarching historical background, the booklet also provides approximately a page worth of notes for each CD track. Although these notes primarily consist of biographical information on the artists, they occasionally include information on the recording session or supplemental photographs. For those who find themselves hooked on a particular artist or on the blues in general, the booklet provides a brief biography and a suggested listening list-although the latter is comprised entirely of Smithsonian Folkways releases.

One of the CDs biggest weaknesses, and one acknowledged by Place in the liner notes, stems from the creators’ self-imposed restriction to the work of Moses Asch. Although the selections are representative of Asch’s recordings, Asch’s recordings are not fully representative of blues piano. Asch made the bulk of his recordings in the 1960s and so pre-and early post-World War I blues are sorely underrepresented. There are, however, three tracks recorded in the 1940s by Mead “Lux” Lewis, Huddie Ledbetter, and James P. Johnson. Additionally, Asch primarily recorded northern artists so many southern artists and genres will be conspicuously absent. This is not to suggest that the value of the CD is diminished by these limitations, but that the user may need to seek out supplemental materials depending on his or her needs.

Diehard blues collectors may find this particular CD a bit redundant, particularly since it primarily consists of recordings originally released in the 60s and 90s. There are, however, a few nice surprises such as a previously unreleased recording of Big Chief Ellis, John Cephas, and Phil Wiggins performing “Dices Blues” at the 1976 Smithsonian Festival. The sound quality of the CD is also quite good. Even the reissues of the 78rpm discs originally released in the 40s have retained their warmth and clarity despite a noticeable reduction in surface noise. The main nasty audio surprise is that the end of Track 6 – “Medium Blues,” performed by Meade “Lux” Lewis – is clipped off. Given the sonic quality of the rest of the CD, however, this may represent one of Asch’s idiosyncratic recording decisions as opposed to a fault of the current producers.

If you teach a course in American music, manage the audio collection for your library, or just want to learn about the blues, Classic Piano Blues from Smithsonian Folkways will make a valuable addition to your collection. The selected artists and pieces are truly classics and Place’s writing style should be easily accessible to high school students without feeling overly simplistic to older readers. Even the blues collector who has everything might want to take a look. Whether vinyl sounds better than dye and plastic may remain controversial, but your favorite blues LPs will never fit in your car’s CD player.

Posted by Ronda L. Sewald

View review July 18th, 2008

Christine Brewer Sings

Title: Christine Brewer Sings Songs by Wagner, Wolf, Britten and John Carter
Artists: Christine Brewer, soprano; Robert Vignoles, piano
Label: Wigmore Hall Live
Catalog No.: 22
Release date: 2008

This disc is not exclusively devoted to African American music; one will note the presence of German arch-romantics Richard Wagner, Hugo Wolf and Anglo composer Benjamin Britten in the title, all gentlemen who rather obviously do not qualify. Nevertheless, this disc includes the second recording of a highly satisfying and historically pivotal song cycle, entitled “Cantata,” by St. Louis based African American composer John Carter.

Not much is known about Carter; he was born in 1937 and his death date is variously listed as having been anywhere between 1981 and 1989. His musical output appears to have been mainly vocal as the few compositions that have heretofore been recorded are either choral, or as in this instance, in the genre of classical art song. “Cantata” was composed in 1963—the peak year of the Civil Rights Movement—and ostensibly appears to be a typical collection of arrangements of traditional black spirituals into an art song format. However, anyone expecting settings along lines of what was germane to Harry Burleigh, Lawrence Brown or Roland Hayes will not find that in “Cantata,” as these are not conservative sacred settings. Carter was on the same page with twentieth century musical techniques, and his spiritual settings are highly individual, challenging, compelling and at times quite dissonant.

When it comes to the Civil Rights Movement of 1963 and its relation to music—apart from the ubiquitous folk hymn “We Shall Overcome”—there is a range which can be roughly described as running between Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” to the work of free jazz artists like John Coltrane. Carter’s song cycle does not represent an ambitious, and admittedly courageous, undertaking from an otherwise commercial artist, nor does it work from a basis of deep emotional sorrow and anger as does a piece like Coltrane’s “Alabama.” The cycle encapsulates mixed feelings of fear, elation, struggle, self-determination and self-sacrifice—some of the moods no doubt experienced on the ground by participants in the Civil Rights Movement, though composed in an equally brave manner that would not have found wide sympathy among Carter’s peers in 1963. “Cantata” is highly unusual in that it was both written with the future in mind and succeeds in accurately documenting the atmosphere of the Civil Rights Movement in 1963 that would not have gone down in any other way; it is both heroic and anti-heroic.

Brewer’s performance is singled out as it so good—it demonstrates that a performer need not necessarily be African American to sing African American art songs well, and that bodes well for the literature itself in terms of its potential outreach. Brewer is a native of St. Louis and maintains strong ties with that community; otherwise it is unlikely that she would ever have come in contact with Carter’s “Cantata.” Brewer also contributes a fine reading of Hall Johnson’s setting of “A City Called Heaven” in the encore section of this live performance.

Posted by Uncle Dave Lewis

View review July 18th, 2008

Movin’ On Up

Title: Movin’ On Up: The Music and Message of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions
Artist: Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions
Label: Hip-O Records
Catalog No.: B0010887-09
Producer: Reelin’ in the Years Productions
Release date: May 6, 2008

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Impressions’ debut single, “For Your Precious Love.” A new DVD from Reelin’ in the Years Productions celebrates both the music of the Impressions and the theme of black self-determinism that carried Mayfield into his solo career. Featuring over twenty complete performances and interviews with Altheida Mayfield, Carlos Santana, Chuck D, and former Martin Luther King, Jr. aide Andrew Young, this documentary tells the story of Mayfield’s part in the struggle for civil rights and social equanimity during the 1960s and ‘70s. Directors David Peck, Phillip Galloway, and Tom Gulotta highlight Mayfield’s artistic and personal strength, including his inspiring perseverance after a 1990 lighting accident left him paralyzed from the neck down.

Curtis Mayfield’s performances alone are worth the price of the DVD. Consistent with its other projects, the production team for Movin’ On Up carefully places each complete song in chronological order. It uses archival interviews with Curtis himself and new interviews with those who knew him best, contextualizing these performances within their appropriate milieu of social protest. This text- and context-centric approach to complete tunes constitutes the greatest strength of the documentary. For those who lived through this era, a music-only menu feature allows viewers to see only the performances sans commentary.

The music-only option may in fact be the saving grace of the film. Notwithstanding some tender moments with Mayfield’s widow Altheida and some inspiring footage from his late immobile years, the editing on this project is atrocious. Clunky transitions and poor sound editing leave too much negative space in the soundtrack and inconsistent sound from one interview to the next. The painfully sharp bass player on “Check Out Your Mind” betrays the quality of the other performances and, as a comparatively inconsequential tune, it should have been left out. This kind of editing might be permissible were it not for the wonderful sound on the vast majority of the performance footage. The pacing of the interviews becomes lethargic toward the end (which came at least thirty minutes too late), and the commentary after “The Makings of You” really should have landed on the cutting room floor.

For teachers of popular music, these critiques should not prevent placing a prompt acquisition request at the library. This DVD provides beautiful footage from the three major Mayfield eras: his prowess as a young songwriter both with and without the Impressions, his social critiques during the Civil Rights Movement, and his funkier solo and Blaxploitation film scoring work. The interviews with Mayfield offer an insider’s view of this controversial film genre, which could open up some challenging discussions about race in the classroom. Moreover, the performances could easily be combined with other artists’ music to re-contextualize Mayfield’s work within the broader social themes of his time.

As filmmakers, Reck and company may not be emerging Herzogs or Pennebakers. However, this documentary provides appropriate context for contemporary consumers of Mayfield’s music. Bad editing aside, the performances on this collection have been lovingly and entirely included between relevant (even if not illuminating) commentaries. For now, this is the best available resource on the Curtis Mayfield because it captures the essence of his art: a peaceful insistence that we are all brothers and sisters regardless of race.

Posted by Peter J. Hoesing
http://artclecticacademic.wordpress.com/

View review July 18th, 2008

Lay It Down

Title: Lay It Down
Artist: Al Green
Label: Blue Note
Catalog No.: 13719
Release date: May 27, 2008

Al Green’s status in the pantheon of African American music is beyond question. The albums Green released in the 1970s-Let’s Stay Together, Call Me, Al Green Explores Your Mind, Al Green is Love-stand beside the classics of Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire, and Aretha Franklin as the sounds that defined a musical era. With the release of The Belle Album in 1977, Green turned away from secular stardom and devoted the next two decades to his spiritual calling, pastoring the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis. Green continued to make good music, earning eight Grammy awards for his gospel performances, but only hard core gospel fans would dispute the notion that Green’s most important work is 30 years in the past. His two “comeback” albums, I Can’t Stop (2003) and Everything’s OK (2005) had the feel of more-than-competent exercises in nostalgia rather than music that had to be heard.

In an interview with Wax Poetics (no. 28, 2008), hip-hop drum legend Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson states that, when he entered the studio to begin work on Green’s new album, Lay It Down, his intention was to make ” the thirty-year follow-up to the Belle record.” Sharing production duties with Green and virtuoso R&B keyboardist/producer James Poyser, Thompson at least came close to realizing his goal. Where most cross-generational collaborations between hip hop and soul artists have suffered from their obvious, and doomed, desire to make the elders sound hip, Lay It Down contents itself with the classic soul virtues of emotional and musical depth. “The thing that I find missing from music today,” Questlove observed, “is the feeling. That, to me, is the most important ingredient missing from the soul-food platter today.”

To capture that feeling, Questlove and Poyser (best known for his work with Erykah Badu, Common, Jill Scott, Anthony Hamilton, and Mariah Carey) convinced Green to explore a more improvisatory process than the one he developed with long-time producer Willie Mitchell in the 1960s and 1970s. Working with a first-rate band including guitarist Chalmers “Spanky” Alford and bassist Adam Blackstone, Questlove and Poyser organized free-form sessions, letting the tape run no matter what was going on. Where in the past Green had worked mostly from composed charts, the songs on Lay It Down emerged from the give-and-take between the musicians. “Al Green could give most freestyle rappers a run for their money,” Questlove observed. “The energy and excitement that you hear in his voice, him ad-libbing to himself, talking to us, laughing, that’s just genuine excitement of what he never knew was still around, which was the feeling of the music.”

Here is a a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Lay It Down:

You can hear the excitement from the first bars of the title cut, which opens the album. The sound is classic soul: simple guitar line, bass and drums hitting the rhythms with unforced precision, the Dap-King horn section smoothing the way for Green’s vocal entry. Anthony Hamilton, one of three young R&B artists who makes a guest appearance on the album, provides perfect harmonic and emotional counterpoint. The best thing you can say about “Lay It Down” is that you could put it on The Belle Album and no one would notice the change. That’s not to say it’s derivative. Nothing on Green’s classic albums felt like it was copying anything else. The highlights include both ballads-the title song and “Take Your Time” (featuring Corrine Bailey Rae)-and funky up-tempo cuts “I’m Wild About You” and “Standing in the Rain,” both powered by Questlove’s virtuoso drumming.

Lay It Down won’t replace Al Green Explores Your Mind on anyone’s heavy-listening rotation, but, unlike the vast majority of new releases by the singers of Green’s generation, it won’t gather dust on the shelf.

Posted by Craig Werner
(Werner is the author of A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race, And The Soul Of America, and Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul)

View review July 18th, 2008

Welcome to the July/August issue

Welcome to the July/August issue of Black Grooves. In this issue we’re featuring new releases devoted to two of the greatest soul singers ever to walk the planet: Al Green’s CD on the Blue Note label, Lay it Down; and the documentary Movin’ On Up: The Music and Message of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, recently issued on DVD. Our classical reviewer discusses the music of John Carter as performed on Christine Brewer Sings. Three new blues CDs are reviewed: Smithsonian Folkways’ compilation of Classic Piano Blues; their forthcoming Richmond Blues, performed by Piedmont blues masters Cephas & Wiggins (part of Smithsonian Folkway’s African American Legacy Series); and a new compilation in Snapper’s Complete Blues Series, Blues Roots of the Rolling Stones. While the latter provides insight into the African American roots of rock, the review of Santogold provides a glimpse of where rock is headed. Under the hip hop category we’re featuring Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III and Atmosphere’s When Life Gives you Lemons. Also covered is the latest installment in Light in the Attic’s Jamaica-to-Toronto reggae music series, Innocent Youths. Concluding this issue is a new book that you’ll definitely want to take on vacation or to the beach-The James Brown Reader, ed. by Nelson George and Alan Leeds.

View review July 18th, 2008

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