Welcome to the September “Back to School” issue of Black Grooves. This month we’re featuring the new cast recording of the Tony nominated Black rock musical Passing Strange. Several historical reissue compilations are covered, including Stride Piano Duets Live in Toronto, 1966 with Willie “The Lion” Smith and Don Ewell, Ain’t Gonna Settle Down: The Pioneering Blues of Mary Stafford and Edith Wilson, and Rufus Thomas: His R&B Recordings, 1949-1956. We also have reviews of the latest releases from hip hop artist NAS, blues-rock guitarist Eric Gales, R&B singer Lyfe Jennings, British pop-rock singer Lightspeed Champion, and funk-rock legend Lonnie Jordan. Our classical selection of the month is Singin’ Sepia featuring the music of Cuban-born composer Tania León. Wrapping us this issue is an overview of The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard, a new biography by Peter Benjaminson.
Passing Strange became a Broadway sensation this spring, garnering a Tony nomination and Drama Desk and New York Drama Critics’ Circle awards for Best Musical, and attracting among its diehard fans Spike Lee, who filmed the final performances in order to preserve the stage version of the show. The origins of Passing Strange go back further, however. Author and co-composer Stew (founder of the band The Negro Problem) began developing the show at the Sundance Institute Theater Lab in 2004 and 2005, followed by a premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theater in 2006 and a short off-Broadway run at New York’s Public Theater in May 2007. Passing Strange is at once a Black rock musical, a picaresque coming-of-age story, and a semi-autobiographical one-man show with a cast of seven plus an onstage band.
The musical’s plot—told episodically rather than in linear narrative—follows the journey of a young Black musician, simply called Youth, as he leaves his middle class Baptist upbringing in 1970s Los Angeles and escapes to Europe in search of “the real.” In Amsterdam, he dives into the experience of readily available drugs and sex, embracing an unstructured bohemian lifestyle. Rather than bringing Youth closer to “the real,” however, the full-body sensuality of Amsterdam ultimately deadens his creative muse. He moves to Berlin, falling in with a group of intellectual, politically-driven performance artists, who believe him to be the classic gifted Black musician from an impoverished background. Youth struggles with his sense of ethics and identity as he seeks to resolve the acclaim he earns in the Berlin nightclubs with his deliberate self-misrepresentation. He ultimately returns home to the United States upon his mother’s death, shaped by experience and aware that “the only truth of youth is the grownup consequences… I need something more than real.”
Youth is the semi-fictionalized portrayal of Passing Strange’s creator Stew as a young man, and is represented simultaneously by Daniel Breaker and by Stew himself as the Narrator who draws the audience along the story, often regarding his younger self with fondness or frustration. Stew also serves as the leader of the onstage band, bridging the musicians and the cast. The rest of the casting is efficiently done, with most other members portraying multiple characters from the three main places in Youth’s life.
As much as Passing Strange is a tale of a musician’s journey to maturity, it is equally a tale of rock itself, incorporating many other genres crucial to the formation of modern rock, and highlighting the importance of Black music in rock. The opening number, “Prologue (We Might Play All Night)” sets up a bluesy rock jam that might easily be heard in a nightclub rather than a Broadway theater. “Church Blues Revelation” invokes both the gospel and blues traditions, which are quickly defied by the teenaged Youth’s punk anthem “Sole Brother.” Soul ballad styles weave their way throughout the musical, particularly in “Mom Song” and “Keys (Marianna).” “The Black One” evokes Weimar-era cabaret jazz, while “Identity” crafts a deliberately alienating combination of punk and performance art. While Youth discovers his love of music as a spiritual revelation in church early in the musical, these diverse musical styles all shape his identity and experiences across the length of his journey of self-discovery.
Since this is the cast soundtrack, much of the spoken narrative has been omitted, and the songs are presented as freestanding works. This can make it tricky to follow the plot from listening alone, but it highlights the pulse of the music and the sharp wit of the lyrics. The throbbing guitars and Stew’s gravelly baritone are at the heart of the rock vibe of Passing Strange, and they pull the listener on a compelling musical journey.
What does it mean to be Black in America? This is a question that W.E.B. DuBois, Richard Pryor, Henry Louis Gates, CNN and more have attempted to answer over the years. Black Americans have come into even greater vogue with the recent nomination of African American Barak Obama for the presidency of the United States. Seeing the increased interest in African American life coupled with the ongoing issues that plague it, rapper Nas felt that it was his responsibility to offer commentary on the subject. With Untitled, the legendary MC paints his portrait of Black life in the United States. Originally called Ni**er, Nas stirred up controversy over his choice of album title and tentative content. Prior to its release, he claimed that Untitled, like 2006’s Hip Hop is Dead,would be a truly remarkable and thought-provoking album. While receiving positive reviews, however, Hip Hop is Dead failed to live up to the hype. With Untitled, Nas is putting his credibility as a rapper and as an intellectual on the line. Is he able to back up these claims?
Untitled’s opener, “Queens Get the Money,” finds Nas flexing his lyrical muscle over minimalistic Jay Electronica production. Salaam Remi offers a slightly under-produced beat that Nas absolutely shreds with his two knowledge-rich verses. The track also features appearances by the Last Poets and Eban Brown of the Stylistics, who add very little to the song. “Breathe” proves that Nas is at his best when painting vivid pictures of street life. “Make the World Go Round” is the album’s most commercial song. Featuring Chris Brown on the hook and a good verse from the Game, “Make the World Go Round” is solid, but far from special.
“Hero” is the album’s lead single and while a good song, its placement after “Make the World Go Round” makes it sound a bit redundant. In fact, these two tracks almost blend together into one long song. On “America,” Nas offers a detailed critique of his country and he throws a very creative jab at Fox News on “Sly Fox,” while also warning listeners to be more critical of all media. “Testify” is a poorly executed track which features Nas rambling about various issues over a smooth Mark Batson beat.
“N.I.*.*.E.R.” begins the heart of the album. Over an incredible hot Toomp beat, Nas offers a biting critique of Black life in America. While he blasts the country for its injustices, African Americans are also indicted. Both “slave and master,” Nas feels that the race has been victimized by both America and its own self. “Untitled” is an up-tempo dedication to Black revolutionaries, a group that Nas now feels he belongs to. “Fried Chicken” is a very entertaining song in which Nas and Busta Rhymes romanticize the African American culinary staple. In a similar vein, Black Americans are compared to roaches in terms of indestructibility on “Project Roach.”
On “Y’all My Ni**as,” Nas spits viciously over a pounding bass provided by J. Myers. “We’re Not Alone” is a brilliant track on which he speaks about everything from alien life to conspiracy theories to injustices to his own righteousness. It is a very well-written song that forces the listener to do some additional research in order for many of his intended messages to be fully illuminated. “Black President” is the perfect ending to the album, as Nas employs an up-tempo beat and a Tupac sample to sum up the album’s prevailing themes.
Lyrically, Untitled is Nas’ best album next to the heavenly Illmatic. It is evident that he paid careful attention to every word he spit, never falling off topic. Nas has picked up where Chuck D and KRS-ONE left off, bringing Edutainment to the masses. Unlike those two Golden era legends, however, Nas rarely comes off as preachy. With “Untitled,” he has given the hip hop community—no, the world—a manifesto on what it means to be Black in America. The beats are not amazing, but as a whole offer adequate accompaniment to his lyrical dissertation. We often ask our artists to use their gifts to help uplift the community, and Nas has given his full effort to this objective. In response to Nas’ previous album, hip hop is not dead. When he looks in the mirror, hopefully Nas sees that hip hop is very much alive.
Posted by Langston Collin Wilkins
 This album is referred to as Nas by several music sites, including Amazon and All Music Guide. Def Jam Recordings and Nas’ site, however, list the title as Untitled.
Ain’t Gonna Settle Down: The Pioneering Blues of Mary Stafford and Edith Wilson is a wonderfully packaged 2-CD set that marks the sixth installment in Archeophone’s Jazz, Dance & Blues series (previous titles in the series explore the works of Art Hickman’s Orchestra, the Six Brown Brothers, the Benson Orchestra of Chicago, and Wilbur Sweatman’s Original Jazz Band). Based in Champaign, Illinois, Archeophone Records has established itself as one of the premier historical reissue labels. Over the past ten years they’ve released over 40 superbly remastered recordings, all drawn from the acoustic era (early 1890s to mid-1920s).
One of the primary factors that sets Archeophone apart from other reissue labels is the level of scholarship that goes into each and every set. The liner notes for Ain’t Gonna Settle Down are no exception—topping out at 30 pages in a font small enough to require bifocals, they include as much detail as one can possibly cram into a standard size CD booklet. The biographical essay, “Stafford and Wilson: Trailblazers in a Brave New World” by blues scholar Steve Tracy, presents the complete story of these two artists which I will briefly summarize.
Mary Stafford was one of the earliest recorded blues singers, preceding Bessie Smith in the studio by two years. Her career and contributions, however, have been largely forgotten. Tracy attributes this oversight to a general dearth of research into early female blues singers who were more closely affiliated with the vaudeville stage and performed a sophisticated, hybrid form of the blues backed by jazz combos. Instead, scholars have paid far more attention to the early female blues shouters.
Details on Stafford’s life remain sketchy. Born around 1895, possibly in Missouri, she became a popular figure in the 1920s, performing frequently with Eubie Blake, Bessie Smith, and Willie “The Lion” Smith. In 1921 she recorded 13 sides for Columbia in New York, backed by Charlie Johnson’s Orchestra (listed on the recordings as Mary Stafford and Her Jazz Band), consisting of trumpet, trombone, clarinet, and alto sax, with Johnson on piano. Although Stafford continued to perform until her death in the late 1930s, she would only visit the recording studio one more time in 1926, when she recorded two double-entendre blues songs for Pathé-Actuelle.
The first CD includes the entire output of Stafford’s recording career, with the exception of a “Shuffle Along Medley” from 1921 which was never released. Two of the sides recorded in 1921 were “covers” of songs previously recorded by Mamie Smith, including the “Royal Garden Blues” by Clarence and Spencer Williams, which became a standard and was later recorded by a wide variety of artists ranging from Ethel Waters and Sissle & Blake to Tommy Dorsey and Count Basie. Another highlight from the 1921 sessions is “Down Home Blues,” a 12-bar blues standard with some great “crying effects” provided by band. The last two songs, recorded in 1926, are perhaps most notable for the contributions of Buster Bailey on clarinet. “Ain’t Nobody to Grind My Coffee in the Morning,” displays a less refined side of Stafford, sung in a lower register with a bit of wailing on the side. The final track, “Take Your Finger Off It” is a humorous ditty which obviously refers to a part of Katie King’s anatomy—and not her “signet ring” mentioned in the opening stanza.
The remaining 10 tracks on the first CD and the entire second CD are devoted to Edith Wilson, a native of Louisville, Kentucky, who Tracy considers an underappreciated popularizer of the vaudeville/cabaret blues. Wilson had a long and fascinating career which lasted from the 1910s to the 1970s and included work on the stage, in the studio, and on the silver screen. She initially made a name for herself in the 1920s as a performer in various African American musical revues such as the Plantation Revue, Creole Follies, and Jazzmania Revue, and the London tours of the Blackbirds Revue and From Dover Street to Dixie. Between 1921 and 1925, Wilson participated in 21 recording sessions for Columbia, resulting in 26 sides that were ultimately issued (11 were never released).
Wilson’s big break came in 1929 with a starring role in the Hot Chocolates revue.She also starred in Shuffle Along of 1933, Blackbirds of 1933 (and 1934), and the Rhapsody in Black Revue. In 1939 she moved to California and gained roles in the films I’m Still Alive and To Have and Have Not,followed by a stint in the 1944 Showboat revival with Todd Duncan. Wilson was also a member of the cast of the Amos and Andy radio show and portrayed Aunt Jemima in various commercials—roles that were not without controversy in the African American community. She revived her career in the 1970s, making several recordings for Chicago’s Delmark Records and appearing in Blacks on Broadway, before passing away in Chicago in 1981.
There are many highlights to be found on Wilson’s portion of the set. Several tracks reprise her stage roles, such as the 1929 Brunswick recordings of the Andy Razaf/Fats Waller/Harry Brooks’ songs “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” and “My Man Is Good For Nothing But Love” from Hot Chocolates. Also featured are the songs “Loving You the Way I Do” and “The Penalty of Love” from the 1930 musical revue Hot Rhythm, with accompaniment provided by well-known jazz trumpeter Bubber Miley and His Mileage Makers. Jazz aficionados will no doubt also appreciate two sides recorded for Columbia in 1924—“Daddy Change Your Mind” and “I Don’t Know and I Don’t Care Blues”—that are backed by a band featuring Fletcher Henderson on piano and Don Redman on clarinet. Two other sides from 1924—“How Come You Do Me Like You Do” and “Muscle Shoals Blues”—showcase the guitar accompaniment of Roy Smeck (listed as “Alabama Joe”), a veteran of the vaudeville circuit and hundreds of recording sessions.
Ain’t Gonna Settle Down will be of interest to fans of early jazz, blues, or vaudeville, and should also be considered for inclusion in university music libraries. Anyone interested in exploring early recordings by African American artists will find a number of other must-have titles in the Archeophone catalog including: Lost Sounds(the companion CD to the book by the same title); The Complete Bert Williams (3 CDs spanning 1901-1922); and Marion Harris: The Complete Victor Releases. Attractively priced package deals can be found on the label’s website.
After a long hiatus, Lonnie Jordan has released War Stories, an album serving as his musical autobiography. The songs on the album loosely follow the course of Jordan’s life, from his boyhood in Compton, through his work with War, to his current relationship with his wife, Teresa. One of the most lyrically poignant pieces is “Baby Brother,” in which Jordan grieves over the loss of his younger brother to a police shooting in 1971. Throughout the song, Jordan reminisces about the closeness of their relationship and how “tripping on his mind was like drinking funky wine by the river.” Also mournful, is “Rock and Roll Days” in which Jordan tells of being the last person to play with Jimi Hendrix on the night of his death and remembers spending time with both Hendrix and Bob Marley.
Jordan also chronicles his time with War, reviving older songs such as “The World is a Ghetto,” “Get Down,” and “Deliver the World.” “The World is a Ghetto” seems to be particularly controversial with War fans, many whom tend to feel nothing can compare with the original release. Although certainly different from the original, Jordan’s latest version still offers a powerful listening experience and his use of acoustic piano lends the song a more wistful and brooding quality.
Overall, JB Eckl and Pancho Tomaselli have produced a fantastic sounding album. Not content with the current trend of digitally recording artists isolated in their separate studio boxes, Eckl and Tomaselli went all out to recreate a vintage production setup. Not only was the album recorded in a historic LA studio, but the tracks were laid down on analog tape. Jordan aptly summarizes the recording process for the album:
It’s all live, no sequencing, no tricks, nothing but real musicians playing real music. I did a few keyboard overdubs, but that was done live to tape too; they turned on the machine and let me play, just like the olden days. (http://www.myspace.com/lonniejordan)
What you hear on this CD is the sound of performers actually playing together and putting forth their best work… something that’s becoming increasingly rarer in the age of digital editing.
The producers also placed a number of vintage keyboards at Jordan’s fingertips, including a Rhodes, a Wurlitzer, a Hammond B-3 organ, and a melodica—not to mention a minimoog and mellotron skillfully played by Sebastian Arocha Morton. And the keyboards are just one course of a sonorous feast. Jordan’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” resets the piece to a Latin beat, complete with timbales, congas, and Cuban-style piano. The cover of Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun” features the vintage keyboards, minus the melodic and the Wurlitzer, and mixes in the sounds of the berimbau—a single-string percussion instrument from Brazil. “Interlude-San Juanito Dub” overlays a polyrhythmic groove of congas and clapping with a quirky combination of Rhodes, guitar, and bass clarinet. Despite this dramatic and somewhat eclectic range of instrumentation, everything fits well into the overall mix of sound.
In dramatic contrast to the more eccentric timbres of the above tracks, the instrumentation for “Teresa” consists solely of acoustic piano. This closing track exposes the more expressive and tender side of Jordan’s keyboard playing for the listener’s perusal. Most of the pieces on the album, however, stay closer to traditional instrumentation and flavors of funk, jazz, and soul.
Although the album cover credits Jordan as the primary artist, the whole band is comprised of stellar artists, not the least of which are Eckl (Santana) and Tomaselli themselves on electric and bass guitar. Just a few of the other featured musicians are Mitch Kashmar on harmonica, Pablo Calogero on winds, and Oliver Charles (Ben Harper) and Pete McNeal (Cake, Panderer) on percussion.
The only downside of War Stories is that it leaves the listener wondering how long he or she might have to wait for Jordan to release his next creative endeavor. Albums that bring together this level of talent, craftsmanship, and creativity are few and far between and it would be a shame to have to wait another decade for the encore.
Video clip of Jordan playing a live and solo version of “Don’t Let No One Get You Down,” one of the songs featured on War Stories, compliments of Jordan and the WARtet:
If one had to use a single word word to describe Tania León’s music it would have to be “movement”: movement found in the tempo and rhythmic figures, movement between musical lines, and movement between contrasting timbres and textures. Movement is a salient feature in the works presented in Singin’ Sepia, an accurate representation of León’s compositional style and pallet. As a young musician in Cuba, León listened to traditional and popular dance music, and collaborated with popular music and jazz performers and composers such as Paquito D’Rivera. After moving to New York City she started her professional career in the U.S., working with dance companies and co-founding the Dance Theater of Harlem. Thus it comes as no surprise that movement is such an important feature in her works.
One should not, however, expect to hear replicas of Cuban clave and guguanco patterns, or quotes of jazz and soul melodies in León’s music. León extracts the essence from these musical traditions and uses this essence as part of her compositional pallet, which includes atonality, pointillist techniques, interlocking rhythms, ostinati, extended instrumental and vocal techniques, and electro-acoustic elements. León mixes the familiar with the unfamiliar, meeting and exceeding the listener’s expectations. Due to the variety of compositional techniques and styles León’s music defies categorization, and she would not have it any other way. As mentioned by Jason Stanyek in the accompanying liner notes, “avoiding reductive categorizations has become León’s trademark.” Her stance on categories and labels extends from her works to her personal life and background, refusing to be labeled Afro-Cuban, Cuban-American, or any other hyphenated term. In León’s words, she is a citizen of the world, and she is inspired by diverse musical cultures.
León’s works are also the result of the dialogue between composer and performer. Most were commissioned by a performer or an ensemble, so León created these works with specific performers in mind. In fact, three of the six pieces recorded for this album were recorded by the artists who commissioned them (“Bailarín,” “Singin’ Sepia,” and “Axon”). Her style appeals to performers of new music from diverse backgrounds, such as David Starobin (guitarist and executive producer of Bridge Records), Tony Arnold (soprano), and Mari Kimura (electro-acoustic music composer and violinist).
The title work of the album, Singin’ Sepia, also shows León’s penchant for working with texts by contemporary poets, in this case Rita Dove. The work is a set of five songs for soprano, violin, clarinet and four-hand piano. León’s writing for each instrument (including the voice) consists of both idiomatic and extended techniques, producing five virtuosic parts that need to be perfectly synchronized in order to convey the contrasts between stillness and movement, and the interlocking rhythmic figures that create subtle, evanescent moments of groove. The performance offered in the album goes beyond presenting and achieving these moments, and delivers a nuanced and emotional rendition of León’s work.
Those of us familiar with León’s compositions will also find delight in her use of pre-recorded materials in “Axon,” for violin and interactive computer. In this work she quotes sections from “Batey” and “A la par” to construct the soundtrack with which violinist Mari Kimura (who commissioned the work) interacts.
Singin’ Sepia shows León’s flexibility and ability to compose for a variety of performing forces, ensembles and combination of instruments (“Horizons” was written for a full orchestra, while “Satiné” was written for two pianists), therefore the listener should not expect continuity in performing forces from piece to piece. The album is a sample of León’s style, which would be difficult to present in concert to a live audience. However, the idea of movement, whether it is actual movement, its anticipation or interruption, cuts across all of the works presented in the album, and every piece is characterized by her ample use of a wide variety of musical styles and compositional techniques.
Rufus Thomas is best known as the Memphis soul singer who, along with daughter Carla Thomas, helped the fledgling Stax label rise to fame in the ‘60s and ‘70s. His biggest hits-“Do the Funky Chicken” and “Walking the Dog“–not only became his signature songs, but established Thomas as a consummate entertainer. Not surprisingly, he first honed these skills as a vaudeville performer and emcee for shows down on Beale Street. Thomas also had a long career at WDIA in Memphis, the nation’s first all-Black format radio station, where he spun rhythm and blues records that caught the attention of many a white teenager, including a young Elvis Presley. Since his fellow WDIA deejay was none other than B.B. King, it should come as no surprise that Thomas decided to take a stab at recording. “I just wanted to be on record. I never thought of getting rich. I just wanted to be known, be a recording artist.”
From 1949 to 1956 Thomas recorded 28 sides for various labels, though a number were unissued and have since been lost (all extant recordings have been included in this compilation). His first sessions in Memphis were for the Star Talent label (based in Dallas) and featured several of his own songs, including the bluesy “I’m So Worried,” the somewhat derivative “I’ll Be Good Boy,” and the previously unreleased “Who’s That Chick” and “Double Trouble” (the latter in rather poor sound). These were followed by two sides for Bullet-the rockin’ party song “Beer Bottle Boogie” and another of Thomas’ own compositions, “Gonna Bring My Baby Back,” a swinging jazz number backed by members of Lionel Hampton’s band let by saxophonist Bobby Platter.
The following year Thomas stopped in at Memphis Recording Service–soon to be renamed Sun Studios–and convinced Sam Phillips to record several songs which were released on the Chess label, including “Night Workin’ Blues,” his own cryin’ blues tune “Why Did You Deegee,” the uptempo boogie woogie “Crazy About You Baby” featuring Billy Love on piano, and “No More Dogging Around.” Additional sessions followed in 1952 producing the notable song “Decorate the Counter”–this had originally been recorded by Rosco Gordon, but only Thomas’ version was released by Chess (both versions are included on the CD for comparison). Two additional songs were recorded at the same session but were never released: “Married Woman” included here with two alternate takes; and “I’m Off Of That Stuff” which is a bit stiff, not to mention somewhat truncated.
Thomas’ big break came in 1953 when he recorded “Bear Cat” for the new Sun label. An answer song to Big Mama Thornton’s bluesy “Hound Dog” that had topped the charts a few weeks earlier (also included on the CD), “Bear Cat” was a huge hit, signaling the shift towards rock ‘n’ roll and no doubt making an impression on Elvis Presley, whose cover of “Hound Dog” catapulted both him and Sun Records to fame three years later. Thomas cut several more sides for Sun, including “Tiger Man (King of the Jungle)” complete with Tarzan yells, and the straight-ahead blues song “Save That Money.” His early recording career concluded at Meteor, a short-lived Memphis label, which released “The Easy Living Plan” and “I’m Steady Holdin’ On,” both penned by Rufus Thomas and Joe Bihar.
Rufus Thomas: His R&B Recordings, 1949-1956 is a great tribute to this legendary artist who passed away in 2001. Interestingly, two other compilations including much of the same material have also been released in 2008 by Document Records and Important Artists. However, the Bear Family set is far superior in terms of remastering and production. The wonderfully illustrated 67 page booklet (bound into the package) features a complete 1950s discography and an overview of Thomas’ pre-Stax career by Martin Hawkins, including lengthy discussions about the role of WDIA and Black radio.
The other thing that really sets this CD apart are the bonus features and alternate takes previously mentioned, as well as airchecks from Thomas’s WDAI radio show and a ten minute interview from the Daddy Cool Show. With a total of 29 tracks, this is indeed the definitive compilation of Thomas’s early recordings. Anyone interested in Memphis soul, the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, and the story of Black radio will want to purchase this set–it would also be perfect for classroom use. Rufus Thomas: His R&B Recordings, 1949-1956 is absolutely the best single CD historical reissue that I’ve come across in 2008.
Eric Gales grew up in a musical family in Memphis, TN, learning to play guitar upside down and left-handed from his older brothers Eugene and Manuel. Gales won his first blues contest at age 11 and went on to release his first record at the tender age of 16 for Elektra in 1991. He has been recording and touring more or less ever since. The Story of My Life, produced by Mike Varney and co-produced by Gales himself, is his latest release on the Blues Bureau International label (a division of The Shrapnel Label Group), preceded by Crystal Vision (2006) and Psychedelic Underground (2007).
Heralded early on in life as an African American upside-down, left-handed guitar virtuoso fielding a hard-driving musical mixture of blues and rock, Gales has most often been compared with Jimi Hendrix, though his influences have also been described as including Albert King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Cream, and even Eric Johnson. The Story of My Life is promoted as “the next logical step in Eric’s career” and is described as “rooted firmly in the blues.”
That it is, and there is no question that Eric Gales is an immensely talented blues-rock guitarist—his leads range from simply scorching to deeply expressive and his seemingly ingrained feel for melodic rock phrasing and bluesy crunch are amply supported by the endless vocabulary of licks in his palette. Even so, though full of many nice moments, The Story of My Life displays the talent of an artist who has yet to fulfill his potential. Here I think we must turn to the Hendrix comparison both to challenge it and to investigate where Gales might go next on his musical journey. Warning: The following several paragraphs will depart a bit from the standard review, and may begin to remind you of a personal letter to Gales himself (written by a well-meaning—and critical—friend).
Other than the barely skin-deep features listed above (as a reminder—African American upside-down, left-handed guitar virtuoso fielding a hard-driving musical mixture of blues and rock) there is very little in terms of actual performance style that supports the comparison when you dig a bit deeper. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I hear most of this Hendrix-like stuff as surface. This is true even of Gales’ strongest ability—his leads, which tend much more toward a blues-centered idiom than Hendrix’s ever did (especially on this album). But where the comparison most boldly dissolves is in listening to their divergent approaches to the rhythm/lead dichotomy and songwriting. The Story of My Life is one hard-driving blues-rock album, but it is also relentlessly so. There is very little to release one from Gales’ very sterile and repetitive rhythm playing, and so it is difficult to listen to for long stretches. One of the aspects of Hendrix’s playing that made him so distinctive was the immense and complex dynamic range of his songwriting and water-color-like blurring of the lines between lead and rhythm on a single instrument. Gales needs to delve into this division, and explore the pleasures of rhythmic interplay and in-betweenness beyond the pound-and-groove backing track aesthetic captured here. He also needs to delve into the territory of lyric composition. I agree with other reviewers that the vocals could use some polish (so could Hendrix’s), but if Gales were delivering more inventive verses, this wouldn’t trouble me at all.
Gales could breathe more life into his rhythm and, more broadly, his tunes by applying the same approach he used in developing his virtuosic lead palette. By attending to these dimensions of the legend with which he is so often compared, Gales could fulfill the potential that is so obviously already there by doing it in his own distinctive way. He’s already got an interesting original sound upon which to base this journey—I would actually describe it as “riff-based rock of Cream and Led Zeppelin, funneled through an early 1990s Seattle grunge styling, with a scorching blues-rock roots dressing/icing”. (I don’t expect anyone to cut and paste that one).
The letter ends here; now on to those nice moments I mentioned. There are some real hooky tunes here—check out “The Sound of the Electric Guitar”, which is just delicious. “I Ain’t No Shrink” is straight up and bluesy, as is so much of the album; I love the perfectly-placed back-up vocals on the choruses. “Very Educated” and “Cut and Run” are stuffed with some of the best shredding on the album. “Red, White and Blues” begins with a slight nod to Hendrix’s version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” but immediately evolves into a distortion-soaked grungy riff blending smoothly into a soft acoustic guitar arpeggio tune. Could be a Top 40 hit (but richly and intelligently textured—no offense to mainstream pop fans). I agree with other reviewers that the title of this tune is cheesy, but it’s a great song (with one exception—the brittle tone on the acoustic guitar solo, which sounds like it was recorded directly into the board—the jam-out at the end and distorted outro solo make up for it, though). This tune is a nice release from the frenetic energy of most of the rest of the album. “You Ain’t the Boss of Me” is a wonderfully slow blues with some inventively shimmering clean guitar chording to backup. It is dynamically interesting, and definitely stands out above most of the other tunes. The Story of My Life ends with a couple of bonus tracks, one of which, “You Don’t Move Me,” finally allows drummer Jeremy Colson and Steve Evans some expressive freedom to really show their chops – and both are solid players in their own right.
To summarize and end, The Story of My Life features the brilliant lead playing of Eric Gales, a virtuosic guitarist who could well be on his way to attaining a more elusive, and yet potentially worthy goal: virtuosic musician. Good luck, Eric, and in the meantime, when I want some down-home shredding and hard driving rock and blues for the car ride home, I know where to go!
Title: Lyfe Change
Artist: Lyfe Jennings
Label: Sony Urban Music
Catalog No.: 88097 07966 2
Release Date: April 29, 2008
Lyfe Jennings has earned a reputation for putting the “soul” back into contemporary soul music. His gritty, gospel-tinged voice is an alternative to the ultra-high falsetto that most current male R&B singers employ. In addition to his vocal stylings, Jennings is known for interjecting a heavy dose of real life into his lyrics. His third project, Lyfe Change, is no departure from vintage Lyfe.
Jennings has found major success doing what most artists attempt to avoid: dealing with serious issues in their music. On his previous albums, he has confronted his own past as an ex-convict and has addressed infidelity in relationships and growing older. Yet it’s his colorful past, in and out of prison, that seems to provide the sincerity and wisdom that enable him to convincingly present these very serious issues within three minute songs. Jennings also demonstrates the fine art of balance—as soon as the mood becomes somber, he introduces some lightweight songs like “Brand New,” which features T.I.
Lyfe Change is a collection of Jenning’s thoughts on various issues such as the transmission of AIDS on “It’s Real,” and personal maturity on “Never Never Land.” The prominence of these social themes is the glue that holds the album together. The sound of the songs varies from the contemporary R&B feel of “Brand New” to the reggae-tinged “You Think You Got It Bad,” featuring producer Wyclef Jean and “Wild Wild Wild.” Though a little longer than previous efforts (the CD includes 15 tracks), the album doesn’t ever become too preachy or boring. The diversity of production helps to hold the listener’s interest.
If you are a Lyfe Jennings fan, you’ll enjoy Lyfe Change. If you’ve never heard of him, this is a good album to check out to get familiar with his mission. Not to indict any other male R&B singers who sing about the usual pop music tropes like sex, clubs, and enjoying life, but it’s nice to be forced to think about the deeper things in life while enjoying a good beat.
Falling off the Lavender Bridge is the solo debut of Lightspeed Champion, aka Devonte “Dev” Hynes, formerly of the English indie band Test Icicles. It’s difficult to know what to make of Hynes in his Lightspeed persona, named for a comic book character he created in high school. His visual style treads somewhere between hipster cool and ridiculous geek enough to make one wonder how seriously to take him, and how seriously he takes himself. At first glance, song titles such as “Devil Tricks for a Bitch” and “All to Shit,” both seem to suggest a harder sound and aggressive vocal style, but strangely, Lavender Bridge inhabits a country-infused rock soundscape dominated by slide guitar and acoustic strings beneath Hynes’s slightly detached croon. Perhaps this is because Hynes left London and traveled to Omaha to record the album, but it establishes that what you see is not what you hear on this record.
This cognitive dissonance between words and music, and the ironic humor that emerges from it, is the crux of Lightspeed Champion’s quirky style. Most of the songs on the album deal with the various heartaches and the awkwardness of relationships gone awry, and the music virtually always conveys an entirely different emotional message than the lyrics. The most pop-oriented number on the album, “Galaxy of the Lost,” details an uncomfortable and drunken first meeting, scored to an upbeat guitar and piano-driven rock groove. “Devil Tricks for a Bitch” details the growing bitterness of waiting on a phone call that never comes, sung intimately with only a pizzicato string quartet as backup. In “Everyone I Know is Listening to Crunk,” Hynes sings of the disorientation felt in the wake of a breakup (“My drawings are starting to suck / my best friends are all listening to crunk / I feel like the world’s gone crazy”) to a swingy country accompaniment punctuated by a jazzy clarinet. The whole album sounds easy enough on a single passive listen, but repeated hearings gradually reveal the high degree of craft and intricacy of the instrumental arrangements. Coupled with the quixotic lyrics, this makes for a compelling indie rock album, appropriately fresh, endearingly dorky, and often indescribable.
An introduction to Lightspeed Champion (from Domino Records, includes interview clips and live performance footage):
One of the things that makes Stride Piano Duets Live in Toronto, 1966 truly amazing-aside from the magical performance by Willie “The Lion” Smith and Don Ewell-is that a recording of the performance survives at all. In 1966, a little known jazz promoter by the name of David Gillman arranged to bring together these two great performers to record a set of duets in a TV studio in Toronto. Later the same year, Gillman arranged a second meeting between the two men, this time at the Yonge St. Tavern. For one reason or another, the master tapes of this second performance ended up in Ewell’s possession, only to be passed on to his widow when he died, who in turn gave them to Delmark shortly before her death in 2007.
Delmark has left the sound of Gillman’s master tapes relatively untouched and the CD contains an unbroken performance by Smith and Ewell complete with in-between tune banter. As might be expected from a live recording made in a tavern, there’s quite a bit of background noise competing with the performance, including the sounds of customers conversing, the clink of glasses and dinnerware, and a rather incessant clatter from an old-fashioned cash register. For the most part, however, the background hubbub remains subdued, adding to the general ambiance and charm of the recording.
In terms of the performance itself, Smith and Ewell trade melodies back and forth so smoothly it sounds like just one man at the keys. A few highlights include “I Found a New Baby,” an upbeat and fast tempo piece complete with shouts of encouragement from “The Lion” to Ewell, and a particularly sweet and laidback version of “Georgia on My Mind.” Also notable is a solo performance by Smith of “Here Comes the Band.” Smith takes considerable liberties with this latter piece, jamming it so full of chromaticism and embellishments that I initially doubted the title. If you listen closely, however, you will indeed hear a thin and much transformed version of “Here Comes the Band” at the core of Smith’s improvisation.
Other than the occasionally aggravating sound of the cash register in the background and the audience’s lukewarm response to a monumental performance that many jazz fans would give their right arm to have seen, the biggest disappointment with this CD is the packaging. The liner notes are sparse-a mere two pages, 25% of which appears on the back cover-and the visuals consist of one picture of each performer. The end result is a project that looks low-budget. Still, if you’re a fan of Ewell, Smith, or slide piano in general, the sound will make up for any shortcomings in the packaging, making this a must have CD.
Posted by Ronda L. Sewald
Title: The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard
Author: Peter Benjaminson
ISBN: 978-1-55652-705-0 (213 p.)
Publisher: Lawrence Hill Books
Peter Benjaminson, whose previous books include The Story of Motown (1979), delves much, much further into the life of Florence Ballard in his latest effort. As a reporter for the Detroit Free Press, Benjaminson had published an article in 1975 about the plight of Ballard, and was largely responsible for letting the world know that one of the original Supremes was not living high off of royalty checks, but was instead forced to accept welfare checks. Benjaminson went on to conduct a series of interviews with Ballard just prior to her death in 1976. When the success of the movie Dreamgirls sparked a renewed interest in the “Lost Supreme,” he decided to dust off the tapes and write a biography that would reveal the complete story of Flo Ballard.
Since the original interviews with Ballard, Benjaminson he has spoken with numerous colleagues, friends and family members–including former Motown publicity director Alan Abrams, former Supreme Mary Wilson, sister Linda Ballard, and daughters Michelle and Nicole. What has evolved from that legwork is a solid portrait of Ballard, from her teenage years through her tragic last days. Much of the text is in the form of direct quotes from the interviews, woven together with historical details. There are two appendices–“Florence Ballard, Primettes, and Supremes Discography” and “Excerpts from Florence Ballard’s Legal Case Against Motown Records et al.”–as well as a list of sources (mostly secondary, with the exception of interviews and court records).
Though there are no earth-shattering revelations in The Lost Supreme, and much of the story has been told in other books about Motown and the Supremes, it is still a solid and very engaging effort–but sadly one without a happy ending.