There have been many compilations devoted to the Golden Gate Quartet, one of the oldest and most beloved of all the jubilee/gospel vocal quartet groups, and the latest addition is the double disc Hommage released by Buda Records. Compiled and annotated by Christian Bonneau, the accompanying booklet is illustrated with many historical photographs and contains a chronological history of the group and its members, which have changed considerably over the 60 plus years of the group’s existence. The set seeks to pay tribute to the various “Gates,” with particular emphasis placed on live recordings made in France, the group’s official home since 1959.
Though most historical compilations are arranged chronologically, Hommage begins in 1997 following the retirement of tenor Clyde Riddick, whose tenure with the group lasted over 50 years, from 1939-1994. The opening track is a rendition of “Soon, I Will Be Done,” recorded at the St. Sermin cathedral in Toulouse, France in 1997. Ten additional tracks from this concert are interspersed throughout the set and feature Frank Davis (1st tenor since 1995), Charles West (2nd tenor from 1934-39), Henry Owens, Willie Johnson, and Orlandus Wilson. tenor, 1995-1999), Paul Brembly (baritone since 1971), and bass Orlandus Wilson, one of the founding members of the group who died a year after this concert.
Over the course of the set, the tracks skip around in time, interspersing the earlier a cappella material with later songs accompanied variously by piano, guitar, and rhythm combo. The Golden Gate Quartet’s first recording, their famous rendition of “Gospel Train” with a soaring tenor over syncopated vocalized “chugging,” is included on track 10. Recorded August 4, 1937 in Charlotte, North Carolina, ”Gospel Train” features early group members William Langford (1st tenor from 1934-39), Henry Owens, Willie Johnson, and Orlandus Wilson. Other a cappella songs by this same group include an innovative version of the jazz standard “Dipsy Doodle” (one of the few secular arrangements on the set) and “Lead Me On and On” (from Jan. 24, 1938), “Let My People Go” (a.k.a. “Go Down Moses” from 1939), “Noah” (Feb. 2, 1939), and “I’m a Pilgrim” (Oct. 6, 1939).
After Langford was replaced by Clyde Riddick in 1939 the line-up was fairly stable for the next decade, except for some substitutions during WWII. Hits from this era, all recorded stateside, include “Didn’t It Rain” from 1941; a jazzy version of “Shadrack” along with “Run On,” and “Hush!” from 1946; and “Amazing Grace” and “I Want Two Wings” from 1949, among other favorites. The final New York sessions on the set feature two more secular arrangements from 1952, “Lover Come Back To Me” and “Careless Love Blues,” featuring pianist Conrad Frederick, a well-known New York session musician who also ad libbed during the 1949 sessions.
The remaining tracks on the set were all recorded in Europe between 1955-1997 and include material less generally available in the U.S. Locations range from recording studios in Boulogne, Berlin and Paris to live concerts at various churches in France. Several of their traditional numbers are reinterpreted, such as “Good News” and “Jericho” which are backed by a combo, and “Deep River,” which is accompanied by an unidentified church choir. These contemporary arrangements, though all well sung, lack the spontaneity as well as the rhythmic and stylistic variety of the earlier recordings by the group.
The set concludes with a seven minute history of the quartet narrated by Orlandus Wilson and recorded at his Paris home in 1980. Though no new information is imparted, its nice to hear the Gates story in Wilson’s own words, even though he seems to be reading from a script and the narration is punctuation by songs and applause, which is often distracting.
This recent video compilation illustrates the style of the current GGQ:
Extensive liner notes are presented in French and English, but the translation is quite stilted and would have benefited greatly from a copy editor. Though performers, recording dates and places are all documented at the end of the booklet, it’s a bit difficult to match them to the individual tracks since the order is not chronological. If you’re a traditionalist, you’ll probably be better off purchasing compilations of the Gates’ pre-1950 recordings. However, if you want a broad overview of the Golden Gate Quartet’s career and enjoy contemporary renditions of the classics, this set will deliver.
Finally!—an authorized biography of Public Enemy, the hip-hop group that brought hope and intelligence to the ghetto, reinforced Black pride in a mainstream outlet, and said “F*** you” to the president. Public Enemy fan and all-around hip hop nerd, Russell Myrie, presents an in-depth study of the life and times of the group, relaying information about members from the days of young hoodrat mischief to those of professional musicality and political pertinence. This informative story, entitled Don’t Rhyme for the Sake of Riddlin’, provides a timeline of the group’s conception and progression. Importantly, it includes highly personal quotes from interviews with prominent members such as the controversial Professor Griff, Terminator X, the Shocklee brothers, Flava Flav, and of course the legendary Chuck D.
Myrie, a London cat born in 1978, wrote the book so that it reads like a hip hop textbook, a piece of scholarly research that manages to avoid the convoluted language so often associated with academia. The slang is easily recognizable to anyone who knows their hip-hop; Myrie says that, “It was really important to me to write it in a way hip hop heads across the world could understand. For us by us, right?” Absolutely. He also purposefully shapes the quotes into the dialect in which they were uttered, providing readers with the voice of these idols, not just their words. Easy to follow but sometimes confusing in the details, the book is complete with an index so you can look things up, or remind yourself what year an early album came out. Readers may also want to have Youtube at the ready, because the videos, songs, tours, etc. are almost always available in clips that really bring the text to life.
One qualm—is Myrie hard enough on Public Enemy? The combative rap personalities of the group seem to beg more antagonism than the author dishes out. I wanted to see Myrie yell at them and hear PE yell back. Though there were certainly years of highly questionable decisions and underground beefs within the band and their labels, it gets brushed off as being not so important. But Public Enemy made their reputation by going against convention, so why did they fall into the same traps as other performers? Perhaps it truly couldn’t be helped, but I would like to see Public Enemy mad again. The battle isn’t over.
So yes, it took a long time to finally create a biography and yes, it is by a British author and released by a Scottish press, and not written from a home-grown American perspective. Perhaps this is because of the controversy of members like Professor Griff and Chuck D’s market-loathing approach to mainstream media. Perhaps America got sick of the group too soon. Whatever the case, Public Enemy was certainly a globally, if not universally, loved, heard, and understood group. The politics of PE go beyond American borders, and Myrie does well in portraying this aspect of the group’s gravity and longevity.
Posted by Rachel Weidner
Editor’s note: Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet (1989) was one of the first hip hop albums added to the National Recording Registry, which includes the nation’s most culturally, historically or aesthetically important recordings selected to be maintained and preserved indefinitely as part of the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000. To nominate additional recordings for this honor, forms can be found here.
In 1975, performer/scholar Pearl Williams-Jones wrote an article entitled “Afro-American Gospel Music: A Crystallization of the Black Aesthetic,” where she illustrated how gospel music represents the totality of black aesthetic expressions. Ultimately, her interpretation of the genre not only presented gospel music as a religious art form, but also as a vehicle for bridging the gap between sacred and secular practices in black music. Oh Happy Day: An All-Star Music Celebration, a new release by EMI Gospel, is a contemporary manifestation of Williams-Jones’ notion of gospel music, as it highlights duets between religious and mainstream music artists: Johnny Lang is paired with the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Robert Randolph with the Clark Sisters, Al Green with Heather Headley, and 3 Doors Down with the Soul Children of Chicago. This CD is a tribute to gospel music that is long overdue, as the genre has functioned as a breeding ground for many of the mainstream music industry’s top artists from Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Curtis Mayfield to Fantasia. In fact, gospel music has constantly shaped the performance practices and, essentially, the sound of American popular music.
Some of the highlighted duets– such as rocker Jon Bon Jovi with The Washington Youth Choir as well as R&B diva Mavis Staples with Patty Griffin– are overly ambitious and do not necessarily capture the gospel feel (a qualitative performance character), or are unevenly matched vocally. Nevertheless, there are several jewels on this project such as the rendition of the Impressions 1965 single, “People Get Ready” by the Reverend Al Green and Heather Headley. Green and Headley’s extended vocal range and elongated phrasings are superbly complimentary. In addition, their ability to pace their individual ad libs creates mature vocal placement, which keeps them from over-singing and over-shadowing each other. This track is a good source for novice singers who are searching for an example of how to execute soulful music with patience.
“Oh Happy Day,” featuring Queen Latifah with the Jubilation Choir, represents another notable duet on this project. Queen Latifah’s smooth and warm vocals parallel the rounded and legato phrasing of the Jubilation Choir. In addition, the instrumental accompaniment on this track illustrates a quintessential example of sacred/secular fluidity in black music. The Earth, Wind & Fire styled horn riffs, guitar lines incorporating bluesy and churchy vocabulary (if there is a difference), and vamp reminiscent of Sunday morning worship services, all merge to form a distinct sound that resonates within the traditional black church as well as the broader mainstream community that appreciates soul music.
“I Believe” presents the soulful vocals of Johnny Lang and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. This song paints a picture of a southern-based gritty, communal, hand clapping and foot stomping church deep in the back woods where all the saints are on one accord expressing their commitment to faith in God’s word. Lang’s raspy vocals create the feel of the shouts and squalls of the black preacher, while the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ background harmonies and rhythmic execution reflect those in the “amen” corner whose excitement for the gospel spreads throughout the congregation (and in this case, the listener), prompting others to sing along with similar conviction. In addition, Lang’s guitar playing, grounded in the blues tradition, meshes well with the down home ambiance of the track.
Following is EMI’s promo video which demonstrates the widespread appeal of the project:
These tracks, along with others on the CD, reflect an ongoing tradition in black music where sacred and secular practices co-exist. They also illustrate the fact that gospel music transcends boundaries of race, gender and generation. More importantly, Oh Happy Day: An All-Star Music Celebration presents timeless songs that have assisted in developing and sustaining the beliefs of people throughout the world. It is a must have for those who desire to revisit the more traditional gospel music repertoire in a unique and contemporary way.
Making Love to the Dark Ages is a unique cornucopia of music. Bandleader Greg Tate has taken elements from the entire history of black music and fused them together in interesting ways. The album is such a complete work of art that a track by track dissection would do it an injustice. A complete rundown would also be like giving away the ending to noteworthy book. However, a topical description could allow one to understand what the albums aim is.
There are more timbral nuances heard in this album than in any ten you could pull from nearly any shelf in a record shop, and an excellent combination of sonic possibilities that range from electronically enhanced violins to gutteral vocals. Saxophone sounds range from Charlie Parker quotes to Coletrane modality, to the free shrieking and blues balling of Ornette Coleman. The versatility of the saxophonist is truly amazing because while reminding the listener of all these milestones of the past he always has his own voice and melds the three styles masterfully. The other instrument that has standout quality is the guitar. Vernon Reid (perhaps best known as the guitarist for Living Colour) is a presence to be acknowledged. His guitar playing is soulful but not cliche. The tone he gets evokes the “ghosts of slavery ships” while his deft agility on the instrument places him a cut above many other players. (If only he got the recognition he deserves!)
Loops are an important part of this album and they serve a true purpose. With the majority of the works being improvised, these stagnant loops provide a great contrast and cast a wonderful backdrop for the sinewy lines played by the lead instruments. There are unique juxtapositions of such things as 1920s salon piano with laptop beeping, swampy grooves with soprano vocalise, and overdriven violins against static ambience. Following is a sample track, “Chains and Water”:
The elements of delta blues are found from the start. The riff like droning of the guitar against the repetitive vocal line that starts the album are reminiscent of work songs. Jazz influences are pervasive in the drums, bass and saxophone. The use of upright bass adds to the depth of sonic qualities and the historical impact. One can trace the music from jazz to (that horrible word) fusion. But this is fusion of the highest class. It could even simply be called black rock. Hip hop is present in the use of modern technology. There are over 150 years of influence found in this CD and they are all incredibly distinct without sounding like a messy hodgepodge of poorly developed ideas. Tate clearly had a vision for this project.
The length of the tracks may be a deterrent to some buyers but that is truly a shame. In an age of singles and reverting back to the radio edit formula, Making Love to the Dark Ages is a gem. The pieces here truly breathe and expand in an organic way and though some are fifteen minutes in length, they tell such a story that one doesn’t notice. The album is a strong composition as a whole and the length of it’s pieces or their individual shortcomings shouldn’t be a reason for judgement. In fact, the album is meant to be listened to as one work. Even with the inclusion of a Ron Carter/Miles Davis piece (“Eighty-One”), the common thread running through the recording is very strong. Anyone that likes concept albums, strong over-arching ideas, or the black aesthetic in general would appreciate the diversified focus found in this album. Anyone with respect for jazz would definitely enjoy the improvisational aspects found in Making Love to the Dark Ages. However, it may be too deep or long for some to give it the thorough listening that it deserves.
Aceyalone is one of the godfathers of West Coast underground hip hop. As a member of Freestyle Fellowship and the larger Project Blowed collective, he helped establish a musical movement that countered the force of the popular California gangsta rap scene in the early 1990s. His first two solo releases, 1995′s All Balls Don’t Bounce and 1998′s A Book of Human Language, are considered classics and influenced a whole generation of underground lyricists. Aside from his solo work, Aceyalone has been a member of two notable groups, The A-Team (with Abstract Rude) and Haiku D’Etat (with Abstract Rude and Micah 9). The Lonely Ones is a Decon Records release and finds Acey somehow treading even newer waters.
This concept album finds Ace One rapping over 1950s-60s R & B/doo wop breakbeats. To further set the atmosphere, Acey includes skits set in an intimate night club, where he introduces songs in front of a live audience. All production is handled by frequent collaborator Bionik and manages to achieve stylistic diversity while maintaining the theme. There are many standout tracks on the CD including “Lonely Ones,” “Can’t Hold Back,” the masterful “The Way it Was,” and the fiery “Power to the People.” As usual, Aceyalone shines as he incorporates these older styles without ever sounding unconfident or corny. The album is appropriately ten tracks deep and thirty minutes long, ending before the theme wears thin.
Following is the official music video for “The Way It Was” featuring Bionik, courtesy of Decon Records, directed by Jason Goldwatch:
With The Lonely Ones, Aceyalone secures his status as the king of concepts. Only a select few could pull off an album like this and Aceyalone manages to sound completely fresh while pulling from elder styles. Becomes he has spent his entire career in the underground, Acey’s contribution to hip hop music and culture has been grossly overlooked. It is unfortunate that artists who consistently push the limits of hip hop have failed to get their deserved respect. Thankfully, Aceyalone and the like continue to produce creative music for those audiences willing to listen. The Lonley Ones by Aceyalone is a must have for Ace One fans and hip hop fans looking for a different sound.
When I first met the “Gospel Storyteller,” Dorothy Norwood, in the early 1990s, I was unnerved to come face to face with a diminutive, smiling, pleasant woman. She seemed more like a sweet auntie than what I expected a church-wrecking singer who could bulldoze her way through a hymn until the notes begged for mercy to look like.
Nearly two decades later, Norwood looks and sounds just as good and strong as she did back then. As a tribute to a half-century as a gospel soloist, the former Caravan delivers a series of traditional gems on Fifty Years – It’s Been Worth It All. The original versions of some tracks, such as “Denied Mother,” defined her style and placed her on the express lane to stardom.
Mother, in fact, is a very important theme on Norwood’s new retrospective. No less than four of the thirteen songs on the album deal with a praying, teaching, loving mother. This includes the aforementioned “Denied Mother” (on the CD, Norwood performs the story song for a live audience) and “Tribute to Mama,” which bestows ultimate honor to a mother who can teach her children right from wrong.
To this day, Norwood still leaves scorch marks on my speaker cones as she rip-roars through songs such as “I Have a Friend” and the old favorite “My Rock.” From the opening rouser “I Thank You Lord” to her earth-shattering renditions of “Precious Lord” and “I Will Trust in the Lord” during the live version of “Denied Mother,” Norwood acknowledges that yes, it’s been fifty years…yes, it’s been worth it all… and yes, she can still out-shout the shouters and send sinners single-file to the mourning bench just like singers half her age. A superb outing from a master!
Editor’s Note: Bob has been the host of WLUW’s “Gospel Memories” radio show since 2001. Starting this month, you can now hear “Gospel Memories” live on 88.7 WLUW Chicago every Saturday morning from 10 to 11 a.m. Go to http://www.wluw.org/, click the Listen Live button, and enjoy “Gospel Memories” from wherever you may be!
Mavis Staples got her start as one of the lead singers of the celebrated gospel/soul group The Staple Singers, originally founded and headed by her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples. After a string of singles and albums for Vee-Jay and Riverside in the late ’50s and early ’60s, the Staples, like many gospel artists of the time, found a secular outlet for their music in the burgeoning Southern soul sound. They reached the height of their popularity after a move to the Memphis-based Stax label in 1968, becoming one of the primary musical voices of the American Civil Rights Movement with their positive and inspirational message songs. At Stax, they worked with the likes of Booker T. & the MG’s and producer/songwriter Al Bell, the latter providing the Staples with their first number one single, “I’ll Take You There,” in 1972, considered by Rolling Stone magazine to be one of the top 500 songs of all time.
Mavis herself recorded as a leader for the first time in 1969. She released solo albums sporadically until the early 1990s, including two for Prince’s Paisley Park/NPG label. An almost decade-long hiatus followed — like many of the great soul singers of the 1960s, it took a while for Staples to be “rediscovered” — but since 2004 she has released three recordings in quick succession: Have A Little Faith (Alligator) from that year; 2007′s We’ll Never Turn Back (Anti-), a Ry Cooder production featuring an updated take on songs drawn mostly from the Civil Rights era; and 2008′s Live: Hope At The Hideout (also on Anti-), a rousing performance with her touring band recorded at a Monday night club show in Chicago.
One of the joys of Live: Hope At The Hideout is hearing Staples preach and growl in a bare bones setting, fronting a compact three-piece band augmented by a trio of backing singers. At 70-years old, her voice is naturally rougher around the edges than it was during her Stax heyday (almost channeling Howlin’ Wolf near the end of “On My Way”), but Staples’ brand of music is one that rewards honesty and emotional depth above surface beauty and impeccable technique.
Most of the songs recorded here are either traditional gospel numbers or recent arrangements from We’ll Never Turn Back. After warming up the crowd with a brief version of Stephen Stills’ classic “For What It’s Worth,” Mavis and company dig into “Eyes On the Prize,” one of the songs from her 2007 CD. While it’s impossible for anyone else to replicate the menacing grooves Cooder and drummer Jim Keltner cook up on the studio versions, Staples’ crew more than holds its own, stripping things down to their essentials while retaining the sweaty, funky atmosphereof Cooder’s studio arrangements. Guitarist Rick Holmstrom displays a reverb-soaked, swamp-rock sound, and throughout the disc he accompanies Mavis with sensitivity and restraint, especially on the hushed duo performance of “Waiting For My Child.” The rhythm section of Jeff Turmes on bass and Stephen Hodges on drums keeps the groove simmering, while backup singers Donny Gerrard, Chavonne Morris, and sister Yvonne Staples take star turns on Pops Staples’ 1965 lament, “Why Am I Treated So Bad,” and on the gospel chestnut “Wade In The Water.”
Following is a rendition of “Eyes On the Prize” from Staple’s website, accompanied by a video montage of Civil Right’s era imagery:
Not everything on the disc works perfectly. “Down In Mississippi” pales in comparison to Pops’ despairing 1992 recording (from Peace To the Neighborhood, also with Cooder and Keltner), Mavis’ faster tempo striking a somewhat more defiant tone than the earlier version. And the encore performance of “I’ll Take You There” is performed here as a one-off with just voice and Holmstrom’s guitar, losing the punchy horns and hip, quasi-reggae groove of the original from Be Altitude: Respect Yourself. But these are minor quibbles, and probably unfair ones at that. It’s impossible for an artist to top herself (or her father!) all the time, and Mavis Staples at 70 offers pleasures that, while distinct from those of her youth, are still eminently worth savoring.
In December 1966, Jimi Hendrix released his first single, a cover of “Hey Joe.” Less than two years later, in October 1968, he released his studio masterwork, Electric Ladyland, a sprawling 2-LP set that took Jimi to #1 on the U.S. Pop charts for the first time. Less than two years later, he was dead.
The artistic and sonic achievements of Electric Ladyland can hardly be overstated. It’s an amazing album that belongs in the collection of every student of 20th century music, and At Last…The Beginning: The Making of Electric Ladyland, an 86-minute DVD documentary on its recording, is a must-have companion for all serious Hendrix fans. Featuring all of the album’s important contributors – reminiscences by musicians Mitch Mitchell, Noel Redding, Buddy Miles, Jack Casady, Steve Winwood, Dave Mason, and Mike Finnigan coupled with testimony from Jimi’s support team of manager Chas Chandler, engineer Eddie Kramer, road manager Gerry Stickells, label owner Chris Stamp (and many more) – this program provides a fascinating glimpse into not only the album’s songs and recording sessions but also The Experience’s brutal work schedule and, most importantly, the working methods and personality of Jimi Hendrix. The few clips of Jimi speaking are frustratingly brief, and, as a result, his specter hovers above the proceedings but remains distant and elusive.
The documentary’s most revealing segments are those that feature Eddie Kramer at the mixing board describing the album’s recording sessions as he solos tracks from the original master tapes. The soul, subtlety, and artistry of Jimi’s guitar and vocal overdubs can best be appreciated when they are heard in isolation. For example, the delicate rhythm guitar performance that underlies “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)” (heard in its entirety over the show’s closing credits) is some of the most achingly beautiful playing you’ll ever hear. In addition, Eddie plays demos of “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn To Be)” and “Gypsy Eyes” that will leave you wanting more. If the people at Experience Hendrix really want to reward Jimi’s long-standing fans, they should consider releasing a box of demos, session highlights, and new Eddie Kramer mixes that isolate the many layers of Jimi’s arrangements. Consider the success of The Beach Boys’ 3-CD set The Pet Sounds Sessions, for example.
At Last…The Beginning: The Making of Electric Ladyland is a newly edited, expanded edition of the original 1997 60-minute Classic Albums version. I’ve shown that edition to the students in my Music of Jimi Hendrix class every semester for years, so I practically have it memorized. At first, this version’s claim of featuring “forty minutes of additional content not seen in the original television broadcast and never before released on DVD” was quite exciting, but, sadly, that statement is patently misleading. This version is only twenty-six minutes longer and, while it does feature some new content – specifically new sections on “…And The Gods Made Love” and “South Saturn Delta” – the bulk of the “new content” comes from the original interviews being slightly expanded and/or viewed from a different angle. For example, instead of Eddie Kramer looking at you from across the console, the new edit utilizes the exact same comments shot in close-up by a second simultaneously-running camera in intimacy-reducing profile. Call me a stickler, but the original commentary shown from a different angle hardly meets the definition of new content. Other additional footage includes performance footage of “All Along the Watchtower” from the Isle of Wight and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” from Woodstock, both of which are readily available on DVD. There are no special features, which is unfortunate, since unbroken performances, especially of the Lulu show’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” or Jimi’s interview segments would have been a serious bonus. A short promo video can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/mpd/permalink/mHG43J7URHOQ
All Hendrix devotees should own this documentary in one form or another. There is a wealth of valuable information to be found here. My only fear is that a person who already owns the original 60-minute version will be torn – thankful for the new bits but disappointed by the lack of substantial additions or improvement. Enhanced audio and video quality coupled with a nice photo booklet should help offset the maddening feeling that comes from buying a Hendrix product again – a common sentiment among serious Jimi fans.
Posted by Andy Hollinden, Indiana University Jacobs School of Music
Editor’s Note:This review is part of our ongoing examination of black rock in preparation for the conference “Reclaiming the Right to Rock: Black Experiences in Rock Music.” Visit the conference website at: http://www.indiana.edu/~aaamc/br/brconf_2009.html
Following up 2007′s The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster, Ruthie Foster once again showcases her roots-based blend of blues, soul, gospel, and folk rock. Similar to fellow blues-rocker Danielia Cotton, Texas-born Foster cut her musical teeth singing gospel in church, learning rock songs, and listening to country radio with her grandfather. Both reflect the fusion of their childhood experiences, though Foster swings to folk influences more than the rock and country that pervade Cotton’s music.
Drawing on those gospel roots, Foster certainly does step up to testify on The Truth; all eleven songs weave a sort of sermon out of hard times, hope, and Foster’s gritty, powerful voice. The song selection covers equal parts covers and original tracks. Foster’s originals slant towards the positive side of life, emphasizing love, perseverance, and gratitude. “Stone Love” is a strong opening track, with a funky electric blues groove and anthemic lyrics such as “You see your worries, they’ll be alright / Just look around you, see that love is winning the fight.” “Joy on the Other Side” has the acoustic sound of Delta blues or old-time string bands, with the celebratory verve of gospel. Foster’s central message comes in the aptly-named “Truth,” in which she proclaims “Truth is right where you are.”
While Foster’s own songwriting voice is powerful, several of her covers stand out as the stronger tracks, allowing Foster’s voice to really shine. Not coincidentally, these are the songs dealing with downward turns of fortune, whether material or spiritual, and Foster brings out the raw catharsis of blues in them. “Nickel and a Nail” sounds like it emerged from a dark, smokey blues club on a summer night, with Foster’s voice taking on a growly and world-weary tone reminiscent of Janis Joplin. “When It Don’t Come Easy” is simultaneously wistful, exhausted, hopeful, and comforting in its message of strength and love in hard times.
In spite of these stronger tracks, the album as a whole is somewhat uneven. The light, reggae-styled “I Really Love You” feels out of place both in style and emotional intensity, even in the stylistically diverse selections on this album. “(You Keep Me) Hangin’ On,” “Love in the Middle,” and “Thanks for the Joy,” while more stylistically consistent with the rest of the album, are also more forgettable. Overall, one has to listen through The Truth According to Ruthie Foster quite a few times before any of the tracks start to stand out from each other. While this kind of slow burn isn’t always a bad thing, Foster’s voice is phenomenal and it’s a shame that the album as a whole doesn’t showcase it to its fullest.
Following is a mini-documentary featuring Ruthie Foster at the Blue Rock studios in Wimberly, Texas:
One of my earliest childhood musical memories was thumbing through my father’s record collection and coming across the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I remember the album cover fascinating me so much that I just had to put the record on the turntable. From the first note of Sgt. Pepper I was hooked, and as each song seamlessly moved into the next I began to imagine the colorful soundscape that the music painted. Heralded as one of the most influential albums of all time, Sgt. Pepper is also considered to be a ground breaking example of the concept album, which is the primary reason that the Easy Star collective decided to re-envision a reggae/dub version of the album. After the success of the collectives’ first two albums, Dub Side of the Moon (2003) and Radiodread (2006), Michael Goldwasser of the Easy Star All-Stars cites the reasons behind the decision to infuse reggae into a Beatles classic: “We’ve focused on re-envisioning concept albums as reggae and it’s really important that the source material works as a whole and is not just a collection of songs. So, what better to take on next than the mother of all concept albums?”
The Easy Star All-Stars is a coalition of reggae producers and performers based in New York on the independent Easy Star label. The focus of the Easy Star All-Stars has always been on the process and the music itself. First, Easy Star co-founders Eric Smith, Lem Oppenheimer and Michael Goldwasser make the decision on which albums will get the Easy Star treatment. Then Goldwasser, the producer, musical director, arranger and guitarist of the group, painstakingly transforms arrangements of the source material into reggae style: the goal is a musical melding at the genetic level, not just a parody with a summery beat. The band itself operates as a collective, with a rotating cast of musicians and artist contributing. At the core of the Easy Star Lonely Hearts Dub Band (ESLHDB) are Victor Rice (bass), Victor “Ticklah” Axelrod (keyboards), and Patrick Dougher (drums/percussion), augmented by Eddie Ocampo (drums). Also involved are active touring members of the Easy Star All-Stars, including Ras I Ray (bass, vocals), Ive-09 (percussion), Jennifer Hill (saxophone), Buford O’Sullivan (trombone), Pam Fleming (trumpet), and Tamar-kali (vocals).
As with the previous records, Goldwasser brought in a who’s who of reggae, dub and dancehall greats to contribute guest vocals. Steel Pulse, Matisyahu, Michael Rose (Black Uhuru), Bunny Rugs (Third World), and Ranking Roger (English Beat/General Public) are the most recognizable names; longtime Easy Star collaborators Sugar Minott and Frankie Paul continue their powerful association with the group; U Roy (a founder of deejay toasting), Max Romeo and The Mighty Diamonds are among the other veteran guest artists sure to generate anticipation amongst staunch reggae fans.
Having tackled the dark complexities of the human condition on Dub Side of the Moon and the depths of the human/computer/alien psyche on Radiodread, basing the next album in the series on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is both a logical choice and a departure of sorts. While it is widely credited as being one of the first concept albums (and therefore the stylistic predecessor of Dark Side of the Moon and OK Computer), Sgt. Pepper stands apart from both of these albums in that it is basically a collection of major-key pop songs. As with the first two albums, Goldwasser stayed true to the lyrics, melodies and chord changes of the songs, envisioning as if the songs had been written by Lennon/McCartney (and Harrison), but had been recorded in Jamaica under the influence of reggae. “With Dub Side, we translated Gilmore’s guitar solos into more traditional reggae elements, like a deejay toasting,” explains Goldwasser. “On “Paranoid Android,” [from Radiodread] we transformed heavy guitar solos into trombone lines. Here, we went the opposite direction. We embraced rock elements such as guitar solos, as well as conventional string sections, and more exotic instruments such as sitar and tabla. In doing so, we pushed the boundaries of traditional Jamaican reggae, just as the Beatles stretched popular music when they made the album in the first place.”
Conceptually, Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band stands alone just as the original album did, and personally I feel it breathes new life into a timeless classic. Since its release, ESLHDB has been #1 on the Billboard reggae charts and The Easy Star All-Stars have embarked on a Lonely Hearts tour.
For over a decade, Easy Star Records has been a trendsetting independent reggae label. Dub Side of the Moon and Radiodread form the backbone of a catalogue that includes progressive albums from John Brown’s Body and Easy Star All-Stars keyboardist Ticklah, reissues of classic materials from Sugar Minott and Linval Thompson, and new recordings from reggae legends the Meditations and Sister Carol. For more information on Easy Star Records and its collective check out their website.
Whether you’re into rock, rap, punk, or crunk, Whole Wheat Bread is definitely a band to keep an eye on. Hailing from Jacksonville, Florida, and defining their playing style as “Dirty South Punk Rock,” Whole Wheat Bread formed in 2003 and released its first album, Minority Rules in 2005. The trio’s current manifestation consists of Aaron Abraham on lead vocals, guitar, and bass; Joseph Largen on vocals and percussion; and Will Fraizer on vocals and bass. Fraizer played with WWB for less than a year before recording Heart of Hoodlums, but the group is already perfectly in sync and gives a tighter performance than most bands that have played together for years. Although not listed among the primary performers, Travis Huff, producer, mixer, and engineer for the album, has also created some nice arrangements and synth tracks for “Bombs Away,” “Stuck in da Dark,” “Staying True,” and “Girlfriend Like This.”
Possibly due to the constant change in bass players since 2006, WWB’s three albums sound considerably different from one another. Whereas their album Minority Rules had more of an off-the-cuff, fast-and-furious, classic punk feel, Punk Life experimented with the heavier sounds of crunk and hip-hop. Compared to these earlier works, Hearts of Hoodlums demonstrates an amazing amount of stylistic versatility. Dirty south, crunk, punk, and hip-hop are definitely in there, but the band has added metal, alternative rock, and reggae to the mix.
The overall theme of Heart of Hoodlums also varies from WWB’s first two albums. Although there are still a number of in-your-face songs about challenging the authorities and shaking up the social order, Hoodlums delves more into self-reflection. A number of songs, like “Every Man for Himself” and “Stuck in da Dark” (featuring a guest performance by rap artist MURS) sing about feeling lost, trapped, confused, and seeking a sense of direction. The lyrics aren’t heavy enough to weigh the album down, but they definitely can take on a more contemplative tone than the more standard punk and crunk fare from WWB’s previous albums.
“Bombs Away” is currently receiving the most attention from the online community and has over 2.5 million hits through WWB’s MySpace page and over 7,000 plays of the music video on YouTube. Musically, “Bombs Away” draws from both rock and rap. The style of the verses is vaguely reminiscent of Eminem while the choruses, featuring guest vocalist Mike McColgan of Street Dogs, sound more like Metallica or Korn. The lyrics also shift between rap and rock, mixing reference to street violence (“don’t pop a cop”) with war references like “the shrapnel falls like stars and washes away who we are,” the latter of which sound much more like something you’d expect from a metal band. The music video also contains war references and shows scenes of the band running through fields wearing army camouflage and touting military riffles. For the most part, however, the action takes place in the “Duval County Veteran’s Hospital,” which look like part of the set for One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In the video, Abraham daydreams about WWB staging a military coup against the all-white staff, which has just strapped him into a straight jacket and sedated him. Given WWB’s struggles against the music industry’s tendency to pigeonhole black performers as rap and R&B artists, a story about black rockers resisting institutionalization by white authorities seems appropriate.
Another song with a strong online following is “Throw Yo Sets Up,” which welds a sort of happy crunk beat with lyrics about gang warfare. The song also incorporates elements of reggae and Jamaican Patois in homage to Abraham’s Caribbean heritage. “Girlfriend Like This,” which for some reason reminds me of a Smash Mouth song mixed up with an alma matter, is another popular track and tells about falling for that special girl and the joys of uninhibited sex. Although part of my brain keeps telling me that I really should find “Girlfriend” offensive because of the lyrics, the other half seems to mock it by continually getting this extremely catchy tune stuck in my head.
There are several other solid songs on the album that haven’t attracted quite as much attention. If you’re into more classic punk, “I Can’t Think” is a definite mosh pit starter. Be forewarned, however, that it shifts to crunk toward the end. Although WWB tells off listeners who think this is a hip-hop song, the lyrics and musical style of the crunk section may be too close to gangsta rap for many people. Whether you’ll hear it as a novel twist or as an unwelcome intrusion on an otherwise fantastic punk piece depends completely on your tastes.
A number of songs on the album, while still punk, lean a bit more towards alternative rock. “Lower Class Man” in particular has some crazy and irreverent lyrics lambasting the middle class. If you’re into groups like the Dropkick Murphys, you’ll probably take an instant liking to this one. “Every Man for Himself,” “Ode 2 Father,” and “Catch 22″ use a similar musical approach, but the lyrics are lower key, even borderline somber. Even more alternative is “Staying True,” a sentimental song about friendship that opens with soulful acoustic guitar and piano before abruptly shifting to a faster paced rock sound. Although the use of this formula isn’t particularly unique to the current rock scene and the song would sound completely at home on a Green Day album, it’s flawlessly executed and demonstrates the WWB’s versatility.
According to Rob Fields, author of the Bold as Love blog on Black Rock, WWB also offers a great live show and treats its audiences to a mix of top-notch punk and playful humor. After watching the band perform a nearly flawless set at the SXSW09 music festival in Austin, Stone from The Couch Sessions blog has predicted that WWB may just be the next Black Rock band to break through to the mainstream.
WWB is definitely a band that plays what it wants, when it wants, and genre boundaries aren’t going to stop it. My only borderline negative comment about the CD is that it’s slightly cannibalistic. Every song is extremely well-done, but most of them tend to remind you of songs by other bands. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this. If you’re really into a particular type of music, it’s always nice to have more of the same played by a great band, and WWB is definitely that. Now that they’ve found their winning combination, it would be fabulous if the group pushed the envelope just a bit more.
Despite this minor issue, Hearts of Hoodlums is a fantastic CD and WWB is currently touring hard to get their name out. If the trio can win over the fickle hearts and pocketbooks of music industry execs, Stone’s prediction may be prophetic.
Posted by Ronda L. Sewald
Editor’s Note: This review is part of our ongoing examination of black rock in preparation for “Reclaiming the Right to Rock: Black Experiences in Rock Music,” a two-day conference organized by the Archives of African American Music and Culture to be held on November 13-14, 2009, on the Indiana University-Bloomington campus. Visit the conference website.
Welcome to the May 2009 issue of Black Grooves. This month we’re featuring two more entries in our ongoing look at black rock, including the latest release by the up and coming southern rap-rock band Whole Wheat Bread, and a newly edited and expanded edition of the documentary on the making of Jimi Hendrix’s landmark concept album, Electric Ladyland. Just in time for Mother’s Day is Dorothy Norwood’s Fifty Years – It’s Been Worth It All (with several Mother themed songs); other gospel titles includeOh Happy Day: An All-star Music Celebration featuring duets between sacred and secular artists, and a two-disc Hommage to the Golden Gate Quartet. Under the hip hop category, we’re profiling Aceyalone’s The Lonely Ones, an album guaranteed to appeal to R&B fans, as well as Russell Myrie’s authorized biography of Public Enemy. Also in this issue are reviews of the latest albums by Ruthie Foster, Mavis Staples, Greg Tate’s free jazz collective known as Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber, and The Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band, anextremely appealing reinvention of the Beatle’s classic album.