Archive for August, 2009

Let’s Do It Again


Title: Let’s Do It Again

Artist: Leela James

Label: Shanachie

Catalog No.: 5775

Release Date: March 24, 2009

Leela James’ Let’s Do It Again consists of eleven covers of classic songs made popular by timeless artists such as James Brown, Al Green, the Rolling Stones, Angela Bofill, and the Staple Singers. This album arrives some four years after her debut, A Change is Gonna Come, on the Warner Brothers label. Her project seems to be designed to address a question she posed in “Music,” her first single from that album, “what happened to the music?” The answer – It hasn’t gone anywhere. She and her band are fully prepared to provide it and do so with passion on this, her sophomore offering, released on the Shanachie label.

The Los Angeles born vocalist tackles the catalog of some of her idols, channeling the R&B, soul, funk, and even gospel sounds that comprised the soundtrack of her upbringing and which informed her debut album. James brings a contemporary appreciation for the classic sounds of the masters to whom she pays homage here.

Clean Up Woman – Leela James

The album begins with the familiar guitar licks of “Clean Up Woman,” putting the listener on notice that the things that made the standards great won’t be tampered with here. In fact, unlike so many contemporary artists, James deigns to produce this album using live recording sessions with her instrumentalists, valuing not only the tried and true sounds but the methodology that helped produce the originals. That doesn’t mean that her sound is without innovation. On “I Want To Know What Love Is,” James compliments the soft rock sensibilities of Foreigner’s version with even more gospel influenced vocals and chord progressions than came through on the original recording. Her vocal ad lib on this tune also gives a shout out to Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone.”

If James allows her backing vocalists to shoulder some of the heavy lifting on “I Try,” it doesn’t take away from the soulfulness of her vision for the song. Her interpretation of Bootsy Collins’ “I’d Rather Be With You” remains true to the funk slow jam of the original. She concludes her album with the eponymous “Let’s Do It Again,” which captures the celebratory groove of the Staples Singers’ original and makes plain and explicit the mission of the album as a whole.

Following is the video for her cover of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” which is also featured on the album:

The only drawback to this release is the lack of liner notes, which might have offered insight into James’ conceptualizations of her contribution to the legacies she’s acknowledging in this album. That said, savvy and technologically forward-thinking listeners will avail themselves of her website for more information along these lines.

Overall, this project offers much to music lovers whose sensibilities for soul, funk, R&B, rock, and gospel, and whose appreciation for the seamless interweaving of all of the above, can keep pace with that of Leela James. Definitely worth a first listen and then a second and third to catch the nuances that are likely to have been missed the first times through.

Reviewed by Delia Alexander

View review August 27th, 2009

University of Calypso


Title: University of Calypso

Artist: Andy Narell and Relator

Label: Heads Up

Format: CD (also available as MP3)

Catalog No.: HUCD 3168

Release Date: June 23, 2009

Andy Narell has featured prominently on the pan scene since his first album in 1979. Known for taking pan out of its original steelband context and incorporating it as a lead instrument in the jazz combo milieu, he was the first foreigner to compose for Trinidad’s world-renowned Panorama competition in 2000. In this, his most recent project, Narell steps away from his work with his two ensembles, Sakésho and the Andy Narell Steelband, to collaborate with famed calypsonian Relator (born Willard Harris). Relator, who won Trinidad’s highly coveted Calypso Monarch competition in 1980, is considered an expert in the genre as a performer and composer.

Joining the two principles on this album are Latin jazz great Paquito D’Rivera on clarinet and saxophone and Dario Eskenazi on piano, both of whom are also members of another of Narell’s combos, the Caribbean Jazz Project. Pedro Martinez of the fabulous Latin ensemble, Yerba Buena, provides percussion.

University of Calypso features the compositions of calypso legends such as Lord Kitchener, Roaring Lion, The Mighty Terror, and Relator himself. The album opens with Relator’s virtuosic performance of “Gavaksar,” one of his most fondly remembered and highly revered pieces which chronicles the 1971 defeat of the West Indies cricket team by that of India. The nostalgia of his expert retelling is matched by his loving renderings of time-honored calypso lyrics throughout the album. Relator’s vocals are very well supported by the instrumentation of Narell and the other collaborators. One of the more internationally well-known pieces, “Love in the Cemetery,” is also quite a treat. The very effective breaks that precede each of Kitchener’s verses and intersect the chorus are very well complemented by Eskenazi’s salsa piano riffs.

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The instrumental pieces on the album, “Sugar for Pan” and “Pan in Harmony,” showcase Narell’s virtuosic solo playing as well as the instrumentalists’ mastery of the rhythmic complexity of the genre. That said, the highlight of the album is, arguably, “Steel Band Music,” Kitchener’s ode to the genius of pan as an instrument, ensemble, movement and music. This classic is well executed here, and Relator’s clear vocals and Narell’s rhythmic solos are worthy of Kitchener’s memory.

Overall, this project is a pleasure, and certainly a candidate for one’s steel pan album collection. Rich in history and warm tones, Narell and Relator’s collaboration offers much to aficionados of the pan, classic calypso, and latin jazz.

Reviewed by Delia Alexander

View review August 27th, 2009

I’m Rick James: the Definitive DVD


Title: I’m Rick James!: The Definitive DVD

Artist: Rick James

Label: Hip-O

Format: DVD (135 min.); all regions; NTSC.

Catalog No.: B0012655-09

Date: 2009

Rick James was a “bad boy,” an anti-hero who rebelled against societal norms by singing of the wonders of marijuana (“Mary Jane”), sex (“Give It To Me Baby”), and of “Super freaks.” This so called Definitive DVD can’t touch what the real Rick James represented live and in concert, it doesn’t even come close. Culled from various TV appearances on shows such as Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, Soul Alive, Dinah, and Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, most of the “performances” are lip-synced, with James merely mouthing the words of the song while giving a subdued and controlled performance where he never lets his hair down and never breaks a sweat. Everyone knows Rick James wore his hair plaited with beads and braids, and when he preformed he sweated like someone poured a bucket of water on him.

James came to Motown in 1978 and released his first monster album Come Get It!, which had two mega hits including my all time favorite “You and I” and “Mary Jane,” which was a prelude to the formation of the Mary Jane Girls Band. James broke many cultural taboos by flaunting his extravagant lifestyle. As an icon of drug use and eroticism, he went further than anyone had ever gone before. A womanizer who by his own admission bedded “thousands” of women, James was also a heavy crack cocaine user who, by some reports, spent $7000 a month for five years on drugs. He made a living rebelling against the establishment by touting sex, drug, funk and roll. On I’m Rick James, however, it seems like society and TV not only tamed the notorious musician, but dammed near defunked the mighty self-proclaimed “king of punk funk.” In fact, during his performance of “Love Gun” on the Dinah show in 1979, Dinah introduces James as a “very nice guy.”

Still, if you are a true Rick James fan you will want to add this DVD to your collection for two reasons. The first reason is, of course, the music, because it’s all good; the second is for the visual images of a long gone creative music master. But again, I must say buyer beware because this not the “definitive” DVD and in most of the performances James is just going through the motions. There is no real fire or power in the delivery as you would expect from his soulful, funky live performances.

Some of the best performances, though I hesitate to call them that, are “You and I,” “Mary-Go- Round,” and “Fool on the Street,” all with thumping bass lines, hypnotic rhythmic grooves and funky percussive horn lines. Other good songs that either address or express his rebellious nature are “Give It To Me Baby” (which has a nice rock guitar solo), “She Blew My Mind (69 Times),” “Fire It Up,” and of course the ubiquitous “Super Freak,” which everyone knows MC Hammer covered as “U Can’t Touch This,” the biggest hit in the rapper’s short-lived career.

There are a few special treats in the “Bonus performances” section of the DVD. Once again, these are not live performances but Motown promotional videos, which give a deeper insight into the man and the song. Of special note is another renditon of “Standing on the Top,” this time performed with all seven of the Temptations, as well as additional performances of “You and I” and “Super Freak.”

Another one of my favorite songs performed on I’m Rick James is the autobiographical “Glow,” where James is in a dialog with his woman who talks about his drug and alcohol use and abuse. The woman says she can’t watch him throw his life away and self destruct. And he says “I don’t need anybody, I’m Rick James and I don’t need anybody,” all the while dinking from a fifth of Jack Daniels. Then he staggers out on the stage and falls flat on his face. The very same way he fell flat on his face in life. Art imitates life, and in 1993 James was sent to Folsom Prison until 1996, and on August 6, 2004, he died of a heart attack at the age of 56, although the autopsy report stated that he had Xanax, Valium, Wellbutrin, Celexa, Vicodin, Digoxin, Chlopheniramine, methamphetamine and cocaine in his system.

In the performance of the song “Big Time” Rick James sings, “I was born to funk and roll in the big time,” and he did for awhile. Therefore I still await the “definitive” collection of his work.

Reviewed by Clark D. Whitlow

View review August 27th, 2009

When the Church Becomes Your Party


Title: When the Church Becomes Your Party: Contemporary Gospel Music (African American Life)

Author: Deborah Smith Pollard

Publisher: Wayne State University Press

Format:  Book (240 p.)

ISBN: 0814332188

Date: 2008

If gospel means “good tidings and good news,” then gospel music should definitely engage us in spiritual celebration of the good news. Agreeing with this premise, Deborah Smith Pollard’s book on contemporary gospel music, When the Church Becomes Your Party, maintains that you should celebrate the church through the gospel music tradition as reflected in a phrase adapted from a popular secular refrain, “Ain’t no party like a Holy Ghost party. . .” (viii). Ethnographer Deborah Smith Pollard, also a professor of African American Studies, articulates varied dimensions of gospel music in a well-documented study using data reflecting her scholarly background and her experience as a gospel announcer for a popular Detroit radio station.

Here is an interview with “Dr. Deb” Pollard about her gospel radio show on WJLB:

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Consistent with its celebratory theme and nature, Pollard’s book, using a lively format, details the joyous contributions of gospel music through interviews with well-known gospel artists, musicians, and preachers, most of whom have longstanding ties to the gospel music scene in Detroit. Indeed, an array of talented gospel families who hail from Detroit have helped catapult it into the national gospel music spotlight: the list includes artists such as, the Rev. C.L. Franklin and daughter Aretha; the Clark Sisters; the Winans; Rance Allen and relatives; the Hawkins family, along with individual artists like the well-known Donnie McClurkin.

Pollard helps to foster an understanding and appreciation of praise and worship music by explaining its origins and challenging the prevailing claim that it has replaced the traditional hymns and the conventional devotional services of the church. Additionally, she examines other musical traditions within gospel, particularly gospel music stage plays, underappreciated dramatic celebrations rooted in African American folk culture. Pollard brings the culture surrounding gospel music into the twenty-first century by discussing the appropriateness of dressing up or down for gospel events by considering the changing dress codes for gospel musicians, audience members at gospel concerts, and churchgoing women. More importantly, she underscores the significant, but often overlooked contributions of women gospel announcers whose work provides an inspirational and empowering spiritual outlet for their listeners. Finally, the book restores the skillful sermonic deliveries of contemporary Holy Hip Hop artists to a respectful place within an oral tradition that harkens back to African griots.

When the Church Becomes Your Party, aimed at both scholars and laypersons, helps to unlock the many layers that comprise the phenomenon of gospel music and the industry responsible for producing it.

Reviewed by Lena Ampadu, Director, African and African American Studies Program, Towson University.

View review August 27th, 2009

The Bright Mississippi

Title: The Bright Mississippi

Artist: Allen Toussaint

Label: Nonesuch

Format: CD (also available as MP3 and LP)

Catalog No.: 480380-2

Release date: April 2009

For more than 50 years, New Orleans native Allen Toussaint has occupied an exalted position in American pop musical life as a hit-making producer, songwriter, performer, arranger, and studio owner. He’s had great success with R&B stars Ernie K-Doe, Irma Thomas and Lee Dorsey, gotten funky with The Meters and Dr. John, and crafted horn charts for The Band’s live shows (captured in 1971/2′s Rock Of Ages album), to mention only a small fraction of his work. His song “Southern Nights” was a #1 hit on the country and pop charts in 1977 (via Glen Campbell’s cover version); he’s written a theater play; composed, directed, and performed in off- and on-Broadway productions; co-founded a charity non-profit organization in New Orleans with Aaron Neville; and, along the way, won election to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But, until 2005′s Going Places (released on Toussaint’s son’s indy-label, Captivating Recording Technologies) and now 2009′s The Bright Mississippi (Nonesuch), the 71-year-old Toussaint had never recorded a jazz album. And make no mistake. The Bright Mississippi is not a pop or R&B effort, but one firmly grounded in the jazz tradition. While it draws its inspiration from the repertoire of heavyweights such as Beiderbecke, Bechet, Ellington, Monk, Reinhardt, Morton, Armstrong, and George Lewis, the song choices are personal and not overly obvious, in general shying away from the tried-and-true (“Solitude” and “St. James Infirmary” notwithstanding). His sidemen, too, are a quirky bunch of current generation jazz polymaths (Don Byron, Marc Ribot, Nicolas Payton are all in the band; Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman each sit in on one tune), a testament to the esteem and respect Toussaint commands within the jazz community. Toss in the fact that Toussaint himself has always been a pianist of great gifts, with a lovely touch and grace to spare, and The Bright Mississippi would seem to be a can’t-miss affair. So, with all that going for it, why does this disc leave me so unmoved?

Egyptian Fantasy – Allen Touss…

The proceedings begin promisingly enough with an atmospheric take on Bechet’s “Egyptian Fantasy,” featuring a loose, sloppy, pseudo-1940s acoustic bass and drum sound courtesy of producer Joe Henry, bassist David Piltch, and drummer Jay Bellerose. But things turn problematic from here. Creamer and Layton’s “Dear Old Southland” (erroneously credited in the liner notes), a too-jaunty “St. James Infirmary,” and Payton’s feature “Singin’ The Blues” are all expertly played, but nothing much seems to actually happen. Toussaint gently muses away at the ivories, and the downtown youngbloods strum and tootle along politely and bloodlessly, almost as if cowed by the burden of following in Louis’ and Bix’s grand old shoes. Jelly Roll Morton’s “Winin’ Boy Blues” — performed as a duet by Toussaint and Mehldau — fares better, but even here the more adventurous dissonances in the pianists’ playing seem too calculated, their chromatic spookiness leavened by cutesy quotes from the Twilight Zone theme and “The Flight Of The Bumblebee.” So it goes. Payton’s opening cadenza to “West End Blues” — a trumpeter’s invitation to the spotlight if ever there was one — has all the glee and brio of a damp firecracker, and even fine solo turns by Ribot and Toussaint can’t overcome the general malaise.

Day Dream – Allen Toussaint

The best moments in The Bright Mississippi tend to be courtesy of Joshua Redman — an excellent ballad player who livens up his Ellington/Hodges feature (“Day Dream”) with some unexpected but ever-so-welcome blues squeals — and Marc Ribot, whose solos are impressive throughout, especially on his Django Reinhardt feature, “Blue Drag.” But even here, I can’t help but wish that Ribot had brought along his electric axe and box of goodies. Like Bill Frisell, part of Ribot’s talent lies with his ear for timbre and tone, and the monochromatic, rather dry acoustic guitar sound imposed upon him by Henry seems at times to unnecessarily constrain this highly imaginative player.

The one unqualified success is the title track, Thelonious Monk’s 1962 take on the “Sweet Georgia Brown” chord changes. An unbuttoned delight, Toussaint and crew reimagine the tune as a sashaying, slightly demented Dixieland ramble, playful and sly. Perhaps Monk’s music is more readily intelligible, more familiar and therefore more open to re-interpretation by these younger musicians than the musty rummagings from the 1920s and ’30s old-tyme jazz closet. Regardless, it’s a joyful performance that will remain in rotation on my iPod for the foreseeable future. “Long, Long Journey” also captures some of this spirit, although again the performance is overly studied, and I could only wish Toussaint had Eddie Condon’s mob backing him up during the final shout chorus instead of players who seem more comfortable with the hot jazz tradition in theory than in practice.

Jazz albums by pop musicians are tricky affairs; Toussaint’s is not the only one to flinch in the face of History and Tradition (Charlie Watts’ and Ry Cooder’s efforts, just to mention a couple, suffer from more or less similar flaws). Toussaint almost certainly has a terrific jazz album in him — jazz elements permeate his past work in the pop realm, not to mention the musical life of his native city — but The Bright Mississippi is not it.

The best jazz is neither polite nor boring. It spends more time looking forward than back, rarely taking a straight path when there are interesting byways to explore. These lessons are clearly on display in Toussaint’s pop work, but here, the ever-fatal “jazz repertory” elements are much too strong, burying choice tunes and the occasional felicitous moment under a cascade of lavender and ruffles. And the band, though comprised of players with strong, distinctive musical voices, seems overly deferential, as though overawed at being in the presence of Greatness and Genius. Producer Henry’s execrable liner notes don’t help, puffing up The Project as though it were the jazz equivalent of the Grand Unified Theory Of Everything, but never deigning to discuss those aspects of the session that might actually be interesting (such as the song choices, the selection of the musicians, or the atmosphere during the recording sessions). But, now that Toussaint has played it safe, maybe next time he’ll bring on board someone like John Zorn or Dave Douglas, just to keep everyone focused on the path ahead. In the meantime, there’s always songs like “Shoo-rah, Shoo-rah” and “What Do You Want The Girl To Do?” to remind us of Toussaint’s true greatness and genius.

Reviewed by Terry Simpkins

View review August 27th, 2009

Take Me to the Water

Title: Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890-1950

Format:  Book with CD

Catalog No.: DTD-13
ISBN: 978-0-9817342-1-7
Publisher: Dust-to-Digital
Release Date: May 26, 2009

Dust-to-Digital has done it again. The company that produced Goodbye Babylon, a wonderful historical CD set of early gospel recordings lovingly tucked into a wooden crate packed with genuine southern cotton, has followed up with another unique gospel offering.  Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890-1950 is half picture book, half liner notes in the form of a hardcover book with an accompanying CD affixed inside the back cover.

The bulk of the 96-page book features beautifully reproduced sepia-toned photographs of  “immersion baptism” from the collection of Jim Linderman; that is, out-of-doors full body immersion in lakes and rivers, often en masse. Included are some extremely rare, early images of African American baptisms such as the panorama stretching across the back and front covers labeled “Black Billy Sunday, Indianapolis, Aug. 3, 1919, Baptising at Fall Creek” (one of the few images with such a complete identification).  A brief essay by Luc Sante provides the context necessary to understand the images, including a general history of baptism, an overview of the featured denominations, and a description of the settings and emotionally charged states of the participants.

Take Me to the Water from Dust-to-Digital on Vimeo.

Now, on to the music. The 25 “Songs and Sermons” on the accompanying CD are “derived from extremely rare records” from the collections of Steven Lance Ledbetter (Dust-to-Digital’s owner/producer) and legendary record collector Joe Bussard, among others, and ” have been remastered to produce the best possible sound.”  Ledbetter also wrote the accompanying liner notes, included at the end of the book. The tracks, of course, all have a baptism/water theme, including various renditions of “Wade in the Water” (a few also appeared on Goodbye Babylon). Selections range from such African American heavyweights as the Rev. J. M. Gates (his singing sermon “Baptize Me” from 1926) to lesser known artists such as Moses Mason (“Go Wash in the Beautiful Stream’) and Rev. E. D. Campbell (“Take Me to the Water”).  White southern gospel artists include the Carter Family (“On My Way to Canaan’s Land”), the Carolina Tar Heels (“I’ll Be Washed”), and Ernest Stoneman’s Dixie Mountaineers (“Down to Jordan and Be Saved”).

Together, the photographs and music make a stunning package. As Sante states in his essay, “Whether you have ever actually experienced a baptism or not, whether you are a believer or not, these pictures and the music that accompanies them transmit all the emotional information: the excitement and the serenity, the fellowship and the warmth, the wind and the water.”

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review August 27th, 2009

Voice Ringing O’er the Gale!

Title: A Voice Ringing O’er the Gale! The Oratory of Frederick Douglass

Artist: Ossie Davis

Label: Smithsonian Folkways

Format: CD (also available as MP3)

Catalog No.: SFW47006

Release date: July 2009

A Voice Ringing O’er the Gale!: The Oratory of Frederick Douglass is a 5-track CD comprising speeches, written between 1852-1888, of the former slave turned abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.  Although present-day admirers usually come to know Douglass through his three autobiographies and other writings, during his life the orator’s fame centered on his passionate delivery rendered towards describing his experiences as a former slave.

Douglass’ voice was never recorded and the vocal enactment of his speeches in A Voice Ringing O’er the Gale! is delivered by actor/Civil Rights activist, Ossie Davis. With his deep resonant voice, honed acting abilities, depth of understanding, and profound appreciation for the iconic figure of Douglass, Davis attempts to faithfully replicate the actual 19th century experience for the listener.

Addressing his speeches to segregated white, black, and women audiences, Douglass challenged his (white) listeners to acknowledge the plight of the slave and to question the veracity of freedom in a constitution upheld for some and withheld from others (“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” parts 1 & 2). In “If There is no Struggle, There is no Progress,” he confronted acquiescent African Americans to ponder the necessity of defying slavery and racism, regardless of the cost, and to consider the courage of those who assumed such a position. Douglass proclaimed freedom of speech as a vital necessity for all Americans in “A Plea for Freedom of Speech,” and expressed his forward-thinking support for the rights of women in “Why I Became a Women’s Rights Man.”

The CD is accompanied by a 31-page liner note insert that provides images and useful background information on both Douglass and Ossie Davis.  The recordings were originally released on two LPs in 1975 and 1977, and the present production by Smithsonian Folkways aims to make Douglass’ legacy accessible to the public through current media.  A Voice Ringing O’er the Gale! is a valuable tool, reminding us that democracy in American has never been a given, and that vibrant dialogue and public debate are as critical for its perpetuation in the present and the future as in the past.

Reviewed by Karen Faye Taborn

View review August 27th, 2009

As the Technics Spin/Scratch DJ Academy Guide


Title:  As the Technics Spin

Artist:  Rob Swift

Format:  DVD, NTSC (90 min.)

Label:  Redline/Ablist

Catalog No.:  504

Release Date: March 2009

As the Technics Spin is a dynamic ride into the intricate inner workings of the mind of Rob Swift. Chronicling Swift’s personal experience with this particular element of hip hop (turntablism), the documentary moves in cuts and scratches reminiscent of a DJ’s performance routine. Swift, as narrator, takes us through his own introduction and induction into hip hop, all the way to his present world-renowned status. Even as a hip hop head myself, I was delightfully enlightened to learn many new things that go on in the mind of a DJ of which I had previously been unaware.

Swift speaks profoundly on the artistry and craftsmanship involved in the composition of different routines, which are meticulously orchestrated and rehearsed for hours on end. During the performance, Swift takes us into the DJ’s mind as he cuts and scratches. Does the audience like it? Do they understand it? Do they hear what I hear? Many times the DJ is clueless about how his performance is being received until his set is over. Whether performing an individual rendition or in the midst of a battle competition, all the weight rests on the shoulders of the DJ. The amount of concentration and precision involved is unimaginable.

Swift also offers insight into various career progressions that are available to the aspiring DJ, and speaks about the opportunities he was able to take advantage of. The musical influences and life experiences of his early childhood and teenage years are the driving force behind his incredible ascension into hip hop history. At one point he states that if it wasn’t for hip hop and the turntables, he’s certain he would have been a pianist. The viewer is blessed with inside information on special DJ spins and techniques when Swift gives a small “how to” instructional, demonstrating his skill.  Through the live performance footage spliced throughout the film, viewers can also witness the passion from within Swift and the routines that made him famous. That same passion is easily, instantly recognizable when you hear him speak on any level about DJing. After competing with some of the best DJs hip hop has to offer, performing with orchestras abroad, and standing alongside big names such as Herbie Hancock, Rob Swift has definitely made his stake in the game.

Also be sure to check out the bonus features, including televised performances and interviews plus exclusive tour footage of the X-ecutioners and Ill Insanity, and Ill Insanity’s “5 Fingers of Death” music video. Without a shadow of a doubt, I’m certain that any, every, and all DJs will love this documentary, but I want to also recommend the DVD to all hip hop heads, particularly the B-Boy, the Graff writer, and the Emcee.  If you’re a musician of any genre who can appreciate the complexities of sounds, I recommend you take a look. If you have no clue what the big idea is about a guy making scratching noises on a record player, then this film is DEFINITELY for you!

Reviewed by Moorishio De la Cruz

Editor’s note: As the Technics Spin is a sequel to Swift’s 2007 DVD release As the Tables Turn.  Swift is also featured in Scratch, the award winning documentary about crate diggers and turntablists by Doug Pray.


Title: On the Record: The Scratch DJ Academy Guide

Authors:  Phil White and Luke Crisell

Format:  Book (314 p.)

Publisher:  St. Martin’s Press

Publication date:  April 16, 2009

This book needs to be in your vinyl collection.  It’s what every DJ needs to be in the game and every music fan needs to understand the game.” –Snoop Dogg

Those interested in the topics of DJing, DJ culture and turntablism might wish to check out this new title, co-written by Luke Crissell (a former DJ) and Phil White, who are both affiliated with NYLON, with assistance from Rob Principe, founder of the Scratch DJ Academy (with locations in New York, Miami, and L.A.).  Divided into three sections, the book addresses the history of hip hop DJs and house music, the life and influences DJs, and how to be a DJ.  Individual chapters touch on such topics as equipment, the art of the mixtape, and techniques for mixing and scratching. The Appendix includes various Top 10 lists (“Most requested,” “Funk samples,” Club tracks,” etc.) and is followed by a brief glossary of DJ and scratching terminology.  Extremely useful as a basic guide for the novice, as well as for those seeking a broader understanding of the culture and art form.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review August 27th, 2009

Nothing But Good


Title: Nothing But Good 1952-1962

Artist: Hank Ballard and the Midnighters

Label: Bear Family (Germany)

Format: 5 CD box set with hardcover book inserted

Catalog No.: 978-3-89916-422-0

Release Date: April 7, 2009

Bear Family Records has done the popular music world a huge service by issuing this five CD box set, Nothing But Good: the King/Federal Labels, 1952-1962, accompanied by a colorfully illustrated 83-page oversized book authored by Bill Dahl. The CDs contain the recordings of the band known variously as the Royals, the Midnighters, and Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, starting with 1953’s “I’m so Blue” and ending with 1962’s “Bring Me Your Love.” The music itself is infectious, reproduced with splendid production values (a Bear Family hallmark), and the package includes alternate takes and previously unreleased tracks.

Significantly, the songs are all ones on which Ballard, not an original Royal, sang lead. In the early going the members shared vocal duties more evenly, but Ballard’s clear, strong voice; faultless phrasing; and songwriting prowess made him the star of the act. As Dahl notes, the Midnighters “were the first Detroit R&B group to transcend their local standing to really make it big on a national basis, and Ballard was their chief source of material.” And as a contemporary of the Midnighters told Dahl, “The Midnighters were the Temptations before the Temptations in Detroit.” [p. 3]

Hank Ballard is probably most often remembered for his role in two incredible pop music phenomena. In 1954 he and the Midnighters recorded a string of records that, despite a near-total lack of mainstream radio airplay, sold in the millions. These were the “Annie” songs: “Work With Me Annie,” “Annie Had a Baby,” “Annie’s Aunt Fannie,” and the thematically linked “Sexy Ways.” Then, in 1958, the Ballard-penned “The Twist” launched a dance craze that lasted a few years (odd for a teen dance craze), transformed how people danced to up-tempo pop music, and inspired dozens of Twist songs by acts as diverse as the Isley Brothers (“Twist and Shout,” “Twistin’ with Linda”), Sam Cooke (“Twistin’ the Night Away”), and Joey Dee and the Starlighters (“The Peppermint Twist”).

Celebrities flocked to Twist clubs like NYC’s Peppermint Lounge to see and be seen twisting. The fad was so pervasive that even TV sitcoms got into the act, with the Dick Van Dyke show, for instance, featuring a rock star creating a teen dance craze with a very Twist-ish “The Twizzle.” The Flintstones got into the act, too, but the less said about “The Twitch” as performed by prehistoric cartoon character Rock Roll, the better. “The Twist” reached number one on the American pop charts twice, in both 1960 and 1962. Unfortunately both times it was the cover version of the song done by Chubby Checker. Ballard’s version had been the B-side of the 1959 release “Teardrops On Your Letter,” when Dick Clark heard it and either arranged for Checker to record it or strongly suggested Philadelphia record label Cameo Parkway have Checker record it. The depth of Clark’s involvement in covering “The Twist” varies according to the source, but he indubitably promoted Checker’s version on his American Bandstand television show, the main source of televised rock music in those pre-MTV days.

In between and after these notable recordings, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters produced a string of solid R&B recordings and inspired and influenced a roster of future pop music stars including a young singer from Georgia named James Brown. After catching Hank and the Midnighters in concert in Greenville, S.C., Brown vowed he’d soon “be onstage doing the very same thing.” [p. 3]

There should be no mistaking the fact that Hank Ballard and the Midnighters were trying to record commercially successful records, as were all of Syd Nathan’s King and Federal label acts. Dahl provides a brief history of the business side of the story. Nathan, arguably the equal of the vaunted Leonard Chess, ran his Cincinnati-based record company as an enthusiastically for-profit business, but he knew his musical stuff. Included on this set is an alternative, more mainstream-friendly version of “Work With Me Annie,” in which the lyric was softened from “Give me all my meat” to “Make it oh so sweet,” but Nathan released the bawdier version anyway even though it meant much less radio exposure. A new book due out this September (Fox, Jon Hartley. King of the Queen City; ISBN: 978025203468; Urbana, Ill. : ­University of Illinois Press) tells Nathan’s story in greater detail and constitutes a valuable reference for this package (and music collections in general).

Perhaps not surprisingly, when other artists tried to record cover versions of the Midnighters’ hits, they strategically changed some of Ballard’s lyrics. Jerry Lee Lewis cut a version of “Sexy Ways” as “Cool, Cool Ways,” but the Killer’s efforts required multiple takes because he kept singing the original lyrics. The bawdy nature of the lyrics in the “Annie” songs and “Sexy Ways” may have inoculated Hank & the Midnighters from a lot of the sales hell inflicted on R&B artists by pop artists covering their works and getting more mainstream airplay and, therefore, sales. It was much more difficult for a Pat Boone, for instance, to convincingly rework lyrics like Ballard’s than to simply cover more innocuous fare (which he did with alacrity). Dahl nicely details these ins and outs of ‘50s airplay and sales strategies and the listening is the better for knowing the context and the risks being taken. Incidentally, Ballard’s toned down self-cover of “Sexy Ways,”—retitled “Cute Little Ways”– is included in this set.

The “Annie” songs inspired a significant reply from Etta James titled “The Wallflower” on the disc, but the chorus revealed its real title as “Roll With Me, Henry.” James’ response was then covered by Georgia Gibbs, whose “Dance With Me Henry” hit the charts in 1955. In turn, the Midnighters answered Etta if not Georgia with “Henry’s Got Flat Feet (Can’t Dance No More),” bringing the Annie cycle to a close. All of Ballard’s Annie songs are included here.

Three versions of “The Twist” are among the 150 tracks included on the set: Ballard’s 1958 demo and the more up-tempo 1959 version, one with an overdubbed buzzing saxophone part and one without. There are also a few “Twist” sequels (“Do You Know How to Twist,” “It’s Twistin’ Time,” “Good Twistin’ Tonight,” and “Miss Twister”) as Ballard, no doubt with encouragement from Nathan, sought to maximize sales while the twist dance craze prevailed. Soon enough, Ballard, with and without the Midnighters, would be recording other dance songs like “The Continental Walk,” “The Float,” “The Coffee Grind,” etc. Dahl wisely devotes a good deal of text to the details of how “The Twist” came into being, but why Nathan never released it as an A-side, despite the song being a big reason he renewed the band’s contract during a time of slow sales in the late-1950s, remains a mystery.

Covering other artists’ hot records was a widespread practice and although Checker’s Dick Clark-endorsed version of “The Twist” arguably cost Ballard a fortune in revenues by outselling it, the Midnighters also indulged in covering other artists’ output from time to time. For instance, they were just one act to cash in on the song “Kansas City.” As Dahl relates in delicious detail, the first Fury Records pressing of “Kansas City” in 1959 credited singer Wilbert Harrison with composing the R&B classic. This was the version of the song that hit #1 on the R&B charts, but Harrison had not composed it, Jerrry Leiber and Mike Stoller had, in 1951; Harrison had simply claimed it as his own. The song bounced from artist to artist and label to label throughout the ‘50s (not unlike dub plates in Jamaica in the 1970s). After Harrison’s version hit big, Little Richard recorded it for Specialty, and King released Ballard and the Midnighters’ version in 1959.

Other hits amongst the set’s 150 tracks include “Look at Little Sister” (which Stevie Ray Vaughan famously reworked), “Daddy’s Little Baby,” “Sugaree,” “Finger Poppin’ Time,” and dozens of other danceable selections, with a very few choice ballads. And two versions of “Santa Claus is Coming” round out this musical gift for all seasons. Overall, this is an exemplary and vital package of first rate 1950s R&B.

Reviewed by Mike Tribby

View review August 27th, 2009

LotusFlower3

Title: LotusFlow3r

Artist: Prince

Label: NPG

Catalog No.: 09549

Release date: March 2009

Prince Rogers Nelson is a multitalented musician who plays a variety of instruments and has written hundreds, if not thousands of songs. He has won seven Grammy Awards, a Golden Globe, an Academy Award, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, the first year he was eligible. Rolling Stone ranked Prince #28 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. He has had a very long and illustrious career and therefore is no stranger to danger. Therefore, with his bona fides well-established, the focus of this review will be his latest release, LotusFlow3R.

Like all Prince Fans, I was very excited to hear that Prince had a new 3-disc CD coming out. I thought, it’s about time for some new dew from his Purple Majesty. Sadly, the songs and music on LotusFlow3R are very disappointing and not what I expected at all. I started with great anticipation but I was left confused and wondering with great frustration. First of all let me say I am a big Prince fan, have been for years. With that bias admitted, let me review the new album as objectively as I can. LotusFlow3R is a three disc set, with two discs dedicated to Prince and one disc called “Elixir” by a Rihanna-type artist named Bria Valentine. This review will not discuss the latter.

Prince has always played many different styles and genres of music, from rock to funk and blues to R&B, which demonstrates his musical genius. Of the two discs by Prince, “LotusFlow3R” has twelve tracks all played in the “rock” genre. When I say rock genre I mean soft rock, hard rock, punk rock, head banging rock and of course rock and roll. Prince is rocking the block on this CD; however, it doesn’t sound like a block party. In fact, it sounds like some neighborhood kids rocking out in their dad’s garage. That’s right folks, this sounds just like kid-rock and I don’t mean the artist.

The first track, “From the Lotus,” sounds like Prince is waking up out of a deep sleep after listening to some inspirational relaxing music before getting ready to play. And though it is an instrumental piece, with lead electric guitar played throughout, it has no punch, no kick; it’s just noise and not a joyous noise either. The second track, “Boom,” musically pays homage to the master, Jimi Hendrix, but is lyrically naïve. The third track is a cover song. Prince has done covers of other artist songs before, such as 1995’s “Emancipation,” but honestly there is very little to cover in this remake of “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and Shondells except for the repetitive line “Wild thing / I think you move me / but I want to know for sure / You move me” that he took from the Troggs’ hit song. It doesn’t take much genius to sample a great hook and then exploit it on a cover.

Prince always felt that he was a slave to Warner Bros. and sought his emancipation “from the chains that bind me” in a 1993 legal battle (he often appeared in public with the word “slave” written on his cheek). This somewhat explains track five, “Colonized Mind,” a social commentary on the revolution against the master race who, according to the lyrics, are “genetically disposed to rule the world / down low a future full of isolated boys and girls.” Such is the flavor of the LotusFlow3R disc.

The second disc is called “MPLSsound” and if that’s true then it must be the “early” MPLSsound. As opposed to the rock oriented Lotus disc, this is a return to Prince’s hip hop and funk flavor that we all used to savor. However, I am sorry to disappoint you because there is not one “jam” on this collection. What is a jam? “Ole’ skool” definition of jam is grooves that can make you move, a beat that makes you tap your feet, a sound that is down that will make you snap your finger if you can’t clap your hands. I am sorry to report there is not one jam in the entire collection. Great Prince jams of the past include “1999,” “Head,” “When Doves Cry,” “Sign O the Times,” etc. There is not one track that moves me or grooves me, sorry.

MPLSsound begins with “(There Will Never B) Another Like Me,” which is pure hip hop flavor with the same bragging rights as all the other rappers. Then there is the track “Chocolate Box,” with Prince singing as this sweet thing. “Dance 4 Me” is reminiscent of the group Cameo, while the track “Ol’ Skool Company” sounds just like George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadeli version of “Star Child and the Mothership Connection.” I know Prince is a musical genius, but what is the genius of sounding like someone else, and where are the jams?

I am sorry, Prince fans, but this LotusFlow3R is not the real deal. It sounds like a very young, immature Prince searching for his sound and looking for his identity. This can’t be the latest mix of music composed by an artist over 50. Prince released Crystal Ball in 1998 (a 5-CD collection of unreleased material) and in 1999 released The Vault Old Friends 4 Sale. This material also sounds as if came from the vault, perhaps more of the previously unreleased material that Prince has had stashed away for years. It sounds like retro vibes rather than something from NPD the “New Power Generation.” It does not sound as if this is the latest and the greatest body of work from the creative mind of a fifty year old music genius. Wake up Prince, we want the funk!

Reviewed by Clark D. Whitlow

Editor’s Note: This review is part of our ongoing examination of 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.

View review August 27th, 2009

The Woodstock Experience


Title: Sly & The Family Stone: The Woodstock Experience

Artist: Sly & the Family Stone

Label: Epic/Legacy

Format: 2 CD set

Catalog No.: 88697 48241 2

Date: 2009

Woodstock Music and Art Fair, three days of peace and music . . . three days that changed the history of rock and roll. August marks the 40th anniversary of an event that symbolizes a generation of youths whose voice, actions, and culture was paramount in a socio-cultural revolution that was shaping America. Just when we thought that the proverbial Woodstock cow had been milked, a smattering of new releases are cropping up, including Sly & the Family Stone’s full festival performance. The original motion picture soundtrack that was released in 1970 only gave audiences a compilation of the artists featured at Woodstock, and in the case of Sly was limited to a three song medley that was by far one of the highlights of the soundtrack. The new release, The Woodstock Experience, is a two CD set featuring the full nine song set paired with the studio album Stand! At first glance I wondered why the studio album was paired with the Woodstock set, but after quick investigation I realized that Sly’s invitation to Woodstock generated from the success of Stand! (including the number one hit “Everyday People”), released the previous May. Scheduled for a three a.m. Sunday morning time slot, Sly & the Family Stone took the stage at Woodstock and delivered a powerhouse of gospel, soul, and funk that brought rock and roll church to nearly half a million concert goers.

Formed in 1966 by combining Sly’s and his brother Freddie’s bands, Sly & the Family Stone broke barriers and brought many innovations to popular music. Sly Stone’s time as a disc jockey at San Francisco’s R&B station KSOL and as a producer at Autumn records gave him an idea of what it would take to break through successfully in both the music market and industry. The group broke both racial and gender barriers as they soared their way up the charts. They were not the first integrated group on the block by far, but they achieved crossover success like no other groups before. The Family Stone also featured women in lead roles playing instruments other than vocals. Stylistically the group brought a mixture of gospel, early funk, soul, and rock to the table along with an outlandish fashion sense. Lyrically, they sung of peace, love and understanding which was crucial during this period of socio-political upheaval in America. Sonically, the group utilized the technology of the times with heavy fuzz, distortion, and Wah-wah.

Vocal arrangements for The Family Stone were unique and revolutionary; the group had four lead singers who traded various bars of each verse and a horn section that provided a backdrop for the vocals. And then there was bassist Larry Graham, who brought new tonality to the bass guitar with what he called “thumpin’ and pluckin’” (now known as the slapping technique). He also used a doubled bass technique, where he would send the bass signal through two separate amps, giving it a fuller sound and blowing the doors off the bottom end. A good example of this technique can be found during the bass breaks in “Dance to the Music;” Graham is running clean bass through one amp and a distorted bass through another. By 1969 the group was at the peak of their career and their performance at Woodstock would endear them in the hearts and minds of those who attended.

Dance To The Music – Sly & The…

The new release is spectacular; it’s almost a crime that it has been kept under wraps for 40 years. The sheer energy in the performance translates through the recording, which was captured masterfully by famed engineer Eddie Kramer on location and also mixed by Kramer for the new release. Pairing the Woodstock set with the album Stand! was ingenious not only because Rolling Stone rates it as # 118 of the top 500 albums of all times, but because in comparing them side by side you really get a feel for just how incredible the group was live. The CD features six previously unreleased tracks including the adrenaline-charged renditions of “M’Lady,” “Everyday People,” “You Can Make It If You Try,” and “Sing a Simple Song.” “Sly’s set was high energy and infectious,” remembers Woodstock co-producer Michael Lang. “They were the most colorfully dressed act on the bill and they came dressed to party. Sly and the Family Stone were definitely the act that most of the other bands on the bill were focused on seeing.”

Everyday People – Sly & The Fa…

This compilation is part of Sony Legacy’s Woodstock Experience series, which includes five of the biggest performances at Woodstock: Sly & the Family Stone, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Johnny Winters, and Santana. Each two-CD set consists of a classic 1969 studio album from the featured artist along with their full festival performance. All are packaged in eco-friendly sleeves that replicate the original studio album cover and include a 16 X 20 inch double-sided fold-out color commemorative poster. Woodstock was an electrifying moment in the latter half of the 20th century. We are blessed that the event organizers had enough foresight to document it as well as they did, and its anyone’s guess what will come out of the woodwork for the 50th anniversary.

Reviewed by Heather O’Sullivan

View review August 27th, 2009

Welcome to the August/September 2009 issue

In commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, we’re featuring the Sony/Legacy release of Sly & the Family Stone’s complete Woodstock set.  Those interested in DJ culture will appreciate the new book On the Record: the Scratch DJ Academy Guide along with the Rob Swift DVD As the Technics Spin.  To paraphrase our reviewer, if you have no clue what the big idea is about a guy making scratching noises on a record player, then these are definitely for you!  Fans of contemporary gospel music will appreciate our review of the recent book by Detroit scholar and gospel radio host Deborah Smith Pollard.  Also reviewed is “I’m Rick James!”,  a DVD compilation that  includes his Motown promotional videos and television performances. Two special sets are covered, including Bear Family’s deluxe 5CD tribute to Hank Ballard, and Dust-to-Digital’s Take Me to the Water, a look at immersion baptism through historical photographs, songs and sermons.  Also covered in this issue is Smithsonian Folkway’s reissue of the oratory of Frederick Douglass as read by Ossie Davis; the University of Calypso featuring Relator; Allen Toussaint’s first foray into jazz The Bright Mississippi; and new releases by Prince and Leela James.

View review August 27th, 2009

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