Archive for March, 2010

Welcome to the March 2010 Issue

This month’s lead article highlights the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a group that continues the black string band tradition on their new release Genuine Negro Jig.  Other new releases featured in this issue include BlakRoc, the collaboration between the Black Keys and an all-star cast of hip hop artists; Burkina Electric’s Paspanga, a blend of traditional West African music, African highlife, and western electronica; Galactica’s Ya-Ka-May, a heavy dose of New Orleans funk and “sissy-bounce” hip hop; and The Polka Dotted Stripe, from the up and coming Atlanta band Jaspects.  Also covered are a number of reissues, including the forthcoming expanded edition of This is Big Audio Dynamite from Legacy; the first CD reissue of Chapter VII by the late, great Buddy Miles; Delmark’s compilation Boogie Woogie Kings; and The Real Sound of Chicago: Underground Disco from the Windy City compiled by Mr. Peabody’s Records, which captures the end of the disco era and the beginnings of house music.

Last but not least, please note our upgraded website which now allows you to instantly share reviews with friends- look for the social media network icons at the bottom of each post.

View review March 5th, 2010

Genuine Negro Jig

Title: Genuine Negro Jig

Artist:  Carolina Chocolate Drops

Label: Nonesuch Records

Catalog No.: 516995-2

Format:  CD, MP3**

Release date:  February 16, 2010

The rise of the Carolina Chocolate Drops have been detailed here since their quiet debut years ago (see Blackgrooves October  2006, December 2007, May 2008).  The popular press has paid a good amount of attention to their continuation of black stringband traditions, a tradition largely forgotten or ignored until recently.  The great enthusiasm for the Chocolate Drops work, be it musical, historical, or cultural is welcomed with open arms.  The energy produced by, and surrounding, this trio of young musicians indicates larger yearnings by players and enthusiasts of traditional American music; namely, that many feel uncomfortable with the racially divisive implications of genres like old-time and R&B, balladry and blues.  This enthusiasm, as well as the conflations of genres, is apparent in the early press and chart positions of the Chocolate Drops’ Nonesuch debut, Genuine Negro Jig.

This record, a remarkably diverse, accomplished, and thought provoking work, was greeted with great attention with coverage by national press, including NPR’s All Things Considered, Fresh Air, Paste, Rolling Stone, and countless folk, blues, and old-time magazines and blog leading up to and following its Feb 16th release.  The record charted in the top ten on the Billboard Folk chart, and topped the Bluegrass chart.  Genuine Negro Jig is clearly popular, and also difficult to place.

This is largely due to the diversity of styles that are represented on this disc.  When the Chocolate Drops formed in 2005, brought together by the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina, the bulk of their repertoire was given to them from elder North Carolina black fiddler Joe Thompson. This was the content of their debut record for Music Maker (see blackgrooves….), which surprised many listeners who didn’t know black musicians were part of this musical tradition.

Since their mentorship with Thompson, the Chocolate Drops continued to expand their repertoire to include jug band songs, ballads from the British Isles, country blues, and fresh versions of popular songs from more recent eras.  While rooted in stringband instrumentation, they pull from a while range of influences and find a way to match their talents to the song, regardless of genre, just like they say stringbands used to do in the early 20th century.

The result of these influences is the genre-busting collection found on Genuine Negro Jig.  Square dance style stringband tunes like those featured on Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind are still present here in the rousing “Don’t Get Trouble in Your Mind,” “Cornbread and Butterbeans,” “Cindy Gal” and “Sandy Boys.”  These are high-spirited fiddle and banjo driven songs, with the addition of instruments like the jug and bones (literally, cow bones used as a percussion instrument, which was a popular aspect of minstrel performances).  But the Chocolate Drops also bring styles inspired by early 20th century black stringbands characterized by the influence of jazz, such as the Papa Charlie Jackson tune, “You’re Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine,” and the blues-jazz influence is also heard on “Why Don’t You Do Right?” a song taken from the Harlem Hamfats. “Why Don’t You Do Right?” is a terrific vehicle for Rhiannon Giddings’s tremendous vocal talents.  Classically trained at Oberlin Conservatory, Giddens’s voice is extremely versatile.  She is able to adapt effortlessly from the slow blues of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” to the English ballad “Reynadine” to the soulful vocals of one of their biggest crowd pleasers, “Hit ‘Em Up Style.”

Following is a clip of the Carolina Chocolate Drops performing “Hit’ Em Up Style” at WDVX’s Blue Plate Special (courtesy of Knox News):

“Hit ‘Em Up Style,” is the most obvious point to notice the Chocolate Drops connections between repertoires, as well as displaying their ideas about traditionality.  A cover of a 2001 R&B hit for Blue Cantrell, the song is lead by Giddens singing and playing fiddle, with Flemons accompanying on tenor banjo, and Robinson providing a beat-box.  The space that connects “traditional” and “modern” is exactly the territory the Chocolate Drops occupy so well.  As explained by Giddens, the song of a women seeking revenge on her cheating man is perfectly resonant with themes of country and blues songs from generations back.  It also gets to the heart of the creativity of these three performers, who have no desire to be “preservationists,” as Robinson puts it, but to add their own creative voice to make the songs theirs.

To this end Genuine Negro Jig contains their first original song, Justin Robinson’s hauntingly beautiful “Kissin’ and Cussin’.”  While utterly original, this song not only makes fine use of the autoharp (an instrument not commonly featured outside folk and old-time music) but also borrows phrases from American songs from the 1920s in allusions to Richard “Rabbit” Brown’s “James Alley Blues.”

The last song that deserves special attention is the title track, not only because it synthesizes so many of the traditional/modern issues embodied by the Chocolate Drops, such as the creative use of foot stomps, fiddle and bones, but also because of its historical significance.  “Snowden’s Jig (Genuine Negro Jig)” was a tune Dan Emmett learned from the Snowden family in Ohio in the late 19th century.  Emmett is commonly known as the composer of “Dixie,” the unofficial anthem of the South. “Snowden’s Jig” as an example of both musical and social exchanged between white and black musicians, lead historians Judith and Howard Sacks to further investigate the relationship between Emmett and the Snowdens. This ultimately lead to suggesting that the Snowden’s, rather than Emmett, were the actual composers of “Dixie.”

This hints to the fact that the Chocolate Drops represent something significant. Their success musically, and their popular reception, indicate new territory is being opened in African American music in areas that have largely become associated with white America.   Genuine Negro Jig contains new sounds brought about by musicians who seek to educate, but more importantly to create music that speaks to their experience in life, informed equally by tradition and creativity.   It is a fantastic lesson, and an endlessly enjoyable listen.

**[Note from Nonesuch]: Customers ordering Genuine Negro Jig through the Nonesuch Store receive the album both on CD and as audiophile-quality, 320 kbps MP3s. In addition, with those MP3s will be a full seven Nonesuch Store-exclusive bonus tracks, all recorded before a live audience at Santa Monica’s famed Village Recorder studio in November 2009.


Sacks, Howard L. and Judith Rose Sacks. 2003. Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family’s Claim to the Confederate Anthem.  Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Reviewed by Thomas Grant Richardson

View review March 5th, 2010

This is Big Audio Dynamite

Title: This is Big Audio Dynamite (Legacy Edition)

Artist: Big Audio Dynamite

Label:  Legacy

Format: CD

Release date: April 12, 2010

In 1983 Mick Jones was abruptly fired by fellow Clash founders Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon. Ultimately it proved to be the beginning of the end for the Clash, but Jones partnered with entrepreneur, documentarian, and fellow Londoner Don Letts to form Big Audio Dynamite, a band that served up a “blend of New York beats, Jamaican bass lines, [and] English rock ‘n’ roll guitar” augmented by frequent samples—a cutting edge technology at the time—that resulted in complex, danceable music that drove marketers crazy in their attempts to pigeonhole and sell the act.  B.A.D. presented a decidedly different visual effect than most bands of the time, what with the two dreads (sample-master Letts and bassist Leo “E-Zee Kill” Williams) and three white punks sporting gonzo-chic gear (guitarist/vocalist Jones, drummer Greg Roberts, and keyboardist Dan Donovan).

This Legacy Edition of their first album, This is Big Audio Dynamite, includes a re-issue of the original album plus a second disc featuring remixes and dub versions of all the songs on the album (in the same order) plus previously unreleased odds and ends. The album opens with the sample-drenched “Medicine Show,” a song built around a strong reggae-influenced bass line, lots of percussion, and generous samples from the soundtracks of A Fistful of Dollars; The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; A Fistful of Dynamite; and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Letts’ samples also thoroughly exploit the use of automatic weapons fire as a percussion instrument. “Sony” is a musical meditation on Great Britain losing it’s economic freedom to Japan; the dub version features an extended drum and bass sequence. And the dub of “A Party” (a modern hymn to the Anarchist party) presages their later song “The Battle of All Saints Road’s” unlikely melding of dancehall reggae, country, and bluegrass. The most well-known song from the album was probably “E=MC[squared],” “a kind of homage to . . . Nicholas Roeg,” according to Letts, who with Jones composed all of the songs (Letts also wrote the liner notes for this reissue). It features dialog samples from a cross section of Roeg’s films including Performance, Walkabout, and The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Following is the original music video for “Medicine Show ((C) 1985 SONY BMG MUSIC ENTERTAINMENT):

Strong throughout, this is little gem of ‘80s music kind of flew under the radar as far as mainstream sales and airplay, but it richly deserves to be revisited and appreciated anew for its sinuous melding of disparate pop music forms into an audio document of its time.

Reviewed by Mike Tribby

View review March 5th, 2010


Title: BlakRoc

Artist: BlakRoc (Black Keys and various artists)

Label: BlakRoc

Catalog No.:  BR 001-2

Format:  CD, MP3

Release date:  November 27, 2009

The concept of black participation in rock ‘n’ roll music has been in vogue as of late. Major songs such as “Party Like a Rock Star,” Lil Wayne’s flirtation with the genre on Rebirth, and events such as the AAAMC’s “Right to Rock” conference have done much to advance the discourse on the subject over the past year. Picking up on what might turn into a popular trend in African American popular music was Dame Dash, who rushed to put together the Blackroc project. Blacroc is a collaboration between Dash’s favorite rock band, The Black Keys, and an assembly of rappers including RZA, Mos Def, Jim Jones, and Ludacris. Though all of the artists involved are extremely talented, and the collaboration looked good on paper, the project’s ultimate execution remained in question.

The album surprisingly opens with “Coochie,” an ode to sex featuring Ludacris and the late Old Dirty Bastard. Ludacris provides his usual solid verse and it’s always good to hear fresh O.D.B. material. Mos Def sounds very comfortable over the Black Keys’ Led Zeppelin-esque production in “On the Vista.” “Dollaz & Sense” is a good song, but a bit underwhelming considering it features hip hop legends RZA and Pharoah Monche, while Wu-Tang MC Raekwon continues his winning streak on the bluesy “Stay Off the F_%$#n’ Flowers.” Dip Set’s Jim Jones steals the show on the hard-edged “Ain’t Nothing Like You (Hoochie Coo),” which also features the crooning of Mos Def.  Jones comes through again on the psychedelic “What You Do to Me,” aided by hot verse from MOP’s Billy Danze and the soulful singing of Nicole Wray. Outside of the disappointing “Hope You’re Happy,” the only problem with this album is a lack of energy―when combined with the Black Keys consistent sound, it seems like you’re listening to one long song, rather than a full length album. While good, the material gets a bit redundant toward the end.

Following is the second chapter in a series of “webisodes” about the project published on YouTube; in this chapter Mos Def meets the Black Keys in the studio:

Ultimately, Blakroc is a solid project. The Black Keys consistently provide hot backdrops on which the rappers and singers contribute good to sometimes great vocals. Part of what makes the project so enjoyable is that it never seems forced. The seamlessness in the collaborations lend an organic feel that is often missing from these types of projects. Hopefully, Blakroc will not only open the door for similar projects, but will bring more attention to African  American participation in rock ‘n’ roll music.

Reviewed by Langston Collin Wilkins

View review March 5th, 2010


Title:  Paspanga

Artist:  Burkina Electric

Label:  Cantaloupe Music

Catalog No.:  CA21057

Format:  CD; MP3

Release Date:  January 12, 2010

Based in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso (but with members also in New York and Düsseldorf), Burkina Electric melds traditional West African music, African highlife, and western electronica.  Founded and led by American-based drummer and composer Lukas Ligeti (son of avant-garde electronic composer György Ligeti), the group features a number of powerhouse members:  German experimental pop veejay Pyrolator and two acclaimed Burkinabè musicians, singer Maï Lingani, and guitarist Wende K. Blass.  The band also includes two dancers, Vicky and Zoko Zoko, though their artistic contributions are obviously not well showcased on a sound recording (though they also double as backup singers.)  Ligeti defines the group as “post-intercultural,” creating new sounds based out of their various musical languages rather than juxtaposing extant cultural influences.   In his accompanying notes to the album, he includes a guide to the songs, noting not only the language and topic of each song, but also identifying the rhythms used in each, whether traditional Burkinabè patterns or newly-synthesized rhythms created by the band but inspired by Burkinabè rhythms.

While the digital feel of the album makes Ligeti’s and Pyrolator’s contributions clear, Lingani and Blass are the musical ringmasters here, their skills and energy at the forefront of every track.  Lingani particularly shines as she energetically sings, speaks, and narrates in five different languages.  Blass’s guitar adds a sparkling melodic element, as well as outlining the rhythmic motifs of each song.  The skittering, electronic “Naab Koobo” and the bouncing, Afro-poppy “Bobo Yengué” (sung by dancer Zoko Zoko) both recount traditional Burkinabè tales, while “Saaga” and “Bana” relate interactions with God (to bring rain and explain the existence of disease) sung against spare, percussive digital accompaniments.  As a band rooted in dance music, however, Burkina Electric is at their energetic best on the faster dance songs, particularly the opening track “Gom Zanga,” an introductory welcome, and the closing track “Ça va chauffer,” a rousing party tune.

Following is a clip of Burkina Electric performing in the studio at WNYC in New York, after a radio interview:

While Burkina Electric’s claim to the title of first electronica band from Burkina Faso may be somewhat questionable, given the country’s strong hip hop scene that certainly incorporates electronic samples, it is clear that their music is not typical Afro-pop, nor does it tread the threshold of cultural appropriation, since the Burkinabè members of the group have most of the spotlight and Ligeti seems cognizant enough of West African music to manipulate and fuse rhythms adeptly and honestly.   On Paspanga, they offer a modern yet organic approach to musical collaboration between tradition and innovation, approaching fusion not as a recipe but as an expression of integrated styles.

Reviewed by Ann Shaffer

View review March 5th, 2010

Chapter VII

Title:  Chapter VII

Artist:  Buddy Miles

Label: Wounded Bird

Catalog No.: WOU-51

Format:  CD

Release date: November 10, 2009

Although primarily known in the collective rock consciousness as the drummer on Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys’ live album, Buddy Miles amassed an impressive body of work during his career. His first major exposure was as part of Wilson Pickett’s touring review, which undoubtedly influenced his singing style, amongst other things. During the mid-‘60s he was part of the band Electric Flag with Paul Butterfield, serving as both drummer and lead vocalist for a time. In 1970 Miles played on the aforementioned Band Of Gypsy album, and while this was of course Hendrix’s showcase, Miles contributed a couple of tracks that showed the Band of Gypsys was a wholly different beast than The Jimi Hendrix Experience (one can’t help but wonder what might have become of the band had Hendrix lived).

Post Band of Gypsys, Miles formed his own band, the Buddy Miles Expressway, and recorded two albums produced by Hendrix. He then began a run of solo and collaborative albums (some with Carlos Santana) that lasted until his death in 2008. The major theme running through Buddy Miles’ body of work is his effortless fusing of rock, rhythm & blues, and funk musical styles. Since his death there have been sporadic reissues of his work here and there, and now Chapter VII (his 9th album, released in 1973) has finally been reissued for the first time on CD.

Chapter VII begins with the instrumental track “L.A. Resurrection,” which basically serves as a quick and easy work out for Miles and his band. However, they really get down to business on the following track, “Life Is What You Make It Part 1.” The band lets loose some high energy funk with Miles keeping the rhythm section popping. While the lyrics to this jam may come off trite in retrospect, the star is Miles’ vocal performance. He may not have as strong a voice as the aforementioned Wilson Pickett, but he definitely uses the voice he has to the best of his ability. From the wailing and screaming on “Elvira” to the more subdued vocals on “There Was A Time,” Miles is fully committed to what he’s singing, yet never oversteps his bounds, all the while making good of use of his admittedly limited vocal range. “Visions” is a great track that sounds like early Funkadelic (in their pre Uncle Jam days), while “Crossfire” rounds out the album and reasserts the strength of the group’s very funky organ and horn section.

The reissue of Chapter VII includes as a bonus track the single version of “Hear No Evil,” which ironically edits out the best part of the song, in my opinion. Also included is a live (edited) version of “Them Changes,” by this point Miles’ signature song from his album with Carlos Santana. I’ve heard several versions of this from Miles, but the one included here is probably my favorite. Miles goes all out vocally and the combination of his drumming with Santana’s Afro-Cuban rhythm section really makes this version stand out.

While I would not point listeners to Chapter VII as an introduction to Buddy Miles (his 1970 album Them Changes is better for that), any established fans will be interested in adding this CD to their collection.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

View review March 5th, 2010

Boogie Woogie Kings

Title:  Boogie Woogie Kings

Arists:  Various

Label:  Delmark

Catalog No.: 804

Format: CD

Release Date: November 2, 2009

This CD is a course in Boogie Woogie Piano 101, much of it recorded in 1939 but parts recorded in 1955, 1960 and 1970.  Delmark founder and owner Bob Koester provides neat little biographical sketches of the artists in the brief liner notes. The music speaks for itself; it must since the notes don’t offer any details.

“So who doesn’t like Boogie Woogie?” Koester asks in his notes. It’s hard to think of anyone while listening to this collection. The 1939 recordings of Albert Ammons (stride piano pioneer and father of hard bop sax great Gene Ammons and Methodist Bishop Edsel Ammons), Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson are classic Chicago-style warhorse piano gymnastics.  Especially amazing is Lewis’s “Doll House Boogie,” part of which was apparently pounded out on a toy piano! The CD tray card notes these are “famous 1939 Sherman Hotel (Chicago) recordings,” but does not explain the context so one wonders what is “famous” about this venue and these recordings.

Interesting and different are the circa 1939 recordings of “Cripple” Clarence Lofton.  Koester describes his style as the “Raggedy-Ass school of woogie,” meaning Lofton “never really hits a wrong note but slaps the keys in a way that you wonder how he does it.” The key to Lofton is how he keeps the beat together while running around the keyboard. It’s a nice contrast to the polished pyrotechnics of Lewis.

Delmark is in the process of reissuing titles from Paul Affeldt’s Euphonic Sounds label, and this CD is part of the series.  The recordings of Henry Brown and Speckled Red come from Affeldt’s master tapes. The performances are less polished than the 1939 recordings by the old masters, but there’s much to like about them.  Koester’s notes claim Speckled Red’s “Dirty Dozens” is “the great-grandfather of rap.”  It is a humorously foul-minded ditty, and apparently Red would extend the playing time and dirtiness of the lyrics (after asking the ladies to leave the room) when he played the song live.

A note about the sound quality: it’s not, by and large, high-fidelity. The 1939 performances are heard through the clouded lens of scratchy and sometimes distorted disc recordings. The field recordings made by Affeldt in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s are of varying quality, sometimes quite good.  But none of this prevents the fine music from blasting through.  Listen carefully to what these men are doing to a piano with two hands and 10 fingers and the amazement will cancel out any complaints about the audio fidelity. Kudos from this reviewer to Affeldt and then Koester, for avoiding heavy use of EQ or noise-reduction gadgets. What you hear on this CD is more or less what was heard during playbacks at the recording sessions.

Overall, Boogie Woogie Kings is a great introduction to blues-based stride piano. The music is vaguely suggestive of a saloon, but have no doubt that these guys are master musicians, playing hard and fast. If you’re interested in further exploration, hunt down Albert Ammons’ 1940’s Mercury sides, Pete Johnson’s work with Joe Turner, Meade Lux Lewis’s sides reissued by Riverside in the 1950s, and further Delmark CDs in this Euphonic Sounds series.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

Editor’s note:  Jimmy Blythe’s Messin’ Around Blues, a previous release in the Euphonic Sounds series, was reviewed in Black Grooves in 2007.

View review March 5th, 2010

The Real Sound of Chicago

Title: The Real Sound of Chicago: Underground Disco from the Windy City

Artist:  Various

Format:  CD, LP, MP3

Label:  BBE Records

Release date:  January 5, 2010

There is some irony in reviewing an album of disco from the Chicago area. This music, so often associated with New York, had its proverbial death in 1979 at Chicago’s Comiskey Park during a radio station’s “Disco Demolition” promotion. In spite of this event, The Real Sound of Chicago compilation is testament to the inability of a single act to destroy a cultural phenomenon; particularly one as pervasive as disco.

To create this album, Mike Grusane and Mike Cole, the owners of Mr. Peabody’s Records in Chicago, dug through their decades-old record collections to find the most representative, unique, and rare artifacts of Chicago’s dance music from 1976-1983. The result is a 23 track album that covers a wide territory from the funky to the soulful, to the gimmicky (“B.T. Boogie Terrestrial”) to the insightful (“School Days”). Following is the promotional video (courtesy of Mike Grusane):

For many, it may be initially difficult to understand what makes The Real Sound of Chicago different from the disco that emanated from other cities. Simply stated, the majority of the tracks on this compilation run a thin line between up-tempo R&B and the common disco sound of the period. A primary reason for this stems from the lack of major label backing, which helped develop the high-production East Coast sounds of the Salsoul Orchestra, The Village People, and K.C. & The Sunshine Band. Instead, the Chicago artists were often represented by small labels attempting to hop onto the disco bandwagon, resulting in a lack of strings and an emphasis on keyboard and percussion instruments. As a result, disco returns to its more soulful roots but with a funky twist, achieved by adding synthesizers to the mix for both the emulation of strings and organs.

All told, while the album succeeds in presenting the unique sound that draws strong lines between disco and Chicago house music, it falls short in certain respects. Firstly, the transfer quality of many of the tracks is, at times, poor. Particularly in the case of Carmen Amez’s “Never Gonna Fall In Love Again (Like I Fell In Love With You),” the high end of the track consistently distorts. While this is the case, it must be noted that the low budgets of these labels would result in the use of poor quality vinyl, which would produce albums that, with any extensive playing, would cause distortions of this type. In light of this, The Real Sound succeeds in presenting these tracks to a larger audience, who would have never heard them otherwise. Furthermore, it is also worth mentioning that The Moore Brothers’ “Bass Come Back” only existed in acetate form, making it a worthwhile gem in this set.

Secondly, a compilation of this sort demands extensive liner notes. Though I received this album as an MP3 download, I’ve discovered from other reviewers that the CD and LP versions also suffer from a lack of liner notes. While they are available on-line, I find this a poor substitute for readily available notes inserted in the packaging or as a file.

In spite of its sonic and packaging shortcomings, the tracks on The Real Sound of Chicago are generally excellent. As stated by the owners of Mr. Peabody’s Records, they have attempted to assemble a collection of above-average quality tracks that represent Chicago, and to that extent, they have succeeded. The tracks cover a wide range that will appeal to many tastes while still maintaining a cohesive sound and solid musical package. This compilation would best be suited for those who are curious about the gap between the “death” of disco and the birth of house, or those who simply want to hear some fun, uplifting disco tracks.

Reviewed by Gary Powell

View review March 5th, 2010


Title: Ya-Ka-May

Artist: Galactic

Label:  Anti

Catalog No.: ANTI-87002-2

Format:  CD, LP, MP3

Release date: February 9, 2010

Galactic is a band with tremendous talent.  Their earlier releases displayed tough chops from a tight, funky unit anchored by the rock-steady drumming of Stanton Moore, with production touches that marked them as studio-savvy pros with ears open to the wide range of sounds that makes their (mostly) native New Orleans so special.  But their latest offering, Ya-Ka-May (Anti-), is an album marred by too many guest stars (isn’t it a little early in their career to be pulling a Willie Nelson?); portentous and claustrophobic production; and, most disturbingly, an almost utter lack of memorable grooves, lyrics, or songs.

The driving force behind much of the music here is hip hop, specifically, the New Orleans variant known locally as “sissy-bounce” (a particular niche of gay and/or transvestite rappers).  But rather than adding a new element to the band’s already sophisticated rhythmic texture, the hip hop elements bind Galactic in a stylistic straitjacket.  The rappers spit out their quick-fire verbiage all right, but the band seems cowed, as if they, too, were just another loop in the box.  The New Orleans beats, normally complex, invigorating, and joyful (even in blues and funeral music), are instead heavy and stultifying.  Even worse, the talents of genuine stars like Irma Thomas are wasted, and though Allen Toussaint fares modestly better, his vocal contribution (“Bacchus”) is buried under an ugly underwater sound.

The vacuousness is not completely unrelieved. The sissy-bounce feature “Katey vs. Nobby” is the one rap track that feels even slightly fresh, thanks mainly to Moore’s second-line influenced snare drumming.  “Cineramascope,” an instrumental with brass players Trombone Shorty and Corey Henry added to the gang, has a nice ’60s spy-movie vibe, all stuttering horns with some good interplay between the guests and saxophonist (and producer/villain) Ben Ellman. “Dark Water,” vocalist John Boutté’s feature, includes a haunting cello part and a restrained, nicely-constructed electric guitar solo from Jeff Raines.  Finally, Walter “Wolfman” Washington―still one of New Orleans’ best-kept secrets―makes “Speaks His Mind” the best track on the disc.  Here is a musician who, unlike the rappers, doesn’t try to bludgeon you with how cool, tough, or hip he is.  His understated vocal delivery and slinky guitar lines are the mark of a self-assured master; he carries the track almost single-handedly.

Following is the official promo video for the album which discusses New Orleans music and explains the concept behind Ya-Ka-May:

YouTube Preview Image
The rest is not as enjoyable.  “Liquor Pang” is warmed-over gris-gris from Dr. John the Night Tripper, and Glen David Andrews’ vocal on “You Don’t Know” sounds like a poor man’s Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (without the redeeming cheeky humor).  By the end of the disc, I just wanted the rappers to stop shouting at me, producer Ellman to knock it off a little with the flangers and compression, and for somebody – anybody – to just write one song I’ll remember more than five minutes after I hear it.  Years ago, roots-rockers Los Lobos apparently got tired of simply making great rock records, and started yearning to create something more Important.  They hooked up with producer Tchad Blake and churned out hideous sonic messes like Colossal Head, This Time, and anything under the Latin Playboys moniker.  Eventually, though, they wised-up, realized they were on a dead-end path, and figured out that just playing great music is important enough.  Here’s hoping Ya-Ka-May is a similar temporary detour for Galactic.

Reviewed by Terry Simpkins

View review March 5th, 2010

Polka Dotted Stripe

Title: The Polka Dotted Stripe

Artist: Jaspects

Label: Jaspects Music Group, LLC (dist. by CD Baby)

Format:  CD, MP3

Release date: April 2009


Somewhere I heard someone describe the Jaspects sound as “jazz for your trunk.” Perfect description.  Jaspects is an Atlanta-based jazz sextet that makes music you can blast from your speakers and rattle a few windows. They have created a winning formula that unites their straight-ahead jazz roots with synth-pop vibes, and the trunk-rattling bass knock for which the South is known.

With their fourth project, The Polka Dotted Stripe, Jaspects, who met while playing in the Morehouse College jazz band, presents not only the Jaspects sound, but the Jaspects worldview. According to their website, the concept of the polka-dotted stripe is all about expanding ones horizons to find solutions in the gray areas of life and push beyond boundaries and convention. The title track announces to the listener “You are not cool if you are not free; you are not free if you cannot see the polka-dotted stripes.”

But what does PDS sound like? It’s mélange of fast and slow, acoustic and electro, but it’s greater than the sum of its parts. The single “Unifunk” is an uptempo dance track that has ethereal keyboards in the background, punctuated by horns and four-on-the-floor drums while buried and distorted vocals encourage the listener to “unify through unifunk.”  Embedded in the intro is the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. giving the opening to his February 1968 sermon “The Drum Major Instinct,” which is accentuated by drum corps-esque playing by Jaspects drummer, HC3. On PDS, lyrical creativity doesn’t take a backseat musicality. The downtempo track “Play On” takes its refrain from a quote from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night which says “If music be the food of love, play on.”

Simply put, PDS is a well thought and executed project that shows the evolution of Jaspects through four albums and over 300 live performances. Unlike their third album, Broadcasting the Definition, which relied heavily on features from vocalists like Janelle Monae, Scar, and Terrence Cotton, the core of PDS uses features by Janelle Monae and PJ Morton sparingly such that the core of PDS is Jaspects.

I admit I only recently found out about Jaspects, but their music has been featured on the CNN documentary Black in America and members of Jaspects have worked with renowned artists like Big Boi, Wyclef, David Banner, Mary J. Blige, and Carlos Santana. In an era where everyone claims to be “different” PDS truly is. What’s more, they have the vision and musicianship to pull it off.  So if your jazz music could use a little more bass, or you’re curious about how MLK sounds over a dance track, or maybe you just need a little something different on your iPod, I unequivocally recommend The Polka Dotted Stripe.

Reviewed by fredara mareva

(Fredara blogs on her dissertation progress at alienatlien)

View review March 5th, 2010

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