Archive for May, 2010

This Charming Life

Title: This Charming Life

Artist: Joan Armatrading

Label: 429 Records

Format:  CD, MP3

Release date: March 30, 2010


On her latest album, West Indian-born singer/guitarist Joan Armatrading has firmly cemented her membership in the “women who rock” club.  Playing nearly all of the instruments herself, including a screaming electric guitar, Armatrading’s sound harkens back to the rock of the ‘70s, not surprising since she recently celebrated her 60th birthday.  The album, featuring all original material, will no doubt appeal more strongly to baby boomers than twenty-somethings.  However, that is hardly meant as a criticism. Armatrading is still going strong, and its most refreshing to hear the folk/pop singer chart new territory.  Overall, this is a great follow-up to her 2007 release Into the Blues, and leads us to wonder which genres she will choose to explore in the future.

Following is the official video for the title track single:

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review May 3rd, 2010

Banker’s Blues

Title:  Banker’s Blues: A Study in the Effects of Fiscal Mischief

Artists:  Various

Label:  Document Records

Format:  CD

Release date:  August 11, 2009


“I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies…” —  Thomas Jefferson (1809).  Based on this premise, the folks at Document have compiled a great set “based on an idea inspired by Bernard Madoff,” among others, but related through the “words of sorrow, humour and wisdom of those that have been victims — who have experienced and suffered hardship as the result of financial mischief.”  Tracks include “Money Craving Folks” by Blind Alfred Reed, “Million Dollar Blues” by Memphis Minnie, and Russell Means’ “Ain’t No Prison for The Corporation.”  Sing it, Brother!

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review May 3rd, 2010

Mahalia Jackson Sings

Title: Gospel Calling: Mahalia Jackson Sings

Artist:  Mahalia Jackson

Label:  Hollywood Select Video

Format:  DVD

Release date: April 13, 2010

The same company that brought us Soul of the Church just released a two DVD set featuring the complete collection of Mahalia Jackson Sings. These four minute segments were filmed in 1961 to use as filler material for other programs.  The 58 songs provide a splendid overview of Jackson’s vocal prowess and includes many gospel favorites.  A must have for any fan of Mahalia Jackson and black gospel music.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review May 3rd, 2010

Funky Midnight Mover

Title:  Funky Midnight Mover: Atlantic Studio Recordings (1962-1978)

Artist:  Wilson Pickett

Label:  Rhino Handmade

Format:  6 CD Box Set

Release date:  January 25, 2010

One of the best box sets offered this year, Funky Midnight Mover includes Pickett’s complete output for Atlantic over a 16 year period.  As if that were not enough, the CDs are bound within a well-illustrated hardcover book featuring brief reminiscences by the late Jerry Wexler, Steve Cropper, Michael Johnson, and Chris Morris, along with a “Track-by-track Commentary” by noted author Bill Dahl (Dahl and Johnson also served as producers of the set, along with Ted Springman).  Definitely destined for a Grammy nomination, and sure to sell out soon.  For additional information, check out the NPR feature by Ed Ward on Fresh Air.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review May 3rd, 2010


Title:  Oro

Artist: ChocQuibTown

Label: National Records

Format:  CD, MP3

Release date: March 2, 2010


On the strength of their release of Oro (Nacional Records), ChocQuibTown’s debut album for the U.S. market, the Colombian hip-hop group is likely to significantly expand their growing audience, based on the combination of new record sales and the more exciting prospect of live performance opportunities and public exposure.  According to their website and promotional materials, ChocQuibTown has already enjoyed an enthusiastic reception as participants of the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) Music and Media Conference, and the members have ventured further and further from home with an international touring schedule.  Yet, the central motivation for ChocQuibTown has little to do with conquering the world, and much more to do with celebrating the immediate locality of their home.  Before hearing the first beat or lyric, the group’s very name announces their native Choco region of Colombia, and the region’s capital city, Quibdo, in a clear promotion of local identity.  In their words, “…As a group, our main objective is for our culture and music to no longer be alien in our own country, and even in the world.”

ChocQuibTown is centered on the songwriting and vocals of three MCs – Gloria “Goyo” Martinez, Carlos “Tostao” Valencia, and Miguel “Slow” Martinez – supported by a host of musicians adding marimbas, keyboards, drums, horns, percussion, and electronic/synthesized textures.  This combination yields ChocQuibTown’s unique Colombian hip-hop sound, which remains surprisingly cohesive considering they try to include ingredients from North American hip-hop, Latin dance music, electronica, jazz, Colombian folk music, and likely many other sources.  Furthermore, they have effectively showcased these influences in a wide variety of rhythmic contexts, sometimes within the course of individual tracks, so that the elements don’t simply “fuse,” but they actively evolve and demonstrate remarkable flexibility and surprising compatibility.

Following is the official music video of the title track:

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In listening to Oro, the lyrics are all but completely lost on me because I have no skills with the spoken language.  This is particularly frustrating because I trust the artists’ goals in celebrating, promoting, or at least candidly portraying the actual lived experiences of their native place, and I can only imagine that the lyrics offer a compelling assortment of details, narratives, and folklore that present contemporary life in Colombia.  Listeners not imprisoned by English will hear that significant dimension and their impressions will likely be colored by the lyrics.  As for myself, my full attention could focus on the actual sound of the music, the audible streams and syncopations of syllables, the rhythmic textures, and the many subtleties in arranging the album that may otherwise have been obscured by the distraction of lyrics.  Consequently, I developed a strong admiration for ChocQuibTown as a group, and a strong respect for Oro as an album.

On the surface, Oro provides catchy rhymes, strong dance beats, memorable hooks, etc, but there is some real magic in the deeper details.  Vocals are constantly shifting between MCs Goya, Tostao, and Slow, and they take full advantage of the possibilities afforded by the trio of voices.  Combined with the occasional, tasteful application of studio tricks, we hear everything from echoing, ethereal female choirs to the starkness of a man shouting directly in your ear.  The two men sometimes rap in tandem, amplifying the lyrics, and at other times split and share the lyrics to establish changes in personality and perspective.  Each of the three members seems capable of delivering more sensitive melodic material as well as tongue-twisting, double-timed rapping, but there is a pattern in Goya offering the catchy, pop-friendly hooks, while Tostao and Slow burst forward with the frenetic rhymes.

The combination of instruments and rhythms employed throughout Oro is particularly effective.  In particular, the marimba is used as a fascinating bridge between styles and settings, because it provides essentially equal measures of melodic/harmonic capacity and percussive effect.  In “Macru,” for instance, the marimba subtly moves between foreground and background, lending melodic reinforcement without ever diluting the primarily rhythmic nature of the song, culminating in a polyrhythmic surprise at the end to confound the previous beats.  “Oro” presents a very different rhythmic feel with its swaying triple meter, and draws attention to an intriguing sonic resemblance between the marimba and electric piano, each with a crisp, dry sound but representing two different points on a line from Colombia’s acoustic, folk-music past to it’s digital, world-music present.  Heavier electronic sounds introduce “Te Saco A Corre,” while a rollicking sax riff establishes the bass line in “Rumba Sin Pelea.”  The consecutive tracks, “Prietos” and “Son Bereju,” demonstrate how ChocQuibTown can generate energy of equal intensity but different kind, making the listener jump on the beach and then jump in the streets.  “El Bombo” feels like visiting a video arcade, “Alguien Como Tu” feels like watching a lava lamp, and “Pescao Envenenao” feels like stumbling into a Latin dance hall.

While each track on Oro presents a unique sound, mood, or intention, there remains a strong unifying identity from the voices of the MCs, generating a complete, satisfying album of contemporary Colombian hip-hop.  ChocQuibTown is remarkable in the way that undeniably folk music from a specific part of their country is woven into the fabric of equally undeniably modern music that would sound fresh in dance clubs around the world.  The sly shifts between acoustic and electronic sounds, the insistence of the different rhythms, and the advantage of trading lyrics between three distinctive voices all amount to a collection of music that is impressive even when you don’t know what any of the words mean.  The U.S. release of Oro actually represents a compilation of music that had been previously available on separate ChocQuibTown projects in Colombia, but if they can continue generating new albums, with fresh material of a similar quality and character, ChocQuibTown should enjoy a continued and growing success well beyond the home that has inspired them.

Reviewed by Richard Walter

View review May 3rd, 2010

New Amerykah, Pt. 2

Title: New Amerykah Pt. 2: Return of the Ankh

Artist: Erykah Badu

Label: Universal Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Catalog No.: B0014023-02

Release date: March 30, 2010

Erykah Badu is back with the promised second installment of New Amerykah, and she has shed the morose demeanor from Pt. 1 of this project. In her highly anticipated follow-up to 4th World War, Badu offers a more introspective angle, showcasing the lover in her rather than the fighter. Return of the Ankh is a collection of vintage Baduisms that continues a seemingly endless stream of soulful vamps and cultivates her Afro-centric, pseudo-Khemetic, distinctly American self, her still evolving New Amerykah.

Badu defies genre on this record as gracefully as she does on any of her others, weaving sidemen and samples into her own sound. Regular collaborators James Poyser, Mike Chav, and RC Williams are brilliant as usual, helping Badu hold all this together with ethereal harp sounds, Lil’ Wayne, and sonic Egyptology. In moments when this record isn’t laying down seriously funky grooves, it relaxes into the same kinds of jazzy melodies that punctuated her earlier work. Notably tasty among these is the opening movement of the marathon cut “Out My Mind, Just In Time,” where melancholy chromaticisms carry the confession of “a recovering undercover over-lover.” The stylistic variety and emotional depth of the rest of the track comprise a microcosm of the whole record.

In contrast to 4th World War, the production style of Return of the Ankh is more consistent from track to track. Turbulence was fitting for the former record, where the sound highlighted social critiques and lamentations. This aptly titled sequel, however, reflects a return to an aesthetic of soulful simplicity that Badu has cultivated for years. Her dedication to it is most readily apparent in two places: the first statement of the liner notes, “I am a rather plain girl,” and the “Window Seat” video (© 2010 Universal Motown Records):

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The controversy surrounding this footage is a testament to the ability of great performance art to evoke strong responses, but neither critics nor fans can deny its basic honesty.

Considered together, 4th World War and Return of the Ankh constitute this artist’s most sophisticated statement to date. If 4th World War was a departure from Badu’s earlier style, it was because it focused on what’s wrong with the world. Here she returns to more familiar habits: appreciating what’s so simply, so extraordinarily beautiful about it. There used to be one or two cuts that I really loved on every Erykah Badu record. These two are really worth a listen together, as a single project in its entirety. Still, the more hopeful outlook of Return of the Ankh feels like home for Badu. “I’m just rooting for the Good in us all,” she writes. New Amerykah expresses her recurrent ache for that basic good in its complex and mature voice.

Reviewed by Peter Hoesing

View review May 3rd, 2010

Hey Jodie!

Title: Hey Jodie!

Artist: Quintus McCormick Blues Band

Label: Delmark

Catalog No.: DE 801

Format: CD

Release Date:  September 22, 2009

Quintus McCormick has been a fixture in the Chicago blues-club scene since the mid-90s, but this is his first studio album as a leader.  In a nice marketing touch, and for the edification of some listeners, Delmark includes a definition of a Jodie on the cover: “n. 1. back door lover.”

The album’s style straddles the line between modern urban blues and southern soul, the common theme being wronged lovers and “troubled business.”  McCormick is a first-rate guitarist, and his band—which includes horns, harmonica and backing vocals—stands firmly behind him.  The result is a polished and smooth sound, with musicianship edging out soul in some parts.

McCormick can also sing, and his vocal range works perfectly with the way he’s arranged the music. The mix is punchy but uncluttered, so the album really pops out of the speakers. The operative mode is “modern,” which means Hey Jodie! sounds closer to Alligator blues records from the ‘90s than Chess blues records from the ‘60s.  Delmark is a veteran Chicago label, so it’s fair to say this album represents a modern example of their catalog, as opposed to what they were selling in the early 1970s. This is noted so a listener is forewarned against “nostalgia-blues.”

Fourteen of fifteen tunes on the album are McCormick originals, and he proves an able songwriter. The sequence offers a nice mix of tempo and topic, as well as parts for each musician to shine. The band sounds like they’ve been working together, live, for a long time, with a very tight beat and nice licks and hooks coming at opportune times, no one stepping on anyone else.  There’s a nice contrast between songs like the title track and the pure blues number “What Goes Around Comes Around.” Several tunes are of the shuffle-blues variety, and others are up-tempo soul.

The band’s Myspace site offers streams of several songs from the album, so an interested listener can pick their preferences. My favorites are “Fifty/Fifty,” “Get That Money,” “Plano Texas Blues,” and the band’s enthusiastic send-up of “Let The Good Times Roll,” which closes the album. To my ears, the weakest tune is the title track, because it’s delivered too “shiny” and not soulful enough for the song and the lyrics. But it’s certainly not a terrible song—there are no duds on this album.

Here’s hoping Quintus McCormick keeps this fine band together and keeps putting out albums as good as Hey Jodie!.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review May 3rd, 2010

How to Rap

Title: How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip Hop MC

Author: Paul Edwards

Publisher: Chicago Review Press

Format:  Book (paperback, 340 p.)

ISBN: 978-1556528163

Date: 2010


How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip Hop MC by Paul Edwards is an in-depth exploration of the dynamics of hip hop lyrical performance. Through the words of more than 100 hip hop artists, Edwards offers a how-to guide for emceeing. According to the author, he became motivated to write this book after discovering that, unlike other musics, there was no instructional guide to hip hop performance:

“I was motivated to write this book mainly because I was looking for something similar myself. If you want to know about most other genres’ music theories or how an instrument works or another musical technique, you can normally look it up, but there wasn’t really anything for rap. You can pick up books on how to play guitar, how to sing, how to play bass, how to learn Jazz chords, how to play Blues scales and guitar, etc. so it was odd nobody had really touched on rapping properly.”

Furthermore, Edwards desired to “preserve all this information and the skill sets and the techniques, so that others can learn from the combined knowledge of all these MCs and hopefully the genre can continue to move forward and build on the strong foundations of the pioneers and masters of the art.”

How to Rap offers readers expert advice on the art of hip hop music. The book is divided into four parts that Edwards posits as essentials of hip hop performance: content, flow, writing, and delivery. Each part is further separated into smaller sub-sections that feature specialized topics. Words from actual artists make up around 90% of the book’s content, collected primarily via telephone interviews. As the author notes, however, this process had its difficulties:

“Contacting the artists was difficult in a lot of cases – you have to just search and search until you find a manager or publicist name and then try to track down their contact info. In most cases you’re contacting the label, a publicity firm, or a booking agent. After a while you start to get the hang of which label people are on, who is most likely to represent them, and in some cases you can contact other people who have interviewed them and see if they’re willing to give up some hard earned contacts! Then from there it’s just a matter of persistence. With some of the artists I had to contact their managers every week for a year until they set up an interview, and I was interviewing pretty much full time to work around their schedules. If they want to do the interview at 3am, that’s when we’re doing it!”

The rappers interviewed by Edwards and featured in the book are among hip hop’s most skilled MCs:  Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, Royce Da 5’9”, Crooked I, Tech N9ne, Sean Price, and Twista are among the many artists who relate the dynamics of their practice.  In the book, Edwards acts a facilitator, introducing and synthesizing artists’ comments. Ultimately, How to Rap is set up like any other musical instruction book, offering a text-based guide to the development of musical aptitude.

Here Tech N9ne explains to the author how he comes up with his incredible flows and how he manages to deliver them on stage (other interview excerpts are also offered on Youtube):

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How to Rap: the Art and Science of the Hip Hop MC, a 300 page course on the particulars of hip hop performance, should serve as a resource for those interested in developing their MC skills as well as those simply interested in the aesthetic. As previously noted, there is a severe shortage of texts focused on the musicality of hip hop. Hopefully, How to Rap will lead to an increase in the number of works dedicated to hip hop as an art form.

Editor’s note:  Paul Edward’s quotes were taken from emails exchanged with the author.

Reviewed by Langston Collin Wilkins

View review May 3rd, 2010

Life is Sweet! Nice to Meet You

Title:  Life is Sweet! Nice to Meet You

Artist:  Lightspeed Champion

Label:  Domino

Catalog No.: DNO 254

Formats:  CD, LP, MP3

Release date: February 16, 2010

The second solo album from Lightspeed Champion (aka Devonte Hynes) finds the 24 year-old Brit moving further into pure pop and away from the indie rock sound of his first album, Falling Off the Lavender Bridge. The ironic quirkiness and unexpected juxtapositions of musical elements found on Lavender Bridge continue on Life is Sweet!, but Lightspeed Champion wears his musical influences on his sleeve here, channeling the history of pop from the ‘50s onward, as well as musical theater and even classical keyboard repertoire.

Lightspeed Champion’s vocals take on more prominence on this album as well, sitting at the front edge of the sound and leading the accompaniment in surprising directions.  Drawing on Motown and ‘70s glam, the opening ballad “Dead Head Blues” sounds oddly reminiscent of Queen—while Hynes can’t compare to Freddie Mercury in presence or vocal virtuosity, he commits with an unabashed sincerity akin to Mercury’s, backed by soaring rock guitar and strings.  A greater sense of theatricality becomes evident, too, on tracks like “The Big Guns of Highsmith,” which sounds like what would happen if the Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles produced a Broadway musical in the late 1990s.   Meanwhile, he evokes ‘50s doo-wop and ‘60s girl groups in the Chopsticks-esque piano accompaniment, swooping string codas, layered backing vocals, and lovelorn plea of “I Don’t Want to Wake Up Alone.”

Several of the tracks feature pairings of contrasting musical styles that work in spite of themselves, as in “Marlene,” which suggests classic Talking Heads pop punctuated by string stingers from ‘70s funk.  Even Hynes’s fondness for country and folk is reflected here in “Sweetheart,” which starts out for all the world like a forgotten Johnny Cash song.  Life is Sweet! delivers four pared-down instrumentals as well, single-note palate-cleansers in the midst of so many stylistic fusions: “Intermission” is an introspective synth meditation, “Intermission 2” delivers a mellow Afro-Caribbean percussion groove, “Etude Op. 3 ‘Goodnight Michalek’” allows Hynes to experiment with writing a classical piano etude, and the closing track “A Bridge And A Goodbye” combines electric bass and celesta to create a delicate final coda to the album.

Following is the official video for “Marlene” (courtesy of Domino Records):

Life is Sweet!  Nice to Meet You is a strong sophomore effort, surpassing Lavender Bridge.  Lightspeed Champion’s gift for orchestration and arranging has always been his strong point, and it shines here.  At the same time, his lyric-writing skills have improved, giving his songs more focus and expression, and his vocals are stronger, integrating better with his accompanying textures.

Reviewed by Ann Shafer

View review May 3rd, 2010

The Pitch/Gusman Records Story

Title: The Pitch/Gusman Records Story

Artists:  Various

Label:  Big Legal Mess; dist. By Fat Possum Records

Format:  3 CD set

Catalog No.:  BLM 0224

Release date:  February 16, 2010

There have been many interesting reissues of black gospel music in recent years, but the Pitch/Gusman Story is notable for shedding light on a little known company out of Savannah, Georgia, operated by Waymon “Gusman” Jones.  According to the liner notes, noted scholar David Evans “discovered” the recordings back in the day when he visited Gusman’s record store, and was largely responsible for spreading the news amongst fellow collectors and crate diggers. When word trickled down to John Glassburner, a gospel collector who also dabbles in artist and label compilations, he decided to make it his mission to track down every record and historical detail about Waymon Jones.

To make a long story short, Jones decided on a mid-life career change and returned to his hometown of Savannah in 1967 to open the Gusman Record Shop (“Gusman” was apparently his nickname).  Though secular records were the mainstay of his business, Jones’ personal preference was gospel music (two of his brothers sang in a quartet, and their father was a deacon).  Before long, his shop became a hang-out for local gospel singers, and Jones quickly expanded his role to label owner, recording engineer, and producer.  By the late ‘60s, Jones was issuing 45s on the Pitch label, which he apparently purchased, and later added his own Gusman label.  His recording activity continued until 1978 when, due to economic constraints, he decided to concentrate solely on his store. Waylon Jones passed away in 2004 at the age of 72, and if not for Glassburner, his story may never have been told.

Thanks to the community of gospel record collectors, 71 rare recordings from the Pitch and Gusman labels have been made available for this project. Produced by Glassburner and Bruce Watson, with notes by gospel historian Alan Young, the three CD compilation is primarily laid out in chronological order.  Disc One is devoted to Pitch 45s recorded between 1961-1975 and features 12 different groups from South Carolina and Georgia, including quartets and solo artists, such as Evangelist Loretta Myles. Disc Two reproduces Pitch and Gusman LPs pressed between 1977-78, the final years of the labels. Artists include the Golden Stars of Greenwood, SC , the Sensational White Family Singers of Savannah, the Mighty Reverlaires, and the Six Voices of Zion from Columbia, SC.  The third disc includes the remaining Pitch 45s from the late ‘60s along with four Gusman 45s from 1973, again featuring a mix of quartets and soloists.  Overall, the selections reflect Jones’s preference for the traditional, and are largely devoid of the contemporary leanings of the ‘70s.

This project is such an obvious labor of love that it is impossible not to be equally enthusiastic about the results.  The liner notes are informative and well-illustrated, and the remastering is excellent.  The set truly gives “21st century listeners a unique opportunity to roll back the years and hear the vital and vibrant sounds of a southern community’s gospel music world in a simpler age.”

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review May 3rd, 2010

The Stimulus Package

Title: The Stimulus Package

Artist: Freeway & Jake One

Label: Rhymesayers Entertainment

Formats: CD, MP3

CD Catalog No: 0117

Release Date: February 16, 2010

Over the course of his career, rapper Freeway has struggled to solidify his spot among rap’s mainstream kings. This is not due to a lack of skills, as Freeway is an extremely gifted emcee. Neither is this from a lack of promotion, as he has been supported by both Jay-Z and 50 Cent, two of rap’s most visible figures. It is possible that Freeway’s lack of commercial success is the result of his style, or maybe he’s just too good. Though Freeway’s subject matter is similar to other mainstream rappers, his raw delivery places him in an underground aesthetic that mainstream fans often find inaccessible. This is why, although surprising, it was not odd to see him link up with underground producer Jake One and release The Stimulus Package on underground powerhouse Rhymesayers Entertainment.

The album opens up with the smooth “Stimulus Intro,” on which Freeway and old Philly partner Beanie Sigel rip a Blaxploitation soundtrack inspired instrumental. The energy turns up on the anthemic “Throw Your Hands Up,” which finds Freeway musing over his history with hip hop. The equally hot “One Fit In” follows and features Free discussing his dual careers. Jake One employs a well-placed Rick James’ sample on “She Makes Me Feel Alright,” as Freeway relates tales of romance. “Never Gonna Change” and “One Thing” with Raekwon are two more solid tracks with hot contributions from both Free and Jake.

Following is the single “She Makes Me Feel Alright,” courtesy of Rhymesayers:

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The airy “The Product” opens up the second half of the album and is followed by old school flavored “Microphone Killa,” which also features State Property member Young Chris. “Follow My Moves” is the most commercial song on the album, but it still maintains the album’s raw feel and includes good performances by Free and Birdman. “Show Nuff” is a solid track featuring Texas legend Bun B and “Freekin’ the Beat” sounds like a Reasonable Doubt remake, which is not a bad thing at all. “Free People” finds Freeway in an introspective mode, discussing his life and career over a piano driven beat. The album’s closer, “Stimulus Outro,” is by far its greatest track. Over incredible Jake One production, Freeway lyrically answers a few pieces of fan mail, and relates the importance of his music in the lives of his listeners. His ability to capture different voices gives the song an honest feel that makes it very effective.

Aside from the stale “Know What I Mean” and the slightly more entertaining “Money,” The Stimulus Package is a total banger. Both Freeway and Jake One make incredible contributions and exhibit amazing chemistry. Rhymesayers and Jake One allowed Freeway to flex his skill as an MC, giving him the freedom to present his entire repertoire. In the summer of 2009, Free signed with Cash Money Records, making the possibility of future Rhymesayers collaborations unclear. No matter what happens in his future, with The Stimulus Package, Freeway has finally left his artistic mark on the hip hop game.

Reviewed by Langston Collin Wilkins

View review May 3rd, 2010

Reverse Thread

Title:  Reverse Thread

Artist:  Regina Carter

Label:  E1 Entertainment

Catalog No.: Koch 2090

Formats:  CD,  MP3

Release date: May 18, 2010

In September 2006, jazz violinist Regina Carter received McArthur Fellowship, which she used to delve into research at New York’s World Music Institute. The fruit of those labors is Reverse Thread, an album of African and African Diasporic folk tunes reinterpreted with a modern sensibility borrowing from jazz, pop (both African and western), and even classical.  In addition to her regular backing band, Carter brought in two virtuoso West African musicians—Malian kora player Yacouba Sissoko, and Senegalese bassist Mamadou Ba—and added accordion (played by Will Holshouser and Gary Versace) into the mix.

In researching her source material, Carter explored ethnographic field recordings and their anthropological and sociological contexts, finding hidden gems along the way.  The opening track “Hiwumbe Awumba” and closing track “Mwana Talitambula” are both derived from an obscure Jewish community in eastern Uganda.  Although the source lyrics for “Hiwumbe Awumba” are “God creates and then He destroys,” the piece as Carter conceives it is joyous and upbeat.  The paired tracks “Kothbiro (Intro)” and “Kothbiro” showcase Sissoko’s kora playing, first in an improvised solo, then in a lullaby-like ostinato pattern underlying Carter’s violin melody, finally growing to an atmospheric improvisation over the violin and ostinato.  “Un Aguinald Pa Regina” takes us to the diaspora, pairing Afro-Caribbean rhythms and a tango-like melody.  The influence of Christian missionaries in Africa can be heard in the hymn-like opening melody of “God Be With You,” which is then treated to African percussion and a jazzy swing.

Here Carter performs “N’Teri” with kora player Yacouba Sissoko and accordionist Will Holshouser at the NPR Music Offices for All Things Considered’s Tiny Desk Concerts series:

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All of these different facets make Reverse Thread a bright gem of a recording, one that transcends the label of mere world beat for a livelier, more interactive approach to drawing on ethnographic sources.  Fusing the classic with the popular, traditional with modern, Regina Carter and her band have created music that is deeply rooted, yet very much alive.

Reviewed by Ann Shafer

View review May 3rd, 2010

I Learned the Hard Way

Title: I Learned the Hard Way

Artist: Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings

Label: Daptone

Catalog No.: DAP 019

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: April 6, 2010

This year appears to be Sharon Jones’ time to shine.  Her previous album, 100 Days, 100 Nights, caused enough buzz to sell over 150,000 copies worldwide, according to Daptone Records’ publicity materials.  The small Brooklyn-based label has now arrayed its entire marketing machine behind this new release, and Jones is booked all over the summer music-festival scene. If you’re anywhere near live soul music this summer, you are liable to hear Sharon Jones. Indeed, she launched the album with a dynamic performance at South by Southwest in Austin, TX.

Some reviewers have pigeonholed this album as “retro soul.” I would suggest it is, rather, a new extension of musical styles that left the popular vernacular a couple of decades ago. In other words, she’s not a mechanical copy-cat, but instead is picking up the old threads of soul that went dormant when the Stax, Philadelphia International and Motown streams morphed into hard funk and then disco. Sure, this music could have been played back in the mid-60s, but these exact tunes and hooks were not, so this counts as original and new music.

Daptone says the album was “recorded on an Ampex 8-track tape machine by (producer/engineer Gabe Roth, a.k.a. Bosco Mann) in Daptone Records’ House of Soul studios.” The old-style production puts a vintage sparkle on things, but the sound works just fine in a modern setting. The overall product is much less fuzzy/distorted than old albums from Motown and Stax, but it’s not as punchy and in-your-face as a modern “R&B” production. The net result is a coherence and believable ensemble performance, very enjoyable to listen to either through speakers or earbuds. Using real strings and horns adds desired flavors, and demonstrates the polish of Daptone’s “house band.”

Following is the official music video for “I Learned the Hard Way” (© Daptone Records, 2010):

Sharon Jones’ voice is definitely a throwback, but in all the good ways. She isn’t doing vocal-chord-gymnastics like an American Idol contestant, nor is she mumbling or burying herself in a dense backing track. She’s right out there, just being Sharon Jones. To use an over-used descriptor, she delivers the songs effortlessly. She is clearly in her natural voice and is not forcing the energy level or vocal range. This is such a pleasure to hear, a real soul natural making records today. I’m reminded of Etta James in her prime, or a young Aretha Franklin.

As for the Dap-Kings, these boys clearly absorbed all the classic soul motifs and hooks, and can bring them on demand. Daptone’s own publicity materials compare them to “the golden days of Muscle Shoals and Stax,” but I also hear echoes of Motown and Philadelphia International, and even some Duke/Peacock in the mix.

The album is available for preview-streaming online, so an interested listener should form their own conclusions about favorite tunes.  My own favorites are: “Better Things,” “Window Shopping,” “Money,” “I’ll Still Be True,” and “Without a Heart.” But the whole album heard in sequence is a very rewarding 45 minutes because thought and care went into the order and mix of each track.

Bottom line, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings can deliver the goods during their moment in the spotlight.  This should lead to a bright future, both for them and the kind of soul music they’ve chosen to pick up and move forward.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review May 3rd, 2010

Welcome to the May 2010 Issue

This month we’re featuring new releases by Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, Regina Carter, Lightspeed Champion, Erikah Badu, and Joan Armatrading.  Since the tax season just ended and the senate is (allegedly) tackling financial reform, we thought it appropriate to also feature Jake One & Freeway’s new album The Stimulus Package, along with Document Record’s compilation Banker’s Blues: A Study in the Effects of Fiscal Mischief.  Other historical sets and reissues include The Pitch/Gusman Records Story about a little known gospel label from Savannah, the lavish box set Funky Midnight Mover featuring Wilson Pickett’s Atlantic recordings, and the new DVD set Gospel Calling: Mahalia Jackson Sings.  Also featured in this issue is the new release by ChocQuibTown, a Columbian folk/hip hop group, and the book How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip Hop MC by Paul Edwards.

View review May 3rd, 2010

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