Archive for February, 2011

Soul Seekers II

Title:  Soul Seekers II

Artist:  Soul Seekers

Label: My Block / Malaco

Formats: CD, MP3

Catalog No: MBK 321 00

Release Date: November 16, 2010

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Indeed it has been a very long wait―five years, in fact, since these eight talented men came together as a group to produce their first soul inspiring album. The Soul Seekers is made up of acclaimed songwriters, producers, musicians and composers, and they have really put this expertise into play in their new release, Soul Seekers II. The album continues to follow the path the group proclaims is “the new paradigm in modern-day quartet music.” The result, drawing from traditional roots of southern gospel, is rhythmically adventurous with multiple changes of tempo, beautifully sustained notes, interval leaps and sweet crooning harmonies of love and passion.

Every individual needs some sort of uplifting and encouraging words in a lifetime, and I believe the Souls Seekers have said it all in this album. The stand out track is “Its All God,” which opens with streams of voices that merge together into a pool of harmonized sounds, interspersed with Pastor Marvin Winan’s words of inspiration and light contrapuntal strokes from the organ. It is indeed a must hear song:

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The tracks that follow—“Hang On,” “Trust Me,” and “Take Your Burdens”— will keep your feet stamping with their rhythmic power. As one might expect, the overall sound quality and production is extremely good.

The down trodden, the challenged, and everyone seeking an inspirational message―these are the reasons for which Soul Seekers II was created. The group deserves compliments for making the album an exciting one worthy of listening again and again. The album title  tells it all. Indeed it was worth the wait.

Reviewed by Nana Amoah

View review February 2nd, 2011

Jubilant Sykes Sings Copland and Spirituals


Title: Jubilant Sykes Sings Copland and Spirituals

Artists: Jubilant Sykes, London Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Litton, cond.

Label: Arioso Classics

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 12, 2010

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Arioso recently reissued Jubilant Sykes’ 1994 album of Copland’s “Old American Songs” and traditional spirituals. Recorded at Abbey Road Studios on March 30-31, 1993, the American baritone was paired with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Litton, a native New Yorker who specializes in American vernacular music. Included among the eight spirituals, which comprise half the album, are “Go Down, Moses,” “City Called Heaven,”  “Ride On, King Jesus,” and “Weepin’ Mary.”  Though Sykes is classically trained and has performed with various orchestras and opera companies, including the Metropolitan Opera, he is also a respectable jazz singer.  Consequently, his renditions of spirituals are extremely free flowing and often improvisational in nature, never reverting to the overtly operatic interpretations produced by many classical singers.  Equally free spirited are Copland’s “Old American Songs,” from the humorous “I Bought Me a Cat” to the closing “Ching-A-Ring Chaw.”

Surprisingly, this CD has garnered little attention and as of this date hasn’t even been added to Sykes’ All Music Guide discography.  Now that Arioso has made the CD available again, along with downloadable MP3 files, we are offered a second chance to add this very enjoyable music to our collections.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review February 2nd, 2011

Bishop Morton Celebrates 25 Years of Music

Title: Bishop Morton Celebrates 25 Years of Music

Artist: Bishop Paul Morton

Label: Light Records

Formats: CD, MP3 (also released on DVD)

Release date: November 2, 2010

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Bishop Paul Morton has been a pastor for over thirty years and currently leads the large congregations of Greater St. Stephens Full Gospel Baptist Church located in New Orleans and Atlanta. Alongside these accomplishments, Bishop Morton has also actively been involved in music ministry and recording for over twenty-five years. Most of his more popular songs were performed with choirs from the churches and were written by artists ranging from Kurt Carr to Morton’s son PJ Morton.

In celebration of Morton’s twenty-five years in the music industry, some of gospel music’s most influential and successful artists were gathered together to perform selections that Bishop Morton and his choir have popularized over the years. This live recording features artists ranging from longtime veteran Shirley Caesar to newcomer and season one Sunday Best winner Crystal Aiken. The repertoire is also stylistically diverse with pieces such as “His Yoke Is Easy” representing more traditional gospel while “Be Blessed” (written by Kurt Carr) utilizes a more contemporary approach. One of the most dynamic performances is rendered by saxophonist Angella Christie on the song “Don’t Do It Without Me.”  Playing alongside vocalist Earnest Pugh, Christie uses her instrument as her voice to perform an embellished version on the melody that would be difficult if not impossible to recreate with a human voice. Shirley Caesar is also an awesome addition and presents an emotionally charged performance in a duet with Bishop Morton on the song “Your Tears”:

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While I would have appreciated the fuller choir sound that is present in most of the original recordings of these songs, Bishop Morton Celebrates 25 Years of Music does offer some new interpretations of old favorites.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

View review February 2nd, 2011

Floetic Soul

Title: Floetic Soul

Artist: Floacist (Natalie Stewart)

Label:  Shanachie

Format: CD, MP3

Release date: November 9, 2010

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A former member of the neo-soul duo Floetry, Natalie Stewart presents Floetic Soul as her first solo project since the duo disbanded.  Using a title reminiscent of earlier Floetry albums (Floetic, Floacism and Flo’Ology), stylistically Stewart (The Floacist) also stays true, at least for the majority of the album, to the sultry, relaxed, soulful styling of Floetry.

Floetic Soul straddles the line between a strictly spoken word presentation and a neo-soul album. Written in its entirety by Stewart, the majority of the tracks are spoken word presentations with smooth, soulful accompaniment consisting mainly of piano, relaxed and muted horns, and simple drum patterns. The neo-soul element is emphasized by the guests on several of the tracks.  “Keep it Going” features established soul artist Raheem Devaughn; “Forever,” the fourth track and also the album’s first single, features mainstream neo-soul artist Musiq Soulchild; while “Come Over” features R&B/Soul artist Lalah Hathaway (daughter of Donny Hathaway).

Following is the video for “Forever”:

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Alongside these quotations of sultry soul (or what Stewart defines as neo-soul), there are tracks in the middle that are heavily influenced by hip hop in terms of delivery and instrumental accompaniment.  These four tracks – “What R U Looking 4?,” “What U Gonna Do,”  “Go Get It,” and “Overtime” – introduce a prominent electronic element, with accompaniment of repetitive beats cycling the same musical gestures throughout the entire song.  These hip hop influences are strategically placed within a bed of sultry soul created by the other tracks on the album.

The content of the album is largely romantic and sexually suggestive in nature, inviting the suggested love interest to “come over,” explaining that the performer wants to “do you,” and proclaiming that “you’ve got me forever.”  The album begins and ends, however, with the encouraging anthems “Breathe,” “The Stand” and “Alright Then.” These songs all present messages of getting through difficult times, encouraging listeners that difficulty is temporary and everything will be Alright.

Overall, Floetic Soul acknowledges the soulful elements Floetry was known for, but also expands the musical palette with the introduction of full hip hop influenced songs.  With the presence of mainstream soul artists, The Floacist makes a musical proclamation identical to the one made in her album thank you notes: Neo Soul is Alive.

Reviewed by Christina Harrison

View review February 2nd, 2011

Expektoration Live

Title: Expektoration Live

Artist: MF Doom, featuring Big Benn Klingon

Label: Gold Dust

Format: CD

Release Date: September 14th, 2010

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MF Doom has been at the forefront of underground hip hop for the past few years with his innovation and no frills approach to production, sampling, and emcee style.  He has released records with Dangermouse, Madlib, and even dropped a record on Adult Swim’s label.  His career reaches as far back as 1988 with his group KMD.  In those good old days of hip hop, he went by Zev Love X and partnered up with his brother DJ Subroc.  KMD was soon signed to Elektra, but tragedy struck when Subroc was killed in a car accident.  The week of his brother’s death, Elektra dropped the group and refused to release their record due to controversial artwork.  Doom went into a bout of depression, but during that time KMD’s album was bootlegged and Doom began his rise to fame through word of mouth and mix tape hand-offs.

In 1997, Doom began slowly creeping back into the world of hip hop.  He released Operation: Doomsday in 1999 under his new moniker and it was a hip hop masterpiece, with beat production that was loose and grimy in all the best ways. The lyrics were  also full of originality, with esoteric references to things not commonly spoken about in hip hop music, for example “Quick to whip up a script like Rod Serling.”  From there Doom’s career skyrocketed with releases such as MM Food, Madvillainy (with Madlib), Special Herbs Volumes (instrumental series), Monster Island Czars, Viktor Vaughn, King Geedorah, and many others.

Expektoration is a live album recorded in New York on September 14th, 2009.  A strong, live hip hop album is a hard thing to deliver, but I must say MF Doom and Big Benn Klingon have succeeded with hard hitting, fresh, and impressive tracks free from overwhelming hype men and distorted lyrics.  Doom is a veteran when it comes to rocking a crowd, and you can hear it.  His lyrical sense is close to the original album versions, but he plays with his syllabic use and improvises verses from time to time.

The album consists of three tracks.  The first runs roughly thirty minutes and primarily consists of tracks from MM Food and Madvillainy.  There are some incredible samples used throughout the album that play off of the Klingon language and the spitting that occurs while trying to speak it.  It gives the album a great vibe and fits right in with Doom’s use of samples pertaining to interestingly strange subject matter.  The Intermission is just samples of people pronouncing words in Klingon; it is incredible.  The third track or “Act 2″ consists primarily of material from Operation: Doomsday.  We also get to hear Doom dive into his alter ego known as King Geedorah on “The Fine Print”.

Following is the video of “Beef Rapp” (courtesy of Gold Dust):

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Expektoration gives us all a chance to hear MF Doom in his element as the “Prolific Madman” on the microphone.  The album is a true, raw, and listenable live hip hop album worthy of attention from all ears everywhere.  Another solid release in the world of hip hop from Gold Dust Records.

Reviewed by Jason Cyrus Rubino

View review February 2nd, 2011

Gutter Rainbows

Title:  Gutter Rainbows

Artist:  Talib Kweli

Label:  Javotti Media / 3D

Format: MP3, CD (digital-only in North America)

Release date:  January 2011

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Gutter Rainbows is the fifth solo album from Brooklyn MC Talib Kweli. Coming off the heels of the well-received Revolutions Per Minute by his group Reflection Eternal, Gutter Rainbows is his first solo album since 2007’s Ear Drum. With a production lineup that includes the likes of 88 Keys, Ski Beatz, and Oh No (Madlib’s brother) and features from Sean Price and Jean Grae, Gutter Rainbows is Kweli’s attempt to resituate his conscious voice within the mainstream landscape.

One thing Kweli cannot be accused of is inconsistency. Like his previous records, Gutter Rainbows is a collection of songs with conscious lyrics and soulful production. Standout tracks include “Gutter Rainbows,” the smooth “Mr. International,” and the Krysis produced “I’m On One.” Underground heroes Sean Price and Jean Grae lend their talents to “Palookas” and “Uh Oh” respectively, which prevents the sound from becoming monotonous. As usual, Kweli only falters when he attempts to be too stylish or commercial as he does on the up-tempo “Ain’t Waiting.”

Following is the video of “Cold Rain” (courtesy of Javotti Media):

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Overall, Gutter Rainbows is a solid record from MC Talib Kweli. Keeping with the formula that has proved successful over fifteen years, he has produced an album that should appeal to his core fan base as well as younger listeners who are looking for a more mature sound.  If Revolutions Per Minute and Gutter Rainbows are any indication, the future looks bright for the veteran emcee.

Reviewed by Langston Collin Wilkins

View review February 2nd, 2011

The Big Payback


Title:  The Big Payback: the History of the Hip-Hop Business

Author:  Dan Charnas

Publisher:  New American Library

Format: Hardcover Book (660 p.)

ISBN: 978-0-451-22929-8

Publication Date: Dec. 2010

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Although it began in the modest landscape of 1970s South Bronx, hip hop music has become a multibillion dollar global industry in a rather short period of time. A number of hip hoppers, including Russell Simmons, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, and Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter have built media empires through the production of hip hop records. The exploration of hip hop’s financial journey from Beat Street to Wall Street has taken a back seat to the examination of its cultural impact. Dan Charnas’ The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip Hop is one of the first chronicles of the history of the hip hop industry.

Charnas, an industry veteran, provides a broad look at the hip hop industry, focusing on major developments within the fields of record production, radio, television, and film. The book is essentially comprised of anecdotes detailing the business exploits of several of hip hop’s major (and minor) players. The rise of industry giants such as Lyor Cohen, Sean Carter, and Kevin Liles are fascinating and educational at the same time. However, the stories of lesser known figures such as Violator management’s Chris Lighty, Rap Coalition’s Wendy Day, and KDAY DJ Greg Mack are extremely compelling and provide rich information about the inner workings of the music industry.

One key drawback to the book is its structure, or lack thereof. Each chapter contains several interlocking narratives, with very few headings or labels. This makes the book a bit difficult to navigate and extract information from. Further, Charnas’ exploration is dominantly East Coast based and discounts the significant developments that have occurred in the West and South. Charnas under-explores the stories of LA’s Death Row Records, Houston’s Rap-A-Lot Records, and New Orleans’ No Limit Records and ignores the importance of Atlanta’s La Face Records.

In the following video, Charnas discusses his reasons for writing the book:

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Despite the previously mentioned drawbacks, overall The Big Payback provides an excellent look at the economic developments of hip hop music. While by no means exhaustive, it is a very detailed survey of the various individuals, institutions, and events that made hip hop what it is today. The book is a must read for those with a dedicated interest in hip hop music and/or the recording industry in general.

Reviewed by Langston Collin Wilkins

View review February 2nd, 2011

Laru Beya

Title: Laru Beya

Artist: Aurelio

Label: Next Ambiance/Sub Pop

Format:  CD, MP3

Release date: January 18, 2011

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Laru Beya, Aurelio’s debut album, is global pop that is informed by his musical roots and influenced by some big-name musical mentors.  Aurelio (a.k.a. Aurelio Martinez) is a Garifuna, a descendant of West African slaves who were shipwrecked on St. Vincent the mid 1600s and intermarried with the Caribs and Arawaks living there at the time.  The Garifuna have since spread throughout the Caribbean and Central America.  Aurelio’s album reflects this lineage, with some traditional Garifuna music along with rhythms and instrumentation that evokes the Caribbean and Central America with a solidly guitar-driven global pop vibe.

Most prominently, this album is a tribute to Andy Palacio, a Garifuna musician who, with his group the Garifuna Collective, almost singlehandedly brought about a revival of traditional Garifuna music.  Palacio also often used music to make social statements, a tradition that Aurelio continues with songs like “Weibayuwa” (“Sharks”), which compares politicians to bloodthirsty sharks, even though Aurelio himself was a congressman in the Honduras Legislature from 2006-2010.

Another guest on the album, Senegalese afro-pop musician Youssou N’Dour, took Aurelio on as a protégé in 2009 and provides guest vocals on a track called “Wamada” (“Our Mutual Friend”), which serves as a tribute to Andy Palacio, who passed away in January of 2008.  “Wamada” also uses traditional elements of Garifuna music, most notably Aurelio’s vocals, which contain part of the sacred Dugu ceremony, which he sings in honor of Palacio.

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So if you were a fan of Andy Palacio or simply enjoy global pop, Aurelio’s album Laru Beya (“By the Beach”) comes highly recommended.  But don’t take my word for it, listen to the title track for yourself, which not only features Aurelio’s distinctive, slightly raspy vocals, but also guest appearances by vocalists from Orchestra Baobab.

Reviewed by David Lewis

View review February 2nd, 2011

Peña

Title: Peña

Artist: Various Artists

Label: Secret Stash Records

Format: CD+DVD

Date: October 12th, 2010

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A product of earnest curiosity and impulsive action, Peña is the Afro-Peruvian music project cultivated by Corey J. Wong and Eric Foss of Secret Stash Records in March 2010. Driven by a genuine adulation for Afro-Peruvian music and the drought of American releases under the genre, Secret Stash Records felt it their duty to bring Afro-Peruvian music to the conscience of the mainstream. The plan was to take a pilgrimage to Peru and record a collection of songs that would serve as an accurate representation of Afro-Peruvian music. Within 3 weeks of developing their thesis, Wong and Foss found themselves in Lima with bags full of recording equipment, a translator, and no apparent connections to any musicians.

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Afro-Peruvian music stems from the African slaves brought to Peru in the mid-1500s by Spanish conquistadors. Forced to live and work on plantations, the slaves developed their own style of music expressing the complexity and various aspects of slavery. Strongly influenced by Spanish and Andean music, as well as their own African culture, their musical style tends to be heavily percussive, rhythmical, and strongly emotional, incorporating somber lyrics about heartache and hard labor. An instrument extensively used on Peña, and ubiquitous with Afro-Peruvian music, is the cajón, a large wooden box drum that is sat upon and played with the hands. Other conventional instruments in the genre include the guitar, bass, and various other percussive instruments.

The word peña, referring to an Afro-Peruvian block party, embodies the ethos of this album perfectly. The same way strangers interact and fall into conversation at a party; likewise, many of the recordings on this album came to be through Wong and Foss engaging musicians of which they had no prior knowledge. Street musicians, guitar playing restaurant owners, and music store clerks were all fair game for recording. With no access to a studio, they recorded in the living rooms, balconies, and front porches of some of the roughest neighborhoods in Peru. Wong and Foss risked being robbed of their recording equipment, and their lives, to capture these priceless recordings.  Within the span of a week, 50 recordings were captured but only 17 were used for the final compilation.

Being a generally instrumental album, the tracks soak you in a lustrous landscape of nylon string guitars, bass, and wooden percussion. The handful of songs featuring vocals are thoughtfully sprinkled throughout the album. They feature heartbreaking and, equally as powerful, uplifting vocal performances by local Lima artists. Wong, being a professionally trained guitarist in the Afro-Peruvian style, masterfully lends his playing to 11 tracks. Listening, it becomes evident Wong not only understands the technical aspect of the music, but is also sentient to the spirit and feeling behind every note. The fluidity of his playing is at its prime in the opening track, El Carmen, a festejo (festive Peruvian music) with guitar and cajón.

Continue listening and the track El Mayoral is sure to catch your attention, with a sublime vocal performance by Sofia Rei Koutsovitis. The song opens with a driving cajón rhythm that perpetuates throughout the song as it jumps in and out the chorus’s climactic shouts of “Oh, Slave Driver!” and flows seamlessly into both a bass and scat solo. Other impressive tracks include the three traditional guitar pieces performed by Javier Choy: Baile De Los Caballlos, Romance De Los Suspiros, and Vals De La Costa. Choy was working his shift behind the register of a music store when Wong and Foss, searching for sheet music, serendipitously discovered he was an amazing guitar player in the Afro-Peruvian style. Later that day, Choy was being recorded on the front steps of their hostel for a featured spot on the album.

Packaged in a lavish wooden case (an allusion to the cajón?), the release includes the audio CD and a DVD of the behind-the-scenes making of the record. The DVD, a great supplement, takes you on Wong and Foss’s trip to Peru and allows you to put a face to all of the performers and a visual to the recording spaces. Peña, an overall honest and beautifully recorded album, serves as the perfect introduction to the Afro-Peruvian genre. With an emphasis on instrumental songs, non-Spanish speakers can enjoy the album without apprehension.

All things considered, it would be a tragedy if Secret Stash Records never releases the remaining 33 songs they recorded and left off the album. So it’s with crossed fingers and fervent ears, we’re fated to patiently await Peña Vol. 2.

Reviewed by Sebastian Ramirez


View review February 2nd, 2011

Carolina Chocolate Drops

Title: Carolina Chocolate Drops/Luminescent Orchestrii

Artist: Carolina Chocolate Drops/Luminescent Orchestrii

Label: Nonesuch Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Catalog No.: 526130

Release Date: January 25, 2011

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Collaboration on this album by the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Luminescent Orchestrii stemmed from an impromptu jam session at the Folk Alliance Festival in Memphis, TN.  The seven musicians played one of each band’s hits (“Knockin’” and “Hit ‘Em Up Style”), which later formed the core of this EP.

Luminescent Orchestrii (LO), formed in 2002, is an unlikely alliance of circus composer, old-time fiddle player, experimental theater composer, and free jazz bassist.  The New York-based band combines Romanian gypsy melodies and Appalachian folk fiddle with elements of funk, punk, and hip-hop—all the while transmitting a spirit of “traditional” music.  The Carolina Chocolate Drops’ (CCD) music is no less a product of hybridity.  The trio started with a pure traditionalist approach, making a weekly pilgrimage to Mebane, NC, to learn from an aged old-time fiddler.  When they struck out on their own, the “Drops” quickly gathered followers and musical influences.  The group acknowledges the historic roots of black string-band music, but the players are passionate about constant transformation and renewal of their music from other musical traditions such as Gaelic, blues, jazz, and hip-hop.

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The first track on the EP, “Short Dress Gal,” reimagines Sam Morgan’s New Orleans jazz tune from 1927.  Dom Flemon and Rhiannon Giddens’s (both of the CCD) vocal style on the choruses remains relatively faithful to Morgan’s, but the ensemble trades in the horn section of the 1920s for fiddle, electric guitar and bass, and vocal beatboxing.  On the verses, Flemons delivers in a straightforward hip-hop style.  The final bridge and chorus give a nod to the style of the Morgan original, as the band members cut loose in vocal imitations of a New Orleans-style horn section.

The LO leads the second track, “Escoutas (Diga Diga Diga).”  A fiddle intro sets a “traditional” stage in the opening bars, then the guitar and banjo transform the mood with a driving rhythm that is soon picked up by the voices.  This guitar and banjo rhythm—together with Adam Matta’s beatboxing—sustains the ensemble as the vocalists trade (Romanian?) rhythmic chanted lyrics with the fiddles who repeat and spin out their opening figure.  The track fades with Matta vocalizing a “trumpet” solo over hand claps from the band.

The third and fourth tracks recreate the performance that brought the two bands together at the Folk Alliance Festival.  “Hit ‘Em Up Style” first appeared on the CCD’s 2010 album Genuine Negro Jig, and is a cover of R&B artist Blu Cantrell’s single from 2001.  “Knockin’” first appeared on LO’s 2005 album Too Hot to Sleep.  Both tracks maintain the bands’ tendencies for stylistic eclecticism with a story-telling spirit that makes their music sound age-old and fresh at the same time.

Reviewed by Paul E. Killinger

View review February 2nd, 2011

The Love Ep

Title: The Love EP

Artist: Corinne Bailey Rae

Label:  Capitol

Formats:  CD, MP3

Release date:  January 26, 2011

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Released just in time for Valentine’s Day, Corinne Bailey Rae’s The Love EP is the follow up to her phenomenally successful 2010 album The Sea, which has been racking up plenty of award nominations. Though the British singer-songwriter’s early influences included rock legends Lenny Kravitz, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin, her work has taken a more soulful turn in recent years, as evidenced by The Love EP.

Bailey Rae calls her five-song collection of covers  an “homage to some of my favorite musicians, as well as a conversation between some of my musical influences.” Foremost among them is Prince, and Bailey Rae kicks off the EP with a cover of “I Wanna Be Your Lover” (from his self-titled 1979 album).  After witnessing a performance of the song at one of Prince’s famous “after show” events, Bailey Rae was inspired to tackle his electro-funk hit.  She certainly gets into the groove but never strays far from the original, resulting in a very retro rendition.

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“Low Red Moon” will move most listeners into less familiar territory. Written by Tonya Donelly for her band Belly, which was a major influence on Rae during her teenage years, the haunting song is full of gritty guitar work that Bailey Rae describes as “an aggressive 60’s science-fiction soundtrack.” One of the highlights of the album is her cover of Bob Marley’s “Is This Love,” which was released as a single back in October.  With contributions by guitarist John McCallum and pianist Steve Brown, the reggae classic undergoes a complete neo-soul transformation which works brilliantly. On this song, as well as “My Love” by Paul McCartney & Wings, Bailey Rae’s vocals are allowed to gently wash over the listener, setting the mood and never striving for power.

The EP closes with a live version of “Que Sera Sera.”  Surprisingly, Bailey Rae cites her influences as Doris Day (!) and Sly Stone.  The track begins as a slow jam in a duet with McCallum, gradually ramping up until McCallum takes over with a killer guitar solo. This song has apparently become a crowd favorite at Bailey Rae’s live concerts as evidenced by the many videos on YouTube.

The Love EP brings some much needed warmth to February, and will surely propel Corinne Bailey Rae’s rapidly rising star.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review February 2nd, 2011

In Session

Title: In Session

Artist: Albert King with Stevie Ray Vaughan

Label: Stax

Format: CD/DVD

Date: November 9th, 2010

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When first released in August of 1999 (and reissued in 2009), Albert King with Stevie Ray Vaughn in Session provided a revealing musical conversation between a still developing guitarist and a blues icon who had influenced him. Sales of the original CD topped more than 300,000 and it hit No. 1 on the Billboard magazine blues chart.  Although the December 1983 session had originally been recorded for Canadian television broadcast, for some reason it has taken three decades for the concert footage to be released.  Now fans of both performers can actually witness their interplay on this deluxe edition CD/DVD package from Stax.

Culled from about an hour and 45 minutes of music, the accompanying DVD includes selections never seen on the TV programs (their session was edited for two 30-minute shows). The program catches the then-60-year-old King at a good place near the end of his career, in between his two Fantasy record albums.  It captures a 29-year-old Vaughn at the time when his career is starting to skyrocket. David Bowie’s single “Let’s Dance,” featuring Vaughn’s guitar work, had been released that May and went to the top of the Billboard pop chart. Vaughn’s debut album, Texas Flood (Columbia), was released a month later. Radio stations across the country, as well as MTV, played the first single, “Pride and Joy,” and his debut peaked at No. 33 – an amazing feat for a blues artist. However, it is remarkable that this Canadian session almost didn’t happen. King nearly backed out because he wasn’t very familiar with Vaughn. It wasn’t until he realized that the Texas guitar slinger was “little Stevie,” the “skinny kid” who he let sit in with him at Antone’s in 1975, that he agreed to perform.

While the original CD clearly presents their warm, mutual respect as well as their recollections of their initial meetings, the DVD allows us to witness how genuine King was in passing the torch to someone who would lead the next generation of players. We witness his paternal feelings and empathy toward Vaughn, particularly when he supports him while playing rhythm guitar.  “There’s lot of guitar players here,” King fondly tells Vaughn. “They’re just players. They play fast and don’t concentrate on no soul, but you’ve got ‘em both … You’re pretty good, but you’re going to get better.”

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We also see Vaughn, the music fan, obviously excited about not only meeting, but playing with one of his personal heroes. Other than performances of “Pride and Joy” and “Texas Flood,” the session belongs to the elder player and mostly draws from his concert lineup. King drives the session, but intentionally features Vaughn on most of the numbers. Just a month later, King would go into the studio to record his final album (although he continued to perform up until his death in 1992 and, ironically, outlived Vaughn by two years).

The newly remastered CD retains the song order of the original disc, but now also includes new liner notes from Stax Records’ Bill Belmont and music journalists Lee Hildebrand and Dan Forte.  The DVD presents the session in its entirety, unedited and uninterrupted, and includes three songs that weren’t included on the CD release: King’s biggest Stax hit, “Born Under a Bad Sign;” Vaughn’s “Texas Flood;” and the classic “I’m Gonna Move To the Outskirts of Town.”

The DVD does not disappoint. While we’ve heard the music before, now we have the opportunity to see these two great guitarists go at each other like heavyweight champions from different eras.

Surprisingly, given Vaughn’s popularity at the peak of his career (when he frequently was compared to another musical icon Jimi Hendrix), there hasn’t been more audio and video to come out of the vault. So this performance, showcasing his abilities near the beginning, remains most special.

Reviewed by George Vlahakis

View review February 2nd, 2011

Living Proof

Title: Living Proof

Artist: Buddy Guy

Label: Jive Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Catalog No.: 88697-78107-2

Release Date: October 26, 2010

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Buddy Guy tells stories from his 74-year life with his guitar and powerful lyrics in this latest album, Living Proof.  Born to a sharecropper’s family in Louisiana in 1936, Guy has won five Grammy Awards, Blues Music Awards, and Billboard magazine’s Century Award as a distinguished guitarist, and he was listed in “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” in Rolling Stone magazine. In the song “Thank Me Someday,” Guy explains how he learned to play the guitar by himself when he was young, and he remembers that his family told him to stop playing “the noise.” Pictures of him with his beloved guitars show us his tender feeling for his music.

In 1957, Guy moved to Chicago where he was influenced by Muddy Waters, the Father of modern Chicago blues.  Throughout his new songs on this album, we can hear the influence and characteristics of Chicago blues, such as amplified guitar sounds, piano, saxophone and trumpets.

“Where the Blues Begins,” featuring Carlos Santana, the great rock/salsa/jazz fusion guitarist, is a classic representation of what the blues is all about.  Guy skillfully narrates the struggles in various people’s lives: he sings in the chorus, “Where the blues begins way down on the bottom/ You got to struggle to survive.”  This lyric epitomizes the very definition of the blues.  Blues ballads such as “Stay around a Little Longer” and “Everybody’s Got to Go” with their organ chords and religious messages bring the feeling of gospel music, illustrating African American music’s unique dynamic of sacred-secular harmony.  In addition, Guy claims in “Living Proof” that even though people experience many struggles in life, God helps people through these bad times.  Guy’s way of singing about the lessons he has learned from his experiences make the stories real to us, and it heightens our enjoyment of the blues storytelling.

Living Proof is Guy’s journal of his life with the blues-making.  Indeed, Guy, by creating his blues, has proved what it means to be in this world.

Reviewed  by Yukari Shinagawa

View review February 2nd, 2011

Triumphant

Title: Triumphant

Artist: Vashawn Mitchell

Label: EMI Gospel

Format: CD, MP3

Release date: August 10th, 2010

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Chicago native Vashawn Mitchell has worked in gospel music for over a decade as a music minister, song writer, and recording artist. After moving his music and ministry to Atlanta, Mitchell decided that he wanted to create a project that would truly speak a message from God. His newest album Triumphant explores the different aspects of living a victorious, purposeful life. With most of the songs written and produced by Mitchell, the album presents a range of musical styles but ultimately will inspire and empower listeners while espousing the greatness of God.

One of the highlights of this album is the selection “Nobody Greater,” written by Darius Paulk. It offers a contemplative discussion of the majesty of God through combining thought-provoking lyrics with innovative yet familiar sonic elements. This song lyrically presents the image of an individual who exhausts his or herself in their attempts to find something or someone comparable to God. However, after extensive exploration, the individual (like Solomon in Ecclesiastes) concludes that there is “Nobody Greater.”

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Showcasing Mitchell’s Baptist upbringing, “His Blood Still Works” urges listeners to have faith in God in a “down home” traditional gospel style. It features the distinctive and powerful voice of soloist Lisa Page Brooks who skillfully energizes the song. Another noteworthy selection is “Be Fruitful” in which Mitchell encourages listeners by stating that “it’s not only your time but your turn.” Here, Mitchell only uses simple piano accompaniment and the voices of the ensemble to convey a powerful message of hope.

Triumphant is an uplifting and inspiring project that has something for all types of gospel music lovers ranging from traditional to contemporary. While Mitchell has been in the music industry for some time, having worked with figures like Bishop Paul S. Morton and Smokie Norful, the release of this project is indicative that the best is yet to come.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

View review February 2nd, 2011

Backatown

Title: Backatown

Artist: Trombone Shorty (Troy Andrews)

Label: Verve Forecast

Format: CD

Release Date: April 20, 2010

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This album is great driving music. It’s also great music to take to the gym.  It’s not a good album to sit down and listen to—because you can’t sit still!

Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews has been described as “supremely self-assured” by the NY Times, a fact born out by this audacious album.  Shorty sets a tall agenda for himself and his skilled bandmates, brewing a potent New Orleans gumbo of funk, jazz, soul, heavy metal, modern R&B and NOLA street band elements.  Some of the horn parts would be at home during the Grambling University football halftime shows.  This music mix is heavy on the spicy beats and punchy horn and guitar runs. The band toured this material at the 2010 Bonnaroo festival, to good reviews.

Following is a jam session at the Louisiana Music Factory during JazzFest 2010:

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More than half the songs on this album have no words, for the better.  Andrews is at his best as a horn player and composer of driven, hard funky instrumentals.  His band includes an ace guitar player (Pete Murano), a funky bassist (Mike Ballard), a drummer at home with soul, funk, jazz and rock riffs (Joey Peebles), and further musical flavors from percussionist Dwayne Williams, bari sax man Dan Oestreicher and sax/flute player Clarence Slaughter.

It’s not all good all the time.  Shorty overplays his hand when he takes the vocal mic.  His singing style and lyrics are pretty generic versions of what’s called “R&B” these days, but he’s saved from himself sometimes by better-than-average music behind the words.  His cover of Allen Toussaint’s “On Your Way Down” comes off as stilted (despite Toussaint’s piano playing), and his own “Something Beautiful” (with backing vocals and guitar by Lenny Kravitz)―although it may get plenty of radio play―is just another “R&B” tune with repetitive lyrics and boring music that goes on too long. The other vocal tunes are somewhat better, particularly the rock anthem-ish “Right To Complain” (somewhat inane lyrics counterbalanced by good guitar riffs and a nice chord progression). “One Night Only (The March)” is the best vocal tune, with a great horn/vocal riff for the chorus and cool hanging guitar chords behind the verses.

Of the instrumentals, two stand out as demonstrations of Andrews’ range and imagination.  “Neph” has an exotic, somewhat Latin flavor to it, but with a beat hinting at hip-hop with the heavy bass drum accents and a horn part that’s a slowed-down version of the modern NOLA street sound. Then Shorty overdubbed himself in a trombone dialog at the end that puts a great period on the sentence.  Following this song is “Suburbia,” where Shorty throws in a heavy metal buzzsaw in the persons of the drums, bass and guitar players. Meanwhile, the horns and percussion are playing double-time riffs from the New Orleans streets and jazz clubs. Then the solos begin―guitar first, then trombone. The overall effect is head-banging and foot-shuffling, at the same time! How often does that happen? “Where Y’At” is similar but more funky than rocking. “The Cure” is similar but more rocking than funky.  Bottom line, these guys are at home in many musical streams, and they proceed fearlessly.

The driving sound mix works for this music, and Ben Ellman’s production decisions resulted in a listenable, exciting quality to the album.  If the inferior vocal tunes had been partly or fully eliminated, you’d have a super-solid LP-length album, but that’s easy enough to create in an iPod playlist, or just skip over the weaker tunes on the CD.

Overall, this is an exciting, original and contemporary album from a guy who bears watching.  A Grammy may expand Shorty’s time in the spotlight, and he’s not wasting any of it.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review February 2nd, 2011

There Breathes a Hope


Title: There Breathes a Hope: The Legacy of John Work II and His Fisk Jubilee Quartet, 1909-1916

Artist: Fisk Jubilee Quartet

Label:  Archeophone

Catalog No.:  ARCH 5020

Format: 2 CD set (in CD-sized hardcover book, full-color, 108 p.)

Release date:  September 28, 2010

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The Fisk Jubilee Singers are historically reputed for arranging and utilizing spirituals in attempts to raise money for their financially destitute school. While the group was originally assembled in 1871 by George White, later pioneers such as John Wesley Work II would continue to develop the group in efforts to raise money and promote the artistic value of the African American spiritual. There Breathes A Hope is an album that chronicles the development of the Fisk Jubilee Quartet under Work’s tutelage.

Hope features a collection of 43 extant recordings done by the Victor, Columbia, Edison and Starr recording companies. Organized into a series of “mini” concerts spread over two discs, Hope allows the listener to witness the diversity of the quartet’s early repertoire. While the majority of the songs are arrangements of African American spirituals, this album also features four recitations of poetry written by Paul Lawrence Dunbar and performed by second tenor James A. Myers. Selections like “When Malindy Sings” and “In the Morning” showcase his incredible ability to breathe life into the words of the illustrious poet.

Another notable feature of this collection is the vocal contribution of celebrated tenor Roland Hayes on the Edison recordings. Hayes distinctive voice can be heard singing lead on several of the songs including “My Soul is a Witness.” Within this compilation, there is also indication that certain pieces were recorded for multiple recording companies. For instance, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Shout All Over God’s Heaven” are included several times but each rendition showcases a different group of singers. This feature highlights which songs were particularly popular and well-known by this group, while also allowing the audience to observe the manner in which the same song may have varied from one recording to another due to changes in quartet personnel or technology.

Hope is a particularly important reissue because it moves beyond offering quality recordings to sharing a wealth of information about the history and work of John Work II and the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet. Firstly, the album is accompanied by a booklet that contains an extensive historical treatment of the development of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the quartet, and John Work II’s tenure at Fisk authored Doug Seroff (and nominated for a “Best Album Notes” Grammy Award). Secondly, intermixed with the songs are excerpts of interviews that Seroff conducted with Jerome I. Wright, one of the last surviving individuals to train with Work at Fisk. Although Wright matriculated through Fisk a few years after these recordings, he provides valuable insight into the music and life of the quartet under Work’s direction.

This collection is an invaluable resource of musical materials that were significant to the development of American music. While good sound quality allows the listener to appreciate the quartet’s well blended harmonies and overall musicianship, the essay and liner notes offer useful contextual information. There Breathes a Hope provides a rare opportunity to engage with a musical legacy that is relevant in the present day.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

View review February 2nd, 2011

Welcome to the February 2011 Issue

This month we’re giving a shout out to several projects that have been nominated for a GRAMMY Award, including CDs by Trombone Shorty, Buddy Guy, Vashawn Mitchell, and Archeophone’s historical Fisk Jubilee Quartet compilation. In celebration of Valentine’s Day, we’re featuring Corinne Bailey Rae’s The Love EP.  Hip hop coverage includes new releases by Talib Kweli and MF Doom, as well as the book by Dan Charnas, The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop.  Under the category of folk and world music our selections are Peña: The Roots of Afro-Peruvian Music, Laru Beya by the Garifuna musician Aurelio, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops/ Luminescent Orchestrii collaboration. In addition to a 25th anniversary gospel tribute to Bishop Paul Morton,  there’s a new CD by the Soul Seekers and a reissue of spirituals sung by Jubilant Sykes. Wrapping up this issue is The Floacist’s Floetic Soul, and the first DVD release of Albert King with Stevie Ray Vaughn In Session.

View review February 2nd, 2011

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