Archive for March, 2011

Joy

Title: Joy

Artist: Fefe Dobson

Label: Island Def Jam

Formats: CD, MP3

Catalog No: 001422102

Release Date: November 30, 2010

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Born Felicia Lynn Dobson in 1985, Fefe Dobson is a Canadian singer-songwriter and model. As a child Dobson began sending her demo tapes to every label in North America and by the time she was 13 she started playing the piano and writing her own music. Her first self-titled album debuted in 2003 at #1 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Album Chart and received two Juno Award nominations. But while her first album showed much promise, her second attempt, Sunday Love, was never released due to the less than stellar response to the album’s first two singles and she was dropped by Island Def Jam.

Dobson, with the help of her manager, then released two new singles, “Watch Me Move” and “I Want You.”  These punk rock songs demonstrated Dobson’s wide range of musical influences—including Michael Jackson, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Nirvana— and received heavy rotation on several MTV stations and VH1. The popularity that these singles garnered got her re-signed to her former label and led to the release of her third studio album, Joy.

The lyrical content of Joy focuses on the different experiences that can occur in a relationship such as infidelity, being broken-hearted, and recovering from a bad breakup.  “Ghost,” the first official single, is infused with techno beats that give this rock anthem, about an angry girlfriend who just caught her boyfriend cheating, a futuristic vibe. The soft rock ballad “Can’t Breath” is a lament about a boyfriend unable to cope with Dobson’s newfound success. The song stirs emotion and shows the transparency of Dobson in her music. The remaining tracks veer between pop and rock, but clearly Dobson is in her element on the hard rocking songs. Let’s hope she continues to fight her label’s attempt to pidgeonhole her into genres deemed more appropriate for black artists.

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Joy provides Fefe Dobson with a platform to showcase her creativity, but most importantly it shows the growth and transformations that she has made since her debut album. This album shows the versatility and depth of Fefe Dobson as an artist as well as a woman!

Reviewed by Malika Butler

View review March 2nd, 2011

Let Freedom Reign

Title: Let Freedom Reign

Artist: Chrisette Michele

Label: Def Jam Records

Formats:  CD, MP3

Release Date: November 30, 2010

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Let Freedom Reign is Chrisette Michele’s third studio release with Def Jam Records. Now a Grammy award winning artist, this project reflects an experienced singer who is challenging the creative boundaries her first two albums have established.  Lyrically, this challenge is reflected in the themes represented throughout the album.  The overarching concept is simply freedom, but the album collectively explores notions of freedom in relationships, within creative contexts (an obvious reference to the way she views herself as an artist within the larger musical industry), and freedom of expression as well as equality. Musically, this project allows Chrisette Michele fans to encounter more of the stylistic influences that have always been stated, but until now have not been blatantly reflected in her studio albums.

Chrisette has been known for projects celebrating a respect and love for self, exploring the ups and downs of relationships, as well as acknowledging appreciation for music in general.  This project expands that body of work to include explicit statements advocating for the freedom in perseverance and success, the freedom to be unique, the freedom to let go, as well as the freedom to love.  The first single, “I’m a Star,” expresses the need to persevere, stating “rain starts pouring and it don’t stop/let myself drown no I will not/smile on my pretty mug/I get right back on my horse and I giddy up.”  “Number One” continues this sentiment, focusing on a drive to succeed for personal satisfaction.  There is a return to themes of relationships found in her previous albums with “I Don’t Know Why, But I Do,” “Goodbye Game,” “So Cool,” and “So In Love.”  Unlike previous albums, however,  there is more of a focus on ending relationships in order to begin to live and love freely either in another relationship or alone.

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Upon first sighting of the cover art, a listener can easily assume that this project will be politically charged and full of statements concerning lack of and need for freedom within society.  The only such statement, however, occurs in the title track, “Let Freedom Reign.”  This track makes explicit statements about the African American experience within America, focusing on historical views of African Americans with more vague references to other minorities as well as the decisions and actions of government officials. Intertwined in the verses of featured artists Talib Kweli and Black Thought, as well as her own verses, are different concepts of what it means to be black in America.  The lyrics are very much an acknowledgement of these complexities rather than an answer to any questions related to the issue.

The title track is also an obvious example of the more explicit stylistic decisions made within this project.  Here, Chrisette raps her verses, singing only the hook and the intro to the track.  The presence of Talib Kweli and Black Thought, both hip hop artists, solidifies this stylistic influence along with Rick Ross’s appearance on “So in Love.”  The remainder of the project features a simple approach to music, utilizing generally repetitive tracks with short and simple lyrical phrasing.  Exceptions include “I Don’t Know Why But I Do,” “Unsaid,” “If Nobody Sang Along,” and “I Know Nothing.”

This project finds Chrisette Michele continuing to defy the boundaries surrounding her presentation as an artist and vocalist.  Not straying too far from the established formula of her first two albums, she challenges her listeners with a foreshadowed, but almost surprising transparency, utilizing very simple statements with obvious references that are very clear to the listener. This different approach to content along with the choice to rap is unexpected and can be off-putting, but is successful in challenging the listener’s ideas about Chrisette Michele as an artist.

Reviewed by Christina Harrison

View review March 2nd, 2011

Jook Joint Thunderclap

Title: Jook Joint Thunderclap

Artist: John-Alex Mason

Label: Naked Jaybird Music

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Catalog No.: NJBM008

Release Date: February 15, 2011

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John-Alex Mason’s sixth full-length album, Jook Joint Thunderclap, branches out from his one-man band reputation. Although Mason’s signature guitar (acoustic, electric, and cigar-box) and floor drums sound comes through on several tracks, what really makes this album stand out from his previous work is the new elements brought in by Gerry Hundt’s mandolin, Fara Tolno’s djembe, Lightnin’ Malcolm’s guitar, Cedric Burnside’s drums, and most of all Cody Burnside’s rap-style vocals.  The result is a convincing and appealing fusion of a wide variety of styles that nevertheless allows Mason’s playing and singing to shine through.

“Delta Bound (Prologue)*” kicks off the album with a driving early rock ‘n’ roll feeling, cut with Gerry Hundt’s harmonica and Mason’s blues-colored singing.  The tune straddles generic boundaries with elements borrowed from multiple traditions, but clearly fits into Mason’s typical blues and rock style.  The sense of sharp juxtaposition increases in the second track, “Gone So Long.”  The track opens in a blues-rock style with electric guitar, drums, and Mason’s vocals, but abruptly changes tone as Cody Burnside’s rap-style rhymes reorient the listener’s perception of the guitar and drum parts.  The instruments take on more of a heavy acoustic funk quality under Burnside’s lyrics, even though they do not change significantly over the course of the track.

The next track, “More than Wind,” shifts gears once again, as Mason layers his slow blues delivery over the string-band sounds of fiddle (provided by Lionel Young) and mandolin.

Jook Joint Thunderclap absorbs an eclectic mix of influences from different musicians and performers.  Its juxtapositions of musical styles from track to track, as well as within each cut, might be disorienting were it not for Mason’s distinct vocal style bonding and anchoring the many voices that sound on the album.  It demonstrates both Mason’s flexibility and strong sense of personal identity as a musician, and its hybrid sound offers something for a wide variety of tastes.

*Note: Track 0, “Delta Bound (Prologue),” and track 12, “If You’ve Got a Good Friend (Epilogue),” are only included in the digital copy of the album via the Bandcamp website.

Reviewed by Paul E. Killinger

View review March 2nd, 2011

Spiritual – Mental – Physical


Title: Spiritual – Mental – Physical

Artists: Death

Label: Drag City

Catalog no.: DC447

Format: CD, LP, MP3,  FLAC*

Release date: Jan. 25, 2011

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In a previous review of Death’s For the Whole World to See (2009), I bemoaned the tragedy that we wouldn’t be hearing more from this indisputably fine punk band. Fortunately, Bobby Hackney, Jr. and Drag City have proven me wrong. They’ve returned to Death’s archives to pull together a 10-track CD of demos and outtakes recorded by the band from 1974—1976.

Unlike the 2009 release, this album serves more as a look back at one of punk’s founding musical groups than as a standalone album. Although Death once again proves its ability to successfully tackle both laidback melodic lines (“The Change,” “World of Tomorrow,” “David’s Dream”) and hard-driving punk (“Views,” “The Masks,” etc.), Spiritual—Mental—Physical is a sampling of archived demo tapes as opposed to finished tracks. A number of the tracks fade out towards the end—an odd editing choice, given that the CD is only 30 minutes long to begin with—plus there are a few sections that would have warranted a second take before adding them to an official album.

If you loved For the Whole World to See or are a punk enthusiast, it’s worth checking out this CD. If you’re new to Death, however, you may want to try sampling a few of the tracks available through the Drag City website before purchasing this delightful, but undeniably more esoteric release.

*Note: the MP3 and FLAC downloads are only available through the Drag City website.

Reviewed by Ronda L. Sewald

View review March 2nd, 2011

Fellowship


Title:  Fellowship

Artist:  Lizz Wright

Label:  Verve Forecast

Formats:  CD, MP3

Release date: September 28, 2010

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Jazz artist and pastor’s daughter Lizz Wright returns to her musical roots with her latest project Fellowship. This album includes an array of covers ranging from traditional gospel to songs of secular origin. With mostly reserved accompaniment, each of the songs presented here holds true to the spirit and energy of the original while offering some new interpretations. The majority of the songs were produced by Brian Bacchus with some collaboration with singer/songwriter Toshi Reagon.

Refreshingly, Fellowship has a continuity of approach and theme that allows Wright to present a collection of pieces on addressing variant aspects of faith, peace, and love. For example, the rock influenced title track “Fellowship” introduces the album with the declaration that forgiveness and love are essential to “end your suffering.” Likewise, the closing song “Amazing Grace” contemplatively echoes the words of John Newton who, after several years of working on a slave ship, recognized the redemptive power of God’s love. Wright’s rich contralto voice successfully navigates the stylistic variations featured on this album to create a project that is both introspective and resonant.

Following is a recent performance of “In the Presence of the Lord” (one of the tracks on the album) at the Highline Ballroom in NYC:

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The gospel selections are particularly well done and represent the African American worship music of the past that is still relevant in the present. Sweet Honey in the Rock founder Bernice Johnson Reagon is prominently featured in the gospel pieces such as the “Gospel Medley,” in which her distinctive voice can be heard providing multi-layered background vocals to Wright’s lead. In a different light, Wright also showcases vocal power and dexterity in her rendition of the well-known Roberta Martin Singers piece “God Specializes.”

Fellowship is a wonderfully eclectic collection of music. It offers selections that will be meaningful to a broad spectrum of listeners, from the gospel music fan to the rock enthusiast. A great production team, excellent vocals and thought-provoking content combine to make this truly inspiring album.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

View review March 2nd, 2011

You Can’t Sing It For Them


Title: You Can’t Sing It For Them: Continuity, Change, and a Church Musician

Artist: Jonathan Q. Berryman

Producers: Jacqueline Richard and Margot Fassler

Publisher: Yale Institute of Sacred Music

Format: DVD (NTSC; 68 min., widescreen)

Release date: October 2010

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Prior to watching the documentary You Can’t Sing It For Them, I had several reservations. I imagined that the film would attempt to document African American sacred music with a surface treatment of the musical traditions and possibly little discussion of the contextual elements that created and perpetuated the music. Too often, scholars have attempted to explore African American sacred (and secular) traditions only to exaggerate or misinterpret the events and elements of their encounter. However, I happily admit that my preconceived notions were incorrect. You Can’t Sing provides a deeper engagement of African American sacred music traditions by specifically highlighting the experiences of one congregation.

The film centers on Jonathan Q. Berryman, the present-day Director of Music at Messiah Baptist Church in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  Recognizing the changing dynamics and membership in the churches multiple choirs, Berryman begins the process of transitioning the varying groups into one mass choir. You Can’t Sing traces this process from beginning to end while also exploring some of the many musical forms created and used by African Americans (folk spiritual, hymnody, traditional gospel) that have informed African American worship since the antebellum period. While not all of these traditions are utilized at Messiah Baptist, those that are not present are still presented as important expressions of the African American experience. This film also offers insight into the multiple levels of negotiation that take place in contemporary African American churches by those in leadership as well as by individual members.

You Can’t Sing has a clear educational agenda as it features an extended interview with ethnomusicologist and African American sacred music scholar Dr. Mellonee V. Burnim. There are also downloadable study guides and discussion questions included on the DVD. With these additional materials, this film provides a point of entry into African American musical styles as they operate within the cultural contexts. As such, You Can’t Sing would be a useful addition to institutions and curriculums that are attempting to engage with African American sacred music.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

View review March 3rd, 2011

Angola Soundtrack

Title: Angola Soundtrack: The Unique Sound of Luanda 1965-1976

Artist: Various Artists

Label: Analog Africa

Format: CD, LP

Release Date: December 7th, 2010

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Analog Africa has brought us another tremendous release, this time from the country of Angola.  Angola Soundtrack: The Unique Sound of Luanda 1965-1976 is a compilation from various pivotal artists during a time of political struggle.  Most of the songs on the record are a musical representation of the Angolan war for independence from Portugal.  Portuguese rule was established in 1575 by an explorer who named the region “The Sao Paulo de Loanda.”  The slave trade was an immense form of commerce during the time, which is precisely why music of Brazil and Angola share so many commonalities.  While listening, the cross cultural influences are very apparent.  You can hear polyrhythms, merengue influences, and many prominent instruments of both cultures such as electric guitar, guiros, maracas, and a multitude of hand drums.  Hints of Brazilian Tropicalia and Caribbean music from the same era are also apparent.

Angola Soundtrack was arduously compiled by Samy Ben Redjab, who spent over two years digging for records and meeting with the musicians (such as legendary guitarist Ze Keno) who provided him with in-depth insight as well as songs for the record.  This project, along with the previously released Soul of Angola, allows us to hear the sounds of an era of musical genius, shedding light on the musical movement of Luanda, Angola during the ’60s and ’70s.

The album itself is driven by its rhythmically complex percussion and astounding electric guitar work.  Extremely intricate and tasteful guitar lines ladened with reverb from old tube amps stand out and pull you right into the music.  The percussion gives you no choice; you must dance, move your head, and sway your hips while listening.  The vocals are beautifully delivered with syllabic use that fits perfectly with the rhythm.  The sum of the musical equation of Angola Soundtrack equals aural ecstasy.

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Tracks like “Eme Lelu” with its horn lines and exceptional vocals are reminiscent of Afro-beat and American soul and funk of the same era.  “Pico O Dedo” is one of my favorites on the album as far guitar work is concerned.  Call and response between clean guitar and wah guitar infuses this instrumental track with an almost lyrical characteristic, making it unforgettable.  “Massanga Mama” has a certain funky somber tone, with the vocals delivering a pain that can be understood just through the timbre.  Electric piano, a slow groove based rhythm, and blues scale guitar lines combine to make this a moving song.  “Tira Sapato” is a perfect example of the use of merengue rhythms within Angolan music of the time.

Every track on this album is worthy of  in-depth study and appreciation.  I can only provide so much detail in this review, but I must say, Angola Soundtrack is a must have for anyone.

Reviewed by Jason Cyrus Rubino

View review March 3rd, 2011

The Live Experience II

Title: The Live Experience II

Artist: The Rance Allen Group

Label: Tyscot Records

Formats: CD, DVD, MP3

Release date: January 25, 2011

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The Rance Allen Group, a Detroit-based gospel trio consisting of brothers Rance, Tom and Steve Allen, is one of the greatest gospel groups of all time. They became famous in the 1960s and ‘70s for incorporating rock and soul into African American sacred music, which led to huge crossover success.  Since then, this traditionally trained group has remained at the forefront of contemporary gospel music, adding an extra dimension to the genre as they lead listeners through various songs that praise God.

Following up on their best-selling 2004 project The Live Experience, the Rance Allen Group just released The Live Experience II (available on CD as well as DVD).  Recorded in July 2010 at the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, the performance was a celebration of group’s 40th anniversary.

Rance Allen’s deep, colorful, and powerful voice stirs up the audience’s excitement throughout the concert.  Songs like “Let the Music Get Down in Your Soul” and “Feel Like Going On” make listeners want to dance, while the rocking “Livin’ for Jesus” is a powerful expression of worship.  The group’s performances of ballads such as “Holy One” and “Angel” are also amazing examples of sacred-secular fusions in gospel music.

The group collaborates with several gospel superstars during the concert. “I need you /You need me / Let’s work together in unity,” the group sings in “United We Stand,” featuring Paul Porter, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Shirley Caesar, and Chris Byrd.  Their performance of this song, I believe, represents the ideal community in world peace, and each vocal moves our hearts with passion and make us hope that we will be able to create such peaceful unity.  Paul Porter, lead singer for the Christianiares, also gives an astonishing performance with Rance Allen in “You That I Trust”:

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Through this live experience, the Rance Allen Group has presented its distinguished technique of ministry once more, adding another great example of the power of Black gospel music.

Reviewed by Yukari Shinagawa

View review March 3rd, 2011

I Know I’ve Been Changed


Title: I Know I’ve Been Changed

Artist: Aaron Neville

Label: EMI Gospel / Tell It Records

Catalog No.: 5099960651020

Format: CD

Release Date: November 9, 2010

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To commemorate his 50th year making records, Aaron Neville chose a stripped-down setting for his third gospel album.  He also made sure to include his longtime friend, collaborator and mentor Allen Toussaint, whose piano is present on every track.  The result, produced by Joe Henry, is I Know I’ve Been Changed, a superb and consistently appealing work, Neville’s best in years.  It stands strong and leads by example, moving but not preachy, blending traditional gospel songs with more contemporary renditions.

If Neville sounds pensive and world-weary at times, he’s had a hard decade. His house was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and his wife of 47 years died in 2007.  But this isn’t a morbid or resigned album, this is Neville returning to the simple and beautiful gospel music he heard from his grandmother’s radio in the 1950s.

For the five-day recording session last April, Henry assembled a simple band of Toussaint on piano backed by guitar, dobro, electric keyboards, bass and drums.  No strings-heavy arrangements, and no chorus of backup singers; just Neville’s voice, Toussaint’s piano and low-key but on-point backing.  The sound isn’t stereotypical gospel, it’s a New Orleans-flavored mix with a country feel. It sounds old-school but not antique.  Neville’s vocals, with Toussaint’s piano there to back him up at every turn, surround and infuse the music, making each instrument’s part make sense and seem vital.

The album is sequenced a bit like a church service. Neville starts out a capella “standing before the microphone not as a musical legend, but as an ordinary man appealing to an eternal God,” as described in Monica A. Coates’ liner notes.  He sings “Stand By Me,” not the Ben E. King soul hit but Charles A. Tindley’s traditional prayer-song. Then, “in keeping with the format of a traditional African-American church service, the opening prayer is followed by testimony service,” he and the band cover the Staples Singers’ “I Know I’ve Been Changed” followed by “I Done Made Up My Mind” and “I Am a Pilgrim,” which Neville notes was recorded by Sam Cooke.  The album ends with another prayer-song, “There’s a God Somewhere.”

Other highlights include covers of Odetta’s “Meetin’ At The Building” and Big Bill Broonzy’s “Tell Me What Kind of Man Jesus Is.”  But the album is so uniformly well-performed and consistent in its strong song choices and sequencing, it’s hard to single out any handful of songs. It’s all good, and Neville sounds comfortable with all the songs, like he knew what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. This is impressive considering the lineage of some songs, detailed well in Coates’ notes. Fifty years into a successful and varied music career, Neville is comfortable singing the songs of giants.

According to a December profile in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Neville has remarried and relocated to New York, and his solo career is under new management.  This all has left Neville in a self-described “good place.”  If this new album is musical evidence of his rebirth, may many more follow.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review March 3rd, 2011

Said I Had a Vision


Title: Said I Had a Vision: Songs & Labels of David Lee, 1960-1988

Artist: Various Artists/David Lee

Label: Paradise of Bachelors

Formats: LP, MP3

Release Date: November 26th, 2010

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Rarely does one set a needle to an LP and then find themselves frozen in amazement at the music lying within the grooves.  This compilation of work from entrepreneur, song-writer, and producer David Lee spanning 1960-1988, is so beautifully crafted in and out that it leaves one astounded as to why these songs did not receive more attention and pressings.  Most of his original 45s are now rather hard to find, even for the seasoned vinyl archaeologist.

David Lee spent his time running Washington Sound, a record shop in North Carolina which served as the main hub for his labels: Impel, Washington Sound, and SCOP (Soul, Country, Opera, and Pop).  Lee had an array of groups and musicians of differing races from North and South Carolina that recorded with him.  One of the most incredible aspects of Lee’s career is that he was the original songwriter on most of the tracks from this compilation.  Lee’s writing did not fit into standard audience conventions of the South; he insisted on writing music that moved him.

This collection of music exemplifies the creativity present in the ’60s and ’70s contemporary gospel scene as well as pop, soul, and rock.  Some of his multi genre compositions reach deep into your soul and make you lament lost love or feel disappointment, such as “You’re Letting Me Down” and “I’ll Never Get Over Losing You.”  Other tracks, including “Soul Night Pt.1,” “The Party,” and “Peace in the Land,” get your feet moving like a James Brown record!  Funky walking bass lines with the drummer in the pocket, swinging tracks in 6/8 time, and beautiful slow ballads make this record enjoyable beginning to end no matter what mood you are in.

Paradise of Bachelors deserves an immense thank you for putting together such a solid compilation and sharing the work of David Lee with the world.  The LP comes with extensive liner notes describing Lee’s relationship with the music and the artists he worked with; as well as recollections from his past while listening to the tracks with the Paradise of Bachelors label group.  The photos within the liner notes, of the family of musicians Lee held so dear to him, lend a nostalgic feeling.

David Lee recently won the Brown-Hudson Award from the North Carolina Folklore Society.  Two tracks may be previewed and downloaded from the Paradise of Bachelors website, although I highly recommend that you purchase the album.

Reviewed by Jason Cyrus Rubino

View review March 3rd, 2011

The Great American Songbook

Title:   The Great American Songbook

Artist:  Aretha Franklin

Label:  Sony Legacy

Formats: CD, MP3

Catalog: 88697 83468 2

Release date:   February 1, 2011

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Aretha Franklin is one of the superwomen of American pop and soul music—and she has always had the tools. Born to a Baptist minister, she grew up singing in the church and made her first recordings as a gospel singer at age 14.  Columbia signed her on at age 18 where she recorded a number of works ranging from jazz to pop to soul, before she moved on to Atlantic Records where she gained the title “Lady Soul.”

The Great American Songbook is a compilation of tracks Aretha recorded for Columbia between 1960-1964. All have been re-mastered from the original 2-track, 3-track, and 4-track analog tapes and repackaged with extensive program notes by Anthony Heilbut. Included are many American Songbook classics, such as the Gershwins’ “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” Johnny Mercer’s “Skylark” and “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive,” Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale,” and Irving Berlin’s “Say It Ain’t So” and “How Deep Is the Ocean.” The remainder of the tracks might be considered the “Extended American Songbook,” ranging from jazz standards, such as Strayhorn’s “My Little Brown Book” and Billy Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” to Hank William’s “Cold, Cold Heart.”

It’s easy to see why Columbia kept pushing Aretha into jazz. As Heilbut points out in the notes, other gospel singers of the day, such as Mahalia Jackson, didn’t possess the diction or nimbleness to sing Gershwin and Mercer.  Aretha really shines in this genre, bringing a “soulfulness” to the music which makes her renditions quite distinct from other jazz singers of that era. On the whole, the arrangements and the overall styling is superb. Most were done by Robert Mersey, Columbia’s famed staff arranger/composer/producer, with accompaniment provided by a jazz ensemble. Aretha also plays piano on a number of tracks (though only two are specifically identified).

There are also several soul-charged gospel songs on the CD that are especially noteworthy. The final two tracks, “Are You Sure” and “That Lucky Old Sun,” will make you break away from all evils and “roll around heaven all day,” as Aretha posits. According to Heilbut, “That Lucky Old Sun” changed gospel history when James Cleveland and Cassietta George transformed it into one of the greatest hits in the golden age of gospel as “Walk Around Heaven All Day.”

The songs on this compilation are indelible snapshots of special times in the career of a musical genius, Aretha Franklin.  She has the ability to slow the music down until it gets under your skin, breaks your heart, raises your emotions, and then ends on a perfect note. This CD affirms Aretha’s energetic, passionate and soul inspiring messages.

Reviewed by Nana Amoah

View review March 3rd, 2011

Gee … I Wish: The Sun Years, Plus

Title: Gee … I Wish: The Sun Years, Plus

Artist: Billy ‘Red’ Love

Label: Bear Family

Catalog No.: BCD 17149 AH

Format: CD

Release Date: February 15, 2011

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Billy ‘Red’ Love (born Milton Morse Love) was a Memphis-based R&B/rockabilly singer, piano player and songwriter whose lifetime commercial output consisted of “two and a half records on Chess, an aborted record on Sun, and a promotion disc for bread” according to the massive 48-page booklet that accompanies this 26-cut CD.  The music—different takes of 16 songs—lays out the case that Billy ‘Red’ Love is worthy of a deluxe reissue 35 years after his death.

In typical Bear Family completist style, every existing recording of Love’s band-leading sessions has been located and included. While great for the musicologist or student of somewhat obscure Memphis musicians, it is distracting for the casual listener.  Clearly some of these takes weren’t meant to be heard beyond the sessions, as there are errors of execution, flubbed vocal lines and lost rhythmic patterns. But the good news is, there is at least one solid take of all 16 songs to be enjoyed, so one can load up a nice streamlined iPod playlist.

Billy ‘Red’ Love grew up in a section of Memphis also populated by Roscoe Gordon.  Love would spend several years leading Gordon’s road band in the 1950s. This was a crowd that indulged heavily in drink and gambling, according to the CD booklet, and Love developed a drinking problem that plagued him the rest of his life.  By 1959 he had relocated to Colorado Springs, where he worked in the ‘60s as pianist in the house band at the Cotton Club blues and jazz venue. He was busted in a drug raid in 1974, charged with possessing heroin, and died in May, 1975.  Roscoe Gordon told an interviewer that Love “drank himself to death.”

But the music is the point of this reissue CD, and there’s some good listening here.  Love was an excellent boogie-woogie piano player and wrote clever arrangements involving sax and guitar, at a time when many contemporaries used one or the other.

Love did his recording in Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios, with Phillips engineering and producing.  In his early sessions, which resulted in the Chess sides, he was often backed by members of Phineas Newborn’s family: Calvin Newborn playing an aggressive rocking guitar and Phineas Sr. on drums.

His first session as leader wasn’t issued under his name.  Chess was after Phillips for a follow-up to Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88.”  A session with Brenston had failed to produce a strong A-side, and since Brenston was out on the road Phillips turned to Love’s song “Juiced,” recorded July 24, 1951.  It was issued as the A-side of Chess 1472, under Brenston’s name, and sold well.

Love then recorded two singles (four sides) for Chess, and that was it for his commercial-label catalog. These songs—”Drop Top“/”You’re Gonna Cry” and “My Teddy Bear Baby”/”Poor Man”—are typical up-tempo R&B tunes of the day, but Love and his cohorts play them well and are tightly in rhythm, and Love’s voice is somewhat like a young B. B. King.

There were other sessions at Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service Studio in 1952 and 1954, but the only song that made it to pressed vinyl or shellac was “Hart’s Bread Boogie,” a clever musical advertisement for a local Memphis bakery. This was recorded at Love’s last session for Phillips on May 3, 1954.  Ironically, 14 years later, Martin Luther King singled out Hart’s as a local boycott target in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, given the night before he was assassinated in Memphis.  This is among the many interesting details included in Martin Hawkins’ extensive booklet notes.

Among the songs not commercially released in Love’s lifetime, “A Dream” from 1952 stands out and could easily have been covered by Elvis Presley or numerous other later singers. Its Latin-flavored beat is like some of Elvis’s movie-era tunes.  The stripped instrumentation indicates the recording could have been a demo not intended for release, but the song wasn’t taken up again at later sessions.

Also good are the two songs planned for a Sun single, “Gee I Wish” and “You Could Have Loved Me.”  The Sun single, derived from versions recorded December 11, 1952, was never released, and Love recorded more takes of “Gee I Wish” in January, 1954 (also not released by Sun).  This CD goes to excess by including four takes of “Gee I Wish,” but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s a nice little rocker and probably would have found some jukebox and radio play in its day.

In its usual fashion, Bear Family has given a very complete picture of this artist, with Hawkins documenting his detective work well and backing up his frequent speculation with facts that are at least tangentially related.  He didn’t have much of a paper trail to follow for Billy ‘Red’ Love, but he clearly followed every reasonable lead.  In the end, we’re left with a very well put-together anthology of a troubled man who cut some brilliant songs many years ago.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review March 3rd, 2011

Welcome to the March 2011 Issue

This month we’re featuring a number of reissues, including compilations devoted to Memphis R&B singer-pianist Billy “Red” Love, the Detroit punk rock group Death, Aretha Franklin singing the Great American Songbook, North Carolina’s David Lee, and music from Luanda, Angola.  New releases include gospel projects from Aaron Neville, the Rance Allen Group, and Lizz Wright; the gospel documentary “You Can’t Sing It For Them” from the Yale Institute of Sacred Music; blues from John-Alex Mason with contributions from Cedric and Cody Burnside; and R&B from Chrisette Michele and Fefe Dobson.

View review March 3rd, 2011

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