Archive for July, 2011

A Tribute to Peter Tosh


Peter Tosh (1944-1987), was one of Jamaica’s most important musicians, both as a founding member of the Wailers and as a solo artist, composer, and activist. He left the Wailers shortly after the release of Burnin’, their second Chris Blackwell/Island Records album, because he felt that his (and Bunny Wailer’s) efforts were being ignored in favor of Bob Marley’s. He also thought Blackwell was consciously molding Marley into a softer, more accessible artist in order to sell him as a star in Western popular music, particularly in the U.S. and U.K.—leading lights of the part of the world Tosh identified as “Babylon” in Rastafarian terms.

And so Tosh’s solo career began. On his first two albums, 1976’s Legalize It and 1977’s Equal Rights, Tosh very consciously moved away from the softening and sweetening of the Wailer’s sound and message that he heard in Blackwell’s product (Tosh’s militant lyrics focused on issues ranging from apartheid to government corruption to gang violence). He surrounded himself with highly regarded reggae instrumentalists, booked studio time, and got started recording his own music. And he began the journey that would ultimately lead to world renown as “reggae’s ultimate rebel poet.”  The following three reviews analyze the reissues of his first two landmark solo albums, in addition to a new biography of the three original Wailers.

View review July 1st, 2011

Legalize It


Title: Legalize It

Artist: Peter Tosh

Label: Sony Legacy

Format: 2 CD Legacy Edition

Catalog no.: 88697 74690 2

Release date: June 21, 2011

 

 

For Tosh’s landmark first effort, Legacy has packaged an excellent remastering of the original nine-song album augmented by bonus tracks with a special treat. As with the re-issue of the Wailers’ first Island album, Catch a Fire, the earlier Jamaican mix of Legalize It is featured on the second disc. Legalize It’s iconic cover shows Tosh sitting in the midst of a field of marijuana plants, pulling thoughtfully on his pipe. The cover grabbed people’s attention and caused some concern for the record company. The lyrics to tracks like the title song are blunt, relentless expressions of Tosh’s views on issues ranging from the legal status of ganja, the primacy of Jah Rastafari, the sins of the oppressors from the slave traders of the past to the corrupt politicians of the 20th century, and the conditions of everyday life in Jamaica.

Tosh shopped his mix of Legalize It work to various record companies, and when he signed with Columbia, the company asked for some remixing and a few other changes, which Tosh accommodated. Not surprisingly, Tosh’s original mix is rougher, often slower in tempo, a bit more bass-heavy, and altogether a darkly satisfying offering. Moreover, on the album as released by Columbia, the lead guitar is more prominent in the mix and overall, the sound is spare and what the record company executives must have hoped would be heard as more tasteful. On Tosh’s mix, the bass guitar is more forceful, higher in the mix, and more propulsive. On the high end, more percussion tracks are clearly audible and much more at the front of the mix than they are on the previously released version. With both versions of the album in this package, listeners can compare, song by song, the changes Western record companies of the time demanded of their reggae artists. Tosh, who sharply criticized Chris Blackwell and Bob Marley for giving in to this pressure, might have been expected to refuse such requests, especially given stories over the years of how he could be difficult to deal with, but he acquiesced. As listeners will hear, though the changes were noticeable, on the whole they did not eviscerate Tosh’s sound, nor obscure his views.

Fittingly enough, at the time of Legalize It‘s release, Tosh recorded a public service announcement (PSA) for the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). That PSA is included in the final track on disc 2, and now as then, Peter would no doubt appreciate his fans making contributions to NORML.

Contents of Disc 1:

1. Legalize It ; 2. Burial ; 3. Whatcha Gonna Do ; 4. No Sympathy ; 5. Why Must I Cry ; 6. Igziabeher (Let Jah Be Praised) ; 7. Ketchy Shuby ; 8. Till Your Well Runs Dry ; 9. Brand New Second Hand.

Bonus tracks (previously unreleased): 10. Legalize It (Demo) ; 11. No Sympathy (Demo) ; 12. Why Must I Cry (Demo) ; 13. Igziabeher (Let Jah Be Praised) (Demo) ; 14. Ketchy Shuby (Demo) ; 15. Till Your Well Runs Dry (Demo) ; 16. Brand New Second Hand (Demo).

Contents of Disc 2: “Original Jamaican Mix”

[Tracks 1-9 are the same as Disc 1, but represent the previously unreleased original LP mix); 10. Legalize It (Alternate Version); 11. Burial (Dub Version 1) ; 12. Whatcha Gonna Do (ShaJahShoka Dub Plate) ; 13. Igziabeher (Let Jah Be Praised) (ShaJahShoka Dub Plate) ; 14. Second Hand (ShaJahShoka Dub Plate) ; 15. Burial (Dub Version 2) ; 16. Legalize It (Dub Version).

Musicians:

Drums: Carlton Barrett, Santa; Bass: Aston “Family Man” Barrett, Robbie Shakespeare; Keyboards: Tyrone Downie, Peter Tosh; Background vocals: Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh; Reggae guitar: Peter Tosh; Lead guitar: Al Anderson, Donald Kinsey (“No sympathy” and “Till your well runs dry”); Harps: Robbie and Ras Lee.

Reviewed by Mike Tribby

View review July 1st, 2011

Equal Rights

Title: Equal Rights

Artist: Peter Tosh

Label: Sony Legacy

Formats: 2 CD Legacy Edition

Catalog no.: 88697 4691 2

Release date: June 21, 2011

 

Much of the recording of these two albums took place in Kingston, Jamaica, while a street war between armed gangs loyal to the two competing political parties raged in anticipation of upcoming elections. At the time, none of the members of Tosh’s band held strong political views. However, as they attest in the liner notes, Peter’s counsel and the violence that had become a part of daily life in Kingston soon changed that. And speaking of the liner notes, the booklets for both Equal Rights and Legalize It are excellent, chock full of discographical information (something of a rarity in vintage reggae) and historical anecdotes delivered by recognized reggae scholars like Roger Steffens, Lee Jaffe, and Herbie Miller.

The deluxe remastering yields a big, full booming bass with plenty of top end clarity that shows off the multiplicity of percussion instruments involved: the perfect roots reggae mix. Some of the previously unreleased tracks don’t quite measure up to the sonic quality of the other cuts, though, but this is attributable to the condition of the source materials. Among the dub versions included on CD 2, “(Fight) Apartheid,” “African,” and “Blame the Yout” (the dub of “You Can’t Blame the Youth,” which appears as a bonus track on CD 1) are cast in a roiling dub stew of all manner of sounds. Tosh wasn’t as flamboyant a dub mixer as Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry or King Tubby, so for most of the rest of the dubs the effects are perhaps a bit subdued. But they serve to show off the musicianship of Tosh’s topflight back-up band, which, on Equal Rights, features Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar ,who would be at the center of Tosh’s (and other reggae artists like Black Uhuru and Culture) regular band on their way to establishing their credentials as one of reggae’s and pop music’s top rhythm sections.

Contents of Disc 1:

1. Get Up, Stand Up ; 2. Downpressor Man ; 3. I Am That I Am ; 4. Stepping Razor ; 5. Equal Rights ; 6. African ; 7. Jah Guide ; 8. Apartheid;

Bonus tracks (previously Unreleased original session outtakes:

9. 400 Years (Outtake) ; 10. Hammer (Extended Version Outtake) ; 11. Jah Man Inna Jamdung (Outtake) ; 12. Vampire (Outtake) ; 13 Babylon Queendom (Outtake) ; 14. You Can’t Blame the Youth (Outtake) ; 15. Mark of the Beasts (Outtake).

Contents of Disc 2 (primarily unreleased alternates/demos/dub versions):

1.Get Up, Stand Up (Alternate Version) ; 2. Dub-presser Man (Dub Version) ; 3. I Am That I Am (ShaJahShoka Dub Plate) ; 4. Heavy Razor (ShaJahShoka Dub Plate) ; 5. Equal Rights (Extended Version) ; 6. African (London Sound System Dub Plate) ; 7. Jah Guide (Dub Plate) ; 8. (Fight) Apartheid (Alternate Version) ; 9. Vampire (Demo) ; 10 Jah Man Inna Jamdung (Demo) ; 11. Hammer (ShaJahShoka Dub Plate) ; 12. Blame the Yout (Dub Version) ; 13. Babylon Queendom (Dub Version) ; 14. Vampires (Dub Version) ; 15. Get Up, Stand Up (Extended/Alternate Version).

Musicians:

Peter Tosh (Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards), Sly Dunbar (Drums), Earl Lindo (Keyboards), Bunny Wailer (Background Vocals), Robbie Shakespeare (Bass), Al Anderson (Guitar).

Additional musicians:

Carlie Barrett (Drums), Harold Butler (Clavinet), Dirty Harry (Tenor Sax), Tyrone Downie (Keyboards), Karl Pitterson (Guitar), Bobby Ellis (Trumpet), Skully (Percussion), Abdul Wali (Guitar).

Reviewed by Mike Tribby

View review July 1st, 2011

The Natural Mystics: Marley, Tosh, and Wailer


Title: The Natural Mystics : Marley, Tosh, and Wailer

Author: Colin Grant

Formats: Book (Hardcover and Kindle Edition)

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

Release date: June 20, 2011

 

 

 

Also new this summer is a group biography of the original Wailers: Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Livingstone (aka Bunny Wailer). Even decades after his death, most reggae biographies are about Bob Marley, but Grant offers a group biography of Marley and his two co-founders of the Wailers. As the only surviving member of the trio, Bunny Wailer is the subject of Grant’s first and last chapters. In the opening sequence, Wailer is jeered off the stage at a show in Kingston in 1990 where the crowd was there for rude, raucous dancehall and DJ stylings and Wailer’s spiritual approach was of no interest whatsoever. In the epilogue, far from the jarring realities of modern day Kingston, Wailer speaks to the question of how the Jamaican audience that once devoured the peaceful Rastafarian message of his and his compatriots’ music had changed so very much. In between, Grant takes readers through the individual Wailers’ childhoods, their meeting and bonding in Trench Town’s mean streets, and their discovery of a shared affinity for harmony and musical performance.

A thumbnail history of reggae is provided; as teens the three were mentored by Joe Higgs, a Rastafarian singer whose mission it was to mentor ghetto youth. Eventually the Wailers scored a recording contract and authored a series of hits that, after they met and collaborated with the mercurial producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, eventually made a dent in the U.K. pop music market. Sensing a commercial opening, Island Records president and native Jamaican Chris Blackwell signed the Wailers to a recording deal, but in the process of bringing them to a more polished sound for the non-Jamaican market, he caused the break up of the group and the end of their work with Perry. The result was a more Westernized reggae sound that eventually brought Marley great fame worldwide. It resulted in more commercial success for Tosh and Wailer than that enjoyed by most reggae acts, but resentment toward Blackwell festered and, especially in Tosh’s and Perry’s cases, hardened into long-time grudges (though Bunny Wailer is no Blackwell fan either).

Grant weaves a sketch of Jamaican history into the story, exposing readers to the escapades of Rhygin, a gun-slinging Jamaican bandit and folk hero whose antics presaged those of Dudus, the coke lord whose alleged reign of terror animated the news from the island in the last year or so. He also details the painfully slow process of Rastafarians being allowed to rear their dreadlocked heads in popular culture. For decades Rasta musicians had to be stationed at the rear of the stage without direct light shining on them, even recognized figures like the legendary Count Ossie. “Rastas were allowed on stage but only if they remained at the back and in the shadows, without illumination. In some regard, the position of Rastas in Jamaican society mirrored that of African-Americans at the time. […] In the same year … Dave Brubeck was deemed guilty of an unforgivable faux pas when he had the gall to introduce Eugene Wright, a black bassist, into his otherwise all-white quartet.” Brubeck was instructed to position Wright “at the back, where he won’t be too noticeable … at an American campus one night in 1959.” [p. 55] But eventually things changed: “Millie Small’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’ marked a pivotal moment in the evolution of Jamaican culture. Not only was it a huge international hit … it uncoupled the freight of negative associations [the Jamaican audience] attached to ska,” [p. 91] a precursor of reggae.

Whether Tosh was absolutely correct in his assessment of Blackwell’s effect on the Wailers and on his former collaborator Marley is open for debate. Marley certainly didn’t actively deny it and Blackwell has recently mused that whatever changed about Marley’s music after the break-up of the Wailers, it didn’t harm Marley’s career and his success in bringing reggae to worldwide attention. “Peter Tosh had an undeniable talent for self-dramatisation, but it is equally the case that during this time [the 1970s], his homeland deteriorated even further; shelves on the supermarkets remained empty, hordes of unemployed youth remained idle, the local currency was devalued more and more and the guns began to bark again.” [p. 246]

Grant’s triple biography of the Wailers augments the new Legacy Editions of Tosh’s albums very nicely.

Reviewed by Mike Tribby

View review July 1st, 2011

River Deep, Mountain High


Title: River Deep, Mountain High

Artists: Ike & Tina Turner

Label: Hip-O Select/A&M

Catalog No.: CD 4853

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: March 18, 2011

 

This 1966 album represents a smash-up of cultures and styles: pop overlord Phil Spector putting soul goddess Tina Turner behind his Wall of Sound, and paying husband Ike a reported $20,000 to stay away from the studio.  The result didn’t move the meter much in the U.S. but the title track was a big hit in Europe and the album gained something of a cult status in its country of birth.

Now Hip-O Select, Universal Music Group’s limited-edition reissue label, has gone back to the master tapes and reissued this album with its original A&M Records cover art and song sequence, plus a new booklet essay by Tony Hall.

For all the hype of Phil Spector producing Tina Turner, half of the songs were produced by Ike Turner, with very different sonic results.  So the album is half a dreamy soul-pop trip and half of it is the kind of hard-edged soul fare more typical from the Turners in the mid-1960s. Indeed, the Ike Turner tunes sound just fine, sitting proudly amid the Spector mini-dramas.

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Focusing on the Spector productions, the title track (written by Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich) is a truly great song, and it’s been covered numerous times (do a Google or Wikipedia search on it).  By 1966, Spector’s Wall was really a swamp, layers of echo-laden instruments, percussion and background singers.  Above this swamp floats Tina Turner’s gorgeous voice, and she was at home with the Brill Building material she was given.  It’s truly the sound of a singer stretching out and not finding her limits.  She easily tackles Holland-Dozier-Holland’s “A Love Yours (Don’t Come Knocking Every Day),” originally recorded three years earlier by Martha and the Vandellas.  And she scales the Wall again for two more Barry-Greenwich songs, plus a cover of Doc Pomus’s “Save the Last Dance for Me.”

The Ike Turner tunes are more straight-forward, designed to highlight Tina’s seething sexuality and grit. They are interspersed with the Spector tunes, giving the album kind of a yin-and-yang feeling but also keeping it rooted firmly in the genre of soul. The fact that Tina can credibly deliver for both producers makes her the album’s true victor.

The disappointing sales of the original album were enough to cause Spector to retreat from the music business for a few years, and several authors have cited that period as the beginning of his personality breakdown that eventually led to his recent murder conviction.  As for the Turners, later revelations about Ike’s brutal behavior were far off on the horizon, and in their near future was a tour of the U.S. in 1969 as the Rolling Stones’ opening act, and many more hit records.

Although River Deep, Mountain High stands as a time capsule, a sharp cutoff between early ‘60s pop and the harder funk music that was starting to sprout in urban music clubs, the album still makes for good listening today. The excellent remastering by Mark Omann highlights the differences in sound and setting that Phil Spector and Ike Turner envisioned for their soul queen.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review July 1st, 2011

McLemore Avenue


Title: McLemore Avenue

Artist: Booker T. & The M.G.’s

Label: Stax/Concord Music Group

Catalog No.: STX-32874

Format: CD

Release Date: May 10, 2011

 

 

The Beatles’ 1969 swan song, Abbey Road, had a profound effect on a lot of people around the world. One of them was Booker T. Jones, the long-time keyboard player and songwriter for Stax Records and leader of the hit-making instrumental group The M.G.’s.  When Abbey Road hit U.S. record stores, in September 1969, Jones had just relocated to Los Angeles.  According to Ashley Kahn’s liner notes for this excellent reissue CD, Jones bought the album at the original Tower Records store, and as he told Kahn, “went home, sat down with it and went ‘Oh my God! What is this – is it a rock and roll album? … I knew right away it was a landmark album for rock and roll and for the music business.”

To stun a musician of Jones’ caliber is a real feat, and the Beatles so bowled him over that he set about to record a cover and interpretation of the songs on Abbey Road, topping it off with a tribute cover showing Booker T. and the M.G.’s crossing McLemore Avenue in front of the Stax recording studio in Memphis.

Of all the fantastic M.G.’s albums, this one is the most purely musical and thus the most joyful.  At heart, the happiest place for Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn and drummer Al Jackson Jr. was in the embrace of music, making music together. After years of creating, playing on and producing tightly-wound soul hits, the boys now had the opportunity to stretch out and show their chops. And they hit every note and downbeat perfectly.  This album has been in print almost every day since it was released.  Concord Music Group’s latest reissue sounds the best of all issues I’ve heard, and the new bonus tracks justify the purchase in and of themselves.

Jones and the M.G.’s put their own stamp on the Beatles’ songs, altering the sequence and leaving some Abbey Road tracks off their album.  They focused on the long medleys of snippet-songs on side 2 of the Beatles record, and also integrated the then-new Moog synthesizer into their covers just as the Beatles had added Moog tracks to some of the original songs.  But overall, the big differentiator in the M.G.’s album is its funkiness―they never depart from their Memphis soul roots. Instead, they bring Liverpool to Memphis and respectfully host and interact with their guests, as exemplified on “You Never Give Me Your Money.”

The bonus tracks are all covers of Beatles tunes from various other M.G.’s albums. They vary in sound quality, as they were recorded at various times and with various levels of technology advancement at Stax Studio.  The final track on the album is an alternate take of “You Can’t Do That,” which should have been left in the dustbin, but that’s a minor quibble.

Joe Tarantino’s 24-bit remastering is worth special mention.  This CD is probably as close to the original master tapes as a mass medium is likely to get.  By 1969, the two studios where McLemore Avenue was recorded―Stax in Memphis and Wally Heider in Los Angeles―were capable of excellent sound productions, and this album is well recorded and well mixed.  Previous CD reissues have not brought out the details and punch that were captured on tape.

Perhaps the best news is that this reissue is just the beginning of Concord’s Stax Remasters series. Here’s looking forward to more excellent-sounding reissues from this goldmine of great soul music.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review July 1st, 2011

Brahms

Title: Brahms

Artists: Zuill Bailey, Awadagin Pratt

Label: Telarc

Formats:  CD, MP3

Release date: March 29, 2011

 

 

 

Zuill Bailey, one of the world’s finest cellists, and Awadagin Pratt, concert pianist and the first person to graduate from the Peabody Conservatory with concentrations in three areas (piano, violin, and conducting), have performed together regularly since the late 1990s.  They have just released their first recording as a duo: an all-Brahms CD on the Telarc label.

I could not help but be swept into the sonic lushness and variety of the duo’s playing when I heard the first strains of Lerchengesang (“Lark Song”), Op. 70 No. 2, the cello/piano transcription of a vocal piece that opens the recording.  Bailey’s control of the cello’s tone color is superb: whether he is playing a gorgeous, lyrical section or a more aggressive passage, the cello’s sound is velvety and rich.  Pratt’s playing is technically superb, beautifully voiced and, where appropriate, nicely supportive of the cello line.  The engineers and producers should also be congratulated for the sonically rich and engaging recording they helped create.

The program contains some pieces written originally for cello and piano, notably Brahms’s Sonata in E Minor, op. 38, and Sonata in F Major, op. 99.  One of the finer moments in the recording is the final movement of op. 38, which has a densely fugal texture; it is quite cerebral music, but Pratt and Bailey avoid playing the movement with the incessant, almost robotic forward motion that such writing often engenders.  The F Major sonata, with its wandering to F# in the second movement, is also well-rendered.  This reviewer especially enjoyed the opening of the Adagio Affetuoso movement; the chordal, mildly dissonant piano with the pizzicato cello has a brief jazz-inflected moment, a quality that is also present in some of Brahms’s later solo piano works.

These two larger works are interspersed with shorter pieces, mostly transcriptions of Brahms’s vocal works, whose lyricism translates quite well to the cello.  Lerchengesang (“Lark Song”), Op. 70, No. 2,  that opens the album is hushed and delicate; the duo performs it slightly slower than is customary, to great dramatic effect.  Though the choice of Wiegenlied, Op. 49, No. 15 (also known as “Brahms’s Lullaby”) to close the album is fitting, and the piece is sonically as gorgeous as everything else on the album, I would have preferred that Pratt and Bailey dig further into Brahms’s collection of lieder for an equally suitable, lesser-known work to close the album.

Following is the promo video (courtesy of Concord Music Group):

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Minor quibbles about repertoire aside,  Brahms is a fantastic recording by two extremely talented performers.  It is a rewarding listen for classical music aficionados and an engaging, approachable performance for everyone else.

Reviewed by David Lewis

View review July 1st, 2011

Kirk Franklin- Hello Fear

 


Title: Hello Fear

Artist: Kirk Franklin

Label:  Gospo Centric/Verity

Formats:  CD, CD dlx. ed., MP3

Release date: March 22, 2011

 

 

Gospel music pioneer, television host, and author Kirk Franklin has returned with a new album, Hello Fear. As the title suggests, one of the major messages of this project is the difficult yet necessary process of confronting one’s fears and struggles. From the title track onward, Franklin delivers messages of love, pain, and healing through several variations of musical styles and insightful lyricism. Hello Fear also features stellar guess appearances by gospel veterans such as Marvin Sapp and Beverly Crawford, who make this album a truly uplifting and exciting listening experience.

True to form, this project features Franklin’s own contemporary style alongside traditional gospel elements, allowing it to have appeal to both younger and older listeners. For instance, “Give Me” featuring up-and-coming artist Mali Music, is a contemporary piece with R&B/hip hop influences plus electronic beats and a rhythmic spoken delivery reminiscent of some of Franklin’s earlier works such as the God’s Property From Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation and the Nu Nation Project albums.

Interestingly, the Nu Nation Project is also directly referenced on Hello Fear with Franklin’s remake of his traditional styled hit “Something About the Name Jesus.” Gospel great Rance Allen returns to lead the energetic song alongside Marvin Winans, John P. Kee, and Isaac Carree. Allen, Winans, and Kee, all accomplished musicians, have individually been noted for their impact on the development of gospel music. The members of this all-star lineup sing with great artistry and command while effectively complementing the other vocalists.

In another light, the single, “I Smile,” is one of the most poignant and yet uplifting selections on this project. Through the song, Franklin paints a story referencing the difficult situations (due to natural disasters, recession, etc.) in which many individuals currently live. He states, “Today’s a new day, but there is no sunshine / Nothing but clouds and its dark in my heart and it feels like a cold night.” However, he admonishes that it”s possible to still to smile despite these hardships, because these trials will ultimately lead to a great victory.

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Hello Fear appears to be an album straight from the heart. It sets real life to music in a manner that is both personal and profound. Whether on the mountain top or walking through a valley, this project is sure to meet the listener wherever they are and appeal to both their ears and their heart.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

View review July 1st, 2011

Deitrick Haddon- Church on the Moon


Title: Church on the Moon

Artist: Deitrick Haddon

Label: Verity Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Catalog No.: 88697-71336-2

Release Date: January 25, 2011

 

With great achievements such as a Grammy nomination, Stellar and Gospel Music Workshop of American Excellence Awards, and a 2008 BET Best Gospel Artist nomination, Deitrick Haddon has produced many crossover hits.  Haddon once said, “our music has to reach beyond our religious beliefs to connect on a greater level.  I wanted to speak to everybody about how we all need each other. … I want to be a pied piper leading the people to a new era of gospel possibilities.”  His new album, Church on the Moon, shows his belief in his musical style, and it certainly brings new sounds for prayers.

The album is set in the year 3000 when people have lost faith in God, as Haddon explains in the Intro.  Haddon creates a space (church) for worship filled with original ideas and electronic sounds, demonstrated in the opening track, “Show Stopper.”  Although his conceptualization of contemporary worship music is quite different from most gospel music, Haddon makes it clear that his message remains the same: “Jesus, You are the star of the show.”

Haddon’s lyrics convey his honest feelings, no matter what musical styles he chooses.  “Power,” with the club-like atmosphere and hip hop influences, calls to the congregation, “Stand up if you got that Holy Ghost’s power.”  “Reppin’ the Kingdom” features other contemporary gospel artists—including J. Moss, Canton Jones, and Tye Tribbet—each contributing their unique performances. Songs like “Gravity” are based on the conception of the universe he chose for this album, providing a realistic narrative of a man who is stuck on the moon but decides not to go back to the earth because of the peace he has found.

The following video reveals his vision for the album, featuring excerpts from the tracks “Power,” “Touch Me,” “Well Done,” and “Church on the Moon.”

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The soulful “Touch Me” has a distinctive Motown groove (the video appears to be a riff on the Blues Brothers restaurant scene that featured Aretha Franklin).  Haddon also includes songs which explore more familiar contemporary territory, such as “Mighty God,” and the first single from the album, “Well Done,” where he sings: “Just wanna make it to heaven / I just wanna make it in / I just wanna cross that river / I wanna be free from sin / I just want my name written / Written in the lambs Book of Life / When this life is over / I just wanna have eternal life / O wanna hear Him say / Well Done.”

Through his free imagination, Haddon has attempted to make music that connects people beyond the typical church communities, while never forgetting his mission to teach messages from the Bible.  With Church on the Moon, he has once again succeeded at crossing over the boundaries of multiple genres.

Reviewed by Yukari Shinagawa

View review July 1st, 2011

Blitz the Ambassador- Native Sun

Title: Native Sun

Artist: Blitz the Ambassador

Label: Embassy MVMT

Format: CD, MP3

Release Date: May 3, 2011

Samuel Bazawule, operating under the moniker Blitz the Ambassador, is a Ghanaian-American hip hop artist based in Brooklyn. With Native Sun, Blitz delivers one of his most colorful and cohesive releases to date, using Africa as a blueprint for lyrical and musical influence.  Written like a love letter to Africa, the songs express concern, admiration, and heartache for the place and its people.

Making music since the early 2000s and with 4 previous albums under his belt, Blitz is no newcomer to the game. He fully self-produced and distributed Native Sun through his own label, Embassy MVMT. Featured artists include J. Ivy and Les Nubians (who lend their vocals on the song “Dear Africa”).

With respect to the music and lyrics on Native Sun, it’s difficult to say which eclipses the other—a win-win conundrum I rarely find myself in when listening to a lot of contemporary music. The album is drenched in salient lyrics dealing with African historical and social issues. Blitz is truly a “lyrical anthropologist,” as he refers to himself on the album, which is full of heavy lyrics that masterfully dance around precise beats and tasteful instrumental samples. For example, one standout instrumental sample includes the smooth guitar riff of Ghanaian highlife musician K. Frimpong used in the song “Akwaaba.”

Listen to what I’m talking about- you can stream the entire album here:

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Despite being somewhat of a concept album about Africa, through the employment of different lyrical and musical themes Blitz never manages to dull the listener’s ears. He blurs the lines between soul, hip-hop, afro-beat, and electronic music by effortlessly shifting between styles, many times within the same song.

Along with the music’s aesthetic, the album’s visual art direction is something to praise. Designed by Blitz himself, the album is a collage of colors and African-influenced design that collaborate beautifully with the music to create a charming package.

I don’t say this in many album reviews, but I will definitely be adding Native Sun to my personal collection.

Reviewed by Sebastian Ramirez

View review July 1st, 2011

K. Frimpong & His Cubano Fiestas


Title: K. Frimpong & His Cubano Fiestas

Artist: K. Frimpong

Label: Continental/ Secret Stash

Formats: Vinyl, MP3

Release Date: January 25, 2011

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When it comes to West African virtuoso guitar playing, the late Ali Farka Toure has become synonymous with the style. Amongst many, he is considered “the best,” and rightfully so. But Toure fans may want to pick up a copy of the new K. Frimpong and his Cubano Fiestas reissue and rethink their guitar idols.

Alhaji K. Frimpong was a Ghanaian highlife musician active almost exclusively in Ghana throughout the 1970s. On this 1977 reissue, backed by the Cubano Fiestas (originally known as the eclectic Vis-A-Vis band), Frimpong delivers some of the most affable, danceable, and accessible highlife you can find. Considered to be somewhat of an underground sensation, original pressings of his records are rare and have been known to sell for hundreds of dollars. But thanks to Secret Stash and Continental Records, highlife music lovers can now get a hold of these classic recordings through this must-have vinyl-only reissue.

Polyrhythmic percussion, interweaving guitar lines, up-tempo synthesizers, and jazz-like horn sections are some of the main characteristics of highlife music. Established in the 1900s in Ghana, highlife rapidly gained popularity amongst Africans and African-Americans alike. By the mid to late 1900s, the genre that originally started out with strictly acoustic instruments began to evolve through the employment of various American influences—electric guitars, synthesizers, and drum sets—to become what it is today.

As previously mentioned, the guitar playing on this record is sublime. The guitar is many times placed in the foreground of the music and used to accentuate the other instruments. Painting musical landscapes throughout the album, the reverb-drenched guitar tones weave in, out, and around the screaming horn section as the percussion keeps a relentless up-tempo bounce. A treat for electronic music connoisseurs can be found in the synthesizers. Many of the synth sounds on the album sound as if they were produced in an alternate dimension. A distorted vibrato effect, turned up to something like 100 beats per second, can be heard phasing in an out of consciousness throughout most of the album, making for an entertaining and spontaneous listen.

“Hwehwe Mu Na yi Wo Mpena,” the song that opens the album, is one of the strongest tracks in my opinion. The song begins with a slick solo guitar line that unexpectedly hurls you into one of the heaviest grooves your hips could bare as the full band kicks in at the 6 second mark.

Listen for yourself:

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The four songs on the album, ranging from 5 to 14 minutes in length, collaborate and blend into one another beautifully to create a seamless 32-minute dance party. If you’re looking for the perfect summer album, this should be a strong contender- it should be the only album playing from every dingy sand-covered portable-radio littering the beaches this summer. So do yourself a favor, check out K. Frimpong and His Cubano Fiestas and expand your West African music vocabulary.

Reviewed by Sebastian Ramirez

View review July 1st, 2011

Haciendo Historia


Title: Haciendo Historia

Artist: Alexander Abreu y Havana D’ Primera

Label: Ahi Nama Music

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date:  April 19, 2011 (first released in Cuba, 2009)

 

 

 

This may be Alexander Abreu’s debut album with his new band, Havana D’ Primera, but for the past 15 years Abreu’s innovative trumpet playing has been drawing a lot of attention in the Cuban music scene. Having won a Latin Grammy in the late ‘90s for his playing in “La Rumba Soy Yo”—a compilation CD of Cuban rumba music—it is no surprise to hear great things from his latest release, Haciendo Historia.

The mighty Havana D’ Primera, consisting of 12 members, play with unmistakable vigor and soul on this promising debut. Listening, it is easy for one to hear the different colors and styles each member brings to the music. Abreu, as the bandleader, wrote and delivered all of the lyrics while also composing most of the music.  Haciendo Historia is one of the first albums to showcase not only his incredible trumpet playing but his compelling presence as a front man.

A refreshing aspect of this album is the song diversity that displays Abreu’s artistic range. Songs like “Vivencias”, a slow heart-felt ballad with a great keyboard spotlight on Tony Rodriguez, and “Cuando el Rio Suena,” a fast dance number with rocketing trumpet lines, really exhibit Abreu’s creative gamut and keep the listener interested from start to finish.

Following is the music video for “Cuando el Rio Suena”:

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Fans of the canonical Buena Vista Social Club will find Haciendo Historia both relatable and worthwhile. Throughout the album, Abreu references the iconic Cuban band, both musically and lyrically. With Abreu following in the Buena Vista Social Club’s footsteps, it will be no surprise to see him and his new musical outfit rumba their way to the top of the Cuban music charts.

Reviewed by Sebastian Ramirez

View review July 1st, 2011

Dirty South: Outkast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers who Reinvented Hip Hop


Title: Dirty South: Outkast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers who Reinvented Hip Hop

Author:  Ben Westhoff

Publisher: Chicago Review Press

Format: Paperback book (298 p.)

ISBN: 978-1-56976-606-4

Publication Date: 2011

 

Dirty South: Outkast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip Hop, by Ben Westhoff, is a journalistic look into the phenomenon of Southern hip hop. Over the course of sixteen chapters, Westhoff gives the reader an intimate view of numerous southern artists, including Trae, Luke, and Eightball & MJG. Published by Chicago Review Press, Dirty South seeks to provide a detailed examination of hip hop’s most under-explored terrain.

Ben Westhoff is a native of St. Paul, MN and has worked as a staff writer at the St. Louis Riverfront Times.  He has also contributed to Spin, Creative Loafing, The Village Voice, and Pitchfork. According to the author, “Ever since I got Juvenile’s album, 400 Degrees, I’ve been a fan of Southern hip hop. It’s my favorite kind of music to listen to.” Furthermore, about his motivations for writing the book, Westhoff notes, “Despite the fact that it is popular, there is not a lot written on the region. I think that is because most writers are from the coasts. Certainly there’s a lot of good reviews out there, but there is not a lot of reporting on these huge starts.”

What makes Dirty South special is Westhoff’s ethnographic approach.  He takes the reader to the ground, allowing them to experience Southern hip hop in a direct way. Through his rich reporting, Westhoff shows that Southern hip hop is lived, rather than simply produced and consumed. Each chapter is dedicated to a particular artist(s) from one of the various scenes in the region. “Cash Money, No Limit, and Juvenile” is a particularly compelling chapter that illuminates the meteoric rise and current dynamics of the New Orleans hip hop scene. “Eightball & MJG, and Three 6 Mafia” offers a in-depth look at two of the most underappreciated southern groups. “Trae and DJ Screw,” one of his four chapters on Houston artists, finds Westhoff getting shaken down by bouncers and hanging out at strip clubs all in the name of quality journalism.

Dirty South is a must read for any fan of southern rap or the hip hop nation. Westhoff’s blend of ethnographic accounts with historical context makes for a very comprehensive study. Hopefully, Dirty South will serve as a catalyst for the increased coverage of the southern region’s multifarious hip hop culture.

Reviewed by Langston Collin Wilkins

View review July 1st, 2011

The One…Cohesive

Title:  The One…Cohesive

Artist:  G-Side

Label:  Slow Motion Soundz

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date:  January 3, 2011

The One…Cohesive is the latest album from Huntsville, Alabama rap group G-Side. Since 2006, the duo of S.T. and Clova has released three well-received projects through Huntsville’s Slow Motion Soundz. Their music has garnered much acclaim from the blog world for their honest, but engaging lyricism as well as its progressive, but traditional production. Entirely composed by Huntsville’s Block Beattaz along with several co-producers, The One…Cohesive is G-Side’s attempt to meld their various social and sonic influences into a seamless, but uncompromising musical product.

On Cohesive, G-Side takes country rap tunes to a new level by creating an escapist vibe rooted in the complexities of being young, black, male, and Southern. ST and Clova’s lyrics are amalgamations of middle class dream and street realities. The Block Beataz production, having a similar complex nature, features ethereal melodies, rumbling bass lines, and gritty drum patterns. The album opens in classic fashion with “Shots Fired,” an S.T. battle track featuring a spoken intro by Slow Motion Soundz head Codie Global. The following track, “Came Up” finds S.T., Clova, and guest MC S.L.A.S.H. discussing their rise over a well-used violin phrase. “Y U Mad,” featuring P.H. and Kristmas, is a smooth dedication to their haters. “I’m Sorry” is the album’s lead single and its best track by far. While S.T. comes correct, Clova’s loose flow shines over Bossman’s heavy, but pleasantly understated beat. Next is the second single “Inner Circle,” a dope dedication to their Slow Motion Soundz team. Rounding out the first side are two solid songs, “Jones” and “Nat Geo.”

Following is the official video for “Inner Circle” (courtesy of Slow Motion Soundz):

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The second half of the album opens with the way too brief “I Am.” Next comes “Pictures,” the album’s sex song, and a good example of how G-Side and the Block Beataz are able to make tired context seem fresh and exciting. The tempo gets turned up a bit on “Never,” featuring Huntsville’s Mic Strange. On “No radio,” the group channels Pimp C as the Block Beattaz beat sounds like an updated version of a Supertight leftover.   With “How Far,” G-Side shows Eminem and Lupe Fiasco how to properly make a hip-hop/emo/pop song. On “Money in the Sky II,” featuring Chris Lee, S.T.’s opening vocals perfectly sums up the central theme to The One…Cohesive, the struggle that comes with reaching for your dreams:

Have you ever been in love / So, so in love

With something you can’t touch / Just, just can’t touch

But what’s deep is you can see it / But you just can’t seem to reach it

How you gonna make a profit / You ain’t even breakin’ even

And me and my lil’ babe been goin’ through it

She left / But I can’t hear the door slam over the music

Here, as the group does throughout the album, S.T. opens up his heart, allowing the listener to witness the trials that are part of his journey to the top. Continuing with this theme, the album closes with the appropriately titled “Imagine,” featuring associate Jhi-Ali.

The One…Cohesive is fourteen tracks of deep, honest, yet trunk rattling hip hop music. S.T. and Clova’s soulful lyricism should appeal to those who understand that living your dream is both a pleasurable and painstaking process. The Block Beattaz and various co-producers created a powerful sonic landscape that perfectly accompanies G-Side’s vocal delivery and thematic construction. The One…Cohesive is a masterful album that can be enjoyed by a wide variety of hip hop listeners.

Reviewed by Langston Collin Wilkins

View review July 1st, 2011

Her Favorite Colo(u)r

Title: Her Favorite Colo(u)r

Artist: BLU

Label: Nature Sounds

Formats: LP, CD, Digital Download

Release Date: April 19th, 2011

 

 
From the mind of Blu comes this newly mixed and mastered version of his debut mixtape.  Initially, Her Favorite Colo(u)r was independently released in digital format and available for download on the artist’s MySpace page, but the sound quality didn’t give the music the aural stature it deserved.  The mixtape sat in its lo-fi form while Blu went on to receive acclaim for his 2007 release with producer Exile, Below the Heavens (a truly excellent masterpiece of emcee style and production style fusing cohesively), and kept busy with other collaborations like 2008’s Johnson & Jonson.  After Blu was signed to Warner Brothers (his major label debut should drop in late 2011), Nature Sounds decided to give this dusty mixtape the love that it was waiting for.

Her Favorite Colo(u)r is essentially a lost love lamentation, sonically crafted from the depths of heartache and frustration.  The samples from Billie Holiday, cool and somber jazz pieces, minor blues, and some great soul-funk adds to the overall vibe of heartache.  “LovedU2” even utilizes a Radiohead sample with interesting creativity.

Blu aligns his fresh and laid back L.A. lyrical delivery with his own beat production, which in its totality reads/listens like a crumpled up love letter drifting down a rain filled gutter.  The album is comprised primarily of short songs  (1-3 minutes) and some skits and interludes that dwell in some very intense and uncomfortable dialogue from fantastic films.  It is always nice to hear an album with a very clear direction and one solid purpose, and lost love and heartache are virtually universal in their message.

Following is the official video for “Amnesia”:

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Be sure to keep your ears peeled for Blu’s full length later this year, and while you are patiently waiting, pick up Her Favorite Colo(u)r from Nature Sounds and browse their excellent catalog. I also highly recommend Below the Heavens if you’re just getting an ear for Blu, and liking what you hear.

Reviewed by Jason Cyrus Rubino

View review July 1st, 2011

Caviar Volume 1

Title: Caviar Volume 1

Artist: CUF

Label: CFO Recordings

Format: CD, Digital Download

Release Date: April 26th, 2011

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The sounds of the golden age of California hip hop may still be resonating, but don’t expect CUF to drop something homogenized and stagnant.  This crew takes an insanely inventive approach to hip hop music, specifically West Coast hip hop.  The newest album from Sacramento’s CUF is deserving of recognition for its ability to appeal to serious hip hop heads, while keeping a universal appeal that I anticipate will be making trunks rattle this spring and summer.  Clean delivery of lyrics over tremendous beats that display a multitude of styles in hip hop production.  When listening to the album, it is apparent that CUF has been busy honing their craft for a long time.  The effortless delivery by the emcees epitomizes the laid back and clever style that made the West Coast hip hop scene come to fruition in the ’80s and early ’90s.

CUF (California Underground Funk) has been doing their thing since 1993.  The group includes five Sacramento emcees who were each pursuing solo careers when they met and decided to join forces to create a like-minded collective: N8 the Gr8 (who does all the production), Pete, Crush, Brotha RJ, and Taktics.  They have an impressive track record to boot, having shared the stage with KRS-ONE, Dr. Dre, and Run DMC.  CUF has been influential on prominent hip hop crews from Living Legends to Hieroglyphics.  Caviar Volume 1 is their fourth release as a group, although each member has also released several solo projects.

The beat production on Caviar truly stands out.  One can hear influences from E-40, Too Short, and Warren G’s G-Funk era work, where fat bass synths, modulated synthesizers, and pitch bends sit atop funky drums.  N8 the Gr8’s production is reminiscent of those styles, but his drum patterns are fresh and interesting, which makes for an exciting listen.  The majority of the compositions appear to be created and arranged with instruments and not heavily reliant on sample work.  Though there are a few tracks that display a direct approach to the utilization of samples, there is a cohesive balance between the two styles of production.

Caviar Volume 1 was released  just in time for the warm weather of spring, and free tracks are still available via the CFO Records website.

Reviewed by Jason Cyrus Rubino

View review July 1st, 2011

Rock ‘N’ Roll Reparations, Vol. 2

Title: Rock ‘N’ Roll Reparations, Vol. 2

Artists: Various

Label:  Black Rock Coalition Records

Formats:  CD, MP3

Release date: 2010

 

 

 

In November 2009, Indiana University’s Archives of African American Music and Culture (home of Black Grooves)  hosted a two-day conference celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Black Rock Coalition. The conference, entitled Reclaiming the Right to Rock: Black Experiences in Rock Music, was highly successful, bringing together musicians from all over the nation to discuss and study the socio-politics of Black rock from a historical, modern, and musical point of view.

To further commemorate their anniversary, the Black Rock Coalition recently released a CD compilation featuring many of the best and most renowned African American rockers of the day. A perfect audio-companion to the conference, the release features many musicians who were present at Reclaiming the Right to Rock and pays tribute to Black Rock Coalition founder and critically acclaimed writer Greg Tate, who was a featured panelist. Also featured on the compilation is the music of Earl Greyhound, whose Kamara Thomas (bass, keyboards, vocals) performed for the conference. Their included song, “Ghost and the Witness,” is a repetitive jam number capitalizing on powerful drumming and excellent harmonies. Additionally, powerhouse rocker and conference performer and panelist Tamar-Kali is included on the compilation with the song “Caught,” a soulful rocker that evokes pangs of disenchantment in a smooth and beautiful way.

From the gut-wrenching screeches of “The Ooohh Baby Gimme Mores” to the silky vibrato and powerful political lyrics of Sophia Ramos, the compilation captures perfectly the noise, the talent, the angst, and the sheer energy of these incredible Black performers and their interpretation of modern rock ‘n’ roll music.

(An article about the Black Rock Coalition’s 20th Anniversary and their previous compilation was posted in the Nov. 2006 issue of Black Grooves.)

Reviewed by Rachel Weidner

View review July 1st, 2011

Welcome to the July 2011 Issue

Our lede this month is a tribute to reggae artist Peter Tosh, with reviews of the new Legacy reissues of his seminal albums Equal Rights and Legalize It, and the new biography by Colin Grant, The Natural Mystics: Marley, Tosh, and Wailer. Other reissues featured this month include landmark albums by Ike & Tina Turner, Booker T & the MG’s, and the Black Rock Coalition’s 25th anniversary compilation Black Rock Reparations vol. 2. Under the broad umbrella of world music, there are albums by K. Frimpong and his Cubano Fiestas, Blitz the Ambassador, and Alexander Abreu, along with new gospel releases by Kirk Franklin and Deitrick Haddon. Our hip hop selections include the book Dirty South by Ben Westhoff, plus underground albums from “Dirty South” artist G-Side, the Sacramento rap crew CUF (California Underground Funk), and a jazz-influenced mixtape from L.A. producer Blu. Last but not least is the album simply titled Brahms, featuring cellist Zuill Bailey and pianist Awadagin Pratt.

View review July 6th, 2011

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