Cerebral Ballzy’s self-titled debut is fun, angry, goofy and violent, calling to mind (possibly regretful) memories of teenage punk revelry. The East Village’s own Cerebral Ballzy are a young group with clear musical ties to the ‘80s hardcore punk scene, bringing to mind Suicidal Tendencies and perhaps a more polished Bad Brains. The band does not necessarily bring anything strikingly new musically to the punk table. What they are joyously successful at is their ability, to use the vernacular, to “up the punx.”
To “up the punx” is to raise behavior to a new standard of punk-rock-rebellion and this album does that so well. Some people might perceive a mixed-race group of young men from a less than safe urban setting who don’t sing about the political ramifications of their position in society to be the opposite of punk, but they would be missing out on one of the most important aspects of the subculture—not caring what other people think. Tracks like “Don’t Tell Me What to Do” comment on the rampant commercialism and inescapable marketing campaigns that hound today’s society—not from, say, a radical Marxist standpoint—but instead approaching the issue from a pure and simplistic teenage vantage:
You don’t know what’s best for me
And I do.
And even if I don’t,
I’ll find out soon!
There are songs on this album about girls, drugs, drinking, pizza and not listening to authority figures. It is the sonic version of the cool slacker’s notebook doodles from your Algebra II class. If you’ve ever envied that kid, or were that kid, Cerebral Ballzy’s album will put a smile on your face and a push in your mosh pit.
Multimedia journalist Jawn Murray (formerly with Black Voices) is the force behind this compilation of 10 unsigned gospel music artists, selected through a nation-wide talent search. Murray, a longtime fan of gospel music, states “the top 10 represent a solid collective of potential superstars from varied backgrounds and different styles of music. I’m glad to be able to use my platform to help these artists gain greater visibility and exposure in gospel music.”
One of the winners is Brian Reeves & Heart After God, from Indianapolis. The up and coming contemporary gospel group has opened for a number of major artists, including Tye Tribett, Deitrick Haddon, and Andre Crouch, and received the Dorinda Clark Cole Conference “Best Group” Award in 2007. Two years later, Reeves was named Tyscot Records GEM “Male Vocalist of the Year.” On Untapped, Reeves & Heart After God perform “Awakening,” the title track from their 2010 debut album, which is highlighted in the following promo video:
Other artists featured on Untapped include Charles Butler & Trinity (Washington, DC), Derrick Bull & Remnant (Florence, SC), F’Lana (Altanta, GA), Joy Lewis (Dayton, OH), Lawrence Flowers & Intercession (Jacksonville, FL), Madelyn Berry (Orlando, FL), Tasha Page-Lockhart (Detroit), Tobbi White-Darks (Kansas City, MO), and Tonia Hughes (Minneapolis, MN). Most of the top 10 groups perform in a contemporary gospel style, while several of the female vocalists—Tasha Page-Lockhart, Joy Lewis, and F’Lana, in particular—cross into the pop-gospel realm.
According to the press release, one of these groups will be singled out next year for a recording contract with EMI Gospel. We wish them all luck.
João Gilberto this is not. The Swiss-based ensemble Da Cruz features Brazilian singer Mariana Da Cruz, whose voice would be well-suited to bossa nova, and Swiss bass player and beat-maker Ane Hebeisen, formerly of the industrial group Swamp Terrorists. They’ve combined their individual styles, liberally peppered with a bit of Afro-pop here, a bit of dancehall there, and a lot of frenetic energy. While not all the tracks are stand-out, this world fusion album offers more hits than misses. The only sour notes come when the electronics take over the track and become the most interesting thing happening, like in “Balada” which sounds thin and uninteresting compared to the rest of the album. But the catchy “Ethiopia” lies somewhere between Afro-pop, jazz, and bossa nova and the dark, sultry “Tudo Bem Aqui” had this reviewer dancing in his chair. But the pounding album opener “Boom Boom Boom” is the gem here. It’s an infectious, cheeky track that easily incorporates Brazilian and African elements into an insistent, sick beat:
While this album might not satisfy fans of more traditional Brazilian pop, it’s sure to please world fusion and electronica devotees.
After a six year hiatus, Richard Smallwood has returned with a long awaited project, Promises. Featuring his choir group, Vision, this album yet again showcases his impeccable ability to transform gospel music through infusing it with Western classical influences. Prior to developing this project, Smallwood was struck by the seemingly endless supply of negative news offered via the media outlets. He chose to confront these grim reports head-on suggesting, “We as God’s children have been given promises, biblical promises…” Promises opens with a spirited spoken word piece titled “Prelude of Promise” which introduces the listener to several passages of the bible in which God speaks to his people. Each of these pledges becomes a theme, a trope that echoes in different forms throughout this album.
“Sow in Tears,” inspired by Psalms 126:5, is one of the most uplifting selections on this project. Beginning with a solemn refrain echoed by piano and strings, this song addresses the hope of soon-coming joy in the midst of pain. Smallwood posits that “tears are not in vain,” but rather provide necessary cleansing that will lead to peace. Similarly, the poplar single “Trust Me” offers a soulful meditation on the omnipresent and omnipotent aspects of God that can be accessed through faith. Written from the perspective of God, this song is lyrically more simplistic than other selections on this project with short repeated phrases followed by the admonishment to “trust me.” However, in this is context, less is definitively more as well-placed melodic and harmonic nuances infuse these words with power and emotion.
Donald Lawrence and Lalah Hathaway are the only featured artists on this album, giving ample space to the voices of Vision. “Facts Are, Truth Is,” an up-tempo piece penned by Lawrence, addresses what could be considered the ultimate display of faith: believing in the power of God as articulated in scripture despite troublesome circumstances. He encourages listeners to “replace the facts with the truth” because “for every bad situation, there’s a spiritual solution in the word…” In a different light, Hathaway lends her rich, mellow voice to the selection “Praying for Peace.” With a “laid-back” gospel groove, this prayerful song is well suited to her vocal style as she asks God to “heal our land.”
Promises is refreshing in its insistent use of scripture as direct inspiration. From jubilant decrees of victory to heartfelt prayers, the premise that undergirds each selection of this album is the resonant hope that better days not only lie ahead, but were guaranteed by God. Richard Smallwood has yet again combined poignant lyrics with well-crafted musical settings to create music that uplifts the mind, the body, and the spirit.
It’s been quite a while since soul singer Syleena Johnson has made any noise. After a hiatus for family, Johnson returns with her fifth album in her 15th year in the business. Chapter V: Underrated is a pleasing assortment of uptempo songs and strong ballads. Johnson proves she is still a force to be reckoned with.
Johnson sets the tone with the appropriately uptempo title track “Underrated,” aligning her vocals with a bombastic dance beat and a featured verse from AK of hip-hop’s Do Or Die. She targets naysayers and doubters who thought she was down for the count. The next track remains beat heavy as she proclaims in diva fashion that she needs “A Boss” to match her commanding stature. A video for this single was released earlier this year and featured a cameo of her so-so famous sibling, NFL pro Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson:
Johnson takes time to address self-love on the beautifully written “Angry Girl” featuring “Southern hummingbird”Tweet. The two address the bitterness that women bestow on mates because of past failed relationships. Another standout is the dramatic “Like Thorns,” examining how mistrust deteriorates a relationship. R&B fans will also enjoy the old school soul on the duet “Little Things,” where Johnson trades vocal acrobatics with newcomer Malone.
Chapter V is definitely an album not to be missed. In an age when contemporary R&B is fading from the mainstream, Syleena Johnson balances both youth and maturity on her fifth effort.
Sharon “Bunnie” Moore’s debut CD, Glory to Your Name, is a Praise and Worship project recorded live in Indianapolis accompanied by a rhythm and horn section, strings, and a full complement of background vocalists. According to Moore, “This album is my heart poured out on disc. The Lord Jesus has brought me through so much, so the mission is to minister to men and women across this nation and beyond, telling of the goodness of Jesus and how He is able to pull you through any situation you are facing. I preach the Word through my singing.”
Moore, the daughter of the late Reverend W.L. Moore, began singing as a child in the Church of the Living God, where her father was Pastor. Over the years she has shared the stage with many national recording artists including Rodnie Bryant (also from Indianapolis), Fred Hammond, Marvin Winans, Bishop Paul Morton, Dorinda Clark-Cole, and Andre Crouch, to name a few. More recently she has participated in many concerts around Indianapolis, including the Rev. Hill’s annual passion play “Upon This Rock” (also reviewed in this issue).
Glory to Your Name is a high energy production that takes you straight to church, beginning with the opening prayer by Pastor John Ramsey. Many of the rousing numbers were written by Moore, including the title track as well as the very Chic-influenced “Dance,” and the more traditional ballad “Created.” One of the stand-out tracks is “Take Some Time,” a soulful throwback which allows Moore to really demonstrate her vocal power. Overall this is a very enjoyable album—the only flaw to the production is the overly compressed audio that saps the life out of the instrumental tracks.
Following is an interview with Moore from August 2010 which includes some excerpts from the CD:
At first glance, these are un-related artists and un-related albums. Bear with me, they come back to a common point: Daptone Records in Brooklyn and re-discovery of two old soul lions.
North Carolina native Lee Fields recorded some hard-funk singles in the 1970s and briefly fronted Kool and the Gang. He enjoyed a career revival starting the late 1990s, often performing with Daptone artists Sugarman Three, and recording with Daptone’s Sharon Jones. Fields also recorded under his own name for Daptone’s predecessor label, Desco. He sealed his career revival, with both feet firmly planted in the “deep soul” world, with 2009′s My World on Truth & Soul Records.
Now Fields has taken a different turn. His new album, Treacherous, is a dance album in the modern sense, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. We’re talking electronic beats, auto-tune effects, and disco-retro keyboard lines. Whatever nostalgia this album summons would be for Studio 54 circa 1979, far from the “deep soul” nostalgia for Detroit circa 1969.
At the same time, Daptone has brought out their own “deep soul” artist, Charles Bradley. Paired with the Menahan Street Band, the 62-year-old Bradley has made the 2011 version of 1969 Detroit. In fact, Bradley’s new album, No Time For Dreaming, sounds more like Fields’ last album than Fields’ new album does.
For Treacherous, Fields worked with several producers, but maintained a uniform commercial sheen to the end product. The record company pushed the second track, “I’ve Been Hurt,” a slow-dance ballad, as the first single, but there are better tracks on the disc. “Man Hunt” should result in some rump-bumping at parties. “Dance Like You’re Naked” is the most soul-ish tune on the album and is also very danceable. “At the End of the Day” is a nice ballad in the genre called “R&B” these days. And there is one old-time soul song on the album, “I Want You So Bad,” tucked away near the end. Fields can sing any of this music, so the album works, but it may not be a soul-ster’s cup of tea.
At the same time Charles Bradley’s album, No Time For Dreaming, may not be the tea for a fan of disco. But it fits into the neo-funk pantheon of Brooklyn’s Daptone. The Daptone feel is more Stax than Motown, with a raw, beat-heavy bottom end and horns accentuated with chimes. In fact, some of the horn lines could fit right onto a Stax album from the mid-60s. Bradley’s brand of singing is smoother than Fields, but not what could be called sweet. Most of these tunes are more toe-tapping than booty-shaking. However, the faster songs like the title track and “Since Our Last Goodbye” will get people dancing.
But dance-floor cred isn’t the point of Bradley’s album. There are plenty of good hooks and grooves, slow ballads, and expert instrument work. Bradley’s voice works perfectly with the Menahan Street Band’s style of playing. Following is the official video for the soul-drenched “The World (Is Going Up In Flames)”:
So two older guys with plenty of gas left in the tank team up with elements of the neo-soul world and enjoy career revivals. Both albums are enjoyable, but in different ways and for different reasons.
Grammy, Stellar, and Soul Train Award winner Dorinda Clark-Cole graces the year 2011 with her first album in three years, I Survived. Clark-Cole’s fifth solo album was highly anticipated by fans and doesn’t disappoint—it shows Mrs. Clark-Cole’s vocal range and musical versatility in extraordinary ways.
Like many other current gospel albums, several tracks feature a live music ministry in front of large congregations which adds to the songs’ personal appeal and the effectiveness of the messages. Each of the songs also has its own flavor. For instance, “God is Everything to Me” presents an island/soft rock theme, whereas “Thank You” (featuring her sister Elbernita “Twinkie” Clark-Terrell) goes back to the grassroots of southern gospel music with soulful vocal runs and simple, percussive rhythms. Clark-Cole doesn’t stray too far from her notable jazz and sassy music style. This album also showcases the famous “Clark Sound,” the unique sounds and harmonic complexities attributed exclusively to the Clark Sisters.
Dorinda Clark-Cole’s use of intricate vocal and instrumental arrangements makes the album musically ingenious. Her jazzy personality and the messages she delivers in her songs make this album one of a kind. With different styles of music, Clark-Cole brings dynamic and spice to the album. Without a doubt, Dorinda Clark-Cole’s spirituality is evident throughout the entire album by way of cathartic releases and true passion for Jesus Christ. I Survived makes a great album for people who are “going through” life and need inspiration. Clark-Cole once again blesses the hearts and ears of Christians and non-Christians alike.
A joint production of reggae label VP Records and country label Warner Music Nashville, Reggae’s Gone Country is exactly what it sounds like: a collection of country music classics stripped down to their roots, infused with reggae aesthetics and instrumentation, and given to some of the Jamaican popular music industry’s hottest stars to interpret for a contemporary audience. If the idea seems a tad gimmicky, the first listen might not do much to help the situation; it can be a conceptual challenge to come to grips with the album’s outlandish combination of driving reggae drum, bass, and skank guitar rhythms overlaid with twangy country pedal steel, fiddle, and banjo ornamentations. Once the listener has acclimatized to this fascinating juxtaposition of musical elements, however, Reggae’s Gone Country is actually a wonderful album through and through, with several beautiful and innovative renditions of expected and unexpected country favorites by an all-star cast of reggae luminaries (like Beres Hammond and Freddie McGregor), current kings and queens of the Jamaican popular music industry (like Tarrus Riley and Etana), and brand-new up-and-coming stars such as 21 year-old Romain Virgo, whose collaboration with country legend Larry Gatlin on the Gatlin Brothers’ song “California” is the album’s lead single:
To truly appreciate Reggae’s Gone Country, however, one must know the story behind it. According to the liner notes and an informative YouTube mini-documentary, VP Records vice president Cristy Barber dreamt up the concept for the album as a way of uniting her two loves (reggae and country music), and she assembled a crack team of Nashville and Kingston producers and musicians to help put the project together. But what many reggae and country fans alike may not realize is that country is, and historically has been immensely popular in Jamaica, and it actually shares much in common with reggae—both are musics of marginalized working class populations, both sing of love, criminals, and spirituality, and both relish a good story. Thus, the songs chosen for the album were not simply U.S. country favorites foisted upon a group of Jamaican reggae stars largely unacquainted with them, but rather some of the most popular and beloved country tunes in Jamaica itself.
While the album’s story might be an inspiring account of cross-cultural collaboration and mutual appreciation, however, the logistics of its production may have stifled some of its potential for true genre-bending creativity. Indeed, if the record sounds like a collection of reggae rhythm tracks recorded by session musicians in Jamaica, sent to Nashville for leads and ornamentation by American country string players, and then shipped off to the singers to add their vocal contributions, that’s largely because it is; the liner notes state this in no uncertain terms. While the quality of the musicians is extremely high—collaborators include reggae drum luminary Sly Dunbar and pedal steel legend Mike Johnson—the music itself is therefore fairly ‘safe,’ with each instrument playing a clear, compartmentalized, genre-defined role and straying little from it. There are, for example, occasional incidences of the backing musicians from one idiom toying with elements of the other (as when the lead banjo plays the trademark reggae guitar ‘skank’ pattern on L.U.S.T.’s rendition of The Statler Brothers’ “Flowers On the Wall”), but I think there was definitely fertile ground for more musical experimentation of this kind, and that a closer collaboration between the various groups of musicians themselves might have better facilitated it.
Overall, though, this is certainly an album worth checking out; there is not a song on here that I haven’t grown to love, though some certainly stand out more than others. Tarrus Riley’s version of “The Chair” by George Strait and Duane Stephenson’s interpretation of “Suspicions” by Eddie Rabbit are personal favorites, and even dancehall DJ Busy Signal’s autotuned vocals on his rendition of Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler” somehow seem to work in the context of the project as a whole. In the liner notes, Cristy Barber explains that “with the music industry where it is now, we need more people at the reggae party and I am really hoping this album will give more exposure to the genre.” I, on the other hand, am inclined to believe that it will do more to expose reggae fans to country classics than it will to inspire country aficionados to develop a taste for reggae’s contemporary trendsetters. Either way, Reggae’s Gone Country is undoubtedly a unique and thoroughly enjoyable first step in what may very well become a long series of collaborations between Nashville and Kingston, and I for one am quite interested to find out what directions these relationships may take in the future.
These two recent Macomba releases from the archives of Oakland’s Opal Nations feel special, like being given a rare opportunity to sift through Nations’ vast collection of rare gospel records. Much in the way that experience implies, don’t expect smooth album sequencing or remasters here, just the music straight from his shellac and vinyl to your CD player.
What the albums lack in finesse they more than make up for in uniqueness, thoroughness and rarity of selections and in the meticulously researched and detailed liner notes written by Nations. Reading through the notes calls to mind the classic music-nerd fantasy of going into a record shop and being schooled by the master—the record store owner with knowledge of music so encyclopedic that it makes you feel ashamed to have even jokingly considered yourself a music connoisseur.
While both of these records are gospel compilations they differ by organization and geography. Windy City… is a label overview, cataloging gospel releases on South Cottage Grove from 1947-1959, while Swinging… is a broader overview of overlooked and forgotten songs from the San Francisco Bay area gospel scene in the late 1940s to late 1950s. One commonality between the records, however, is their massive track listings, with each double-CD set featuring more than 50 songs. There is something on these compilations for any fan of early gospel music, so I have provided a brief list of top picks from each to whet future listener’s appetites.
Windy City… is comprised mainly of male gospel quartets, which to all but the most dedicated fans can begin to sound a little repetitive. Lest one become complacent, however, there are intriguing and excited tracks that pop out. One of these tracks features ex-bluesman and entertainer turned sanctified singer Rev. Dwight “Gatemouth” Moore’s “The Bible’s Being Fulfilled Every Day.” The rolling piano and ramshackle choir accompaniment, when mixed with Moore’s blue-hewn growl, offers a rollicking gospel romp. Another standout track is the Evangelist Singers of Alabama’s simple “Lord, Stop the War,” a gospel quartet piece with a clear message that is as relevant now as it was in 1951. Both tracks from Elder Charles Beck are great, but the humorous “Wine Head Willie Put That Bottle Down” is a clear winner, with Beck shouting at the drunken Willie over light cymbals, jazzy piano and smooth organ chords. Other notable tracks are “The Gospel of Jesus Christ (Part 3),” a forceful, live sermon from Rev. H. R. Jelks, and “Precious Memories, Parts 1 and 2,” from the Ellis & Dixon Spiritual & Vocal Group, one of the few on this record to feature a female vocalist.
Swingin’… features more diverse content and a thorough history of the Black church in the Bay Area, from the concert gospel tradition, to the revival style gospel throwdowns, to the various mass choirs. This two disc set has too many stand out tracks to give its fullest due in a brief review so, again, I will touch on a few outstanding tracks. One of the most intriguing songs is “Walking in Jesus Name” performed in 1952 by an eight-year-old Sly Stone on voice and guitar. With a raspy tone aged far beyond his years, Stone produces a poignant sound that sticks with the listener. He is already a more than proficient guitar player with talents foreshadowing his later success My personal favorite track is Ed Gibson and the Oakland Silvertones singing “The Lambs.” There is a dark ambience to this slow and dramatic song with a drawn out, descending minor chord chorus of “Listen to the Lambs.” If you didn’t know you were listening to a gospel album you might think you had stumbled on a great, lost early California rock track, but the context makes it even more appealing.
All in all, these releases are definitely worth acquiring if you have any interest in historical gospel recordings. Although they do take a little work to get through due to the rough quality of some recordings, the wealth of these selections in both rarity and variety make them more than worthwhile.
Tinariwen’s fifth album, Tassili, moves beyond their romantic image of Touareg rebels armed with electric guitars and machine guns, to a more bare and vulnerable sound with the help of acoustic instrumentation and guest musicians from American rock bands TV on the Radio, Wilco, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
Tinariwen front man Ibrahim Ag Alhabib has long cast a legendary shadow on the group, originally founded in a Libyan military training camp. Tinariwen’s music reflects the unique exile experienced by Touareg nomads forced into a sedentary lifestyle by oppressive central governments, which has led to a perception of the group as exoticized rock stars who stand out due to their traditional dress and foreign background. It would be a grave mistake, however, to think of Tinariwen as a novelty act. Putting the intriguing backstory aside, they have managed to produce consistently great records, with Tassili bringing their music to even more fantastic heights.
The simplicity of the music on this album is hypnotic, with repetitive, yet complex, interweaving guitar lines that lull the listener into a comforting trance. The lack of electric instruments is not the only familiar Tinariwen trait that is missing—the album is also notable for its lack of female voices, something long-time Tinariwen fans may find surprising. While I have always loved the female vocals from this band, the combination of acoustic instrumentation and collective, male singing brings my mind back to the earliest days of the band, as rebels in their military camp.
The following video for the single “Tenere Taqhim Tossam” features TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone on guitar, with Tunde Adebimpe singing the chorus in English:
As the band has aged, their lyrics have become more personal and more introspective, but this album, even with its unique circumstances, sounds like they have not changed at all.
Since 1984, Indianapolis, Indiana has held the largest and longest running African-American led passion play, Upon This Rock, during the Easter holiday. Founded and perpetuated by Pastor Thomas A. Hill (who plays Simon) and his sister, Sharon L. Hill, the play is a grand production anticipated by large audiences year after year. Upon This Rock depicts the story of Jesus Christ during the days preceding his crucifixion. Throughout the production, characters dig deeper into the lives and concepts of that time period. Singers jump in and out of character to tell the story of the passion, while also giving personal testimonies. Filled with lively songs, vibrant dance numbers, and astonishing special effects, this play is enjoyed by audiences of all ages.
The most notable aspect of this production is the aesthetic appeal. The backgrounds, props, and special effects are extremely lifelike, enhancing the feeling that you are actually present in that time period. The use of actual blasts of fire can be felt by those in the audience, which adds to the feeling that you’re part of the action. The dancers add flare to the story by incorporating precise, yet fluid movements. The choir stands in the orchestra pit, singing along to the scenes, and is featured in several interludes. The production caters to all audience members. On the side of the stage, there are two sign language professionals interpreting the play for the hearing impaired. Another interesting feature is that everyone on stage (including the choir and interpreters, yet excluding dancers) is wearing traditional Biblical dress. The production staff even takes this a step further by incorporating live animals on stage. Obviously the Upon This Rock staff has worked hard to make this production as realistic as possible.
Following is the official trailer:
As far as the spiritual concept goes, Upon This Rock is essentially a Christian story. The lines are presented in the form of Bible verses in order to tell the story as accurately as possible. In fact, the title Upon This Rock comes from Matthew 16:18. The biblical figures that Jesus Christ helped, such as Lazarus and the crippled woman, make an appearance in the play and represent the miracles he performed. One captivating aspect of the production is that when a specific and prominent character speaks to the audience, the rest of the cast “freezes” while the reciting character provides a deeper explanation of the scene’s plot. This spotlights the reciting character and adds to the notion that the character’s line is important. When it comes to characters giving their testimonies or singing a solo (usually intertwined), some of them experience something my colleagues and I coined “going in.” Going in means to feel the spirit of the LORD and outwardly express your spiritual connection.
Upon This Rock: the Passion Play brings to life the miracles, ministry, and story of Jesus Christ and his disciples. With the help of well-known and respected gospel artists, such as Lady Tramaine Hawkins (featured on the DVD), UTR does a superb job of drawing in audiences. Over 70 churches are involved with the production. At the end of the play, Pastor Thomas A. Hill asks audience members if they would like to join the body of Christ. The overall objective of this play is to show people the wonderful way of GOD and bring people to Him. It will evoke emotion in even the most reserved people. Upon This Rock: the Passion Play is a must see production with family and friends. However, if you’re not able to attend the annual performance in Indianapolis (scheduled for April 6-7, 2012 at Butler University’s Clowes Hall), this DVD, filmed live during the 2010 production, is the next best thing.
Sonically and structurally grounded in jazz, Burnt Sugar’s latest album, All Ya Needs That Negrocity, continues the group’s tradition of exploding walls between genres. While there’s something for everyone here, the group’s commitment to idiosyncracy and hybridization runs deeper: they cite Duke Ellington, Sun Ra, and Parliament Funkadelic as influences, all artists who sampled freely from various genres of black music. For Burnt Sugar (founded by bassist Jared Nickerson and Village Voice icon Greg Tate), constantly mixing genres is political, conscious subversion of the commodification of black music by the record industry. And it sounds good, too.
The funky jazz-inflected opener, “The Cold Sweat Variations,” and the smooth almost-pop sound of “Burning Crosses” are winners. The ethereal, sparsely-textured “Blique Strategems” is largely piano and electronics-driven, providing an aural rest from the album’s dense instrumentation. Finally, the entrancing “Throne of Blood 33 1/3 (Encrypted Vernacular)” is jazzy with a quiet hip hop undercurrent that, over its nearly 13 minute playing time, gives way to more and more electronic intrusion until the track dissolves into itself.
Following is an excerpt from “Burning Crosses” featuring Abby Dobson:
A wonderful gospel singer, songwriter, and producer, Donald Lawrence has come back to us with another lesson from the Bible via his new album YRM (Your Righteous Mind). Every song in this album provides encouragement and will make you smile, cry, and give thanks for the inspirational messages from Heaven. Lawrence writes, “Spiritually, this CD was meant to push you forward” by showing the solutions to the troubled mind. Lawrence’s talent to convey Christian beliefs in his lyrics excels without a doubt.
Songs such as the first single, “YRM (Your Righteous Mind)” featuring Dorinda Clark-Cole, and “The ‘I AM’ Factor” cheer us up and teach us how to be true to ourselves. Ballads such as “Second Wind,” “Not Making Sense, Making Faith” and “II Chronicles” take us to a deep worship experience. Another pioneering gospel artist, Israel Houghton, shares solos with Lawrence on “We Agree,” a beautiful tune with a strong message: “Anything can happen when we agree.”
Lawrence also writes, “Musically, this CD was meant to take you back to the ‘80s & ‘90s, a time of live musicians and live organic vocals.” Certainly his remake of Chaka Khan’s 1985 hit “Through the Fire,” reborn as a sincere love song to the Lord, will amaze listeners by showing how genre boundaries can be transcended. Walter L. Hawkins’ “When the Battle is Over” is reintroduced by the Co.’s powerful vocalization. Indeed, Lawrence is an ingenious musician who can put secular musical forms to use for his preaching, combining them with gospel music’s characteristics.
Following is the music video for “Spiritual” ((c) 2011 Verity Gospel Music Group):
Lawrence states, “I want to continue to teach, through song, spiritual principles and laws based on scriptures.” The repeated message of this album is “You’re not a natural being having a spiritual experience―you’re a spiritual being living in a natural experience” as sung in the second single, “Spiritual.” Again, Donald Lawrence has accomplished his mission, demonstrating the true purpose of gospel music.
In 2004, Light In the Attic Records released a compilation of 1960’s and 1970’s soul and funk tunes made by Seattle-area bands called Wheedle’s Groove. Wheedle was a character in a children’s book about the Seattle Space Needle. The compilation spotlighted really tight and competent music making by artists and groups who never gained fame outside the Pacific Northwest. A few years later, Light In the Attic assembled some of these players to make new recordings in the gloriously chaotic Kearney Barton studio.
Now, Light In the Attic’s Cinewax subsidiary has released Jennifer Maas’s documentary that tells the back story of Wheedle’s Groove. This film goes far beyond the CD booklets in bringing to life the people and narrative of the Seattle black music scene in the funk heyday.
Students of black music know that Seattle is hardly uncharted territory. Ray Charles and Quincy Jones grew up there, and the city featured a thriving music scene during the Swing era because it was a military transit hub and there was thus a ready audience for live music. As a major western port, Seattle also had ready access to various goods, including records from all over the U.S. and imported music from other countries. Furthermore, discriminatory housing practices concentrated Seattle’s black population into the Central District downtown, known as the C.D.
The Wheedle’s Groove musicians fondly remember the musical environment in the C.D. during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Basically, the place was a master class on jazz, blues, soul and funk. And, despite tired public housing projects and lower-scale incomes, the area is not remembered by those musicians for its urban blight but rather for its friendly and nurturing musical community.
Following is the promo video for the film:
But there are some cruel ironies of fate, resulting in the Seattle locals who led these bands and their recordings ending up in the dustbin of obscurity. For one thing, Seattle did not have a strong record-label culture, so national promotion and distribution were hard to come by. Also, the city was far enough off the beaten track that it was hard to attract major labels’ attention. Quincy Jones and Ray Charles were long gone by the Wheedle’s Groove era. So regional chart success and radio play did not transition to a lifelong career in music. The film documents how a local DJ collected these obscure 45s in the 1990s and early 2000s and brought them to the attention of Light In the Attic’s producers. The compilation has enjoyed sales around the world and has revived some careers, most notably Patrinell Staten Wright.
Interestingly, there was one person who emerged from the Wheedle’s Groove scene and gained worldwide fame. His name is Kenny Gorelick, better known as smooth-jazz legend Kenny G. In his youth, Kenny G. was a member of the integrated band Cold, Bold & Together. And the scene heavily influenced a C.D. native who gained fame and some notoriety in the hip-hop world, Sir Mix-Alot. Both Kenny G. and Sir Mix-Alot make extensive appearances in the documentary.
If you own and enjoy the Wheedle’s Groove CD, you will love this movie. It puts faces, voices and stories to the wonderful tunes in the compilation. I also recommend the 2009 CD of new recordings made at Kearney Barton’s now-defunct studio. This documentary is a good example of film-makers staying out of the way of the subject and letting the subject tell the story.
Indianapolis label Tyscot Records recently released My Songbook, a collection of songs composed by VaShawn Mitchell that celebrates his illustrious career (he just received 10 Stellar Award nominations for his 2010 album Triumphant). Mitchell, having worked with church music since he was barely a teenager in Chicago, has become a nationally recognized gospel singer and songwriter. He has composed songs for many notable gospel singers including Smokie Norful, Bishop Paul Morton, and Bishop Larry D. Trotter. This collection includes 14 songs from his previous albums such as Believe in Your Dreams (2005) and Promises (2007). Also added to this special compilation are songs such as “Only a Test,” which has been sung in church worship services nationwide, as well as the unreleased track “God Cares For You” and a new remix of “Don’t Last.”
The companion DVD offers a 70 minute live performance of Mitchell and his band at Chicago’s Apollo Theater in 2007. Featuring songs from his album Promises, the concert footage illustrates Mitchell’s singing talents and the power of his music. Mitchell and his band create a great musical worship experience in the space, performing encouragement songs with grooves such as “Crazy Praise,” “For My Good,” “Don’t Last,” and “Able,” in addition to the soothing ballads “Promises” and “I Worship You,” plus “Favor (Ain’t Fair)” which is available only on the DVD.
Following is the 2007 performance of “For My Good” (courtesy of Tyscot Records):
Guest singers on this project are Angie Spivey, Kim Burrell, and Bishop Larry D. Trotter, who contribute their interpretations of Mitchell’s compositions and pay their respects to his music. Mitchell’s compositions show both traditional and contemporary gospel flavors, and they are made for the worship and encouragement of congregations and listeners. The songs gathered for this compilation create a total praise experience and reconfirm Mitchell’s songwriting gift.
On Saturday, November 12th, Indiana University Bloomington will host the conference Why We Sing: Indianapolis Gospel Music in Church, Community and Industry. Why We Sing is a one-day conference which explores how the city of Indianapolis has served to inform, enrich and distribute this uniquely African American religious music expression both locally and globally. The conference will consist of three roundtable discussions featuring eight prominent Indianapolis gospel music icons: Al “The Bishop” Hobbs (Aleho Records, former Chair and current board member of the Gospel Music Workshop of America); Dr. Leonard Scott (Tyscot Records); recording artists Lamar Campbell, Rev. A. Thomas Hill, and Rodnie Bryant; Liz “Faith” Dixson (Radio Announcer, WTLC AM 1310); Tracy Williamson (TRE7, Inc. Artist Development, Marketing and Production Company), and Sherri Garrison (Director of Worship, Eastern Star Church; Former Director, Gospel Music Workshop of America Women of Worship).
Doors for the conference open at 9:00 am at the Indiana University, Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center. The conference will culminate with an evening concert emceed by Al “The Bishop” Hobbs starting at 7:30 pm at the Fairview United Methodist Church. Performers include Sherri Garrison, who will be directing the Bloomington Community Chorus, and recording artists Rodnie Bryant and Lamar Campbell.
All events are free and open to the public. A related exhibit in the Neal-Marshall Center’s Bridgwaters Lounge is open to the public through mid-December and features biographies of the participating artists as well as recordings, photographs, and other memorabilia from the Archives of African American Music and Culture.
This month we’re celebrating gospel music as part of the lead-up to our November 12 conference Why We Sing: Indianapolis Gospel Music in Church, Community and Industry (see below for further details). Every other review in this issue highlights a gospel album, including projects featuring Indianapolis-based artists Sharon Moore, Brian Reeves & Heart After God, A. Thomas Hill (who leads the annual passion play Upon This Rock), plus Tyscot recording artist Vashawn Mitchell. Also included are new albums from Donald Lawrence, Dorinda Clark-Cole, Richard Smallwood, and two recent historical compilations from noted gospel music authority Opal Nations. On the secular side are reviews of the documentary Wheedle’s Groove: Seattle’s Forgotten Soul of the 1960s and ’70s, the genre bending project Reggae’s Gone Country, Burnt Sugar: The Arkestra Chamber’s forthcoming album All Ya Needs That Negrocity, plus new releases from the Mali band Tinariwen (featuring Kyp Malone from TV On The Radio), East Village punk band Cerebral Ballzy, Brazilian singer Mariana Da Cruz, and R&B/soul singers Syleena Johnson, Charles Bradley, and Lee Fields.