Archive for January, 2012

DJ’s Have Feelings Too… But Can’t Rap

Title: DJ’s Have Feelings Too… But Can’t Rap

Artist: DJ I-Dee

Label: Isito Music

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: March 15, 2011

 

DJ I-Dee, born Isaac DeLima, is a world renowned deejay from Washington, DC. He got his start at the age of ten, sneaking into his older brother’s room and playing with his turntables. His style of hip-hop is best compared to the playful nature of the SugarHill Gang’s Rappers Delight combined with the crudeness of Eminem’s Rain Man. DeLima’s deejaying skills are apparent throughout DJ’s Have Feelings Too, where he returns to his roots.  The album features a number of notable underground rappers, including Eli Porter, Traphik (aka Timothy DeLaGhetto), Jean Grae, Oddisee, Seez Mics, and Wrekonize, who was the grand prize winner of the “MTV Battle II: The Takeover in Times Square” in 2003.

Throughout most of his songs the listener can easily identify DeLima’s comedic side. For example, in “Part-Time MC(featuring Eli Porter) he raps: “I-Dee H23 part time MC super disc jockey / MIA to DC oh What?to DMV / Where you from where you at regardless /  I can’t rap but you know what I know I’m whack!.. At least I’m not annoying.” Another song that deserves special mention is IBS,” which finds I-Dee rapping mainly about his irritable bowel syndrome: “4am just woke up was it a nightmare or a hiss in my butt? /  It was the latter, which makes me sadder a date with the porcelain is what dreams shatter /  shut the door don’t let anyone in, I’m about to commit a viral sin, stench so foul….” Along with these lighthearted tracks, DeLima also keeps listeners on their toes by switching up the style to a more serious tribute piece in “Off the Decks.”

DJ I-Dee has produced a carefree album that expresses the simplicity and hardships of everyday life. Whether in search of a laugh or a song to sit and think about, DJ’s Have Feelings Too… But Can’t Rap is a great choice.

 

Reviewed by Alyssa Hunter

View review January 6th, 2012

Everybody Wants To Be a Cat


Title: Everybody Wants To Be A Cat: Disney Jazz, Vol. 1

Artist: Various Artists

Label: Walt Disney Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: February 15, 2011

The focus of this collection is not so much what the Magic Kingdom managed to do with jazz. It’s about what the jazz world has been able to do with the music of Disney.—Liner notes.

The opening track, “Ev’rybody Wants To Be a Cat” by Roy Hargrove, was the inspiration for the album’s title and demonstrates the wide appeal of this CD. Originally targeted for children, the ‘Disney sound’ has been re-vamped, turning classic songs into jazz arranged for a new  audience so adults, too, can appreciate them.  As Ashley Kahn writes in the liner notes, this album continues a long tradition of “jazzmen of all stripes—traditional and progressive—[embracing] Disney music.”

The Album has many highlights.  “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” featuring bassist Esperanza Spalding, adds a French cabaret aura to the arrangement, complete with Spalding vocalizing the melody over an accordion accompaniment. “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” featuring Dave Brubeck, starts out with a slow, solo piano intro which then picks up the tempo, adding the remainder of the combo, complete with swinging cymbals in the percussion. The Bad Plus trio takes on “Gaston,” from Beauty and the Beast, in an incredible arrangement that creates a huge range of sound with the drums accenting the piece to a tee. “The Bare Necessities,” with Alfredo Rodriguez on piano and percussion, however, shows the most unique approach. Using minor chords to construct a happy song makes it interesting to the ear, while low, banging notes on the piano add to the deconstructed feel which is resolved nicely at the end.

Following is a “behind the scenes” video about the making of the album:

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The rest of the album includes other familiar Disney songs from the movies Lady and the Tramp, The Aristocats, Toy Story, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Beauty and the Beast, Alice in Wonderland, and The Lion King, as performed by Regina Carter, Joshua Redman, Dianne Reeves, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Robert Gambarini, Nikki Yanofsky, Gilad Hekselman, and Mark Rapp. If the listener is at all familiar with these Disney movies, it is hard to not sing along even though most of these tracks are instrumental arrangements.

Everybody Wants To Be A Cat is a great combination of traditional and progressive arrangements from both jazz heavyweights and younger, rising stars. The album will certainly capture the attention of all ages with its fresh and original jazz interpretations of classic Disney songs.

Reviewed by Megan Pottenger

View review January 6th, 2012

Nü Revolution

Title: Nü Revolution

Artist: Les Nubians

Label: Shanachie

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: April 19, 2011

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Nü Revolution by Les Nubians is an effective, harmony and beat-driven blend of “Afropean Soul,” which the group describes as “a unique mix of nu-soul, hip-hop, and world music.”  With the opening track, “Nü Queens Intro,” listeners are instantly transported to a far off land. The eclectic style continues throughout the album, which features African instruments and percussion mixed with beautiful harmonies and heavy lows. Although the songs are either interspersed with or sung entirely in French, Nü Revolution is both capturing and entertaining. The title track is uplifting and inspiring as the French duo sings of a new revolution beginning.

The instrumentation of Nü Revolution blends perfectly. Electronic drum kits and funky guitars are not typically in the same room as mbiras and synths, but in Nü Revolution the combination of instruments adds an interesting flavor to the album. “Nü Soul Makossa” features Manu Dibango, a Cameroonian saxophonist and vibraphone player, who adds a unique dimension to the song, while “Les Gens” features Ghanaian-American hip-hop artist Blitz the Ambassador.  The album maintains a constant dance beat which makes it a lot of fun to listen to. For example, “Afrodance” has a loose vibe, but the heavy kick drum keeps the momentum going:

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Nü Revolution is an exciting and upbeat album laced with surprises, which keep the listener attentive, and is a must for music lovers who want to take their listening experience outside the popular realm of “Western” music.

 

Reviewed by Michael Lantow

View review January 6th, 2012

Greatest Story Never Told


Title: The Greatest Story Never Told

Artist: Saigon

Label: Suburban Noize Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: February 15, 2011

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The Greatest Story Never Told is the long anticipated debut album of New York rapper Brian Carenard, better known as Saigon.  After a prison stint in the late 1990s, he gained an affinity for rapping and left with full intentions of making it in the hip hop industry. Saigon was able to build up his name and reputation via mix-tapes, and it was not long before he had signed a record deal with Atlantic Records. After a quick cameo in the popular HBO comedy series “Entourage,” Saigon appeared to have his musical career well underway. However, after irreconcilable creative differences with Atlantic, it would be 4 more years before Saigon’s music was finally released to the public.

Unlike many rap artists of this generation, Saigon’s lyrics tackle issues far deeper than just chasing money and chasing women. Many of the tracks, including “Preacher” and “Enemies,” talk about the rapper’s troubled past and his difficult and strenuous journey to success. Saigon’s flow and tempo are an integral part of his slow storytelling method, which puts more emphasis on the lyrics and the rhymes than on the beat and background music.

Following is the music video for the title track (© 2011 Suburban Noize Records):

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Some of the industry’s most prominent names collaborated on The Greatest Story, including Jay-Z and Kanye West. Other cameos on the 18 track set include Bun B, Swizz Beatz, and Q-Tip, with vocals provided by R&B singers Faith Evans, Marsha Ambrosius, and Raheem DeVaughn, plus a bonus track featuring Black Thought.  In an album that took nearly 7 years to be released to the public, New York rapper Saigon has a message to tell and he wants to make sure that you will be listening.

Reviewed by Jordan Grebow

View review January 6th, 2012

W.A.R. (We Are Renegades)

Title: W.A.R. (We Are Renegades)

Artist: Pharoahe Monch

Label: W.A.R. Media/Duck Down Music

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: March 22, 2011

 

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Pharoahe Monch skillfully returns with his third solo album, W.A.R. (We are renegades), providing his own brand of anti-commercial hip hop music. His fiery rhymes on themes of black unity, politics, religion, social movements, record industry critique, and dystopia help construct this concept album that takes place in a futuristic battleground.

While Monch has only released three albums in the last ten years, it is apparent that his intricate lyricism is worth the wait between records.  As with his past works Desire (2007) and Internal Affairs (1999), he proves that his uncanny ability to supply verbal acrobatics through sporadic alteration in rhythm, syllable placement, and creative puns does not overshadow his tendency to tackle political issues and deep, meaningful concepts. “Yes, how many gorillas who actually killas really rhymin’/ Artists that actually signed still killing/ And when it comes to killing the mic, they not willin’/ And I’m supposed to be shook that’s the shit that kill me/ Take the bullet for Barack on the balcony and vanish/ Extinguish the sun when I drew, play pool with the planets” (from track 3, “Evolve”).  Few MC’s possess such a multi-dimensional approach to song writing that Monch delivers on every track of the album.

Production for W.A.R. is nothing short of epic.  Dramatic strings, horns, choirs, samples of news broadcasts, as well as a guitar solo from Vernon Reid (“W.A.R.”) assist in setting the tone for the apocalyptic theme of the album.  However, tracks such as “Black Hand Side,” “Let My People Go,” and “Still Standing” (featuring Jill Scott) incorporate gospel elements such as organ play, melismatic back vocals and choruses that slow the pace of the record and offer a smooth contrast.

Following is the 10-minute short film based on the track “Clap (one day)” —“a journey of a police raid gone dramatically wrong”—directed by Terence Nance and starring Gbenga Akinnagbe (The Wire), Kim Howard & Josiah Small:

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The track “Assassins” is also worth mentioning as it sets off a “why I’m fly” extravaganza with legendary MC’s Jean Grae and Royce Da 5’9”.  Conceptually, the joint effort follows suit with the theme of the album as the artists assume the roles of the only renegade assassins left on earth.  Royce conquers the one syllable “inside rhyme” technique in the second verse while all three artists successfully drop non-stop puns, marking this track a classic hip hop collaboration.

Pharoahe Monch’s W.A.R. goes down as yet another politically conscious and well-developed work in his rich catalogue.  Fans as well as blossoming heads will appreciate its lyrical and production intricacy.  Though the pace of his solo albums often irritates those anticipating the next release, it is evident that Monch is determined to create records that stand alone as well as the test of time.

 

Reviewed by Matthew Krebs

View review January 6th, 2012

Cole World: The Sideline Story

Title: Cole World: The Sideline Story

Artist:  J. Cole

Label:  Roc Nation

Formats:  CD (explicit ed.), CD (clean ed.), MP3

Release date: September 27, 2011

 

Fayetteville’s own Jermaine Cole finally let go of his Roc Nation debut this fall, Cole World: The Sideline Story.  Landing at #1 on Billboard, the top chart position spoke volumes for the up-and-coming lyricist, as many were afraid his skills as a talented MC would hinder his mainstream appeal. The first singles (“Blow Up,” “Work Out”) also put doubts in the minds of critics and fans alike. But Cole’s LP is a solid composition of competent lyrical content and subject matter, as well as radio-ready hits.

Cole opens with the second sequel in his “Dollar & a Dream” series, showing that the intensity,  wordplay, and substance found on his mixtapes did not vanish during the transition to an album. Next is the hit single “Can’t Get Enough,” a Latin jazz-fused song featuring Trey Songz. “Lights Please” is a deep look at balancing life’s pleasantries with plight.

The album showcases Cole’s storytelling ability and his way of bringing real issues to his songs. “Lost Ones” depicts the regret of an aborted life, while “Breakdown” opens up Cole’s own personal strife with his father. “Rise & Shine and “God’s Gift,” though separate tracks, feel like one body of work; “Rise” shines as Cole clocks the non-believers and reiterates his worth in the game. “God’s Gift” is the support for Cole’s previous thesis, proving his presence as one of hip-hop’s most promising acts isn’t a gimmick.

Cole garners some great guest appearances as well. Jay-Z graces the Blueprint 3-sounding “Mr. Nice Watch,” and Drake appears on the Friday Night Lights favorite “Hit It in the Morning.” But the biggest surprise is the Missy Elliott-featured “Nobody’s Perfect.” On top of a slow-grinding bass groove, Cole details his endeavors while Elliott holds down the chorus on the R&B tip, resulting in one of the best songs on the album.

Cole World is definitely one of the best hip hop albums released in 2011, and has garnered Cole a Best New Artist Grammy nomination.

Reviewed by Lorin T. Williams

View review January 6th, 2012

Two Notable 2011 Debuts

Title:  Timez Are Weird These Days

Artist:  Theophilus London

Label:  Reprise

Formats:  CD, LP, MP3

Release date: July 19, 2011

 

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Theophilus London’s debut album, Timez Are Weird These Days―a follow-up to his popular mixtapes and 2011 Lovers Holiday EP― has a unique neo-retro feel. There is a certain vibe on the album that hits on an old school era, but definitely has a modern sound. London combines heavy synths reminiscent of ‘80s new wave, rap, and ‘60s rock. Filled with up-tempo songs where he raves about his womanizing skills and wild parties backed up by funky bass and guitar, London shows off his skills as a rapper and singer, much like Kid Cudi, but with a quicker step. Though he could use a little more variety to his beats, London’s debut album is a promising one for the Trinidad-born Brooklyn native, and it brings a different sound to the rap game.

Following is the official video for the album’s opening track and introduction to the artist, “Last Name London”:

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Title:  Black Up

Artist: Shabazz Palaces

Label:  Sub-Pop

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date:  June 28, 2011

 

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Shabazz Palaces (Digable Planet’s Ishmael Butler and Tendai ‘Baba’ Maraire) emerged a couple of years ago out of Seattle and released a few EPs prior to Black Up, their debut full-length album. Black Up has an odd, ambient sound that is strange at times, but definitely interesting. Most of the tracks have a trip-hop feel with rough lyrics. This is not a light record, as most of the songs hit on a dark, hard-edged sound, so there could easily be a division of opinion among listeners. Many of the beats are uniquely jazzy and funky, but there are some that are just downright strange, possibly drawing upon Maraire’s Zimbabwean roots. For instance, the second track, “An Echo From the Hosts that Profess Infinitum,” features a creepy, frequent sample that sounds like a lost child running and yelling for help:

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Shabazz Palaces’ rap style lies somewhere between OutKast and Lil Wayne, with a raspy tone and tight rhymes. No matter what, the album surely sparks discussion and makes the listener think. The record definitely has an avant-garde element that makes Shabazz Palaces a difficult group and sound to describe, but they are on to something.

 

Reviewed by Adam Levin

View review January 6th, 2012

Just Me

Title: Just Me

Artist: Brian McKnight

Label: Entertainment One Music

Formats: 2-CD set; MP3

Release date: July 12, 2011

 

 

McKnight’s eleventh album, Just Me, a set of 2 CDs, might be a little controversial because of the balance between new and old songs.  Disc 1 contains a rather short collection of 10 new tracks including “Fall 5.0,” the first single, which represents this new project well:

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Although many of the new songs might not immediately capture the listeners and meet his fans’ expectations, Brian McKnight’s sweet voice remains the same. For example, tracks like “One Mo Time” show off his great vocal technique without doubt, while “Without You” and “End and Beginning with You” represent the kind of sweet and melodic love songs that McKnight is known for.  “Careless Whisper,” a remake of George Michael’s 1984 hit, is performed with McKnight’s jazz interpretation.

Disc 2 is a great recording of his live concert performance at the Avalon in Los Angeles in February 2011, which definitely upstages Disc 1.  This nearly two-hour acoustic concert, accompanied by piano and guitar, features a “greatest hits collection” of his masterpieces such as “Only One for Me,” “Crazy Love,” “Anytime,” and “Back At One.”  McKnight tells biographical stories between song intervals, and his general playfulness―inserting gospel songs, a classic piano “Sonata,” and covers of beloved songs such as Michael Jackson’s “Rock with You” and Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed”―amuses the audience.

McKnight performs several of his hits with his sons, Brian Jr. and Niko. It is amazing to hear these three talents singing together, and their performance of “The Rest of My Life” will give listeners goose bumps for sure.  This is a perfect way for McKnight to proudly introduce his talented sons as performers and co-writers.

As McKnight sings in “Just Me” (“This is me, I write the songs / I try to be right more than I’m wrong / I may not be all that you hoped I would be / But I am just me”), this project is a very honest creation.  His new album might have a fallback, including a performance of songs he wrote almost a decade ago, but this also demonstrates the secret of his long career. Surely, McKnight will continue to delight fans by saying, “this is Just Me.”

 

Reviewed by Yukari Shinagawa

View review January 6th, 2012

Where It All Begins

Title: Where It All Begins

Artist: Lalah Hathaway

Label: Stax Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: October 18, 2011

 

 

 

 

Where It All Begins is by far the best project Lalah Hathaway has ever produced. Known for her sultry, deep, rich vocal approach, this project hints at the unknown parts of her vocal range and highlights her stylistic versatility. The album in no way neglects the Lalah Hathaway style, but instead extends its reach by incorporating beat-driven tracks, piano-based instrumentals, and jazzy tunes with intriguing chordal changes, as well as a range of mid and up-tempos.

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The combination of musical styles contributes to the album’s overall contour, beginning with the beat-driven “Strong Woman,” and ending with a reprise of “This Could Be Love” tagged to the end of the almost melodically seamless “Dreamland.” After a reminder of the jazzy, sultry, Lalah Hathaway in the title track “Where It All Begins,” the sultry singer lightens her vocals for the album’s three danceable tunes: “My Everything,” “Small of My Back” and “If You Want To.” The tempo slows for the declarative “Always Love You,” a perfect introduction to the gritty, passionate “Lie To Me.” The latter, a personal favorite, highlights Hathaway’s vocal range with a lyrically pleading bridge that requires a passionate, heart-wrenching, yet hopeful approach and Hathaway delivers.

A definite climactic point in the album, “Lie To Me,” is followed by the slow and steady “This Could Be Love.” The musically brighter, up-tempo “Wrong Way” is supplemented by lighter vocals, with Hathaway again venturing into her higher vocal range. The remainder of the album features a cover, “You Were Meant For Me,” along with an appearance by Rachelle Ferrell, who offers a lighter vocal compliment to Hathaway’s deeper vocals on “I’m Coming Back.”  “Dreamland” and the “This Could Be Love” reprise end the album on familiar ground, returning to the sultry, atmospheric musical styling Hathaway is known for.

While Where It All Begins presents a number of musical styles, a definite album highlight is her cover of a song recorded by her father, the incomparable Donny Hathaway. “You Were Meant For Me” maintains the subtleties her father lent the song in the 1978 release, but is fused with harmonic additions, rhythmic manipulations, and accented percussion unique to Lalah Hathaway.

Where It All Begins is the product of a growing artist and an exciting marker of what is to come from Lalah Hathaway.

 

Reviewed by Christina Harrison

View review January 6th, 2012

Bad Girl

Title: Bad Girl

Artist:  Demetria Taylor

Label:  Delmark

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: May 17, 2011

 

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Demetria Taylor’s debut album, Bad Girl, is a tribute album: an odd move for a debut, but a move Taylor makes with good reason.  Taylor’s vocal style is heavily influenced by blues queen Koko Taylor (no relation), and she was raised listening to blues and jazz by artists like Willie Dixon, Magic Sam, and Jimmy Reed.  Most importantly, though, her father was the late Chicago bluesman Eddie Taylor, most famous for his guitar work with Jimmy Reed.  The title of Demetria Taylor’s album even references her father’s solo debut, Bad Boy (1955).

The album, then, is made up of covers, some of which work better than others.  Taylor’s vocals are most effective on some of the slower tunes: her sultry vocals on “When You Leave Don’t Take Nothing,” a tribute to Artie “Blues Boy” White, are particularly good.  The second half of the opening medley, following Koko Taylor’s “I’m A Woman,” began as blues standard “Hoochie Coochie Man,” made famous by Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters.  Taylor’s gender-bending take on it, as “Hoochie Coochie Woman,” is a cheeky comment about being a woman in the still male-dominated blues world, but her performance, while good, rings hollow.  The material dictates Taylor’s interpretation a bit, not allowing her to musically make the songs her own, aside from the changes to the lyrics.  Taylor’s cover of her father’s tune, “Bad Man,” which Taylor sings as “Bad Girl,” however, fares better.  Taylor and her rollicking band are working well together and the resulting track is infectious and fun.  Taylor and Chicago blueswoman Big Time Sarah trade vocals on a few tunes, and their back-and-forth on the Howlin’ Wolf standard “Little Red Rooster” is a hilarious, strong track.

The standout track, though, is another slower tune―Taylor’s cover of Luther Allison’s “Cherry Red Wine.”  The song about the effect of alcoholism lets Taylor stretch her vocal lines, inflecting them with anger and sadness, and her backing band moves around the edges of her vocals, making a very satisfying, interesting seven-minute track.  While this album has some hits and some misses, it is a strong debut from a woman with blues in her blood.  We can look forward to seeing how she grows on her next project, which is slated to be all original material.

 

Reviewed by David Lewis

View review January 6th, 2012

My Life II: The Journey Continues (Act 1)

Title: My Life II: The Journey Continues (Act 1)

Artist: Mary J. Blige

Label: Geffen

Formats: CD (standard and deluxe editions), MP3

Release date: November 21, 2011

 

Twenty years ago Mary J. Blige released her debut album on Uptown Records. Blige’s strong church-grown vocals hugged with hip-hop cadences, giving way to the hip-hop soul genre and crowning Mary as the queen of the musical kingdom. On her tenth LP, Blige gives fans more of her in a sequel for the ages. My Life II is a continuation of Blige’s epic sophomore classic from 1994. No longer bound by the pain that forged My Life’s melancholy movement, My Life II reflects a happier, loving Mary.

While many fans were disappointed with the uneven Stronger With Each Tear (2009), My Life II returns Blige to her soul-hop roots. The album opener, “Feel Inside,” pairs Blige with her “Love Is All We Need” guest, Nas.  With a Wu-Tang sample in the background, Blige sings of a love hurting from both parties’ inability to see eye to eye. She tackles another Chaka cover with her surprisingly good reworking of “Ain’t Nobody,” produced by Darkchild.  Next up is the horn-heavy “25/8” which served as the album’s first single:

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Blige shines best on tracks that require the least force. The mid-tempo “Don’t Mind” grooves effortlessly, as does “Why” featuring Rick Ross. Another standout is the duet with Beyonce. Yes, Mrs. Knowles-Carter aids Blige on the female anthem “Love a Woman.” Duets like that rarely happen these days, and the pairing of their voices is magic.

The album closes with the stirring ballad from The Help soundtrack, “The Living Proof,” which speaks volumes about Blige’s own life. She’s a living example of perseverance in the music industry and in life. My Life II is a testament to Blige’s continual growth as an artist and a woman.

 

Reviewed by Lorin T. Williams

View review January 6th, 2012

Give Till It’s Gone

Title: Give Till It’s Gone

Artist: Ben Harper

Label: Virgin Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: May 17, 2011

 

 

Give Till Its Gone is summer festival sweetheart Ben Harper’s tenth studio release, and while stylistically inconsistent—tracks’ tones wander from Hendrix to Bloc Party to Cream—the album affirms Harper’s fortitude and natural talent as both a musician and vocalist. The problems with this album lie in the fact that, though this radio-friendly rock is somewhat of a turn for Harper, it’s nothing new for anyone else.

Give’s strong points come when Harper sticks to the basics, as he does in the album’s opening track, “Don’t Give Up on Me Now.” Simple and lacking the over-styling that affects a few of the other songs, this track—in addition to the contemplative “I Will Not Be Broken” and “Pray That Our Love Sees the Dawn”—carries the album.

Following is the official video for “Don’t Give Up on Me Now”:

If for nothing else, though, Give is worth a listen for its celebrity appearances. Ringo Starr co-wrote and played the drums in “Spilling Faith” and “Get There from Here,” and the aforementioned “Pray That Our Love Sees the Dawn” features singer-songwriter Jackson Browne.

Despite its problems, Give is passionate, well-wrought music. It probably won’t be topping any “Year’s Best” lists, but it’s solid, and it’s a welcome addition to the discography of an artist who’s won Grammys for both “Best Pop Instrumental Performance” and “Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album,” meeting Harper’s two extremes somewhere in the middle.

Review by Hannah Davis

View review January 6th, 2012

Protest Music from Tom Morello

Title: World Wide Rebel Songs

Artist: Tom Morello / The Nightwatchman

Label: New West Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: August 29, 2011

 

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Title: Union Town

Artist: Tom Morello / The Nightwatchman

Label: New West Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: July 19, 2011

 

 

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Tom Morello has proven that his affinity for political agitation and left wing activism is hardly a passing fancy.  Union Town and World Wide Rebel Songs are the third and fourth politically motivated albums he’s released since 2007 as The Nightwatchman.  Unfortunately, he hasn’t yet been able to fully transfer his political energy into rousing music.  If his work with Rage Against the Machine was a middle finger to the apathetic pop-punk ‘90s, his Nightwatchman projects are the sonic equivalent of a VW Bus with too many bumper stickers on the back, championing every cause, saying very little.  Claiming he wanted to “capture a vibe midway between Johnny Cash and Che Guevara, murder ballads and Molotov anthems,” Morello often feels stuck in the middle space.

In World Wide Rebel Songs he points fingers at the CIA, the Supreme Court, and the Iraq war among other subjects, but without much focus or punch.  Many songs have backing tracks of large choruses of voices, and I fear that’s the only way Morello will get people singing along to his songs.  Though the album is not without moments. “Save the Hammer for the Man” is a beautiful duet with Ben Harper, where Morello’s monotone is contrasted by Harper’s fantastic singing.  “The Dogs of Tijuana” is a great song showcasing Morello’s nylon string guitar and low, raspy voice.  A strong statement, ostensibly about the coming revolution of downtrodden Mexican workers, which never tries to oversells its power with production, but with quiet passion.

Largely, World Wide Rebel Songs could use more of this quiet power.  A power felt on his soft prayer of a song, “God Help Us All,” which calls to mind a late career Johnny Cash.   A man who loves noise, Morello, who also produced the record, fills too many songs with drums, screeching electric guitars, and wailing harmonica—perhaps hoping that what worked for Bruce Springsteen’s reboot of Pete Seeger’s catalogue might work here.  For the most part, it does not.

With Union Town, Morello took the attention on Wisconsin’s 2010/2011 labor disputes as a way to reignite interest in worker-centered protest music.  Here he culled some of the greats of the Labor song movement, such as “Solidarity Forever,” “Which Side are you On,” “This Land is Your Land,” and “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.”  He also inserts Merle Travis’s “16 Tons,” and in doing so, brings the song back from Tennessee Ernie Ford’s country pop and into the realm of protest songs.  He also includes three of his own songs written for the labor struggle, “Union Town,” “A Wall Against the Wind,” and “Union Song.”  The strongest of the brief record are the old standards, particularly “Which Side Are You On,” and “This Land Is Your Land.”

Morello clearly has real passion for the labor movement, and it certainly is significant that the movement has a voice that isn’t an aged, white male folksinger.  While his energies may be scattered, it is encouraging to see a punk grow into a political force, hopefully bringing fans with him.

 

Reviewed by Thomas Grant Richardson

View review January 6th, 2012

Black and White America

Title: Black and White America

Artist: Lenny Kravitz

Label: Roadrunner/Atlantic

Formats: CD, 2-CD Deluxe Ed., 2-LP Limited Ed., Limited Ed. Deluxe Set (2-LP, CD, DVD, 46-p. Book), MP3

Release date: August 29, 2011

 

Lenny Kravitz’s debut for Roadrunner/Atlantic Records takes a ride through the funk-fused grooves of the ‘70s and ‘80s. The album draws inspiration from many different places, and Kravitz wears his influences on his sleeve. For instance, one can hear the Parliament/Funkadelic vibes early on in both the title track and the first single release, “Come On and Get It.” The songs are marked by Kravitz’s fusion of funk and rock that were first pioneered by Sly Stone and George Clinton and feature funky drums, rhythmic guitar riffs, and slapping bass backed up by synth and horn lines that take the listener back to the P-Funk records of the late ‘70s. Songs like “In the Black” and “Liquid Jesus” draw more from Prince’s new wave style of the ‘80s, featuring disco drumming, heavy synths, rock guitar, and falsetto vocals.

Following is the official video for the title track:

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Kravitz is at his best, though, when he returns to his true form on songs like “Rock Star City Life” and “Everything,” where his vocals sound more like the rock star Lenny Kravitz on his hits from the last couple of decades. The highlights of the album are “Looking Back on Love,” which features a killer jazzy Lyricon solo, and the James Brown inspired “Life Ain’t Better Than It Is Now,” which pays homage to the late Godfather of Soul and features a great Fred Wesley style trombone solo.

Black and White America’s main message is the racial divide that Kravitz has experienced over the course of his life. The son of a black mother and white father, he should surely have insight on these issues. While Kravitz’s latest record features the funky grooves and political lyrics that pay homage to his influences, his writing struggles at times.  But if  his lyrics are occasionally bland and lack creativity, his musicianship more than compensates.

The bonus DVD (included in the deluxe ed.) is a cool addition, as it features Kravitz recording certain tracks in the studio as well as two live acoustic performances. Overall, Black and White America is definitely unique among the albums mainstream artists are putting out today, and it serves as a refreshing reminder of the funky grooves of yesteryear.

 

Reviewed by Adam Levin

View review January 6th, 2012

Undun

Title: Undun

Artist: The Roots

Label: Def Jam

Formats: CD (explicit and clean editions), LP, MP3

Release date:  December 6, 2011

 

 

The incredibly talented outfit The Roots has etched their name in hip hop history, with each of their albums dominating the charts. Being the current generation’s equivalent of Public Enemy, the Roots’ inner city consciousness seeks to enlighten and uplift those of their own community. Led by lyricist Black Thought and unofficial wingman, drummer ?uestlove, the jazz-rock-hip hop ensemble is legend. That’s why it is a surprise that their newest release, undun, is the group’s first concept album.

Following the triumph of How I Got Over, undun is an all-but-too-familiar tale of inner city survival and strife. The album begins with a youth’s death (that of fictional character Redford Stephens, 1974-1999) at the hands of an unknown assailant. What follows is an examination of his life looking from the other side, questioning how one innocent matures into the criminal he was the day he died. Similar to Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool, undun works backwards to decipher exactly what causes so many black males to live fast and die young.

The album itself is classic Roots material: lush instrumentation and thought-provoking lyrical content. The jarring sound of a heart monitor flat-lining is the prelude to “Sleep,” the moment of realization that one is dead. Next is the Big K.R.I.T.-featured single “Make My,” pulling at our heartstrings for the protagonist’s fate. “The Otherside” rocks with Bilal’s churchified falsetto on the chorus.  “Lighthouse” features Dice Raw and describes how life can feel like being “face down in the ocean, no one in the lighthouse.”

One of the most powerful tracks is “Tip the Scale,” a sorrowful story about surviving the plights of poverty. It clearly highlights the fact that most of the issues plaguing inner cities―poor education & healthcare, violence, police brutality, drugs―are linked to the continual decline of economic opportunities.  It’s a game that deals a losing hand every time. Following is the official video:

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Undun is undoubtedly one of the best hip hop albums of the year. Its seamless transitions make the album seem like one, continuous stream. And the story, though told before, will still provoke the listener to pay attention. The Roots have also shot a short film in association with the album, and a play may even be in the works in the future.

 

Reviewed by Lorin T. Williams

View review January 6th, 2012

Want More


Title: Want More

Artist:  JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound

Label:  Bloodshot Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date:  October 25, 2011

 

 

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Straight from Chicago, JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound take the listener back to the late ‘60s soul sound of Stax and Motown, and do so with integrity and authority. These groove-driven songs sound like they could have been recorded in Memphis 40 years ago, as they feature all of the classic elements of late ‘60s soul music such as heavy bass, funky drums, driving rhythm guitar and piano, and a string section. JC Brooks is a great, raspy vocalist―reminiscent of Otis Redding and Sly Stone―with a church voice that can hit falsetto notes with ease. Every song is soul satisfying, and there is great variety on Want More―an album that hits every type of song, ranging from love ballads to driving funk to gospel to Motown pop.

Following is the official video for “Everything Will Be Fine”:

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Editor’s note: Those living in Bloomington should definitely check out the band’s “ferocious and electric stage show” coming to The Bishop on January 11, 2012.

Reviewed by Adam Levin

View review January 6th, 2012

David Baker: A Legacy in Music

Title:  David Baker: A Legacy in Music

Author:  Monika Herzig

Format: Book (Hardcover, 420 pages) + CD

Publisher:  Indiana University Press

Release date:  November 16, 2011

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David N. Baker, the renowned musician, composer, and educator who has served as Chair of the Jazz Studies Department at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music for several decades, recently celebrated his 80th birthday.  This exhaustive biography, published a month prior to his birthday, is just one of the ways Baker’s contributions to the music world will be commemorated in the coming year (see the Baker Legacy website). Written in part by IU colleague Monika Herzig, the book is more of a festschrift, with contributions from Lissa May (“Indiana Avenue and Crispus Attucks High School”), Nathan Davis (“New Beginnings”), JB Dyas (“Defining Jazz Education”), Brent Wallarab (“21st Century Bebop”), David Ward-Steinman (“The Composer”), John Edward Hasse (“David Baker and the Smithsonian”), and Willard Jenkins (“Social Engagement”), with a forward by Quincy Jones, a long-time friend of Baker.

Though the majority of the book’s focus, as one might expect, is on jazz performance and education, the chapter by Ward-Steinman is devoted to Baker as composer and presents a detailed analysis of selected works. Many may not realize that Baker has composed more than 2,000 compositions, including jazz, symphonic and chamber works, and hundreds of arrangements. Thus one of the major contributions of the book is Appendix A, an alphabetical annotated list of Baker’s original works meticulously compiled by Lida Baker, which documents the broad range of his creative genius.  Other appendices list Baker’s many awards and honors, national and international service to numerous organizations, performing groups, teaching appointments, and professional societies, followed by a “Bibliography of Written Works,” “Discography,” and “Selected List of Books, Articles, and other Publications about David Baker.” An accompanying CD, edited and mastered by Konrad Strauss (JSOM Dir. of Recording Arts), offers a sampling of works recorded between 1959-2006. Highlights include “”Dizzy” from Singers of Songs, Weavers of Dreams-Through the Prism of the Black Experience, performed by the Audubon Quartet with Janos Starker and George Gaber, and  “Le Miroir noir” from Le Chat qui pêche featuring the Louisville Orchestra.

Overall, this is a fine tribute to the Indianapolis native and Living Jazz Legend, illuminating his 60-year career as performer, composer, and educator.

Editor’s Note:  Those in Bloomington won’t want to miss the forthcoming “David Baker 80th Birthday Celebration” concert on January 21, 2012, which will feature many of Baker’s colleagues and former students; a panel discussion with Baker and Herzig will be held prior to the concert.  Admission is free but requires tickets, available from the MAC box office beginning Tuesday, Jan. 10. Those not in Bloomington may still enjoy the event via a live video-stream.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review January 6th, 2012

Smokestack Lightning – The Complete Chess Masters 1951 – 1960

Title: Smokestack Lightning – The Complete Chess Masters 1951-1960

Artist: Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Burnett)

Label: Hip-O Select / Geffen Records (UMe)

Catalog No.: B0015309-02

Formats: Limited ed. 4-CD set; MP3

Release Date: October 7, 2011

 

The title of this 4-CD set is misleading.  It’s “complete” only in the sense that it seems to include every scrap of tape in the Chess vaults that Universal Music Group can legally establish as theirs (other takes from sessions recorded in 1951-53 by Sam Phillips in Memphis were not sent to Chess and therefore can’t be claimed by Universal, plus Wolf made recordings for the Los Angeles-based Bihari brothers in the same period).  And, since the set includes what seems to be every inch of tape from every Wolf session that could be dug up, it’s much more than “masters.”  Depending on your perspective, this is a good thing or a bad thing.

What is not in doubt is the lasting power and influence of Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Arthur Burnett).  Wolf was a second-generation Delta bluesman, heavily influenced by Charlie (Charley) Patton and taught harmonica by Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson II).  His early musical idol was Blind Lemon Jefferson, and he played juke joints and house parties in the 1940s with Son House and Willie Brown.  By 1951, he was in Memphis, and was discovered by Sun Records owner Sam Phillips.  It was Phillips who famously described Wolf’s brand of blues as “where the soul of man never dies.”

This set traces Wolf’s evolution from an early 50’s style of Delta “country” blues with electric guitar added, to rockabilly influenced fast 1-4-5 blues in the mid-50s, to the beginning of his successful collaboration with Willie Dixon and Hubert Sumlin in Chicago―a period in which he took the blues in a new direction with a strong overlap toward rock music.  Indeed, Wolf’s evolving sound influenced rock musicians in England and America, and their sound was heard and absorbed by both Dixon and Wolf. But all that happened after the time period covered in these four discs. What we hear is Wolf coming out of the country and finding a very unique sound and style after moving to Chicago in 1954.

It’s worth noting that Wolf was already in his early forties when these sessions began. He had a mature performance-hewn style and had spent a decade playing the ensemble form of blues that took hold in the 1940s. So it’s not surprising that his first session with Phillips, in the summer of 1951, netted “Moanin’ At Midnight” and “How Many More Years,” both sides of a successful single and both tunes appearing on Wolf anthologies ever since.

Wolf continued to make his Chess sides in Memphis through 1953, and these songs are covered on disc 1 and the beginning of disc 2.  There is a lot of revisiting and reworking of older Delta blues songs and motifs, plus a move toward a faster, more rocking style. At Wolf’s first Chicago session, Chess single #1566 captures this transition with the slow grind of “No Place To Go (You Gonna Wreck My Life)” on one side and the shuffle-rocker “Rockin’ Daddy” on the other―just slightly slower than any contemporary Chuck Berry rock “n” roll side.

The second Chess session, in May 1954, paired Wolf for the first time with guitarist Hubert Sumlin and resulted in the classic “Evil (Is Goin’ On),” a song among the most ominous and menacing in the blues genre.  Disc 2 continues up into 1956 with the classic “Smokestack Lightning,” and another classic at least in title, “I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline).” After listening to disc 2, it’s instructive to go back to the beginning of disc 1, to hear how much Wolf’s music had changed and evolved between summer 1951 and summer 1956.

Following is a video of “Smokestack Lightning” from a 1964 live performance in England with Willie Dixon and Hubert Sumlin:

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The set then gets less interesting. The last two discs could have been de-larded and combined to one excellent disc, but instead we hear every remaining scrap of out-takes, alternates takes, studio chatter, echo-chamber tests and the proverbial kitchen sink. This is all well and good for completists, accumulators and academics, but this is music meant to be enjoyed, and hearing a bunch of false starts and flubs is not enjoyable. Wolf’s Chess producers were wise about which takes were originally released, and the rest are best left in the can or donated to a blues museum or research library (one reviewer’s opinion . . .).

Despite the flab surrounding the gold, this set clearly shows that Wolf made more great tunes in the late 50s, including his version of “Sittin’ On Top of the World,” “Howlin’ For My Baby,” and “Mr. Airplane Man.”  Then we get to the last session in this set, from June 1960. Without any flubs or alternate takes, the set ends with three classics, “Wang-Dang Doodle,” “Back Door Man,” and “Spoonful.” These three songs are everything as big and loud and overpowering as the Wolf legend, and as Wolf the man was described by contemporaries.

Looking at the glass half-full, the 1960’s Chess recordings made by Wolf included more classics and treasures, almost all included on the previous 4-CD Chess Box set (which also includes the best parts of this collection).  The half-empty view is that there are undoubtedly many more feet of tape containing material best left in the can, and it will undoubtedly be included on any subsequent “complete” set(s).

Weighing in this set’s favor are good sound quality, nice packaging and excellent essays by Peter Guralnick and Dick Shurman. There is some additional discographical information vs. previous releases, and it’s all collected in a coherent timeline. If the set were just “masters” as claimed, it would be a knockout hit.

 

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review January 6th, 2012

Discovery – The Rebirth of Mississippi John Hurt

Title: Discovery – The Rebirth of Mississippi John Hurt, March 3, 1963

Artist: Mississippi John Hurt

Label: Spring Fed Records

Catalog No.: SFR-108

Format: CD

Release Date: October 4, 2011

Discovery–The Rebirth of Mississippi John Hurt is an incredible audio documentary, captured by a portable Ampex consumer-grade reel to reel recorder as white blues enthusiast Tom Hoskins  “rediscovers” the bluesman on March 3, 1963―35 years after Hurt’s last commercial recording.  Hurt subsequently became a darling of the college campus and coffeehouse “folk blues” circuit in the mid-60s. He died in November, 1966.

As the well-written and illustrated booklet tells the story, Hoskins and his fellow Washington D.C. blues fans and collectors were especially fond of Hurt’s 1928 recordings (a total of 12 sides) made for the Okeh label.  Hoskins came to realize that Hurt’s last recording, “Avalon Blues,” was an homage to his hometown in Mississippi.  Hoskins, an adventurous 22-year-old, tossed his tape recorder into a borrowed Volkswagon Beetle and headed south. He later rolled up to Stinson’s store in Avalon and politely asked where he might find Hurt.  To his surprise, he was given directions right to the man’s house.

As night fell on Saturday, March 2, 1963, Hoskins knocked on the door of a 3-room shack in a field. Hurt opened the door, identified himself, and his career as a professional musician began again.  Hoskins came back the next day and recorded Hurt playing music and answering questions for 2 hours.  Hurt’s wife, Jessie, contributed answers during interviews and prompted Hurt for memories and stories. Their humorous interplay adds to the interview’s value.

Unfortunately, Hurt suffered from a cold, so this is not his finest musical moment, but he plays and sings quite well if one hears this as a field recording, a documentary of a very special day. The sound quality is remarkable considering the primitive recorder and the age of the tapes.  Hurt sounds very comfortable, surrounded by his family and in his home, which happened to have electricity and was therefore a suitable recording venue. As the day wore on, Hurt was joined by more family and friends and the impromptu sing-along and story-telling kicked up another notch. Hurt, his wife, his ex-wife and her sister also sing some spirituals (it was, after all, Sunday when these recordings were made).

Aside from being a worthy historical document, this CD is charming and entertaining. Hurt and his music always resonated well with white audiences, some say because his mellow and humorous personality was non-threatening.  Captured here in his element, with Hoskins the only white person in the room, we hear that this was his natural demeanor―he really was relaxed, gentle and prone to laughter. Hurt’s musical prowess is undeniable, and his songs seem ageless. Highly recommended.

This clip shows both the excellent playing and Hurt’s quiet and humorous personality:

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Here’s another one, showing how he went more folk-centric for the white audiences:

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Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review January 6th, 2012

Welcome to the January 2012 Issue

This month we’re covering a variety of recent releases while also reflecting on selected albums released earlier in 2011.  First up are reviews of the new Howlin’ Wolf box set and Discovery: The Rebirth of Mississippi John Hurt, plus Chicago blues singer Demetria Taylor’s latest CD on the Delmark label. Under the umbrella of rock/pop are albums from Lenny Kravitiz, Tom Morello, Ben Harper, and newcomer Theophilus London. Soul/R&B artists covered this month include JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound, Mary J. Blige, Lalah Hathaway, and Brian McKnight, while hip hop artists include The Roots, Shabazz Palaces, Pharoahe Monch, Saigon, J. Cole, and DJ Idee.  Last but not least are reviews of the new biography of IU’s famed jazz prof David Baker, the Disney jazz project Everybody Wants to be a Cat, and Les Nubians’ Nü Revolution.

View review January 6th, 2012

Prime Time

Title: Prime Time

Artist: Paul Taylor

Label: Peak Records / Entertainment One

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 14, 2011

 

Paul Taylor’s Prime Time is a plunge into a world of synthesized beats, electronic rhythm sections and heavy bass parts. But, like an oasis in a desert, Taylor’s saxophone quenches the smooth jazz lover’s thirst for something more melodic. Creating a unique soundscape with his instrument, Taylor adds only a handful of songs that include vocals.

Most of the time Taylor’s melodies are memorable and familiar, but some tracks lack melodic direction, such as “Say No More,” making them less desirable for those looking for something they can hum along to. Ironically, the tracks with vocals, especially “Can’t Nobody,” are the most effective and most memorable.

At times Prime Time sounds more like a mainstream hip hop remix due to the heavy electronic bass. It may be difficult for jazz lovers to sit down and enjoy the album because of this. On the other hand, it may be equally difficult for hip hop and electronic music fans to tune in, because the album does not fit well into a specific category. Taylor puts in a valiant effort, but ultimately falls short of creating a true masterpiece due to the production values and lack of direction on many tracks.

As if the album wasn’t hard enough to categorize, Taylor throws the listener a curveball by ending with a cover of “Use Somebody” by the alternative rock group Kings of Leon, which does not fit into the context of what he tried to create. Overall, Prime Time is a beat driven album that takes listeners on an interesting musical journey that will appeal to many fans of smooth jazz, but may fall short of attracting the broader, younger audience that Taylor desired.

Reviewed by Michael Lantow

 

 

 

View review January 31st, 2012

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