Archive for May, 2012

What’s Up? It’s Me

Title: What’s Up? It’s Me

Artist: Rod Clemmons

Label: Verdict Records

Format: CD, MP3

Release Date: September 22, 2011

 

 

Rod Clemmons has deep roots in Bloomington, Indiana. Although born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Clemmons attended IU’s Jacobs School of Music, majoring in classical piano performance. His musical ability allowed him to work with famous classical performers and composers such as Robert Shaw, Leonard Bernstein, and of course jazz legend David Baker. However, after discovering pop and R&B at IU, Clemmons shifted his focus to more contemporary music and caught the attention of Isaiah Sanders, who at the time was directing the IU Soul Revue.  Clemmons later moved to New York where he worked as a keyboard player and producer. After learning the ropes of studio production he created his own label, Verdict Records, with the first release being Clemmon’s own CD What’s Up? It’s Me.

What’s Up? is filled with an array of deeply personal content. Romance, breakup and everything in-between is covered in this album, and Clemmons’ musical ability truly shines. There are ample demonstrations of his background in classical piano; however, the essence of funk, soul, R&B and pop all factor into the album’s sound, creating something truly unique.

Following is a live performance of “I Love My Music”:

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Clemmons, who was born blind, will soon embark on a multi-city tour to raise funds for the SEVA Foundation, an organization dedicated to the effort to eradicate blindness in the world. To get more information about Rod Clemmons and follow his tour schedule, go to his website,  Facebook page, or Twitter feed.

 

Reviewed by Ian Hallagan

 

 

 

View review May 1st, 2012

Hidden Gems

Album:  Hidden Gems

Artist:  Luther Vandross

Label:  Epic/Legacy Records

Formats:  CD, MP3

Release: April 17, 2012

 

 

In 2005, the world lost one of the greatest R&B performers of our time.  Multi-platinum recording artist Luther Vandross’s suave and captivating voice transcended through generations as the romantic and sensual mood starter. The album Hidden Gems, released seven years after his passing, features his all too familiar vocal timbre and rhythmic gentleness on songs ranging from original compositions to covers of “The Impossible Dream,” “Goin’ Out of My Head,” and “I (Who Have Nothing).”  Also included are rare live performances as well as gems from soundtracks not previously included in Legacy’s Love, Luther box set.

All of the songs on the album showcase Luther’s work during his time at Epic Records (1981-1996), a period that included many of his most successful projects.  Six albums from this era are represented:  Never Too Much;  Forever, For Always, For Love;  Any Love;  Power of Love;  Song;  Your Secret Love; and One Night with You: The Best of Love, Volume 2.  This collection of original and covered pieces make up a very groovy and inspirational album.

According to Luther’s collaborator, Fonzi Thorton, Luther Vandross, “… wasn’t trying to be the next Sam Cooke, or Peabo Bryson, or Frank Sinatra…. He was just brilliantly intuitive about what songs showcased the dynamics of his vocal ability and radiated soul in a way that has not been heard in R&B and pop music before or since. He didn’t have to sweat or shout or do splits—he opened his heart and left us beautiful Diamonds, Rubies and Emeralds of Music.”

This compilation is evidence that even after Luther Vandross’s passing, his music has withstood the test of time. Audiences new and old will never forget the impact that he left on the R&B world and audiences hearts.

Rest in Peace Luther Vandross (1951-2005).

Reviewed by DeVol Tyson II

View review May 1st, 2012

New DVD from TV on the Radio

Title: Nine Types of Light

Artist: TV on the Radio

Label: Interscope Records

Format: DVD

Release date: February 7, 2012

 

 

TV on the Radio recently released Nine Types of Light, a companion music video to its 2011 album by the same title (reviewed in the May 2011 issue). Although Nine Types of Light was a 2011 Grammy nominee for Best Long Form Music Video, it actually consists of a series of shorter music videos, one for each song on the album. These are very loosely tied together by interview footage in which people give their perspectives on philosophical topics such as transformation, the future, love, fame, and dreams.

The styles of the videos embrace the same wide-ranging palette as TVOR’s music and include cartoons, stop motion animation, dance sequences, and mini-dramas. Among my personal favorites are: “No Future Shock,” which starts off like a 1950s dance competition and gradually morphs into something that looks like the offspring of Mardi Gras and The Rocky Horror Picture Show; “Keep Your Heart,” a drama about a love triangle between three activists who are attempting to blow up an electrical tower with an Ankh device and ends with the female character gathering and reassembling parts of her shiny, gold boyfriend in a field after his competitor bashes his head in with a rock; and “Forgotten,” a zombie shooter flick that seems to be a metaphorical commentary on the superficiality of Hollywood. Much like TVOR’s music, the videos include a layering of subtle and not so subtle socio-political commentary, making them stand up to repeated viewing.

Following is the official trailer:

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The full music video is available for free through the band’s YouTube site, raising the question of why one would need to purchase the DVD. If an altruistic need to support this amazing group doesn’t motivate you, keep in mind that the compressed video formats delivered up by YouTube simply can’t capture the depth and complexity of TVOR’s sound nor the lush visual imagery of the videos. This is a group that pours 110% into every note and nuance of its work, making it worth owning a copy in the best format possible.

 

Reviewed by Ronda L. Sewald

View review May 1st, 2012

Black and Brown

Title: Black and Brown!

Artists: Black Milk & Danny Brown

Formats:  CD, MP3

Label: Fat Beats Records

Release Date: November 1, 2011

 

 

Clocking in at under half an hour, Black and Brown! is a collaboration between buzz-heavy Detroit hip hop artists Black Milk (on beats) and Danny Brown (on  rhymes) that offers a quick and dirty introduction to the new school of DIY hip hop. The current DIY movement is defined more by a shared independent approach than by shared aesthetics, with artists putting tracks up for free download and loading videos on Youtube. Now that the mainstream is paying both critical and monetary attention to this internet savvy hip hop generation (A$AP Rocky was just signed to RCA for $3 million so they can re-release his LiveLoveA$AP mixtape), it’s a good time to try to familiarize yourself with these new sounds.  That task is not as easy as it may seem, however, since free downloads can only be found if you’re already familiar the artists!

That’s where an album like Black and Brown! comes in handy. Released on the Fat Beat label, Black and Brown! is much more polished and accessible than most mixtapes, due to both its wider distribution and, in larger part, to Black Milk’s fantastic production. The record has an amazing continuity, thanks to the extreme musicality of his beats, sampling and sequencing. The beats on this album were not designed as accompaniment; they stand equally strong as Danny Brown’s darting tongue, matching his lyrical creativity with sonic ingenuity. The track “Dada” is especially notable for the off-kilter, descending melodic sample which fits perfectly over a simplistic hard-hitting percussion line, with myriad other sound elements that all but the most active listener will be oblivious to. But they all come together to make an enrapturing sound.

Following is the official video for the title track “Black And Brown”:

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Danny Brown’s disgusting, hilarious, pop culture riddled, irreverent and sometimes melancholic flow is the other half of this amazing duo. The majority of Brown’s most memorable lyrics can’t be reprinted in this context, but suffice it to say that he will make you laugh, do a double-take, and then grimace time and time again. Even in his grossest raps, like the track “Loosie,” Brown doesn’t go for shock value without wit, as heard in the line “Used to make out with runaways in crack houses / Now I run away from making out with brick houses,” which comments on both his sexual prowess and his life growing up with two underage parents in the ghettos of Detroit.

The generally accepted hit of the album is “LOL,” a humorous take on the classic gangsta rap theme of not taking guff when dealing on the streets. The song uses the framework of text messaging dialogues, as heard in the chorus: “Nigga hit the text, say it’s light on the scale / I text back LOL/ Another nigga trippin’, said he middleman as hell / I text back LOL / SMH, LMAO, don’t text Danny Brown if it ain’t about dough / LOL, LOL, if it ain’t about money, TTYL.” The song is catchy and upbeat while dealing with serious issues and, in classic Danny Brown style, making a short detour into extreme sexual humor. The second verse captures all that is great about this album—the classic hip hop premise of being a “king of the streets” mixes with total nerd references, from GI Joe cartoons to a sacrilegious statement regarding the film Scarface:

Now he’s in the ER hooked to IVs
Doc Saying that it’s over
When I watched GI Joe I used to root for KOBRA
Used to watch Scarface and root for Sosa
And laugh myself to tears every time the movie’s over
To me that’s the perfect ending
All my nigga’s sinning for the rims that be spinnin’
And did I mention that jail’s to us like afterschool detention?
So revolvers, we spin them
Text a nigga like, “Come through, end him”

This new sound is built on the old sounds of hip hop and this new album is a great introduction to the coming changes.

Reviewed by Dorothy Berry

 

View review May 1st, 2012

Nappy Riddem

Title: One World Sovereignty

Artist: Nappy Riddem

Label: Fort Knox Recordings

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: October 4, 2011

 

 

Last month’s review of See-I’s self-titled release provided a look into the growing reggae party scene in Washington, D.C.  Now there comes another artist on the same label looking to bring their own sound to the D.C. scene.  Nappy Riddem—featuring Rex Riddem, Mustafa Akbar and bass player Ashish “Hash” Vyas—recently released their debut album One World Sovereignty.

Nappy Riddem aim to bring a more funk-oriented sound to reggae . The tracks “Nappy Riddem” and “Devil Needs A Bodyguard” both feature hard-hitting, busy bass and drums that make up the more funk-centric songs on the album. Vocals, provided by the talented Mustafa Akbar, also help to bring greater energy to the songs. His preference for a higher register compliments the songs very well, and at times even provides the driving force behind the music.

As we get further into the album, a reggae/soul/funk/hip-hop synthesis dominates some songs while a more traditional reggae setup takes precedence on others. For example, on the track “DTA (Dreadlock Transit Authority),” both reggae instrumentation and vocalization is maintained in the traditional sense, with the bass and guitar accompanying the vocals.  However, “Rastar” and “Ease Up” preserve the original reggae instrumentation, but take vocals into new territories, sometimes preferring a high-pitched funky falsetto or simply rapping over the track. The same formula applies to the title track, featuring vocals by rapper/educator Asheru. Following is the official music video for “One World Sovereignty,” filmed at Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park:

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Although the mix of reggae with new and old elements is very successful on most tracks, on others it drags its feet, most often due to the saxophone riffs, which aren’t to my taste. However, this is a relatively small annoyance with a production that does its job at being an effective party album, and allows Akbar and Riddem to showcase their many talents.  One World Sovereignty should receive a good amount of play this coming summer.

Reviewed by Ian Hallagan

View review May 1st, 2012

Once In A Lifetime

Title: Once in a Lifetime

Artist:  Smokie Norful

Label:  EMI Gospel

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date:  April 3, 2012

 

 

Grammy Award winner Smokie Norful is currently one of the premiere male voices in gospel music. The son of an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) pastor, this singer, songwriter, producer, and pastor has grown into a national and internationally recognized artist. In celebration of his tenth year as a recording artist on their label, EMI has released a compilation featuring Norful’s works titled Once in a Lifetime. This album showcases his most popular songs with one new selection, the title track “Once in a Lifetime.” In this song, Norful reflects on how his childhood dreams to sing before large crowds and gain fame and fortune were in some ways misguided prior to his developing a relationship with God.

This collection of his career-defining songs reveals his ability to perform in a broad range of styles. His breakout ballad “I Need You Now” highlights his impeccable vocal control as he skillfully and colorfully pleads for God’s help. Likewise, in “God is Able” and “Run ‘Til I Finish,” Norful sings with a passionate, yet refined intensity that articulates his ability as a singer as he works to encourage listeners to persevere through life’s challenges. Conversely, “Still Say Thank You” is a traditional styled song with a backing choir in which he effortlessly utilizes more conventional gospel techniques (such as vocal growls and slides) to deliver his message. Rounding out this project are contemporary gospel styled pieces like “I Understand,”“Celebrate,” and “In the Middle.”

Whether you are a longtime Norful fan or looking to experience his music for the first time, Once in a Lifetime offers an excellent journey through the musical career of this amazing artist.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

View review May 1st, 2012

51

Title: 51

Artist:  Kool A.D.

Label:  Mishka/Greedhead/Veehead

Format: free download

Released:  April 24th, 2012


 

Rapper Kool A.D.’s newest mixtape 51 is prepped to make anyone who has ever lived in Oakland, California feel homesick for the East Bay. Kool A.D. has always been the showman of Das Racist, charming crowds with his antics (“Oh, look! He’s texting on stage!” “Oh man, he’s gonna crowd surf!” “He just gave everyone high-fives!”), and generally wooing audiences with his genuine and effortless cool-dude vibe. Critics have often chalked up his laid back, class clown demeanor to his California roots, setting him up in stark contrast to the more aggressive flow of his Queens born and bred band mate, Himanshu Suri, a.k.a Heems.  Whether the difference in aesthetics correlates to personality or geography, the combination has led Das Racist to success, both critical and popular, with their mixtapes Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man, and their first official album Relax. As solo artists, on the other hand, the praise has been mixed. While Heems’ last mixtape Nehru Jackets was well received, opinionated bloggers across the internet seemed to find Kool A.D.’s Palm Wine Drinkard (released in January) quite divisive; apparently they were not ready for or supportive of his musical experimentation.

Kool A.D., however, does not seem like one to be swayed by critical opinion and continues to pursue his sounds as he desires them on 51. Recorded and produced almost entirely in Oakland, 51 combines his intense, yet somehow always chill, creative curiosity with classic California cool production by old friend Amaze 88. Added to the mix are on the money guest spots from some of the East Bay’s finest, including Main Attrakionz and Young L of The Pack.

Following is the music video for the track “La Piñata”:

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Kool A.D. has an almost unprecedented ability to mix summertime car-ride jams, like the soon to be “cross-faded on a warm evening” classic “Town Business,” with tracks like “Gentry” that place a speech by Huey P. Newton on oppression via police above an easy beat, and with softly personal raps like “Arrested Development” with the self deprecating verse:

Yo, these girls is smart man.
I don’t know where to start, man.
I’m trying to play my part man,
Strangest organ is the human heart man.
F*ck with short-cuts like I’m Robert Altman,
F*ck with long-shots like I’m Robert Altman,
F*ck with actresses like I’m Robert Altman.
Recycled like half the verse, but that’s art man.

Overall, 51 manages to reach the pinnacle of creative experimentation in popular music: a mixtape that is both surprising and comfortable, unexpected but entirely fluid.

Reviewed by Dorothy Berry

 

 

View review May 1st, 2012

From Jim Crow to Jay-Z

Title: From Jim Crow to Jay-Z: Race, Rap and the Performance of Masculinity

Author:  Miles White

Publisher:  University of Illinois Press

Format:  Book (hardcover and paperback editions)

Release date: 2011

 

 

The study of both hip hop and Black masculinity has long been relegated to the sphere of popular criticism. Miles White’s new monograph From Jim Crow to Jay-Z: Race, Rap and the Performance of Masculinity (2011) challenges the assumption that these topics are not substantial enough for true scholarly discourse by pulling from a variety of fields including ethnomusicology, popular music studies, performance studies, African diaspora studies, literary theory and more. The amalgamation of interdisciplinary ideas that White pulls together is dense and complex, but entirely necessary to give hip hop its due as a transnational, transracial, poetic, and musical genre that originated with African Americans and has become the expressive apparatus for youth across the globe.

White takes a unique approach in analyzing the globalization of hip hop by not simply exploring international iterations of the genre, but instead tracing how the commoditization of the Black male body, beginning with chattel slavery, has shaped the consumption of entertainment forms centering around that body. The black body is viewed as an expressive tool in and of itself. Included in White’s examination are forms of adornment, such as oversized clothing and ostentatious jewelry, and conscious affectations of posturing including “mean-mugging” (the rejection of smiling as a sign of femininity and weakness), imposing stances designed to project a sense of “hardness,” and patterns of movement representing a world-weary, street-smart attitude that White identifies as “street swagger.” He interprets these as more than just signs that conventional masculinity is desired in the mainstream hardcore hip hop community. White explains and examines these masculine trappings and goes even further to explore how this image of the aggressive Black male body is used as a static signifier to sell everything from MP3s to new sneakers.

From Jim Crow to Jay-Z decodes the use of the body in hip hop by using historical and theoretical findings to show how ritualized gestures, like the ever present crotch grab, are decontextualized when viewed only as obscene gestures designed to shock viewers. White traces the hypermasculinity and hypersexuality of such gestures to the emasculation of the Black male body necessitated by the paternalistic racism of blackface minstrelsy and the Jim Crow South.  Although it is a relatively thin tome at 176 pages, White makes great use of the space by demonstrating that the facial expressions, bodily postures, urban clothing brands, and hard-hitting beats that establish hardcore hip hop as an intimidating and dangerously attractive genre to outsiders are deeply connected to the concept of authenticity and “realness” in the hip hop community and, to a certain extent, the African American community as a whole. This book is an incredibly invaluable introduction to these topics and provides a clear example of how interdisciplinary approaches to African American music and culture can provide future scholars with the tools to examine the ever changing and diverse identities within the community.

This book is part of the series African American Music in Global Perspective, edited by Indiana University professors Portia K. Maultsby and Mellonee V. Burnim. The Miles White Collection is housed at the Archives of African American Music and Culture at Indiana University.

Reviewed by Dorothy Berry

View review May 1st, 2012

Two New Releases from Van Hunt

Record companies can be full of bad decisions—from dropping extremely talented artists in exchange for ones that are capable of appealing to the largest demographic, to changing an artist’s original sound outright in order to pull in as many profits as possible. So it was an unfortunate turn of events when Van Hunt was released from Blue Note Records. If that wasn’t bad enough, Blue Note also refused to sell the master tapes, leaving Popular, the would-be third album, hanging in musical purgatory. However, after a few hectic years spent in L.A., Van Hunt now returns with his independently released fourth album, What Were You Hoping For? and a new live album, At The Troubadour.

 

Title: What Were You Hoping For?

Artist: Van Hunt

Label: Godless Hotspot

Format: CD, MP3

Release Date: September 27, 2011

 

 

What Were You Hoping For can be a polarizing album for longtime Van Hunt fans: while there is still funk and neo-soul present, Hunt has also added punk and hard rock influences. Although this may lead to some rather conflicting musical ideas, the synthesis works perfectly. Van Hunt introduces these changes immediately on “North Hollywood,” as drums lay the groundwork for funky guitar-work and Hunt’s amazingly smooth voice keeps the song rolling. But then, right around the 1:50 mark, all hell breaks loose as drums smack the snare at breakneck speed and crunchy, distorted guitar breaks through. What is created is a Hendrix-infused verse before coming back down again in the chorus. The new sound continues throughout the album, most clearly on tracks like “A Time Machine Is My New Girlfriend” and “Cross Dresser.”

Following is the music video for “Eyes Like Pearls” on the SXSW 2012 Showcasing Artist channel:

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Although Hunt has incorporated new ideas into his typical musical palette, it doesn’t mean that he has left all of his past behind. “Moving Targets” features a bouquet of piano, strings and an ambient electronic texture. It’s a beautiful song, and I found myself continuously clicking back to it, most often to the chorus. “It’s A Mysterious Hustle,” while still incorporating a harder sound, nonetheless isn’t as “in your face” as other songs, and serves as a good bridge between Hunt’s older and newer styles.

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Title: Live at the Troubadour 2011

Artist: Van Hunt

Label: Godless Hotspot

Format: MP3

Release Date: March 13, 2012

 

 

The divisions that may have been caused by Van Hunt’s newest release don’t just stop at What Were You Hoping For? The recently released Live at the Troubadour 2011 has Hunt redoing tracks in his new style, although there are those that maintain their original sound. “Dust,” for example, begins with fuzzed-out wah guitar and continues to add more distortion throughout most of the track. On the other hand, “What Can I Say?” is practically the same, although now strings are opted out in favor of organ, giving it a feel not unlike that of Stevie Wonder.

Whatever changes (or lack thereof) Van Hunt has made to previously recorded repertoire, one can’t deny that even live, Van Hunt sounds just as good as if he was in the studio.  Although these albums signal a change in direction for  Hunt, this change is a turn for best. There is no loss in quality in his new outlook on music, and both the studio and live albums  deserve a lot more attention.

Reviewed by Ian Hallagan

View review May 1st, 2012

Karimba

Title: Karimba

Artist: Novalima

Label: ESL Music

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: January 31, 2012

 

 

Novalima is a mix of new and old, but it is also a mix of black and white.  Bringing together members from the Afro-Peruvian community with white musicians is an unfortunate rarity within Peruvian society, but Novalima nonetheless has begun a bridging of the racial gap. With the success that Novalima has garnered through previous albums, Coba Coba (2009) and Afro (2006), the platinum-selling group hopes to return with the same positive reception in Karimba.

Tradition gets an electronic makeover on this project. Elements of Música Criolla (Creole music) are reworked with dub to create a revitalization of the traditional music of Peru. Many of the polyrhythmic drumming patterns are given a boost as bass drops emphasize certain beats and individual electronic rhythms compliment. Along with electronization there’s also the utilization of more modern instruments, such as electric basses and guitars as well as drum kits. Finally, vocals are manipulated in much the same way as in dub: echo and delay expand a word, and reverb emphasizes it.

Following is a performance of “Guayabo”:

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Karimba has a laid-back sound that may not be as raw as previous releases, but is still great to get up and dance to. Listening to this I was reminded of much of the Putumayo releases that have gained a wealth of popularity over the years. The same contemporary sound is present, but there’s enough of a Peruvian element that Karimba is both a familiar yet unique album.

Reviewed by Ian Hallagan

 

View review May 1st, 2012

Sparromania!: Wit, Wisdom, and Soul from the King of Calypso, 1960-1976


Title: Sparromania!: Wit, Wisdom, and Soul from the King of Calypso, 1962-1974

Artist: Mighty Sparrow

Label:  Strut / K7!

Formats: 2-CD set, 2-LP set, MP3

Catalog No.: Strut090CD

Release date:  January 24, 2012

 

Any collection dedicated to the work of Slinger Fransisco, better known in the Caribbean by his calypso sobriquet Mighty Sparrow, is going to be woefully incomplete.  So any review of such a collection could easily turn into bellyaching about material that is missing.  I’ll refrain from that, but will note that by focusing their collection Sparromania! on Sparrow’s career from 1960-1972, listeners will miss some of Sparrow’s memorable pieces such as the iconic “Jean and Dinah,” the popular “Drunk and Disorderly” and the racy double-entendre song “Saltfish.”

Those concerns aside, this compilation showcases Sparrow’s penchant for biting social commentary that earned him the title “Calypso King of the World.”  His insightful commentary on “Kennedy and Kruschev” shows Sparrow at the top of his game, both lyrically and musically, with a driving rhythm section and quips on world affairs.  His social commentary on “Ah Digging Horrors” is still applicable to Trinidad’s current struggles with high crime rates and the economic downturn, years after it was originally written:

Ah digging horrors, ah digging the blues
Anytime I choose to peruse the daily news
Ah digging horrors because
All I read about is kidnappers, more laws, and wars.

Sparrow’s genius with the witty, oratorical calypso form can be heard in the track entitled “Picong Duel (Sparrow and Melody).”  Picong is a West Indian speech form where speakers trade witty banter and comic insults in a spirit of good fun.  Picong is deeply intertwined with the history of calypso and still appears today in “extempo” (improvised calypso) competitions.  This exchange pairs the two giants of calypso, Sparrow and Lord Melody.

The collection also delves into Sparrow’s experiments with non-calypso genres during this period, such as the jangly ‘60s pop sounds of “She’s Been Gone Too Long” or the calypso-fied version of “Try a Little Tenderness.” Purists will lament the wasted space: why include songs like this when there are worthy, socially relevant calypsos that are left by the wayside?  While some of these “excursions” into other genres are not of the same musical or lyrical quality as Sparrow’s true-true calypsos, they document the growth and change in the calypso form itself throughout the 1960s.  The influence of U.S. based pop and the growing international success of reggae inspired calypsonians to experiment with pop and soul sounds which would eventually solidify into a new “spinoff” genre: soca.

And while many of these experiments ultimately do not stand up to Sparrow’s other output, one of my favorite tracks on the compilation is the raucous “What’s the Use of Getting Sober?” A lazy shuffling guitar accompanies Sparrow and a few friends as they express their love of Trinidad rum:

Here comes the bottle, I gotta get some
I want my mouth to smell stink with rum!
What’s the use of getting sober
When you know you will be drunk again?

Indeed.

While calypso fans may have many of these recordings on albums from the 1960s and ‘70s, many of the originals—and even Sparrow’s CD releases of the material—have been difficult to find in the United States.  The extensive liner notes by David Katz on the history of calypso and Sparrow’s career make this a great introduction to a small slice of his musical output.

Reviewed by David Lewis

 

 

 

View review May 1st, 2012

Sol Filosofia

Title: Sol Filosofia

Artist:  Sauti Sol

Label: Penya

Formats:  CD, MP3

Release date: 2011

 

 

Sol Filosofia is the sophomore release from Sauti Sol, the award-winning Nairobi-based soul-pop group whose name is a combination of the Swahilli word for “sound” and the Spanish word for “sun.” Founded by high school friends Bien-Aime Baraza, Willis Chimano, Delvin Mudigi and Polycarp Otieno, Sauti Sol is already extremely popular in Kenya, due to the positive reception of their first album Mwanzo, which synched with their countrymen by focusing on lyrics that talked about real, day to day life issues. They are now stepping into the Western world music market with this album and are sure to find fans.

Sol Filosofia shines best when the band focuses on laid back, pop-rock songs, and luckily the album is full of them. Singing in both Swahili and English, Sauti Sol encapsulates the concept of Afro-fusion, with songs that move with Afro-rock grooves but would still sound completely at home on VH1.

Unfailing positive in their lyrics and approach, the pristine production on this album makes the whole thing feel like a warm wash of sound, but there are still some stand out tracks. The sweet harmonies on “Awinja” (recently performed at SXSW) bring to mind a lullaby, which is especially fitting for a song explained in the liner notes as being about African women who leave their homes and go West to seek out greater financial stability for their families.

Another touching track is “Coming Home,” dealing with the sophomore album classic theme of homesickness. But the band doesn’t just write about being weary from touring―in their strikingly comforting manner, they dedicate this song to anyone who misses their parents or partners. Following is the official music video:

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Overall, Sol Filosofia is a very sweet, relaxing album, recommended to anyone who enjoys African rock sounds and adult contemporary smoothness.

Reviewed by Dorothy Berry

View review May 1st, 2012

I Have my Liberty: Gospel Sounds from Accra, Ghana

Title: I Have My Liberty: Gospel Sounds from Accra, Ghana

Artists:  Various

Label:  Dust to Digital

Formats:  CD, MP3

Release date:  November 22, 2011

 

 

When I first slipped it into my CD drive, the diversity of sounds on I Have My Liberty: Gospel Sounds from Accra, Ghana surprised me. It shouldn’t have, of course. As recordist Calpin Hoffman-Williamson reminds me in the liner notes, Accra is a bustling, sprawling city where at least a half-dozen languages are spoken regularly. The sounds on the album range from the guitar and bass-driven highlife of “Onyame Ye” to the contemplative a cappella rendering of “Trust and Obey” to the synth-heavy, shuffling beat of the song that welcomes listeners to Great Grace Church.

The album is culled together from field recordings made in 2008 but, unlike many commercial releases of field material, there are no jarring problems with underlying sound quality, microphone bumps, or other audio imperfections. Happily, the CD does retain some congregational noise and, importantly, the slight buzzy vocal and instrumental distortion from the sound system that is an essential part of the sound in many churches.

The musical tracks are knit together by spoken tracks or ambient noise, such as the one excerpted in the following preview from Dust to Digital, called “Good Things For Ghana” on the CD, followed by an excerpt of a rollicking performance of “Onyame Ye” at the Divine Healer’s Church:

 

While the highlife-tinged tracks, like the one above, are infectious and the a cappella songs fascinating, the track I keep coming back to is an excerpt from a children’s Sunday School lesson at Great Grace Church.  Hearing the teacher and children sing a simple melody backed by a slightly distorted electric piano is endearing:

I love to come to Sunday School!
I love to study the word of God!
I love to be on time
It’s good for children, it’s good for youth and adults too!
I love to come to Sunday School!

Between verses, the song leader giggles as she tries to get the kids to clap together before they go into another repetition of the verse.  For me, this track represents the best of what commercial releases of field recordings can be: musically interesting and, in this case, earnestly devoted to God, but at the same time so human and touching that you, as a listener, are immediately drawn in.  Whether you are religious or not, this compilation is bound to provide you with moments as engrossing as the one above was for me.

 

Reviewed by David Lewis

View review May 1st, 2012

Soul is Heavy

Title: Soul is Heavy

Artist: Nneka

Label: Yo Mama’s Recordings / Decon

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: February 28, 2012 (U.S.)

 

 

By all rights Nigerian/German musician Nneka should be numbered amongst the goddesses of conscious Black music along with Erykah Badu, India.Arie and Floetry.  Soul is Heavy, Nneka’s second U.S. release (following her debut Concrete Jungle), features some high profile guests including Talib Kweli, Black Thought and the London-based R&B singer Ms. Dynamite. Luckily, even with these strong voices, Nneka’s own creative vision shines through, creating a polished R&B album that melds hip-hop, reggae, dancehall, jazz and soul in a sound that is both comfortable and new.

Three standout tracks—“My Home,” “J,” and “God Knows Why”—show the divergent and yet cohesive directions Nneka travels on this album.  “My Home” begins with a heavily ornamented solo piano, leading the listener to expect a segue into a wistful ballad. Instead, Nneka’s voice comes in on the verse with syncopated electric guitar and a melodic bass line, immediately calling Jamaica to mind. Then at the chorus a full brass section enters with a great Northern Soul breakdown that completely changes the listeners’ perception and provides an excellent foundation for her powerful chorus “Where do I go?” Following is the official video:

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“J” is a much simpler production with an infectious, repetitious piano melody. The lyrics trace self-empowerment in the face of a bad relationship. The song doesn’t specify the relationship, making this the kind of inspirational song that people draw strength from in all sorts of situations. “God Knows Why,” featuring Black Thought of The Roots, is one of the few tracks where Nneka really shows off her rapping chops. With militaristic snare drum rolls, this song is the theme to an upcoming Black revolution. The lyrics call out money as the God of capitalistic minds, with the repetition of the line “We answer to a higher God.”

While I’m not sure this album will lure too many converts, if you are already a fan of nu-soul and conscious hip-hop, you will love this exemplary release from Nneka.

Reviewed by Dorothy Berry

View review May 1st, 2012

OKA!

Title: OKA! (film)

Executive Producer: Lavinia Currier

Publisher: Dada Films / Roland Films

Duration:  1 hour, 46 min.

Language: In Sango, Akka, French and English, with English subtitles.

Release date: October 28, 2011

=========================

Title: OKA! (Soundtrack)

Artists: Chris Berry & The Bayaka of Yandoumbe

Label:  Oka Productions

Format:  CD

Release date:  October 25, 2011

OKA! is a film based on Louis Sarno’s memoir Last Thoughts Before Vanishing From the Face of the Earth and combines dramatizations of his experiences among the Bayaka over the course of two decades with fictional content. Although the film soundtrack compilation (now available on CD) does include a few Afro pop recordings, for the most part it was created and performed by the Bayaka or co-composed with Chris Berry and accompanied by Western musicians. The Bayaka characters are played by members of the Yandoumbe community.

In OKA!, independent ethnomusicologist Larry Whitman is diagnosed with liver failure. Rather than waiting around for his transplant, he heads off for one last trip to Africa in search of the molimo, the final instrument needed for his collection of Bayaka music. Upon returning to Yandoumbe in the Central African Republic, he discovers that the Bayaka have been driven from the forest by a new sawmill and by the efforts of the Bantu mayor to introduce Western bureaucracy. The mayor even hatches a plot to pin elephant poaching on the Bayaka so that they’ll lose further control of their ancestral land and future to the government. Against the mayor’s orders, Larry enters the forest seeking to unite with Sataka, the Bayaka’s shaman. Fearing what fate may await their inexperienced American friend, the Bayaka follow him and, in doing so, return to their traditional way of life.

Following is the official trailer:

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In the words of director, co-writer, and producer Lavinia Currier, the primary purpose of the film is to celebrate “a people who are perfectly adapted to their natural environment, and who, despite the extreme remoteness and dangers of their forest home in Central Africa, always find opportunities to express their humor, joyfulness, and musical genius.” As a result, the story isn’t fleshed out in great detail, but rather serves as a framework for exploring the Bayaka’s daily lives and soundscapes. The first, shorter portion of the film explores the community’s marginalization and is dominated by the sounds of the sawmill and various genres of Afro pop. Once Larry and the Bayaka are reunited with the shaman, however, the film switches to a series of musical performances interspersed and interwoven with the sounds of local birds, animals, and insects. Among the featured genres are social dance songs, women’s songs (including water drumming), children’s games, mask dance songs, and the sounds of a healing ritual. These are also included on the CD soundtrack along with the co-composed pieces, tracks from previously released field recordings of Bayaka music, and ecological soundscape recordings.

For anyone studying the representations of indigenous music and culture by the media or the use of media for the empowerment of endangered culture groups, Oka! is a must see film and will undoubtedly be the source of much conversation among ethnomusicologists and anthropologists in the months to come. It’s also a beautiful film and thoroughly enjoyable for anyone interested in Bayaka culture or traditional African musics.

Oka! is currently showing in selected cities; no DVD is available at this time.

Reviewed by Ronda L. Sewald

View review May 1st, 2012

Son of the Seventh Son

 

Title: Son of the Seventh Son

Artist: Mud Morganfield

Label: Severn Records

Catalog No.: CD 0055

Format: CD

Release Date: March 20, 2012

 

Mud Morganfield is the oldest son of Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield). At 57 years old, he is a new-comer to the bluesman profession, having played his first professional gig in 2005 and made his first festival appearance in 2007, according to the CD liner notes.  Morganfield’s voice and presentation show very clearly that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.  It works well on this album, but to move forward he will need to develop his own style further. In other words, the apple is so close to the tree that, for now, Morganfield is in his father’s shadow.

Producer Bob Corritore, who also plays harmonica on several cuts, writes in the liner notes that the album was recorded in 2 days “during the extremely cold Chicago winter of February 2011.”  Backing up Morganfield is a very tight band of Rick Kreher and Billy Flynn on twin guitars, Barrelhouse Chuck on piano and guitar, E. G. McDaniel on bass, Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith on drums and Harmonica Hinds splitting harp duties with Corritore.

Morganfield’s voice and singing style is very similar to late-era Muddy Waters, think of the late 70′s albums produced by Johnny Winter on CBS/Blue Sky Records. It’s a harder and heavier blues than Muddy’s Chess-heyday material, but it’s still much less ploddy and leaden than much current electric-blues output. Mud demonstrates nice control of his voice and sounds like he enjoyed the recording sessions, being appropriately light during the flirty tunes and appropriately heavy during the slow blues.

Following is a recent performance on WGN-Chicago’s midday news:

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The striking similarities between Mud and Muddy present a dilemma to a reviewer.  On the one hand, we’ve heard this before.  But, on the other, it was great music the first time and it’s done very well here and now by this band of living musicians. Also, to be fair, Mud does have some current-era lyrics and has written some new songs for this album. But when he lays into the groove of “You Can’t Lose What You Never Had,” it’s eerie how much he sounds, phrases and pronounces words like his father did 50 years ago.

Mud Morganfield’s singing abilities, obvious musical talent and name-recognition should set him on a successful journey in the music business. Here’s hoping he evolves to a more original style and walks boldly out of the shadow of his legendary father. Meantime, this is a very good start and, again to be fair, no other living blues performer could pull off these tunes in the manner that Mud Morganfield has.

 

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review May 1st, 2012

Spider Eating Preacher

Title: Spider Eating Preacher

Artist: Eddie C. Campbell

Label: Delmark

Catalog No.: 819

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: February 21, 2012

 

As the title suggests, this album isn’t just another cookie-cutter Chicago electric blues outing.  It’s even somewhat different from the typical Delmark release as it is produced by veteran freelancer Dick Shurman and features a large ensemble of horns, two guitars, bass, drums and occasional violin from Campbell’s son, David.

At 72, Campbell is still strong of voice and nimble-fingered in his West Side guitar style. The songs, mostly written by Campbell, sometimes with his wife Barbara, are interesting and move right along. This is not a heavy, dirge-like style of blues; it is an upbeat and sonically interesting flavor of the old genre, an older man making newer sounds.

Campbell’s wife, who is also his manager, plays bass on some tracks. Also behind him is veteran guitarist Lurrie Bell, son of legendary harp player Carey Bell. Campbell’s working band is augmented by extra keyboards and horns and substitute drummer Robert Pasenko, who keeps a steady beat but lays back and lets the guitars and vocals dominate.

Playing a reverb-heavy amplified guitar, Campbell picks his notes precisely, in the West Side Chicago style most famously exemplified by the late Magic Sam (also a Delmark artist during his brief recording career).  Campbell has been around for decades, playing Chicago clubs and recording a few times for tiny labels; this is his second Delmark release. Midway through the album, he reprises one of his early singles, “Soup Bone.” But this version is different enough that producer Shurman suggested he re-title it “Soup Bone (Reheated).”

Following is a club live performance of “Skin Tight,” which is on the new album:

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The album also includes a tune, “My Friend,” for Living Blues magazine founder Jim O’Neal, who is battling cancer and has no health insurance (see Howard Mandel’s article for information on how to contribute to O’Neal’s healthcare fund).

Throughout the 15-song outing, Campbell proudly projects youthful vitality and the musical authority that comes with age and experience.  Bill Dahl’s concise but informative notes round out the excellent package.  Definitely recommended.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

 

 

View review May 1st, 2012

Radio Music Society

Title: Radio Music Society

Artist:  Esperanza Spalding

Label: Heads Up

Formats: CD, MP3, LP

Release date: March 20, 2012

 

Jazz bassist, vocalist, songwriter, producer, and all-around musical Renaissance woman Esperanza Spalding’s fourth studio album, Radio Music Society, kicks off with a track about the serendipity of hearing that one perfect song on the radio, exactly when you need it most.  The song is one of those tunes that, as Spalding sings:

You can’t help singin’ along
Even though you never heard it
You keep singin’ it wrong.
This song will keep you grooving.

And, indeed, Spalding’s whole album will keep you grooving.  Her sound, an eclectic mix of contemporary jazz, soul, big band, and a healthy dose of R&B, won her a 2011 Grammy for best new artist, a rarity for a jazz performer.  While her previous release, Chamber Music Society, relied heavily on strings, jazz-inflected percussion, and scat singing, Radio Music Society is heavily lyric-driven, hook-laden, and influenced by hip hop (rapper/producer Q-Tip co-produces two tracks).  Spalding pulls from a large stable of jazz performers, including the American Music Program horn section, along with slick (but not too-slick) production to get a full, lush sound throughout the album.  The infusion of hip hop makes RMS an easier listen for those of us raised on pop and R&B but may turn off die-hard jazz aficionados, or those who are more familiar with Spalding’s earlier work.  You can hear the marriage of styles in the aforementioned track “Radio Song:”

Other standout tracks show off Spalding’s quirky voice, somewhere between Blossom Dearie’s childlike rasp, Tori Amos’s reedy chirps and sultry low tones, with a dash of the gutsiness of a young Natalie Cole.  Spalding luxuriates in the long, almost elastic vocal lines of “Cinnamon Tree” and shows off her vocal agility in “City of Roses,” co-produced by Q-Tip.  Spalding only falters when her lyrical skills don’t quite measure up to her talents as an instrumentalist and vocalist.  In the track “Vague Suspicions,” her anti-war sentiment, however well-intentioned, rings a bit hollow when she sings:

Maybe your heart is seized with passing pity for the dead
And vague suspicions creep into your head.
Am I part of war
And what is God for?
“Next on Channel 4: Celebrity gossip!”

One of the most fulfilling tracks on the album, oddly, is one that drops all but a hint of the R&B sound and casts itself back to the 1940s and 50s.  “Hold On Me,” Spalding’s ode to unrequited love, is a bluesy, sultry number, thanks to the American Music Program horns and masterful piano work by Janice Scroggins.  Sounding like an updated version of a big band era torch song, the track’s lyrical and musical sentimentality along with Spalding’s impassioned vocals make this track nearly campy, in the best sense of that word.  Radio Music Society’s diverse sounds and artful melding of styles portends a successful and genre-hopping musical future for Spalding, one that music fans, jazzers or not, would do well to watch.

 

Reviewed by David Lewis

View review May 1st, 2012

Leaving Eden

Title: Leaving Eden

Artist: Carolina Chocolate Drops

Label: Nonesuch

Catalog No.: 529809-2

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: February 28, 2012

 

Cutting to the chase, this is an excellent album, probably the best new recording I’ve encountered so far this year.  It is fresh, original, imaginative and expertly played.  But it also harkens from a long tradition of Southern string bands, particularly the black string bands of the Carolinas and Georgia.  The Carolina Chocolate Drops are rare birds in that they can successfully take an old tradition and make it sound new, with a strong imprint of their own voices and minds.

After the Drops’ last album, Genuine Negro Jig, founding member Justin Robinson left the group and was replaced by Hubby Jenkins. Robinson was a fiddle ace and singer, Jenkins is a master of the banjo, guitar and mandolin. So the group’s sound has become less fiddle-centric (founding member Rhiannon Giddens is also masterful with the bow). This album also presents a more relaxed sound, with most vocals handled by Giddens and/or founding member Dom Flemons (he’s the dude with the suspenders and cool hats in most of the group’s videos).

Production of Leaving Eden is also more laid-back. The album was recorded at producer Buddy Miller’s Tennessee home studio, some tunes on a back porch as the sounds of a southern night roll on in the background. It’s not a low-fi production—as a matter of fact, the band’s vocals and instruments sound clearer and more natural than any previous recording—but it’s closer to what the group probably sounds like when they pick tunes for pure enjoyment in their own homes or rehearsal space.

On several tunes, Adam Matta augments the band, on beatbox and/or vocals.  Matta is also currently touring with the Drops.  Also, Flemons sings more on this album than past efforts, and that’s for the better. He has a strong and interesting voice, and his preferred songs are often from the less-remembered repertoire of times past.

Both Flemons and Giddens are students of their tradition, and have found gems in old songbooks and instrument-instruction books.  On Leaving Eden, the second track, “Kerr’s Negro Jig,” comes from a circa 1875 songbook.  And, next to last is a compilation of two ditties from Tom Briggs’ Banjo Instructor of 1855: “Briggs’ Corn Shucking Jig / Camptown Hornpipe.” Finally, the band borrows a vocal-harmony shout, “Read ‘Em John” from Alan Lomax’s recordings of the Georgia Sea Islands Singers.

Following is a video of “Boodle De Bum Bum” from a live performance on WYNC’s Soundcheck:

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As in the case with their cover of “Hit ‘Em Up Style” on the previous album, the Drops try out a tune leaning toward modern hip-hop stylings. In this case, it’s Giddens’ “Country Girl,” which is a country/hip-hop crossover. It will work on the radio, but it’s a bit out of style with the rest of the album. The sentiments expressed are nice—after traveling all over the world, there’s not better place than home —but the feel is overly commercial.

But that’s a minor quibble.  This is a great album that will likely find very frequent rotation in your music queue, long after you’ve paid the Amazon bill.

 

Reviewed by Tom Fine

 

 

 

 

 

View review May 1st, 2012

Welcome to the May 2012 Issue

This month we’re featuring the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ new CD Leaving Eden and Esperanza Spalding’s fourth studio album Radio Music Society. New Chicago blues releases include Spider Eating Preacher by West Side electric guitarist Eddie C. Campbell, and Son of the Seventh Son by Mud Morganfield, the oldest son of Muddy Waters.

We’re also highlighting a wide range of world music: the film and soundtrack Oka! with music created and performed by the Bayaka of the Central African Republic; the Dust-to-Digital compilation I Have My Liberty: Gospel Sounds from Accra, Ghana; the 2-CD compilation Sparromania!: Wit, Wisdom, and Soul from the King of Calypso, 1962-1974; the sophomore release Sol Filosofia from the Nairobi-based soul-pop group Sauti Sol; Karimba from the Afro-Peruvian collective Novalima; and Nigerian/German neo-soul singer Nketa’s second U.S. release Soul is Heavy, featuring Talib Kweli, Black Thought and the London-based R&B singer Ms. Dynamite.

In the hip hop category there are reviews of the recent book From Jim Crow to Jay-Z: Race, Rap and the Performance of Masculinity by Miles White; the new mixtape 51 from Kool A.D. (of Das Racist); and Black and Brown!, the collaboration between Detroit’s Black Milk and Danny Brown.

Other CDs reviewed this month include What Were You Hoping For and Live at the Troubadour 2011 by rock/neo-soul artist Van Hunt; TV on the Radio’s feature-length music video Nine Types of Light, a companion to their 2011 album; What’s Up? It’s Me, the first R&B album by Indiana University Jacobs School of Music alum Rod Clemmons;  One World Sovereignty, the debut from D.C.  reggae band Nappy Riddem; and the compilations Hidden Gems by the late Luther Vandross and  Once in a Lifetime by gospel artist Smokie Norful.

View review May 1st, 2012

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