Freedom Time, the newest release from Israeli roots reggae group Zvuloon Dub System, speaks to the global influence of reggae music. Adopting Jamaica’s signature sound, Zvuloon Dub System echoes roots reggae’s message of injustice in the world and the need for peace and unity.
“Freedom Time,” the album’s title track, is a relaxing and tranquil composition, harkening back to rocksteady, the equally mellow forerunner to reggae. Zvuloon’s eight-piece band, maintaining an original and soulful sound through the horn section, gives the album its greatest strength. In fact, without the horn section Zvuloon is noticeably weaker. For example, “Voodoo Chile,” a cover of the Jimi Hendrix classic, is an ill-wrought attempt. Although an interesting idea for a reggae version, the song lacks emotion—the “riddim” drags and the organ is underwhelming.
Following is a live performance of “Freedom Time”:
Despite this misstep, most of the album’s 11 songs are strong tracks. As an added bonus, reggae deejay Ranking Joe makes an appearance on the final track, “Nah Give Up.” The seasoned Jamaican veteran lends his talents to this relatively new group, and their combined efforts give Freedom Time a strong finish.
Like father, like daughter may not be a commonly used phrase, but in the case of Cassie Taylor, daughter of musician Otis Taylor, it’s applicable. Cassie regularly tours, performs, and records with her father, and plays bass on his new album, Contraband. She is also featured on the Girls with Guitars compilation with fellow singer/songwriters Samantha Fish and Dani Wilde, and is currently touring with her neo-blues power trio Cassie Taylor & the Soul Cavalry.
Blue, Cassie’s solo debut, indeed keeps blues at the core. While at times the albummay suffer from weak instrumentation, Taylor utilizes a nice helping of pop to keep things interesting. The combination is most successful on tunes like “Black Coffee” and “Goodbye,” where blues and pop complement each other nicely. For the remainder of the album, Blue teeters between decent and good, as either pop vocals support the weak blues instrumentation or both flounder. But with Taylor’s vocal talent, Blue proves to be a good start for a promising career that may someday rival that of her father.
Following is a video of the live performance of “Black Coffee”:
With a seamless mix of jazz and blues, along with a complementary helping of folk, Otis Taylor continues to showcase his award-winning talents on Contraband. Over the course of the album, the aforementioned genres blend as organically as the themes he sings about: race, persecution and love, among others.
One of the standout songs on the album, “Blind Piano Teacher,” offsets simple, folksy chords with trumpet and violin, which periodically fade in and out. Painting a romantic picture of a white, blind piano teacher and his black wife, the track contains a compelling message of racial unity and acceptance. On the more blues-rock side of things, “The Devil’s Gonna Lie” balances the hard-hitting sounds of an organ and distorted guitars with the cleaner, crisper sound of a cornet. Several songs throughout the album feature Taylor’s signature-style of banjo playing, the best of which is heard on “Banjo Boogie Blues.” The dueling banjo and steel guitar, in combination with the female back-up singers, results in a very energetic creation.
London producer Marc Mac (a.k.a. Mark Clair), best known as a member of the drum ‘n’ bass group 4Hero, has released his third project under the alias Visioneers. In Hipology, Mac shifts away from his rave-scene roots to mix soul and jazz with hip hop.
While possessing an array of effective mixes and samples, the various shout outs to Visioneers and speeches throughout Hipology have an adverse effect on the overall flow. Almost every mix on the album is a strong combination of tight beats, most notably on the tracks “Shine,” “Ice Cream On My Kicks,” and the Afro-beat influenced “Shaft in Africa.” The funky, grooving style that Mac achieves in his mixes would have made a great album, if not for the breaks between songs. It’s nice to have a couple shout outs as a means of dividing the album into sections, but when it happens after almost every song the practice rapidly loses its effectiveness.
Following is the music video for “Come and Play in the Milky Night”:
Those who are interested in making their own mixes or are just curious about the samples used by Visioneers will appreciate the bonus CD with unmixed separate tracks that accompanies the album.
Performing on a rain-drenched night for a crowd of 800,000 fans, Diana Ross proved “she is the stuff of which entertainment legends are made,” as one reviewer praised. Despite eyewitness accounts of Ross’s knock-out performance, video footage from her 1983 Central Park concert has been unavailable to the public. At long last, Shout! Factory has commercially released the historical footage, unseen for over 30 years.
On that legendary night, Ross proved that “no wind, no rain” could stop her. As the dangerous weather conditions gave way to unrest among the crowd, Ross assisted the police officers with crowd control by engaging the audience. Ross sang her way into entertainment history, performing in the rain for as long as her fans were willing to stand with her. She further demonstrated her commitment to her work and fans when she rescheduled the performance just two days later. During the follow-up show, the former Supreme ran with even more enthusiasm to meet “the kids” (as she referred to her audience in an interview) and proclaimed, “I’m coming out! I’m coming!”
The set list from the concert includes a variety of songs: “It’s My House,” one of her own hits; “Home” from The Wiz; a medley from the Supremes, including “Reflections” and “Baby Love”; covers of Billie Holliday’s “God Bless The Child,” Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ “Why do Fools Fall in Love?” and former Motown-label mate Stevie Wonder’s “Ribbon in the Sky”; and much more.
The Diana Ross seen in New York’s Central Park is miles apart from the early Diana Ross seen in the mid-1960s on the Ed Sullivanshow, when the world-famous Supremes delivered their family-friendly girl group hits. By 1983, Ross had clearly forged an identity of her own and embraced her womanhood. She asserted a vibe that was part maternal/part temptress, as she calmed the crowd while flirting with the boys in blue. Ross’s performance illustrates that there is more to her than musical talent: She has dedication. On that night, Ross repaid her fan’s endurance by giving them the performance of a lifetime.
Fans of the Supremes who are seeking to make their collections as comprehensive as possible will be delighted by Universal’s digitally remastered two-disc reissue of their 1965 live album The Supremes at the Copa. The first disc contains the digitally remastered stereo album, with ten bonus tracks of unreleased original mono reference mixes, while the second disc contains the full performance at the Copa, available here for the first time. Certain tracks were withheld from the original release as Motown felt the recording quality was not up to their standards; but with the help of contemporary technology, engineers have been able to create brand new mixes from the numerous recordings made during the group’s run at the club.
The Supremes at the Copa is a time capsule that transports the listener back to a time when girl groups wore matching dresses and gloves. The Supremes’ perky rendition of “Put On a Happy Face” with its cutesy, Andrews Sisters-style harmonies definitely give you a “back in the good old days” feeling. But the sweetness and light-hearted nature of the performance belies the historical importance of the Supremes’ performances at the Copa, which Berry Gordy saw as the site for Motown’s breakthrough into the White mainstream. These performances opened the door for African American musicians like the Temptations and Marvin Gaye to play for the Copa’s white audiences, making the album a meaningful historical relic in addition to its being a fun, hit-after-hit listen.
In the summer of 1974, John Lee Hooker played the small outdoor festival “Down in the Dumps,” so named for its locale—a landfill in Gardner, Massachusetts. The festival was broadcast on a local access station, and the footage (grainy, low-quality 3-angle camera work) has been packaged in a concert DVD, Cook with the Hook. The DVD takes its name from Hook’s stage-swaggering mantra. When the emcee asks, “You gonna cook with the hook?” he’s not questioning the audience, he’s warning them of what’s to come: solar flares of electric boogie blues.
The video features the ever-dapper Chicago bluesman against a backdrop of hippie excess. Even Hooker’s backing band has the undeniable features of rock’s counterculture: long-hair, unkempt clothes, and experimental unrestraint. The contrast is about as jarring as the jumpcut shots of the performance, but to good effect. Both work to frame the dizzying, near-transcendent experience of Hooker’s electric melody-making. While a landfill concert seems unbefitting the blues legend, Hooker owns the stage and captivates his audience, proving his music to be just at home at a psychedelic flesh fest as a South Chicago juke-joint. In the extended jam on “Boogie,” Hooker tosses his guitar aside and grabs the mic to give a rousing blues sermon. He raps, he dances, and he seduces the crowd into a call and response frenzy. Though we are piped into the concert via local-access fiber-optics, viewers will feel part of the privileged few seeing music history in the making.
Jimi Plays Berkeley splices archival footage of Jimi Hendrix’s 1970 concert performance at the Berkeley Community Theatre with documentary footage of the Berkeley street scene. While video of Jimi’s 1970 Berkeley show has already been commercially released, Jimi Plays Berkeley boasts an expanded, digitally remastered edition for ardent collectors of the Hendrix catalog. It is more or less a reissue with some new bells and whistles—5.1 surround stereo sound and 15 minutes of previously unreleased concert and documentary footage.
The documentary contextualizes Hendrix’s stage act within Berkeley’s political scene in hippiedom’s last lap, and gives a snapshot of what his life was like on any given day: riding around town with his backseat groupies, wearing magisterial dress (on stage and off), and captivating his audience with the flamboyant guitar antics for which he is so well known. In fact, the street interviews remind viewers that Hendrix was considered a rock god even then, without the 40+ intervening years of musical nostalgia. And yet, the interviews and B-roll footage of Berkeley scenesters are gratuitously used throughout, making for a boring distraction from our headlining act (in the liner notes, the producer admits to a lack of good concert footage). But like so much of the recently released items from the Hendrix vaults, Jimi Plays Berkeley proves that a mediocre document of a larger-than-life figure can still make for enjoyable viewing.
Chocolate Industries’ new compilation of rare and obscure early Black American electronic music is a fascinating and infinitely listenable introduction to some early pioneers (or, perhaps less generously, explorers) of experimental music, those who moved beyond the tools of traditional rock ’n’ roll.
When phrases like “compilation of rare and obscure experimental ___” are bandied about, it sometimes feels less like you are about to listen to a great album and more like you are about to listen to an “interesting” album or an album whose aesthetic and historical relevance you can “appreciate.” Personal Space, however, manages to be a great album that is, indeed, very “interesting.” Its liner notes succinctly detail each selection in such a way that you feel both informed and inspired to immediately hit up Google for more information.
The album features great tracks that flow into one another seamlessly, even though the artists often approached the new technologies in startlingly different manners. Since every song on this 16-track compilation is unique and curious in its own right, I’m going to run through a couple of highlights. These songs immediately jumped out to me and engaged me, sometimes with their funky grooves and sometimes with their unexpected experimentations.
The most amazing revelation in this compilation is, in my opinion, Key & Cleary’s “A Man.” Sylvester Cleary and Jessie Key, two Buffalo, NY natives, joined forces to create this amazing soul track with an African inspired hand-drum loop overlaid with an electronic cymbal beat. The polyrhythmic beat is infectious and entirely unexpected. On top of that, the almost spoken, soulfully recited lyrics are so minimalist and well-crafted it would not be surprising to find this song on Pitchfork Media’s New Music Radar. The beginning lyrics, “My muscles are of steel/ My mind of complex computers/Daily I struggle for understanding/And daily I breathe to be understood,” could easily be found on an album from Death Grips or any number of contemporary experimental musicians.
On the funkier side of things, there are tracks like “I Finally Found the Love I Need” by Jerry (J.G.) Green (a.k.a. The Voice Master), a member of the second iteration of famed Motown group The Contours. The song’s dark (almost humorously so), stripped down, futuristic electronic sound, layered with Motownesque vocals could have changed the face of techno if anyone would have heard it. A more spiritual experiment comes from Otis G. Johnson’s “Time to Go Home.” Johnson’s ethereal gospel track, which was recorded at home with only his voice and his urge to spread his faith through song, an organ and its factory installed metronomic pre-sets, creates a soothing, slightly off-kilter musical landscape, that occasionally features a child’s singing.
There is an earnest, outsider appeal to most of the music on the Personal Space compilation, which should be on the radar of anyone interested in music that challenges creative standards.
Imaginaries is the latest release from Los Angeles Chicano band Quetzal. A balanced and well produced mix of different musical traditions—Mexican son jarocho, rock, R&B, jazz, and various Afro-Caribbean genres like son montuno and salsa—constitute the band’s signature sound. In this album, though, this mix is represented in a more mature and integrated form of fusion, where the jarocho elements are slightly less preponderant and meld evenly with sounds from other parts of the Americas.
Quetzal was founded in 1992 in East Los Angeles by guitarist Quetzal Flores, who was inspired by the racial uprisings and social movements in the area at that time. Quetzal East LA (the band’s full name) engages in political activism, writing lyrics that serve as a social critique and championing multiple ethnically based musical traditions that represent various aspects of Chicano cultural identity.
Quetzal’s latest release, Imaginaries, is a twelve-song album, which is put together using a variety of musical instruments that provide rich sonorities and a broad aural landscape. Besides the conventional rock band format (electric guitar, electric bass, and drumkit), the listener will enjoy other musical instruments that originate from local contexts, like jaranas (different kinds of typical Mexican lutes), cajon (a wooden percussion box, from Peru) and other kinds of Latino percussion, along with musical flourishes from bowed strings, keyboards, and a moderate use of sound effects, not to mention the incredibly soulful voices of Martha and Gabriel Gonzalez.
While the opening track (“2+0+1+2=cinco”) is a 5/4-time jarocho based song with Spanish lyrics, other tracks, like “Time Will Tell” and “Witness,” are straight-forward rhythm and blues songs with English lyrics. Others, such as “Por eso,” include a more complicated mix of funk, Cuban timba, Mexican jarocho, and salsa, which is paired with Spanish lyrics that praise difference, freedom, autonomy, and personal inspiration.
Following is the trailer for the album:
Quetzal’s Imaginaries is high quality production that reflects contemporary life in Los Angeles and many other parts of the world. It reminds listeners that national, regional, and local cultures cannot be separated anymore, and that ethnic diversity and multiculturalism should be understood in terms of richness, productivity, and vibrancy.
Because so many different styles and techniques encompass jazz music these days, the fact that the following three albums fall into the genre makes for a loose connection. But that’s the point—these albums represent three very different approaches to expression and composition, yet they all swing. They are all also standout examples of fine musicianship at work on the craft of instrumental music.
David White, a trombone player based in Brooklyn, uses the familiar large-ensemble acoustic jazz band as his pallet. He is both a composer and arranger, and he is generous about spreading solos around his band. Based on his somewhat wordy explanations of his album’s contents (contained in the booklet notes), he is a sensitive man who uses music to express feelings and images that move through his mind. He notes that Duke Ellington “is the one musician I most admire and whose spirit I would most like to emulate,” and he seems strongly influenced by Ellington’s mature works.
White’s album is not great, but it’s not mediocre. The playing is fine, and the compositions mainly hold together and move along, but there are plodding moments and over-long tunes. The recording is either subtle or dull, depending on your taste. It definitely doesn’t sound very exciting when competing with road noise in a car or played softly on earbuds in a noisy urban environment. On the other hand, this approach allows for exciting dynamics and rich musical textures during the album’s best moments. Based on his album notes, David White seems interested in growing and improving his craft. This bodes well for his future work, and he is an artist worth watching.
Here is David White’s official video for “Eyes Closed”:
UK-based Dennis Rollins is a trombonist like White. That’s where the similarities end. Rollins’ album is a heavy, funky power-trio affair, with his trombone trading off melody and solo duties with Ross Stanley’s big Hammond B3 organ. Stanley also handles the bass line with his pedals. On drums is young Portuguese stick-man Pedro Segundo. The resulting sound is somewhat akin to Larry Young’s acid-jazz albums of the ‘60s, but even heavier and funkier.
Rollins describes the album’s title this way: “I honed in (sic) on a specific date on our calendar—November 11, 2011, (11/11/11)—THE ELEVENTH GATE, signaling a universal paradigm shift, an emergence into our authentic selves.” Be that as it may, listening to this album may well lead to the emergence of your bad self, for this is funky stuff!
Following is Dennis Rollins official video for “Samba Galactica”:
Chicago-based guitarist Jeff Parker combines with bassist/flutist Chris Lopes and drummer Chad Taylor to offer the most “free-form” album of the group. These trippy tunes do swing—it’s not a bunch of noise thrown up in the sonic equivalent of paintball shots against a canvas, but it’s very different from the jazz of David White or Dennis Rollins.
Parker and Lopes aren’t shy about employing effects and overdubs to thicken the sound, and they both use a Korg MS-20 monophonic synthesizer at times. Taylor’s drums keep things moving, and Parker has the discipline to keep his left-field explorations tight enough that the trio always remains on the same page. The end result is music that is interesting and, despite its exploratory nature, quite accessible. There’s also a surprising swing to it, again because of the discipline and cohesion of the trio.
Following is the Jeff Parker Trio’s unofficial video for “Change”:
Veteran bluesman Johnnie Bassett was a mainstay of the Detroit club and session scene in the ’50s and ’60s, where he backed artists ranging from Little Willie John, Big Joe Turner, and Ruth Brown to Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and Tina Turner. A fortuitous appearance at the Detroit Montreux Jazz Festival in 1991 revitalized his career and led to an invitation to front the Blues Insurgent Band, with whom he toured extensively across the U.S. and Europe. As a solo artist he released just six recordings, beginning in 1997 with I Gave My Life to the Blues. Regrettably, Bassett passed away in August at the age of 76, just a few weeks after the release of his final album, I Can Make That Happen.
Though Bassett is best known as an electric blues guitarist who counts Albert King, B.B. King and especially T-Bone Walker as major influences, his decades as a musician during the heyday of rhythm and blues left an indelible imprint. On the album Bassett draws upon all of these influences, with reinforcement from The Brothers Groove (keyboardist Chris Codash, bassist James Simonson, and drummer Skeeto Valdez) and the Motor City Horns (sax player Keith Kaminski, trombonist John Rutherford, and trumpeters Bob Jensen and Mark Byerly).
The opening track, “Proud To Be From Detroit,” is a delightful funk jam that pays tribute to Bassett’s hometown, the darker side of which is explored in “Motor City Blues.” Several of the original songs are the album were penned by Chris Codash and his father Bob, who seemingly delight in perpetuating the longstanding blues tradition of double entendre lyrics. For example, “Spike Boy” is built around risqué train metaphors (“Baby let me be your spike boy, Let me hammer down”), while on “Love Lessons” Bassett offers to be the “home room teacher” and take his baby “back to school.”
One of the standout tracks is “Teach Me To Love” (also written by the Codash duo), featuring “Detroit Diva” Thornette Davis on vocals. “Dawging Around,” which pays tribute to the late Scott E. Dawg of the Blues Insurgents, shifts to a swinging jazz mode. Covers include “Cry To Me,” a tribute to Bassett’s favorite balladeer Solomon Burke, and Lowell Fulson’s “Reconsider Baby,” apparently a last minute replacement for Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” that was included on the pre-release (presumably permission was not forthcoming from the Hendrix estate).
Bassett was featured prominently in the PBS documentary Blues Detroit Style; in this clip he talks about the distinguishing characteristics of Detroit blues—including “more happiness and a better groove”:
Overall, I Can Make That Happen is a tight album that pays homage to one of Detroit’s favorite blues elders, who obviously spent his final days doing what he loved best, playing and promoting the blues, Detroit style.
On The Devil Ain’t Got No Music, blues musician Lurrie Bell pays tribute to gospel, the musical tradition in which he was raised. Bell says, “I had always wanted to make a record to show my gratitude for gospel music. I’m a bluesman but I’ve also played a lot of gospel songs for myself and for my family when I’m at home. The music gives me a sense of peace that I can’t find anywhere else.”
Although many soul and blues singers—Aretha Franklin, Etta James, B. B. King, and James Brown—first began their singing career in the Black church, Bell started off playing the blues, as taught to him by his dad, a blues harmonica player. While growing up, Bell met notable Chicago bluesmen like Muddy Waters, Eddie Taylor, Big Walter Horton, and Eddie Clearwater, who frequented Bell’s home to visit his father.
At the age of 10, Bell and his brother moved to Lisman, Alabama, to live with their maternal grandparents. While down South, Bell began playing guitar in the church at which his grandfather preached. “Once I began to play with the singers and learned about the gospel music I began to love it. I played acoustic guitar and was already very familiar with the blues so I would listen to the singers, and well, the music just came naturally to me,” he remembers. Since “the straight ahead blues” was prohibited in church services, Bell integrated elements of the blues into the gospel repertoire.
On the album, Bell is joined by a coterie of talented musicians, such as Billy Branch on harmonica in “Trouble in My Way,” Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith on percussion, and New York blues and gospel musician Bill Sims, Jr. Additionally, singer, guitarist, and songwriter Joe Louis Walker adds his guitar voicings to “Peace in the Valley” and “It’s a Blessing.”
On the gospel standard “Swing Low,” Bell sings soulfully over guitar accompaniment and hand-claps, demonstrating the power of minimalism. Listeners will also enjoy Bell’s guitar playing and warm vocals on “Why Don’t You Live So God Can Use You.” Songs such as “It’s a Blessing” and “Don’t Let the Devil Ride” illustrate the skillful ease with which he marries blues and gospel music. Bell pays tribute to Thomas A. Dorsey, the father of gospel music, by covering his compositions “Search Me Lord” and “Peace in the Valley,” and also gives his rendition of gospel songs by the notable bluesmen Rev. Gary Davis, Muddy Waters, and Mississippi Fred McDowell.
The title track, “The Devil Ain’t Got No Music,” was written by Bell and his longtime friend and producer Matthew Skoller. Interestingly, Skoller’s inspiration for the song came from a quote by Mavis Staples, lead singer of The Staple Singers. When asked if the blues is really the Devil’s music, Staples answered, “Come on, the Devil ain’t got no music. All music is the Lord’s.” Mavis’s quote distills Bell’s own attempt to blend Black secular and sacred music genres. Following is a live performance of the song at the recent Chicago Blues Fest in June 2012:
Lurrie Bell demonstrates what blues and gospel have in common: both musical styles give emotional support to those seeking to overcome life’s difficulties. The Devil Ain’t Got No Music showcases this seasoned musician’s ability to transcend genres and to give personal voice to Black traditional music.
As world-trekking record obsessives plunder studio vaults for patina-crusted, across-the-sea curios like Indian psychedelia, Russian funk, and Nigerian disco (and the list goes on), the novelty of such strange brews wears off amidst the heavy traffic of the reissues market. The reissue of Paul Ngozi’s 1976 album The Ghetto, however, should not be overlooked by music adventurists, lest they miss out on one of the leading figures of Zambian rock (or Zamrock as those collector types call it). While Paul Ngozi (1949–1989) stands among Zambia’s most successful recording artists, he is known to few outside the West African country. The Ghetto provides an opportunity to understand Ngozi’s local legend and to discover his broad appeal.
Much like his contemporaries Marvin Gaye (What’s Going On) and Gil Scott-Heron (Small Talk at 125th and Lenox), Paul Ngozi writes an ode to the poetics and politics of ghetto life that is most unforgettable. From a pulpit of fuzzed out guitar riffs and African rhythms, Ngozi preaches about poverty’s ills and the need for social uplift. “In the Ghetto” uses honeyed vocals over a laid-back reggae groove to tell of the tragic effects of parental neglect. In the first half of the song, Ngozi plays the observer, telling of the sad sight of “mothers drinking and fathers drinking [who’ve] forgotten about the kids starving at home.” In the second half of the song, however, Ngozi directly addresses the parents, gently imploring them “to remember [their] kids.”
In “Suicide” he plays the same instructive role, telling the people of the ghetto not to despair, saying, “No matter what folks may do to you, thou shalt not commit suicide.” And, in the same way that he sweetens the medicine in “In the Ghetto,” Ngozi tackles taboo with a ballast of rock’n’roll. The song kicks off like one of Thin Lizzy’s anthemic rockers, and drives the point home that “no matter what folks may do to you,” there’s always good music. But “Suicide” never comes close to sounding like a public service announcement or a sermon, miraculously, given Ngozi’s topicality. Ngozi’s raunchy guitar solos play over an irresistibly danceable groove, making the pill more than palatable.
Following is the album trailer:
Ngozi’s searing guitar licks on “Can’t You Hear Me” turn the song into a rhetorical question. Whether preaching or playing, Ngozi’s message is loud and clear: If the ghetto can make good music, then music can do good things for the ghetto. On the final track “Jesus Christ,” Ngozi tells a psychedelic parable that allows listeners to escape their mental trappings and imagine a different world, one of peace, forgiveness, and, most of all, hope.
Tons of bloggers have published a bevy of deep, theoretical essays on Frank Ocean’s major label debut Channel Orange that analyze its homoerotic overtones and subtexts, its sense of wanderlust, the disjointed nature of social ascension that accompanies the rise to fame, and a number of other themes. For the sake of this review, I’m going to throw all that hype aside and speak to listeners who are approaching the album from a “Oh, I think I’ve heard of this Frank Ocean guy, what’s the big deal?” standpoint.
So, what is the big deal? Well, the big deal is Ocean released a creative R&B album with genre-bending pop sensibilities and a classic Stevie Wonder-style soul. Channel Orange is filled with songs like “Thinking Bout You,” something of an underground hit, that contain experimental sophistication but can also be enjoyed on their face value as catchy R&B tunes about youthful romance. That’s where Channel Orange really excels: its accessibility. While hipster critics have expounded on the surprisingly melancholic nature of Andre 3000’s guest verse on “Pink Matter,” the song is equally enjoyable to fans of Outkast who simply want to hear a good breakup song.
Following is the official music video for “Thinking Bout You” (a slightly different mix than the album version):
Depending on your perspective, this album may or may not be a big deal. It can be hard to evaluate a record that has already been contextualized by mountains of press and media buzz, whose hyperbolic reviews are almost always impossible to live up to. Taken at face value, however, Channel Orange is a really good R&B pop album with a well-curated aesthetic and relatable lyrics by a talented, engaging singer-songwriter.
After a 5-year hiatus from the recording studio, Brooklyn-based Afrobeat-centered Antibalas has released an eponymous album, perhaps to re-introduce themselves and their sounds to the listening public. Members of the group have been busy both writing music and serving in the pit band for the Broadway hit Fela!, about the inventor of Afrobeat music, Fela Kuti of Nigeria.
This new album will definitely satisfy those who want a new fix of Fela (who died in 1997); indeed it is so close to the sound and feel of Fela’s albums with his Africa ’70 group that one may wish for a bit of distance so as to make room for new originality. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with Antibalas’s flavor of Afrobeat, just that it is heavy on the tribute-band side of things.
That said, these are very good musicians, and they have picked the best Fela riffs and runs and put them into crisp and well-formed compositions. As in African-original Afrobeat music, the beat is paramount here, and the ensemble takes precedence over the soloist, except in the case of the singer. The end result is a big and loud sound with a big beat. Like the African originators of the genre, Antibalas favors quick rhythms and interlocking guitar and horn riffs over a heavy beat. Tempos are fast and riffs and lyrics are delivered like machine gun blasts rather than slow-flowing honey. There is a soul influence but it’s not soul music.
The album’s first cut, “Dirty Money,” is also their first promotional video. It sets the tone, featuring a Farfisa organ lead and political (but not all that partisan—who’s “for” dirty money and its corrupting influences?) lyrics. The second tune, “The Ratcatcher,” is also clearly political but not partisan, more a fable/warning wrapped in a catchy beat. The other four tracks follow along the same lines.
Following is the official video for “Dirty Money” (courtesy of Daptone Records):
Like the group’s previous two albums, this one was recorded quickly at Daptone’s studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn, with the band clearly playing together more than not. Daptone owner Gabe Roth (aka Bosco Mann), who played guitar in the original Antibalas lineup, served as producer and engineer. The sound is an evolution from earlier efforts, demonstrating the ever-improving sophistication and quality of Roth’s analog-centric studio and production techniques. It’s not easy to capture the excitement of this large ensemble at full-tilt, and yet still maintain enough clarity to enable listeners to hear all the layers of the complex instrumental texture, but Roth succeeded well.
This is a good album for frequent rotation during your late summer festivities. It’s upbeat, exciting, and different from the usual iPod fare. Good stuff!
On her debut album, Malian singer-songwriter Fatoumata Diawara commands the songs with a vocal force that is at once boldly expressive and tastefully understated. This comes as no surprise given the actress-turned-singer songwriter’s hard-won access to the public stage. Faced with her family’s disapproval and the severe social restrictions placed on Malian women, Diawara became a seasoned musician while overcoming her many career obstacles. On Fatou, her voice seethes, instructs, and beckons, and brings to bear the life experiences that have shaped it over the years.
The album showcases her song craft, in which she combines her traditional Wassoulou music with jazz and funk. The album’s 13 tracks lace colorful riffs played on kora and ngoni, traditional West African stringed instruments, over a layer-cake of percussion that includes congas and a calabash (a gourd drum).
The band stays tastefully restrained, though, to foreground Diawara’s vocals and guitar playing. Though she sings in her native Bambara, Diawara’s voice communicates the emotional caliber of her songs. You don’t need to read the English translation of the lyrics from “Kanou” (which are supplied in the liner notes), to know that the song is about a young woman’s grief over a love turned cold. Diawara sings with a melancholic chill over a plaintive guitar motif, giving the age-old story immediacy and perspective. On “Kele”—a song about the tragic toll of war—the Malian songstress transforms a call to arms into a bouncy rhythm and gunshots into silver darts of melody. “Bissa” features Diawara’s signature mid-tempo groove garnished with blithely plucked guitar strings and hand drums:
Though Fatoumata Diawara might be new to most listeners, her music bespeaks of a woman and musician with a world of experience. In addition to her debut album, Diawara has recorded on Bobby Womack’s The Bravest Man in the Universe and Herbie Hancock’s Grammy-winning Imagine Project. She’ll also be headlining this year’s Lotus World Music and Arts Festival in Bloomington, Indiana, on September 21-22, 2012.
This month we’re continuing our “Women of the World” series with a review of Fatou by Malian artist Fatoumata Diawara, who will be featured at the upcoming Lotus World Music & Arts Festival in Bloomington, Indiana. Other world music releases include new projects from the Israeli reggae band Zvuloon Dub System, Brooklyn’s Afrobeat-centered band Antibalas, and the Los Angeles-based Chicano band Quetzal, plus the reissue of Paul Ngozi’s 1976 classic Zambian rock album The Ghetto.