Rhiannon Giddens maintains a heightened level of excellence as a musician and activist songwriter throughout Freedom Highway, her second full album since Tomorrow Is My Turn (2015). Co-produced by Dirk Powell, Giddens presents nine original songs and three reimagined arrangements of civil-rights era and traditional music featuring guest performances by Bhi Bhiman, Lalenja Harrington and Leyla McCalla.
Giddens opens the album with “At the Purchaser’s Option,” sung in the first person about a woman facing the physical, mental, and spiritual magnitude of enslavement:
The album creatively and poetically addresses historical and contemporary forms of racial oppression in the United States. In “Julie,” Giddens sings a fearful ballad about the imminent separation between a maid and her white mistress by Union soldiers. The story reveals complex emotions as the maid reminds the mistress of how she sold away the maid’s children in order to produce the money the mistress re-gifts to her. The slow and sweet duet “Baby Boy” is a both somber lullaby and loving tribute to mothers who raise and protect the future “saviors” and leaders of mankind:
Baby Boy, young man, beloved
Don’t you weep, I will watch over you, I will stand by you
You will be, You will be, a savior
But until then
Go to sleep
From the darker themes of the electrically blue “Come Love Come,” to the funky precision of “The Love We Almost Had,” Giddens exhibits her eclectic and perfectionist talent down to the fine detail as a vocalist, banjo player, and bandleader. In “Better Get It Right the First Time,” she sings a soulful chorus of multi-harmonies as her band mate, Justin Harrington, performs a rap verse enhancing the traditional American roots music style. “Hey Bébé” differs significantly midway during the album, drawing on Cajun rhythmic and instrumental patterns.
“Birmingham Sunday” may perhaps be the most emotionally compelling song on the album. Originally written by Richard Fariña and performed by Joan Baez on a fingerpicked acoustic guitar, Giddens suitably infuses the ballad of the Birmingham bombing of 1963 with a gospel style. She concludes with an instrumental banjo and bones duet on “Following the North Star” that leads into “Freedom Highway,” a soulful celebration of the fight for civil rights reminiscent of Aretha Franklin’s 1968 “Think.”
Rhiannon Giddens’ expertly produced Freedom Highway traverses the historical roots of racial unrest in the United States. Her work possesses an unwavering determination as she strives for accuracy connecting musical traditions with related contemporary genres to illustrate the deeply embedded patterns of racial oppression and resilience.
Canadian opera singer Measha Brueggergosman is known for the versatility of both her voice and her career. As a classically trained soprano, she performs both operatic roles as well as those of a concert artist. Her latest project, Songs of Freedom, is a collection of spirituals that corresponds with Brueggergosman’s discovery of her family’s history in Canada. The album is much more than just a collection of spirituals, however—it is also part of a larger documentary project including a film, a 4-part TV series, mobile app and interactive website with narratives from both Brueggergosman and the owner of Chalet Studio, in which some of the spirituals were recorded. The documentary explores how she came to know these spirituals, and to learn about herself and her family history in the process.
The website for the Songs of Freedom project provides a number of complementary elements to the album. In addition to performance videos showing Brueggergosman and her collaborators, there are also essays written by Brueggergosman, the musicians with whom she worked, and scholars of African American music. These essays help to frame the project and provide a foundation on the importance of spirituals to the black musical tradition. Also featured on this website is a 360 degree performance video of Brueggergosman recording “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” one of the spirituals featured on the album. The 360 scope of the video provides an intimate portrait of how she explored these spirituals and eventually made them her own.
Musically, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is definitely one of the highlights of the album, along with other slow tempo spirituals such as “I Surrender All.” These two especially allow Brueggergosman’s voice time to fill in spaces, rather than to be rushed. In this exploration of spirituals, she joins the company of other black operatic singers such as Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle. Within the documentary series and the accompanying album, Measha Brueggergosman is doing important work to uncover her family’s history and also elevate the status of spirituals as repertoire.
“Long Lovely Road” opens Valerie June’s atmospheric new album, The Order of Time, with a calming melody beckoning the listener to sing along with the chorus. Based out of Brooklyn, June collaborated with producer Matt Marinelli to create this second full album following her 2014 release, Pushin’ Against a Stone. On “Love Once Made,” June’s distinctive voice stands out as it beautifully breaks into her upper register on the chorus. The energy carries straight into “Shake Down,” an exciting call and response electric blues song supported by back-up vocals from June’s father and brothers:
The soothing drone of “If And” and the sustained ambient tones of “The Front Door” inspire a hopeful meditative response to the hard times everyone will inevitably encounter in life. “Man Done Wrong” draws on the lyrical repetition tradition found in blues music with a very minimalistic instrumental section and a prominent beat. “Astral Plane,” perhaps the most iconic song on this album, contemplates a spiritual purpose within the greater cosmic theme:
Dancing on the astral plane
In holy water cleansing rain
Floating through the stratosphere
Blind, but yet you see so clear
June remains front and center throughout this album, though she collaborated with keyboardist Pete Remm and vocalist Norah Jones. The deep electric guitar reverb introducing the orchestra of strings in “Just In Time,” the only song produced by Richard Swift, refocuses attention on the timely unity of humanity. Partnered well with “Two Hearts,” June sweetly blends her voice on “With You” with a fingerpicking guitar pattern, building into a more instrumentally complex arrangement. The album concludes with “Slip Slide on By” and “Got Soul,” two party songs with a brass band, soulful keys, and the potential to continue playing on repeat!
Crowned the “Queen of Detroit Blues” in 2015, Thornetta Davis is a blues singer and songwriter with a big voice and a passion for all things blues, rock, and soul. Though she’s worked with labels like Sub Pop in the past, her latest release Honest Woman is a self-released project full of passion.
Honest Woman starts rather untraditionally, with Felicia Davis singing her sister’s praises like a spoken word poem over back porch Delta blues: “When my sister sings the blues, she moves her hips swaying to the beat / Snapping her fingers and stomping her feet.” She compares her sister to Bessie Smith and Sippie Wallace, two of the most famous black blues singers from the 1920s. This celebration of black women in music and the blues reverberates throughout the entire album, as Thornetta Davis draws inspiration from artists such as Denise LaSalle, Etta James, Sarah Vaughn, and Big Mama Thornton.
The theme of honoring women is echoed on the second track, “I Gotta Sang the Blues,” which is a powerful duet with harmonica virtuoso Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbids. The songs talks about singing the blues not to get rich or famous, but rather to persevere when “living the blues gets too rough.” At the end of the song, Davis evokes the names of more famous blues women, singing on the outro,
I ain’t gon’ stop singin’ the blues Big Mama Thorton sang the blues Koko Taylor sang the blues Etta James sang the blues.
On “Sister Friends Indeed,” Davis celebrates the female friendships in her own life. The bluesy Americana track is an ode to sisterhood, discussing how all the women who have supported her throughout life are her sisters, whether they share blood or not:
The rest of Honest Woman doesn’t celebrate blues women as explicitly, but it cements Davis as a part of that history. Her smooth voices oscillates between a number of styles. She sings contemporary upbeat rock blues on songs like “That Don’t Appease Me” and “I Need A Whole Lotta Lovin to Satisfy Me,” followed by effortless soul on the heartbreak ballad “(Am I Just A) Shadow,” and sexy R&B vocals on “Can We Do It Again.”
Davis’ mixture of black music genres stands out particularly on “Set Me Free,” a modern funk and blues spiritual featuring the Larry McCray Band. Though it may be easy to view the raunchy aspects of blues as the opposite of gospel, Davis’ plea for the Lord to come down and set her free pairs perfectly with the blues singer’s themes of struggles and the pain of working.
The final song on the album, “Feels Like Religion,” is another gospel song which celebrates Davis finding happiness and confidence in herself. The song even has a call and response section as Davis sings, “I wanna dance! (dance) Shout! (shout) Show you what it’s all about!” The steady beat of the drum set completely shifts after this call and response as the music transforms into foot-stomping, hand-clapping gospel that completely takes the listener to church. This celebratory, thankful song encapsulates what Honest Woman is all about—an album full of joy and gratitude for the black blues women who influenced Davis’ music, her sisters, her God, and herself, the “Queen of Detroit Blues.”
There is no denying that CeCe Winans is one of the most successful female gospel artists ever, with 10 Grammys, 20 Dove Awards, and 7 Stellar Awards. She’s been inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and the Hollywood Walk of Fame, sold over 5 million albums in the United States, and guest starred on multiple TV shows. After taking a break from the studio, this powerful gospel artist is back for her first album in almost a decade, Let Them Fall in Love, which was produced by her son Alvin Love III.
Recorded in Nashville and New York City, the project was mixed by Dae Bennett (Tony Bennet, Amy Winehouse) and Jimmy Douglass (Pharrell Williams). These talented collaborators worked to bring Alvin and CeCe’s vision to life: an album that bridged generations of Christians, based on past traditions yet applicable to the present.
Much of the album has a distinct Motown feel. From the opening track “He’s Never Failed Me Yet” (CeCe’s personal testimony to faith) to “Hey Devil!” (a rebuking duet with the Clark Sisters), the swelling, orchestral sounds of the Nashville String Machine and the vocal harmonies echo the heyday of Motown and pop music of the 1960s.
Despite the prevalence of the pop vocal harmony sound, a couple of songs on the album have a true gospel feel. “Dancing In the Spirit” featuring Hezekiah Walker and his Love Fellowship Choir is a jubilant celebration of faith that physically moves everyone in the church.
Winans’ incredible vocal talent is heard most clearly on the other predominantly gospel song, “Marvelous.” The simplicity of Winans’ voice with organ and piano is moving, and builds a powerful crescendo as a gospel chorus softly enters with background vocals, eventually growing in volume until they completely fill the space. By the end, it is no wonder why Winans describes the track as a “musical embodiment of the black church.”
Songs like “Lowly,” about pride and humility aimed at young men, and the slow, somber track “Never Have to Be Alone” about turning away from God only to find that he still remains, have a more contemporary Christian music feel. These songs are representative of the album’s goal to engage younger listeners.
Whether or not Let Them Fall in Love truly succeeds at bridging a generation gap, Winans always wows with her powerful vocals and truly soars on the gospel-style songs.
This month sees a new release from the eclectic bass virtuoso Stephen Bruner, known by his stage name, Thundercat. Bruner has performed with artists across a variety of genres, and is perhaps best known for his collaboration with rapper Kendrick Lamar on the latter’s 2015 masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly. Thundercat has an ear for a variety of musical styles, and his wide-ranging musical approach is readily apparent on Drunk.
This 23-track album feels like a series of musical vignettes—only one of these cracks the 4-minute mark and the vast majority of them are shorter than 3 minutes long. However, this brevity allows each composition to be a highly detailed miniature, with carefully layered sounds and carefully composed tunes being the album’s highlight. Each track leaves the listener craving more without feeling complete, almost as though each song were a brief study in compositional technique. If Thundercat’s resume is full of versatility, so is his dossier of compositions. This album is heavy on guest appearances, with Thundercat working with everyone from yacht-rockers Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins (“Show You the Way”), to socially-conscious rapper Kendrick Lamar (“Walk on By,” which can be heard below), to massive pop star and musical chameleon Pharrell Williams (“The Turn Down”). On these “feat” tracks, Thundercat and company craft arrangements that bring out the best of his collaborators’ musical ideas while simultaneously pushing these otherwise well-established artists towards Thundercat’s own neo-soul jazz fusion.
The material on this album ranges from virtuosic (“Uh Uh”) to just plain weird, incorporating sung meows (“A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II)”) and lyrics about playing Mortal Kombat when relegated to friend status by a potential romantic partner (“Friend Zone”) into his musically and technically sophisticated music. This approach begs comparison to the bizarre combination of humor and virtuosity that was the hallmark of artists like Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. While it is easy to imagine that listeners who are here for the marquee collaborations may be put off by the more technically involved or thematically strange music, these equal parts of Thundercat’s approach to composing and playing fit comfortably side-by-side. This is the kind of record that will challenge listeners by pushing them out of their musical comfort zones by an artist who is comfortable across a wide variety of musical idioms.
Drunk is nothing if not ambitious, but ambitious records are usually a bit uneven. It is hard to find a single unifying thread that runs throughout the album, but that ultimately doesn’t prove detrimental to the project as a whole. Drunk isn’t a novel, but a visit to a musical theme park, where listeners are encouraged to take a spin on each of the rides.
With a career spanning over 60 years, Harry Belafonte is perhaps most famous for bringing Caribbean music into American pop culture. His 1956 breakout LP Calypso became the first album ever to sell more than a million copies, solidifying his spot in pop culture and music history.
Now, Legacy Recordings is celebrating his 90th birthday with the newly released compilation When Colors Come Together…The Legacy of Harry Belafonte. Belafonte himself chose the track list for the album, which includes one new recording alongside many classic and well-known Harry Belafonte songs. His son, David Belafonte, produced the album and wrote the liner notes. He appears with Harry discussing the album below:
A year after Calypso was released, Belafonte appeared in the film Island in the Sun, which explored racial tensions and interracial romance. A re-interpretation of a song from the film, “When Colors Come Together (Our Island In the Sun),” is the first track on the album and is sung by a children’s choir. The song is full of joy and optimism as the chorus of kids sing “Dark skin, light skin, brown eyes, blue / It’s what inside that should matter to you” while upbeat bongos resound behind their voices. In his liner notes, David Belafonte states that they reinterpreted the song “[using] the voices and performances of children to make the case that there is no human gene for racism; that what has been learned must be unlearned if the world is to ever truly know peace.”
Belafonte’s famous recording of the Jamaican folk song “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” also makes an appearance, as well as the buoyant dance song “Jump the Line.” Other classic Belafonte songs on the compilation include “Jamaica Farewell” and “Try to Remember.”
At a time when racial tensions continue to reign and protests rise up around the country, another folk song recorded by Belafonte, “All My Trials,” rings especially poignant. Used during social movements and protests in the 1950s and 1960s, the song is a testament to Belafonte’s activism during the Civil Rights Movement, as well as his friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Belafonte has continued this passionate call for social justice throughout his career, advocating for causes such as the anti-apartheid movement and USA for Africa. He also served as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and is currently the American Civil Liberties Union celebrity ambassador for juvenile justice issues. His social justice organization Sankofa.org has been involved with a number of important causes, most recently participating in a “Justice for Flint” benefit concert and working with Usher on his “Chains” music video and racial justice campaign.
When Colors Come Together…The Legacy of Harry Belafonte is a celebration of everything that Belafonte has accomplished in his wide-ranging career and life. Though prominently featuring the Calypso music that he became so well known for, the album also honors his career and legacy of social justice work through song choice and the re-recording of “When Colors Come Together (Our Island In the Sun).” It is clear that both Harry and David Belafonte are still passionate about addressing issues of racial prejudice and violence, and this compilation shows they are determined to continue embedding Harry Belafonte’s legacy in a whole new generation.
Janka Nabay rose to stardom in his native Sierra Leone during the 1990s for remixing and modernizing Bubu music (traditional music of the Temne people in Sierra Leone). Caught amid the decades-long war there, Nabay immigrated to the United States in 2003. After years of working side jobs and trying to make a life as an artist, in 2010 he crossed paths with filmmaker and scholar Wills Glasspiegel, who had recorded bubu horns. Together, they put together a touring band that eventually recorded and released their debut album En Yah Sah in 2012.
Three years later, Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang are returning with their sophomore album Build Music. This project reflects the many cultures and contradictions in Nabay’s life. He sings in Sierra Leone’s lingua franca, Krio, as well as his native tribal language Temne, English, and even bits of Arabic. Using traditional recordings and his band’s instrumentals as well as overdubs, loops, and electronic drumbeats, the result is a diversified sound that overturns the notion of static traditions while trying to remain true to the flavor and integrity of bubu music.
Bubu music is most identifiable by West African bamboo horns that the Temne people use in traditional bubu processions in rural areas of Sierra Leone during Ramadan. In the past, Nabay has mimicked the sounds of these horns on Casios. While he does use these keyboard imitations on Build Music, he also directly samples recordings of the horns that Glasspiegel recorded on a 2014 trip to Sierra Leone and includes them on the songs “Angbolieh” and “Santa Monica.”
Build Music’s title reflects the process behind the album, which was slow and intentional. Included are reimagined versions of songs Nabay recorded in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, like “Sabanoh” and “Angbolieh,” as well as tracks such as “Bubu Dub” featuring new vocals sung over original Sierra Leonean rhythms recorded by Nabay’s collaborators.
The diversity present in music styles and languages on the album is also reflected in choice of song topics and themes, which draw upon Nabay’s experiences in Sierra Leone and current incidents related to life as an immigrant in the United States. For example, “Santa Monica” is based on a tense encounter Nabay had with a police officer. These varied themes are a part of his philosophy–namely, that multiple, contradicting realities always coexist. Build Music is an example of this dichotomy, drawing from Nabay’s diverse life experiences yet keeping bubu music at the heart of it all.
Family acts in music have always been huge: The Osmonds, Sylvers, Five Stairsteps, Isleys, Carpenters, and of course The Jackson 5/The Jacksons—who recently marked their 50th anniversary. Morgan Heritage is a family act and I’m willing to bet that you’ve never heard of the group. MH is Jamaica’s answer to the J5. Made up a five siblings, their father is reggae singer Denroy Morgan, who had a big hit in 1981 with the single “I’ll Do Anything.”
First released in 2015, Strictly Roots is the band’s 10th studio album and the first on their own label CTBC, which stands for Cool To Be Conscious (they recorded for the label VP during much of their success, but felt it was time to move on). After winning a Grammy Award in the Best Reggae Album category in 2016, the group decided to release a 2-CD deluxe edition, which celebrates the album’s success with previously unreleased tracks and remixes.
The original album (Disc 1) was comprised of twelve tracks in which Morgan Heritage takes the listener through peaks and valleys. In the song “So Amazing,” Morgan Heritage steps away from traditional roots and goes for a more top 40 sound. “So Amazing” could easily be played on a CW series:
In reggae, one always pay homage to Jah and Morgan Heritage sticks with tradition. In “Child of Jah” (feat. Chronixx) they explain the part Jah plays in reggae music and rastas to those who don’t know. On “Light It Up,” featuring Jo Messa Marley, they chant “this is reggae music.” Can’t do reggae without a Marley. After all, Robert Nesta Marley is the godfather of reggae. “Rise and Fall,” which discusses the cycle of life, has the typical drum & bass sound you hear in reggae.
“Celebrate Life” may be Morgan Heritage’s best track on this album. Again, Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved” had to play a major part. “Celebrate the life you love / Celebrate the life you live,” Peetah Morgan & Grampson sing on lead vocals. If the group wanted to get crossover appeal, this would be the track to do it.
Disc 2 includes 3 additional versions of “Light It Up,” plus the pop-oriented “Come Fly” featuring the Celtic punk band Flogging Molly and the more traditional “Lion Order,” among others.
Morgan Heritage has won respect from the reggae community worldwide. Now that they are independent on CTBC, I expect them to take some risks and open it up. After all, they’re royalty. One Love.
For the uninitiated, Now Again Records is an imprint that specializes in unearthing rare and obscure soul and funk recordings. Each re-release is accompanied by detailed liner notes. The notes really speak to one of the great things about Now Again—they do not just unearth the music, but also the stories behind them. The story behind Mark III’s Marvin Whoremonger is simultaneously as interesting and disjointed as is the music on the album.
The story told in the 26 page illustrated booklet primarily follows the lives of Marvin Neroes, who serves as the vocalist on Marvin Whoremonger, and the producer of the album Charles Lober Abu “Cholly” Williams. Neroes led a rough life and came across Williams in Las Vegas while in his early twenties. Williams, who reportedly had a fondness for “left of center” projects, linked Neroes up with brothers Richard and Michael Thompson (guitar and drums respectively) and Clifford Johnson (bass), who were still in their teens. Williams’ vision for these musicians was to create a concept album; the result, while light on cohesiveness, presents a unique (if somewhat half baked) project.
Marvin Whoremonger is a surprisingly synth heavy (Williams brought in a keyboard player and horn section for some tracks) album that shows the youthful exuberance of the players and the almost stream of consciousness lyrics of Neroes. The bulk of the album feels like a soundtrack to film that never was, recalling some of the jammy, looseness of Earth, Wind & Fire on the soundtrack to Melvin Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. The best of these “concept” tracks for my money is “Pusher Man” and “Funky Heaven,” which both boast standout use of synth from the unnamed keyboardist along with great guitar and bass work.
Oddly enough, the album completely switches gears on the tracks “Going to the Top” and “The Party’s Over,” which Williams allowed the band to oversee. It is on these two tracks, however, that I personally really see the potential for what this band may have accomplished had they been given time to grow as a unit. These tracks are straightforward, uptight and funky, and stick out on the album like sore thumbs in the most positive way imaginable.
My hat goes off to Now Again for continuing to bring albums like Marvin Whoremonger to light, as well as highlighting the intriguing stories of the folks who made them. While this album may not be my favorite among Now Again’s releases, it was still interesting to listen to and learn the story behind its creation.