Archive for July 7th, 2017

Welcome to the July 2017 Issue

July 2017 Black Grooves small
Welcome to the July 2017 issue of Black Grooves, sponsored by the Indiana University Archives of African American Music and Culture.

This month’s issue kicks off with an overview of releases from the recent PBS series American Epic and American Epic Sessions, plus new releases from pioneers of rap and rock: Jay-Z’s 4:44 and the late Chuck Berry’s final album, Chuck.

 

In honor of Leontyne Price’s 90th birthday, we’re featuring Decca’s new deluxe edition of her 1961 recording of Verdi’s Aida. Also under classical music is string trio Hear in Now’s new project Not Living In Fear.

Jazz, R&B and funk releases include Bokanté’s world music influenced Strange Circles, New Jersey neo-soul artist SZA’s debut studio album CTRL, Philly smooth jazz duo Pieces of a Dream’s Just Funkin’ Around, a Stax 60th anniversary vinyl reissue of the soundtrack to Melvin Van Peeble’s landmark film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and the compilation More From the Other Side of the Trax: Volt 45rpm Rarities 1960-1968.

Gospel releases include Anita Wilson’s Sunday Song, the Como Mamas sophomore album Move Upstairs, Acrobat’s The Alberta Hunter Collection 1921-1940, and Steven Malcolm’s self-titled Christian rap debut.

Wrapping up this issue is Guy Davis & Fabrizio Poggi’s Piedmont blues tribute album Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train, and our listing of June 2017 Releases of Note.

View review July 7th, 2017

American Epic/The American Epic Sessions

American Epic Blue-ray

Title: American Epic / The American Epic Sessions

Artist: Various

Label: PBS

Formats: DVD, BluRay

Release date: May 16, 2017

 

American Epic 2

Title: American Epic (The Collection)

Artist: Various

Label: Legacy/Sony

Format: 5CD box set, MP3, Streaming

Release date: May 12, 2017

 

 

American Epic The Sessions

Title: The American Epic Sessions

Artist: Various

Label: Lo-Max/Columbia

Formats: 2CD, Vinyl, MP3, Streaming

Release date: June 9, 2017

 

 

First broadcast as a 3-part, 3.5-hour documentary on PBS, “American Epic” explores the beginning of regional commercial recording in the U.S. The program’s premise and logo is these early recording field trips resulted in “the first time American heard itself,” a somewhat grandiose claim. Along with the TV mini-series, Sony released a 100 song, 5-CD box set of newly-transferred/newly-restored vintage recordings, organized by recording locations, plus a single-CD soundtrack album, covering only recordings used in the TV programs. And, taking advantage of a fully-restored vintage recording system, the films’ producers teamed up with producer T. Bone Burnett and musician/producer/entrepreneur Jack White to stage a series of recording sessions in a Los Angeles studio with performances by a wide assortment of contemporary musicians. Those recordings, transferred from the lacquer discs on which they were inscribed, are collected in “The American Epic Sessions” 2CD set. A two-hour documentary, covering some of these recording sessions and detailing the vintage recording equipment, was also broadcast on PBS.

In 1926, Western Electric developed an electrical recording system, which quickly replaced the acoustic (“screaming into a horn”) systems that had used sound-pressure energy to cut grooves into cylinders and discs up to that point. With Western Electric’s system, sound waves hitting a microphone created an electrical current, which was then amplified by a 6-foot rack of tube electronics, and used to drive an electro-magnetic cutting stylus, which cut grooves onto wax blanks. The system used in “The American Epic Sessions,” lovingly restored and expertly operated by engineer Nicholas Bergh, cuts onto lacquer discs.

The key take-aways relevant to this project: the Western Electric recording system was portable, and at the time it was developed, radio was killing the commercial record business. During the acoustic era, record companies had concentrated on urban-centric popular “dance band” music and formal classical recordings. But the U.S. was a regional and tribal country at the time, and local music genres and styles remained local. Desperate for new record-buying customers, the record companies sent electrical recording systems and crews out into the land, searching for new musicians and musical styles in hopes of “the next big thing” that radio didn’t offer.

A typical recording trip would include a blitz of advertising in local newspapers and word-of-mouth announcements at general stores and post offices, offering local musicians a chance to make a record. The musicians would flock to a central location, such as a disused hat factory in Memphis or a hotel in San Antonio, for recording sessions. Through this process, the genres of country/hillbilly, Delta blues, Tejano, and Hawaiian music gained national distribution and influence. Some big stars emerged, like country music legends The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers and Tejano pioneer Lydia Mendoza. Many other recordings, by artists such as Dock Boggs, Willie Brown and especially Robert Johnson, didn’t sell well in their day but were incredibly influential on later musicians and musical genres. Other artists such as Charley Patton, the Memphis Jug Band, and even Hopi Indian Chanters, enjoyed regional success and years of fruitful recording sessions.

The “American Epic” documentary and the 5-CD set concentrate the regional styles and genres. The documentary is divided into 3 parts, with each focusing on a handful of artists and songs. Herculean efforts were made to track down descendants or first-person associates of the original artists, and their stories bring life to the people behind the old records. The filmmakers concentrated on the music, and avoided the dull academic tone that slows down too many PBS programs. There is a nerdy hip-ness to the whole project, and the technical details of the early recording process are explained enough for a casual music-oriented viewer to understand by not descending too far in the weeds. Above all, these stories tie together music, people and places.

Recording location rather than music type or artist divides the 5-CD set. This makes for more interesting listening, because each of the CDs is its own “mix tape” of genres and artists, alike only in that they were recorded in a particular region of the U.S., and even then not in a single location or studio. That said, the sequencing choice makes more difficult comparisons of artists within a single genre.

Tom Fine pic

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Engineer Nicholas Bergh, using a system he developed based on his understanding of the original recording process, transferred all of the recordings used in the CD box. A quick comparison of previous reissues of a handful of tunes indicates that Bergh was able to squeeze more fidelity and musical content from the discs, varying from a shade better to much better. It’s worth noting that there is a good bit of overlap between the “American Epic” box set and the classic “Anthology of American Folk Music,” so one can compare the transfer technology and aesthetic evolution over the past 50+ years. There is also some overlap with various Yazoo collections, not surprising since Yazoo owner Richard Nevins contributed rare records from his collections and is thanked in the liner notes.

For a person interested in the true roots of what today is called “roots” music, as well as the original Delta style of blues, and the history of what became country music, this set is invaluable. In some cases, this is the first opportunity to clearly hear the musical subtleties and even decipher the lyrics, since the day the discs were cut. The amply illustrated booklet includes printed lyrics and as close to a first-person description of each artist as the producers were able to find.

The American Epic Sessions” is a bit more of a creative-license undertaking. The documentary producers were clearly enamored with Bergh’s restored recording system, so the logical thing to do, with music-industry bigwigs like Burnett and White involved and a documentary crew in tow, was bring some modern musicians in and cut some 78s. The results are mixed, musically, and the listener must accept the somewhat low-fidelity sound quality captured in the lacquers, but the exercise was net-net successful. I recommend the video documentary over the 2CD music-only set, because it’s interesting to watch modern musicians, accustomed as they are to endless re-takes and overdubs, adjust to the antique one-mic/one-take recording process. Suffice to say, some adapt better than others, but all were able to wax a successful side or two.

Overall, the “American Epic” project was an important undertaking, introducing some seminal music to a new audience in a sound quality not heard before, and bringing life to the musical and recording pioneers who first spread the American musical vernaculars out of their local wellsprings. The “Sessions” video and audio aptly demonstrates the conditions and limitations of the early electrical recordings.

Editor’s note: There is also a separate hardcover book, American Epic: When Music Gave America Her Voice, written by series producer Allison McGourty and director Bernard MacMahon, with Elijah Wald (Touchstone, 288 pages). According to colleague Steve Ramm, there is little crossover in terms of illustrations and content between this book and the one accompanying the Sony box set. Please note that the book’s title is listed variously on other sites as American Epic: The First Time America Heard Itself and American Epic: Companion to the TV Series. Also, there have been hints from some quarters that a director’s cut of the PBS series will be issued on Blu-ray later this year, so you may wish to hold off on your purchase of the version covered here. For various compilations associated with the series (but NOT remastered) see our June 2017 Releases of Note.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

 

 

View review July 7th, 2017

SZA – Ctrl

SZA Ctrl
Title: Ctrl

Artist: SZA

Label: Top Dawg Entertainment/RCA

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 9, 2017

 

When RZA, leader of the iconic east coast group Wu-Tang Clan, endorses an upcoming album, rap fans from all directions are bound to take notice. On May 24, SZA found herself in the driver’s seat of anticipation alley when her album announcement date dropped in the form of a voiceover message overlaid onto SZA visuals via Top Dawg #TDE’s Twitter. Fans of the New Jersey singer responded to Ctrl with unbridled respect, resulting in a #3 spot on Billboard 200 Chart a mere 10 days after its June 9th release. Signed to Top Dawg Entertainment in 2013, Ctrl is SZA’s debut studio album featuring fellow Top Dawg artists Kendrick Lamaar and Isaiah Rashad in addition to The Y’s James Fauntleroy. Classed as an R&B and Neo Soul artist, SZA continues to dominate, garnering to date over 49 million album streams and more than 24 thousand CD purchases.

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Bringing her own style of bluesy vocals to the table, SZA both croons and rasps out her heart-felt regret of long-gone-wrong in almost every song on the album. The collection’s opening track, “Supermodel,” models to the letter the back-and-forth emotions of a recent breakup, alternatively threatening revenge—“I’ve been secretly banging your homeboy”—while pleadingly begging for another chance—“I could be your supermodel if you believe, if you see it in me.”

Travis Scott picks up the story with his opening lines on “Love Galore,” seducing with his mellow “I need, I need” that almost has us believing things will work out as SZA answers with “Long as we got, Love, Love, Love.” But as the track unfolds, the relationship portrayed unravels to a thin, forgotten thread. “Doves in the Wind” showcases SZA’s vocal expertise as she melodically jumps from note to note to effortless ease, finding her own voice of self-empowerment and determination within the “sorry about your luck” lyricism.

While the rest of the album features many moments where SZA’s dreamy voice soothes regardless of the song pockets of regret, two solo tracks—“Drew Barrymore” and “20 Something” —provide a deep, introspective look into the mind of someone who’s not only wondering what went wrong, but also what can still go right. The tempos are winding, the poetics are heart-rending, and the reminiscence lingers long after SZA’s voice drifts off with the final notes.

Ctrl does exactly what RZA promises—drama is cut loose and karma is claimed—resulting in the utmost respect for SZA’s control of what promises to be a long career to come.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

View review July 7th, 2017

Jay-Z – 4:44

Jay Z
Title: 4:44

Artist: Jay-Z

Label: ROC Nation

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 30, 2017

 

 

 

A few weeks back, prior to the announcement of a new record, I had a convo with the homie Langston Wilkins (@StreetfolkLCW) and the topic of Jay-Z came up. I must admit I was wondering essentially “What more does Jay-Z have to say at this point? Unless he was going to focus on, say, a skills-based album, it would almost be a lost cause.” My question was answered in spades with the release of 4:44.

As you may have seen from my review of Tribe’s We Got It From Here, Thank You 4 Your Service, I struggle with the whole “Rap music is a young man’s game” motif.  To be honest, I largely believe that to be the case. I cannot tell you how annoyed I get hearing folks from my generation or prior hounding young people about how “horrible” their music is.  I don’t quite get how people from my generation don’t recognize the cycle at this point. It’s my belief that Migos’ music is simply not made for my generation of rap fans, much the same as it was for rap fans of the generation before me.  Do you really feel like hardcore Whodini fans were really feeling Bone Thugs-N-Harmony like that?  My guess is no, and that’s okay.

Jay-Z’s new album comes into the conversation on a platform of an artist who has achieved “God” status in the game, but hasn’t made “relevant” music in a bit.  While Magna Carta Holy Grail, was definitely better than Kingdom Come, it still did not have the impact of The Black Album. But this is typical of the rap game, as up to this point we have not seen many rappers age and remain relevant on the level of Jay-Z fame. Married to the one of the biggest pop stars of his generation and regularly appearing on the entertainer’s Forbes list, Jay-Z is in a different category as a celebrity. In his case, it almost seems like a risk to put out material that might be seen as lukewarm and/or “safe” in terms of legacy. Luckily for us and Jay-Z, nothing about 4:44 seems “safe” and it thankfully yields impressive results.

4:44 is set off excellently with “Kill Jay-Z,” a track that according to the artist himself was meant to kill his own ego in order to be open on the record: “Cry Jay-Z/we know the pain is real/but you can’t heal/what you never reveal.” This is an artist that recognizes the role he plays as a leader among hip hop fans and does not plan on wasting the platform. This track is followed by “The Story of OJ,” which has garnered a lot of attention due to its  music video containing images of animated black caricatures comparable to those made infamous in pre-1960s America.  Using a Nina Simone sample as a backdrop, the track details how Jay-Z’s thoughts on wealth have changed over the years. In particular, he takes a minute to detail a real estate deal he wishes he’d taken years ago.  These moments illustrate a major focus on the album—Jay-Z is grappling with how to teach the black community at large the lessons he’s learned. You also hear elements of this in the album’s closing track, “Legacy,” which begins with his daughter Blue Ivy asking “Daddy what’s a will?” and Jay-Z discussing what he truly wants his legacy to entail for his children.

A large amount of buzz surrounding the album has centered on the title track “4:44.” The track is Jay-Z’s response to the implication of his affair revealed on Beyoncé’s magnum opus, Lemonade. Jay-Z confirms the suspicions and apologizes for his indiscretions: “I apologize/often womanized/took for my child to be born/to see through a woman’s eyes.” Producer NoID laces Jay properly here with an excellently flipped sample of Hannah Williams & The Affirmations “Late Nights and Heartbreak,” a track dealing with the difficulties of relationships. I’m not sure if there has been a tit for tat on the perspective of active artists detailing their relationship on this level since Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham during  Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors period.

My favorite track of the album has to be “Smile.” On the production side, it is my favorite beat on the record.  It excellently flips a sample of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s In Need of Love Today” to amazing effect, accenting Stevie’s clavinet and choir vocals with 808 snares and bass drum hits. This creates a moody setting in which Jigga lets loose on a variety of topics. Speaking to his feelings about his mother’s struggle with her own choices, Jay-Z closes the track with a guest appearance from her that is about as real as it gets. He also addresses his own struggles with public acceptance: “Oh y’all thought I was washed/I’m at the cleaners/laundering dirty money/like the teamsters.” This line felt like a direct response to doubters like myself and trust me, it was heard.

4:44 finds Jay-Z at his most vulnerable on wax in years, yet still with a swagger that is becoming of an elder statesman. The production duties on the album were handled with aplomb by NoID, who after this release will hopefully receive some of the recognition he’s deserved for years.

For all of my “young man’s game” rambling, this is an example of what a “grown man” can do with the artform. Jay-Z’s status allows him to speak and be heard. In return, he uses the platform to not only make great art, but also pass down lessons on the importance of wealth and support of other black people and businesses. 4:44 puts to rest any of my concerns about what over-40 rap artists are capable of.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

View review July 7th, 2017

Chuck Berry – Chuck

Chuck Barry
Title: Chuck

Artist: Chuck Berry

Label: Dualtone Music

Formats: CD, Vinyl, MP3

Release date: June 9, 2017

 

Chuck Berry is, without question, the Father of Rock and Roll, and perhaps the most influential guitarist of the 20th century.  After 40 years without a new release, he announced his new album, Chuck, on his 90th birthday.  Unfortunately, he passed in March of 2017 before he could see the project come to fruition.  Clocking in at a short 34 minutes, the album nevertheless packs a punch.  The first pair of songs, “Wonderful Woman” and “Big Boys,” are arguably the best.  They’re rock and roll to the core, and Berry shows from the start that he’s still got it.  This energy is steady throughout the album, even on slower tracks like “You Go to My Head” and “Eyes of Man.”

Chuck is a family affair, featuring his children Charles Berry Jr. and Ingrid Berry as part of his backing band.  His grandson, Chuck Berry III, is also featured as a guest on “Lady B. Goode,” which is a sequel to the 1958 hit “Johnny B. Goode.” Compared to the original, this version is a bit slower, but no less fun.  Perhaps the most tender track on the album is the bluesy father-daughter duet “Darlin,” the video for which was released in time for Father’s Day:

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Also featured on the album are guitarists Gary Clark Jr. (“Wonderful Woman”), Tom Morello, and Nathaniel Rateliff (“Big Boys”).  These guest appearances are a testament to the influence that Berry has had not only on rock and roll, but on popular music more broadly.  With his musicianship, signature guitar riffs, and his stance, Berry has influenced countless musicians.  On this final album, Berry cements his legacy as musician, storyteller, and one of the greatest to ever do it.

Reviewed by Allie Martin

View review July 7th, 2017

Bokanté – Strange Circles

Strange Circles
Title: Strange Circles

Artist: Bokanté

Label: GroundUP

Format: CD, MP3

Release Date: June 9, 2017

 

The members of Snarky Puppy have attained quintessential listening status for many in jam band, jazz-fusion, and groove-rock circles. Members of this group and musicians closely associated with them tend to have a distinctive “sound,” one which draws heavily from jammy fusion and incorporates elements of world music. Strange Circles, the debut release from Snarky Puppy bassist Michael League’s new side project Bokanté  falls comfortably into the world music mold.

League swaps his bass for a baritone guitar on Strange Circles, and is joined by two Snarky Puppy band mates, Chris McQueen and Bob Lanzetti. The group also includes percussionists Jamey Haddad, André Ferrari, and steel guitarist Roosevelt Collier. Vocalist/songwriter Malika Tirolien rounds out the group, delivering original songs she and League co-wrote. Tirolien, a native of the Caribbean island Guadeloupe, sings a veritable chorus of thickly arranged multi-track vocals in Creole and French throughout the album.

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Even though most of the album prep was completed remotely, this band’s playing is fluid.  This may be due to the musicians’ skill or the tight arrangements, but at any rate it is a testament to what real pros can do in collaboration. The percussionists create powerful layers of rhythm throughout the record and the guitar quartet complements this with complex harmonies, making guitar interplay a highlight of this album. Collier’s steel guitar playing is especially worth listening carefully to — he takes a number of compelling solos, on cuts like ¨Jou Ké Ouvé” and ¨O La,” where his pedal steel almost sounds like the many vocal layers that permeate the album. The other guitarists mostly stick to riffing, but the song “Vayan” features dueling guitar solos, on a cut that sounds like an Afrobeat reading of Led Zeppelin.

One thing that the careful listener quickly learns about with Strange Circles is that the band’s approach to creating musical interest depends on two things: scaffolding layers of vocals and instruments and Collier’s steel guitar entering at dramatic moments.  This is a winning formula, but it is systematic nonetheless — listeners will likely be quick to learn the build-breakdown-build approach that permeates most of the songs on this album. Collier ends up being the star of the show on most tracks, in part due to the timing of his entrances and in part due to his lyricism. It would be easy to draw comparisons between his fluidity on steel and blues/rock/world fusion guitarist Derek Trucks’s lyrical slide guitar. A few songs do break with the build-breakdown-build form, however: “Apathie Mortelle” burns slow, with excellent ambience playing by the guitarists, relying on chorus-drenched chords and controlled feedback to play off of the intricate layers of voice and percussion. The album’s closer, “Héritier,” is an acoustic and synth-driven ballad that stills the energy of some of the disc’s more frenetic moments.

I wish that English lyric translations were available for those listening to the digital versions of this album, particularly given the Creole dialect that many the lyrics on this album are composed in. As a monolingual English speaker reviewing the digital copy of this album, it was difficult for me to difficult to understand and thus comment on the poetry or lyrical themes. But that aside, Strange Circles is full of compelling music that is certainly worth a listen for fans of genre-bending grooves.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

View review July 7th, 2017

Hear in Now – Not Living in Fear

HiN
Title: Not Living in Fear

Artist: Hear in Now (Mazz Swift, Tomeka Reid & Silvia Bolognesi)

Label: International Anthem; dist. Redeye

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 2, 2017

 

Formed in 2009 through a commission from WomaJazz, the string trio Hear in Now features New York violinist Mazz Swift, Chicago cellist Tomeka Reid, and Italian double bass player Silvia Bolognesi. Individually the three women have performed and recorded with artists ranging from jazz musicians Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, and Butch Morris to rappers Common, Jay-Z and Kanye West.

On their second studio album, Not Living in Fear, the trio displays their affinity for free jazz and the avant-garde across 13 tracks of original music composed variously by members of the group. The project is a natural fit for the International Anthem label, dedicated to promoting boundary-defying recordings and occurrences of creative music in Chicago and beyond. Through the label’s sponsorship, we’re now able to appreciate these works, recorded by HiN in 2012 and 2014.

Rather than easing into the album with a more accessible work, the trio fearlessly opens with “Impro 3.” The track builds slowly over long, sustained harmonies punctuated by a flurry of glissandos that provide a sense of foreboding as they lead to a freely improvised and frenzied climax. This is followed by “Leaving Livorno,” a more melodic work with a yearning quality that features a jazzy interplay between cello and violin. “Requiem for Charlie Haden,” composed by Bolognesi, is dedicated the late jazz bass player who died two months prior to this recording session. Bolognesi adds a touch of free jazz to the bass line and takes an extended solo, but otherwise incorporates Haden’s penchant for blending simple melodies with classical harmonies.

Chicago jazz vocalist Dee Alexander is featured on the title track. Reid frequently performs with Alexander, so it’s fitting that they collaborated on this composition. To say this song is a highlight feels like a bit of a cop out, given its broader appeal, but I make no apologies. Clearly it was sequenced at the album’s midpoint to provide a bit of breathing room, and displays the trio’s extensive background in jazz (all have various jazz side projects).

Throughout the album, the three musicians employ extended playing techniques. For example, col legno and other percussive effects are used in “Transiti” to emulate the chugging rhythm of a train, and the opening of “Terrortoma” is punctuated by an ominous thumping reminiscent of the sound of advancing soldiers. But these techniques are never overused; each composition offers multiple sections and thematic complexity.

Not Living in Fear is a courageous album, brilliantly performed by three very accomplished women. They may frequently present concerts in museums, but the museum analogy often applied to classical music is certainly not relevant. Instead, HiN challenges us to hear the music of the present, defined in their own terms.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review July 7th, 2017

Guy Davis & Fabrizio Poggi – Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train: A Look Back at Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry

Brownie Train
Title: Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train: A Look Back at Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry

Artist: Guy Davis & Fabrizio Poggi

Label: M.C. Records

Formats: CD, MP3, Vinyl

Release date: March 24, 2017

 

Blowing past the mouthpiece and producing train whistle-like chords, Fabrizio Poggi masterfully creates a sonic image on his harmonica of a train blowing steam as Guy Davis boldly strums on his acoustic guitar during the introduction of “Sonny and Brownie’s Last Train.” This original composition by Davis pays homage to the great mid-twentieth century Piedmont blues duo, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Terry and McGhee drew inspiration from early folk-blues figures such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Josh White, and John Lee Hooker and were also associated with the left-wing folk movement.

This 12-track album of acoustic blues studio sessions was recorded live in Milan, Italy and features songs written by McGee and Terry including “Walk On,” “Evil Hearted Me,” and “Hooray, Hooray These Women are Killing Me.” Davis and Poggi also cover a number of blues greats from Jimmy Oden’s “Going Down Slow” to Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train,” as well as familiar traditional songs like “Take This Hammer,” “Shortnin’ Bread,” and “Midnight Special.”

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Special attention should be paid to the technical musical nuances during these live recordings. Of particular interest is Poggi’s emulation of Terry’s whooping and hollering between harmonica riffs for an added soulful effect. As well, Davis embraces the storytelling tradition in his performances inspired by the work of Blind Willie McTell and Big Bill Broonzy.

After a music career spanning over two decades, this commemorative album marks Guy Davis’ 14th recording. Reflecting on this latest work, Davis explains, “Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry were two musicians whose work will not be surpassed, let alone improved on. This musical opus was produced by Fabrizio Poggi. It features our combined musical talents, and is not meant to compete with the originals. It’s meant to be a love letter to Brownie and Sonny signed by the both of us. They were two of my favorites.”

Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train is certainly worth giving a listen, not only to hear expertly executed blues techniques on the harmonica and acoustic guitar, but to witness an excellent and historically significant collection of standard blues and traditional music.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

View review July 7th, 2017

Anita Wilson – Sunday Song

Sunday Song Anita Wilson
Title: Sunday Song

Artist: Anita Wilson

Label: EONE

Format: CD, MP3

Release Date: July 14, 2017

 

 

Anita Wilson has been a rising star in gospel music since her 2013 debut album, Worship Soul.   Wilson has established herself as an artist who is adept at blending traditional gospel with old school R&B and soul sounds to create new and fresh music for contemporary listeners. Her latest project Sunday Song continues in this vein, featuring newly composed selections as well as several covers. Donald Lawrence’s ensemble The Company, Wilson’s former group, provides the background vocals on the album. While many of these tunes will be great for Sunday church worship, Wilson emphasizes that this album is meant to foster spiritual engagement beyond religious walls. She states, “God is everywhere we are, we can always have a Sunday song in our hearts.”*

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One of the opening songs of the album is the single, “I’ve Seen Him Work.” This inspirational selection channels the sounds of R&B dance tunes (e.g. Luther Vandross**) and gospel choir songs of the 1980s. Rhythmic piano and bass establish a groove, which is joined by punctuating horns and drums showcasing a jaunty back beat, making this a fun and danceable track. The lyrics encourage listeners to maintain faith in God because “He’s in control” and He is “working it out.”

Wilson continues to draw on musical influences from yesteryear with the selection “Don’t Have to Travel Far.” This beautiful ballad is a worship-filled love song to God. It opens with strings, drums, and soft, repeated piano chords under girding the tender melody performed on an electric guitar. Purposefully, the accompaniment is reminiscent of 1970s R&B ballads like the Stylistic’s “You Make Me Feel Brand New.” Wilson celebrates her relationship with God with The Company supporting her sweetly: “Don’t have to travel far/ to be right where you are./You are constantly in my heart./ There’s no place I’d rather be/ than in your company,/ you mean more than life to me.”

Sunday Song’s traditional gospel and gospel covers are also especially noteworthy. “The New Church Medley” is string of both old and newly composed up-tempo call and response congregational songs which all ramp up to the popular church tune, “Great Things/I’ll Say Yes to My Lord.” For this heavy hitting number, Wilson is joined by singer Tommie White and vocal powerhouse Yolanda Adams who passionately improvise during the vamp. In a different light, Wilson has also transformed some gospel favorites like Richard Smallwood’s anthem “Total Praise.” She eschews a conventional, stately performance featuring dark, bold vocal production (with heavy vibrato) and string orchestration for a paired down contemporary praise and worship style. Wilson reworks the melody and softens the accompaniment transforming the chorus of “Total Praise” into a contemplative yet earnest meditation on faith.

Sunday Song is a wonderful summer treat for gospel lovers everywhere. It’s a wonderful blend of older secular styles, traditional gospel music, with timeless lyrics that are sure to inspire listeners to sing, dance, and have faith.

*Quote taken from an on-air interview with Detroit, MI radio personality Randi Myles.

**Wilson suggested the music of Luther Vandross influenced the creation of this song in an on-air interview with radio personality Erica Campbell.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

View review July 7th, 2017

Steven Malcolm Self-Titled Debut

Steven Malcolm

Title: Steven Malcolm

Artist: Steven Malcolm

Label: Word Entertainment/4 Against 5

Format: Digital, CD, MP3

Release Date: February 17, 2017

 

 

Michigan-based rapper Steven Malcolm released his self-titled debut album, Steven Malcolm, and as the much-publicized first release states, Malcolm is truly this moment’s “Hot Boy.” Rapzilla.com had the foresight to nominate him as their 2015’s Best New Artist, and the day after its release, his album shot into the top 15 of the ITunes/Hip Hop Chart. Soon after, ESPN signed the Hot Boy’s debut single for use in future NBA game coverage. None of this comes as a surprise to fans of other rappers such as Grammy winner Lecrae, KB and Andy Mineo, as Malcolm has been on the Christian hip hop/rap radar for years now. It’s obvious he has the potential to chart onto mainstream hip hop/rap as well, as his entire album’s lyrical and musical content speaks to the current generation through empowering references of God and self alike.

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The 13-album set is a mix of both slow, melodic satire and upbeat, feel-good beats that showcase hip hop as its best—pounding downbeats and lyrical composition calling to both its listeners’ activist side while entertaining with a club-like, social vibe. Each song opens with its own unique riff, straight-up announcing mood and tone in a no-holds-barred fashion. “Hot Boy”’s 4-chord keyboard intro in minor key is overlaid with a vintage LP crackle, showcasing the track’s ultra-confident presence of its lead role on the album. A second 4-chord riff juxtaposed against “Fire”’s abrupt, digitized chord and subsequent echoes provide a throw-out to Malcolm’s Jamaican roots, as a distinctive reggae style dominates the entire composition.

Andy Mineo and former American Idol contestant Hollyn weigh in on one of the album’s party-rap vibe, “Party in the Hills,” while Blanca adds her own style to Malcolm’s other R&B/rap mix, “Never Let You Go.” “What Was You Thinking” makes light use of error sounds for its dominant chordal strain, similar to methodology J. Dilla used in his album Doughnuts, and the satirical poetics of “Cereal” pertain to not only breakfast choices, but also the positive end game results from choices that take one from “Growing up, I could only have some in the morning” to a “But now it’s whenever” lifestyle.

The diverse musical stylings and driving lyricism make for an exciting rap collection debut, and if this album is any indication, Steven Malcolm will continue to represent as one of the genre’s Hot Boys for many fiery moments to come.    

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

View review July 7th, 2017

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