“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!
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.
New York Fascist Week is the much-anticipated sophomore record from Austin’s BLXPLTN (pronounced Blaxploitation). The band has not shied away from speaking loudly and supporting justice for the oppressed, and they continue to take on state violence in its various forms. “Blood on the Sand” and “Gun Range” take the murder of civilians by police head-on, the latter describing the feeling of living in a neighborhood targeted by policing as “living in a gun range.” “Auf Wiedersehen” could be seen as another commentary on our current police state, or as a warning of the continuing spread, acceptance, and consequences of ubiquitous surveillance and authoritarianism with the lyrics: “Where you going there, sonny? / Respect my authority / Funerals everywhere I go, Tell your children not to leave their homes.” Following is the newly released video for the opening track, “Blood on the Sand”:
Each song on New York Fascist Week offers powerful comments on events past, present, and future, with BLXPLTN’s electro-punk, industrial, and rock arrangements perfectly complementing their lyrics. The album is available with two different covers: the limited edition version with artwork by Hiram Melendez (shown above), or the Donald Trump cover with art by Pathetic Pixels (below):
Swiss-American artist Manuel Gagneux (a.k.a. Zeal & Ardor) has already garnered considerable buzz for his forthcoming release, Devil is Fine—a daring hybrid of black metal interspersed with Delta blues, spirituals, jazz, ring shouts, hip-hop beats, soul and gospel. By fusing elements from the entire spectrum of black music, Gagneux has created a deeply personal album—a black history soundtrack that also touches upon his own “diabolical” political and religious beliefs.
Gagneux’s soundscape imagines an alternate universe: “It’s like walking through slave-era America and seeing a chain gang in the woods practicing Satanic rituals. Imagine if slaves in America had rejected Christianity and embraced Satanism instead, if instead of being forced to accept the ‘will of God,’ they had chosen defiance and rebellion and the power of Satan. That’s the world in which the album is rooted.” And his black metal pseudonym, Zeal & Ardor, is a subversive attempt to draw unwitting listeners into this universe through a “vaguely Christian sounding name.” The concept is further reinforced by the cover art featuring Robert Smalls, the Civil War-era slave who freed himself and his crew by commandeering a Confederate transport ship, and then continued to push boundaries as a black politician in South Carolina.
For the title track, Gagneux drew inspiration from historic recordings collected by Alan Lomax and his father John Lomax for the Library of Congress, particularly work songs and the chants of prison chain gangs which he believes capture the same defiance as black metal towards Christianity. The video for the single “Devil Is Fine,” directed by award winning Swiss filmmaker Samuel Morris, capitalizes on these elements, resulting in a dark and disturbing visual straight from the Antebellum South, akin to a more satanic version of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained:
Another standout track, “Come on Down,” similarly begins with acoustic blues and the call and response “I can’t see no devil in the fields – come on down,” then traverses through distorted soul and black metal electronica before looping back to the blues. “Children’s Summons” begins innocently with a music box melody, then devolves into a satanical call to “summon the children, for tonight He rises…” Taking a difference approach, “What Is a Killer Like You Gonna Do Here?” features a sotto voce chant over a jazzy acoustic bass and drums. The album concludes with the final “Sacriligium,” one of three primarily instrumental tracks that reinforce the sermonic quality of the album.
While Devil is Fine may not be embraced by all black metal enthusiasts, its diverse palette and sinister subject matter will likely draw new fans, especially those rebelling against right-wing extremists and religious fundamentalism.
Johnny Popcorn? Yes that is the name of this group and I love it. Hailing from Philadelphia, the five member band features vocals from Hezekiah (Davis) and Jani Coral, with Lloyd Alexander on guitar, Freshie on bass, and Clayton Crothers on drums. They’ve opened for a who’s who in the neo soul/progressive soul scene: Kindred, Oddisee, Robert Glasper, Ledisi, RJD2, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Bilal. JP’s ten track sophomore album, Totem Pole, is rock—yes, rock! Now before some of you start frowning your face, it’s not hard rock. It’s not Bad Brains, and there are no Vernon Reid guitar solo riffs. However, Totem Pole offers a welcome fusion of sound and if you free your mind, you may enjoy it.
“Go Go Go” is perhaps the most up tempo of all the tracks. It opens with, believe it or not, acoustic guitar that recalls George Michael’s “Faith.” The catchy chorus has Hezekiah and the group chanting and clapping, “go, go, go – you got to get up and go, go, go” as they encourage folks to chase their dreams.
“Coming Home” is another good track thanks to drummer Chuck Treece, who is a local legend in Philly. Hezekiah is once again featured on vocals, and listening to this track you might think Lenny Kravitz could have recorded it. “What a Day” is a step out of rock and into funk. The opening bass is a sure fire winner and will get heads nodding up and down.
Johnny Popcorn’s Totem Pole is certainly different. Where so many acts want to copycat each other, this band stands out! The only question remains, will they or can they find an audience? Judging by who JP has collaborated with, I’d say yes. Totem Pole is a promising follow-up to their debut album, The Crow, and I’m already waiting to see what direction they will pull the audience on their next release.
Another December brings another batch of holiday albums from artists across a variety of genres. Though there are fewer new releases this year, we’ve compiled a short list of the most interesting projects featuring new arrangements of classics as well as original songs composed for the season.
Kenny Lattimore seamlessly merges contemporary R&B with contemporary Christian music on A Kenny Lattimore Christmas. Original songs such as “Real Love This Christmas” and “Everybody Love Somebody” are full of energy and hip hop beats, with lyrics about the importance of community and faith. Lattimore includes many classic Christmas songs on the album, such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” and a grand, symphonic arrangement of “O Holy Night.” He also adds worship songs such as “I Cry Holy” and the gospel-chorus backed “We Want to See You.” Overall, it is a marvelous holiday album for any gospel music fan looking for something that combines tradition and innovation.
On the five track EP Merry Christmas from Andra Day, the jazz/R&B chanteuse breathes new life into holiday classics with her highly distinctive, instantly recognizable voice. Opening with the Stevie Wonder duet “Someday at Christmas,” the two singers present an upbeat, optimistic song that immediately captures the season’s spirit with themes of peace and harmony:
Day then segues into a swinging arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,” followed by a sumptuous rendition of “Winter Wonderland.” Guitarist Chris Payton contributes to “Carol of the Bells,” providing an acoustic accompaniment to Day’s supremely soulful arrangement that renders this chestnut nearly unrecognizable, in the best possible way. Closing with “The First Noel,” Day takes a more straight forward approach, using a simple arrangement with keyboard, but adding enough modulations and embellishments to keep things interesting.
While Hamilton star Leslie Odom, Jr. has quickly risen to fame this year as the rapping Aaron Burr, his classically trained Broadway voice stays steady and velvety smooth on his first holiday album Simply Christmas. Odom does not stray from the typical Christmas repertoire, except for adding a version of Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson’s “Winter Song.” Otherwise, with tracks ranging from “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to “The First Noel,” this is a traditional Christmas album full of easy listening holiday cheer.
Great for any contemporary jazz enthusiast on your Christmas list, pianist and composer Bob Baldwin’sThe Gift of Christmas adds his spin to holiday classics such as “This Christmas” and “Greensleeves/What Child Is This?” Baldwin combines tradition with modern styles on tracks such as “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful / Celebrate the Son Remix,” which mixes electronic beats, vocals from gospel artist Corvina Nielsen, and a soulful keyboard solo. Nielsen also guest stars on “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and “We Three Kings / Yonder Star Remix,” with her soaring, soulful vocals adding a unique dimension to the album. Ending on the beautifully calm and melancholy track “December 25th,” Baldwin returns to a more traditional smooth jazz sound. On The Gift of Christmas, Baldwin constantly challenges our expectations of what Christmas songs should sound like through surprising arrangements and delightful collaborations.
If you like non-traditional Christmas songs, R. Kelly’s12 Nights of Christmas is perfect for you. Kelly combines his signature R&B vocals and sensual lyrics with lush orchestral arrangements on holiday themed songs such as “Snowman,” “Flyin’ On My Sleigh,” and “Mrs. Santa Claus.” Though some of these tracks may be borderline “not safe for work,” there are also more innocuous songs such as “My Wish for Christmas” and “Home for Christmas”—his modern day twist on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”:
If you’re looking for something naughty but nice for your holiday party, look no further than this 5 track EP from the bounce queen of New Orleans. A Very Big Freedia Christmazzz offers some very unique takes on holiday classics such as “Rudy the Big Booty Reindeer” who knows how to twerk, and “Jingle Bell Rock” which will get you on your feet to “shake the night away.” Freedia’s “Twas the Night” is a hip hop version of the classic Christmas story with a NOLA twist:
Twas the night before Friday and all through the club, They were drinking and smoking and tearing it up, It was a cold night but the place was lit, It was packed wall to wall no room to sit . . . Chorus: All I want for Christmas is the beat, beat
All I want for Christmas is the beat, beat
Original tracks include the highly infectious “So Frosty” that’s sure to heat up the dance floor, and “Santa is a Gay Man” sung to the tune of “Mr. Sandman” (definitely not safe for work).
Reviewed by Anna Polovick and Brenda Nelson-Strauss
Timothy Bloom’s latest project, The Beginning, is the first in a trilogy of albums called “The Life.” Bloom is perhaps best known for his 2011 hit with V. Bozeman, “Til the End of Time,” a stunning ballad that introduced him as a force in R&B. More than just a gifted singer, though, Bloom is also an accomplished songwriter and producer as well, having written for artists such as Ne-Yo, Chris Brown, and Smokey Robinson.
Musically, the EP doesn’t fit into just one category, with Bloom’s capable voice traversing across genres and decades. The opener, “Work It Out,” sounds like a ’70s R&B hit. Immediately following is “Adam and Eve,” which hearkens back to the pace and style of Prince. After that, “Me and Myself” swings into jazz. Even within this assortment of musical styles, Bloom stays true to his gospel roots, particularly on “Howl at the Moon.” He grew up listening to and singing gospel music in the South, and it shows. Although the EP clocks in at 23 minutes, Bloom features a lot of collaborators. Perhaps the best comes not from a vocalist but the French harmonica player, Frederic Yonnet. They pair up on “Sweet Angel,” with Yonnet featured throughout.
Overall, The Beginning is a solid EP, and listeners can look forward to not only this project but the two EPs to follow.
Pigeon John honed his musical skills by performing during open mic nights at the Good Life Café in his home state of California. Even though he’s experienced much success, he’s kept this DIY approach and indie aesthetic central to his music. In fact, this new CD was crowdfunded through the website Pledge. Good Sinner is Pigeon John’s seventh album and features many genres, from his characteristic indie rock songs to covers of the Beastie Boys.
The first single, “That’s What I Like,” is a catchy song about chasing a hard-to-get lover. It features hand claps, hearty brass, and an undeniably pop chorus singing “Na na na, hey.” “Stick Up” is a similarly upbeat, pop song that sounds akin to Pigeon John’s most popular hits such as “The Bomb.”
Pigeon John emphasizes his indie rock side on songs such as “Rebel Rebel,” which is driven by heavy yet simple beats on the drum set and features a catchy whistling section that is sure to be stuck in your head for days. This edgy vibe continues on “Gravity,” a foot-tapping song with an electric, urgent chorus featuring synthesizer.
Though he stays true to his own style, Pigeon John also explores the intersection of indie rock with other genres. He raps on “Shake It Down,” an extremely funky track featuring shouts and jingling bells in the background. His love for this mix of rock and hip hop can also be heard in his mellow cover of the Beastie Boys “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party).”
Taking the exploration of genres even further, Pigeon John’s vocals in “Take Off” lay somewhere between melodic country twang and a slow rap that discusses fights, visiting penthouses, and taking off in a beautiful car. The way the vocals are manipulated in “Knock Out” is Beach Boys-esque, with fuzzy harmonies throughout the track. Growing up in California, it seems very likely that Pigeon John was inspired by Beach Boy era love songs, as he sings, “My pretty knockout, you drive me batty like Hollywood.”
Good Sinner explores love and rebellion through a number of genres, though Pigeon John still finds himself most comfortable situated between indie rock and pop. The album is upbeat, and more often than not seems focused on making fun, catchy music. With the varying styles and appealing nature of pop choruses and beats, anyone who listens to Good Sinner will inevitably find themselves humming a chorus hours later.
Over the past few years the punk band Unlocking the Truth has gone from YouTube sensations to performing at major festivals and landing a nearly unprecedented recording contract with Sony (later rejected), all while just entering their teens. While a knee jerk reaction might be to dismiss them as a “kiddie act,” their first official release, Chaos, aims to dispel all those doubts and for the most part succeeds.
Jarad Dawkins (drums) and Malcolm Brickhouse (guitar/vocals) have been friends since early childhood and have been playing together since middle school. Alec Atkins (bass) joined the band during the period in which they made quite a bit of noise on YouTube, once the word got out about their impromptu shows in Times Square. Chaos is the first foray into what the fellas have been cooking up since they made the jump to the Vans Warped Tour and Coachella.
The album is very well-produced with a sound that feels tailor made for radio airplay. Each track feels crafted as a potential single, which though understandable—given how music is consumed in 2016—takes away from a cohesive whole. However, if you can look past this issue and take Chaos as a first step on a career that will hopefully include a respectable artistic growth arc, what they’ve produced is a very respectable start. Unlocking the Truth’s sound is decidedly steeped in the Nu-Metal tradition of bands like Slipknot and System Of A Down. And while these might be big shoes to fill, Chaos hints that the teenage power trio may be mentioned in the same breath as these bands down the line.
Of particular note is the level of the playing the band has mastered. Tracks like “Monster”, “A Tide” and “Other Side” really do a great job in showcasing how well the group plays together and gives glimpses of what may come as they continues to mature. Thematically the album leans heavily on imagery about outsiders (perhaps due to being three young African-American males participating in a genre that is dominated by bands that do not look them); relationships (usually difficult or outright bad ones, which begs the question how much of these songs sprang from personal experience?); and general human connections (which serves as a bookend to the outsiders theme, as the band embraces a new community built around freedom to be one’s self).
The album’s lead single, “Take Control,” utilizes these themes in its music video and in the lyrics which speak to taking control of your own destiny. It will very interesting to hear Brickhouse’s voice as it matures—he is clearly coming into his own vocally, which is best heard on “Escape.” This track also features some great drum work by Dawkins and bass work by Atkins.
All in all, Chaos feels like a preview of great things to come. It is my hope that Unlocking the Truth beats the odds of becoming pigeonholed as a novelty act and continues honing their craft both live and in the studio.
For Jimi Hendrix, 1969 was a critical year of transition. With his British-American band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, he rode a 2-year explosion of popularity that culminated in the fall 1968 release of the 2LP set Electric Ladyland. After that, a combination of road weariness, musical restlessness and personnel squabbles led to the breakup of the Experience. By the time of the Woodstock festival, August 1969, Hendrix was playing with Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Billy Cox, an old friend from the Army and co-traveler on the early 1960’s Chitlin Circuit. The Woodstock band also included extra percussion and Larry Lee on rhythm guitar. Although the Woodstock performance was memorable—think of the electrified psychedelic performance of the National Anthem in the Woodstock movie)—the band was assembled just for that event.
By late fall 1969, Hendrix was rehearsing with Cox on bass and soul/blues multi-instrumentalist Buddy Miles on drums. The group, which Hendrix called Band of Gypsys, debuted in public at the Fillmore East on New Year’s Eve 1969. This new album is the first official release of the unedited first set, an audio record of Jimi Hendrix bringing forth something very new, at some risk to his career and popularity.
The concert is long known and yet not well-known. There were four sets that night. All previous releases have been edited together out of pieces of the four, with only some bits from the first set. The original LP, released in 1970, was mostly comprised of the later overnight sets. The multi-CD deluxe reissue pieced together a running order similar to the middle sets, with tunes picked from all four. The running order and vibe of these previous issues isn’t quite what the audience heard, although as stand-alone albums, the original LP—which reached #5 and stayed 61 weeks on the Billboard Top 200 chart—is especially powerful.
Band of Gypsys has been somewhat controversial with critics and hardcore Hendrix fans. Miles’ drumming is heavy and somewhat leaden compared to Mitchell, and the Gypsys was firmly set in blues and hard-funk music, whereas the Experience was more freeform and trippy-psychedelic. Also, Buddy Miles was a showman, and some critics and listeners at the time just couldn’t cotton to his sometimes heavy-handed vocal riffing; the feeling was that he was upstaging the star, Hendrix. In retrospect, Miles’ style fits the music that Hendrix and band wanted to put out, and the point was that it wasn’t a “new Experience,” it was a different direction for Hendrix and his music.
The first New Year’s Eve set was almost all new material, no nuggets from the Experience hit parade except a decent but not stellar rendition of “Hear My Train a Comin’,” a song Hendrix played live numerous times with the Experience. More Experience songs were sprinkled into the later sets, and showed up on the multi-CD reissue compilation. In this unedited release of the first set, we hear the band having some timing and rhythm issues, probably opening night jitters. Several long blues jams keep things in order.
Indeed, blues are the order of the evening. Hendrix used this band as a vehicle to dive fully into the blues music always at the core of his rock hits. His band mates are up to the task, all seasoned by years of playing in R&B revues. Miles definitely prefers a heavier and busier drum style than a classic blues stickman like Chess’s Fred Below. He worked closer to Stax’s Al Jackson Jr.’s backing of Albert King, which was contemporary to these recordings. With mostly rock-steady bass backing by Cox, Hendrix stretches out and explores the ranges of both his guitar and his voice. Particularly on “Bleeding Heart,” near the end of the set, slow blues is rendered with full tension and power, the heavier style of Cox and Miles deployed to perfection.
The album’s title track, “Machine Gun,” presented here in an unedited form (previous releases were edited together from all four sets’ versions) is a smoldering anti-war anthem as powerful in today’s world as the turbulent late 1960s. “Izabella,” based around a fictional soldier’s letters to his girlfriend from Vietnam, is also of the time, although the rendition in this set is somewhat sloppy and tentative.
The set closes with an up-tempo rock colossus, “Burning Desire.” Here, at the end of the set, we hear Hendrix let loose in a rocking manner more familiar to the Experience fan. Miles even displays some Mitch Mitchell-like fleetness at times, which is probably unfair to note since Band of Gypsys was resolutely not aiming to be Experience-like.
Sony says no other complete sets from the New Year’s Eve at the Fillmore East concerts will be released, likely because so much from the later sets is already out there. It’s also worth noting that this will be the first Sony release of Hendrix material in SACD and high-resolution digital downloads. This is surprising, since Sony has in recent years released a large trove of remastered Hendrix recordings, likely transferred and remastered in higher than CD resolution. For whatever reason, these studio and live recordings have been issued only on CD, lossy downloads and in some cases vinyl. This new release was mixed from the original 8-track tapes by long-time Hendrix engineer Eddie Kramer, and mastered by Bernie Grundman.
After the New Year’s Eve sets, the Band of Gypsys played one more live set, a song-and-a-half misadventure at the January 28, 1970 Winter Festival for Peace. Hendrix walked off the stage, his manager fired Miles on the spot, and that was it for Band of Gypsys. Hendrix died from drug-related asphyxia on September 18, 1970; he was 27 years old.
Hendrix’s short-lived Band of Gypsys phase has always received mixed reviews. An informative listening session would compare this new release of the first New Year’s Eve set with Hendrix’s “American unveiling” at the 1967 Monterrey Pop Festival, and the August 1969 Woodstock performance. One might also listen to one of Hendrix’s 1968 Winterland shows to trace the arc of his brief career as a rock and blues superstar. His playing, singing and songwriting evolved greatly in that short time, and the Band of Gypsys’ New Year’s Eve performance was an important part of the journey.
Perhaps best known as the 2015 winner of NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest for his song “Lost in a Crowd,” Oakland-based Fantastic Negrito releases an album that is steeped in the blues and simultaneously strikingly contemporary. Xavier Dphrepaulezz, who uses “Fantastic Negrito” as his stage name, has had a career rocked with the ups and downs of the entertainment industry—rising to, and falling from, a disastrous brush with stardom in the 1990s, undergoing a crippling hand injury after a car accident, and settling down for awhile. The stage persona of Fantastic Negrito represents a return to the entertainment business, on his own terms this time around.
And what a return—The Last Days of Oakland is an album with sprawling ambitions that delivers. One more in a year of highly personal releases that document broader societal problems, Fantastic Negrito’s songs deal with class and poverty (“Working Poor,” “Hump Through the Winter”), race, and redemption (“Nothing Without You”). The record is also diverse sonically, but it’s useful to compare the combination of blues sound and punk spirit that animates The Last Days of Oakland with the blues punk of groups like the White Stripes. In fact, Negrito takes a number of cues from Jack White, from vintage blues guitar playing to minimalistic 4-on-the-floor arrangements—“Rant Rushmore” could easily have appeared on Icky Thump, although Negrito draws a bit more gospel into the mix than White would have. Comparisons to earlier alt-rockers are not remiss either. Fantastic Negrito’s version of the traditional song “In the Pines” (recorded by everyone and his brother, but perhaps made most famous by Leadbelly), channels Kurt Cobain’s rendition of the song as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” on Nirvana’s 1993 MTV Unplugged, keeping Cobain’s raw emotionalism, but fleshing out the orchestration with a full band, electric guitars, and keyboards.
On The Last Days of Oakland, we hear a musician who has clearly paid his dues. Fantastic Negrito knows his sound and has found his voice as a singer, songwriter and guitarist. This is a definitive performance from a rocker with a few bones to pick.
Many of you have no doubt heard about the current Broadway “revival” of the landmark 1921 musical Shuffle Along, choreographed by Savion Glover and starring Audra McDonald (who will be replaced by Rhiannon Giddens starting July 26), with Joshua Henry and Brandon Victor Dixon portraying the famous songwriting team of Sissle & Blake. Subtitled “Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed,” the show is actually more of a re-imagining than a revival, incorporating many of the original’s famous songs but not following the original book.
This new CD from Harbinger Records, Sissle and Blake Sing Shuffle Along, was released at the end of April to coincide with the opening of the Broadway show, and features “recordings Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle made for Blake’s EBM record label, as well as a newly discovered set of extremely rare acetates of demo recordings by Sissle and Blake for a proposed Shuffle Along of 1950 Broadway show.” Songs are arranged in the original order of the 1921 musical, performed primarily by Sissle (vocals) and accompanied by Blake (piano). But just to be clear, though there are many different cast recordings of Shuffle Along, what’s featured on this CD are the songs as sung by the original composers, recorded decades later.
Indianapolis-born Noble Sissle (1889-1974) and Baltimore native Eubie Blake (1887-1983)—two of the most famous early African-American composers, vaudeville stars and recording artists—began their careers during the ragtime era. Joining Lt. James Reese Europe’s famous 369th U.S. Infantry “Hell Fighters” Band during WWI, they helped to promote an appreciation of Black popular music throughout the U.S. and Europe, especially the new genre known as “jazz.” After the war they experienced a number of successes, but none so great as their landmark musical Shuffle Along. Based on a comedy routine by their vaudeville colleagues Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, who wrote the book, the musical opened in New York in 1921 with Blake leading the orchestra from the keyboard. Though not the first Black show on Broadway (Bob Cole’s minstrelsy themed A Trip to Coontown and Will Marion Cook’s more progressive Clorindy both debuted in 1898), Shuffle Along became one of the most successful Broadway musicals of the era, drawing audiences with its swinging jazz melodies and “hot rhythms.”
The 24-page booklet accompanying the CD provides an excellent history of Shuffle Along by Richard Carlin and producer Ken Bloom, excerpted from their forthcoming biography of Eubie Blake. But given the level of detail on the composers and the history of the musical, it’s somewhat incomprehensible that only scant information is provided about the actual recordings featured in this compilation.
The earliest tracks are drawn from Shuffle Along of 1950 demos that have never been released. Thanks to the generosity of record collector Peter Shambarger, who discovered these discs twenty years ago, we can now hear the songs in excellent sound (though regrettably the piano is somewhat buried in the background). Most importantly, though, we can hear Sissle’s commentary, updated for the era. For example, on “Bandana Days” he references beboppers, and in “If You’ve Never Been Vamped by a Brownskin” he interjects some comedy in the midst of Blake’s solo. Blake’s masterful rendition of the “Shuffle Along Medley (Entr’actre)” is drawn from an uncredited QFS piano roll (presumably one of those he recorded for QRS in May, 1973). The remaining twelve tracks are culled from LPs issued by Eubie Blake Music, a label founded by the musician in 1971. The “Shuffle Along Medley” and “Love Will Find a Way” (from this 1971 LP?) are performed by Ivan Harold Browning, who sang first tenor in The Four Harmony Kings (a quartet featured in the 1921 Broadway cast of Shuffle Along), before assuming one of the leads in the show. Original cast member Gertrude Saunders also reprises her most famous song, “Daddy Won’t You Please Come Home” (she recorded this for Okeh in 1921). Ruth Williams joins Sissle on the show’s most enduring hit song, “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” The set concludes with “Fourth of July in Jimtown,” a comedic routine performed by the show’s creators, Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles (presumably from the 1923 Okeh recording).
None of these recordings have been released on CD before, and will certainly provide those interested in early African American musicals, and Sissle and Blake in particular, with additional source material for study. The other great news is that Harbinger (a division of The Musical Theater Project) plans to reissue all of the Eubie Blake Music recordings, as well as the complete demo of Shuffle Along of 1950, in the near future. Let’s hope that liner notes for these planned reissues properly credit the sources.
Santigold is mostly known as a fashion forward artist with a singular pop sound. Songs like “L.E.S. Artistes” and “Creator” from her two albums Santigold and Master of My Make-Believe have resonated their way into a remarkable place in contemporary American cultural history. Now a 39-year-old woman, her most recent release, 99c, is an album that not only expresses her singular musical control but also her maturity. She has produced her own take on pop that never sounds forced.
99 Cents begins extremely well with “Can’t Get Enough,” a terrific song that sounds like an elegant take on the pop music of the 1950’s:
The song “Banshee” is another notable track, though it sounds like her older releases. This indicates one of the issues with this album—sometimes it feels like her sound has not progressed and that we’re listening to songs from her older albums. Despite feeling unoriginal, “Banshee” is a good time. “Before the Fire” resonates like great American songs do: it is both weighty and light, and is probably the most interesting of the album’s 12 tracks.
“Outside the War” is another great song that combines rock and pop well. In it, we hear an understanding of the amount of space for lyrical experimentation that this blend can afford a musician being put to great use. “Run the Races” stings.
In an interview with Complex magazine, Santigold said “I set out to make a pop record that incorporates all the things Santigold records always incorporate, which is elements of African music, punk rock, hip-hop and everything that I would want to put into a song but still under the umbrella of a pop song where there’s a chorus you can sing along with. I like when pop is still good music, that’s what I like.” The long history of human artistry is a history of artists attempting artistic freedom: the ability to produce art that expresses “true selves.” There are still debates about the painting Mona Lisa and who it really depicts: either the wife of the man who commissioned Leonardo Da Vinci or a courtesan, suggesting that Da Vinci may have pushed against what he was “supposed” to do in favor of following his own muse. Something similar has happened in music, with pop musicians attempting personal “freedom” through artistic expression, despite the potential constraints that come with record labels and sales figures. Santigold’s effort puts her at the avant-garde of those who genuinely love pop and strive to produce their own take on it.
There’s a notable amount of very serious, almost political, playfulness in Santigold’s album that only she does in the pop music realm. Pop culture is a culture of play and most pop musicians take this to an extreme. But Santigold seems to want to take its playfulness in another direction, drawing her lyrical and musical style much closer to rock.
Santigold’s 99 Cents is a notable album. She combines rock and pop better than any of her peers do, pushing the boundaries of pop music beyond the limits set by radio and the musical performance circuit and into the realm of sincerity and actual personality.
Formats: CD, Digital (to be distributed via iTunes and website)
Release date: April 22, 2016
Scheduled for release on Earth Day 2016, The Earth Wants You is the title of both a CD and motivational book (available via City Lights Publishers), written and performed by New York based artists-activists Reverend Billy & the Stop Shopping Choir. A fixture at Occupy Wall Street and other demonstrations around the country, Reverend Billy (aka Bill Talen) and his multicultural tribe refer to themselves as “wild anti-consumerist gospel shouters and Earth loving urban activists” fighting the dual devils of consumerism and militarism. One of their high profile projects was the 2012 film, What Would Jesus Buy?, a commentary on excessive consumerism during the holiday season that fueled their stop shopping movement (a theme echoed in their 2009 album The Shopocalypse). Their new project recognizes the Earth’s crisis, accelerated by the “extractive imperatives of global capital.”
One of the catalysts behind the Stop Shopping Choir is OBIE Award winning director Savitri D., who has led the group through performances of “cash register exorcisms” and cell phone operas, in places as diverse as the Redwood forests, Burning Man, Monsanto chemical factories, and on the roof of Carnegie Hall in a snowstorm. Their mantra is: We love music, we love the potent force of harmony and rhythm, we love the struggle, we love the earth! Direction also comes from key musicians within the choir, including emeritus choir director James Solomon Benn and composer-conductor Nehemiah Luckett, whose backgrounds in choral and Black gospel music amp up the church atmosphere.
The Earth Wants You is a concept album touching upon the primary issues addressed by the group: earth justice, consumerism, first amendment rights and neighborhood defense. The majority of the songs were written by Talen, Luckett, E. Katrina Lewis, and Laura Newman, and they flow like an off-Broadway musical (there may, in fact, be a staged version).
The album opens with the full chorus on “Flying,” a song bemoaning the plight of the honeybee. This segues into the climate change warning, “Fabulous Bad Weather,” the album’s first single, featuring “Diva of the Church of Stop Shopping” Laura Newman in a lead solo that could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Merry Clayton.
Choir member Dragonfly—“an auteur, raconteur, provocateur, and Southern Missionary Baptist deacon’s daughter”—is featured on “Revolution.” Beginning with a choral introduction, Dragonfly then offers an emotional recitation of the two verses, with dense lyrics warning of deforestation, global monoculture and Wall Street greed followed by the call to action: “They want you a consumer, dazed and in a stupor / apathetic, sedated and politically neutered / Or you can be a real citizen / Take your dreams into the streets and stand for all you believe in!”
“Monsanto is the Devil” addresses agricultural chemicals and genetically modified seeds, protesting “this seed she’s not a logo, can’t kill her with your name.” “The Human Blues,” preached/sung by Rev. Billy, is not overtly about overpopulation, but instead focuses on the destruction of habitat and elimination of species.
Turning to issues of communities and social justice, “Man Down” name checks Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray and others shot by police and vigilantes, while the choir prays for everyone to “Get home safe.”
Other tracks on the album include “Climate Change Blues” featuring Luckett and Amber Gray, the inspiring choral anthem “Gratitude” that gives encouragement to demonstrators, and “We Are the 99 Percent” that draws it’s text from the September 29, 2011 Declaration of the Occupation of New York City. The album concludes with the songs “Cop & Bankers” (“we gotta love them too”) and “Shopocalypse” (“the oceans rise but I must buy”).
Though The Earth Wants You obviously holds more appeal for the liberal crowd, the music is extremely well-written and performed, with provocative and compelling lyrics. The first rate band is led by producer Juno Black and composer Nehemiah Luckett on piano and organ. As the good Reverend states,
“Our idea of bringing humor and music and marrying them to a statement of conscience is not a new concept. The labor and civil rights and gender rights movements inspired us all with their music…These days it’s not enough to be against tragedy and injustice. We need to be for life. We’re followers of Life on Earth. Isn’t that hilarious? Yes, and it’s the only way we’ll ever save our ass. Amen!”
Birds of Chicago defines its style of music as rock and roll poetry or even as a kind of “secular gospel.” Led by vocalist Allison Russell and her husband, songwriter JT Nero, the group’s folk and country roots are readily apparent. Produced by Joe Henry (who has worked with Solomon Burke, Bettye Lavette, and Emmylou Harris), Birds of Chicago’s second album Real Midnight explores the transformative power of music and the inevitability of death.
The title track ebbs and flows as full, harmonious choruses intermingle as twanging guitar and soft percussion fill in gaps in the vocal lines. The lyrics speak of how limited time is, asking “now what you gonna do with your days left in the sun?” The song is a combination of country and soul, fueled by Russell’s smooth voice and the rasp of backing vocalist Michelle McGrath during the chorus:
“Sparrow” is both haunting and sorrowful, a sparse song about mortality led by minimalistic banjo. “Color of Love” continues these reflective themes, taking listeners on an emotional journey that retrospectively looks back at life’s important moments. “Dim Star of the Palisades” is a reminder to hold on to what’s important through the hard times in life: “Storm’s coming through, top’s gonna blow. Hold on tight, don’t let your baby go.”
Though most the material is introspective, “Estrella Goodbye” is a fun, upbeat track with a harmonious chorus full of “na na na”s reminiscent of indie folk bands such as The Lumineers and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Nero takes the lead in the verses with his bright vocals, and Rhiannon Giddens (of the Carolina Chocolate Drops) guest stars in the chorus.
“Pelican” is a beautiful duet between Nero and Russell with acoustic guitar and simple percussion – knocks on the guitar and a few piano notes in the chorus. It approaches the theme of mortality with a gentle hand, singing “you’re not too far gone,” a meditation on the power of love and redemption. This is where Birds of Chicago’s “secular gospel” is most evident. Despite the song’s references God, Nero has said the band does not believe in any one religion but rather in how “words and music together heal and transform like nothing else in this life.”
Multiple Grammy-winner bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding has demonstrated a David Bowie-esque knack for reinvention over the course of her past 4 albums as a leader. 2010’s excellent Chamber Music Society showcased Spalding’s knack for tight, delicately crafted acoustic arrangements, while 2012’s Radio Music Society demonstrated her aptitude for a more pop-infused sensibility as well. Versatility has characterized her work as a side musician, too. She has appeared on recordings with artists as diverse as Mike Stern and M. Ward.
Spalding has managed yet another feat of re-invention on Emily’s D+Evolution. Taking her middle name as the album’s moniker, she explores yet another side of her broad musical influences, this time using the power-rock trio as the vehicle an exploration of another genre, necessitating an approach to her instrument that fans haven’t heard yet. Swapping the her Afro for braids and her upright for a fretless bass guitar and drawing more musically from Jimi Hendrix than Jim Hall, Spalding, guitarist Matthew Stevens, and drummer Karriem Riggins put forward a soulful brand of rock on this release, falling somewhere between Black Messiah and Axis: Bold as Love.
The hardest-rocking cut on Emily’s D+Evolution is the album’s lead single “Good Lava,” which combines the dissonant rock of Nirvana’s In Utero period with monster riffs that would make Jimmy Page proud. Layered atop these guitars and drums are multitracked vocal harmonies demonstrating Spalding ability not only as a rocker, but as an arranger, too. This minimalistic trio allows room for Spalding to showcase her wizardry on the bass guitar, too. The counterpoint between her voice and instrument on “Judas” will make any instrumentalist wonder how she can simultaneously deliver her rhythmic, Joni Mitchell- esque sung rap with her slick and serpentine Jaco Pastorius bass-funk. The classic period Mitchell comparison also resonates on “Earth to Heaven” and “Ebony and Ivory” (which is not a cover of the Paul McCartney/ Michael Jackson collab of the same name). For Spalding, songwriting rules the day, and the three virtuoso instrumentalists in her band support the subtle and challenging songs that Spalding has crafted, laying back when they need to but also digging in when called for, as Stevens does with a great guitar solo on “One.”
Ever the poster child of flipping the script, Spalding’s newest release is a haven of cultural intertextuality. “Farewell Dolly,” is a spaced out rethinking of “Hello Dolly” that barely (if at all) references the original. As its title would imply, “Farewell Dolly” is bleak, both sonically and lyrically, with Spalding’s impressionistic lyrics accompanied only by her spaced-out, chorus-laden bass guitar. “Funk the Fear” is a prog-rock odyssey through winding spiritual and social territory, and “I Want it Now” is a bizarro cover of Veruca Salt’s number (the bratty girl who won a Golden Ticket, not the Chicago alt-rock band) from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Spalding and company have truly outdone themselves this time–the only things on this record that smack of the jazz styles that have been the bassist’s calling card is the complex harmonic and melodic languages the band uses. Other than that, Emily’s D+Evolution rocks, allowing the group to explore uncharted musical and conceptual territory.
With few exceptions, the conventional wisdom is that you can usually take or leave live albums. I believe I will choose the “take” option with Mindi Abair’s new release Live in Seattle. If you are thinking to yourself, “I have never heard of Mindi Abair,” odds are you actually have. Or you’ve at least heard her, although you may not know it.
Mindi has played saxophone with some of the biggest names in the music industry, including The Backstreet Boys, Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith, Paul Shaffer, Dave Koz, Richard Elliot and Gerald Albright. She was also going to be the saxophonist on Michael Jackson’s planned tour before his passing—not too shabby for a girl from St. Petersburg, Florida.
Abair grew up in a musical family. Her father Lance Abair is a saxophonist and keyboardist; her grandmother Virginia Rice was an opera singer and piano and voice teacher. She started playing piano at the age of five, and began saxophone at the age of eight. In high school she was a drum major. Mindi received a full scholarship at the University of North Florida but then transferred to Berklee College of Music in Boston and formed her first band.
After graduating from college, Mindi moved to Los Angeles, where she started to play all over town. She played on the street at 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica and gained the attention of jazz keyboardist Bobby Lyle. And the rest, as they say, is history. Seven solo studio releases later, Mindi has decided to try her hand at a live album. Despite the potential for live albums to be off-putting to some listeners, Live in Seattle contains a wealth of enjoyable material.
This fourteen track album is full of great grooves and “rock n’ soul” tunes, a collection of feel-good songs for your soul. Not too many artists can make you feel happy one moment and tug at your heart strings the next. Live in Seattle contains 11 original songs, 2 covers and 3 brand new compositions. The personnel on this release are top notch—two standout musicians are guitarist Randy Jacobs (The Boneshakers’ band leader) and vocalist Sweet Pea Atkinson. One highlight from this set is “Bloom, ”a sax-driven stadium rocker from Abair’s third album Life Less Ordinary, featuring the saxophonist’s playing at its soulful best. “Cold Sweat,” featuring Sweet Pea Atkinson on vocals, is a compelling rendering of the James Brown song, the funk of the original morphed into an uptempo blues shuffle. If this one doesn’t make you want to get up off a that thing to dance, you might be dead.
Mindi had the privilege to co-write one of the new cuts for this album, “Make it Happen,” with the great Booker T. Jones. Keyboardist Rodney Lee does a fine job providing B3 organ in Jones’s stead. The record also includes a hard-rockin’ version of George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” propelled by Abair’s saxophone and Jacobs’s distorted guitar—I’m confident that you have never heard this song performed this way.
Overall the combination of rock, soul, funk, and groove jazz makes Live in Seattle a great effort from Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers. Give it a listen, you won’t be sorry.
shirlette ammons wears many hats (she prefers her name in lowercase): she is a poet, musician, author, and activist. On Language Barrier, ammons’ second album, she also shows her mastery at disrupting musical boundaries.
Language Barrier crosses freely, and frequently, through rock, pop, hip-hop, and folk music, disregarding generic distinctions in favor of an embracing eclecticism. For ammons, this approach to genres is a metaphor for the way humans behave in our everyday lives. She explains, “As a part of the whole Language Barrier concept, I wanted to write an album that explores the ways we love across imposed and implied barriers. In this sense, Language Barrier is an album about love as an act of resistance. I also wanted to approach genre as a ‘barrier’ then break it down.”
Language Barrier feels like a mixtape of ammons’ favorite artists. Following the album’s first track, “Earth (Intro Segue),” she passes the microphone to guest artists—including The Indigo Girls, MeShell Ndegeocello, Sookee, Heather McEntire, and Phil Cook—leaving them to tell the album’s story. ammons even handed over the duty of writing the album’s music to multi-instrumentalist and composer, Daniel Hart.
All of this delegation does not take away from ammons’ goal: by including a large cast of instrumentalists, singers, and producers from a wide-range of genres, she has created a sonic exhibition that makes heads bob, feet shuffle, and, most importantly, reminds us that love has no boundaries.
Label: Sony Legacy / 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks
Formats: CD /DVD, CD/Blu-ray
Release date: February 26, 2016
Though any Michael Jackson fan will have at least one copy of his seminal 1979 album, Off the Wall, this reissue from the Michael Jackson Estate and Sony Legacy is bundled with the new Spike Lee documentary Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall. If you missed the television debut on Showtime, now is your chance to obtain the DVD or Blu-ray edition.
Lee’s documentary was assembling using archival footage, much of it from Jackson’s personal archive, which follows MJ’s start at Motown, his signing with CBS Records, and perhaps most importantly, his collaboration with Quincy Jones which eventually propelled him to superstardom. There are also many interviews with contemporary musicians who speak about Jackson’s profound influence on their careers, such as The Weeknd, Pharrell Williams, John Legend, and Questlove, plus various Jackson family members (though LaToya is conspicuously absent). Many of the musicians who performed with Jackson are also featured, including Siedah Garret, Greg Phillinganes and the late Louis Johnson, plus African American record company executives Paris Eley, Maurice Warfield, Suzanne de Passe, Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, Barry Gordy, Larkin Arnold, and of course Quincy Jones.
Lee offers an in-depth look at each of the tracks on Off the Wall, and one can follow along on the CD and through the newly penned essay by Steven Ivory that speaks to the profound impact of the album on Black America. Other than the liner notes, however, the CD is a straight reissue with no added features.
On a final note, the set is rather clumsily packaged with a piece of chalk that one can use to write on the “specially treated brick wall” on the inside of the gatefold. If you’re not interested in maintaining the integrity of the originally packaging, you might wish to discard the back insert with the chalk so the CD fits easily on the shelf.
Songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist Tomás Doncker has been active in the New York City music scene since the 1980s, having worked with artists from Bootsy Collins to Yoko Ono to Bonnie Raitt. Doncker is an eclectic musician–his multifaceted, self-dubbed “Global Soul” on releases such as 2012’s The Power of the Trinity reveals itself in his incorporation of a variety of musical styles.
Doncker’s implicit socially-conscious stance becomes explicit on his most recent release, The Mess We Made, an album with a cover that proclaims the controversial content therein. The cover features images of police brutality (including names of African Americans who have been killed in high-profile police incidents), protests in Ferguson, Missouri; an image of Trump tower; pictures of African American leaders such as President Obama, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X; and the Confederate flag at the South Carolina statehouse–all under the ghostly specter of a burning sky and a superimposed image of the Ku Klux Klan. (The album’s interior is loaded with similar images, all of which create a rather overwhelming effect when just unpackaging the CD.) The chaotic upheaval featured on the album’s cover finds its place in Doncker’s songs, which deal with topics ranging from legitimate social problems (inequality, the 1% and “Gangsta Police” on “Blood & Concrete”), to hackneyed 21st century targets (social media and smartphones on “The Mess We Made”), to (perhaps deliberately) vague critiques of something–it’s hard to tell quite what–on “The Revolution.” On the latter cut, Doncker accuses revolutionaries of “looking for a corporate sponsorship,” complete with a P-Funk styled sung chant “Take your hoodie off and pull your pants up.” There’s just enough ambiguity mixed in with Doncker’s fiery rhetoric so that the lyrical context does not make it clear whether he is an advocate or critic of the chorus’s mantra. At times, this lack of context makes the lyrics sound like a stirred-up alphabet soup of topical references to current events rather than protest music as such.
While Doncker’s vitriol is powerful, the best moments of social critique on this record find their expression in more nuanced moments than those described above. “Don’t Let Go” is the moving story of a protagonist who can’t find ways to make ends meet because of systemic problems, in the tradition of great poor man ballads that are some of the most powerful expressions of American protest music. His cover of U2’s “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” exploits the song’s ambiguity for far more mileage than the lyric’s vague spirituality warrants; Doncker’s choice of this song for a protest album and his addition of a funky shout chorus declaring that “I just can’t find it” places the song into the powerful position of giving voice to the frustration that the song’s protagonist experiences while searching for the elusive (happiness? justice? Both U2 and Doncker leave the audience to wonder about the ineffable). The upbeat soul of the album’s final cut “Time Will Tell” is coupled with lyrics that present a modicum of hope after some of the darkness upon which Doncker concentrates throughout this record, proposing that it is possible to care for one another and to overcome the adverse conditions that have infiltrated most of the stories he tells.
I have perhaps spent an inordinate amount of time in this review discussing the charged lyrical content on The Mess We Made, but I should write some about the music as well. The arrangements on this album are tasteful. Rather than taking extended guitar solos, Doncker shows a great deal of restraint on his instrument, allowing the arrangements to serve the songs. Much of the music on this record features electronic percussion–what may seem to be a dicey proposition in combination with the other various live instruments, which include Doncker’s guitar and vocals; some solid horn arrangements, and David Barnes’s great harmonica playing. However, in conjunction with producer James Dellatacoma, Doncker has created a soundscape simultaneously drawing from roots music while also maintaining a contemporary flair in the album’s quest to address current social issues. All-in-all, the musicianship on this record is put together far more carefully than the politics; the tasteful arrangements tie together some less-than-successful lyric writing. If we are to believe that The Mess We Made is meant to be deliberately provocative (as it certainly seems to be), then Doncker and company certainly achieve their primary objective, making some pretty good music along the way.
Houston-raised, Brooklyn-based trombonist Matthew Hartnett has quite a resume, having appeared on stage with Lauryn Hill and Talib Kweli, among other luminaries. Raised on church music and Chopped & Screwed, Hartnett is a versatile player and his musical output showcases this versatility. His newest release, Southern Comfort, explores the vast musical territory that captures Hartnett’s interest, including gospel, New Orleans Brass, funk, and hip hop.
The album opens with a heartfelt rendering of the hymn “I Surrender All” and ends with “Da Crib,” a cut obviously influenced by the screwed music scene that Hartnett listened to in Houston while coming of age. Hartnett and company bring a hipness to the instrumental record (which should not be confused for your grandparents’ jazz), quoting hip hop and demonstrating hip sensibilities throughout. On the other hand, cuts like “Thursday Night” (in reference to the universal church rehearsal night in Houston) and “Glory Glory Hallelujah” exemplify the powerful influence that the church has had on Hartnett’s musical development as well. The leader’s versatility is matched by that of his sidemen, Ondrej Pevic (keyboards), Dimitri Gorodetsky (bass), James Lewis (guitar), and Adam Jackson (drums). This crack rhythm section follows its fearless leader into the various musical territories that he explores on this record. He is also joined on “New Sunlight Lake Charles (NSLC)” BY #TEAMHORNSECTION, the brass combo he often performs with in the New York area, which has recently supported Lauryn Hill on several tour dates.
Some of this diversity comes at a cost–with the stylistic melange present on this album, it is difficult to hear how Hartnett conceptualizes one particular style, and therefore difficult to judge the sophistication of his melodic and harmonic ideas at times. A careful listener may ask if he has only one or two things in each of his many bags of tricks; only future albums will sufficiently answer this question. Hartnett’s marching band influences are clear–he does not approach this music academically, but rather with the keen ear of an entertainer, providing more breadth than depth. This is not necessarily a criticism, but is something that fans of instrumental music will want to know before purchasing this album.
Overall, Southern Comfort might be thought of as a mixtape on which Hartnett swirls together his musical influences. It is certainly a worthy effort, but like many mixtapes, its lack of internal cohesiveness may make it a less likely candidate for listeners to pull out for another listen in the distant future.
The recent Blu-Ray release of director Robert Mugge’s 1982 concert documentary film Gil Scott-Heron in Black Wax features the original film plus the accompanying short subject “Is That Jazz?” Both are remastered with high-definition video and audio.
For those not familiar with this film, Mugge utilized the conventions of the concert documentary to great effect for Gil Scott-Heron’s unique blend of music, poetry, and political commentary. The musician-poet leads the camera on a guided tour of Washington, DC, highlighting both the “official” national monuments as well as the “unofficial” ghetto neighborhoods. All the while, Scott-Heron comments on the state of politics during the Reagan administration, performs his street poetry in DC’s black neighborhoods (complete with rapping alongside his own recordings playing on a ghetto blaster, a fascinating touch that implies the artist’s profound influence on hip hop music and culture), and philosophizes about art. This footage is interspersed with concert film of Scott-Heron’s band performing his original music, which ranges stylistically from reggae to funk to jazz and features Scott-Heron both singing and “rapping” his poetry. Unlike many concert documentaries that interrupt the musical performance in order to advance the film’s narrative, Black Wax provides a window into Scott-Heron’s multifaceted art and politics by jumping from concert footage to sections narrated by Scott-Heron himself, reading as a guided tour of the artist’s work and politics.
Gil Scott-Heron in Black Wax is essential viewing for anyone interested in the artist’s unique blend of art and politics and is a masterful music documentary to boot. This remastered Blu-Ray version allows viewers to see and hear the film in high definition, enhancing both the filmmaker’s and the artist’s excellent work.
Lizz Wright’s newest album, Freedom & Surrender, is an eclectic collection of love songs. Pulling from jazz, rock, Americana, and blues, the album is a sexy, sleek, and mystical listening experience, but one grounded in quotidian honesty. It is also an album of firsts: Wright’s debut release on the Concord label and her first collaboration with producer Larry Klein, whose production résumé includes Joni Mitchell, Madeleine Peyroux, and Tracy Chapman.
Originally intended to be an album of cover songs, Freedom & Surrender transitioned into a disc of original music written by Wright, Klein, David Batteau, J.D. Souther, Toshi Reagon, and Maia Sharp. “The New Game”—a catchy blues-rock tune co-written by Wright, Klein, and Batteau—demonstrates how productive the singer’s collaborative penchant can be. Another highlight is the dance track “Lean In”:
Despite the numerous collaborations, Wright’s deep, sensuous voice remains the centerpiece of the album. The singer is immensely talented and sounds wise beyond her thirty-five years. Wright has been celebrated within the jazz industry since the early 2000s, achieving a rare combination of critical and commercial acclaim. Freedom & Surrender builds on this admirable body of work, resulting in Wright’s most accomplished release-to-date.
2015 saw a new EP from hard-rockers Straight Line Stitch. The seasoned group has been fronted by Indianapolis native Alexa Brown since 2003, and has come into its own in a way that few female-fronted bands have been able to in a genre that is typically thought of as male-centered. On Transparency, Brown delivers the typically-cryptic and vaguely-apocalyptic lyrics that characterize this style of hard rock, alternating between “cleans” and screamed vocals on lines like “I lost my way in your retribution/but give me absolution” from “Human Bondage.”
It is a marvel that Brown is able to achieve the pristine vocal sounds that she does on this record after 12 years of screaming on stage, but indeed, her voice is as good as ever. Brown’s vocals are complimented by band mates Darren McClelland (bass) and Jason White (guitar) playing riffs that—while not necessarily instant classics—certainly compliment the lyrical and emotional territory the band explores. The rotating drummer’s chair is filled with lots of bright cymbal crashes and extensive double-bass work. This is not a shred metal band or pop-oriented hard rock group, and those looking for virtuosity or rock-radio hits should probably look elsewhere. With that said, Straight Line Stitch has a well-conceived and well-defined sound and Transparency is a tight package of arrangements that serve the group’s songs well.
Another December brings another batch of holiday releases from artists across a variety of genres. While there is typically much overlap between the repertoire, with myriad renditions of classics like “Jingle Bells” and the “Little Drummer Boy” being staples of the holiday season, this year’s crop features some compelling new arrangements of classics as well as more conventional approaches to standards. While these new releases are heavily weighted towards jazz, there are also some notable new offerings in soul and blues as well as a re-release of a holiday classic. Here are some of this year’s highlights.
Jazz trumpeter Etienne Charles has released a new disc of Christmas music so engaging that listeners may forget they are listening to a holiday album. Creole Christmas’s musical gumbo is flavored by a variety of sounds, leaning heavily on Caribbean and trad jazz.
Holiday albums tend to have a mixture of traditional perennial favorites mixed with original compositions by artists attempting to make a contribution to the seasonal repertoire. Charles models this approach, but also includes less well-known songs by composers other than himself or members of his band. The traditional Christmas tunes on this album indicate that Charles has no preconceived notions about what a “proper” rendition of a standard should sound like, as he freely mixes and matches songs and styles. A highlight is Charles’s duo version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” with guitarist Randy Napoleon. Napoleon stylishly comps while Charles plays loosely around the melody with enough style and sincerity to convince any Grinch of the song’s value. The chart for “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” is what every member of every jazz combo taking a holiday gig this year actually wants to play: the song’s funk and bop tinged arrangement gives the excellent soloists in this band time to stretch out while the in-the-pocket rhythm section–featuring Kris Bowers (Piano), Alex Wintz (guitar), David Williams (bass), and Obed Calvaire (drums)–keeps the momentum going. Charles even successfully reimagines Tchaikovsky, including fresh renditions of the Russian Romantic composer’s “Spanish Dance” and “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” which transcend the monotony of the season’s obligatory Nutcracker performances.
There are numerous guest artists on this album as well, with songs featuring vocalists Realtor, David Rudder, and Mykal Kilgore as well as in-demand bassist Ben Williams playing on five cuts. Each of these guest’s contributions are remarkable–Rudder delivers the story song song “Tell Santa Claus” (about a lonely boy who wants an instrument to keep him company for Christmas) with pathos, providing a bittersweet contrast with the song’s upbeat Caribbean groove. Kilgore convincingly sings an understated version of the oft-recorded Donny Hathaway song “This Christmas” in dialogue with the excellent horn chart that sets Charles up for perhaps his most melodic improvisation on the album. On this track, the band gives what is perhaps the most soulful of all Christmas standards its due with exciting and unexpected full-band modulations during the repeated vamp.
The less well-known numbers are also compelling. Featuring Realtor on vocals, the steel pan-infused “Make a Friend for Christmas” presents a fun take on how to spend the holidays even if not flush with cash. There are other tracks that may be unfamiliar to American audiences, such as the Trinidadian “Indian Parang Chick” and a reading of “Juliana,” composed by Lionel Belasco.
Pairing dyed-in-the wool staples of Christmas radio repertoire with compelling readings of less familiar holiday fare, Etienne Charles and company have crafted what is likely the most stylistically diverse album of this holiday season. The band’s compelling arrangements and playing make the ebullient Creole Christmas the perfect way to get into the spirit. It would be wise to pick this one up early in the season, because nothing goes together quite as well as dancing and decorating.
This is the first full-length Christmas release from the Count Basie Orchestra in the band’s 80 year history, despite the fact that Basie-flavored big band jazz is a key part of Christmas music (as this “most wonderful time of the year” also is the only 45-60 days annually in which jazz is heard on commercial radio). Even though this is technically the band’s first holiday release as such, it should be noted that a previous incarnation of the ghost band appeared on a 2008 collaboration with Tony Bennett, A Swingin’ Christmas.
The interpretations featured on this release won’t be a surprise to either jazz fans or those familiar with the standard holiday repertoire, as the album features the usual musical suspects: “Jingle Bells,” “The Christmas Song,” and, of course, a version of “The Little Drummer Boy” that prominently features drummer Clayton Cameron. There are several guest vocalists, including Carmen Bradford, Ledisi, and even Mr. Christmas himself, Johnny Mathis.
As a good ghost band should, this group has perfected the Basie band’s signature sound under the leadership of trumpeter Scotty Barnhart. The band even enlisted go-to Basie arranger Sammy Nestico on what are arguably the two best renditions found on this disc, “Jingle Bells,” and “Winter Wonderland.” The rhythm section nails the classic sound, with guitarist Will Matthews convincingly playing the famous Freddie Green chunks while dual-pianists Llew Matthew’s minimalistic solos and Ellis Marsalis’s “plunk, plunk, plunks” round out the detailed study of Basie’s own playing. Naturally, the featured soloists stand in long shadows—while it is impossible to live up to the inimitable standards Basie’s most famous soloist, Lester Young, tenor man Doug Lawrence valiantly fills the chair, even if his sound is a bit more slickly-polished and bop-inflected than that of Prez.
While this release sets no new standards for performing holiday classics, the arrangements on A Very Swingin’ Basie Christmas feel and sound good enough for multiple listens. This toe-tapping record trades in what holiday albums often do: familiar-sounding arrangements of tunes we all know by heart.
The new holiday release from Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis is the center’s in-house record label Blue Engine’s first release on vinyl (which, by the way would make excellent stuffing for a very large stocking). Big Band Holidays is a great compliment to more traditional big band holiday albums, and features the world famous Lincoln Center gang serving up fresh renditions of standard seasonal favorites alongside some less well-known fare. Culled from recordings from over a decade of live performances from the band’s seasonal concerts, it is no wonder that this compelling set features some arrangements and performances that are gems.
Highlights include a hard-driving reading of “Jingle Bells,” led by Dan Nimmer’s formidable boogie-woogie piano chops, and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a standard re-imagined with new lyrics sung by Cécile McLorin Salvant and a hard-swinging guitar solo by James Chirillo. Listeners may expect a bit more than what Marsalis and company deliver on the Louis Armstrong classic “Zat You, Santa Claus,” given the bandleader’s penchant for wailing on New Orleans-inspired tunes. However, this (slight) misstep is largely made up for by the band’s inclusion of less well-known fare such as “A Cradle in Bethlehem,” the Sammy Cahn-penned “It’s Easy to Blame the Weather,” and an easy-swinging rendition of the Basie classic “Good Morning Blues” (which, thankfully, Lincoln Center recorded, righting a woeful omission on this year’s holiday release by the Basie ghost band).
Check out the band playing “We Three Kings”:
Jazz musicians often use food metaphors to talk about music-making; on Big Band Holidays, Marsalis and company take the stale leftovers of the traditional holiday repertoire and cook up fresh new dishes seasoned by their reinterpretations. This artfully crafted dish makes the boring weeknight menu of holiday tunes more palatable to picky jazz audiences.
Longtime fans of Daptone records neo-classic soul sound will likely remember the release of Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings’ socially-conscious 2010 single “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects,” a smart Christmas song that avoids the sweeping utopia-evoking platitudes that often spoil holiday songs with a message. Fans who copped the single have likely been waiting for a fully-fleshed out holiday release from one of the hardest-working soul bands in the business. Jones and company’s It’s a Holiday Soul Party is one of the season’s funkiest and freshest holiday albums, a long-awaited and eagerly anticipated release that does what the band does best—hearkens to the days of classic soul.
“Ain’t No Chimneys” is, of course, included on this release along with several other original holiday tunes—the album’s lead cut, “8 Days of Hanukkah,” is perhaps the funkiest song ever written about the celebration, complete with James Brown style additive hits as the song progresses through eight verses. “Big Bulbs” (previously released on a 7” single with “Just Another Christmas Song” in 2014) is a catchy exercise in winking soul minimalism with jingle bells, energetic rhythm guitar, David Guy’s soulful trumpet and Jones’s lyrics that are somehow simultaneously vivid and oblique, propelling the song’s forward momentum. Of course, no holiday release would be complete without the obligatory sentimental “peace on Earth” style ballad, and “World of Love” is the group’s contribution to this idiom.
As listeners may expect, the group also includes several numbers from the standard seasonal repertoire, with interesting renditions of classic fare—“Funky Little Drummer Boy” is aptly titled, and “Silver Bells” (a personal all-time favorite Christmas tune) merges a gospel intro with an Albert King on Stax feel throughout the rest of the song. “God Rest Ye Merry” showcases the Dap Kings’ humor and chops on the all-instrumental number that incorporates playful quotes from other sources, like “Hall of the Mountain King” and “Jingle Bells,” in a track that turns the carol into a vehicle for some delicious improvisation. It is a shame that this cut isn’t longer as the band could probably keep this groove perpetually interesting.
In a field that is always crowded with established artists seeking to make a few extra bucks, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings have released one of the best and most original holiday albums in recent years, a carefully-crafted album that doesn’t feel like a cash grab. It’s a Holiday Soul Party is the LP that you should play (on 180 gram audiophile vinyl, of course) to bolster your street cred when your slightly-more fashionable/slightly-younger cousin visits this December. This release makes the holiday record hip again, and is perhaps the coolest holiday soul release since The Jackson 5 Christmas Album.
New Orleans blues guitarist, singer, and harmonica player Kenny Neal’s new holiday release, I’ll be Home for Christmas, is a family affair, appropriate given the album’s title and the season. This release features several members of the Neal clan, including brothers Darnell and Frederick on bass and keys as well as Kenny’s daughter Syreeta singing on several tracks. The band plays New Orleans-inflected blues comfortably, as though they’ve been doing it all their lives (which in all likelihood, they probably have).
The band’s modus operandi is “take a traditional Christmas song, make it bluesy, rinse and repeat.” The title ballad is reworked as a blues song, providing ample opportunity for Kenny’s harp playing to shine through, and the Christmas blues standards are included, including a rendition of Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home for Christmas” and two—count ‘em—two recordings of “Merry Christmas Baby,” one rollicking and upbeat, the other at a slow “Stormy Monday” tempo, both featuring Kenny’s guitar chops. The band even plays “Silent Night” as a shuffle and uses the “All Blues” bassline on “Silver Bells.” The album’s more traditional moments occur on songs that feature Syreeta and pianist Joel Joseph, as “Merry Little Christmas” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” are not nearly as overt products of the blues tradition as much of the rest of this material, other than including a few stylized vocal inflections and reharmonizations.
While this release won’t give listeners a reason to listen to especially carefully, the upbeat renditions of familiar songs balanced with nice ballads would certainly be a great soundtrack for finishing up that last minute shopping. These tunes are certainly played more competently and stylishly by this band than by the flavor-of-the-week pop stars who will inevitably push similarly familiar collections of songs this season.
In a year with other notable big band holiday releases, it is important to mention the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra’s Joyful Jazz. While this band doesn’t carry the same cultural cachet as the Count Basie or Lincoln Center bands, the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra has released a solid offering to complement other Christmas jazz offerings. The repertoire is drawn primarily from standard Christmas fare, with a few less familiar offerings peppered in for variety. A highlight is “Merry Christmas John Coltrane,” a wonderful take on “Deck the Halls” set to Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” chord changes, featuring some monster solos by the band on the difficult form. “Carol of the Bells” includes both some compelling ensemble playing as well as improvisation on the classic carol, and guest vocalist Freddy Cole swings on “Jingles, the Christmas Cat.” The album is rounded out with a funky interpretation of “Joy to the World.” The band contains excellent musicians and has some interesting arrangements that spice up the otherwise familiar material. While the fare on this record is nothing revolutionary, Joyful Jazz features some compelling solos and great ensemble playing, and will certainly get listeners into the holiday spirit.
Sons of Serendip is perhaps best known for the how the group got its big break, placing fourth on season nine of America’s Got Talent. Featuring instrumentation that resembles a chamber group—cello, piano, harp, and vocals—this ensemble is difficult to categorize into a particular genre. Their blend of classical, R&B, and easy listening influences may best be described as pretty. Naturally, riding their wave of fame and the gorgeous light classical arrangements they became known for on TV, a Christmas album seems a logical choice to capitalize on their sonorous style a la Josh Groban. This holiday release allows the group to put their signature stamp on a variety of familiar material—“O Holy Night,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Christmas Song,” and others in the same vein.
Sentimental holiday songs allow the group to use its dramatic flourishes in a medium which doesn’t run the risk of being labeled “cheesy”—after all, these songs are all about nostalgia and warm emotions to begin with, so tinkling piano and impassioned cello don’t run the risk of making them sound unduly saccharine. That being said, there aren’t many upbeat numbers on this record save the group’s Latin-tinged reading of “This Christmas.” Listeners looking for energetic fare to spice up their holiday parties may wish to look elsewhere, but those looking for a soundtrack to the season’s more tender moments should check out Christmas: Beyond the Lights.
Long a staple of Grandma’s Christmas Eve dinner as important as the turkey and apple pie, string-driven versions of holiday tunes are perhaps the most valuable currency in which Muzak and easy listening satellite radio channels trade. While the general consensus among listeners who use music as anything other than unobtrusive background accompaniment is that this genre is schmaltzy at best, this reissue of The Soulful Strings’ The Magic of Christmas muddies the waters a bit.
Essentially the Cadet records house band (Cadet was Chess’s jazz subsidiary in the mid-1960s), The Soulful Strings was a group of accomplished studio cats who realized that it would be easy enough to produce and sell instrumental versions of pop recordings, and they released a total of 7 LPs following this model. What set The Soulful Strings apart from other string-pop easy listening groups of their day was that the tracks they laid down were a bit funkier than those of their “sweet” counterparts. This is largely due to the tight grooves provided by their rhythm section, featuring Phil Upchurch (guitar), Charles Stepney (organ and vibes), Cleveland Eaton (bass and cello), and Morris Jennings (drums).
“The Little Drummer Boy” grooves polyrhythmically, reminding us that it once wasn’t a cliche to make the song a drum feature. The band digs into the groove on “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” with a funky bassline and hits that give the children’s song new life, mostly because of Cleveland Eaton’s supremely funky pizzicato cello solo (with his voice picked up scatting on the mic). The musicians’ hip playing continues throughout the release—Phil Upchurch’s guitar solo on “Jingle Bells” is a study in tension and release, somehow making the winter standard worthy of more serious consideration than it should warrant by any means.
Naturally, a reissue of this kind necessitates a certain amount of nostalgia on the part of listeners for them to truly dig what is happening—after all, the studio orchestra has a very particular time stamp on it for most contemporary listeners. This is not necessarily a bad thing; the holidays are the ideal time to walk down memory lane, as adults recall being children and Bing Crosby once again dominates the airwaves. The Magic of Christmas offers a compliment to the nostalgia for Christmas past while some of the fab arrangements on this album may convince listeners to swap their tacky sweater and eggnog for a skinny tie and dirty martini.
Legendary blues musician Bobby Rush recently celebrated his 82nd birthday, and his longevity in the industry is now celebrated in this compilation from Omnivore, covering 50 years of his recording career. Though born in Mississippi, Rush is closely associated the Chicago blues scene, where he relocated in the 1950s and performed with the likes of Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, and Howlin’ Wolf. This nicely packaged box set, titled after Rush’s most famous song, begins in 1964 with his early solo recordings and concludes nearly 100 tracks later with songs from his 2004 album FolkFunk, featuring guitarist Alvin Youngblood Hart.
Rush reinvented himself over the years, remaining relevant to younger generations through collabs with rock, soul, funk and rap artists. In the last decade he’s continued to release albums on a nearly annual basis, while earning a slew of awards and Grammy nominations. Chicken Heads serves as a fine tribute to the versatility of the “Dean of the Blues,” with remastering and audio restoration by Michael Graves, and a 32-page, full-color booklet with liner notes by Bill Dahl.
Over the past year we’ve covered some significant reissues from Arthur Lee & Love, the groundbreaking integrated rock band formed in Los Angeles in 1965 (see our reviews of Black Beauty and the band’s final album, Reel-to-Real). Now Rockbeat Records has assembled a 4-CD box set featuring 61 tracks recorded live over three decades, featuring Love as well as Arthur Lee performing with various backing bands, including several tracks recorded just prior to his death in 2006. We don’t have our hands on a copy of this nicely packaged compilation yet, but it will certainly be added to our collection. However, if you’re not a hardcore fan, we suggest you explore the studio albums first, beginning with Love’s groundbreaking third album from 1967, Forever Changes.
Formats: 11-LP Box set (standard or collector’s edition)
Release date: September 25th, 2015
One of the most handsomely packaged box sets this season is Bob Marley & The Wailers’ The Complete Island Recordings, released in celebration of Marley’s 70th birthday. Included are the nine studio albums recorded for Island plus two live releases (Live and Babylon By Bus). The numbered “collector’s edition,” which will set you back $650, features eleven 180g vinyl discs packaged in a velvet lined silver metal “zippo lighter” case, with bonus slipmat, photographs, and download code voucher. Since there’s no accompanying book, it’s difficult to justify the high price of the collector’s edition, so if your pockets aren’t quite so deep you might wish to consider the more moderately priced ($235) standard edition. Or wait until the albums are reissued individually (apparently in September 2016).
Doug Hream Blunt first picked up a guitar at age thirty-five, after attending a class in the 1980s called “How to Form a Band.” By music industry standards, he was quite late to the game. Yet, since his first album My Name is Doug Hream Blunt has just been being released almost thirty years after its songs were recorded, we can see that Blunt’s music is characteristically late-to-be-found.
My Name is Doug Hream Blunt is one of a number of “re-discovered” recordings released on Luaka Bop—a record label dedicated to relatively little-known music from all parts of the globe. Blunt has a cult-like influence on artists such as Ariel Pink—a lo-fi LA pop musician—and the London duo Hype Williams, but has remained largely out of the public eye; save for the occasional appearance on San Francisco’s public television station or performing in retirement homes in the Bay Area.
The album is, at once, highly-genuine and unsettlingly-ambiguous, leaving the listener in between a creeped-out confusion and a light-hearted listening experience. Blunt, too, is difficult to locate. While the guitarist, singer, and songwriter can be considered an “outsider” for his idiosyncrasy, his enthusiastic lyrics and bouncy vocals make one want to bring him in for a good, clean game of cards. Each of the album’s ten tracks have a jammy-feel to them, often oscillating between two minor chords and stiff grooves of drums, bass, flute, and xylophone. The band on My Name is Doug Hream Blunt was made up of the students and teachers in the class on “How to Form a Band.” Blunt’s guitar-playing sounds like what you might hear from a beginning student at Guitar Center, but is quite at home in this sonic context and with these musicians.
My Name is Doug Hream Blunt is like a gag gift one might receive over the holidays. Its novelty will initially fascinate, yet it will inevitably be tossed away. I have yet to be persuaded, gently or otherwise, by Blunt’s release, but know that some will find the album deliciously obscure.
Son Little comes to his first full-length album on Anti- with an already impressive resume. The Los Angeles native who has worked in New York City and Philadelphia has already produced an EP for Mavis Staples, toured with Mumford and Sons, played Bonnaroo, and collaborated with the likes of The Roots and RJD2. Son Little is as eclectic as the artist’s curriculum vitae would suggest, drawing from the broad repertoire of American popular and folk music in order to create a truly original collection of songs.
The album borrows heavily from what may be broadly (very broadly) considered Americana music, with “The River” calling a gospel shout to mind, while the album’s opener “I’m Gone” sounds like a bluegrass vocal group on top of a minimalist marimba piece, with punctuation by Jimmy Page-style reverse-echo guitar cutting in periodically, which would be the perfect dramatic effect for a self-aware horror flick. “Carbon” has verses that sound like a gritty Jack White blues stomp (complete with Octavia layered guitars) with an acoustically-driven chorus that could have come from a Wilco album. These stylistic mish-mashes should sound bizarre; however, Little incorporates his variety of influences into an amazingly coherent package–even though the album relies on contrasting musical materials, it is the way that Little treats these elements that makes the album sound cohesive rather than simply evoking a cut-and-paste collage.
The album’s lead single, “Lay Down,” takes its model from 50s vocal pop, with reverb-saturated group vocals, minimalist drums, an old old school rotary organ, and magnificently twangy electric guitar. This song is remarkable for taking these classic sounds and presenting them in ways that neither feel dated nor forced. The work that Little does with vintage styles is not nostalgic, but is rather aggressively post-modern–drum machines, synthesized bloops and bleeps and pitch shifting permeate this LP and Little’s most interesting cuts depend upon the cognitive dissonance that listeners may experience when hearing them.
The themes on Son Little are as personal as the means by which the artist conveys them. “Lay Down” is probably most intimate song of the year, is possibly the best love song of 2015, and should be at the top of every wedding DJ’s playlist. “O Mother” is a painful meditation on feeling out of place in a world that demands that people compromise their individuality, and “Loser Blues” takes the traditional AAB blues form and fills it with contemporary anxiety: “There’s so much blues, so little time/and I’m losing mine/This is not a game.” These lyrics are delivered with heartfelt sincerity–it would be tempting to call Son Little a thinking person’s Bruno Mars or a roots-rock Frank Ocean, but neither of these labels would do the originality and fire of Little’s delivery justice.
Local readers will be pleased to know that, as part of the album’s promotional tour, Son Little will be appearing at The Bishop in Bloomington, IN on Friday, November 6–this show will be well worth attending if for no other reason than to see how Little’s eclectic aesthetic transfers to a live setting. Son Little is a tremendous effort from an artist who pushes the limits of each of the many genres he touches on this diverse LP.
This month’s reissue of the psychedelic rock band Love’s final album marks the first time that Reel-to-Real has appeared on CD. The repackaging of the group’s least well-received album by both fans and critics of its day includes plenty of additional materials which serve to contextualize the album in terms of both the reception that it received upon its original release as well as how it has held up much better to the passing of time. Included in the bonus goodies that High Moon Records has included in this package are a 32-page CD booklet with an extensive essay written by Rolling Stone critic David Fricke and many interesting photos of leader Arthur Lee and his bandmates. This release also features 12 bonus tracks that did not appear on the original album, including outtakes, alternate takes, and rehearsal versions of songs from the album.
The first thing that those who are familiar with Love’s earlier work, particularly the band’s most widely acclaimed release, Forever Changes, will notice about Reel-to-Reel is the band’s movement away from the psychedelia that characterized its signature sound in the mid-1960s. Originally released in 1974, Reel-to-Real pulls more heavily from soul and early funk music than it does from the psychedelic sounds of the San Francisco scene of the 60s. “Time is Like a River” could easily have been taken from a Family Stone Release from a few years earlier, reminiscent of cuts like “Everyday People,” with its mellowed-out vocals serving as a contrast to the funky horn section that permeates the track. “Stop the Music,” by contrast, could easily be an Otis Redding song, with its 6/8 soul groove and John Sterling’s slide guitar, feeling like a marriage between Memphis and Muscle Shoals. Another highlight of the beautifully-remastered original album is “Be Thankful for What You Got,” a track that feels like a slinky Superfly-era Curtis Mayfield cut. This album boldly redefined Love’s sound, placing the group in the company of the funkiest groups of the day, and thereby alienating fans of the band’s acoustic-oriented psychedelia.
Some of the most striking cuts featured on this new release are arguably to be found in the album’s bonus tracks. “Do It Yourself” is gritty soul, with fiery guitar punctuation throughout the laser-precise horn hits that are all over the track. “Graveyard Hop” sounds like a bizarro Elvis record (the song is based on “Jailhouse Rock”), with guitar played by a psycho Scotty Moore–it is truly unmatched in the proto-punk energy and gallows humor and featuring Lee howling like the Wolfman himself. The electric version of “Everybody’s Gotta Live” (a version with group vocals and acoustic guitar is a highlight of the original release) is particularly interesting, as the band finds a more funky and polytextural groove than the chunking guitar chords and homophonic choral singing of the acoustic version from the original release of Reel-to-Real may otherwise suggest. A track that demonstrates how far ahead of its time this band was is the studio rehearsal track “Wonder People,” which would not sound out of place on a Weezer album from the late 1990s–it is truly a shame that this song was never cleaned up and turned into an “official” album cut.
The deluxe edition of this album will have appeal to more listeners than just those who dig less well-known music because of its obscurity. Rather, in many ways this album documents a band in a state of flux, staying ahead of the pop music game–perhaps too far ahead for its own good. It is a shame that Reel-to-Real wasn’t more appreciated by the listening public upon its original release. Hopefully this reissue will serve to rectify that.
As a native of the Pacific Northwest, I was pleased to recently discover acoustic roots musician Ethan Tucker, whose music encompasses folk, rock, reggae and blues. Over the last few years, this young singer-songwriter and guitarist from Olympia, Washington has been making a name for himself as a soloist while also touring with such legendary musicians as Jimmy Cliff, the Wailers, and Buddy Guy. He also frequently performs with Michael Franti, Slightly Stoopid, and G-Love, who all provide support on Tucker’s latest release, Misunderstood. The album was produced and mixed by Mario Caldato Jr. (G Love), includes tracks produced by Michael Franti, and was released on Slightly Stoopid’s label.
Opening on a light note, “Cool Kids” is a reggae-pop song co-written with Michael Franti, who performs percussion and back-up vocals along with Spearhead members Carl Young and J. Bowman on keys, and David Ralicke on horns. Franti also co-wrote and performs on the album’s first single, “Crazy Tonight”—a more introspective, acoustic alt-rock song featuring Tucker and Franti on vocals.
Continuing in the same style and theme, “Crazy” is a perfect fit for Tucker’s raspy vocals, while the introduction of an organ provides added depth and variety.
Though Tucker was born well after the peak of grunge music, his darkly brooding rock song “Never Be” calls forth the era with dueling, distorted guitars and serves as a fitting tribute to his Seattle-area roots. The angst continues on “Tease Me,” another alt-rock relationship song that’s one of the stand out tracks. Tucker switches to a reggae vibe with an underlying bossa rhythm for the title track “Misunderstood.” One of the most personal songs on the album, “Misunderstood” references his experiences with relationships as well as people’s expectations and desire to pigeonhole his music into a specific genre. Tucker then segues into “This Has All Been a Dream,” a heartfelt ballad with an ethereal cello accompaniment. The album closes with a cover of the Jimi Hendrix ballad, “Little Wing,” which is reimagined in a reggae version featuring Norwood Fisher (Fishbone) on bass and Thomas Pridgeon (Mars Volta) on drums.
On Misunderstood, Ethan Tucker showcases the full range of his musical abilities, presenting original and engaging youth-oriented songs that draw from multiple genres, proving that he is a young artist to watch.