Title: Inside Out
Artist: Bernard Fowler
Label: Rhyme and Reason
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: April 19, 2019
Bernard Fowler has had an impressive career for being someone whose name flies under the radar of the average mainstream listener. He has recorded with composers such as Philip Glass, jazz legend Herbie Hancock, and rock icon Alice Cooper. Inside Out, Fowler’s newest release, presents a unique interpretation of the music of the Rolling Stones that will sound fresh and new to even the most seasoned Rolling Stones fan. As a performer, Fowler has worked as a backup singer and percussionist for the Rolling Stones both live and in the studio since 1988, so he is very familiar with the band’s style. Yet these tracks are more than just arrangements of Rolling Stones songs that he has performed—they are new musical compositions on top of which Fowler interprets the lyrics in a spoken-word format in the style of Last Poets and Gil Scot-Heron. Continue reading →
Title: Don’t Tread On We
Artist: The 1865
Label: Mass Appeal
Formats: Vinyl, Digital
Release Date: January 25, 2019
On April 9th, 1865 the United States Civil War came to an end. Now, over 150 years later, these events have inspired an all-black punk rock band known as The 1865. Describing themselves as “Bad Brains meets Foo Fighters in a black woman’s hair salon for a cup of tea,” the Brooklyn-based band is in a class all their own. With the release of their debut album, Don’t Tread on We, The 1865 explore life in America following the Civil War—a land living in the shadows of the fallen Confederacy.Continue reading →
Artist: Moonlight Benjamin
Label: Ma Case
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: November 30, 2018
For the past twelve years, Moonlight Benjamin has been successfully carving out a space for herself within the music world as the priestess of voodoo blues rock and roll. Her fourth album, Siltane, has only secured her claim to this title. The latest project features Benjamin on lead vocals, Matthis Pascaud on bass and guitar, Marck-Richard Mirand on bass, Clude Saturne on percussion, and Bertrand Noël on drums. Together, they create a soundscape that is suggestive of “an Afro-energized Black Keys meets Dr. John.”Continue reading →
Title: The Bookends
Artist: Eric Gales
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: February 8, 2019
Virtuoso blues-rock guitarist Eric Gales may not be a household name, but he’s been described by his peers as one of the best guitar players in the world. A former child prodigy, Gales was signed to a record label at the age of 16 and has since recorded 15 solo albums. Along the way he’s recorded with many other artists, and also performs alongside bassist Dug Pinnick (King’s X) and drummer Thomas Pridgen (Mars Volta) in the formidable black rock power trio Pinnick Gales Pridgen. Gales’ new release, The Bookends, may be his greatest accomplishment to date. While blues and rock may represent the bookends, the project also embodies “everything in between” from pop, jazz, and funk to gospel.Continue reading →
Perhaps demonstrating, emphatically, that rock music is long in the teeth, 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of several historic albums. At the top of the list is Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, a muddy, blues-infused psychedelic mashup originally released on 2 vinyl platters. Sony’s Legacy label celebrates the half-century with a deluxe 3-CD/1-BluRay set also released in a 6-LP/1-BluRay edition.Continue reading →
Title: Broken Politics
Artist: Neneh Cherry
Label: Smalltown Supersound
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release Date: October 19, 2018
It’s hard to believe it was thirty years ago that Neneh Cherry burst onto the scene with the international hit single “Buffalo Stance” from her debut album, Raw Like Sushi, (1988). Garnering lots of MTV and BET love, Cherry was perhaps on her way to becoming huge, but as the ‘90s rolled in, Cherry did an exit stage left. After releasing Homebrew (1992) and Man (1996), she went UG—as in underground. Cherry’s whereabouts became a topic of interest for her fans. It takes a great deal of confidence and know-thy-self to just up and walk away from the commercial trappings of the game. But Cherry comes across as one who was never impressed by that.Continue reading →
Title: Negro Swan
Artist: Blood Orange
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: August 24, 2018
Negro Swan, British singer-songwriter Devonté Hynes’ fourth studio album under the moniker Blood Orange, follows Hynes’ stream of consciousness as he explores blackness, gender and sexuality, mental illness, and queerness. In a press release for Domino Records, Hynes said his newest album “is an exploration into my own and many types of black depression, an honest look at the corners of black existence, and the ongoing anxieties of queer/people of color. A reach back into childhood and modern traumas, and the things we do to get through it all.”Continue reading →
Title: Piano & A Microphone 1983
Label: NPG/Rhino/Warner Bros.
Release Date: September 21, 2018
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
In what is among the first of presumably many collections of previously unreleased material discovered in Prince’s vault after his death, Piano & a Microphone 1983 contains 34 minutes of demos and rehearsals he recorded in the early 1980s. Following on the heels of April’s release of Prince’s stirring original recording of “Nothing Compares 2 U” and the digital-only Anthology: 1995-2010 of previously released material released in August, Piano & a Microphone 1983 is a set of what sounds like single-take live demos, complete with mixing chatter, improvisations, and vocalized arrangement details. While it is certainly not a set of polished recordings, this compilation is a snapshot of one of the 20th century’s greatest artists in the midst of the creative process. Continue reading →
Artist: Lonnie Holley
Formats: CD, LP, Cassette, Digital
Release date: September 21, 2018
MITH represents visual artist Lonnie Holley’s third recorded album, following his debut Just Before Music (2012) and Keeping a Record of It (2013). Similar to his other releases, MITH challenges the notion of boundaries. As Matt Arnett writes in his liner notes essay, Holley’s music often defies “easy, and sometimes even not-so-easy, characterization and classification.” Holley himself writes the following about issues of classifying his work through typical musical genre systems: “All those terms they’ve called me—outsider, folk, visionary, self-taught—they’ve clung to me like an ill-fitted suit.” Continue reading →
Title: Exit 16
Artist: Roosevelt Collier
Label: Ground Up
Formats: LP, Digital
Release date: March 9, 2018
Roosevelt “The Dr.” Collier, who currently performs as a member of the Snarky Puppy spin-off band Bokanté, released his solo debut album Exit 16 earlier this year. Raised in the House of God Church in Perrine, Florida, Collier represents the younger generation of “sacred steel” guitarists. A master on both pedal and lap steel guitars, he also performs with his uncles and cousins as the Lee Boys, one of the foremost sacred steel ensembles., and in his spare time graces the stage with the likes of the Allman Brothers and Los Lobos. Continue reading →
Original Human Music is the full-length debut album by Ultraphonix, a supergroup consisting of vocalist Corey Glover (Living Colour), guitarist George Lynch (Dokken), bassist Pancho Tomaselli (War), and drummer Chris Moore (Endangered Species). While its members all come from different bands, nothing about this album points to a group that was arbitrarily assembled. Having worked for years with guitar virtuoso Vernon Reid, Corey Glover seems at home working with guitar legend George Lynch. Continue reading →
Jean Beauvoir is a legend in the world of black rock and Afro-punk artists. Born in Chicago to Haitian-American parents, he started his musical career in a fairly typical manner, learning drums and bass as a kid, and honing his vocals singing doo-wop. But his career took a dramatic left turn when he moved to New York during the punk rock explosion and crossed paths with Rod Swenson and Wendy O. Williams.Continue reading →
Sean Ardoin may come from a long line of accordion-playing Creole musicians (including Amédé Ardoin and Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin), but he certainly isn’t one to be put in a box when it comes to his music. Ardoin’s newest album, Kreole Rock and Soul, is named after the genre that he created in an attempt to revamp the music of his ancestors. While the album pays tribute to Ardoin’s Creole roots, it also incorporates the styles of contemporary pop and classic rock.Continue reading →
Spike Lee’s new film, BlacKkKlansman, is set to open on August 10th. Winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prix, the work has already received positive reviews. Composer and jazz musician Terence Blanchard’s soundtrack for the film has yet to be released, but his previous film compositions can give an idea of what the score might sound like.
Released in late 2017, Terence Blanchard: Music for Film spans his film work from the 1992 Malcolm X to 2015’s Chi-Raq, performed here by the Brussels Philharmonic under the direction of Dirk Brossé as part of the Film Fest Gent’s series of film composer spotlights. Like the upcoming BlacKkKlansman, many of Blanchard’s works presented on this album, including music from Malcolm X, 25th Hour, and When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, have been in collaboration with director Spike Lee. The collaboration has proven fruitful for Blanchard, who has said that Lee always encourages him to write music that could be successful on its own.
Though each film presented has its own unique sound, the tracks are connected by a strong presence of trumpet, calling back to Blanchard’s own career as a jazz trumpeter. Many also make use of jazz idioms, most notably the two tracks from When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006). Although he calls New Orleans home and this film is a documentary describing the destruction and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Blanchard intentionally stays away from traditional New Orleans jazz. Instead, he explains that he wanted to create a more universal sound to appeal to a wider audience and the musical themes he created do just that, blending jazz with incredibly emotive melodies depicting the tragedy and despair of the city’s residents. The “Levees” track is particularly successful, combining a soulful trumpet line with descending, dissonant string patterns.
Another film directed by Spike Lee, 25th Hour, received much critical acclaim; Blanchard’s score was nominated for several awards, including the 2003 World Soundtrack Award and Golden Globes. Telling the story of a drug dealer’s last 24 hours of freedom before he is sent to jail, the music is haunting and memorable. Heavier on strings, particularly solo cello, than many of his other films, it features twisting musical themes above persistent ostinato patterns. Still, it is not without Blanchard’s signature jazz inflections, as the third track on the album, “Playground,” embraces a traditional lounge-style piano along with the lusher string sound and solos present in the other selections.
Some selections, such as the suite from Inside Man (2006) and the opening title music of Miracle at St. Anna (2008), lean less on Blanchard’s jazz background and instead seem to be reminiscent of earlier film music styles like the compositions of James Horner. Tracks on this album from both films make use of a more militaristic style, emphasizing repetitive snare drum lines underneath epic brass and string melodies.
Two comedies, Bamboozled (2000) and She Hate Me (2004), showcase other sides of Blanchard’s work. The former’s biting satire and pointed social commentary are offset by a more somber, restrained musical theme. In contrast, the selections from She Hate Me are a bit less serious, incorporating several jazz styles including references to bebop, fusion, and cool jazz.
Blanchard’s skill in composing for a wide range of genres shines through the tracks presented in this album. His masterful usages of thematic material, blending of styles, and jazz inflections make this an incredibly rewarding listen. Blanchard’s score for BlacKkKlansman is sure to deliver the same exciting interplay of styles.
Dug Pinnick’s Tribute to Jimi: Often Imitated but Never Duplicated is a fitting homage to the guitar great, in part because Pinnick is an ideal musician for pulling off a project such as this. Having spent decades as the bassist and singer for King’s X, which just might be the most underrated power trio in rock and roll history, he is the perfect candidate to record tunes by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, which is arguably rock and roll’s preeminent trio. Also, upon hearing Pinnick’s vocals on these tracks, the listener is hard-pressed to think of a more fitting vocalist to sing these songs. The bulk of the guitar duties are handled by Tracey “Spacey T” Singleton from the groundbreaking metal group Sound Barrier, one of the first African American heavy metal bands. While this tribute to Jimi is not a note-for-note replication of Hendrix material, it is also not a reinvention. The eight tracks bear tremendous amounts of similarity to the originals. However, there is a general freshness to this recording that results from the presence of stylistically indoctrinated musicians who are willing to occasionally color just outside the lines.
The sonic similarity to the originals is not surprising since this recording was made with that intention. Pinnick stated that they had wanted “to recreate the analog recording process as closely to the original recordings as possible.” With this in mind, they used as many of the same types of equipment used by Hendrix and company as was feasible. The result is a modern recording that maintains a vintage feel. While the playing on the album has had the influence of fifty more years of musical evolution, the actual guitar tones maintain the characteristics of the late ‘60s. “If 6 Was 9” serves as a perfect example of this. Although there are variations in note choice from the original, the guitar sounds as if it was recorded using the exact same rig that Hendrix used back in 1967.
Song selection for a tribute album can always be tricky. When dealing with the catalog of an artist such as Jimi Hendrix, who had so many great songs, the difficulty in selecting eight tracks is compounded. Nevertheless, Pinnick did a great job in narrowing down the scope of the project by sticking with songs from the three studio albums released during Hendrix’s lifetime—Are You Experienced (1967), Axis: Bold as Love (1967), and Electric Ladyland (1968). Tracks include psychedelic standards such as “Are You Experienced” and “Purple Haze,” songs in the pop vein such as “Fire” and “Crosstown Traffic,” and iconic Hendrix tracks such as “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” Of course, “All Along the Watchtower” is also present. It is perhaps ironic—or even fitting—that a cover of a cover would be present on this album. Nevertheless, any Hendrix project would be incomplete without “All Along the Watchtower,” which along with Aretha Franklin’s version of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” stands out as one of the greatest cover songs of all time.
“Are You Experienced” is the first track, and the impeccable backwards guitar sets the bar high for the remainder of the album regarding attention to detail in capturing the spirit of the originals. This attention to detail is evident throughout the album, and “Crosstown Traffic” continues this sentiment by including the kazoo part from the original. Other standout tracks include “Purple Haze,” driven by Pinnick’s signature 12-string bass sound. Also, though covered many times, Pinnick’s version of “All Along the Watchtower” serves as one of the more authentic covers of the Hendrix classic. Worth mentioning too is “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” which closes the album in a blistering fashion.
As a testament to his phenomenal output with King’s X, Pinnick will always attract that band’s loyal fans. Ideally, others will also find this recording and discover what diehard King’s X fans have known for years—that Dug Pinnick is one of the great rock and roll talents. Tribute to Jimi is one of the best tributes to Hendrix ever released, and it is obvious that the musicians had fun making this album. The final product is a recording that builds upon the experimental spirit of Hendrix while still maintaining a stylistic affinity to the original recordings. As should generally be the case with performances of Hendrix songs, the guitar playing on this album is scorching, and Pinnick’s powerful voice adds a new dimension to these classics. It is truly hard to envision this album disappointing any rock and roll fan.
Oakland native Xavier Dphrepaulezz, professionally known as Fantastic Negrito, is an award winning musical artist and story teller. Coming back from a decade long hiatus, Negrito returned to the music industry in 2016 with more fire and flare then before, releasing The Last Days of Oakland which won him his first Grammy Award. More recently, Negrito was featured on an episode of the popular Fox television series, Empire.
Negrito’s latest release, Please Don’t Be Dead, is a rock-soul album that presents issues, warnings and solutions that have everything to do with American society and the people that live within it. Negrito wants people to “stay woke” by being aware that what is happening currently in our nation is not a normal occurrence. The album cover art, a real-life photo of Negrito coming out of a three week coma caused by a previous car accident, represents his efforts to leave dark times in the past. By choosing to move forward and leaving behind hatred, blame, disrespect and hopelessness, Negrito stands with his community to embrace love, unity, empathy and compassion.
Regarding the title track, Negrito said “Please Don’t Be Dead” tells the story of a man standing over something he cares about that is wounded. He’s looking around, and he’s saying: “Do Something.”
“Plastic Hamburgers” is a call to the listener to break down the walls that keep people separated from one another in American society, harkening to issues of racism, classism, sexism, poor government policy and regulation. The chorus, “Let’s break out these chains, let’s burn it down,” suggests that we are slaves to the American hegemonic machine, referred to as a “bomb with a winning hand.” Negrito suggests we can overcome this domination if we stop buying into the idealistic pressures of American society.
“Bad Guys” continues with this narrative, suggesting that dominions create the evil, charging us to fear it while swearing to protect us from it. According to Negrito, a “bad guy” is a figure, thing or idea that we can point to as the blame for all the problems we create. He goes on to suggest we should look in the mirror before we start blaming others for the issues we create due to the consequences of our choices.
“A Letter to Fear and Transgender Biscuits” is the silver lining of the album. Despite the horrible things happening in America, Negrito claims, “We can carry on.” In doing so, however, we don’t have to accept the current issues as the norm. Negrito offers his solution to the problem by standing with his friends and his community who have agreed that, “Hope will never die!” The song encourages everyone to keep fighting against the present violent norms by pressing back against it with love as a community: “All the people with love in your heart, get unified, get organized….. Unity.” By unifying and organizing, standing against the issues that are being pressed upon us to be accepted as the norm, we can elicit change. That is the history of the positive paradigm shifts in our nation’s past.
“The Suits That Won’t Come Off” is a song that encourages perspective empathy. As Negrito sings, “How do you sleep at night when you have stolen from me,” he is asking his audience to stand in the shoes of those in other circumstances in order to gain compassion. How different could this world be if people respected those who are unlike them? Negrito ends his album with the funk and gospel influenced, “Bull Shit Anthem.” The chorus of the song sums up what Negrito wants us to do with all the issues presented on the album. Along with love, standing with the community, showing empathy and having compassion, we need to “Take that bullshit, turn it into good shit!”
Please Don’t Be Dead is a fitting wake-up call from an artist who reclaimed his consciousness both physically and artistically, and is now striving for others to follow his example. It’s a request we all should heed, as Negrito instructs, before it’s too late.
The Times, They are a ’Changin’. This phrase, with all its historic relevancy, has once again become the most accurate description of contemporary times all over the globe. Therefore, it stands as no surprise a 60’s soul legend such as Bette Lavette would release a cover album focusing on ironic political artist Bob Dylan. Things Have Changed is a fitting tribute to some of Dylan’s most prolific movement songs in addition to showcasing other soul rock classics, with Lavette weaving in her own gritty stylings and adding a contemporary layer to the timeless classics.
The title track, Things Have Changed, serves as a warning for those who feel overwhelmed and anxious about their world: “Any minute now I’m expecting all hell to break loose/People are crazy and times are strange/I’m locked in tight/I’m out of range/I used to care, but things have changed. “Political World”, with its echoing of past conflicts and shouts of current trajectories, features Keith Richards, who layers his talents behind Lavette.
Additional tracks pay homage to some of Dylan’s more introspective musings, with selections such as “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Mama, You’ve been on My Mind.” But it’s on “Emotionally Yours” that Lavette’s ability to tug at the heartstrings becomes most evident. Through a combination of Dylan’s lyrics and her own amazingly soulful abilities, Lavette gives her listeners a thought-provoking look into the mind of a tortured soul yearning for that one last chance: “Come baby, find me, come baby, remind me of where I once begun/Come baby, show me, show me you know me, tell me you’re the one/I could be learning, you could be yearning to see behind closed door/But I will always be emotionally yours.”
Things Have Changed offers us the best of both worlds—Bob Dylan’s ageless classics and Bettye Lavette’s endless soul stylings—proving to us that even though time marches on, some things remain eternal and relevant, no matter what.
Known best for his soulful songwriting and tender serenades as heard on hits such as “Strawberry Letter 23” and “Inspiration Information,” Shuggie Otis, “heir to Hendrix,” has long been held as one of the most innovative guitarists to ever pick up the 6-strings. A prodigy from early age, Otis regularly performed on stage and in the studio alongside his legendary father, bluesman Johnny Otis. Shuggie’s latest project, an adventurous new fusion rock project called Inter-fusion, showcases just how mind-blowing he is on the pearly frets of his gorgeous maroon Gibson SG.
The album consists of mostly instrumental tracks that groove and weave, taking unexpected turns in surprising directions, but all anchored by one of the finest rhythm sections imaginable. Drummer Carmine Appice (of Vanilla Fudge/Beck, Bogert & Appice) and bass player Tony Franklin (of The Firm/Roy Harper) both layer their expertise beyond Otis. In addition, keyboardist Kyle Hamood (of L.A. rockers Them Guns) steps in as both a musician and producer, delivering outright superlative performances from each artist involved.
The opening track, “Aphelion,” is a sweetly smooth shot of melancholy that goes down without a hitch. “Woman,” an uptempo beat complete with intricate melodies and layered percussion, begs to be played over and again, and “Clear Power” is a clean, crisp polyrhythmic groove that satisfies the aural need for virtuosity.
Uniting some of the best rock fusion artists on one recording, Inter-fusion reminds us that when it comes to Shuggie Otis, some of the most eclectic, quality art and artists have been right beside us all along.
At first glance, you might not peg Josiah Wise as a classically trainer singer. Before transforming himself into the performance artist known as serpentwithfeet, the Baltimore-born musician spent his formative years singing gospel music in his mother’s Pentecostal church. While Wise later studied jazz as well as opera, he was also enamored ‘90s R&B—especially Brandy. Synthesizing all of these influences in his first full-length album, Soil, Wise draws connections to the sustenance of life and love, while simultaneously rebelling against today’s “symmetry and sterile soundscapes.”
Collaborating with producer Clams Casino and experimental electronic musician Katie Gately, Wise has created unique sound collages that are operatic in their own way. Casino, known for his ‘cloud rap’ productions and tracks for the likes of ASAP Rocky & Lil B (“Be Somebody”), The Weeknd, and Kelela, brings hip hop beats with a spacey, freeform style. Gately, who sculpted the sound on nearly half of the tracks on Soil, is known for constructing pieces from multiple layers and samples. Together, they offer a work that enhances Wise’s melismatic singing style with avant garde electronics and multi-layered, hyperprocessed vocals. By also eschewing standard melodies and notions of song construction, the result is more akin to freestyle.
Opening with Wise’s seductive vocals over synth clarinet arpeggios, “Whisper” is one of the album’s most compelling tracks, and perhaps the closest in form to an R&B single. Written by Gately, the song shows off Wise’s vocal range and technique, with extensive overdubbing to create a choral effect. This is one of the many songs on the album touching upon the “shame around two black men dating and loving on each other” as Wise—who is openly gay—sings, “If you whisper, only I will hear you.” “Wrong Tree” seems to expand upon this theme. As the gospel organ and hand claps evoke the conservatism of the church, the song turns more menacing with the lyrics, “The fruit I couldn’t wait to eat / suddenly began to bleed / then I heard them shouting / He climbin’ up the wrong tree.” Both Gately and Casino contributed to “Mourning Song,” the orchestral backing adding weight to the poignant lament, “I want to make a pageant of my grief.”
Another highlight of the album is “Cherubim,” produced by Gately and the Boston-based electronic producer known as mmph. More overtly homeoerotic, the official video underscores the dramatic elements of Wise’s performance art, while the music is a seamless combination of classical, R&B, and gospel influences with rock overtones. Clams Casino’s footprint is all over “Seedless,” with its laborious beat, electronic effects and elastic rhythms, while Wise flows between song and chant. The album comes full circle with the final track, “Bless Ur Heart,” a tender, upbeat love song expressing optimism: “What was once a whisper will become a deep rumbling sound / I’ll keep a tender heart.”
Soil is a mesmerizing project full of lush harmonies and heartfelt lyrics that pushes the envelop through the electronic production, as well as the thematic material. Undefinable, and undeniably unique, the album’s deep roots extend into many facets of the Black music spectrum.
Canadian singer-songwriter AHI (pronounced “eye”) offers a refreshingly earnest commentary on life, love, and the concept of home on his sophomore album, In Our Time. His first album, We Made It Through The Wreckage, was independently released in 2017, and despite a lack of promotion, the album resonated with listeners and began receiving recognition across Canada due to AHI’s gritty, soulful vocals and commitment to honest, simplistic music.
The opening track on his newest album, “Breakin’ Ground,” is an uplifting introduction, telling of AHI’s journey to becoming an artist and musician. Lyrics like “I’ve been told I’m worthless so much that it gave me purpose” are honest and real, and are complemented by AHI’s raspy and raw-sounding vocals over an upbeat melody. “Made It Home,” the following track, presents the second chapter of AHI’s personal story. In the song, the father of three explores the concepts of family and home in a way that simultaneously expresses vulnerability and strength.
The other songs on the album, from the energetic “Five Butterflies” to the more emotional and softer “Just Pray,” highlight AHI’s ability to blend folk, soul, rock influences with his personal experiences and feelings in a way that makes his music poignant and engaging for anyone and everyone.
On In Our Time, AHI manages to use his mesmerizing vocals and catchy melodies to create a personalized yet relatable collection of folk rock tracks based on his own experiences of life, love, and family.
Swiss-American provacateur Manuel Gagneux, the artist behind the avant garde rock group Zeal & Ardor, unleashed his debut album Devil Is Fine to much acclaim in 2017. Grounded in Norwegian black metal and its inherent paganism, the album imagined an antebellum South where slaves “had chosen defiance and rebellion and the power of Satan” instead of Christianity. With his new album, Stranger Fruit, Gagneux not only hints at Billie Holliday’s haunting classic, but implies he might take us one step beyond the already grotesque imagery of “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze.” The answer comes sooner rather than later.
After a brief intro sets the stage with the sound of a pickaxe striking the ground, the opening song “Gravedigger’s Chant” seems to pick up where “Strange Fruit” left off, as Gagneux sings “bring the dead body down to the graveyard…Lord have mercy.” In a press release, Gagneux describes the official video as subverting roles: “People find themselves in situations untypical for their ilk, tools become weapons, weapons turn into tools, and fingers meant for sensing make themselves felt.”
Unlike the previous Zeal & Ardor album—an interwoven fabric of metal tempered with elements of blues, spirituals, Lomax-esque work-song melodies, soul and gospel—Stranger Fruit hews more closely to black metal roots. “Servants” promotes an uprising of the oppressed, while “Don’t’ You Dare” takes things one step further, hinting at human sacrifices with the chorus, “never come ‘round these parts…don’t you dare look away, boy.” The brief “Fire of Motion” features a wall of thrashing guitars, then segues into the gorgeous vocal harmonies of “The Hermit” with a nod to Gregorian chant.
If you were a fan of Devil Is Fine, then you will appreciate the hand-clapping rhythms behind “Row Row,” the soulful elements of “You Ain’t Coming Back,” and the bluesy “We Can’t Be Found.” The title track, “Stranger Fruit,” is built over an ominous piano ostinato that gradually builds to the timely finale, “there’s a storm out there / there’s no shelter for us.” The album closes with “Built on Ashes,” another track interjecting soulful vocals that makes for a satisfying finish, despite the gloomy chorus, “”Like a strange fruit out of season / You are bound to die alone.”
Though a couple of electronic tracks seem somewhat out of kilter, Zeal & Ardor’s Stranger Fruit is a solid sophomore effort. The album was produced by Gagneux alongside Austrian producer Zebo Adam and mixed by Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou. Gagneux has assembled a band for live shows and will be touring the U.S. later this year.
One of the architects of rock and roll, Fats Domino is also remembered as one of New Orleans’ greatest musicians, which is quite an honor in a city that produced so many legends. Now the venerable Bear Family label honors Fats, who died last year, with this compilation featuring 32 ballads culled from his 1955-1962 Imperial Records sides. Most were either produced, co-written/arranged, and/or performed (on trumpet) by the great Dave Bartholomew and recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s studio.
Instead of the red-hot sound of the Crescent City’s rhythm and rocking blues scene, The Ballads of Fats Domino highlights many of his lesser known gems. As noted author/historian Bill Dahl states in the liner notes, “Fats without his trademark rocking rhythms [was] every bit as effective and lovable as when the big beat was scalding behind him.” And that’s the truth!
This “blusier, atmospheric side” of Fats is certainly apparent on classics like “Blueberry Hill,” which opens the set, and a pair string drenched sides, “Walking to New Orleans” and “Three Nights a Week,” both R&B hits despite Domino’s opinion that “people don’t like me with too many violins.” The hardships of life on the road spurred more than a few ‘homesick’ ballads that are great examples of Fats’ signature story songs: “I Miss You So” (1961); a 1962 remake of “Goin’ Home” (the original side was released a decade prior); and the earliest song on the set, “Helping Hand (A Long Way From Home)” from 1955.
This is just a small taste of what’s in store on The Ballads of Fats Domino, produced with the typical high standards we’ve come to expect from Bear Family, including illustrated liner notes and a complete session discography.
Americana duo Birds of Chicago is a marriage, literally, of singer-songwriters JT Nero and Allison Russell. Formed in 2012, the group has developed a loyal following through their relentless touring schedule. Since their last full-length project, Real Midnight (2016), the Birds have flown from Chicago to Nashville, where they now reside. Their new album, Love in Wartime, co-produced by Luther Dickenson, reflects the sounds of both hometowns as the duo artfully intertwines elements of country, folk, blues and rock.
While Russell’s voice has been prominent on previous albums, Love in Wartime is perhaps more evenly divided between the duo, contrasting Russell’s silky, soulful soprano against Nero’s grittier baritone. Opening with the intro “Now/Sunlight,” Russell hums a whimsical, folksy tune over plucked banjo chords, then segues into the uptempo roots rock song, “Never Go Back,” with Nero on lead vocals. On the title track, twangy guitars come to the fore as Nero recounts the realities of longterm relationships and parenthood, “we sat there and tried to remember our dreams, no such luck, no such luck.” Life on the road is the subject of the poignant “Travelers,” as Russell sings “there’s no home in this world, got no home in this world.” One of the most effective duets on the album is “Try,” with Russell and Nero trading verses before coming together on the chorus, “Try a little harder, give a little more.”
Other highlights include the uplifting bluesy song “Roll Away” which encourages folks to “roll away the heavy stones, roll away the heavy hours, roll on in the summer moon,” and the banjo accompanied ballad “Superlover.”
Love in Wartime is jam-packed with carefully crafted songs and inspirational lyrics that celebrate life and love despite troubled times and the daily grind.
Zig Zag Power Trio’s Woodstock Sessions Volume 9 is a difficult album to classify stylistically. It is also rather startling if the personnel are merely taken at face value. Vernon Reid and Will Calhoun from Living Colour join bassist Melvin Gibbs, who might be most frequently associated with the Rollins Band. Thus, a listener who is only casually familiar with these musicians might expect the trio to be a hard rock band, if not a metal band. Granted, there is evidence of these stylistic expressions, and there are power trio rock influences from artists such as Jimi Hendrix. However, Zig Zag Power Trio also possess more eclectic influences. This is a jazz fusion record as much as it is anything else, a fact that is not surprising given that Gibbs and Reid played together in free-jazz drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society decades ago.
There will be guitarists who discover this recording due to Reid’s presence, and they will hear references to many of his influences—Jimi Hendrix; Bill Frisell, who collaborated with Reid on Smash & Scatteration in 1984; and David Torn, just to name a few. More than on any other recording, Reid’s ability to draw from a palette of influence consisting of hints of many players is supremely evident. Frankly, there are stellar individual performances by all three band members, but much of the virtuosity on this album lies in how the members interact with one another. Interaction is, of course, one of the attractive qualities in listening to any group of excellent musicians, but this recording serves as an impeccable example of interplay.
The cover of Junior Kimbrough’s “I Love Ya Baby” is the sole straight-ahead rock song on the album, and it is reminiscent of blues-rock jams à la Johnny Winter or Jimi Hendrix. However, Zig Zag Power Trio definitely puts their own stamp on the genre. “Professor Bebey,” which was previously released by Reid on his 2006 recording, Other True Self, is a departure from every other tune on the album with its African highlife feel. These two tracks are two of the most fun songs on the album. The remainder of the tunes are largely avant-garde in nature, so these two tracks are also the most accessible. However, this should not be interpreted as a negative review of the rest of the recording.
The cover of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” is amazing. Not only is it a testament to the haunting quality of the original, but Reid and company put on a clinic in how to communicate musically with other band members. At times, Calhoun’s drumming is reminiscent of legend Billy Cobham, and Melvin Gibbs manages to tear the bass apart subtly, if not sneakily. “Lonely Woman” is an almost nine-and-a-half minute masterclass for any musician, and something new will be heard with each listen. ZZPT’s interpretation of Ronald Shannon Jackson’s “Eastern Voices Western Dreams” is another standout. The ambience is simply beautiful, and Reid and Gibbs play extremely well together—evidence of the fact that they were both playing this tune in Jackson’s band circa 1980. “Woodstock” and “David Bowie” are also songs of interest due to the atmospheric textures produced by heavily processed guitar sounds.
Woodstock Sessions Volume 9 is full of abundant surprises, with each of the members turning in career performances throughout. Combined with excellent musicianship, the sheer number of stylistic influences offers a little something for everyone. Having said that, fans of music that lies somewhere between progressive rock and jazz fusion (e.g. David Torn or Robert Fripp) will be very pleased. Considering the presence of tunes by Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Sanders, and Ronald Shannon Jackson, it is also fair to say that fans of avant-garde jazz in general should consider giving this group a thorough listen. So far, the Zig Zag Power Trio and their debut album are flying under the radar, but that should soon change. Let’s hope there’s another project in the works.
This month’s top picks include a new recording of Florence Price’s Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 performed by Er-Gene Kahng, and “American Songster” Dom Flemons’ collaboration with Smithsonian Folkways on an exploration of the music of Black Cowboys.
April is Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), with April 30th designated as International Jazz Appreciation Day. Jazz and social justice is the contextual lens for JAM this year, showcasing the progressive ways jazz continues to play a transformative role with respect to the civil rights of individuals from multiple facets of society. The jazz collaborations of both Wynton Marsalis Septet’s United We Sing and Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock & Jack DeJohnette‘s After The Fall demonstrate the excellence that prevails when groups work collectively towards a common goal. Don’t Play with Love released by the John L. Nelson Project showcases the formidable talents of Prince’s father, John L. Nelson, both of whom fostered positive inspiration in others through their artistic legacies. Perseverance plays a central role in Sy Smith’s Sometimes a Rose Will Grow in Concrete and saxophonist Lekecia Benjamin’s Rise Up, as both albums urge continuance despite the cost. Young Street by bassist Reggie Young rounds out this category with a blend of jazz and funk.
London musician L.A. Salami created a buzz through a string of EPs leading up to his acclaimed 2016 debut album Dancing with Bad Grammar. Now he returns with his second full-length project, The City of Bootmakers, which continues his folksy style of social commentary.
Born Lookman Adekunle Salami (yes, L.A. Salami is his real name), the singer-songwriter grew up in a household that never paid any particular attention to music, and he didn’t learn to play guitar until receiving one for his 21st birthday. But he was always attracted to literature and seems to have a special affinity for Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and icons of the ‘50s and ‘60s, including Beat Generation authors Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and folk musicians Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. A dapper nonconformist, Salami has been likened to a modern day troubadour, channeling his experiences into sharply honed lyrics, sung over lush acoustic-oriented alt-rock. All of these characteristics come to the fore in his most recent video single, “Jean Is Gone,” included on the album as a bonus track:
Though Salami is primarily a vocalist and guitarist, he occasionally switches over to harmonica, Rhodes and, according to the album credits, “ambulance.” His backing band, the Bootmakers, includes Simon Nilsson (guitar, bass, piano, organ), Petter Grevelius (guitar, bass, organ, vibes), and Sean Beam (drums, organ), otherwise known as Francobollo, a UK-based Swedish rock band. The project was recorded in Berlin with Robbie Moore (The Mores), known for his retro sound styled after ’60s- and ’70s guitar pop with rich vocal harmonies—the sound permeating The City of Bootmakers.
Easing into the album with the intro “Sunrise,” Salami evokes a Shakespearean-era street scene with a jangly tune reminiscent of an organ grinder. As the music grows louder, a group of revelers greet the dawn with Salami in the lead, inviting the audience to experience the wonders of “the troubadour”—obviously relishing the moniker he’s been assigned in the press. After the revelers fade into the distance, the band kicks into the first single from the album, “Generation (Lost),” a song about “feeling lost during the journey of finding yourself.” Addressing the anxiety of his generation, Salami croons: “I’m penniless, but I’ve sold my soul / I’m restless, but I’ve nowhere to go / Generation L, lost in lust / Generation L, laborious.”
Not shying away from political themes, on “Terrorism! (The Isis Crisis)” Salami sings, “I heard that an ancient book, inspired him to die / The Jihad source decoded wrong, enforces that old line / But when words contort in certain tones, Is it the preacher, scribe or one guy that does the crime?” Other songs, though seemingly lighthearted in character, veer into topics ranging from gentrification to immigration, deportation, and discrimination. But the cheerful pop in major keys and driving 4/4 rhythms can become a bit tiresome, making one wish Salami would break away and dive into deeper and darker territory befitting his themes. That’s why “I Need Answers” is such a welcome departure with its discordant melodies and angst-ridden lyrics as Salami struggles to navigate a path through life.
The album concludes on a similar note with “What Is This?” Existential thoughts become mired in practicalities as Salami sings, “Preachers remind you that the end is coming, but the rent dates comin’, so the end can wait – what is this? What is this?!”
L.A. Salami’s approach to songwriting reflects his artistic bent and roots performing spoken-word poetry. The City of Bootmakers is a fine showcase for this philosopher poet, with lyrics that dig deep into life’s inequalities and oppression, yet are delivered in a manner that offers hope for the future.
AJ Ghent, hailing from Fort Pierce, Florida, has music literally running through his veins. His great uncle, Willie Eason, is the creator of the “sacred steel” tradition—a style of pedal-steel guitar playing that’s unique to certain African American Pentecostal churches—and his grandfather, Henry Nelson, is the founder of the “sacred steel” rhythmic guitar style. With role models like these, it’s no wonder Ghent wore out his father’s sacred steel CDs by the age of twelve. After high school, he and his wife, singer MarLa, packed up and moved to Atlanta, Georgia where soon after Ghent began a mentorship under the legendary Colonel Bruce Hampton, one of the original founders of Atlanta’s Hampton Grease Band. Gaining experience with Hampton’s band set the stage for Ghent’s subsequent career moves, including being “true to himself” as Hampton advised.
Ghent’s newest release, The Neo Blues Project, is a study in just that. The entire album is something different altogether—a musical fusion of blues, steel guitar, and rock that takes art and skill to master. But that’s something that Ghent has spent his whole life perfecting, along with his custom built 8-string lap steel hybrids. The offering weighs in at just six tracks, but don’t let its size fool you. This album packs a solid punch right where it’s necessary to keep the music in your head long after the last chord fades.
On his rock anthem “Power,” Ghent offers a track to fuel a revolution: “I’m gonna wait it out, ‘til my change comes / and I’m gonna pray, it won’t be long / ‘cause I’ve been tempted and I’ve been tried / and I’m a soldier ‘til I die / so you can bring it on, all your pain / you know why? ‘cause it’s a revolution comin’”
Combining his own style with elements of rock guitarists like Jimi Hendrix and Lenny Kravitz, Ghent part-wails and part-steels his way through each song. “Long List Friend,” co-written with his wife, is a blues ballad all of us can relate to in our search for “The One.”
But if you are celebrating the letting go of a former love, check out the final track, “Gonna Rock.” Its meaning and intent are completely celebratory, to say the least. “Wash Ya Hair” is a fun, catchy tune that really brings all of Ghent’s diverse talents of vocalization and guitar-playing to the forefront: “Shake ‘em off, wash your hair, let it shine, Everywhere.”
Ghent’s compact project completes its mission. The Neo Blues Project entertains the senses, introduces us to the full range of Ghent’s talents, and gives us a foot-tapping, air-slamming trip into the world of blues rock in legendary style. If this is Ghent being true to himself, I personally can’t wait for anything this talented artist has to offer us.
I must come clean—next to trumpet, the bass is my second favorite instrument. So I also must admit, I was unfamiliar with Reggie Young. When I think of bass players, I think of Jaco Pastorious, Stanley Clarke, Louis Johnson, Larry Graham, Victor Wooten, Will Lee, Sir Paul McCartney. Reggie Young, where have you been hiding, my man?
Hailing from New York, Young is a Grammy Award winning session bassist who has performed with the likes of Lenny Kravitz, Alicia Keys, Paul Shaffer, Stevie Wonder, Will.I.Am, and Reuben Studdard. His latest project, Young Street, is funk with a touch of jazz, rock, soul and even Bazilian bossa nova.
Young Street opens with the title cut featuring Young on bass, Garnett Walters on the B3, and Bill Hollerman on horns. I’m certain this track made the cut on urban jazz radio. I personally enjoy when an artist can step out of their comfort zone and throw a curve ball at you. The track “Naima” is just that—a composition by John Coltrane that would intimidate some. Not Reggie Young. He goes in on it, not to one up the great Trane, but more to show that he’s not a one trick pony. Speaking of which, you can find Young singing over his bass riffs on the funky “Alright With Me” and the lush strings on “Magic.”
Reggie Young has accomplished great deal even if he’s not a household name. No more hiding Reggie, I know where to find you now.
Title: Stax Singles Vol. 4 – Rarities & The Best of the Rest
Label: Stax/Craft Recordings
Formats: 6-CD set, Digital
Release date: February 9, 2018
From the early days of the CD era, there has been a constant stream of reissues from the legendary Stax/Volt catalog. Three volumes (28 CDs total) of The Complete Stax/Volt Singles plus artist-specific box sets, plus a pile of compilation CDs and box sets. Not to mention the many individual album reissues, which often included extra singles and other tracks not on the original LPs. What is left in the vaults to compile into this new 6-CD box, issued in conjunction with Concord Music Group’s celebration of the 60th anniversary of Stax’s founding?
It turns out, not 6 discs worth of compelling music, but there are many interesting obscure gems lurking among a bunch of tunes that were forgotten for a reason. The set is also padded with familiar material such as Booker T. & The M.G.’s cuts already issued on the artists’ own box set, and slightly edited single versions of Big Star hits.
The set has a scattershot focus, which actually works to its benefit by offering interesting music to several audiences. Discs 1-3 are B sides of singles included in the first three massive “Complete Singles” boxes (which, it turns out, contain mostly A sides and not “complete” singles by the definition of both sides of a record). Compiled by Rob Bowman, author of Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records and co-producer of the first three sets, these discs probably contain the fewest of what the casual listener might consider dull duds. For the deep-diver, some of the sides are obscure enough to be sourced from dubs of scratchy old 45’s, meaning the master tapes are missing.
To Concord’s credit, they offer a detailed listing of the set’s contents, so consumers can decide for themselves if there is enough interesting material to justify the purchase price. If the music compels you, the physical product is recommended because the 76-page booklet provides much detail and context, plus some nice artist photos from the old Stax promotional files.
Which brings us to the other half of the box. Discs 4-6 cover Stax’s attempts to diversify its catalog from its southern-soul target market. The material is mined from sub-labels: Enterprise (pop and country), Hip (pop and rock), Ardent (rock), and the gospel imprints Chalice and The Gospel Truth. The booklet offers very detailed information about these labels, which will be of interest to the deep-divers and completists. In general, these efforts were not financially successful for Stax, but some of the music (particularly the Ardent albums released by Big Star) turned out to be widely influential and critically acclaimed.
Stax’s pop and country releases were obviously a mixed bag. If the “best” is collected here, there was a lot of dreck in the catalog. The rock offerings are more interesting, including the more rock-ish and psychedelic pop songs. The Memphis music scene of the 1960s and ‘70s had a unique take on rock, with both soul flavorings and a “garage” feel. It’s exciting and doesn’t sound manufactured. Likewise with the best of Stax’s pop productions—they don’t sound as plastic and disposable as much of the competing material that was churned out of NYC, L.A. and Detroit.
The best of the back three discs is #6, covering the gospel labels. In general, the arrangements and performances hue toward Stax’s soul sound and feel, of great benefit to Sunday’s music. The gospel passion is turned up a notch in the caldron of backbeat soul, creating great impact. It might have been a better idea to peel off this material into a separate Stax gospel compilation.
For the hardcore Stax fans, and for listeners deeply into American soul music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, there will be enough material in this set, plus the booklet text, to justify its place in your collection. For others, the appeal will depend on your curiosity and willingness to wade through a wide variety of artists, styles and genres.
Memphis is a city known for its barbecue, rich musical heritage, and pride in being one-of-a-kind. This unique Memphis spirit is captured by twelve distinctly different tracks on Memphis Rent Party. The collection serves as a soundtrack for Grammy-winner Robert Gordon’s sixth book of the same title, Memphis Rent Party: The Blues, Rock & Soul in Music’s Hometown.
From a punk rock cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “Johnny Too Bad” to a bluesy collaboration between Luther Dickinson and Sharde Thomas, the album includes a wide variety of tracks that embrace the individuality of the Memphis music scene. Half of the tracks are drawn from unreleased material and the rest are a mix of covers and originals. Included are songs from barrelhouse piano player Mose Vinson, rock pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis, and the rockabilly-punk band Tav Falco’s The Panther Burns.
From modern day covers to a 1960s recording by pre-war blues musician Furry Lewis, Memphis Rent Party is a truly varied compilation. Robert Gordon’s book was published by Bloomsbury on March 6, 2018 and is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of Memphis’ entertainment scene—just be sure to listen along to the soundtrack as you read.