Posts filed under 'Popular, Rock, and Misc.'

Various – Sly and Robbie Present Taxi Gang in Disco Mix Style 1978-1987

Sly and Robbie
Title: Sly & Robbie Present Taxi Gang In Disco Mix Style 1978-1987

Artist: Various

Label: Cree/Bear Family

Formats: CD, LP

Release date: March 10, 2017

 

Sly & Robbie Present Taxi Gang In Disco Mix Style 1978-1987 is a relatively short compilation chronicling the late ‘70s and ‘80s work of the most famous “riddim” section in reggae music.  Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare’s work as producers was very influential in helping to create the sounds that Jamaican music would be known for during this period.  Both Sly & Robbie got their start as sessions musicians (as a drummer and bass player, respectively) before moving over to the production side of things.

The rhythm Sly and Robbie became known for featured electronic drums and vocal effects and would become commonplace in reggae under their influence.  This also went on to influence the practice of “toasting” (chanting and shouting out folks over a beat), which in turn would be one of the building blocks on which rap music is based.

With this disappointingly brief eight track compilation (but still a full 58:16), Cree Records highlights cover versions of American soul and disco hits covered by Jamaican artists, produced by Sly & Robbie. Included are covers of songs made famous by Marvin Gaye, The Spinners, The Impressions and others. Both the CD and LP offer great liner notes by reggae expert Noel Hawks that set the scene for Sly & Robbie coming together and creating their unique production style.

The compilation begins with Tinga Stewart’s cover of Tony Joe White’s “Rainy Night In Georgia” (more famously covered by Brook Benton). With Sly & Robbie’s help, Stewart’s version takes what in Benton’s hands was a melancholy song of lament and turns it into a fun, danceable romp. Despite the bit of cognitive dissonance in the song, it is quite enjoyable nonetheless.

The lone female vocalist (really wish there were more) on the compilation is Marcia Griffiths of the I-Threes (backing vocalists for Bob Marley along with Rita Marley and Judy Mowatt), who covers Little Willie John’s “Fever.” Sly and Robbie’s sonic accompaniment is as sparse as the original, highlighting Griffiths’ vocals (if you enjoy this, definitely check out Griffith’s Play Me Sweet and Nice).

Two Marvin Gaye covers appear here with great results. Let’s be real for a second—nobody’s going to touch Gaye’s vocals on the original version. However, accepting this fact allows you to enjoy these covers for what they are, and both truly highlight Sly and Robbie’s production work.  “Sexual Healing” adds additional rhythm to the original’s yearning groove, creating a vibe that is uniquely Jamaican. “Inner City Blues” crackles with the same urgency as Gaye’s original and sports a great reggae-fying of the bassline.

Overall, the sound quality on the compilation is fantastic as it sounds like all of the selections have been digitally remastered.  Each one is presented in its full length form, including extended jams perfect for dancing and/or “toasting,” creating the vibe of a warm night in a dancehall.  If you are a Sly & Robbie aficionado or you want an introduction to the influential production duo, this compilation communicates why Sly & Robbie have been so influential around the world.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

 

View review August 1st, 2017

Billy Ocean – Here You Are: The Music of My Life

Billy Ocean

Album: Here You Are: The Music of My Life

Artist:  Billy Ocean

Label: Legacy Recordings

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: July 21, 2017

 

 

Riding on the success of the 2016 European 2-disc compilation, Here You Are: The Best of Billy Ocean, Legacy Recordings has just issued a stateside version of Billy Ocean’s self-reflective collection, Here You Are: The Music of My Life. Featuring 10 new performances and 5 long-standing favorites, Ocean provides an audio window through which listeners can view his musical inspirations during his 45+ years as a Grammy award winning R&B artist. Ocean’s current 15-track release coincides with his first set of US tour dates in over 20 years—as one of the featured headliners on the 2017 Replay America Festival.

The title track of the album, “Here You Are,” written by Billy Ocean and Barry Eastmond, is a testament to the various musical influences that have stirred Ocean’s creativity over the decades. The song is captivating—a steady, rhythmical rocking ballad back-dropped against the classic sound of Ocean’s signature croon—and is sure to become a strong staple for his fans. True to the album’s subtitle, Ocean provides covers of the music that has most affected his development as an artist followed by five of his biggest chart-toppers. The iconic “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke and Mike Pinder’s “A Simple Game” resonate with, as Ocean states, “everyone waiting for a change…every generation transcending the barriers of colour,” such as himself, who have “lost the concept of life as a spiritual thing, like who we are, what we are, and what we were meant to be.” Bob Marley’s influence is noted as well, through covers of his single “Judge Not” and the well-known “No Woman, No Cry” recorded by Bob Marley and the Wailers.

Ocean’s rendition of “It Was a Very Good Year,” written by Ervin Drake, is easily the most resonant song on the album. As he lulls, “But now the days are short, I’m in the autumn of my years, and I think of my life like vintage wine,” one can’t help but toast Ocean’s own impact upon the music industry through his mega-hits that conclude the disc: “Caribbean Queen 9 (No More Love on the Run),” “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car,” “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going,” “ Suddenly,” and “There Will be Sad Songs (to Make You Cry).”

It was—and is—a very good career for Billy Ocean. Here You Are: The Music of my Life bestows proof of just that.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

 

 

 

 

 

 

View review August 1st, 2017

Phil Perry – Breathless

Phil Perry Breathless
Album: Breathless

Artist:  Phil Perry

Label: Shanachie

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: February 24, 2017

 

 

Phil Perry is back with his latest album Breathless, a ten-track CD of R&B and smooth jazz. Joined on the album by his producer and pianist Chris Davis, Perry has this to say about the musical partnership: “Chris and I respect the music the same way we respect each other. It’s a unique and rare thing and it’s easy because we speak the same language.”  It’s obvious that Davis and Perry trust one another and have something special going, and the album reflects their successful combination. Phil Perry, you see, is a voice one must listen to—a dynamic singer with the uncanny ability to make you a believer with a single note. I would put Perry in the Will Downing category, flying under the radar to where the solid R&B fans are, but Perry’s true music listeners know the real deal when they hear it.

Perry includes his own covers of three songs previously performed by other artists, which are “Love In Need Of Love” by Stevie Wonder, “Is It You” by Lee Rittenour and “One Less Bell To Answer” by the Fifth Dimension. He takes a different approach on the Stevie Wonder classic by slowing the pace down—way down. On “Is It You,” Perry stays with Rittenhour’s original sound, and on the Fifth Dimension classic he adds a fresh perspective by singing it from a male point of view. “Do Whatcha Gotta Do,” written by Chris Davis, is a cute piece. It showcases the combined talents of both artists, giving fans a true dose of the magic that is Perry’s rich smooth tenor.

Providing the soundtracks for over four generations of fans, Phil Perry has done it once again. In a class by itself, Breathless is smooth, and Phil Perry’s vocals will leave you feeling just that.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

View review August 1st, 2017

Chuck Berry – Chuck

Chuck Barry
Title: Chuck

Artist: Chuck Berry

Label: Dualtone Music

Formats: CD, Vinyl, MP3

Release date: June 9, 2017

 

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

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

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

Reviewed by Allie Martin

View review July 7th, 2017

The New Respects – Here Comes Trouble

New Respects
Title: Here Comes Trouble

Artist: The New Respects

Label: Credential

Formats: LP, MP3

Release date: May 5, 2017

 
 

“Fresh.”  That’s the first word that comes to mind when describing The New Respects and their debut EP Here Comes Trouble.  Their sound is crisp and clean, while simultaneously soulful and rock infused.  The group is a family unit from Tennessee with twin sisters Zandy and Alexis Fitzgerald on guitar and bass respectively, brother Darius on drums and cousin Jasmine Mullen (daughter of gospel singer Nicole C. Mullen) on vocals.  On their 5 song EP the band gives a glimpse at what they are all about with a strong showing on the musical front as well as the topics their songs cover.

 

The EP begins with the track “Money,” which serves as an excellent album opener and plays with the impact of wealth.  The band sounds particularly tight here and Mullen’s vocals are quite impressive.  On “Frightening Lightning” the rhythm section really shines, making the rocked out track still sound quite danceable.  “Come As You Are” serves as the EP’s lone ballad and sounds vaguely reminiscent of something you might hear from the Alabama Shakes or The Black Keys.  The theme for the track centers around inclusion in a way that makes a point without seeming overtly political.  “Trouble” wraps up the EP with lyrics that question if the straight and narrow is the right path, “I’ve tried livin life right, don’t know if I wanna do it anymore / ‘cause I’ve lived a pretty good life / but trouble keeps on knocking at my door.”  Mullen’s soulful voice authentically sells this as a thought she is actually pondering, so it is not just a song about youthful angst.

Here Comes Trouble is a fantastic debut from a band I am sure we will be hearing more from in the coming years, which is a very, very good thing.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

 

View review June 2nd, 2017

Bobby Saint – Unholy

Bobby Saint
Title: Unholy

Artist: Bobby Saint

Label: Shoot to Kill Music

Format: MP3

Release date: May 19, 2017

 

 

Born in Barbados where he’s still known as Hal Linton, the producer, singer, and multi-instrumentalist relocated to the U.S. over ten years ago and rebranded himself as Bobby Saint. The young artist is finally starting to rise to the top. In addition to collabs with electronic duo Penthouse Penthouse on the hit song “69 Camaro,” he also scored with a guest appearance on the single “Black Bamboo” by With You and provided music for the Lego movie, among other productions.

Saint explains that his new solo release, Unholy,is about freedom, growth, spirituality, views of self, city nights and love. It’s about keeping the fires lit, raising consciousness, while bowing down to the greats: Bob Marley, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye. This is me going forward with only love and the funk in my heart.” The five track EP delivers a broad range of music. “Big Shoes” is a sexy, soulful ballad that showcases Saints powerful vocals and extensive range. The sultriness continues on “Sexy,” which is sure to be a summer of ’17 anthem, while the title track is a ‘60s throwback power guitar trio that will send chills down your spine.

With this short but extremely satisfying EP, Saint leaves us wanting more – much more.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review June 2nd, 2017

Garland Jeffreys – 14 Steps to Harlem

Garland
Title: 14 Steps to Harlem

Artist: Garland Jeffreys

Label: Luna Park

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: April 18, 2017

 

 

“I’m a dreamer, and I wanna tell the world about my dreams” sings Garland Jeffreys on his fifteenth album, 14 Steps to Harlem. It’s unfair to say that Garland Jeffreys is enjoying a late career boost, as in a sense he never went away, releasing in every decade since the 1960s while still taking enough of a break to raise a family. Partly crowdfunded and released on his own label, Luna Park, 14 Steps to Harlem is an exceptionally strong outing, connecting with the varied touchstones of style and genre that he employs but never in a way that can be called scattered or diffuse. Here, one finds Jeffreys exploring elements of straight up pop, grungy rock, up-tempo blues, reggae, blue-eyed soul, hip-hop beats – what have you – and any one of these tracks might be shot through with country-styled lap steel, a sound he clearly loves. Jeffreys is not comfortable with genre being the boss, and he likes to live in different musical apartments. However, the overall effect of 14 Steps to Harlem is one of cohesion; the warmth of Jeffreys’ personality and the cogent spark of inspired enthusiasm behind each of these twelve selections is what pull them together.

One space in which Garland Jeffreys lived was in a dorm room at Syracuse University with the young Lou Reed. Reed’s impact and spirit is keenly felt in Jeffreys’ energetic cover of “I’m Waiting for the Man” which he’s been performing for some time; I caught it during a live show he did in Northern Kentucky in November 2014 and it was a mighty intense experience which comes through here. Lou’s vestige also turns up a little in the title track, with its simple progression, laconic narration and the panoramic view taken of its subject, treated with love, not derision. Reed’s widow Laurie Anderson contributes electric violin to the album’s closing track, the classically styled “Luna Park Love Theme.” This is arguably 14 Steps to Harlem’s most touching moment; for most of this disc you cannot tell that this is a singer in his seventies, but Jeffreys sings this one softly and allows the innocence which carries the album up to that point to give way to experience in its last moments.

Garland Jeffreys’ positive messages of peace and friendship are life-affirming and refreshing to hear in a climate and time such as this one we’re all in. Although I was not too sold on “Reggae on Broadway,” which seemed a mildly amusing parody – produced by Dennis Bovell, nonetheless, and therefore fully legit – 14 Steps to Harlem is a delight to behold for even the weariest of ears.

Reviewed by David N. “Uncle Dave” Lewis

View review June 2nd, 2017

Nicole Mitchell – Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds

Nicole Mitchell
Title: Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds

Artist: Nicole Mitchell

Label: FPE

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: May 5, 2017

 

Flutist Nicole Mitchell leads her Black Earth Ensemble in the Afrofuturist inspired album Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds. Commissioned by Chicago’s Museum of Modern Contemporary Art (MCA) as part of their 2015 celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Association of the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), this concert recording puts on full display the outstanding musicality and artistry of Mitchell and the members of the ensemble.

Based on the black speculative novella of the same name penned by Mitchell, Mandorla Awakening presents in sonic form the story of what happens when two citizens of the futuristic World Union venture beyond its borders and establish contact with the peoples of Mandorla, a society with different social values than their own. The theme of the novella and the album is inspired by anthropologist Riane Eisler’s influential book The Chalice and the Blade, in which she argues that societies arranged by cooperative of hierarchical governing models have been in competition with one another for centuries. Mitchell is not so much concerned with establishing a narrative of which society represents right or wrong, but rather proposes what societies in an oppositional duality can learn from each other if they can move beyond their differences and find commonalities.

The project relies on the originality of Mitchell’s score and the creativity of the musicians to present the work’s narrative. Unique to this project is the inclusion of Kojiro Umezaki on shakuhachi and Tatsu Aoki on bass, shamisen, and taiko. The infusion of Umezaki’s and Aoki’s playing provided moments of intriguing sonic textures both individually and in combination with other members of the Black Earth Ensemble that I found particularly enjoyable with a notable example happening in the opening of “Sub-mission.”

Joining the group for this project is Chicago-based spoken word artist and performer avery r. young, who animates Mitchell’s lyrics through his dynamic vocal inflections on three of the last four tracks. The lyrics in particular bring together the suite’s theme of competing approaches to life learning from one another. The string players, Tomeka Reid and Renée Baker, both standout soloists in their own right, provide colour and ethereal tones that enhance the works’ futuristic narrative and soundscape.

Other standout moments from the Black Earth Ensemble include JoVia Armstrong’s imaginative percussion playing in “Listening Embrace” and Alex Wing’s psychedelic infused guitar sounds on “TimeWrap.” Of course, one must call attention to the rich tone and fluidity of Mitchell’s playing that appears throughout the album. The penultimate track, “Mandorla Awakening” (which rightfully receives a handful of applause from the live audience), puts on full display everyone’s musical skill in a tightly woven ensemble setting.

Overall, this recording presents an accessible sonic entryway into the diverse musical world of the AACM and provides ample material for the listener to think through, both musically and intellectually.

Reviewed by Brian Lefresne

View review May 2nd, 2017

Curtis Knight featuring Jimi Hendrix – Live at George’s Club 20

Curtis Knight
Title: Live at George’s Club 20

Artist: Curtis Knight featuring Jimi Hendrix

Label: Dagger

Format: CD, LP

Release date: April 21, 2017

 

Just in time for Record Store Day on April 21st, Dagger Records has released Curtis Knight featuring Jimi Hendrix – Live At George’s Club 20.  This compilation includes tracks that up to this point have mostly been available as bootlegs for the Jimi Hendrix completist. Dagger’s official release features fully remastered audio and a 10 page liner note booklet with rare photos and insight into Hendrix’s career during this period.

Live At George’s Club 20 includes tracks recorded in 1965 and 1966, which find Hendrix in his rhythm and blues era, then known as Jimmy James—a member of Curtis Knight’s pre-Squire’s band the Lovelites. The songs included here are primarily covers including Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” and Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.”

Many of the tracks feature Jimi on vocals as well guitar, and it easy to hear hints of the artist he would become just a few years later. Still in his early twenties, Hendrix’s chops were as impressive as you might expect for one of America’s greatest guitar heroes. On “Driving South” he flexes his guitar skills in fantastic fashion as Knight shouts out the names of cities. It’s not hard to imagine a smoky club of dancers responding ecstatically to the storm the band (including bassist Ace Hall, drummer Ditto Edwards, and saxophonist Lonnie Youngblood) had brewed up. Hendrix even includes the playing guitar with his teeth routine that would wow the crowd at the Monterey Pop Festival just a few years later. Many of the recordings also showcase Hendrix’s humor and showmanship as well. For example, “I’m a Man” features Hendrix’s playful singing and lyric swapping during a rendition of the Muddy Waters standard.

While Live At George’s Club 20 is a collection for Hendrix completists, it is still a worthwhile listen for anyone who is interested in deconstructing the notion that Jimi Hendrix “came out of nowhere.”  It was places like Club 20 where he honed his chops on his way to super stardom and this compilation is a great listen.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

View review April 4th, 2017

Valerie June – The Order of Time

Valerie June

Title: The Order of Time

Artist: Valerie June

Label: Concord Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: March 10, 2017

 

“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!

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

View review March 1st, 2017

Harry Belafonte – When Colors Come Together… The Legacy of Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte
Title: When Colors Come Together… The Legacy of Harry Belafonte

Artist: Harry Belafonte

Label: Legacy Recordings

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: February 24, 2017

 

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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review March 1st, 2017

BLXPLTN – New York Fascist Week

BLXPLTN-300x300
Title: New York Fascist Week

Artist: BLXPLTN

Label: Wolfshield

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: October 31, 2016

 

 

 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”:

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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):

Trump cover

 

 

 

 

 

Reviewed by William Vanden Dries

View review February 1st, 2017

Zeal & Ardor – Devil Is Fine

Zeal & Ardor
Title: Devil Is Fine

Artist: Zeal & Ardor

Label: MVKA

Formats: CD, LP, Limited ed. picture disc, MP3

Release date: February 24, 2017

 

Swiss-American artist Manuel Gagneux (a.k.a. Zeal & Ardor) has already garnered considerable buzz for his forthcoming release, Devil is Finea 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:

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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.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review February 1st, 2017

Johnny Popcorn – Totem Pole

popcorn
Title: Totem Pole

Artist: Johnny Popcorn

Label: Mad Dragon Music Group/dist. Bandcamp

Formats: CD, Digital (MP3, FLAC)

Release date: September 30, 2016

 

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.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

View review January 3rd, 2017

2016 Holiday Music Overview

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
Title: A Kenny Lattimore Christmas

Artist: Kenny Lattimore

Label: Motown Gospel

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 21, 2016

 

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.

 

andra-day
Title: Merry Christmas from Andra Day

Artist: Andra Day

Label: Warner Bros.

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 18, 2016

 

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.

 

leslie-odom-jr
Title: Simply Christmas

Artist: Leslie Odom, Jr.

Label: S-Curve Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 11, 2016

 

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.

 

bob-baldwin
Title: The Gift of Christmas

Artist: Bob Baldwin

Label: Red River Entertainment

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 28, 2016

 

Great for any contemporary jazz enthusiast on your Christmas list, pianist and composer Bob Baldwin’s The 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.

 

r-kelly
Title: 12 Nights of Christmas

Artist: R. Kelly

Label: RCA

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 21, 2016

 

If you like non-traditional Christmas songs, R. Kelly’s 12 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”:

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big-freedia
Title: A Very Big Freedia Christmazzz

Artist: Big Freedia

Label: Queen Diva Music

Formats: MP3

Release date: December 9, 2016

 

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

View review December 1st, 2016

Timothy Bloom – The Beginning

timothy-bloom
Title: The Beginning

Artist: Timothy Bloom

Label: Beyond the Sky Music

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 23, 2016

 

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.

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Overall, The Beginning is a solid EP, and listeners can look forward to not only this project but the two EPs to follow.

Reviewed by Allie Martin

View review November 1st, 2016

Pigeon John – Good Sinner

pigeon-john

Title: Good Sinner

Artist: Pigeon John

Label: Dine Alone Music

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 23, 2016

 

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.”

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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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review November 1st, 2016

Unlocking the Truth – Chaos

unlocking-the-truth
Title: Chaos

Artist: Unlocking the Truth

Label: self-release

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 17, 2016

 

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.

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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.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

View review November 1st, 2016

Jimi Hendrix – Machine Gun: The Fillmore East First Show 12/31/69

Jimi
Title: Machine Gun: The Fillmore East First Show 12/31/69

Artist: Jimi Hendrix

Label: Sony/Legacy

Formats: CD, SACD, LP, Digital

Release date: September 30, 2016

 

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.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review September 1st, 2016

Fantastic Negrito – The Last Days of Oakland

last days of oakland

Title: The Last Days of Oakland

Artist: Fantastic Negrito

Label: Blackball Universe

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: June 3, 2016

 

 

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.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

View review August 1st, 2016

Various Artists – Sissle and Blake Sing Shuffle Along

shuffle along

Title: Sissle and Blake Sing Shuffle Along

Artist: Various

Label: Harbinger

Format: CD, MP3

Release date: April 29, 2016

 

 

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.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review June 1st, 2016

Santigold – 99 Cents

santigold_99cents

Title: 99 Cents

Artist: Santigold

Label: Atlantic

Formats: Cassette, CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: February 26, 2016

 

 

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.

Reviewed by Adolf Alzuphar

View review May 2nd, 2016

Reverend Billy & the Stop Shopping Choir – The Earth Wants You

rev billy and the stop shopping choir

Title: The Earth Wants You

Artist: Reverend Billy & the Stop Shopping Choir

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.

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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!”

Long live Earth Day – and the Earth!

 

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review April 1st, 2016

Birds of Chicago – Real Midnight

birds of chicago_real midnight

Title: Real Midnight

Artist: Birds of Chicago

Label: Five Head Entertainment

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: February 19, 2016

 

 

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:

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“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.”

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review April 1st, 2016

Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution

esperanza spalding emilys devolution

Title: Emily’s D+Evolution

Artist: Esperanza Spalding

Label: Concord

Format: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: March 4, 2016

 

 

 

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.”

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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.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

View review March 1st, 2016

Mindi Abair & The Boneshakers – Live in Seattle

mindi abair and the boneshakers_live in Seattle

Title: Live in Seattle

Artist: Mindi Abair & The Boneshakers

Label: Concord

Format: CD, MP3

Release date: September 15, 2015

 

 

 

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.

Reviewed by Patrick Scott Burkett

View review March 1st, 2016

shirlette ammons – Language Barrier

shirlette ammons_language barrier

Title: Language Barrier

Artist: shirlette ammons

Label: Churchkey/SugarQube

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: February 5, 2016

 

 

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.

 

Reviewed by Douglas Dowling Peach

 

View review March 1st, 2016

Michael Jackson – Off the Wall/Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall

Michael jackson_off the wall

Title: Off the Wall / Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall

Artist: Michael Jackson

Director: Spike Lee

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.

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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.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review March 1st, 2016

Tomás Doncker – The Mess We Made

Tomas Doncker_The Mess We Made

Album: The Mess We Made

Artist: Tomás Doncker

Label: True Groove

Release Date: November 3, 2015

Format: CD, MP3

 

 

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.

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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.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

 

View review February 2nd, 2016

Matthew Hartnett – Southern Comfort

Matthew Hartnett_Southern Comfort

Title: Southern Comfort

Artist: Matthew Hartnett

Label: D2LAL MMC

Release Date: February 19, 2016

Format: CD, MP3

 

 

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.

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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.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

 

View review February 2nd, 2016

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