Posts filed under 'Rhythm & Blues, Soul, Funk'

Alberta Hunter – The Alberta Hunter Collection 1921-40

Hunter
Title: The Alberta Hunter Collection 1921-40

Artist: Alberta Hunter

Label: Acrobat Music

Format: CD, MP3, streaming (US: CD only)

Release Date: February 3, 2017

 

 

The familiar Alberta Hunter that emerged from two decades of retirement in 1977 was a very different artist from the Alberta Hunter that helped keep the race record market afloat in the early 1920s. Audiences in the ‘70s and ‘80s that flocked to Hunter’s latter day performances at the Cookery knew that she was a legend, but they were enthralled with her energy, experience, wit and mastery of phrasing. Such fans didn’t necessarily feel the need to revisit the ancient recordings that made Hunter a name. But there is every reason to investigate them, as Alberta Hunter wasn’t just another Vaudeville blues singer competing for parity with Clara Smith, Lucille Hegamin, Ethel Waters and, ultimately, Bessie Smith. She was a bellwether of a wide range of American popular song—ballads, blues, jazz, pop tunes and even purely sentimental fare.

In the mid-1990s the Document label in Austria issued four single discs comprising the better part of Alberta Hunter’s 78 rpm legacy, adding a fifth more recently, in addition to reissuing single Hunter items on compilations. Acrobat’s The Alberta Hunter Collection 1921-40 skims the Document issues, eliminating alternate takes and adding 11 of the 12 sides Hunter made in the UK with Jack Jackson’s Orchestra in 1934. The Jack Jackson sessions are declared “of no Blues interest” in older editions of the Godrich & Dixon Blues and Gospel Records 1902-1943, but nevertheless contain some Alberta Hunter performances of considerable merit.

Hunter’s early output makes for a fascinating case study in how a voice evolved side by side with developments in recording technology and currents in entertainment. Hunter made her recording debut at Black Swan in May 1921, perhaps the same day as Ethel Waters, and immediately produced a breakout hit, “How Long, Sweet Daddy, How Long?” though it would take her some time to second it. Hunter’s first great record, “Don’t Pan Me,” belongs to her third session and her first genuinely great blues performance, “Chirpin’ the Blues,” to her ninth. Some of the earliest material must’ve been a trial to record; a wayward clarinet in the first verse of “After All These Years” steps on every note Hunter is trying to sing, and in another spot an over-eager cornetist literally drowns her out. But in all of these sessions Hunter braved the storm with special enthusiasm, and that confidence eventually blossoms into mastery. Her early style once formed, to this reviewer, is addictive; Hunter’s rapid, assertive patter mixed with glissandi, gulps (an effect not lost on Libby Holman) and a quick, tasty vibrato which creeps into places where you’d never expect to find it, used in incredible variety.

Hunter also emphasizes clear diction, dropping out words rather than smearing them, and this may be of lesser appeal to listeners attuned to earthier voices like Ma Rainey. But Hunter wrote many of the songs that she recorded, and clearly wanted the words to be understood. With her first true electricals at Victor—the miserable sounding Okeh “TruTone” discs, though partly electric, do not count—Hunter is at some pains to avoid belting it out as she had for acoustics. By her 1927 session with Fats Waller—arguably her best accompanist overall—Hunter had electrical recording figured out, and began to exploit new aspects of her singing; lower registers and intimacy. It’s a shame that at this point her recording activity slows to a trickle, though that is in keeping with the fortunes of Vaudeville blues women on record across the board in the late ‘20s; Hunter had better luck in this respect than some. By the time of the Jack Jacksons, she’d had some singing lessons and was now rolling her “r’s,” watching her breath control and sustaining a longer line. Perhaps the effect is less “bluesy,” but these measures no doubt helped to preserve her voice and to make Hunter’s late career possible.

There are no production credits in the package, but it appears that the ‘naked’ material from Document has been put through some additional noise reduction processing. This helps in some cases, and is largely invisible, but is not so in Hunter’s first electrical session with pianist Mike Jackson. And there are places where really nothing can be done; the opening of “Vamping Brown” is musically unintelligible, with Fletcher Henderson’s piano registering only as noise from the badly worn, original 78 rpm disc. The Document issues were assembled from tapes canvassed from collectors 20 or more years ago, and in some cases it is possible that better specimens have been found in the interim; certainly there has got to be a better copy in this world of Hunter’s glorious 1923 rendering of “Loveless Love,” as it was issued on at least three 78 labels! On the other hand, for rare, unsuccessful records, copies used in this collection may still be the only ones known. Moreover, record collectors are not always apt at transferring discs, which may be why “Wasn’t It Nice?” sounds the way it does here.

Despite these drawbacks, The Alberta Hunter Collection 1921-40 might well be as ideal a survey of Hunter’s first two decades in recording—of a career that lasted six and half—as one could expect to enjoy under current circumstances. It has good notes by Paul Watts, the only person credited in the package, and full disclosure—Watts quotes from some fellow named “Uncle Dave Lewis.” But beyond Watts’ good taste in source material, the notes hit the high points of her career, both as a recording artist and as a live performer, and summarize in a concise way the titanic achievements of Alberta Hunter, whose own life story is as unlikely and astounding as her best singing is intoxicating and timeless.

Reviewed by Uncle Dave Lewis

 

View review July 7th, 2017

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song

Sweetback

Title: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (An Opera)

Artist: Melvin Van Peebles; Earth, Wind & Fire

Label: Concord/Stax

Formats: Vinyl, High-resolution digital

Release date: May 26, 2017

 

In the February issue we gave a brief preview of Concord Music Group’s year-long celebration of Stax Records 60th Anniversary, including the new compilation CDs paying tribute to the many iconic artists in the Stax roster. Now Concord has released the first of their Stax 60th anniversary remastered vinyl offerings—a 108 gram pressing of the original cast soundtrack album for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.

As most already know, this landmark independent film was written, produced, scored, and directed by Melvin Van Peebles, who also portrayed Sweetback: “a black protagonist who not only overpowers the oppressive white cops, but he manages to get away with it.” Released in 1971, the film contributed to the creation of the Blaxploitation era and was promoted by the Black Panthers, who filled theaters with members for whom it was required viewing.

The soundtrack album, distributed prior to the release of the film to raise cash and garner publicity through airplay, was also notable for introducing an unknown group by the name of Earth, Wind & Fire. Van Peebles also performs as his alter ego, Brer Soul. Without the Sweetback soundtrack and contributions of EWF, who transformed Van Peebles hummed musical ideas into a funky soul-jazz score, the film may never have made it into theaters. And without Sweetback to pave the way, there may never have been a string of soulful ‘70s soundtracks scored by the likes of Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, Bobby Womack, Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, Gene Page, Johnny Pate, James Brown, Roy Ayers, and Willie Hutch. As EWF’s Verdine White noted, “at the time there weren’t a lot of movies that had black music” (Quincy Jones was the only black composer with a string of film scores to his credit).

Concord’s 180-gram vinyl gatefold edition features audio remastered from the original analog tapes and cut on the original Stax lathe at Ardent studios in Memphis. Newly penned notes are provided by Jeff Weiss, who credits Van Peebles with the birth of “badass cinema” via a film “that captured the spirit of rebellion, frustration and the refusal to accept injustice.” Mario Van Peebles, whose 2003 film Baadasssss! chronicled the making of his father’s famous film, also reflects on the film’s profound influence in the liner notes.

Long out of print with the exception of foreign pressings, this remastered vinyl release of Sweetback belongs in everyone’s collection!

Editor’s note: Melvin Van Peebles has recently performed with other bands featured in Black Grooves, including the Heliocentrics.  

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review July 7th, 2017

Various 60’s R&B artists – More From the Other Side of the Trax: 45rpm Rarities 1960-1968

Other Side of the Trax
Title: More From the Other Side of The Trax: 45rpm Rarities 1960-1968

Artist: Various 60’s R&B artists

Label: Kent Soul/Ace Records

Formats: CD

Release date: April 14, 2017

 

 

More From The Other Side Of The Trax: Stax-Volt 45rpm rarities is the second volume of its kind from the Kent Soul imprint.  This new compilation offers entry points for both the novice and hardcore collector, bringing together selections that have not been together in any capacity on CD up until this time.

For the novice, this is a mix of great tracks from early ‘60s rhythm and blues vein, as beginners may be familiar with artists such as Rufus Thomas and the Mar-Keys, both featured in multiple tracks.  For dedicated fans, the collection offers numerous B-sides from the Stax “Blue” period (so named for the color of the label on the 45s during this period) that surprisingly were not present on the Complete Stax Volt Singles volume released in the 1990s.

Highlights of the arrangement include Rufus Thomas’ cover of Billie Holiday’s “Fine and Mellow,” which illustrates Thomas’ proficiency as a jack of all trades.  This track finds the artist, better known for his funky workouts, clearly in a blues mode but still giving a fantastic performance. The Mar-Keys, best known for their instrumental hit, “Last Night,” appear with a great set of tracks including “Grab This Thing Part 2”, which is as funky as they come.

William Bell, who is currently experiencing a renaissance in popularity, appears with a few tracks, as well. “Whatcha Gonna Do” hints at where Stax would go during its “Yellow” period with a funky soul orientation. Carla Thomas’ “Puppet” shows that contrary to popular belief, Stax was very much interested in pop appeal, as its string arrangement adds drama and “sweetening” to a great vocal performance by Ms. Thomas. Lesser-known early Stax acts such as Barbara and the Browns appear the tracks “I Don’t Want Trouble” and “You Make a Strong Girl Weak,” respectively sounding more like traditional rhythm and blues than the soul sound for which Stax would become known. On “Never Let You Go” by Carla & Rufus Thomas, you can almost hear the fun the father/daugher duo had performing together.

Rounded out with liner notes for each group written by Tony Rounce, More From The Other Side Of The Trax sheds some light on some great singles that have remained unavailable outside of their original vinyl release until now.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

View review July 7th, 2017

Fuzzy Haskins – I Got My Thang Together

Fuzzy
Title: I Got My Thang Together: The Westbound Years

Artist: Fuzzy Haskins

Label: Westbound/Ace

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: April 7, 2017

 

 

Ace Records has released the compilation I Got My Thang Together: The Westbound Years celebrating the music of one Clarence “Fuzzy” Haskins.  Who’s Fuzzy Haskins, you ask?  Well, if you are even a casual fan of Parliament-Funkadelic, chances are you are already familiar with his brand of earthy, heavyweight funk (“Put Up Your Dukes”).  Although amongst most popular culture George Clinton and Bootsy Collins are seen as the brand ambassadors for the P-Funk Mob, there were many, many players who made both bands what they were.  Some of these players were even given their own chance to shine on various side projects that sprung up during the height of their popularity.

After growing up on Parliament (my Dad’s record collection is the core of my own collection), I was still amazed at how much material was out there to be discovered.  During my personal “deep dive” into the Parliament-Funkadelic catalog, I came across A Whole Nother Thang and Radio Active, the aforementioned Fuzzy Haskins albums from 1976 and 1978 respectively.   As with many of the side releases from P-Funk, Haskins is backed by other members of the band including Billy “Bass” Nelson, Tiki Fulwood, Bootsy Collins, Cordell “Boogie” Mosson and Bernie Worrell.  Since the lion’s share of this compilation was pulled from these two albums, it definitely has a very familiar feel.

Haskins’ history with Parliament goes back to its very origins as part of the doo wop group known as “The Parliaments”—the original group that would later birth Funkadelic and Parliament.  Haskins is credited with writing several songs on the early P-Funk records, but by the mid-1970s he was feeling a little disconnected (pun intended) from the Mothership and began stashing songs away for what would become his debut solo album: A Whole Nother Thang on Westbound Records (the label behind the first few Funkadelic releases).  The most famous track from this first outing was “Cookie Jar.”  The song has a great groove and was later covered with great results by P-Funk’s female group, Parlet.  The version included on this compilation is not from the album, but an alternate that’s arguably better based solely off the hilarious conversational intro by Haskins.  Another highlight is “Mr. Junk Man,” a funky lament for those addicted to drugs, and “The Fuz and Da Boog” which features Haskins on drums and Cordell Masson on bass.

This compilation also features tracks from Haskins’ second Westbound release, Radio Active, including the tracks “Sinderella” and “Not Yet,” which feature Haskins basking in his carnal desires.  It is tracks like these that eventually stalled Radio Active from getting a solid push from the label.  By this time Haskins had become disenfranchised with the P-Funk Mob and turned his life over to religion.  Not wanting to sing “nasty” songs he was equally unenthusiastic about the record upon its completion. In the years since, Haskins has reunited with Parliament-Funkadelic on several occasions and was inducted with them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.

I Got My Thang Together serves as a great introduction to Fuzzy Haskins’ solo work and fits right in with many of the other great P-Funk side projects.  If you are a hardcore Funkateer, this one’s for you.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

 

 

View review June 1st, 2017

JC Brooks – The Neon Jungle

JC Brooks
Title: The Neon Jungle

Artist: JC Brooks

Label: Rock Ridge Music

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: April 7, 2017

 

JC Brooks’ Neon Jungle seeks to take the listener on a journey through the nightlife. In fact, Brooks had a specific image in mind: “It’s ‘87, you’re going out on a Friday night and you’re ready to lose yourself in the city…” The album really succeeds in building on this scenario with songs like “Drive” and “Stumble in the Dark,” both of which have a very danceable feel that bubbles with the excitement of an evening where opportunity abounds.  However, the album also features more contemplative tracks like the opener “Jungle” and the ballad “Playing With Fire,” both evoking the vocal stylings of Donald Fagen of Steely Dan who Brooks cites as an influence.

While “JC Brooks” headlines, his backing band also contributes to the very cohesive feel of the record. They complement each other and Brooks on songs like the very funky “O.N.O.” Brooks takes on a Prince influenced falsetto while his band tightens up, making this one of the liveliest and most enjoyable tracks on the record.  On “One For Someone,” Brooks slows things down again for an inspired song that showcases his vocals and songwriting, with the added bonus of a great guitar solo by Alec Lehrman.

The album’s closer, “Watch Me,” blends a great story with great music. Brooks spikes the bridge with the message, “We are all currently losing this game of love / because we are searching out something brand new / when slightly used will most certainly do,” leaving those who are not too caught up in dancing to really think about what message Brooks is trying to send.

All in all, Neon Jungle succeeds in creating the feeling of a night out that’s full of both exciting and intimate moments.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

View review May 2nd, 2017

Columbia Nights – In All Things

Columbia Nights
Title: In All Things

Artist: Columbia Nights

Label: Record Breakin Music

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: March 24, 2017 (CD & LP)

 

Washington, D.C. has always had a vibrant music scene, especially given its “Chocolate City” status. This scene, however, has typically been dominated by go-go music and at times, hardcore punk. Intent on breaking new ground, the D.C. band Columbia Nights is a “soultronic production group” comprised of John E. Daise, Jason Edwards and Hayling Price. The trio combines their numerous soul, funk, and R&B influences with their love of electronic music, and the result is harmonious to say the least. In All Things is their first full length album, following 2012’s EP Dawn | Dusk. There is definitely a sense of growth between the EP and this album.  The production is more lush on In All Things, and takes the listener further inside the sonic worlds that Columbia Nights constructs.

There are a number of interesting collaborators featured on the album—such as Diggs Duke, violinist Vaughan Octavia, and singer B.Jamelle, among others—who seek to highlight some of the group’s musical influences. The band’s collaboration with Aaron Abernathy on “Coming Home” is particularly compelling, and sounds like it could be a track off of D’Angelo’s album Black Messiah (2015).  The instrumentation on songs like “Glide” and “Cerulean” are also particularly impressive.

It is not an overstatement to describe In All Things as cosmic, both in scope and in sound.  The album moves seamlessly from groove to groove and vibe to vibe, offering a wide variety of sounds but never sounding at odds with itself. In All Things is a journey from start to finish, and a well-constructed one at that.  The album is a great first effort from Columbia Nights, who are representing the D.C. soul scene well.

Reviewed by Allie Martin

View review May 2nd, 2017

José James – Love In A Time of Madness

Jose James
Title: Love In A Time of Madness

Artist: José James

Label: Blue Note Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: February 24, 2017

 

José James has always been known for blending jazz together with hip-hop, but on his latest album Love In A Time of Madness, he takes it to a whole new level. Always one to try something new and daring, the album is a modern spin on the classic R&B themes of love, lust, and longing.

Skilled vocal sampling, a slow hip-hop rhythm, and heavy bass lead into James’ smooth voice on the first single for the album, “Always There.” Sensually singing about his devotion to his woman, James’ style is reminiscent of modern R&B stars such as Miguel or Usher, and could easily be heard on the radio:

Originally meant to be an album dealing with both love and “societal madness—a response to the systemic and often physical violence perpetrated on U.S. citizens of color,” James felt that the madness side of the album was spiraling out of control. Overwhelmed by the daily acts of violence, he decided to focus on the love part, creating an album of healing which provides a temporary respite from the madness.

This idea that love can be felt even in a time of despair can be heard on songs such as “Let It Fall,” which features Mali Music. Slow and melancholy, James and Mali Music sing,

“No one really likes when the rain comes because that’s the same time that the pain comes crashing down And that’s the same way that your love comes pouring down.”

This juxtaposition of rain as bringing both the realization of pain and a sign of new growth expertly shifts from soft jazz-infused vocals to a deep hip-hop beat with a drop around the three-minute mark.

Though many songs (“You Know I Know,” “Last Night”) are heavily electronic, the album also features a live band that adds flair to James’ brand of contemporary R&B and showcases his jazz influences. With Takeshi Ohbayashi on keys, Solomon Dorsey on bass and vocals, and Nate Smith on drums, “To Be With You,” a rhythmic jazz ballad, and “I’m Yours,” an intimate, gospel-infused declaration of commitment and love featuring Oleta Adams, particularly benefit from this live instrumentation.

The upbeat “Live Your Fantasy” brings the funk to the album, and certainly fulfills James’ hope to make the listener want to dance through the night. “Ladies Man” continues this vibe, as James tests out his falsetto in a George Clinton-esque psychedelic track. Despite these many styles, the music is all grounded in James’ velvet voice, making In A Time of Madness feel cohesive. It is clear that genre is fluid for José James, and there’s no telling what he will take on next.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review May 2nd, 2017

Soul Science Lab – Plan for Paradise

Plan for Paradise
Title: Plan for Paradise

Artist: Soul Science Lab

Label: self-release

Formats: CD (Collector’s edition), Digital

Release date: October 28, 2016

 

 

October 2016 saw a strong release by the eclectic hip hop duo Soul Science Lab, a rap group that proclaims itself as “Innovative.Afro.Futuristic.Griots” on the mbira-driven first track of Plan for Paradise. This appears to be an accurate description of the music that artist and musician Chen Lo and multi-instrumentalist, composer, and producer Asante’ Amin create.  The duo’s songs are compelling and innovative, indicative of the group’s sprawling vision and overall high artistic standards.

At first listen, the offbeat and hip sensibility of Plan for Paradise will likely remind listeners of work by De La Soul or A Tribe Called Quest.  Like these earlier pioneers, Soul Science Lab’s soundscapes are heavily influenced by jazz and other musics of the African Diaspora.  However, SSL’s music is not simply a throwback to the heyday of the Native Tongues collective.  Stylistically, the music broadens out to a variety of other genres, such as the gospel shout on “Gimme That,” hard rock on “Built My City,” Spanish guitar on “Kingmaker,” and electro funk on “Spend Some Time.”

Lyrically, SSL addresses everything from their Afrofuturistic artistic vision to spiritual themes (“Supernatural”) to contemporary social issues (“I Can’t Breathe”), the latter with a rare poignancy in an age full of attempts at political music. The lyrics on Plan for Paradise, while appearing aspirational on many tracks, demonstrate a deeper understanding of the underlying themes.  That is to say, the political songs aren’t political because it is fashionable to address current events—rather, they suggest the artists’ abiding concerns and nuanced understanding of the issues at hand.

Overall, Plan for Paradise is a great listen from a group whose members boast an impressive resume, both due to their collaborations with other artists and in their work with arts education (detailed on the group’s website).  Listeners can hope that this is the first in a long line of innovative.Afrofuturistic albums.

Note: The album cover uses the Augmented Reality technology of Blippar to create an interactive experience, as demonstrated in this video.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

View review April 4th, 2017

Hot 8 Brass Band – On the Spot

Hot 8 Brass Band
Title: On the Spot

Artist: Hot 8 Brass Band

Label: Tru Thoughts

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: March 31, 2017

 

The Hot 8 Brass Band uses their new release, On the Spot, to keep on doing what they do best.  The album is filled with the kind of up-tempo lively party music that one might expect from a top tier New Orleans brass band.  The Hot 8 is just that and they do not disappoint.

The album begins in spectacular fashion with “8 Kickin It Live” which is jam packed with energy via those great New Orleans syncopated rhythms which definitely had me dancing in my seat as I listened. Following are more original pieces, including “Working Together,” “Get It How You Live,” and “Bottom of the Bucket,” which is funky as all get out and features an infectious horn line with great feeling.

According to the Hot 8 Brass Band, “On the Spot” refers to the “glorious, rare moment in a New Orleans parade when the band stops to take a break but keeps playing for the crowd. Vibing and keeping the energy up, when they sync up and the magic happens—a new tune is created.”  You can almost hear this happening as the band lays into the title track.

The album features a few notable covers including “St. James Infirmary,” which sees the band dipping into classic New Orleans jazz and incorporating woodwind instruments into the track. Also covered is Sade’s “Sweetest Taboo,” reworked into a slightly more up-tempo jam, and Stevie Wonder’s “That Girl” which the Hot 8 mold in a rhythmic party anthem. The album closes out on a few more originals, most notably “Can’t Nobody Get Down” featuring a horn line reminiscent of Isaac Hayes’ “Do Your Thing.”

With On The Spot, the Hot 8 Brass Band truly does a great job at packaging as much of the live energy they bring to their performance as possible.  I can only imagine what heights are reached when experiencing the band in real time.

Editor’s Note: the Hot 8 Brass Band’s U.S. tour in support of the album begins May 27, 2017 in Denver.

Review by Levon Williams

View review April 4th, 2017

Thundercat – Drunk

Thundercat
Title: Drunk

Artist: Thundercat

Label: Brainfeeder

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: February 24, 2017

 

This month sees a new release from the eclectic bass virtuoso Stephen Bruner, known by his stage name, Thundercat.  Bruner has performed with artists across a variety of genres, and is perhaps best known for his collaboration with rapper Kendrick Lamar on the latter’s 2015 masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly.  Thundercat has an ear for a variety of musical styles, and his wide-ranging musical approach is readily apparent on Drunk.

This 23-track album feels like a series of musical vignettes—only one of these cracks the 4-minute mark and the vast majority of them are shorter than 3 minutes long. However, this brevity allows each composition to be a highly detailed miniature, with carefully layered sounds and carefully composed tunes being the album’s highlight.  Each track leaves the listener craving more without feeling complete, almost as though each song were a brief study in compositional technique.  If Thundercat’s resume is full of versatility, so is his dossier of compositions.  This album is heavy on guest appearances, with Thundercat working with everyone from yacht-rockers Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins (“Show You the Way”), to socially-conscious rapper Kendrick Lamar (“Walk on By,” which can be heard below), to massive pop star and musical chameleon Pharrell Williams (“The Turn Down”).  On these “feat” tracks, Thundercat and company craft arrangements that bring out the best of his collaborators’ musical ideas while simultaneously pushing these otherwise well-established artists towards Thundercat’s own neo-soul jazz fusion.

The material on this album ranges from virtuosic (“Uh Uh”) to just plain weird, incorporating sung meows (“A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II)”) and lyrics about playing Mortal Kombat when relegated to friend status by a potential romantic partner (“Friend Zone”) into his musically and technically sophisticated music.  This approach begs comparison to the bizarre combination of humor and virtuosity that was the hallmark of artists like Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. While it is easy to imagine that listeners who are here for the marquee collaborations may be put off by the more technically involved or thematically strange music, these equal parts of Thundercat’s approach to composing and playing fit comfortably side-by-side.  This is the kind of record that will challenge listeners by pushing them out of their musical comfort zones by an artist who is comfortable across a wide variety of musical idioms.

Drunk is nothing if not ambitious, but ambitious records are usually a bit uneven.  It is hard to find a single unifying thread that runs throughout the album, but that ultimately doesn’t prove detrimental to the project as a whole. Drunk isn’t a novel, but a visit to a musical theme park, where listeners are encouraged to take a spin on each of the rides.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

View review March 1st, 2017

Miles Mosley – Uprising

Miles Mosley
Title: Uprising

Artist: Miles Mosley

Label: World Galaxy / Alpha Pup

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: January 27, 2017

 

When press releases surrounding Miles Mosley’s latest project were circulated last fall, little did we know just how strongly an album built around the theme “uprising” would resonate. By the time the album dropped last week, the country was embroiled in protests that show no sign of abating. Now Mosley’s concept for Uprising seems downright prescient:

The word “uprising” is often used in moments in which a group of people witness their strength in numbers and band together to seize an opportunity. This embodies the time we are currently living in, where people all over the world in art and politics are recognizing their own power in numbers. It is prophetic as it deals with the different tenants of survival within a world of mystery and ambivalence. From brotherly love to the dangers of good intentions, these are all universal occurrences to which we all seek advice.

If the album’s theme is not enough to draw you in, the music is a powerful hook. Mosley composed the music and also contributes lead vocals and his virtuosity on the upright bass. He’s backed by a soul stew otherwise known as the West Coast Get Down: Kamasi Washington and the late Zane Musa on saxophone, Dontae Winslow on trumpet, Ryan Porter on trombone, Brandon Coleman on keyboards, Cameron Greaves on piano, and drummer Tony Austin. Completing the aural tapestry, a full orchestra and choir are added to several of the tracks.

On Uprising, the WCGD collective fulfills another mission: “to defy genre and combine musical influences to make jazz dangerous and exciting again, while paying tribute to the legends before them.” Some of these legends include Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix, whose Southern soul and psychedelic rock are synthesized with jazz on nearly every track, along with message songs reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield.

The album kicks off with “Young Lion,” a fabulously funky song espousing the attributes of a young, woke man with Mosley singing, “set me free, let me run . . .I’m so on fire, look what I’ve become, I’m high, high, higher.” The track also demonstrates Mosley’s incredible bass technique, as the track closes in a fury of distorted riffs that might fool you into thinking he switched up his bass with electric guitar. This is followed by “Abraham,” a song framed with biblical references that begins peacefully with a keyboard backed intro. As Mosley concludes the first verse, “I’m scared, mediocrity is everywhere, but not here!,” the band explodes into action—proving that mediocrity will never fly with this renown ensemble.

In a recent LA Weekly interview, Mosley says he wanted to include “heart-wrenching songs of loss and disappointment,” but also “a soundtrack for this crazy time that people can lean on.” Many of the tracks embody these feelings of disillusionment; however, they never fail to inspire. The reverb soaked anthem “L.A. Won’t Bring You Down” seeks to embolden young artists to hold their own in the City of Angels, cheering them on with a shouting soul chorus, punchy horn section, and liberal applications of the wah wah pedal on the bass. This flows naturally into the emotional ballad “More Than This,” which starts off in a slow groove, then explodes in a powerful flurry of fuzzed up bass as Mosley shouts, “I was promised, maybe the whole world was promised, so much more than this!” Other stand out tracks include “Your Only Cover” and “Reap a Soul”—the latter a bit reminiscent of The Wiz in its “get on down the road” theme. In fact, both songs have lush orchestrations and a ‘70s era Broadway quality. The album concludes with “Fire,” a celebratory tune with Latin rhythms and full string section that will definitely get everyone on their feet, clamoring for an encore.

All of these tracks were recorded in 2012, at the same month-long session that gave birth to Kamasi Washington’s debut album, The Epic, and Cameron Grave’s Planetary Prince (though his tracks were eventually re-recorded). Now it is Mosley’s turn in the spotlight, and that light shines like a solar flare. With Uprising, Miles Mosley takes a huge dose of soul and funk, fuses it with astonishing bass technique enhanced with crazy special effects, and tops it off with empowering lyrics and vocals. This album will no doubt be one of the highlights of 2017!

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review February 1st, 2017

Nate Smith – KINFOLK: Postcards from Everywhere

Nate Smitjh
Title: KINFOLK: Postcards from Everywhere

Artist: Nate Smith

Label: Ropeadope Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: February 3, 2017

 

Nate Smith’s debut album, KINFOLK: Postcards from Everywhere, is an invigorating collection of both instrumental and lyrical music blending jazz, R&B, and hip-hop into an interpretive showcase of his Black American experience. Smith’s career spans from teaching music to performing and recording with accomplished musicians such as Dave Holland, Chris Potter, and Ravi Coltrane, among others. Both bandleader and drummer, Smith celebrates the collaborative art produced on this album with his “kindred spirits,” the featured KINFOLK musicians.

The album slowly eases in with “Intro: Wish You Were Here,” a 30-second whisper-like pause before he kicks off with the rhythmically syncopated tune, “Skip Step.” “Bounce: Parts I & II” follows, highlighting the tight horn section’s unison melody. At periodic interludes, Smith incorporates partial recordings of his mother and father speaking about their family migratory experiences across the United States. “Retold” is a comforting tune with a sweeping melody, both reminiscent and nostalgic, which Smith describes as sounding “like someone telling a love story from start to finish.”

Smith is joined on this album principally by keyboardist Kris Bowers, guitarist Jeremy Most, alto and soprano saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, and electric bassist Fima Ephron. Singer and lyricist Amma Whatt and back-up singer Michael Mayo provide captivating vocals amid the dominating instrumental tunes, rendering the spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement on “Disenchantment: The Weight” and “Morning and Allison.” Several recorded guests are also featured on KINFOLK including saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist Dave Holland, guitarists Lionel Loueke and Adam Rogers, and vocalist Gretchen Parlato singing “Pages.” The final track, “Home Free,” is dedicated to the memory of his paternal grandfather. It opens with a somber yet bright string section as the band gently adds peaceful layers of sound forming a soothing conclusion.

KINFOLK: Postcards from Everywhere is a visual album, in the sense that Smith’s music evokes images of childhood, identity, nostalgia, and family, while each song creatively balances improvisation with steady melodic and rhythmic themes. With this debut, Smith and his collaborators have crafted an excellent work of art.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

View review February 1st, 2017

Robert Randolph & the Family Band – Got Soul

Robert Randolph
Title: Got Soul

Artist: Robert Randolph & the Family Band

Label: Sony Masterworks

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: February 17, 2017

 

So in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll let it be known that I am a longtime fan of Robert Randolph & the Family Band. I became aware of the band sometime around the early 2000s when they performed at the Grammy Awards as part of an all-star funk jam with members of Parliament-Funkadelic, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Outkast, among others. The band had just released their debut studio album Unclassified, which showed great potential for where the band could go with their recorded material. Of course, albums are just one metric by which to judge a band; the other (and arguably more accurate) metric is their live performances.  Masters of the jam band aesthetic, Robert Randolph & the Family Band have toured steadily for the last 15+ years. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing them multiple times, and love seeing the band live, in their element.

I bring up these two specific metrics because the dynamic between the two can at times be difficult to reconcile. How does the band take the kinetic energy of their live show and “bottle it” in a studio environment without losing some of what makes them so great? Robert Randolph & the Family Band has grappled with this challenge on their four previous studio albums, with various degrees of success. In my opinion, Unclassified best captured their live aesthetic, while We Walk This Road (2010) best captured their “focused studio album” potential. The band’s fifth album, Got Soul, finds them seeking that oft elusive balance once again.

The album opens with the title track which sets the tone for the album, with an upbeat and lively groove and Randolph’s signature pedal steel guitar front and center. This track is all but guaranteed to go over well live. Near the end of the track the band goes into a gospel breakdown that leads into the next song, “She’s Got Soul,” which really, really is a peek at the band at their best. “She’s Got Soul” also features Anthony Hamilton, who adds his signature vocals to the track, while Randolph contributes an excellent pedal steel solo. Darius Rucker appears on “Love Do What It Do,” and he is a great match for the group on this song:

YouTube Preview Image

The album also includes a cover of the Isaac Hayes & David Porter penned “I Thank You,” originally performed by Sam & Dave. I’m a complete sucker for the song in general (the Bar-Kays do a great funky rocked version), and Robert Randolph & the Family Band do not disappoint with their version. The track “Be the Change” unfortunately highlights one of the weaknesses of the band’s material. Randolph himself is credited with writing several of the tracks, and while the music is typically strong, it is somewhat bogged down by the lyrical content. I would love to see Randolph partner with more experienced songwriters like he does on “Lovesick,” which does a better job at matching their great instrumentals with well written lyrics.

One standout track is “I Want It,” which finds the band, including the excellent Lenesha Randolph, sharing vocals ala Sly & The Family Stone; however, at this point I realized I hadn’t yet heard former bassist/vocalist Danyel Morgan. Adding his falsetto to the mix was the only thing that could’ve made the track better for me. Robert Randolph has a killer pedal steel solo at the peak of this track.

Also included are a couple of the band’s signature instrumental tracks—“Heaven’s Calling” and “Travelin Cheeba Man”—the former would have fit perfectly with Randolph’s side project The Word and the latter would feel at home on Unclassified. Both are very enjoyable.

All in all, Got Soul does not completely overcome the challenge of balancing the energy of live performance with the focus of a studio album, but like many of the band’s prior studio releases, there are moments spread throughout where that balance can be heard. I look forward to hearing these new tracks in a live performance if I can catch Robert Randolph & the Family Band on tour this summer.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

View review February 1st, 2017

Dennis Coffey – Hot Coffey In the D

Dennis Coffey
Title: Hot Coffey In the D: Burnin’ at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge

Artist: Dennis Coffey

Label: Resonance

Formats: CD, digital

Release date: January 13, 2017

 

If you listen to classic Motown soul, you have heard guitarist Dennis Coffey, a bona fide member of the famous Funk Brothers in-house studio band. That fuzzy funky guitar on the Temptations “Cloud Nine,” that’s him. Also the neat little psychedelic hooks on later Diana Ross and the Supremes hits, and you can hear him on songs by Edwin Starr and Freda Payne. But wait, there’s more: he also had a million-selling instrumental hit in the ’70’s, “Scorpio.”

Like most other Detroit musicians of his era, Coffey’s recorded work is only part of his legacy. He was a regular in the city’s then-thriving music club scene. By 1968, Coffey was a member of a jazz/funk trio led by organist Lyman Woodard. The group regularly played at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge, known around town as a club where the audience expected excellent music, and respected the musicians by listening rather than partying and dancing.

These recordings were funded by Coffey and his production-company partner, but not released until now. They are not haphazard tapings, or soundboard feeds, but rather professional recordings of a working band in action. Here’s the promo video for Hot Coffey In the D, which is more of a mini-documentary on the making of this album:

For the most part, Coffey, Woodard and drummer Melvin Davis smoke up the joint. Some tunes run a little long (especially their cover of “The Look of Love,” which just doesn’t have enough meat on the bones to justify a nearly 12-minute excursion), but for the most part this is tight and very soulful instrumental jazz. I call it “jazz” because it is improvisational soloing over skeletal song beds.

Davis does a great job of holding the music together with rock solid beats and tasteful un-busy accents. Woodard is a funky B3 player in the Groove Holmes or Jimmy McGriff mode, although the album notes indicate he was emulating Jimmy Smith (I didn’t hear much Jimmy Smith-style jazz swing in his playing, more a solid funk groove and superb management of the bass pedals). But the real star of the show is Coffey, whose guitar playing is at turns funky, psychedelic, jazzy, and lyrical. His style is somewhat akin to Gabor Szabo in that, like the Hungarian-born jazz-pop guitarist, he can switch styles quickly and weave in and out of the song’s beat and melody. Also like Szabo, he tends to return to the song’s melody with clean single-note runs. But Coffey’s style is all his own, more leaning toward soul and rock than any contemporary jazz guitarist. And, judging from his Motown work, he was very much at home in the “Factory,” able to adapt his playing to whatever the hit producers needed.

The agility and ability of this band is demonstrated in the set list: opening tune “Fuzz” is pure acid jazz; mid-set the band lays down a fast-paced by jazzy cover of Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage”; and two songs later the band covers the then-current pop/R&B crossover hit “Casanova (Your Playing Days Are Over).”

Not to be overlooked, the CD booklet is another Resonance Records masterpiece. It includes interviews with Coffey, Davis, Mike Theodore (Coffey’s production partner and producers of these recordings), and legendary singer Bettye LaVette “on the 60’s Detroit club scene.” The ample text may require more than one playing of the CD to read, unless you’re a speed-reader! The booklet and cover art make strong arguments to buy the physical media rather than a download or stream.

Overall, Hot Coffey In the D is a worthy document of a great time and place in music.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review February 1st, 2017

Shirley Davis & the Silverbacks – Black Rose

Shirley Davis
Title: Black Rose

Artist: Shirley Davis & the Silverbacks

Label: Tucxone Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: March 29, 2016

 

The recently formed Shirley Davis & the Silverbacks consists of an Australian born soul singer and the resident house band at Tucxone Records, a soul label based in Madrid, Spain. The combination of these two forces is pretty unstoppable on Black Rose, their first full length project. Recorded in under a month’s time, the album is a mix of funk and soul, hearkening back to the 1960s. In fact, their band leader, Edu Martinez, describes the band as working similarly to the classic soul labels of the ‘60s.

Before joining the Silverbacks, Shirley Davis was featured in prominent Australian groups Deep Street Soul and Grand Wazoo. She also collaborated with Japanese funk band Osaka Monorail and the late Marva Whitney. Her voice draws an obvious comparison to the late great Sharon Jones, but is also reminiscent of Gladys Knight at times, Macy Gray at others. Davis’s voice has a versatility and an individuality all its own, though, which shines throughout the album.

The groove established in the opening title track, “Black Rose,” continues throughout the album, but never becomes repetitive. One of the best arrangements comes in the final track, “Make My Day,” which makes excellent use of organ. “Pay for Your Love” is another highlight, a slowed down song with Davis utilizing more of her range than she does on other parts of the album. There is one instrumental track on the album, “Burial of a Dead Star.” Surprisingly, though, it was not a standout arrangement compared to the other songs.

Overall, Shirley Davis & the Silverbacks are an impressive combination, and Black Rose is a solid first project.

Reviewed by Allie Martin

View review February 1st, 2017

Hannah Williams & The Affirmations – Late Nights & Heartbreak

hannah
Title: Late Nights & Heartbreak

Artist: Hannah Williams & The Affirmations

Label: Record Kicks

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: November 18, 2016

 

 

The UK indie soul singer Hannah Williams received high praise for her 2012 debut album, A Hill of Feathers, from soul greats such as Charles Bradley and the recently deceased Sharon Jones. Williams even opened for Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings once, which set her off on a European tour and newfound success. Her sophomore album, Late Nights & Heartbreak, steps it up a notch with the help of producer Malcolm Catto, the drummer for the Heliocentrics, and her new Bristol-based band The Affirmations.

YouTube Preview Image

Catto (who has produced albums for artists such as Mulatu Atatke and Melvin Van Peebles) brings his psychedelic funk and jazz flavor to Williams’ work on songs such as “Dazed and Confused” and “Fighting Your Shadow.”  The addition of The Affirmations to her music and tour is new to Williams, and their tight groove really completes the album. Williams also explores the intermingling of gospel and soul in the harmonious background choruses on songs such as “Tame in the Water.” It is clear that Hannah Williams is going places, and is not afraid to adventure into new styles and collaborations while holding on to her soulful voice that has taken her so far.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review February 1st, 2017

Emeli Sandé – Long Live the Angels

Emeli Sande
Title: Long Live the Angels

Artist: Emeli Sandé

Label: Capitol Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: November 11, 2016

 

Emeli Sandé’s second full length album, Long Live the Angels, comes four years after her 2012 debut, Our Version of Events.  The Scottish singer-songwriter goes further on this album than she did on her first, with a heavier gospel music influence, more penetrating songwriting, and a voice that is equal parts desperation and determination, the voice of someone who has been through something.

“Breathing Underwater” is quite possibly the best song on the album. From the intimacy of the songwriting (“I believe in miracles ‘cause it’s a miracle I’m here”) to the swelling of the choir in the final chorus, the song is an anthem about making it through the impossible.  Other such anthems on the album include “Sweet Architect” and “Every Piece of Me.”  For as many anthems as there are, though, this is a very intimate album with production that allows Sandé’s voice to shine through rather than be overpowered.

There are few features on the album, but they carry a lot of weight: the elusive Jay Electronica offers a verse detailing his journey through love (“Love is like a garden, love is like a death sentence Love is like a pardon, I’m free again and ready”). On “Tenderly,” Sandé is joined by her father, Joel Sandé, and The Serenje Choir.

The album is over an hour long, but doesn’t overstay its welcome. Sandé is a poet, detailing her heartbreak over the last four years, but ultimately emerging triumphant.

Reviewed by Allie Martin

View review February 1st, 2017

Southern Avenue – Southern Avenue

Southern Avenue
Title: Southern Avenue

Artist: Southern Avenue

Label: Stax

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: February 24, 2017

 

There’s something about Memphis-based band Southern Avenue that feels undeniably raw and authentic. Their intermingling of soul, blues, and gospel music has been talked about in Memphis for years and is now available for everyone to hear on their debut self-titled album. The band’s impassioned vocals, emotional songwriting, and guitars that rollick between easygoing blues and hard rock provide a lively glimpse into the Southern aesthetics and musical traditions of Memphis.

The first seeds of Southern Avenue were sown when guitarist and Israel-native Ori Naftaly competed in the 2013 International Blues Challenge in Memphis. After briefly touring with his own band, he met singer Tierinii Jackson, who grew up in Memphis singing gospel music in church. The two hit it off, and after gathering other members including Jackson’s sister as their drummer, formed the band Southern Avenue. In less than a year, they were signed to Stax. As a Memphis native, Jackson takes this responsibility seriously, determined to honor and build on the history of the legendary label and the renowned music that the name Stax evokes.

The first track and single on Southern Avenue is the hopeful “Don’t Give Up.” Starting off with acoustic guitar, hand claps, and gentle vocals, Jackson leads a call and response, singing “When it hurts real bad” while a chorus responds “Don’t give up.” Soon, drumset and electric guitar come in, building the energy and urgency. Jackson changes her call throughout the song, also singing “When you feel there’s no hope” and “Don’t give up,” building her melisma through a crescendo until the song culminates with a rocking electric guitar solo and then fades out over organ chords:

The rest of the album is a mix of R&B songs—such as the romantic, pleading “Love Me Right” and sexy “Wildflower”—and the upbeat blues rock of “No Time to Lose” and “Rumble.” The group’s gospel influences can also be heard in the harmonies of “It’s Gonna Be Alright,” a much softer, soothing song that emphasizes the soulful qualities of Jackson’s vocals. “80 Miles from Memphis” draws on both blues and country music traditions, as Jackson sings about being away from home and “crying her blues away.” Naftaly’s guitar is a highlight of this song, showing his immense passion and skills for playing the blues.

Southern Avenue’s mix of cultures and genres reflects and honors the diversity of cultures and music in Memphis. Even the group’s name pays homage to the musical history of the city, as Southern Avenue is a Memphis street that runs from the eastern city limits all the way to the original home of Stax Records in Soulsville. Southern Avenue is an impressive debut, which showcases the impeccable songwriting and musical talent of its member and transforms Southern traditions into a modern sound.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review February 1st, 2017

Jefferson St. Parade Band – Viral

Jefferson Street Parade Band
Title: Viral

Artist: Jefferson St. Parade Band

Label: Self-released

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: November 4, 2016

 

On Viral the Bloomington, Indiana based Jefferson St. Parade Band continues to hone their unique mix of musical styles, reaching for a sound that is their own. This new release is one step closer on that journey. JSPB operates as a mobile street/party band complete with horns, a drumline, and backpack amplifiers for their bassist and guitarist. As the band prepares to play their third Mardi Gras set this February, Viral serves a great primer for the uninitiated.

The album begins with “Austin City Unlimited,” which provides a great groove over which the horn section of the band shines. Not to be outdone, the syncopated rhythms of the JSPB drumline are also on display on this great opener. Despite its tongue-in-cheek title, “Most Annoying Song Ever, Gone Viral,” while “different,” is far from annoying. Perhaps the title is referencing a synthesized wind instrument that sounds like a melodica? Regardless, as the track continues, it shifts into an almost prog rock space which was a surprising but a welcome addition to the other genre influences that can be heard on the album—including funk, crunk, soul, and world music.

“Easy Dub,” which is a King Tubby cover, allows JSPB’s drumline to shine and comes across very well, with almost a jammy, zoned out vibe. That track is followed by the standout, “Jazz Bastard,” which sees the band really blending as a unit in a fashion that I would imagine translates well to their live performances. This track, in particular, features some great guitar work.

Viral finds the Jefferson St. Parade band still growing and finding new ways to incorporate their wide musical influences while continuing to hone in on what may eventually be known as “their” sound.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

View review February 1st, 2017

Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!

childish
Title: Awaken, My Love!

Artist: Childish Gambino

Label: Glassnote Ent. Group

Formats: CD, Digital, Limited Ed. virtual reality vinyl

Release date: December 2, 2016

 

 

2016 was a good year for actor/musician/writer Donald Glover.  He was cast to fill Billy Dee Williams’s shoes as Lando Calrissian in an upcoming Star Wars film, his hit FX series Atlanta ranks at the top of many critics’ “best of” lists, and his newest musical release as Childish Gambino, Awaken, My Love!, may be a career landmark.  At first listen, what is most striking about Gambino’s newest album is its departure from the low-key rap flows and electronic textures that characterized his previous work.  Rather, Awaken My Love! is steeped in ‘70s funk, from its close-up face cover image (reminiscent of Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain) to the guitar-heavy sounds that fill the disc. Most notably of all, Gambino generally departs from rapping in favor of singing. The best part about this is that he is quite good—maybe a better singer than rapper, in fact.

YouTube Preview Image

The album’s opening track, “Me and Your Mama,” draws heavily from the P-funk playbook, pulling more from Funkadelic than the Parliament side of things, a move that few groups influenced by the seminal act successfully execute as well as Glover. There other clues to the contents of Glover’s record collection throughout this disc as well. For instance, “Boogieman” is reminiscent of early ‘70s Frank Zappa, from subject matter to sound—the song easily could have appeared on the composer/guitarist’s quintessential 1974 release Apostrophe.  “Redbone” borrows heavily from Prince’s synth-heavy Minneapolis sound and the clavichord-based “Baby Boy” might have been an outtake from Sly & The Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Going On.

Childish Gambino is not simply borrowing from others’ musical influences, however.  Songs like “Riot” draw together classic soul influences with booming bass and breakbeats, and “California” is an ironically sunny slow jam, pulling a bass line from classic AM radio, but adding drums and assorted oddball percussion and wind instruments foreward in the mix. These stylistic moves highlight its characters life-changing attempts to deal with their dysphoria.

This album would be worth listening to for its sound alone—synthesizers, drums, and guitars weave together what is certainly one of the most sonically interesting releases of the past several years—but it is also notable that Glover shifts his lyrical tone.  One of the issues with his work as Childish Gambino is that at times his rap has been difficult to believe, alternating between too serious and too silly, with his best moments as a rapper usually coming as a feature on someone else’s track (see “Favorite Song” on Chance the Rapper’s breakthrough 2013 Acid Rap mixtape).  However, on Awaken My Love!, Glover maintains his sense of humor while finding a way to make compelling statements on relationships, society, and his characters inner emotional lives.

Glover has finally found the perfect balance: writing solid songs inflected with a lyrical and sonic sense of humor without getting too jokey.  It’s a shame that this record will probably be overlooked as one of the best of the year due to the sheer number of blockbuster releases in 2016.  In retrospect, however, it is likely that Awaken, My Love! will represent a reinvention from an artist who will no doubt be a defining figure of his generation.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

View review January 3rd, 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

Kosi – I Know Who I Am

kosi

 

Title: I Know Who I Am

Artist: Kosi

Label: (self-released)

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 4, 2016

 

Akosua Gyebi goes by many names: she acts as the lead singer of the New York City jazz group Sweet Blue Fire, member of indie rock group The Goddess Lakshmi, and she just released her fourth full length solo album under the name Kosi. On her website, she calls her latest project, I Know Who I Am, a “concept album telling the story of guilt, absolution, love and self-actualization through original jazz and negro spirituals.”

The opening track starts with a 50-second snippet of “Hallelujah,” which she later sings in full. It is raw and especially emotional in light of Leonard Cohen’s recent passing. The album includes traditional spirituals such as “Servant’s Prayer” and “Walk With Me,” as well as many originals such as the dark, twisting jazz song “Guilty.” In the final track, “Morning After Blues,” Kosi’s goal of self-actualization is fulfilled, as she sings about accepting her body, her talents, and where she is in life. A snippet of the song can be heard in the promo below:

YouTube Preview Image

While the recording quality is not always the most impressive, the skills of the backing musicians and Kosi’s passionate vocals still stand out on this sometimes unusual but captivating album chronicling her journey to self-acceptance.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review January 3rd, 2017

Bobby Bland – The Singles Collection, 1951-62

bobby-bland

 

Title: The Singles Collection, 1951-62

Artist: Bobby Bland

Label: Acrobat

Format: 2-CD set

Release date: November 4, 2016

 

The great Bobby “Blue” Bland was one of the most influential and beloved vocalists of the post-WWII era. A product of Memphis’ Beale Street blues scene, Bland was known for his powerful, soulful voice and preaching style of delivery. His distinctive sound melded the blues with R&B and gospel music, which evolved into soul just about the time Stax Records opened for business in his hometown. This two-disc retrospective from Acrobat documents the first decade of Bland’s career, from 1951-62, including all of his “rocking R&B and soulful blues” sides on the Duke label. Also included on Disc 1 are a few of the singles he cut for Chess and Modern the year prior to signing with Duke, including the lesser known song “Letter From a Trench in Korea.” But there are plenty of hits as well, such as his 1957 break-out single “Farther On Up the  Road,” his “Little Boy Blue” from 1958 (said to have been influenced by the preaching style of Rev. C.L. Franklin), and the Brook Benton ballad “I’ll Take Care of You.” By Disc 2, Bland’s style firmly enters soul territory, with tortured ballads such as “Cry, Cry, Cry” and “That’s the Way Love Is.”

The tracks on this set are arranged in chronological order, accompanied by a 15 page booklet with liner notes by Paul Watts and discographical information.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review January 3rd, 2017

Evelyn “Champagne” King – The Complete RCA Hits and More

evelyn-king
Title: The Complete RCA Hits and More

Artist: Evelyn “Champagne” King

Label: Real Gone Music

Format: 2-CD set

Release date: October 7, 2016

 

 

There is a great story about how Evelyn King was discovered. Up and coming producer T. Life heard King’s voice one night, while she was cleaning the offices of Philadelphia International Records. She was singing Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which impressed T. Life enough that he offered to coach the teenager. Evelyn King should have been a bigger star after the 1977 hit single “Shame” put her on the map. Now, I might be saying that because I happened to reside in Philadelphia, but nonetheless I’ve felt that way for years.

Real Gone Music’s two disc set, The Complete RCA Hits and More, contains all the hits plus songs that received very little attention. All the tracks on this set are 12” mixes or extended versions, so you feel like you are in a club and the DJ is giving you a new version you never heard before. All these tracks were remastered for this set by Maria Triana at Battery Studios in New York.

There are many highlights these two discs, such as “Dancin’, Dancin’, Dancin’,” written by none other than Teddy Pendergrass. Released before “Shame,” it is very disco-y but shows that King had vocal talent. “Aquarius / Let the Sun Shine In,” a remake of the Fifth Dimension classic, is pretty good, with King showing another side of her talent. “I Don’t Know If It’s Right” was released immediately after “Shame” and was also popular in clubs. In this song, King is singing about whether or not she wants to lose her virginity; the opening saxophone has always been a winner and here you get the extra bonus of an extended version. As the ‘80s were ushered in, King released “I’m In Love.” This time she is not worried about losing her innocence, and perhaps it’s her last hurrah:

I mentioned “Shame,” which is the very first track on this set. When it was released in 1977, King was all over—American Bandstand, Soul Train, you name it. Today, “Shame” can still get people on the dance floor. The long version is included in this set, so enjoy.

Evelyn “Champagne” King was billed a dance artist. After the success of “Shame,” no wonder. I personally would have loved to hear more of her ballads or duets, but this is still a great set. Again, Evelyn King should have been a much bigger star.

The Complete RCA Hits and More also includes extensive liner notes with photos and album art from the RCA Vault. The liner notes are written by soul expert David Nathan and feature exclusive quotes from Evelyn “Champagne” King herself. This album is the first comprehensive domestic collection of King’s work, making this set a must-have for any fan of disco music.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

View review January 3rd, 2017

John Lee Hooker – The Modern, Chess & VeeJay Singles Collection, 1949-62

john-lee-hooker
Title: The Modern, Chess & VeeJay Singles Collection, 1949-62

Artist: John Lee Hooker

Label: Acrobat

Format: 4-CD set

Release date: October 7, 2016

 
Though there are countless compilations of the recordings of legendary Delta blues guitarist John Lee Hooker, this 101-track 4-CD collection from Acrobat compiles all of his singles released on the Modern, Chess and VeeJay labels from 1949 to 1962. Sequenced chronologically, disc one begins with “Sally May,” recorded in Detroit with producer Bernard Besman and released in 1949 on Joe Bihari’s Modern label out of Los Angeles. Hooker’s second release produced the indelible classic “”Boogie Chillen,” followed by more hits in his R&B arsenal: “Crawlin’ King Snake,” “Hobo Blues, “Hoogie Boogie,” plus “Rock and Roll” from 1950. The disc concludes with some of his early sides for Chicago’s Chess Records.

Disc two picks up with “High Priced Woman” on Chess and concludes with his 1953 release on the Modern label, “Too Much Boogie.” Most of the Modern releases on this disc were produced by Bihari, who flew to Detroit to work directly with Hooker. Though disc three is still dominated by Hooker’s releases for Bihari, we’re introduced to the VeeJay period, which carries through to the end of disc four. Hooker signed with the Chicago-based VeeJay label in 1955, which produced a number of career highlights including his classic 1962 song “Boom,” with backing provided by session musicians with experience in Motown’s studio. The set concludes with additional songs recorded during that session, coming to an optimistic close with a reworking of his 1952 song “New Leaf.”

Though this set has nothing new to offer, it presents a nice introduction to Hooker’s work, mixing his blues and R&B sides. Liner notes are provided by Paul Watts, and the booklet includes complete discographical and session information.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review January 3rd, 2017

Solange – A Seat At the Table

solange
Title: A Seat at the Table

Artist: Solange

Label: Saint Records/Columbia

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: November 18, 2016

 

A Seat at the Table is Solange’s third full-length album, and debuted to wide critical acclaim as well as a great deal of commercial success, for good reason. The album is a force of nature, ethereal and almost delicate at times, yet tackles some of the heaviest aspects of black life today.  She sings about the range of the black experience and black womanhood, from depression on “Cranes in the Sky” to the pivotal and still relevant decree, “Don’t Touch My Hair.”  “F.U.B.U.” is a self-determination anthem bearing the name of the ‘90s clothing brand, and “Mad” explores the seemingly perpetual regulation of black anger and frustration.

Several key collaborators help to bring the album’s vision together, including Solange’s parents. Both provide important interludes, with her father discussing school integration in “Dad Was Mad” and Mama Tina outlining the importance of affirming one’s blackness in “Tina Taught Me.”  Most of the other interludes are handled by Master P, who recounts his own stories about self-worth as a young rapper coming up in the music industry.  The album was co-produced by Raphael Saddiq, whose laid back funk grooves provide the perfect setting for Solange’s vocals.

This album is all the hashtags one could hope for: it’s #woke, full of #blackexcellence and #blackgirlmagic. However, A Seat at the Table is more than just part of the Black Twitter news cycle.  It has staying power, it shows how Solange has grown and settled into her artistry, and it sets an example of what political music can (and should) be in these trying times.

Reviewed by Allie Martin

View review December 1st, 2016

Miss Sharon Jones – Documentary and OST Album

miss-sharon-jones
Title: Miss Sharon Jones

Label: Anchor Bay

Format: DVD, Streaming

Release date: November 1, 2016

 

 

 

Title: Miss Sharon Jones, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Label: Daptone
Format: CD, LP, MP3
Release date: August 19, 2016

Of the many musical titans to have passed on in 2016, Sharon Jones was one of the best. With a one of a kind voice and an undeniable stage presence, Jones made her career as a soul singer captivating audiences all over the world. Miss Sharon Jones (2015), directed by Barbara Kopple, details both her battle with pancreatic cancer and her triumphant comeback with her backing band The Dap-Kings.  In addition to the documentary, Daptone released the original soundtrack album featuring Jones’s music, with several of the tracks coming from her landmark 2007 album with the Dap-Kings, 100 Days 100 Nights.  Other tracks include “Longer and Stronger,” from the 2010 soundtrack For Colored Girls, as well as “I’m Still Here,” an exclusive track for the documentary and also the last song released by Jones before her passing.  Overall, Miss Sharon Jones and the accompanying soundtrack album serve as a fitting send off to a musical icon.

Reviewed by Allie Martin

View review December 1st, 2016

Otis Redding – Live at the Whisky A Go-Go, The Complete Recordings

otis-redding
Title: Live at the Whisky A Go-Go, The Complete Recordings

Artist: Otis Redding

Label: Volt/Concord

Formats: CD, digital, LP (excerpts, limited edition)

Release date: October 21, 2016

In this new 6-disc set, Concord Records, the current owner of the Stax label and catalog, puts out for public consumption every inch of tape rolled during Otis Redding’s 3-day/3-night stand at Los Angeles’s Whisky A Go-Go club on April 8-10, 1966. The completist approach is for better or worse, especially since “the best” material from these sets was released in 1968 as In Person at the Whisky A Go Go (Atco), and then more material was released in 1982 (Atlantic LP) and 1993 (Fantasy/Stax CD with bonus tracks) as Good To Me.

In keeping with the year-end holiday spirit, let’s start with the “for better” aspects of this set. The number one good new feature is the improved sound quality. Engineer Seth Presant remixed the original 4-track tapes and the result is a near-clear window into what Otis and his 9-man band sounded like on that stage. The new reissue also features some snazzy packaging; including liner notes on the back of a poster-sized reproduction of the box set cover art. Liner notes include essays by reissue co-producer Bill Bentley and Los Angeles arts and culture writer Lynell George.

The CDs are broken up mostly into individual live sets, the exception being the long second set from Friday, April 8, 1966 being spread over the end of disc 1 and all of disc 2. Disc 3 contains the longer first set from Saturday, April 9, while disc 4 contains the shorter second and third sets from that night. Disc 5 and disc 6 are, respectively, the two sets from Sunday, April 10. Several songs are heard in nearly every set. Indeed, buyer beware—there are many repeat performances of key tunes in the Otis Redding songbook, so variety is not the strong suit in this album.

Which brings us to the “for worse” aspects of this reissue. The big problem with these performances is, the band just didn’t hit its mark most of the time. The horns were often out of tune and rhythm was not tight enough for album-quality takes (which is probably why a few tunes were repeated over and over). The liner notes mention the club’s audience being mainly white kids, and Otis Redding was just beginning to have crossover success at that point in his career, so there was probably a bit of an energy gap between performer and audience. For whatever reason, the overall performances ebb and flow through each set, although it’s clear that Redding was working hard to get his music across and leave L.A. with a viable live album in the can.

After listening to all the Whisky A Go-Go shows, I’m not convinced that Redding would have wanted the complete package released. The performances just weren’t good and consistent enough, which is likely why a lot of editing was employed to get the first two releases. And, even in the edited form, these performances pale in comparison to Redding’s tear-down-the-house triumph at the Monterey Pop Festival a year and two months later. It’s worth noting that Redding played Monterrey backed by the super-tight Stax house band, Booker T. and the MG’s (see the film “Monterey Pop” to witness the incendiary results). Otis Redding died in a plane crash, at age 26, six months after Monterey.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review December 1st, 2016

Isley Brothers – Go For Your Guns

isley-brothers
Title: Go For Your Guns

Artist: Isley Brothers

Label: Iconoclassic

Format: CD (expanded ed.)

Release date: July 29, 2016

 

Look let’s be honest, most Isley Brothers fans know the 1977 album Go For Your Guns for its big hits “Footsteps In The Dark” and “Voyage To Atlantis.”  Also, these two particular songs are usually included on most Isley Brothers Greatest Hits compilations, so why might a reissue of Go For Your Guns be worth a spin?  Well, there are a couple of reasons. The first is to reintroduce the record as whole. The entire album.  This is a powerful piece of work that really illustrates that the Isley Brothers are, in a lot of ways, still underrated considering their contribution to modern popular music.  Beyond the hits, also included are tracks such as “The Pride”—which sets the album in righteous fashion with an exploration of one of life’s major motivations—and “Tell Me When You Need It Again” complete with a fat, funky bassline courtesy of Marvin Isley, plus one of my favorites, “Climbing Up the Ladder.”  The latter is as funky and rock-edged a workout as any early Funkadelic side.  Ernie Isley really leans into guitar, demonstrating his prowess with a biting guitar solo which illustrates how powerful the brothers became as a unit with their 3+3 lineup. This lineup had begun a few albums prior, adding brothers Ernie and Marvin on guitar and bass respectively, as well as brother-in-law Chris Jasper on keyboards, to the vocal trio of Ron, Rudolph, and O’Kelly.  Ernie also flexes on the album’s title track, which is essentially an extension of the funk groove from “Livin’ the Life.” This edition, digitally remastered from the master tapes, also includes three bonus tracks including the disco versions of “The Pride” and “Livin’ in the Life/Go for Your Guns.”

The second reason to pick up this re-release, as most lovers of reissues might tell you, is for the stories included in the liner notes. This reissue does not disappoint.  Written by A. Scott Galloway, who is clearly both a funk and Isley Brothers aficionado, the notes are chock full of great stories. I won’t spoil too much here, but for those who are fans of shows like VH1’s Behind The Music and TV One’s Unsung, there are some gems here.  For example, the Isleys were tapped to contribute one of the songs from Go For Your Guns to the soundtrack that became Saturday Night Fever.  Interested in which song it was and why in God’s name they decided not to do it? That question and more are answered in Galloway’s engaging liner notes.

And yes, I’ve purposely circumvented making this review all about the big hits, but I must say, the bridge on “Voyage To Atlantis” is still as ethereal (and lit) as it ever was.  (On a side note, I did a quick cursory search and “Voyage” has been sampled over 40 times and only one producer has flipped the bridge groove as opposed to the main groove.  How is that possible??) Anyway, great record + great notes = great reissue.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

View review December 1st, 2016

After 7 – Timeless

after-7-timeless
Title: Timeless

Artist: After 7

Label: Entertainment One

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 14, 2016

 

Vocal group After 7 returns after an eleven year hiatus with their album Timeless.  On this new outing the core members of the group, Kevon & Melvin Edmonds and Keith Mitchell, are joined by Melvin’s son Jason Edmonds.  As with their previous offerings, the group’s smooth vocal harmonies are front and center and Jason fits right in without missing a beat.

Timeless begins with arguably its strongest track, “Running Out,” which would be right at home with the best “Quiet Storm” grooves of the 1980s.  Despite the fact that they use various sound effects, the strength of the vocalists shine through and the music is fantastic.  The track definitely has a few Atlantic Starr vibes. “Running Out” is one of the many songs on the album written by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds.  It is clear from this jam that Babyface has in no way lost his touch and might very well be the producer heir apparent to Quincy Jones, should he ever decide to go that route.

Another highlight on the album is “I Want You,” which has been making the rounds as a single. On this Babyface penned track the fellas creatively share lead, switching between vocalists on each line.  After 7 sounds exceptionally energized here and the track is all the better for it. Following is another single from the album, “Let Me Know”:

The themes throughout the album are, as you’d expect, love, relationships, and desire.  This is stanchly “grown folks music,” with perspectives on these themes that are more in tune with the “Grown and Sexy” than their younger counterparts.  The production volleys between the aforementioned Quiet Storm and soft rock elements.  A couple of the tracks definitely put me in a “Human Nature”/”Africa” (Toto references) space and that is not at all a bad thing.

The album concludes with two covers. After 7 definitely does a good job with The Stylistics’ “Bet You By Golly Wow,” although it does not reach the heights of their “Baby I’m For Real/Natural High” cover from years back. “Home” is a strong closer and ends the album with a bit of a meditative tone.

Black Grooves has a special connection to the group After 7.  Members Kevon and Keith both attended Indiana University in the late ‘70s and were members of the IU Soul Revue, a live performance ensemble that tours around the country performing songs from the Black American Songbook, past and present.  Both Keith and Kevon cite their time with the IU Soul Revue as a major influence on their respective careers in music. Furthermore, both the IU Soul Revue and Archives of African American Music and Culture were founded by Dr. Portia K. Maultsby, who mentored countless students over the years.

Overall it is great to have After 7 back doing their thing.  The smooth sounds of Timeless also reinforce the fact that Babyface has not lost a step in his production work.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

View review November 1st, 2016

Newer Posts - Older Posts


Calendar

July 2017
M T W T F S S
« Jun    
 12
3456789
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930
31  

Posts by Month

Posts by Category

Blogroll

  • Bold As Love
  • Fake Shore Drive
  • Journal of Gospel Music
  • School Craft Wax