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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jessy Wilson and Kallie North are the soulful vocal duo behind the Muddy Magnolias. Wilson, the powerful lead vocalist, was raised in Brooklyn singing gospel and R&B music at clubs throughout her young adult years and backing stars such as Alicia Keys and John Legend. Meanwhile, North grew up in Texas singing in church choirs and listening to country and blues music. The couple met while in Nashville when Wilson discovered North’s photography and fell in love with her work. The collection of songs on their debut album, Broken People, showcases their song writing capability as well as their collaborative ability to wield Americana musical genres.
A soft wah wah pedal can be heard kicking into a rock-blues groove on the opening title track, “Broken People,” with a likeness to the music of Jack White. “Brother, What Happened?” follows, a cool and catchy anthem beckoning a socially activist generation to come forward.
Muddy Magnolias capture the attention of their listeners with power vocals and songs that stay in your head long after the album ends. This is best proven in the high energy pop songs, “Devil’s Teeth,” “Shine On!,” and “Got It Goin’ On.” Their music shifts in “I Need a Man,” from a darker blues sound into a Jason Mraz style pop chorus.
Wilson’s voice is often the dominant one on this album as North provides supportive harmonies with a country rasp like that of Susan Tedeschi. Several songs are instrumentally minimal in order to feature the duo’s powerful belting voices including “Train,” “Why Don’t You Stay,” and “Take Me Home.” The concluding track, “Lead Me to the Sky,” is strikingly similar to John Legend’s “All of Me,” which makes sense since Legend is provides piano accompaniment and backing vocals.
Broken People by Muddy Magnolias is an exciting pop album that highlights the duo’s ability to creatively blend musical genres.
I love Stax Records. When I see that distinctive logo, you know, the one with the finger snapping, I never hide my love. To quote the great singer Rufus Thomas, “Motown was cute, but Stax was souuul.” So when I heard that Melissa Etheridge was releasing a tribute album on the legendary label, two thoughts ran through my mind: (1) Shock and (2) No way (now if it was Bonnie Raitt, those two thoughts would have never entered my mind). Etheridge did what any true artist should do when you want recreate the magic and aura of Stax—she recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis, where some of the original songs on Memphis Rock and Soul were recorded. Al Green, Ann Peebles, and believe it or not Bruno Mars have all recorded there over the years.
On “Respect Yourself” Etheridge tries not to outdo Mavis Staples, which is smart. The opening guitar on this remake is similar to the Staple Singers’ version. On the Johnny Taylor cover “Who’s Making Love,” Etheridge slows the pace way down and changes the words to “Who’s Making Love To Your Sweet Lady.” If you know the original, it is much faster and has the kicking guitar along with Taylor’s soulful delivery on “Who’s Making Love To Your Ol Lady.”
Of course if you are going to cover Stax, you have to include Sam & Dave. Etheridge plays both Sam & Dave on the vocals to “Hold On, I’m Coming” and yes, I personally wanted to hear the horns just like original, and my wish was granted.
Stax’ biggest act, no question, was Otis Redding, who is covered on two tracks. The first, “I’ve Been Loving You,” is very underrated. Etheridge stays true to the original—no words changing here—and her vocal delivery is perfect. The second, “I’ve Got Dreams,” is again nothing fancy, with Etheridge showing respect for the original.
No doubt, it must have been a dream for Melissa Etheridge to record this album and pay respect to perhaps the greatest American record label ever.
André Cymone is perhaps best known for his friendship and collaboration with Prince, a relationship that has been brought back into the spotlight since Prince’s death in April 2016. They grew up together in Minneapolis, and Prince even lived with Cymone and his family for a period of time. In high school, they formed the band Grand Central, along with Morris Day. Their collaboration continued well into their careers, with Prince penning one of Cymone’s 1985 hits, “The Dance Electric.” Cymone then took a 27 year hiatus from releasing new music, and in in 2014 dropped his last album, The Stone.
Cymone’s latest project, Black Man in America, is a short EP but it packs a punch nonetheless. The album is overtly political in nature, with the first lyrics we hear being “No Justice, No Peace!” The opening track, after which the EP is named, argues that unless you’re living it, you don’t know what it’s like to be a black man in America. The second describes a “Hot Night in the Neighborhood,” which takes on violence and police brutality.
The third track, “Black Lives Matter,” is where Cymone’s politics get a bit uncertain. Musically, the song is an acoustic, intimate, plea for humanity and black lives. However, towards the end of the song, Cymone includes the phrase “All Lives Matter,” which has been decried by many organizers as a way of derailing the movement, and an unwillingness to stand up for black lives when it really counts. Here, perhaps, it just signals Cymone’s optimism. The final song is a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Far from the slow Jeff Buckley version that is perhaps best known, Cymone’s cover is fast and uplifting—a fitting conclusion to a project calling for radical change and peace.
Queen Alone is Lady Wray’s first album on Big Crown Records, but it is far from her first foray into the music industry. Beginning her career as Nicole Wray, she was first a protégé of Missy Elliott in 1998 with a hit single, “Make it Hot.” She was also part of a ‘90s R&B cohort featuring Elliott, Aaliyah, Timbaland, and Ginuwine.
Compared to her earlier music, QueenAlone comes as a reinvention of sorts for Wray. Between her first album and this new release, she participated in a number of different projects, including a group with British soul singer Terri Walker and collaborations with the Black Keys. Throughout the ups and downs of her career, Wray’s voice has both evolved and maintained its power and charm. Her timbre is similar to Fantasia Barrino, but also has a levity reminiscent of early Brandy.
Musically, the album has a retro vibe, a throwback to soul and R&B of the 1960s and ‘70s. Standouts include “Make Me Over,” a ballad that allows Wray to showcases her raspy runs, as well as “Underneath My Feet.” Overall, the transformation of Wray’s sound is a welcome one. She has come a long way from her days as Missy Elliott’s protégé, and seems to have found her place at Big Crown Records.
Known for his smooth vocals and soulful R&B style, Javier Colon became famous when he won the first season of “The Voice” in 2011. After working with Universal Republic Records and touring Mexico and South America with Maroon 5 (Adam Levine was his coach on “The Voice”), Colon said he was ready to make an album without “walls or boundaries.” This led to his debut album for Concord Records, Gravity, which tackles traditional R&B themes of love, loss, and recovering from heartbreak.
The album starts off with “Close to You,” a love song in Colon’s signature style, combining his acoustic guitar work with upbeat percussion and his harmonious R&B vocals. The track has the feel of a 1990s R&B group or boy band, reminiscent of early Usher. This is followed by “Clear the Air,” a ballad about trying to make up after a fight. Colon’s voice soars throughout the song, as he exclaims “How did we get to this place / how do we get away?”
The title track and first single off the album, “Gravity,” is an emotional song that showcases the expressive quality of Colon’s vocals, as well as their power on high notes, riffs, and runs. The lyrics convey the anguish of dealing with a breakup where he was “the enemy,” and struggling with the feeling of inevitability: “I knew I’d let you down eventually/ it’s gravity.” The video is dramatic, starting with accusations of cheating by a girlfriend, followed by Colon’s efforts to deal with overwhelming emotions:
Though many of the songs are emotive, slow songs about romance and heartbreak, Gravity includes a number of more upbeat tracks. “For A Reason” features guest singer Nikki Leonti, whose vocals playfully intertwine with and interrupt Colon’s. The song claims that “all things happen for a reason,” and its optimism that “someday sun’s gonna shine again” is emphasized by joyful horns throughout.
Javier Colon referred to his first album after “The Voice” as an “arranged marriage” that made him realize how much he values creative control. Gravity is the result of that realization, an album where Colon wrote or co-wrote 12 of the 15 tracks, and plays his acoustic guitar on almost all the songs. Colon said he was “willing to fight for” this album, and that sincere passion is evident in every track as he bears his soul and sings his heart out.
Why isn’t Will Downing (aka the “Prince of Sophisticated Soul”) a bigger name in music? Yes, Will has his fans, but he definitely flies under the radar and that’s a shame. If you aren’t hip to Downing, then you are missing out on perhaps one of the best vocalists in the game today.
On his latest album, Black Pearls, Downing pays homage to female vocalists who have inspired him over the years. When I read the press on this CD, I just knew one of those vocalists would be Aretha Franklin. Wrong! No Lady Soul. Like Downing, many of these female vocalists also flew under the radar when they were in their prime. Why? Who knows, but perhaps the labels never knew how to market and promote them.
Downing, who sounds a lot Luther Vandross on all ten tracks, does a “Luther job” on this album. That is, he is able to cover another artist’s song and make it sound like his own. Like Luther, Downing is able to pull off this feat with ease—even when these ten tracks include classic R&B hits from the ‘70s and ‘80s.
On Angela Winbush’s 1986 hit single, “Your Smile,” Downing’s interpretation is similar to the original. Nothing fancy—just a male on vocals instead of a female, and Will representing a male point of view. The same is true with “Street Life,” famously sung by Randy Crawford with the Crusaders in 1979, at the end of the disco era. Downing’s smoothed out version is accompanied by a full horn section and features solos by saxophonist Najee and Mike Logan on keyboards. Ok, enough suspense. Just who are the other females who inspired Will? The Emotions (“Don’t Ask My Neighbors”), Chaka Khan (“Everlasting Love”), Deniece Williams (“Black Butterfly” – arranged here by Chris “Big Dog” Davis), Cherelle (“Everything I Miss at Home”), Brenda Russell/Oletta Adams (“Get Here”), the Jones Girls (“Nights Over Egypt”), and Phyllis Hyman (“Meet Me On The Moon”).
The album closes with Downing’s cover of Jean Carn’s “Don’t Let It Go To Your Head,” composed by Philly soul masters Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff. Again, Will keeps the same tempo and style, right down to the glossy strings.
Black Pearls is a gem of an album that allows Downing to show just how much these ladies meant to him. Under the radar? Indeed.
This new CD from Omnivore features the first-ever compilation of 16 single sides (plus 5 bonus tracks) cut by Washington, D.C soul duo Gene & Eddie for the Baltimore-based Ru-Jac label. True Enough also includes several rare sides recorded by the talented producer, songwriter, trumpeter and vocalist who recorded as Sir Joe. The careers of these three artists—otherwise known as Eddie Best, Jr., Eugene Alton Dorsett, and Joe Quarterman—intertwined throughout the 1960s through various regional acts.
Eddie & Gene had been performing in D.C.’s Black nightclubs when they were tapped to front the Nightcaps, adding the soul to a band comprised of white and Jewish musicians. This, in turn, opened up new avenues of opportunity for the group as well as time in the recording studio. Meanwhile, Joe Quarterman had formed several vocal groups including the Knights, and fronted two different female groups: the El Corols and the Maidens. By 1965 he was recording his own tracks for Ru-Jac owner Rufus E. Mitchell (1909-2003), including “Nobody Beats My Love” and “A Guy for You”—both included here. Two years later these three artists signed to Ru-Jac, with Quarterman writing songs for Gene & Eddie, including the CD’s rousing opening tracks, “I Would Cry” and “I Tell You.”
The liner notes by Kevin Coombe document the many trials and tribulations of these three artists for the remainder of the decade. As is the case with most struggling musicians, they never quite made the big time. For the most, all three part had left the music industry by the early ‘70s. Sir Joe released a single on Ru-Jac in 1970 featuring two of his own songs—“Baby, I’d Drop Every Thing” and the more hard driving “Every Day (I’ll Be Needing You)” (tracks 11 and 12). The final recordings by Gene & Eddie, “Darling I Love You” and “Why Do You Hurt Me,” were released in 1971 (tracks 15 and 16).
Listening to these tracks five decades later, one can certainly appreciate the raw energy and talent of the artists and songwriters, but perhaps a bit too raw and unpolished for chart success. Most of the songs sound more like demos, cut in a hurry and on a tight budget. Nevertheless, True Enough expands our knowledge of these three artists while shining a light on the local DC soul scene of the 1960s.