“I’m a dreamer, and I wanna tell the world about my dreams” sings Garland Jeffreys on his fifteenth album, 14 Steps to Harlem. It’s unfair to say that Garland Jeffreys is enjoying a late career boost, as in a sense he never went away, releasing in every decade since the 1960s while still taking enough of a break to raise a family. Partly crowdfunded and released on his own label, Luna Park, 14 Steps to Harlem is an exceptionally strong outing, connecting with the varied touchstones of style and genre that he employs but never in a way that can be called scattered or diffuse. Here, one finds Jeffreys exploring elements of straight up pop, grungy rock, up-tempo blues, reggae, blue-eyed soul, hip-hop beats – what have you – and any one of these tracks might be shot through with country-styled lap steel, a sound he clearly loves. Jeffreys is not comfortable with genre being the boss, and he likes to live in different musical apartments. However, the overall effect of 14 Steps to Harlem is one of cohesion; the warmth of Jeffreys’ personality and the cogent spark of inspired enthusiasm behind each of these twelve selections is what pull them together.
One space in which Garland Jeffreys lived was in a dorm room at Syracuse University with the young Lou Reed. Reed’s impact and spirit is keenly felt in Jeffreys’ energetic cover of “I’m Waiting for the Man” which he’s been performing for some time; I caught it during a live show he did in Northern Kentucky in November 2014 and it was a mighty intense experience which comes through here. Lou’s vestige also turns up a little in the title track, with its simple progression, laconic narration and the panoramic view taken of its subject, treated with love, not derision. Reed’s widow Laurie Anderson contributes electric violin to the album’s closing track, the classically styled “Luna Park Love Theme.” This is arguably 14 Steps to Harlem’s most touching moment; for most of this disc you cannot tell that this is a singer in his seventies, but Jeffreys sings this one softly and allows the innocence which carries the album up to that point to give way to experience in its last moments.
Garland Jeffreys’ positive messages of peace and friendship are life-affirming and refreshing to hear in a climate and time such as this one we’re all in. Although I was not too sold on “Reggae on Broadway,” which seemed a mildly amusing parody – produced by Dennis Bovell, nonetheless, and therefore fully legit – 14 Steps to Harlem is a delight to behold for even the weariest of ears.
Whether you’re into rock, rap, punk, or crunk, Whole Wheat Bread is definitely a band to keep an eye on. Hailing from Jacksonville, Florida, and defining their playing style as “Dirty South Punk Rock,” Whole Wheat Bread formed in 2003 and released its first album, Minority Rules in 2005. The trio’s current manifestation consists of Aaron Abraham on lead vocals, guitar, and bass; Joseph Largen on vocals and percussion; and Will Fraizer on vocals and bass. Fraizer played with WWB for less than a year before recording Heart of Hoodlums, but the group is already perfectly in sync and gives a tighter performance than most bands that have played together for years. Although not listed among the primary performers, Travis Huff, producer, mixer, and engineer for the album, has also created some nice arrangements and synth tracks for “Bombs Away,” “Stuck in da Dark,” “Staying True,” and “Girlfriend Like This.”
Possibly due to the constant change in bass players since 2006, WWB’s three albums sound considerably different from one another. Whereas their album Minority Rules had more of an off-the-cuff, fast-and-furious, classic punk feel, Punk Life experimented with the heavier sounds of crunk and hip-hop. Compared to these earlier works, Hearts of Hoodlums demonstrates an amazing amount of stylistic versatility. Dirty south, crunk, punk, and hip-hop are definitely in there, but the band has added metal, alternative rock, and reggae to the mix.
The overall theme of Heart of Hoodlums also varies from WWB’s first two albums. Although there are still a number of in-your-face songs about challenging the authorities and shaking up the social order, Hoodlums delves more into self-reflection. A number of songs, like “Every Man for Himself” and “Stuck in da Dark” (featuring a guest performance by rap artist MURS) sing about feeling lost, trapped, confused, and seeking a sense of direction. The lyrics aren’t heavy enough to weigh the album down, but they definitely can take on a more contemplative tone than the more standard punk and crunk fare from WWB’s previous albums.
“Bombs Away” is currently receiving the most attention from the online community and has over 2.5 million hits through WWB’s MySpace page and over 7,000 plays of the music video on YouTube. Musically, “Bombs Away” draws from both rock and rap. The style of the verses is vaguely reminiscent of Eminem while the choruses, featuring guest vocalist Mike McColgan of Street Dogs, sound more like Metallica or Korn. The lyrics also shift between rap and rock, mixing reference to street violence (“don’t pop a cop”) with war references like “the shrapnel falls like stars and washes away who we are,” the latter of which sound much more like something you’d expect from a metal band. The music video also contains war references and shows scenes of the band running through fields wearing army camouflage and touting military riffles. For the most part, however, the action takes place in the “Duval County Veteran’s Hospital,” which look like part of the set for One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In the video, Abraham daydreams about WWB staging a military coup against the all-white staff, which has just strapped him into a straight jacket and sedated him. Given WWB’s struggles against the music industry’s tendency to pigeonhole black performers as rap and R&B artists, a story about black rockers resisting institutionalization by white authorities seems appropriate.
Another song with a strong online following is “Throw Yo Sets Up,” which welds a sort of happy crunk beat with lyrics about gang warfare. The song also incorporates elements of reggae and Jamaican Patois in homage to Abraham’s Caribbean heritage. “Girlfriend Like This,” which for some reason reminds me of a Smash Mouth song mixed up with an alma matter, is another popular track and tells about falling for that special girl and the joys of uninhibited sex. Although part of my brain keeps telling me that I really should find “Girlfriend” offensive because of the lyrics, the other half seems to mock it by continually getting this extremely catchy tune stuck in my head.
There are several other solid songs on the album that haven’t attracted quite as much attention. If you’re into more classic punk, “I Can’t Think” is a definite mosh pit starter. Be forewarned, however, that it shifts to crunk toward the end. Although WWB tells off listeners who think this is a hip-hop song, the lyrics and musical style of the crunk section may be too close to gangsta rap for many people. Whether you’ll hear it as a novel twist or as an unwelcome intrusion on an otherwise fantastic punk piece depends completely on your tastes.
A number of songs on the album, while still punk, lean a bit more towards alternative rock. “Lower Class Man” in particular has some crazy and irreverent lyrics lambasting the middle class. If you’re into groups like the Dropkick Murphys, you’ll probably take an instant liking to this one. “Every Man for Himself,” “Ode 2 Father,” and “Catch 22” use a similar musical approach, but the lyrics are lower key, even borderline somber. Even more alternative is “Staying True,” a sentimental song about friendship that opens with soulful acoustic guitar and piano before abruptly shifting to a faster paced rock sound. Although the use of this formula isn’t particularly unique to the current rock scene and the song would sound completely at home on a Green Day album, it’s flawlessly executed and demonstrates the WWB’s versatility.
According to Rob Fields, author of the Bold as Love blog on Black Rock, WWB also offers a great live show and treats its audiences to a mix of top-notch punk and playful humor. After watching the band perform a nearly flawless set at the SXSW09 music festival in Austin, Stone from The Couch Sessions blog has predicted that WWB may just be the next Black Rock band to break through to the mainstream.
WWB is definitely a band that plays what it wants, when it wants, and genre boundaries aren’t going to stop it. My only borderline negative comment about the CD is that it’s slightly cannibalistic. Every song is extremely well-done, but most of them tend to remind you of songs by other bands. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this. If you’re really into a particular type of music, it’s always nice to have more of the same played by a great band, and WWB is definitely that. Now that they’ve found their winning combination, it would be fabulous if the group pushed the envelope just a bit more.
Despite this minor issue, Hearts of Hoodlums is a fantastic CD and WWB is currently touring hard to get their name out. If the trio can win over the fickle hearts and pocketbooks of music industry execs, Stone’s prediction may be prophetic.
Posted by Ronda L. Sewald
Editor’s Note: This review is part of our ongoing examination of black rock in preparation for “Reclaiming the Right to Rock: Black Experiences in Rock Music,” a two-day conference organized by the Archives of African American Music and Culture to be held on November 13-14, 2009, on the Indiana University-Bloomington campus. Visit the conference website.
The members of TV on the Radio don’t care much for generic conventions and it suits them. Looking back on when he first joined the group, vocalist and guitarist Kyp Malone described TVOTR’s early sound as “an open mic/karaoke night gone awry.” Since the release of OK Calculator, Malone, Tunde Adebimpe, David Andrew Sitek, Jaleel Bunton, and Gerard Smith have maintained the band’s creative energy, but focused and streamlined some of the chaos into works of sonic performance art.Formed in New York City in 2001, the band has already released several well received albums. Return to Cookie Mountain (2006) was ranked the fourth best album of the year by Rolling Stone and it earned the band Spin‘s 2006 title for Artist of the Year.
Dear Science continues TVOTR’s tradition of intense multi-tracking and aural sculpting. “Halfway Home” begins with what could almost be a remix of “I Wanna Be Sedated.” Instead of offering up mainstream punk, however, the song morphs into something more reminiscent of ragas than Ramones. The opening chord on the synthesizer becomes a sustained drone, supporting both Adebimpe’s lilted out lyrics and a polyrhythmic percussion track. The drone shifts slightly to frame the chorus around two minutes into the song, but it only breaks at the very end when the synthesizer finally surrenders chordal control to a growling bass. If this first track on Dear Science doesn’t establish the band’s ability to break boundaries and challenge categorization, nothing else will. Although many of the other songs do range from punk to funk, there’s almost always a liberal mix of sonic play from the horns and synthesizers to keep things off-kilter and interesting.
More unique than the band’s sound, however, are its lyrics. The very first line of the album quickly establishes the band’s ability to play with language and imagery in a way that goes far beyond that of standard pop fare. “The lazy way they turned your head / Into a rest stop for the dead / And did it all in gold and blue and grey” isn’t exactly Keats or Whitman, but it does deliver up a certain poetic sensibility. Even when inscrutable or downright dreadful (Cod liver dollar signs? Lonely little love dog / that no one knows the name of?), the lyrics seem somehow appropriate for a band flirting with the boarders of punk—a genre that strives to never take itself too seriously.
Other songs on the album carry a deeper meaning, although it’s often easy to lose it amidst the lush layering of sound. “Crying,” for instance, presents a despairing commentary about modern society, including sorrow over the manipulation of our feelings by the media, the violence stemming from class repression, and the devastation of warfare. The song expresses an almost suicidal desire to finish the cycle of destruction and rebuild:
Time to take the wheel and the road
From the masters
Take this car
Drive it straight into the wall
Build it back up from the floor
And stop our cryin’
If “Crying” makes veiled references to the Iraq War, “Red Dress” is more overt in its criticism, particularly the enlistment of African Americans. It’s not the war, however, but individuals who complacently accept new forms of slavery who become the primary targets in this song. TVOTR derides those who answer the crack of the whip and the call of “Hey Slave.” They twist the beginning of James Brown’s “say it loud, say it loud—I’m black and I’m proud” into “shout it loud, shout it lame,” bitterly illuminating the hollowness of these words if those embracing them tamely accept modern forms of racial repression and inequality. Although “days of white robes have come and gone” could refer to the end of peaceful times, it also functions as a wake-up call that white supremacy still exists, regardless of the changes to its outer guise.
“Dancing Choose” is equally bitter, but it tackles the phoniness of American material culture and blatantly refers to those buying into it as mannequins and posed action figures who have traded their freedom and a sense of purpose for cash and glamour. True, many of the other songs on the album treat break-ups and love and loneliness, but even these tend to break the norm. “Lover’s Day,” for instance mixes more standard sultry fare with unforgettable lines like “I hunger for you like a cannibal” and “swear to God it’ll get so hot it’ll melt our faces off.” With its playful wording, this song seems more like a parody of a love song than one to be taken seriously in its own right.
DGC/Interscope has also released a deluxe edition of Dear Sciene, which includes remixes of “Dancing Choose” and “Crying” plus “Make Long All Night Long” and “Heroic Dose” as additional bonus tracks. For the true music connoisseur, the album is also available on vinyl from various online retailers and comes with a free download of the entire album in mp3 format. It’s hard to imagine that someone insisting on the sonic quality of vinyl would actually tolerate the lossey digital sound of an mp3. Perhaps this idea is aimed at investors who want to keep their LP shrink-wrapped and in mint condition, in which case the free download would allow them to have their disc and hear it too. Since the download coupon is located inside the shrink wrap, this doesn’t exactly work out. In any case, the rich complexity and sculpted sound of Dear Science makes vinyl an attractive alternative as opposed to a mere novelty.
All and all, TV on the Radio has turned out a strong album. If the band members can maintain the level of quirkiness and creativity that went into this latest project, then their star is definitely on the rise.