Following are additional albums released during May 2019—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves. Continue reading
Title: Piano & A Microphone 1983
Label: NPG/Rhino/Warner Bros.
Release Date: September 21, 2018
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
In what is among the first of presumably many collections of previously unreleased material discovered in Prince’s vault after his death, Piano & a Microphone 1983 contains 34 minutes of demos and rehearsals he recorded in the early 1980s. Following on the heels of April’s release of Prince’s stirring original recording of “Nothing Compares 2 U” and the digital-only Anthology: 1995-2010 of previously released material released in August, Piano & a Microphone 1983 is a set of what sounds like single-take live demos, complete with mixing chatter, improvisations, and vocalized arrangement details. While it is certainly not a set of polished recordings, this compilation is a snapshot of one of the 20th century’s greatest artists in the midst of the creative process. Continue reading
Artist: Sean Ardoin
Label: Louisiana Red Hot
Formats: CD, Digital
Release Date: September 14, 2018
Sean Ardoin may come from a long line of accordion-playing Creole musicians (including Amédé Ardoin and Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin), but he certainly isn’t one to be put in a box when it comes to his music. Ardoin’s newest album, Kreole Rock and Soul, is named after the genre that he created in an attempt to revamp the music of his ancestors. While the album pays tribute to Ardoin’s Creole roots, it also incorporates the styles of contemporary pop and classic rock. Continue reading
Title: Stax Singles Vol. 4 – Rarities & The Best of the Rest
Label: Stax/Craft Recordings
Formats: 6-CD set, Digital
Release date: February 9, 2018
From the early days of the CD era, there has been a constant stream of reissues from the legendary Stax/Volt catalog. Three volumes (28 CDs total) of The Complete Stax/Volt Singles plus artist-specific box sets, plus a pile of compilation CDs and box sets. Not to mention the many individual album reissues, which often included extra singles and other tracks not on the original LPs. What is left in the vaults to compile into this new 6-CD box, issued in conjunction with Concord Music Group’s celebration of the 60th anniversary of Stax’s founding?
It turns out, not 6 discs worth of compelling music, but there are many interesting obscure gems lurking among a bunch of tunes that were forgotten for a reason. The set is also padded with familiar material such as Booker T. & The M.G.’s cuts already issued on the artists’ own box set, and slightly edited single versions of Big Star hits.
The set has a scattershot focus, which actually works to its benefit by offering interesting music to several audiences. Discs 1-3 are B sides of singles included in the first three massive “Complete Singles” boxes (which, it turns out, contain mostly A sides and not “complete” singles by the definition of both sides of a record). Compiled by Rob Bowman, author of Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records and co-producer of the first three sets, these discs probably contain the fewest of what the casual listener might consider dull duds. For the deep-diver, some of the sides are obscure enough to be sourced from dubs of scratchy old 45’s, meaning the master tapes are missing.
To Concord’s credit, they offer a detailed listing of the set’s contents, so consumers can decide for themselves if there is enough interesting material to justify the purchase price. If the music compels you, the physical product is recommended because the 76-page booklet provides much detail and context, plus some nice artist photos from the old Stax promotional files.
Which brings us to the other half of the box. Discs 4-6 cover Stax’s attempts to diversify its catalog from its southern-soul target market. The material is mined from sub-labels: Enterprise (pop and country), Hip (pop and rock), Ardent (rock), and the gospel imprints Chalice and The Gospel Truth. The booklet offers very detailed information about these labels, which will be of interest to the deep-divers and completists. In general, these efforts were not financially successful for Stax, but some of the music (particularly the Ardent albums released by Big Star) turned out to be widely influential and critically acclaimed.
Stax’s pop and country releases were obviously a mixed bag. If the “best” is collected here, there was a lot of dreck in the catalog. The rock offerings are more interesting, including the more rock-ish and psychedelic pop songs. The Memphis music scene of the 1960s and ‘70s had a unique take on rock, with both soul flavorings and a “garage” feel. It’s exciting and doesn’t sound manufactured. Likewise with the best of Stax’s pop productions—they don’t sound as plastic and disposable as much of the competing material that was churned out of NYC, L.A. and Detroit.
The best of the back three discs is #6, covering the gospel labels. In general, the arrangements and performances hue toward Stax’s soul sound and feel, of great benefit to Sunday’s music. The gospel passion is turned up a notch in the caldron of backbeat soul, creating great impact. It might have been a better idea to peel off this material into a separate Stax gospel compilation.
For the hardcore Stax fans, and for listeners deeply into American soul music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, there will be enough material in this set, plus the booklet text, to justify its place in your collection. For others, the appeal will depend on your curiosity and willingness to wade through a wide variety of artists, styles and genres.
Reviewed by Tom Fine
Artist: Dionne Warwick
Label: Real Gone Music
Release date: January 12, 2018
Dionne Warwick was one of the top vocalists of her era. Aretha might have been the “queen of soul,” Diana Ross the original diva, Patti Labelle an icon in the gay community, Gladys Knight the leader with three males, and Chaka Khan to this day can still out sing the majority of vocalists. Yet Dionne also had a great run.
Warwick’s best years were at Scepter Records, an independent label founded by Doris Greenberg in 1959, where she scored at least 40 hits on the pop charts. With the new compilation, Odds & Ends: Scepter Records Rarities, you can hear Warwick’s big hits, some in alternate or extended versions, along with rare tracks you’ve never probably heard or even knew existed.
The set opens with an alternate take of “I Say A Little Prayer,” a song released in 1967 on Warwick’s album The Windows of the World. This is not the time to think of Aretha’s version, which came out the following year. If you listen very carefully, this track sounds like Aretha’s until the conclusion, where Warwick uses a different ending. It has the Burt Bacharach & Hal David sound all over it. Makes you wonder why Doris Greenberg didn’t release this version.
The set’s title track, “Odds & Ends,” is a song that may not be as popular as some of Warwick’s hits, but it has a catchy pop feel and great to story to go with it. Also included are songs in French, Italian and German she recorded for foreign markets. For example, two versions of “A House Is Not A Home” are included, one in Italian and one in French. The set closes with a novelty track featuring several of Warwick’s vintage radio promo spots and public service announcements. Rounding out the package are liner notes by Joe Marchese, including an interview with Warwick, as well as rare photos.
Kudos to Dionne and to Real Gone Music for releasing this compilation of rarities.
Reviewed by Eddie Bowman
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
Artist: Unlocking the Truth
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: June 17, 2016
Over the past few years the punk band Unlocking the Truth has gone from YouTube sensations to performing at major festivals and landing a nearly unprecedented recording contract with Sony (later rejected), all while just entering their teens. While a knee jerk reaction might be to dismiss them as a “kiddie act,” their first official release, Chaos, aims to dispel all those doubts and for the most part succeeds.
Jarad Dawkins (drums) and Malcolm Brickhouse (guitar/vocals) have been friends since early childhood and have been playing together since middle school. Alec Atkins (bass) joined the band during the period in which they made quite a bit of noise on YouTube, once the word got out about their impromptu shows in Times Square. Chaos is the first foray into what the fellas have been cooking up since they made the jump to the Vans Warped Tour and Coachella.
The album is very well-produced with a sound that feels tailor made for radio airplay. Each track feels crafted as a potential single, which though understandable—given how music is consumed in 2016—takes away from a cohesive whole. However, if you can look past this issue and take Chaos as a first step on a career that will hopefully include a respectable artistic growth arc, what they’ve produced is a very respectable start. Unlocking the Truth’s sound is decidedly steeped in the Nu-Metal tradition of bands like Slipknot and System Of A Down. And while these might be big shoes to fill, Chaos hints that the teenage power trio may be mentioned in the same breath as these bands down the line.
Of particular note is the level of the playing the band has mastered. Tracks like “Monster”, “A Tide” and “Other Side” really do a great job in showcasing how well the group plays together and gives glimpses of what may come as they continues to mature. Thematically the album leans heavily on imagery about outsiders (perhaps due to being three young African-American males participating in a genre that is dominated by bands that do not look them); relationships (usually difficult or outright bad ones, which begs the question how much of these songs sprang from personal experience?); and general human connections (which serves as a bookend to the outsiders theme, as the band embraces a new community built around freedom to be one’s self).
The album’s lead single, “Take Control,” utilizes these themes in its music video and in the lyrics which speak to taking control of your own destiny. It will very interesting to hear Brickhouse’s voice as it matures—he is clearly coming into his own vocally, which is best heard on “Escape.” This track also features some great drum work by Dawkins and bass work by Atkins.
All in all, Chaos feels like a preview of great things to come. It is my hope that Unlocking the Truth beats the odds of becoming pigeonholed as a novelty act and continues honing their craft both live and in the studio.
Reviewed by Levon Williams
Artist: Michael Franti & Spearhead
Label: Fantasy Records/Concord
Formats: CD, LP, MP3
Release date: June 3, 2016
Michael Franti & Spearhead are known for their brand of upbeat, socially conscious pop and hip hop-infused reggae. In their ninth studio album, Soulrocker, they continue to experiment with genre and beat, introducing electronic music to their repertoire. Though most of their records have been largely self-produced, they worked on Soulrocker with Jamaican producers Stephen “Di Genius” McGregor, known for his dancehall sensibilities, and Swayne “Supa Dups” Chin Quee, who has worked with artists such as Bruno Mars and John Legend. Despite the new producers and beats introduced on Soulrocker, Michael Franti & Spearhead continue to find innovative ways to keep their organic instrumental and reggae sound that fans have come to know and love.
In a single more akin to past hits “Say Hey (I Love You)” and “I’m Alive (Life Sounds Like),” the upbeat anthem “Once A Day” is about unexpected moments in life, whether they are beautiful moments or “unexpectedly challenging.” Featuring Sonna Rele and produced by Supa Dups, this reggae jam is an infectious celebration of life and all its ups and downs. Franti wrote on YouTube that the song originally stemmed from how his family came together in the wake of his son’s diagnosis of a rare kidney disease, and hopes the song and video (below) can help people rise up, sing, and dance:
“My Lord,” “We Are All Earthlings,” and “Get Myself to Saturday” play with heavy EDM beats and synth, inspired by Franti’s love for Kraftwerk since he was seven years old. “Get Myself to Saturday” embodies the main message of the album, that throughout life’s struggles and personal longings for success, true happiness is found in giving back to the community and working for the greater good. The track is full of determination and hope, as Franti sings, “There is a part of me that can’t go on today/and there is a part of me that finds a way.”
Michael Franti & Spearhead have never been afraid of making political statements and being forthright about social issues, true to the messages of peace and nonviolence that come from Rastafari beliefs and from reggae legends like Bob Marley. “Good To Be Alive Today” is an acoustic guitar driven track that tackles everything from climate change and police brutality to drone strikes and ISIS. True to form, Franti infuses this sorrowful song with hope, asking people to remember the little “moments of victory” in life.
A personal favorite on the album is “Crazy for You,” a song about the power of loving someone amidst a seemingly crazy world of violence and political difference. The romantic declaration is accompanied by bright, staccato horns and a full unison chorus, and is made sweeter by Franti’s reference to the song as an ode to his wife.
Though some may be wary of the EDM elements on Soulrocker, Michael Franti & Spearhead have always pushed the boundaries of reggae styles and popular music, and this album is no different. From joyful declarations of love to thought-provoking songs, Soulrocker at once fully feels the weight of a world prone to violence, misunderstanding and hate, while recognizing that joy and hope keep people motivated to create change. Franti’s hope is that everyone can become a “soulrocker,” what he calls someone who “lives from the heart with compassion for all, and who’s got tenacious enthusiasm for music, life, and the planet.”
Reviewed by Anna Polovick
Title: 99 Cents
Formats: Cassette, CD, LP, MP3
Release Date: February 26, 2016
Santigold is mostly known as a fashion forward artist with a singular pop sound. Songs like “L.E.S. Artistes” and “Creator” from her two albums Santigold and Master of My Make-Believe have resonated their way into a remarkable place in contemporary American cultural history. Now a 39-year-old woman, her most recent release, 99c, is an album that not only expresses her singular musical control but also her maturity. She has produced her own take on pop that never sounds forced.
99 Cents begins extremely well with “Can’t Get Enough,” a terrific song that sounds like an elegant take on the pop music of the 1950’s:
The song “Banshee” is another notable track, though it sounds like her older releases. This indicates one of the issues with this album—sometimes it feels like her sound has not progressed and that we’re listening to songs from her older albums. Despite feeling unoriginal, “Banshee” is a good time. “Before the Fire” resonates like great American songs do: it is both weighty and light, and is probably the most interesting of the album’s 12 tracks.
“Outside the War” is another great song that combines rock and pop well. In it, we hear an understanding of the amount of space for lyrical experimentation that this blend can afford a musician being put to great use. “Run the Races” stings.
In an interview with Complex magazine, Santigold said “I set out to make a pop record that incorporates all the things Santigold records always incorporate, which is elements of African music, punk rock, hip-hop and everything that I would want to put into a song but still under the umbrella of a pop song where there’s a chorus you can sing along with. I like when pop is still good music, that’s what I like.” The long history of human artistry is a history of artists attempting artistic freedom: the ability to produce art that expresses “true selves.” There are still debates about the painting Mona Lisa and who it really depicts: either the wife of the man who commissioned Leonardo Da Vinci or a courtesan, suggesting that Da Vinci may have pushed against what he was “supposed” to do in favor of following his own muse. Something similar has happened in music, with pop musicians attempting personal “freedom” through artistic expression, despite the potential constraints that come with record labels and sales figures. Santigold’s effort puts her at the avant-garde of those who genuinely love pop and strive to produce their own take on it.
There’s a notable amount of very serious, almost political, playfulness in Santigold’s album that only she does in the pop music realm. Pop culture is a culture of play and most pop musicians take this to an extreme. But Santigold seems to want to take its playfulness in another direction, drawing her lyrical and musical style much closer to rock.
Santigold’s 99 Cents is a notable album. She combines rock and pop better than any of her peers do, pushing the boundaries of pop music beyond the limits set by radio and the musical performance circuit and into the realm of sincerity and actual personality.
Reviewed by Adolf Alzuphar
Catalog No.: 09549
Release date: March 2009
Prince Rogers Nelson is a multitalented musician who plays a variety of instruments and has written hundreds, if not thousands of songs. He has won seven Grammy Awards, a Golden Globe, an Academy Award, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, the first year he was eligible. Rolling Stone ranked Prince #28 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. He has had a very long and illustrious career and therefore is no stranger to danger. Therefore, with his bona fides well-established, the focus of this review will be his latest release, LotusFlow3R.
Like all Prince Fans, I was very excited to hear that Prince had a new 3-disc CD coming out. I thought, it’s about time for some new dew from his Purple Majesty. Sadly, the songs and music on LotusFlow3R are very disappointing and not what I expected at all. I started with great anticipation but I was left confused and wondering with great frustration. First of all let me say I am a big Prince fan, have been for years. With that bias admitted, let me review the new album as objectively as I can. LotusFlow3R is a three disc set, with two discs dedicated to Prince and one disc called “Elixir” by a Rihanna-type artist named Bria Valentine. This review will not discuss the latter.
Prince has always played many different styles and genres of music, from rock to funk and blues to R&B, which demonstrates his musical genius. Of the two discs by Prince, “LotusFlow3R” has twelve tracks all played in the “rock” genre. When I say rock genre I mean soft rock, hard rock, punk rock, head banging rock and of course rock and roll. Prince is rocking the block on this CD; however, it doesn’t sound like a block party. In fact, it sounds like some neighborhood kids rocking out in their dad’s garage. That’s right folks, this sounds just like kid-rock and I don’t mean the artist.
The first track, “From the Lotus,” sounds like Prince is waking up out of a deep sleep after listening to some inspirational relaxing music before getting ready to play. And though it is an instrumental piece, with lead electric guitar played throughout, it has no punch, no kick; it’s just noise and not a joyous noise either. The second track, “Boom,” musically pays homage to the master, Jimi Hendrix, but is lyrically naïve. The third track is a cover song. Prince has done covers of other artist songs before, such as 1995’s “Emancipation,” but honestly there is very little to cover in this remake of “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and Shondells except for the repetitive line “Wild thing / I think you move me / but I want to know for sure / You move me” that he took from the Troggs’ hit song. It doesn’t take much genius to sample a great hook and then exploit it on a cover.
Prince always felt that he was a slave to Warner Bros. and sought his emancipation “from the chains that bind me” in a 1993 legal battle (he often appeared in public with the word “slave” written on his cheek). This somewhat explains track five, “Colonized Mind,” a social commentary on the revolution against the master race who, according to the lyrics, are “genetically disposed to rule the world / down low a future full of isolated boys and girls.” Such is the flavor of the LotusFlow3R disc.
The second disc is called “MPLSsound” and if that’s true then it must be the “early” MPLSsound. As opposed to the rock oriented Lotus disc, this is a return to Prince’s hip hop and funk flavor that we all used to savor. However, I am sorry to disappoint you because there is not one “jam” on this collection. What is a jam? “Ole’ skool” definition of jam is grooves that can make you move, a beat that makes you tap your feet, a sound that is down that will make you snap your finger if you can’t clap your hands. I am sorry to report there is not one jam in the entire collection. Great Prince jams of the past include “1999,” “Head,” “When Doves Cry,” “Sign O the Times,” etc. There is not one track that moves me or grooves me, sorry.
MPLSsound begins with “(There Will Never B) Another Like Me,” which is pure hip hop flavor with the same bragging rights as all the other rappers. Then there is the track “Chocolate Box,” with Prince singing as this sweet thing. “Dance 4 Me” is reminiscent of the group Cameo, while the track “Ol’ Skool Company” sounds just like George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadeli version of “Star Child and the Mothership Connection.” I know Prince is a musical genius, but what is the genius of sounding like someone else, and where are the jams?
I am sorry, Prince fans, but this LotusFlow3R is not the real deal. It sounds like a very young, immature Prince searching for his sound and looking for his identity. This can’t be the latest mix of music composed by an artist over 50. Prince released Crystal Ball in 1998 (a 5-CD collection of unreleased material) and in 1999 released The Vault Old Friends 4 Sale. This material also sounds as if came from the vault, perhaps more of the previously unreleased material that Prince has had stashed away for years. It sounds like retro vibes rather than something from NPD the “New Power Generation.” It does not sound as if this is the latest and the greatest body of work from the creative mind of a fifty year old music genius. Wake up Prince, we want the funk!
Reviewed by Clark D. Whitlow
Editor’s Note: This review is part of our ongoing examination of 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.