Timothy Bloom – The Beginning

timothy-bloom
Title: The Beginning

Artist: Timothy Bloom

Label: Beyond the Sky Music

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 23, 2016

 

Timothy Bloom’s latest project, The Beginning, is the first in a trilogy of albums called “The Life.”   Bloom is perhaps best known for his 2011 hit with V. Bozeman, “Til the End of Time,” a stunning ballad that introduced him as a force in R&B.  More than just a gifted singer, though, Bloom is also an accomplished songwriter and producer as well, having written for artists such as Ne-Yo, Chris Brown, and Smokey Robinson.

Musically, the EP doesn’t fit into just one category, with Bloom’s capable voice traversing across genres and decades. The opener, “Work It Out,” sounds like a ’70s R&B hit.  Immediately following is “Adam and Eve,” which hearkens back to the pace and style of Prince.  After that, “Me and Myself” swings into jazz.  Even within this assortment of musical styles, Bloom stays true to his gospel roots, particularly on “Howl at the Moon.” He grew up listening to and singing gospel music in the South, and it shows.  Although the EP clocks in at 23 minutes, Bloom features a lot of collaborators.  Perhaps the best comes not from a vocalist but the French harmonica player, Frederic Yonnet.  They pair up on “Sweet Angel,” with Yonnet featured throughout.

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

Reviewed by Allie Martin

Muddy Magnolias – Broken People

muddy-magnolias
Title: Broken People

Artist: Muddy Magnolias

Label: Third Generation

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: October 14, 2016

 

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.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

Ashleigh Smith – Sunkissed

asleigh-smith
Title: Sunkissed

Artist: Ashleigh Smith

Label: Concord Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: August 19, 2016

 

Ashleigh Smith’s debut album on Concord is collection of upbeat and bright songs of love and encouragement warmly reflective of the album title, Sunkissed. The track-list contains cover renditions of recognizable tunes and original music by Ashleigh and her band members, Nigel Rivers and Joel Cross, whom she met while studying jazz at the University of North Texas. The recordings include jazz arrangements with a full band, brass section, and string ensemble to support Ashleigh’s harmonious vocals.

The bossa nova beat of “Best Friends” introduces the album with a bittersweet plea to heal from the pain of a lost friendship. With Joel Cross’s acoustic guitar taking the lead followed by piano, brass, and a chorus building up into a key change, the song is hardly gloomy as the lyrical theme may imply:

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“The World is Calling,” written by Smith and Rivers, showcases her confidence and creativity as a jazz vocalist, while “Sunkissed,” co-written by Smith, Rivers, Keitie Young, and Nadia Washington, expresses encouragement to embrace one’s inner and outer beauty:

Don’t you let it go,
Mocha skin so brown,
Don’t you drop your crown,
Hold your light keep shining now,
Baby can’t you see?
You’re my little brown skin queen
.

Smith and her sister, Lauren Smith, together wrote the lyrics of “Into the Blue,” a love song that grapples with the complexity of emotions following the loss of a relationship. “Brokenhearted Girl” follows, a song about lost romance and emotional maturity with a melody similar to the children’s song “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Each original piece reflects artists who have influenced Smith’s music—from Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Bill Withers to Sting. “Beautiful and True” is the only song that was written for Smith to perform by her former teacher, Rosanna Eckert. Her interpretation is as intense as it is gentle, with a dynamic orchestration encapsulating the climactic near-conclusion of the album.

The various cover songs emphasize the album’s themes of wonder and imagination. From the Beatles classic “Blackbird” to “Pure Imagination,” made famous by the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Smith experiments with the original musicality of these songs. Utilizing jazz instrumentation and dreamy vocal harmonies, she creates a truly haunting sound. “Love is You,” originally by Chrisette Michele, and “Sara Smile” by Hall and Oates similarly inspire a sense of familiarity, both complementing and completing Smith’s showcase of talent.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

Melissa Etheridge – Memphis Rock and Soul

melissa-ethridge
Title: Memphis Rock and Soul

Artist: Melissa Etheridge

Label: Stax

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: October 7, 2016

 

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.

Eddie Bowman

Unlocking the Truth – Chaos

unlocking-the-truth
Title: Chaos

Artist: Unlocking the Truth

Label: self-release

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 17, 2016

 

Over the past few years the punk band Unlocking the Truth has gone from YouTube sensations to performing at major festivals and landing a nearly unprecedented recording contract with Sony (later rejected), all while just entering their teens.  While a knee jerk reaction might be to dismiss them as a “kiddie act,” their first official release, Chaos, aims to dispel all those doubts and for the most part succeeds.

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Jarad Dawkins (drums) and Malcolm Brickhouse (guitar/vocals) have been friends since early childhood and have been playing together since middle school.  Alec Atkins (bass) joined the band during the period in which they made quite a bit of noise on YouTube, once the word got out about their impromptu shows in Times Square.  Chaos is the first foray into what the fellas have been cooking up since they made the jump to the Vans Warped Tour and Coachella.

The album is very well-produced with a sound that feels tailor made for radio airplay.  Each track feels crafted as a potential single, which though understandable—given how music is consumed in 2016—takes away from a cohesive whole.  However, if you can look past this issue and take Chaos as a first step on a career that will hopefully include a respectable artistic growth arc, what they’ve produced is a very respectable start.  Unlocking the Truth’s sound is decidedly steeped in the Nu-Metal tradition of bands like Slipknot and System Of A Down.  And while these might be big shoes to fill, Chaos hints that the teenage power trio may be mentioned in the same breath as these bands down the line.

Of particular note is the level of the playing the band has mastered.  Tracks like “Monster”, “A Tide” and “Other Side” really do a great job in showcasing how well the group plays together and gives glimpses of what may come as they continues to mature.  Thematically the album leans heavily on imagery about outsiders (perhaps due to being three young African-American males participating in a genre that is dominated by bands that do not look them); relationships (usually difficult or outright bad ones, which begs the question how much of these songs sprang from personal experience?); and general human connections (which serves as a bookend to the outsiders theme, as the band embraces a new community built around freedom to be one’s self).

The album’s lead single, “Take Control,” utilizes these themes in its music video and in the lyrics which speak to taking control of your own destiny.  It will very interesting to hear Brickhouse’s voice as it matures—he is clearly coming into his own vocally, which is best heard on “Escape.”  This track also features some great drum work by Dawkins and bass work by Atkins.

All in all, Chaos feels like a preview of great things to come.  It is my hope that Unlocking the Truth beats the odds of becoming pigeonholed as a novelty act and continues honing their craft both live and in the studio.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

Quincy Jones – Live In Ludwigshafen 1961


Title: Live In Ludwigshafen 1961

Artist: Quincy Jones

Label: SWR-Jazz Haus

Formats: CD, digital

Release date: March 25, 2016

 

In 1959, Quincy Jones put together a big band orchestra for the European musical Free and Easy. The show lasted only a couple of months, playing for small audiences in Utrecht, Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris. Marooned in Europe with a payroll to meet, Jones and company set off touring the continent, booking venues and collecting money to pay their way forward. Eventually, the band ran out of money and came home to the U.S., with Jones $145,000 (in 1960 dollars) in debt. Mercury Records president Irving Green offered Jones a vice president position, and Jones went on to arrange and/or produce hits by Dinah Washington, Leslie Gore, Billy Eckstine and others. He eventually made his biggest mark on music as a producer (Michael Jackson, Patti Austin, George Benson, Aretha Franklin, etc.), but continued to make jazz and jazz-pop albums throughout his tenure with Mercury.

Jones continued touring with a big band early in his Mercury executive career, and live recordings made in Zurich, Switzerland on March 10, 1961 and the 1961 Newport Jazz Festival in July of that year, have been released by Mercury/Polygram. Jones recorded his last strictly-jazz big band album, The Quintessence, for Impulse! Records in December, 1961, essentially ending his career as leader of a touring jazz big band.

On this CD is the band’s complete concert of March 15, 1961 at the Pfalzbau auditorium in Ludwigshafen, Germany. The well-made mono recording highlights the combination of ensemble and solo playing that was the trademark of Jones’ skilled and modern-sounding band. Featured are excellent live renditions of tunes on Jones’ Mercury studio albums, including “G’Won Train,” “Birth of a Band,” “Stolen Moments,” “Moanin’” and “I Remember Clifford.” Also included is a superb version of the Count Basie classic “Lester Leaps In” featuring great solos by guitarist Les Spann and pianist Patty Bown.

It’s worth listening carefully to Jones’ introduction of the band (track 13, which is followed by a somewhat loose and joyous version of “Birth of a Band,” the title cut to Jones’ first Mercury album). This lineup included many future headliners and leaders on 1960s jazz albums. That Jones could assemble such a band testifies to his influence in the music business even at a relatively young age. Although his greatest career highlights were years forward, this concert demonstrates why Quincy Jones always had the respect of musicians, and always knew how to please an audience.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

 

M.A.K.U. Soundsystem – Mezcla

maku-soundsystem

Title: Mezcla

Artist: M.A.K.U. Soundsystem

Label: Glitterbeat Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: May 27, 2016

 

Immigration has been a theme in music for centuries, as people who relocate try to remain connected to their roots, and attempt to relate past experiences to the present. However, themes of immigration seem to be especially poignant in the political climate of 2016, as boundaries and immigration policies are pushed and pulled throughout the world. Many musicians are speaking out about their personal immigration experiences in this year of contention, in particular addressing humanitarian issues. That’s what M.A.K.U. Soundsystem does on their fourth album, Mezcla. The eight-piece Colombian to New York City band combines traditional Colombian beats, grooves from West Africa, and Moog synthesizers from the ‘90s club scene to bring all of their experiences—both musical and personal—into a comprehensive album.

The opening track, “Agua,” addresses income inequality through the melismatic voice of lead singer Liliana Conde. Two minutes into the almost six minute song, she switches to spoken word poetry: “With so many walls going up around the world trying to separate us, trying to divide us, we want to come together and sing in unison of the things that bring us together and unify us.” A full chorus then joins in, singing about how the oceans cannot be separated and water flows through all of our veins, regardless of race or country. It is a powerful and upbeat song, featuring a fast beat maintained through a variety of percussive instruments and ornamented by the horns.

Another standout track is “Let It Go,” a rhythm-driven song that focuses on instrumentals over vocals. Starting with a heavy West African beat, the song blends Afro-Caribbean roots with improvising horns that edge into a jazz feel. Three minutes into the song, voices enter in unison saying, “Let it go and let the music take you.” These words repeat for the rest of the song, building with the music as it becomes faster and new instruments join in to create a satisfying climax.

A slow waltz, “De Barrio,” takes the listener on a journey of an immigrant from Latin America to the United States. It is sorrowful yet warm, and reflects the complications of the bittersweet trip. According to bassist and singer Juan Ospina, this tone is meant to reflect how immigrants put their lives at risk, and emphasizes that borders are created by men: “Look down from space and you won’t see them.” Harmonious notes held out near the end of the song echo unbridled cries of emotion, though whether they are cries of sorrow or hope is left to each listener’s interpretation.

In “La Inevitabile,” M.A.K.U.’s hope for the future is clear, as they sing in Spanish, “when in mixing and coming together they represent the rhythm of our beating hearts.” This message of mezcla, or “mixing,” is central to the album. Mixing of music old and new, mixing of people from different cities and backgrounds, all come together on Mezcla as this group of Colombian artists create music that combines their past experiences with their present lives in New York.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Josh White – Josh At Midnight (LP reissue)

josh-white
Title: Josh At Midnight

Artist: Josh White

Label: Ramseur Records

Formats: LP

Release date: August 19, 2016

Josh White (1914-1969) played a style of folk-blues with a jazz-like swing that stood in contrast to the Delta style of blues that came to dominate the genre. Although White enjoyed fame and popularity in his lifetime (and a period of being blackballed for his activism in favor of civil rights legislation), his music fell out of frequent broadcast or rotation on many blues fans’ turntables.

Josh At Midnight was recorded in 1955, in a small church in New York City, using a single Neumann U-47 mic. Original producer Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra Records, oversaw this vinyl-only reissue. The sound quality is superior to the early-era CD reissue I found in the local library system. It’s a mono recording, but the careful placement of White, bassist Al Hall and second vocalist Sam Gary produces a 3-dimensional sound quality, and creates nice separation between the sounds even as they weave together into a satisfying whole.

Musically, White covers songs in the traditional overlap between folk and blues music, such as “Timber (Jerry the Mule),” “One Meat Ball,” and “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” He also dives deeper into the blues vein with the saucy “Jelly, Jelly” and “Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dyin’ Bed” (a traditional blues song the lyrics of which were later appropriated by Led Zeppelin for “In My Time of Dying”). There is also the album’s opener, “St. James Infirmary,” a blues-jazz song made famous by Louis Armstrong.

White’s style will appeal to modern “roots music” fans. He was a superb guitar player—Holtzman describes him as “an acrobat with the instrument” in the LP’s new liner notes. His voice was refined and expressive, more a polished performer than a “down and dirty country bluesman.” The key appeal is that he had a ton of soul, and his big personality shines through in his playing and singing.

This vinyl reissue is clearly aimed at audiophiles as well as roots-music fans. If you don’t have a phono rig, seek out one of the previous CD reissues. Even though they don’t have the crystal clear sound and powerful dynamics of this version, the music will shine through.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

 

Robert Glasper Experiment – Artscience

art-science
Title: Artscience

Artist: Robert Glasper Experiment

Label: Blue Note

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: September 16, 2016

 

Robert Glasper is arguably one of the most eclectic musicians in the business, perhaps in spite of (or maybe because of) the fact that he is generally considered to be a jazz musician.  The opening track of the Robert Glasper Experiment’s newest release, Artscience, announces that the group intends to venture into the broad realm of musical styles and sounds that may fall into the category of “Black music.” As the soundscape gradually morphs from fast post-bop to a slow-burn hip hop groove, a sample of Glasper’s voice plays, declaring “The reality is, my people have given the world so many styles of music, so many different styles…we want to explore them all.”

The group’s newest release, Artscience, is difficult to call a jazz record at all, drawing from the precedent set on previous Black Radio releases. However, these earlier records largely owed their crossover appeal to high-profile guest stars like Snoop Dogg and Norah Jones, while Glasper’s band served as a supporting ensemble, performing at peak when laying down funky neo-soul grooves for artists like Jill Scott and Anthony Hamilton. On Artscience, the group retains this crossover appeal while keeping the production self-contained. This record is full of electronically-oriented R&B with dance floor and slow jam ambitions.

“Day to Day” is a funky and robotic neo-disco dance cut that could easily have been culled from a Daft Punk record, complete with string swoops and autotuned vocal harmonies. Much of this record recalls the synth heavy, ‘80s-influenced sounds that artists like Blood Orange are rocketing to the top of the charts. While some of Glasper’s signature acoustic piano and Rhodes sounds are present, there are also synthesizers and production effects all over this album. Most of these tracks are structured like pop songs with slight modifications.  For instance, “No One Like You” follows the verse-chorus-verse-chorus format, but it features an extended outro with solos by saxophonist by Casey Benjamin, Glasper, and a drum break by Mark Colenburg.  It is as though the group takes the extended dance break sections found on Michael Jackson and Prince records and fills them up with killer jazz solos, serving the album’s pop ambitions while reminding the audience that these are monster players.  The disc’s most memorable track, “Let’s Fall in Love,” borrows its title from a jazz standard, but is a slow jam full of breakbeats and atmospheric synthesizers.

Listeners looking for guest stars like those featured on the Robert Glasper Experiment’s previous albums or for the kind of solid jazz playing found on the Glasper’s acoustic records will be surprised, but pleasantly so, by the strength of the group’s R&B songs on Artscience.  While this is not the seminal entry in Glasper’s catalog, it is certainly a solid one.

Reviewed by Matt Alley

Erroll Garner – Ready Take One

erroll-garner
Title: Ready Take One

Artist: Erroll Garner

Label: Sony/Legacy

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release date: September 30, 2016

 

During his lifetime, Erroll Garner was a somewhat controversial figure with jazz aficionados. The main knock was that he was a technical master of the piano with plenty of flair and piano-bar panache, but not enough soul and swing to be a jazz heavyweight. Despite the bickering among jazz critics, Garner (who died in 1977) did not have trouble filling performance spaces or selling albums, but his place in the public ear waned after his death. His live Concert by the Sea remains one of the best-selling jazz albums ever, and received a deluxe 3-CD reissue (and was nominated for a Grammy) last year. Now, Sony/Legacy has dipped into the archives of Garner’s late manager, Martha Glaser, and found 14 finished but never released recordings, the content of this new album.

Ready Take One is composed of recordings made in 1967 at Universal Recording Studios in Chicago; in 1969 at Capitol Studios New York; and in 1971 at RCA Studios New York. The album closes with a live version of Garner’s hit, “Misty,” recorded in Paris in May 1969. For the 1967 sessions, Ike Isaacs on bass, Jimmie Smith on drums and Joe Mangual on congas backed Garner. For the 1969 and 1971 studio and live recordings, Earnest McCarty, Jr. replaced Isaacs on bass. The fact that the band and style of playing remains consistent throughout makes the album hold together as a coherent sequence of enjoyable tunes rather than an “archive dig” of disjointed musical examples.

According to Robin Kelly’s liner notes, Garner’s style in the studio was much like his style on stage with his band: he would call out a tune and then go, with the band responsible for keeping up with whatever improvisational twists he chose to explore. Fortunately, the backing musicians were up for the challenge, and the recordings sparkle with the excitement of a quartet doing what good jazz musicians do—exploring and reacting to each other rather than playing heavily-rehearsed and written-down music. And, for the record, although all of the players are technically excellent, the album gushes with swing and soul.

One admittedly minor criticism: although the liner notes emphasize the fact that the reissue producers chose to keep audio of Glaser calling out take numbers and a few seconds of studio banter here and there, this “bonus material” does not add anything to the music. In fact, it slightly interrupts the flow of the album.

Six of the album’s 14 cuts are Garner originals; “High Wire” and “Wild Music” are particularly nice. The Paris recording of “Misty” also stands out because, despite playing the song thousands of times to ever-eager audiences, Garner could still bring excitement and a connection of “I’m playing this song just for you” to what was yet another performance. Also interesting is the band’s take on the Juan Tizol/Duke Ellington standard “Caravan.” Garner’s decision to take the melody apart and reassemble pieces of it on unusual beats doesn’t always work, but the approach shows how the band was not content to run through standards in any sort of traditional way.

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The 1971 sessions, especially, show the influence of funk and acid-jazz on more traditional performers. Garner sometimes sounds quite a bit like Ramsey Lewis (“The In Crowd”), and that more-soul/less-swing approach was probably preferred by live audiences of the time. But, Garner never shies away from virtuosity, so there is always crisp execution of complex right-hand runs and rock-solid left-hand rhythm.

Sony/Legacy has an arrangement to mine the archives of Garner and Glaser, and more releases are promised. Hopefully, there is more of this kind of polished music in the vaults. And, hopefully, future reissues producers will assemble and sequence future releases into enjoyable, musically coherent albums like Ready Take One.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

De La Soul – and the Anonymous Nobody…

de-la-soul
Title: and the Anonymous Nobody…

Artist: De La Soul

Label: AOI Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: August 26, 2016

 

While De La Soul’s heyday was arguably in the 1990s, the group remains a strong presence in hip hop, despite the fact that the last time it released new music was in 2004. This is largely because De La’s jazz-influenced sound set the template for Kendrick Lamar and others who borrow samples and approaches from jazz music and in part because their classic records age like fine wine, still sounding fresh some 20 years later.  The group’s most recent release prior to this August was 2014’s Smell the D.A.I.S.Y., a digital download full of re-recordings of classic tracks (along with a complimentary download of the entire back catalog for email subscribers!), a gesture that now feels like a primer for this year’s new release. and the Anonymous Nobody… is a kickstarter-funded, genre-bending record that may leave old fans scratching their heads—the album seems to be both a victory lap and a comeback record. Following is the group’s short documentary about the making of the album:

De La Soul probably didn’t need to release a new record in 2016—or any year for that matter—and the foremost question in many readers’ minds may be whether there is anything really new here, or whether and the Anonymous Nobody… is just a rehash of the group’s ‘90s sound that has a few more gray hairs.  While there are certainly elements of the group’s signature sound (as on the jazz-influenced “Royalty Capes”), the album seems primarily to revolve around the group’s rotating cast of guest stars, a roster that includes Jill Scott, Snoop Dogg, David Byrne, Usher, 2 Chainz, and Damon Albarn.  What the supporting personnel have in common with De La is that many listeners may wax nostalgic about their music—this is the “I remember when…” crowd.  While this is not necessarily a liability, it sets the stage for a wash of sounds and approaches that, ultimately, we’ve heard before. For instance, the track featuring David Byrne, “Snoopies,” draws heavily from Byrne’s bag of electro-pop sensibilities. Similarly, “Greyhounds,” a somewhat antiquated girl-corrupted-by-the-big-city story, leans stylistically on Usher’s well-established R&B fusion.  At other moments, this record just gets weird—De La Soul was always on the eccentric end of the hip hop spectrum, but when Justin Hawkins of the Darkness leads a Queen-esque overdubbed vocal and guitar orchestra, it may get lost on the listener that this is an album by the legendary rap group.  In short, the guest stars often overshadow the core group.

While working with a live band proves an asset, meandering effortlessly from rock to neo-soul, ultimately the intensity of the record, both lyrically and musically, lags at times. And the Anonymous Nobody… plays like many records with a large cast of extras do—providing a great first listen with diminishing returns.  This is both a testament to De La Soul’s versatility and an indication that the group of vets is open to trying something new, with experimentation sometimes leading to mixed results.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

André Cymone – Black Man in America

andre-cymone
Title: Black Man in America

Artist: André Cymone

Label: Bandcamp

Format: MP3

Release date: September 30, 2016

 

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.

Reviewed by Allie Martin

Black Dylan – Hey Stranger

black-dylan
Title: Hey Stranger

Artist: Black Dylan

Label: Black Dylan Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: August 26, 2016

 

Black Dylan is an up-and-coming duo from Denmark that blends soul, R&B, hip-hop, and pop into a thoroughly satisfying album perfect for the dance floor. Wafande’s gravely, though sweetened vocals take the front stage beside Nuplex’s skillful DJ instrumentation. Together the duo draws from its French roots and American soul influences to create the Black Dylan aesthetic.

The first song and title track, “Hey Stranger,” pursues the fantasy story we wonder if will ever come true—to fly away and travel the world with a person you just met. An excellent start leading into an invigorating morning anthem, “Get up Child,” with choir voices, grooving guitar wah wah pedal, horns, and piano. Black Dylan keeps the tempo up with “Don’t Wanna Be Alone,” integrating gospel chorus breakdowns. It is as if they dare you not to dance when you listen to this track.

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The album brings down the party vibe, but not the hopeful spirits with “You’re Getting Stronger,” a smooth R&B song with a memorable chorus. “The One” utilizes finger snaps and upright bass to give the listener a more intimate atmosphere to hear his promises of love and dedication. A guitar riff is played during instrumental breaks of this song, reminiscent of West African electric guitar styles. “She Said I Was a Failure” is a slow and dramatic tune, which pairs nicely with the heartbreak song, “Who Got My Back.” Reverberating organ chords, a steady beat, and a full bodied chorus of soulful voices sing in praise of love and companionship.

The final tracks of the album turn from lost love towards more edgy and personal themes. “Keep Your Eyes on the Road” uses semi-monotone vocals paired with repetitive horn and piano sections. Performing with LA singer Honey Larochelle, “Papa” deals with the pain of having to live with an addict father:

There’s no excuse, so much abuse, I can’t believe I used to want to be like you.

Papa, overdose after overdose, you’re killing me.

The final track, “Hummin’,” is a cool and quiet tune producing an emotional resolution that serves as an affirmation of his tough outer shell. Hey Stranger all in all is enjoyable – it will be interesting to keep an eye on Black Dylan’s sway of audiences in the United States.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

The Frightnrs – Nothing More To Say

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Title: Nothing More To Say

Artist: The Frightnrs

Label: Daptone Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: September 2, 2016

 

This first, and likely, final full-length album by New York band The Frightnrs bears a moving story. Front man and vocalist, Dan Klein was diagnosed with ALS in November 2015 and had experienced his final moments of life during the recording and production of this album. To say he suffered would be an inaccurate illustration. It reduces every complex emotion he felt considering the inevitability of his fate. The Frightnrs—Rich Terrana (percussion and background vocals), and brothers, Chuck Patel (piano) and Preet Patel (bass and background vocals)—were determined to complete the album in support of Klein before he lost his physical ability to sing. Klein passed in June 2016, only a couple months before the album’s release.

Nothing More to Say is the first reggae album released by Daptone Records, managed by Gabriel Roth and Neal Sugarman of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Smooth and with hints of vintage appeal, the album is a reminder of the Jamaican rocksteady sounds of Johnny Nash or Toots and the Maytals. Producer Victor “Ticklah” Axelrod upheld a vision of quality and integrity for the album despite the complicated circumstances that pressured its completion. Quoted from a New York Times interview on the album, Axelrod noted that he needed to select the best takes he could get of Klein’s vocals since he was unable to finish recording in the studio. Roth reflected on Klein’s vocals in the album, “In places he’s a little weak… but he’s singing from the heart.”

A snare cracks into a drum roll at the introduction of the first track, “All My Tears.” The song proceeds with a soulful wail supported by a firm backbeat and deep background vocals—in a way, announcing the band’s fraternal bond. Blended with haunting organ chords and muted electric guitar tones, each song feels fresh, though old-fashioned. Themes of love resulting in letdown, heartbreak, and mistake are prevalent in “Nothing More to Say,” “What Have I Done,” and “Looking for My Love.” In “Trouble in Here,” the Frightnrs maintain their smooth reggae back beat while adopting a blatantly blues style outfitted with harmonica solos and a 12-bar chord progression.

“Dispute,” the final track of the album, could stand alone with its distinctively crisp piano riff mixed with Klein’s reverberating vocals. Another similarly outstanding song is “Hey Brother (Do Unto Others)” for its charming syncopated chorus—“Do unto others, do unto others as you’d have them do, right back to you.” The Frightnrs also included two cover songs rich in R&B and soul flavor: “Gotta Find a Way” originally by Bob & Gene (1967), and “Gonna Make Time” by Saun & Starr (2015), who both record on the Daptone label.

What is especially striking in this album is Klein’s sincere falsetto vibrato and vivid lyrics in “Till Then” (quoted below) and “Purple.” He pries into the pain and anxious confusion listeners can only imagine he felt as his physical body progressively betrayed him:

Every day I wake it’s getting harder just to take, I try to fake a smile but nothing hides my sadness. Pretending that I’m fine, I’m only lying all the time, I’ve crossed the line from melancholy into madness. Till then I’ll wait, till you’ve reached my gate, lying every night, till you’ve blessed my sight.

The Frightnrs respect themselves and respect their audiences, a message Klein advocates. They do not mimic Jamaican accents or dress in their music because they know those actions would be unreflective of their own identity. This album is a testament to the creative power and aesthetic derived from Jamaican rocksteady music. As well, it will always serve to cherish the poetry and memory of Dan Klein.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

Lady Wray – Queen Alone

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Title: Queen Alone

Artist: Lady Wray

Label: Big Crown Records

Format: CD, LP

Release Date: September 23, 2016

 

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, Queen Alone 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.

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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.

Reviewed by Allie Martin

JJ Thames – Raw Sugar

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Title: Raw Sugar

Artist: JJ Thames

Label: DeChamp Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: August 26, 2016

 

Detroit native JJ Thames trained in jazz and classical music from the age of 9 and added blues to her repertoire by the time she was 18. Since then, she has been entrenched in a number of genres, including soul, rockabilly, reggae, roots, and ska. Her sophomore album, Raw Sugar, is a collaboration with Mississippi guitarist Eddie Cotton, who co-wrote twelve of the thirteen tracks and is the lead guitarist on the album.

In an attempt to jumpstart her musical career, Thames moved down to Jackson, Mississippi and performed with “Chitlin’ Circuit” superstars such as Marvin Sease. This Southern influence is present on “Hattie Pearl,” as Thames sings about greens, fish and grits, and sipping tea on the back porch. The music is also irresistible—a mix of funk and blues with a twinge of gospel that resounds with horns, a killer keyboard solo, and Thames’ soulful singing complete with growls and shouts.

Thames’ sound harkens back to a different era, embodying the power and vocal quality of legendary ‘60s and ‘70s soul women such as Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight on tracks like “I’m Leavin’” and “Leftovers.” The accompaniment effortlessly evokes this time period as well, from the varied instrumentation to the tight arrangements that leave no room for imperfection.

As the album progresses, Thames explores the other genres that she has perfected over the years. “Woman Scorned” takes a modern rock turn, as Thames sings with a rollicking electric guitar and heavy dose of drums. “Hold Me” is a passionate, lyrical ballad that slows things down and is backed by harmonizing vocals. “Don’t Feel Nothing” is a rockabilly jam full of twanging guitar that’s perfect for dancing. “Raw Sugar” is straight ahead blues, which Thames growls, croons, and moans directly from the soul while Cotton adds an incredible blues guitar solo.

Legendary R&B singer Dorothy Moore has referred to JJ Thames as “the future of the blues.” On Raw Sugar, Thames certainly shows she is an artist who is determined to make her mark. Her voice is strong and confident, whether rebuking a man who has treated her wrong or expressing emotional vulnerability in a ballad. Thames channels many African American musical genres and influences, but remains distinctively herself—a powerful singer from Detroit who is living in Mississippi and securing her own place in the music world.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Tarica June – Stream of Consciousness Vol. 1.5

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Title: Stream of Consciousness Vol. 1.5

Artist: Tarica June

Label: Bandcamp

Format: MP3

Release Date: March 1, 2016

 

Tarica June’s latest EP, Stream of Consciousness Volume 1.5, takes on a wide range of topics, from gentrification to life as a millennial.  This is the third release from the lawyer and rapper, preceded by Moonlight (2010) and Stream of Consciousness Volume 1 (2014).  Born and raised in Washington D.C., June is carving out her place in a hip-hop community that includes a diverse array of artists, such as Wale, Fat Trel, Shy Glizzy, and of course a host of go-go musicians as well.

Over the course of the EP’s five songs, June displays versatility and leans toward introspection, focusing on her craft, her grind, and her potential to make it as an independent artist. Like other popular rappers today, namely Chance the Rapper, she rejects the necessity of a label, instead releasing her music online.  Her flow is similar to New York rapper Nitty Scott, MC and Chicago’s Noname.  There are also hints of influence from an older generation of rappers, such as Queen Latifah.

The most popular track on the album by far is “But Anyway,” which is an assessment of a rapidly gentrifying DC. As a third generation resident, she reminisces on the days of “Chocolate City,” referencing Marion Barry’s summer youth employment program, DC’s Metro system, as well as heavier topics such as mass incarceration and the displacement that gentrification is causing.  The video, which features June strolling around key sites in DC, went viral in March.  Currently working on her first full-length album, the city is excited to see what comes next from Tarica June.

Reviewed by Allie Martin

Javier Colon – Gravity

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Title: Gravity

Artist: Javier Colon

Label: Concord

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: April 15, 2016

 

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:

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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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Will Downing – Black Pearls

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Title: Black Pearls

Artist: Will Downing

Label: Shanachie

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: July 8, 2016

 

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.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman