Keith “Wonderboy” Johnson – Keep Pushin’

wonderboy

 

Title: Keep Pushin’

Artist: Keith “Wonderboy” Johnson

Label: Shanachie

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: April 27, 2018

 

Brooklyn native Keith “Wonderboy” Johnson is one of the leading voices in contemporary gospel quartet music today. The 3x Stellar Award winner and Billboard top 20 chart topper began singing at a young age with father, Phil Johnson, who was the founder of the group, The Spiritual Voices.

Johnson earned the nickname “Wonderboy” as a child due to his amazing melismatic approach to singing along with his distinctive vocal timbre. Johnson has also helped to transform the gospel quartet genre through the use of modern gospel music production sounds and techniques, while maintaining the integrity of traditional gospel quartet music, due to his incredible production crew.

On Johnson’s 13th album, Keep Pushin’, the artist goes well beyond his gospel roots to feature various styles of music. The title track and single, “Keep Pushin”, is a highly inspirational piece with an upbeat funk groove that encourages people to have faith in God and keep moving despite the obstacles that life often presents. Reminiscent of the famous Impressions’ message song “Keep On Pushing” that became a part of the fabric of the Civil Rights Movement, Johnson’s song reveals that people are still dealing with political, social, economical and, one might add, spiritual issues. As Johnson encourages in the music video, one can strive to transcend these issues by facing their problems and not giving up on themselves, others or God.

On the gospel ballad, “God’s Gonna Do It,” Johnson reassures listeners that with faith and patience “God will come through” and perform the unbelievable and impossible task set before them. Johnson projects this same message through his homage to R&B artist Morris Day and the Minneapolis sound, using Day’s popular song “The Bird” as the foundation of “God Is Able.” The background vocalists sing “Hallelujah” during the vamp, as featured on the original song during the chorus section (omitting the word “Squawk,” of course). Johnson went back in time to 1984, utilizing the same synthesizer keyboard sounds accompanied by a “4 on the floor” driving groove. This high energy dance song encourages people to give God praise while they are waiting for their miracle.

Each song on the album features a message of hope, faith and belief in the promises of God through the versatile approach of Johnson’s modern gospel quartet sound.  One may hear the traditional gospel and quartet sound, R&B, funk or soul. Each song is governed by the idea that no matter what comes your way, you can make it, with faith, determination, and praise. Johnson end’s his album appropriately with the song “Do You Know How Blessed You Are,” reminding listeners that it is simply a blessing to be alive.

Reviewed by Bobby E. Davis Jr.

Kelontae Gavin – The Higher Experience

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Title: The Higher Experience

Artist: Kelontae Gavin

Label: Tyscot

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: April 27, 2018

 

In 2014 a video went viral of a young man singing the modern hymn, “I Won’t Complain,” in his high school cafeteria. That young man was Summerville, South Carolina native Kelontae Gavin. Within two years he was signed to Tyscot Records and his first original single, “Higher,” topped at #30 on the gospel charts. Now the 19-year-old Kelontae Gavin has released his debut album, The Higher Experience.

Recorded live at Fresh Start Church in Atlanta, The Higher Experience opens with the choir singing a gorgeous a capella rendition of the Donnie McClurkin song, “Holy, Holy, Holy,”  just one of many beautiful and complex arrangements on this album written by Tyscot producer Marquis Boone. As the album proceeds we are graced with other gorgeous tracks such as “There’s No One Like You” and the title track, “No Ordinary Worship,” which just rose to #16 on the Billboard Gospel Charts.

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Of particular note about the production of this song, as well as others on the album, is the precision and quality of the backing vocals. For a live recorded gospel album this actually makes them feel slightly over-produced. This is a very small critique but it stands out because of the passion and raw emotion behind Gavin’s delivery. With the background vocals so clean, Gavin’s passion feels somewhat unsupported.

There are many aspects of Gavin’s performance that stand out. Despite his age, he is extremely adept at his vocal style, song delivery and aptitude as well as his ability to minister. These talents are on display throughout the songs, as well as in breaks between songs such as “Ministry Moment,” where Gavin delivers messages about trusting in God with the execution and confidence of a pastor over twice his age.

Gavin has an electrifying old school sound, reminiscent of the smooth tenor of artists like Sam Cooke, but also with the gritty roar of Clarence Fountain that most would not expect from an artist this young. When hearing Gavin’s dynamic vocal ability and just the overall power and emotion behind his voice, no one could ever guess that he’s still a teenager. The Higher Experience is phenomenal and great kick off to what will hopefully turn into a very lucrative career for Kelontae Gavin.

Reviewed by Jared Griffin

Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir – I Am Reminded (Live)

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Title: I Am Reminded (Live)

Artist: Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir

Label: Provident Music Group

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: April 6, 2018

 

Brooklyn may be the most iconic of all the New York boroughs, but I usually associate it with basketball first and hip hop second, not choirs. These days, however, we as a society and country need uplifting words, and where better than in song? Enter the six-time Grammy® Award winning Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. Founded in the 1970s and currently directed by Carol Cymbala, the multicultural BTC has 270 members who, for the most part, are vocally untrained. Taking music out of the church, the choir has performed at Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall, Madison Square Garden, and the 2012 Presidential Inauguration festivities in Washington, DC.

 I Am Reminded is the BTC’s 30th release and offers eleven tracks celebrating the power of the Lord. The album was recorded live so you get to enjoy the feedback from the audience as if you were there in church. On the opening track, “Psalm 150,” the lead singer repeats the line “The name of Jesus is worthy to be praised” again and again over great backing vocals. Perhaps the most attention grabbing track is “Jesus It’s You” featuring tenor Sidney Mochede, which could be a crossover hit. The words just suck you up and make you want to bow your head and close your eyes. Songs on the soulful side include the original ballads, “That’s Why God” and the title track, “I Am Reminded” featuring soprano Niciole Binion. Other guests include Shane and Shane, a Texas-based contemporary praise and worship duo who lead the choir in a performance of their anthem, “Psalm 23.”

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 The contemporary gospel tracks on I Am Reminded are perhaps more Joel Osteen than TD Jakes, but the uplifting music may help us deal with current issues such as school shootings, the #MeTooMovement, Black Lives Matter and NFL policy on players kneeling during the anthem. With the way things are currently, we could use the encouragement.

 Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

Gloriae Dei Cantores – God’s Trombones

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Title: God’s Trombones

Artist: Gloriae Dei Cantores

Label: Paraclete

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: February 2, 2018

 

Born in 1871, James Weldon Johnson is perhaps best known in musical circles as the brother of composer John Rosamond Johnson, who set his poem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” to music in 1900. But James was also a towering literary figure, among other accomplishments, and one of his best known works is God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, first published in 1927. Based on an old folk sermon that began with the creation of the world and ended with the Judgement Day,” the book of poems is now considered a classic of American literature.

American composer and baritone Gordon Myers (1919-2006) set God’s Trombones to music in 1966. The oratorio was Myer’s doctoral thesis composition and he articulated his goals as follows: “Approaching the task, I kept the sound of a church choir, the lilt of a folk song, and the vitality of the Negro Spiritual in my ear, and set out to blend them into one consistent idiom.”

In 1995, the premiere recording of the work was released by Paraclete Press, performed by Gloriae Dei Cantores conducted by Elizabeth C. Petterson, with Myers as the featured baritone. Based in Orleans, Mass., Gloriae Dei Cantores has a mission to “preserve in recordings worthy American sacred music that would otherwise be neglected,” and consequently decided to reissue their 1995 recording of God’s Trombones, with original liner notes and song texts included. Those who do not own a copy of the original release should certainly consider this new version.  It must be noted, however, that the movement “Let My People Go” was sacrificed due to time constraints on the original pressing. Regrettably, the new release is also incomplete—it’s a pity is wasn’t expanded to a two-CD set, but presumably the missing movement was simply not recorded during the 1995 session.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Sheku Kanneh-Mason – Inspiration

sheku

 

Title: Inspiration

Artist: Sheku Kanneh-Mason

Label: Decca/London

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release date: January 26, 2018

 

Sometimes it takes a royal wedding to bring musical talents to light. Such is the case with cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Though the London-born musician was already a celebrity in the UK, the rest of the world took notice during his televised performance at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on May 19. Now his debut album is topping the charts and fans can’t seem to get enough.

The 19-year-old cellist plays like Yo-Yo Ma and cites the late Jacqueline du Pré as an early influence. After winning the BBC Young Musician Award in 2016, Kanneh-Mason was signed to the prestigious Decca Classics label.  Inspiration, released earlier this year, proves his mastery through a mix of the classics and arrangements of popular songs.

Kanneh-Mason opens the album with an arrangement of the Hebrew song “Evening of Roses” (aka “Erev Shel Shoshanim”), then segues into the frequently performed chestnut “The Swan,” from Carnival of the Animals.” Next is “Song of the Birds” arranged by another cello great, Pablo Casals. All three are accompanied by the CBSO cello section.

The full City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, comes on board for Shostakovich. First, a beautiful rendition of his “Nocturne” from The Gadfly Suite, followed by Cello Concerto No. 1, which Kanneh-Mason performs brilliantly. One would expect no less since it was his performance of this work at the BBC competition that clinched his award.

The album concludes with four additional arrangements that demonstrate Kanneh-Mason’s beautiful tone and musical maturity: “Les larmes de Jacqueline” from Offenbach’s cello suite Harmonies des Bois, Op. 76; Casal’s arrangement of Sardana; and two popular favorites—Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” The latter, arranged for strings, includes assistance from three other young musicians—violinist Didier Osindero, violist Alinka Rowe and cellist Yong Jun Lee.

None of the above were performed during the royal wedding, which included Après un Rêve by Gabriel Fauré, Sicilienne by Maria Theresia von Paradis and Schubert’s Ave Maria, but for those who want more of Kanneh-Mason, the wedding performance is available on video.  He will also be touring throughout Europe this summer and fall, with three performances scheduled in Seattle in October.  No doubt he will be filling those seats!

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Royce da 5’9″ – Book of Ryan

royce

 

Title: Book of Ryan

Artist: Royce da 5’9”

Label: Heaven Studios/eOne

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release Date: May 4, 2018

 

Royce da 5’9”, while best known for his collaborations with artists such as Eminem in addition to his extensive recording career, is still an enigmatic figure to many of his fans. While other artists have freely woven their personal issues into their rhymes, until this point Royce has relied on his lyricism skills to build his reputation and fan base. With Book of Ryan, however, he switches up his game plan and allows us a glimpse into his personal world. Functioning as a part-retrospective/part-progressive look at the Royce-That-Was and the Royce-That-Has-Yet-To-Be, Book of Ryan unflinchingly spins a narrative of past drug use, current insecurities and future self-expectations.

The 21-set album begins with an introduction in which Royce lays out his intentions for his music in narrative-style, and quickly gets right down to business in his second cut, “Woke.” The minimalistic, polyrhythmic percussion is appealing in its own right, but the lyrics calling out those in self-denial of their behavior and environment is spot-on conscious mode. “My Parallel,” the first of three self-explanatory ‘skits,’ further explores Royce’s purpose for the remainder of the album, disclosing that his dark childhood and subsequent drug use drove many of his self-destructive decisions.

While Royce doesn’t dwell in his past for the entire time, the main focus of his album is to let us into his inner world and former experiences. His choice of featured artists lets his fan base know who is important in his life—Eminem, T-Pain, and Pusha T, to name a few. “Amazing,” featuring Melanie Rutherford, is a multi-functional finger-point towards the grocer in Royce’s childhood who took away his coveted basketball, while also introducing fans to his past self through a self-affirmational journey through his old neighborhood.

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Royce continues his backward glance with “Boblo Boat,” an offering best experienced through video (above) due to its nostalgic youthful feeling and amusement park scenes. But it’s his skit, “Who are You,” that offers the best proof of why Ryan has released this deeply introspective album. This narrative features Royce describing a dream in which he is able to ask his late father hard-hitting questions he never got the chance to ask, followed by Royce’s son asking if he can interview him for a school project he has decided to do about his father called “The Book of Ryan.”

The Book of Ryan is a well-crafted piece of audible prose. Looking inward and outward at both society and himself, Royce da 5’9” gives us a page-turning look at all the forces that molded and shaped him into the artist he is now and the individual he aspires to be.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Birds of Chicago – Love in Wartime

birds

 

Title: Love in Wartime

Artist: Birds of Chicago

Label: Signature Sounds

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release date: May 4, 2018

 

Americana duo Birds of Chicago is a marriage, literally, of singer-songwriters JT Nero and Allison Russell. Formed in 2012, the group has developed a loyal following through their relentless touring schedule. Since their last full-length project, Real Midnight (2016), the Birds have flown from Chicago to Nashville, where they now reside. Their new album, Love in Wartime, co-produced by Luther Dickenson, reflects the sounds of both hometowns as the duo artfully intertwines elements of country, folk, blues and rock.

While Russell’s voice has been prominent on previous albums, Love in Wartime is perhaps more evenly divided between the duo, contrasting Russell’s silky, soulful soprano against Nero’s grittier baritone.  Opening with the intro “Now/Sunlight,” Russell hums a whimsical, folksy tune over plucked banjo chords, then segues into the uptempo roots rock song, “Never Go Back,” with Nero on lead vocals. On the title track, twangy guitars come to the fore as Nero recounts the realities of longterm relationships and parenthood, “we sat there and tried to remember our dreams, no such luck, no such luck.” Life on the road is the subject of the poignant “Travelers,” as Russell sings “there’s no home in this world, got no home in this world.” One of the most effective duets on the album is “Try,” with Russell and Nero trading verses before coming together on the chorus, “Try a little harder, give a little more.”

Other highlights include the uplifting bluesy song “Roll Away” which encourages folks to “roll away the heavy stones, roll away the heavy hours, roll on in the summer moon,” and the banjo accompanied ballad “Superlover.”

Love in Wartime is jam-packed with carefully crafted songs and inspirational lyrics that celebrate life and love despite troubled times and the daily grind.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Shirley Davis & the Silverbacks – Wishes & Wants

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Title: Wishes & Wants

Artist: Shirley Davis & the Silverbacks

Label: Tucxone Records

Formats: CD, Vinyl, Digital

Release Date: May 25, 2018

 

Shirley Davis’ path to becoming lead vocalist of Shirley Davis & the Silverbacks has been anything but ordinary—from working at London’s Wembley Arena as a young teen to becoming one of the top soul and funk vocalists in Australia to singing on a cruise ship.  Her musical journey continued after a chance encounter at a Sharon Jones concert in 2014; Davis was invited by Alberto “Tuco” Peces and Genesis Candela from Tucxone Records to come to Madrid and record an album. Davis was introduced to the Silverbacks in the studio and the connection between them was immediate.

Two years after releasing their acclaimed debut album, Black Rose, that put them on the modern soul and funk map, Shirley Davis & the Silverbacks are back with Wishes & Wants. The 9-track album includes everything from emotional ballads like “Treat Me Better” to more upbeat, funky tracks like “Kisses,” but each song has in common the strong soul that Shirley Davis always delivers. And while Davis’ soulful voice is always mesmerizing, the Silverbacks deserve recognition for their ability to match the power and energy conveyed by their lead singer. The band’s musical skill is highlighted in tracks such as “Nightlife,” in which the funky groove laid down by the organ, horns, guitar, and drums beautifully pairs with the vocals. Following is the official video single for the equally funky title track:

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While their first album may have hinted that Shirley Davis and the Silverbacks deserve a spot among the contemporary soul and funk greats, Wishes & Wants proves that they deserve to stay. And according to Shirley Davis, this isn’t the last you’ll see of her: “This is what I believe I will do for the rest of my life. I am meant to be the soul diva of Europe.”

Reviewed by Chloe McCormick

Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite – No Mercy In This Land

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Title: No Mercy In This Land

Artist: Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite

Label: Anti

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release date: March 30 2018

 

Blues powerhouses Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite return with a new musical collaboration, No Mercy In This Land. Their first album, 2012’s Get Up!, spurred, at least in my mind at the time, comparisons to other blues and jazz artists such as John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. I now realize that while some comparisons are productive, sometimes artists come together to produce the most amazingly creative offerings. Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite are the perfect example of just that.

“When I Go,” the opening track, sets the mood for what to expect on this new album. The song begins with humming! You know what I mean—1930s/1940s, take-me-to-the-river-and-baptize me-in-blues humming. Then, the mesmerizing strumming of a guitar takes over. “I’ll take you when I go,” replies Harper. Talk about musical blues call and response.

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After that moving scene, picture a jukebox in some honky-tonk bar, with patrons who perhaps had one too many, lip synching to the next track, “The Bottle Wins Again.” On “Trust You to Dig My Grave” I can practically hear Muddy Waters weighing in on the action from the Beyond—Harper and Musselwhite really do justice on this one. “Bad Habits” is an up tempo, clap-along jam. Musselwhite and Harper are never quite specific what kind of bad habits they are referring to. You listen. You be the judge of that one.

No Mercy In This Land is excellent work from Harper, and once again, he has found a great compadre in Musselwhite. For this album, and this iconic blues duo, there literally is no comparison.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

Deva Mahal – Run Deep

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Title: Run Deep

Artist: Deva Mahal

Label: Motéma Music 

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release Date: March 23, 2018

 

Robust talent runs generationally, especially when you’re the offspring of blues icon Taj Mahal and dancer/artist Inshirah Mahal, as proven with Deva Mahal’s debut album, Run Deep. Forging her own sound as part blues, part indie-rock and all soul, Mahal gives her listeners one of the edgiest, most emotionally drawn voices in the industry today.

The first track, “Can’t Call it Love,” opens with a riveting guitar riff and empowering lyrics: I’m feeling new like an old-school instrumental / I’m getting in the mood / And feeling sentimental, which can be taken as both commentary on one’s new found infatuation and Mahal’s coming into her own. The entire album features innovative instrumentality and Mahal’s varied vocalization styles. For example, the closing track, “Take a Giant Step,” showcases her sultry pop sound as she reinterprets this standard by Carole King and Gerry Goffin (a song her father has also recorded).

The focal track of the album, both vocally and visually, is the offering “Snakes.” Mahal’s vocals jump right off the album from the first moment she begins singing, but the visualizations of the video are pure genius—black and white coloring, shadow dancing and the animation of a swamp monster, said to have been inspired by her favorite childhood “girl power” book, Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp by Mercer Mayer.

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Mahal has definitely come out from under her parent’s shadow with this artistic debut. From the first note to the last few strains, this artist’s soulful and funky melodies will have you running deep into the magical world of Deva Mahal, breathlessly awaiting her next move.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Don Braden – Earth Wind and Wonder

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Title: Earth Wind and Wonder

Artist: Don Braden

Label: Creative Perspective Music

Formats: CD

Release date: May 4, 2018

 

Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky in the 1970s, world-renowned straight ahead jazz saxophonist Don Braden fell in love with the music of Earth, Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder. According to Braden, “This is the music that first imprinted my teenage brain…and captured my heart.” Now, although this album pays tribute to these great artists and their musical legacy, Earth Wind and Wonder also demonstrates Braden’s versatility and his creativity as a performer and arranger, while re-introducing his audience to the positive messages of strength, love and joy within the music of EWF and Stevie.

This collection of songs includes notable hits such as “Fantasy,” “Higher Ground,” “Can’t Hide Love,” “Getaway” and “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing,” among others. Also featured are two original compositions by Braden—“The Elements” and “The Wonder of You”—that complement the overarching EWF and Wonder theme of the album. Braden recorded the album over a period of four years (summer 2014, fall 2017, and early spring 2018) with instrumentalists such as Brandon McCune (piano), Joris Teepe (bass), Cecil Brooks III (drums), Art Hirahara (piano), Kenny Davis (bass), Jeremy Warren (drums), and Kahlil Kwame Bell (percussion).

Opening with a medium-up swing rendition of “Fantasy,” Braden uses EWF’s original harmony in his introduction, but soon transitions into his own interpretation filled with re-harmonization and rhythmic figures. We are later treated to “The Wonder of You,” where Braden channels the compositional spirit of Stevie Wonder’s music into a smooth and light bossa-funk groove coupled with jazz harmony and a memorable melody.

Performing new arrangements of Earth, Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder’s notable hits is certainly not an easy task. However, Braden accomplishes this mission with his superb renditions, while staying true to the essence of their artistry. Earth Wind and Wonder is truly an artistic expression that will capture the hearts and minds of its listeners.

Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste

 

 

Reggie Quinerly – Words to Love

Reggie Quinerly

Title: Words To Love

Artist: Reggie Quinerly

Label: Redefinition Music

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: April 20, 2018

 

 

Raised in Houston, Texas, drummer Reggie Quinerly attended Houston’s High School of the Performing and Visual Art. He’s just one of the many successful musicians who graduated from this school, including renowned jazz artists like Eric Harland, Chris Dave, and Robert Glasper. Quinerly continues to grow and evolve as an artist, as demonstrated by his 2012 debut album, Music Inspired by Freedmantown, and his second release, Invictus, in 2015. On both albums, Quinerly featured vocalists on at least one or two tracks, which is somewhat common for jazz instrumentalists.

For his third album, Words To Love, Quinerly composed music and lyrics for each track, creating an album entirely of songs. Enlisting up and coming male and female jazz vocalists to help him get his message across, Quinerly showcases the talents of Chicago-born Milton Suggs and Brooklyn’s own Melanie Charles. The two vocalists trade off song for song, telling a story of the many facets of love. They are backed by a renowned rhythm section including Orrin Evans on piano, Ben Wolfe on bass, and of course, Quinerly on drums. Also, four tracks on the album feature the well-known alto saxophone player, Jaleel Shaw.

It’s clear when you listen to Quinerly that he’s a straight ahead jazzer. The album includes a very nice mixture of modern jazz song forms and melodies with an obvious nod to older styles like hard bop, which can be found in Quinerly’s harmonic choices as well as the rhythmic feels he chooses to employ. Also, Quinerly’s education and influence from great jazz drummers, like Max Roach and Tony Williams, can be clearly heard. This is especially apparent in certain songs on the album like “Love’s Ferris Wheel,” sung by Charles, which is meant to be a nod to songwriters like Cole Porter or Rogers & Hart, even including a rubato verse prior to the 32-bar chorus. Quinerly lays down a great drum solo on this tune, but for an album lead by a drummer it would’ve been nice to include more opportunities for him to show off. Also, at times Words to Love can feel a little stagnant, since almost every tune is either slow to mid-tempo. A couple of faster tunes or just another high energy drum solo could’ve helped to give the album some shape.

Quinerly was inspired to create Words to Love because of his increased interest in jazz singers, specifically Lou Rawls. After hearing Rawls’ 1966 recording of “A Shadow of Your Smile,” he became enamored with jazz vocals, adding singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Betty Carter to his playlist.

Quinerly also wanted to explore love and all of its varieties and chose to open the album with his tune “Until I Met You,” pertaining to the search for love and falling in love. Shortly after is “Still Frames,” which speaks about the love of memories and times past. Then, of course, there is the gorgeous title track, “Words to Love,” which is easily the most moving song on the album. Charles’ light yet present vocals float over the combo, leading into a wonderful alto saxophone solo by Jaleel Shaw, before they come together, intertwine and share the space of the song as they enter into the final verse.

Words to Love has a very classic hard bop feel created by Quinerly’s straight ahead approach to composition. Though perhaps not as adventurous as his previous albums, Words To Love is an amazing album that keeps the traditions of jazz alive.

Reviewed by Jared Griffin

 

Starchild & the New Romantic – Language

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Title: Language

Artist: Starchild & the New Romantic

Label: Motor Mouth Media

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release Date: February 23, 2018

 

After years of providing artists such as Solange and Dev Hynes (aka Blood Orange) with quality choreography and guitar riffs, Bryndon Cook has stepped out on his own under the moniker Starchild & the New Romantic with his debut album, Language. This 14-track offering takes its listeners on a ‘90s-inspired groove cruise, guided by what he calls is his self-made motto, “my sensitivity is my strength.”

Hailing from Maryland, Cook has always been a student of black music’s rich lineages that intersect with pop. Challenging binaries of old/new, religious/secular, and black/white, his music is both bold and mercurial, defining perspective and identity while calling for action. The title track weaves out of the speakers and around the mind with Cook crooning the language of lost chances and second glances. The short and tender single, “Hangin’ On,” echoes early-80s Prince in both instrumental sound and its resulting mood:  Fell asleep last night / Thinking about you. Saw you in my sleep, chased you till morning came. My mama said “follow your dreams” / Well I guess you were my warning / Now I’ve let myself go / Hope you’re still holdin’ on.

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Other tracks, such as “Black Diamond,” “Doubts” and “Boys Choir” speak to the root of the record itself—a mystical contemplation of the boyhood community to which Cook finally feels he is ready to bare his soul. Lyrical and emotional, poignant with just a smidge of regret, Language writes on the heart all that Cook was, is and will always be—a star in his own right, romanticizing his way into the minds of all who pause to listen.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Bumpus – Way Down Deep

Bumpus
Title: Way Down Deep

Artist: Bumpus

Label: Bumpus

Release Date: March 21, 2018

Formats: Digital

 

 

Veteran Chicago soul band Bumpus returned in a big way this March, with its first release since 2007.  The band was a funk tour de force in the 2000s, but faced some personnel changes in the early 2010s that sidelined new recording projects.  The group still has performed locally over the past few years, and the band’s new lineup and infectious live energy is effectively captured on its Way Down Deep EP.

 

 

Bumpus is perhaps most well-known for its killer, high-energy live show, with one of the region’s funkiest rhythm sections and a horn line to match.  However, Way Down Deep showcases the band’s vocalists, James Johnston, Ava Fain and Tina Howell, whose layered, soulful voices drive the 6-song set. The band’s bread and butter is tightly knit guitar-driven funk tunes like the self-assured “Step Sure or Step Aside,” a challenge to “suckas” that is propelled by an active bass groove and soulful Hammond organ.  The EP’s highlight is the 2-part “Way Down Deep.” Part 1 is a solid lovin’ song infused with horn hits and funky drumming, but the song’s bridge gradually morphs into the spaced-out P-Funk territory that characterizes Part 2, with phased out vocals and instruments as well as an extended What’s Going On – style saxophone solo over gradually fading backing vocals.

It is a great benefit to Chicago’s music scene that Bumpus is back and bumpin’. Hopefully, Way Down Deep will usher in another decade of solid grooves and soulful songwriting.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Murs – A Strange Journey Into the Unimaginable

murs

 

Title: A Strange Journey Into the Unimaginable

Artist: Murs

Label: Strange Music

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: March 16, 2018

 

There’s something to be said for raw, introspective honesty. It not only provides relief to the one sharing, but it also lets others know they aren’t the only ones adjusting to difficult life issues. On his latest album, A Strange Journey Into the Unimaginable, underground rapper Murs bares his soul with some of his most candid, direct lyrics yet. Murs, a native of south central Los Angeles, has released nearly two dozen albums, but none of them belt out the trials and tribulations more poignantly than this one. Yet, he still manages to weave some lighter-hearted rhymes in-between his retrospections, showing fans that regardless of the darkness faced, one can still find reasons to smile beyond the pain.

In his first track, “The Unimaginable,” Murs strips himself down to the bone, providing a glimpse into his previously unimaginable life journey dealing with a painful divorce, a 12-month separation from his son, and the loss of his stillborn second son and a personal friend: I cried a whole lot when I filed for divorce, and when a homie got shot /…when I was separated from my son, I cried for almost a year /..a baby boy…he was born without a heartbeat. The next offering, “Melancholy,” is a more upbeat tune that, while continuing its focus on struggle, admits that Murs’ overwhelming grief has morphed into a lingering pensiveness: Hi everyone. My name is Murs, and uh…yeah. I’ve had a rough couple of years…I’m at this point now where I’m not too high and not too low. I’m just here.

“Same Way” is a fun, tongue-in-cheek diss to friends and family of Murs’ girlfriend who don’t like him, as he simply states, “Tell them I feel the same way.” On “Superhero Pool Party, Murs’ son asks for a bedtime story and is treated to a comical what-would-happen narrative involving characters such as Batman, She-Hulk and Professor X. Providing touching tributes to love and commitment on “So Close So Far” and “Vows,” Murs shows his softer and more hopeful side, and he closes out his album with the somewhat dark but still completely candid “God is the Greatest,”

While his experiences so far were something he most likely couldn’t have imagined, Murs has turned his tragedies into therapeutic rhymes. Spinning his tales so that everyone knows they aren’t alone, Murs has managed to turn the unimaginable into a tale of perseverance, giving all of his listeners hope for their own journey through life.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Playing For Change – Listen to the Music

playing for change

 

Title: Listen to the Music

Artist: Playing For Change

Label: Motéma Music

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: April 20, 2018

 

Playing For Change, the multimedia company best known for their “Songs Around the World” online video series that has over 500 million views, has released their fourth album Listen to the Music. Featuring a selection of global artists performing tracks in their home countries, the project took almost three years to complete.

The album’s first single, “Skin Deep” performed by blues legend Buddy Guy and over 50 accompanying musicians from around the U.S., speaks on race issues and violence in America stating, “underneath we’re all the same.”

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Another track, “Africa Mokili Mobimba” performed by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and TP OK Jazz Band, is a famous Congolese song that serves as an anthem to connect and unify Africa. One of the final songs on the album, “Congo to the Mississippi,” exemplifies this theme of unification through music; the song started in a village in the Congo and added musicians from Jamaica, Japan, and Italy before wrapping up with a harmonica solo played by New Orleans street musician Grandpa Elliott.

Each track on Listen to the Music is completely unique in its combination of talented musicians and vocalists.  The related video series document many of these collaborations, including “All Along the Watchtower” (with Cyril and Ivan Neville), “Everlasting Love” (with Vasti Jackson and Roots Gospel Voices of Mississippi), and “Bring It on Home to Me” (featuring the late Roger Ridley).

The album, while bringing together the contributing 210 musicians from 25 different countries, also aims to unify today’s often divided societies. According to the co-founder of Playing For Change, Mark Johnson, “In a world with so many divisions, we need to create connections. Musical collaboration is the best way to make that happen.” In addition, 100% of profits from the album with be donated to the Playing For Change Foundation. This non-profit educational organization has opened 15 music-focused schools for underprivileged children in Bangladesh, Brazil, Ghana, Mali, Nepal, Rwanda, South Africa, Morocco, Mexico, Argentina and Thailand.

Reviewed by Chloe McCormick

Army Gideon – Forsake Not

Forsake Not
Title: Forsake Not

Artist: Army Gideon

Label: Uhuru Boys

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: March 23, 2018

 

 

Based out of Fort Lauderdale and Jamaica, the reggae fusion group Army Gideon champions equal rights, justice, universal love and Rastafari awareness on their debut album Forsake Not. Calling themselves “musical soldiers,” the band’s militant persona reflects their focus on liberation and commitment.

The album opens with “Mezmur,” a tribute to Haile Sellasie, while “Empress” expresses devotion to a woman with the attributes of Empress Menen Asfaw, wife of Emperor Sellasie. Other more traditional tracks include “Sabbath Peace,” aka “Shabbat Shalom.” Loosely based on Psalm 92, the song features well-known reggae trumpeter Junior “Chico” Chin and has long been one of the band’s signature works. On the liberation song “Chains Dem,” lead vocalist Ras Anbesa Tafari sings on the bridge, “We are out here in our Babylon / look around and there’s nowhere to go / equal rights that’s for everyone.”

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The wailing rock guitar of Jassiah “Lion” Boswell on the intro to “Mightly People” signals a turn toward the Reggae rock fusion for which Army Gideon is known, as lead vocalist Ras Anbesa Tafari sings “the gift of Rastafari sets you free.” Boswell also takes over the midsection of the title track, “Forsake Not,” with Tafari contributing vocals as well as violin and guitar. The band is anchored by the “heavy and steady” rhythm section: Steve “Skins” Kornicks, percussion, Dane “Spice” Hutton, and Sheldon “Don Don” Satchell, bass

Forsake Not will delight fans of Army Gideon, who have been waiting a long time for the group to release an album. Most if not all of these tracks have been in the band’s repertoire for several years, and it certainly shows in the tight performances.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Introduction to Sister Sledge

sister sledge
Title: Introduction to Sister Sledge

Artist: Sister Sledge

Label: Atlantic

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date:  March 2, 2018

 

 

When one thinks of the great family acts, what names just pop in your head? The J5 / Jacksons naturally. The Osmonds perhaps? The Wilson Brothers? The Gap Band? Which set right. The most slept on family act hands down are the Isley Brothers. But the one name that constantly gets overlooked is Sister Sledge. The four ladies from Philly–North Philly to be exact–perhaps never had the same commercial appeal as the others mentioned, but if you check their history, you just might want to rethink where you rank them. SS even played the concert in Zaire with James Brown, the night before Ali v. Forman, and the group also had huge following in Japan.

Kathy, Joanie (R.I.P.), Debbie & Kim. That’s how I remembered their names, in that order. Forty years ago, SS released their He’s the Greatest Dancer album and became hotter than a firecracker. Hooking up with members of Chic—Nile Rodgers, Bernard Edwards & drummer Tony Thompson, who were hot as well with “Le Freak”—SS jumped on the disco train and rode it to the end of the line.

Introduction to Sister Sledge is a ten track “best of” collection. Yes, “We Are Family” is included–don’t panic. When some think of SS, they only think of this song. After the Pirates of Pittsburgh adopted “We Are Family” as their theme in 1979 and won the world series, the song put SS even more on the map.

The compilation takes us back to early SS and you can tell, just by listening to Kathy Sledge’s voice. The track “Mama Never Told Me” is bubblegum pop, but cute. I mean, it could have been performed by J5 or the Five Stairsteps (another family act). “Shibby Doo, Shibby Doo, bop bop.”

“Lost In Music,” produced by Niles Rodgers, sounds like Chic. Heck, for so many years I thought it was Chic since it has that distinctive Chic sound. “All American Girls” tries to recapture the sound of the previous LP and singles. I never knew if SS was referring to themselves as all American girls.

“He’s the Greatest Dancer” hands down is a top five disco track. You know a song is big when the Muppets had include it on their first TV special.  Nile Rodgers is on guitar, Bernard Edwards on bass, and Tony Thompson on drums. “Halston, Gucci, Eaucci, that man is dressed to kill!”

Introduction to Sister Sledge offers the best of SS. You get the big hits plus the ones that you never knew or just plain forgot about. One thing—don’t forget—when you list great family acts, make sure Sister Sledge isn’t forgotten.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

 

 

 

BCUC – Emakhosini

bcuc

 

Title: Emakhosini

Artist: BCUC (Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness)

Label: Buda Musique

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release date: April 20, 2018

 

Hailing from South Africa, the seven-piece band BCUC (Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness) has released their newest album Emakhosini, an EP featuring three tracks that capture the sound of ancestral, indigenous musical traditions while also including contemporary and controversial commentary on modern Africa.

Each of the three songs, though all very different, contain the essence of ‘Africangungungu,’ the name BCUC has given to their ‘afropsychedelic’ music. The tracks are best described as vibrant—each is buzzing with the distinct energy that BCUC brings to all of their music and performances. A mix of traditional indigenous South African music with funk, hip-hop, and punk-rock influences, BCUC’s music is nothing short of unique. As vocalist Kgomotso Mokone declared, “We bring fun and emo-indigenous Afro psychedelic fire from the hood.”

The album also tackles the issues of modern Africa head-on, including commentary on the harsh realities of uneducated workers. One song from a previous self-produced EP expressed views about a national idol and was so controversial that it was ultimately removed from the album. Despite this and other criticism regarding the group’s refusal to identify with a single social or political movement, BCUC sticks to their philosophy of creating “music for the people by the people with the people.” This philosophy is expressed in the video for the final track, “Nobody Knows (the Trouble I’ve Seen), filmed in Soweto:

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Although Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness faces criticism for their stances, their commitment to representing the voiceless, speaking on important social and political issues, and exposing audiences to indigenous music is admirable. Emakhosini perfectly represents and lives up to the rebellious, lively spirit of the group.

Reviewed by Chloe McCormick