New Holiday Albums: The Best of 2019

That special time of year has come around again, filling everyone with holiday cheer. But nothing has the ability to spread Christmas spirit quite like music does. Following are brief reviews of what we believe to be the best holiday albums so far this year, featuring releases from Keb’ Mo’, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, The McCrary Sisters, Elijah Blake, Jonathan Butler, and Mariah Carey. We hope these selections provide the perfect soundtrack for everyone’s holiday season. Continue reading

Michael Jackson – This Is It (10th Anniversary Limited Ed.)

 

Title: This Is It (10th Anniversary Limited Ed.)
Artist: Michael Jackson
Label: michaeljackson.com
Format: Box Set
Release date: December 11, 2019

 

Yet another repacking of Jackson’s This Is It, the movie that captured MJ’s final concert rehearsals before his death, this limited edition box is for serious fans who don’t mind spending nearly $500. Only 1000 numbered copies will be pressed, adding to the collectible market of the product. The box includes a 60-page hardcover coffee table book, 4-LP translucent blue vinyl of the soundtrack, 3D enhanced Blu-ray disc of the film never released as a standalone version, and one of the actual lenticular concert tickets for the July 24, 2009.

November 2019 Black Music Releases of Note

Following are additional albums released during November 2019 across multiple genres—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves. Continue reading

October 2019 Black Music Releases of Note

Following are additional albums released during October 2019 across multiple genres—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves. Continue reading

September 2019 Black Music Releases of Note

Following are additional albums released during September 2019 across multiple genres—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves.  Continue reading

Los Coast – Samsara

 

Title: Samsara
Artist: Los Coast
Label: New West Records
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release Date: June 14, 2019

 

Austin, Texas based band Los Coast has made a name for themselves on the local scene as an exciting and inventive young band. On their debut album, Samsara, Los Coast delivers a blend of pop and soul inspired tracks that incorporate the band’s distinctive grooves and infectious energy. Continue reading

Prince – Piano & A Microphone 1983

 

Title: Piano & A Microphone 1983
Artist: Prince
Label: NPG/Rhino/Warner Bros.
Release Date: September 21, 2018
Formats: CD, LP, Digital

 

In what is among the first of presumably many collections of previously unreleased material discovered in Prince’s vault after his death, Piano & a Microphone 1983 contains 34 minutes of demos and rehearsals he recorded in the early 1980s. Following on the heels of April’s release of Prince’s stirring original recording of “Nothing Compares 2 U” and the digital-only Anthology: 1995-2010 of previously released material released in August, Piano & a Microphone 1983 is a set of what sounds like single-take live demos, complete with mixing chatter, improvisations, and vocalized arrangement details. While it is certainly not a set of polished recordings, this compilation is a snapshot of one of the 20th century’s greatest artists in the midst of the creative process.  Continue reading

Sean Ardoin – Kreole Rock and Soul

seanTitle: Kreole Rock and Soul

Artist: Sean Ardoin

Label: Louisiana Red Hot

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: September 14, 2018

 

Sean Ardoin may come from a long line of accordion-playing Creole musicians (including Amédé Ardoin and Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin), but he certainly isn’t one to be put in a box when it comes to his music. Ardoin’s newest album, Kreole Rock and Soul, is named after the genre that he created in an attempt to revamp the music of his ancestors. While the album pays tribute to Ardoin’s Creole roots, it also incorporates the styles of contemporary pop and classic rock. Continue reading

Stax Singles Vol. 4: Rarities & The Best of the Rest

stax

 

Title: Stax Singles Vol. 4 – Rarities & The Best of the Rest

Artist: Various

Label: Stax/Craft Recordings

Formats: 6-CD set, Digital

Release date: February 9, 2018

 

From the early days of the CD era, there has been a constant stream of reissues from the legendary Stax/Volt catalog. Three volumes (28 CDs total) of The Complete Stax/Volt Singles plus artist-specific box sets, plus a pile of compilation CDs and box sets. Not to mention the many individual album reissues, which often included extra singles and other tracks not on the original LPs. What is left in the vaults to compile into this new 6-CD box, issued in conjunction with Concord Music Group’s celebration of the 60th anniversary of Stax’s founding?

It turns out, not 6 discs worth of compelling music, but there are many interesting obscure gems lurking among a bunch of tunes that were forgotten for a reason. The set is also padded with familiar material such as Booker T. & The M.G.’s cuts already issued on the artists’ own box set, and slightly edited single versions of Big Star hits.

The set has a scattershot focus, which actually works to its benefit by offering interesting music to several audiences. Discs 1-3 are B sides of singles included in the first three massive “Complete Singles” boxes (which, it turns out, contain mostly A sides and not “complete” singles by the definition of both sides of a record). Compiled by Rob Bowman, author of Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records and co-producer of the first three sets, these discs probably contain the fewest of what the casual listener might consider dull duds. For the deep-diver, some of the sides are obscure enough to be sourced from dubs of scratchy old 45’s, meaning the master tapes are missing.

To Concord’s credit, they offer a detailed listing of the set’s contents, so consumers can decide for themselves if there is enough interesting material to justify the purchase price. If the music compels you, the physical product is recommended because the 76-page booklet provides much detail and context, plus some nice artist photos from the old Stax promotional files.

Which brings us to the other half of the box. Discs 4-6 cover Stax’s attempts to diversify its catalog from its southern-soul target market. The material is mined from sub-labels: Enterprise (pop and country), Hip (pop and rock), Ardent (rock), and the gospel imprints Chalice and The Gospel Truth. The booklet offers very detailed information about these labels, which will be of interest to the deep-divers and completists. In general, these efforts were not financially successful for Stax, but some of the music (particularly the Ardent albums released by Big Star) turned out to be widely influential and critically acclaimed.

Stax’s pop and country releases were obviously a mixed bag. If the “best” is collected here, there was a lot of dreck in the catalog. The rock offerings are more interesting, including the more rock-ish and psychedelic pop songs. The Memphis music scene of the 1960s and ‘70s had a unique take on rock, with both soul flavorings and a “garage” feel. It’s exciting and doesn’t sound manufactured. Likewise with the best of Stax’s pop productions—they don’t sound as plastic and disposable as much of the competing material that was churned out of NYC, L.A. and Detroit.

The best of the back three discs is #6, covering the gospel labels. In general, the arrangements and performances hue toward Stax’s soul sound and feel, of great benefit to Sunday’s music. The gospel passion is turned up a notch in the caldron of backbeat soul, creating great impact. It might have been a better idea to peel off this material into a separate Stax gospel compilation.

For the hardcore Stax fans, and for listeners deeply into American soul music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, there will be enough material in this set, plus the booklet text, to justify its place in your collection. For others, the appeal will depend on your curiosity and willingness to wade through a wide variety of artists, styles and genres.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

Dionne Warwick – Odds & Ends: Scepter Records Rarities

dionne

 

Title: Odds & Ends: Scepter Records Rarities

Artist: Dionne Warwick

Label: Real Gone Music

Format: CD

Release date: January 12, 2018

 

Dionne Warwick was one of the top vocalists of her era. Aretha might have been the “queen of soul,”  Diana Ross the original diva, Patti Labelle an icon in the gay community, Gladys Knight the leader with three males, and Chaka Khan to this day can still out sing the majority of vocalists. Yet Dionne also had a great run.

Warwick’s best years were at Scepter Records, an independent label founded by Doris Greenberg in 1959, where she scored at least 40 hits on the pop charts. With the new compilation, Odds & Ends: Scepter Records Rarities, you can hear Warwick’s big hits, some in alternate or extended versions, along with rare tracks you’ve never probably heard or even knew existed.

The set opens with an alternate take of “I Say A Little Prayer,” a song released in 1967 on Warwick’s album The Windows of the World. This is not the time to think of Aretha’s version, which came out the following year. If you listen very carefully, this track sounds like Aretha’s until the conclusion, where Warwick uses a different ending. It has the Burt Bacharach & Hal David sound all over it. Makes you wonder why Doris Greenberg didn’t release this version.

The set’s title track, “Odds & Ends,” is a song that may not be as popular as some of Warwick’s hits, but it has a catchy pop feel and great to story to go with it. Also included are songs in French, Italian and German she recorded for foreign markets. For example, two versions of “A House Is Not A Home” are included, one in Italian and one in French. The set closes with a novelty track featuring several of Warwick’s vintage radio promo spots and public service announcements.  Rounding out the package are liner notes by Joe Marchese, including an interview with Warwick, as well as rare photos.

Kudos to Dionne and to Real Gone Music for releasing this compilation of rarities.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

Thundercat – Drunk

Thundercat
Title: Drunk

Artist: Thundercat

Label: Brainfeeder

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: February 24, 2017

 

This month sees a new release from the eclectic bass virtuoso Stephen Bruner, known by his stage name, Thundercat.  Bruner has performed with artists across a variety of genres, and is perhaps best known for his collaboration with rapper Kendrick Lamar on the latter’s 2015 masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly.  Thundercat has an ear for a variety of musical styles, and his wide-ranging musical approach is readily apparent on Drunk.

This 23-track album feels like a series of musical vignettes—only one of these cracks the 4-minute mark and the vast majority of them are shorter than 3 minutes long. However, this brevity allows each composition to be a highly detailed miniature, with carefully layered sounds and carefully composed tunes being the album’s highlight.  Each track leaves the listener craving more without feeling complete, almost as though each song were a brief study in compositional technique.  If Thundercat’s resume is full of versatility, so is his dossier of compositions.  This album is heavy on guest appearances, with Thundercat working with everyone from yacht-rockers Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins (“Show You the Way”), to socially-conscious rapper Kendrick Lamar (“Walk on By,” which can be heard below), to massive pop star and musical chameleon Pharrell Williams (“The Turn Down”).  On these “feat” tracks, Thundercat and company craft arrangements that bring out the best of his collaborators’ musical ideas while simultaneously pushing these otherwise well-established artists towards Thundercat’s own neo-soul jazz fusion.

The material on this album ranges from virtuosic (“Uh Uh”) to just plain weird, incorporating sung meows (“A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II)”) and lyrics about playing Mortal Kombat when relegated to friend status by a potential romantic partner (“Friend Zone”) into his musically and technically sophisticated music.  This approach begs comparison to the bizarre combination of humor and virtuosity that was the hallmark of artists like Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. While it is easy to imagine that listeners who are here for the marquee collaborations may be put off by the more technically involved or thematically strange music, these equal parts of Thundercat’s approach to composing and playing fit comfortably side-by-side.  This is the kind of record that will challenge listeners by pushing them out of their musical comfort zones by an artist who is comfortable across a wide variety of musical idioms.

Drunk is nothing if not ambitious, but ambitious records are usually a bit uneven.  It is hard to find a single unifying thread that runs throughout the album, but that ultimately doesn’t prove detrimental to the project as a whole. Drunk isn’t a novel, but a visit to a musical theme park, where listeners are encouraged to take a spin on each of the rides.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

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.

unlockingthetruth-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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