Following are additional albums released during September 2019 across multiple genres—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves. Continue reading
Title: Here Comes Trouble
Artist: The New Respects
Formats: LP, MP3
Release date: May 5, 2017
“Fresh.” That’s the first word that comes to mind when describing The New Respects and their debut EP Here Comes Trouble. Their sound is crisp and clean, while simultaneously soulful and rock infused. The group is a family unit from Tennessee with twin sisters Zandy and Alexis Fitzgerald on guitar and bass respectively, brother Darius on drums and cousin Jasmine Mullen (daughter of gospel singer Nicole C. Mullen) on vocals. On their 5 song EP the band gives a glimpse at what they are all about with a strong showing on the musical front as well as the topics their songs cover.
The EP begins with the track “Money,” which serves as an excellent album opener and plays with the impact of wealth. The band sounds particularly tight here and Mullen’s vocals are quite impressive. On “Frightening Lightning” the rhythm section really shines, making the rocked out track still sound quite danceable. “Come As You Are” serves as the EP’s lone ballad and sounds vaguely reminiscent of something you might hear from the Alabama Shakes or The Black Keys. The theme for the track centers around inclusion in a way that makes a point without seeming overtly political. “Trouble” wraps up the EP with lyrics that question if the straight and narrow is the right path, “I’ve tried livin life right, don’t know if I wanna do it anymore / ‘cause I’ve lived a pretty good life / but trouble keeps on knocking at my door.” Mullen’s soulful voice authentically sells this as a thought she is actually pondering, so it is not just a song about youthful angst.
Here Comes Trouble is a fantastic debut from a band I am sure we will be hearing more from in the coming years, which is a very, very good thing.
Reviewed by Levon Williams
Artist: Bobby Saint
Label: Shoot to Kill Music
Release date: May 19, 2017
Born in Barbados where he’s still known as Hal Linton, the producer, singer, and multi-instrumentalist relocated to the U.S. over ten years ago and rebranded himself as Bobby Saint. The young artist is finally starting to rise to the top. In addition to collabs with electronic duo Penthouse Penthouse on the hit song “69 Camaro,” he also scored with a guest appearance on the single “Black Bamboo” by With You and provided music for the Lego movie, among other productions.
Saint explains that his new solo release, Unholy, “is about freedom, growth, spirituality, views of self, city nights and love. It’s about keeping the fires lit, raising consciousness, while bowing down to the greats: Bob Marley, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye. This is me going forward with only love and the funk in my heart.” The five track EP delivers a broad range of music. “Big Shoes” is a sexy, soulful ballad that showcases Saints powerful vocals and extensive range. The sultriness continues on “Sexy,” which is sure to be a summer of ’17 anthem, while the title track is a ‘60s throwback power guitar trio that will send chills down your spine.
With this short but extremely satisfying EP, Saint leaves us wanting more – much more.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss
Title: Pick Your Poison
Artist: Selwyn Birchwood
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: May 19, 2017
Selwyn Birchwood has revitalized the blues scene in recent years with his lap steel and hard driving six-string guitar. The rising star from Orlando, Florida, where steel guitar is a familiar presence in both sacred and secular music, has drawn many new fans to the blues. Birchwood has also impressed the many legendary musicians with whom he has shared a stage, including Robert Cray and Buddy Guy. After winning the International Blues Challenge in 2013, the Selwyn Birchwood Band has been touring non-stop, impressing audiences worldwide with their high energy performances. Band members include Regi Oliver (baritone, tenor and alto sax and flutes), Huff Wright on bass, and Courtney “Big Love” Girlie on drums and percussion.
Birchwood’s sophomore outing for Alligator Records, Pick Your Poison, offers 13 original songs that draw upon multiple influences. As one might guess from the album’s title, whiskey and women are alternating themes, with a dose of religion thrown in for good measure. The opening track “Trial By Fire” begins with a funky flute solo from Oliver before Birchwood takes over on guitar laced with psychedelic overtones belying his early fascination with Jimi Hendrix. “Even the Saved Need Saving” is a rollicking tune with a gospel style chorus and spiritual message: “Ya got to practice what you preach / Break the habit of hypocrisy / Get back doing faith faithfully / And practice what you preach.” On the introspective “Guilty Pleasures,” the twang of the steel guitar punctuates a laundry list of temptations, while the title track has a light reggae beat but deeper, darker lyrics that dig into the soul and offer no pity as the band builds to a rousing climax. Here’s a live version of the song performed last summer:
“Heavy Heart” is heavy on the blues rock, with Birchwood tearing up the guitar on an extended solo. The funk returns on “Are Ya Ready?” featuring rhythms and harmonies far more complex than any blues tune you are likely to hear this or any other year. “Reaping Time” is a return to the storytelling blues tradition—a man, a woman, a betrayal and a gun. You can guess the rest, but like all of the songs on this album, the quality of the songwriting and non-traditional approach to the blues really sets it apart.
Birchwood offers two socially conscious songs that comment on contemporary society. The lyrics of “Police State” are mirrored by a harder, angrier guitar picking style that speaks volumes as he sings, “Gotta shake these shackles before it’s too late, or we’ll be trapped in a police state.” The album closes with “Corporate Drone,” with Birchwood espousing non-conformity through his music and the lyrics, “Rather strike it out on my own.” And he does – straight out of the park!
Pick Your Poison is another home run for Selwyn Birchwood. If you don’t think the blues has anything new to offer, this album is guaranteed to change your mind.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss
Title: 14 Steps to Harlem
Artist: Garland Jeffreys
Label: Luna Park
Formats: CD, LP, MP3
Release date: April 18, 2017
“I’m a dreamer, and I wanna tell the world about my dreams” sings Garland Jeffreys on his fifteenth album, 14 Steps to Harlem. It’s unfair to say that Garland Jeffreys is enjoying a late career boost, as in a sense he never went away, releasing in every decade since the 1960s while still taking enough of a break to raise a family. Partly crowdfunded and released on his own label, Luna Park, 14 Steps to Harlem is an exceptionally strong outing, connecting with the varied touchstones of style and genre that he employs but never in a way that can be called scattered or diffuse. Here, one finds Jeffreys exploring elements of straight up pop, grungy rock, up-tempo blues, reggae, blue-eyed soul, hip-hop beats – what have you – and any one of these tracks might be shot through with country-styled lap steel, a sound he clearly loves. Jeffreys is not comfortable with genre being the boss, and he likes to live in different musical apartments. However, the overall effect of 14 Steps to Harlem is one of cohesion; the warmth of Jeffreys’ personality and the cogent spark of inspired enthusiasm behind each of these twelve selections is what pull them together.
One space in which Garland Jeffreys lived was in a dorm room at Syracuse University with the young Lou Reed. Reed’s impact and spirit is keenly felt in Jeffreys’ energetic cover of “I’m Waiting for the Man” which he’s been performing for some time; I caught it during a live show he did in Northern Kentucky in November 2014 and it was a mighty intense experience which comes through here. Lou’s vestige also turns up a little in the title track, with its simple progression, laconic narration and the panoramic view taken of its subject, treated with love, not derision. Reed’s widow Laurie Anderson contributes electric violin to the album’s closing track, the classically styled “Luna Park Love Theme.” This is arguably 14 Steps to Harlem’s most touching moment; for most of this disc you cannot tell that this is a singer in his seventies, but Jeffreys sings this one softly and allows the innocence which carries the album up to that point to give way to experience in its last moments.
Garland Jeffreys’ positive messages of peace and friendship are life-affirming and refreshing to hear in a climate and time such as this one we’re all in. Although I was not too sold on “Reggae on Broadway,” which seemed a mildly amusing parody – produced by Dennis Bovell, nonetheless, and therefore fully legit – 14 Steps to Harlem is a delight to behold for even the weariest of ears.
Reviewed by David N. “Uncle Dave” Lewis
Title: Totem Pole
Artist: Johnny Popcorn
Label: Mad Dragon Music Group/dist. Bandcamp
Formats: CD, Digital (MP3, FLAC)
Release date: September 30, 2016
Johnny Popcorn? Yes that is the name of this group and I love it. Hailing from Philadelphia, the five member band features vocals from Hezekiah (Davis) and Jani Coral, with Lloyd Alexander on guitar, Freshie on bass, and Clayton Crothers on drums. They’ve opened for a who’s who in the neo soul/progressive soul scene: Kindred, Oddisee, Robert Glasper, Ledisi, RJD2, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Bilal. JP’s ten track sophomore album, Totem Pole, is rock—yes, rock! Now before some of you start frowning your face, it’s not hard rock. It’s not Bad Brains, and there are no Vernon Reid guitar solo riffs. However, Totem Pole offers a welcome fusion of sound and if you free your mind, you may enjoy it.
“Go Go Go” is perhaps the most up tempo of all the tracks. It opens with, believe it or not, acoustic guitar that recalls George Michael’s “Faith.” The catchy chorus has Hezekiah and the group chanting and clapping, “go, go, go – you got to get up and go, go, go” as they encourage folks to chase their dreams.
“Coming Home” is another good track thanks to drummer Chuck Treece, who is a local legend in Philly. Hezekiah is once again featured on vocals, and listening to this track you might think Lenny Kravitz could have recorded it. “What a Day” is a step out of rock and into funk. The opening bass is a sure fire winner and will get heads nodding up and down.
Johnny Popcorn’s Totem Pole is certainly different. Where so many acts want to copycat each other, this band stands out! The only question remains, will they or can they find an audience? Judging by who JP has collaborated with, I’d say yes. Totem Pole is a promising follow-up to their debut album, The Crow, and I’m already waiting to see what direction they will pull the audience on their next release.
Reviewed by Eddie Bowman