Issue # 2, March 2017
In This Issue:
Post Grammy thoughts
Reviews: Thievery Corporation, Valerie June, Rhiannon Giddens, Depeche Mode, Charlie Wilson, Tosca, Ed Sheeran, Jose James
T2P (Tardy to the Party)
Post Grammy Thoughts
So the hometown hero Chance the Rapper won a fistful of awards for his “Coloring Book” album…. I’m quite proud of him… I wish I could actually OWN the album… but I can’t… he won a bunch of Grammys for a streaming album… and this also goes for Kanye West’s “Life of Pablo” album, which is also a ‘streaming only’ release that was nominated for a Grammy.
Now… this is my problem with streaming albums… I’m old-school (some may just say ‘old’}… and I’m a music collector (anyone who’s known me for a while or been to my home knows this)…. I cannot yet wrap my brain around the concept that an album nobody owns can win awards… although I buy a lot of music from iTunes, I do not subscribe to Apple Music or any other streaming music service… I cannot spend money just to listen to music… and if I decide I don’t want to listen to it anymore, or if my subscription ends or is terminated, then I simply don’t have it anymore… I hadn’t even HEARD of the album before shortly before the Grammys, and until I listen to it via YouTube, I will never hear it… I recently saw a bootleg of the album on CD at a local gas station… but I didn’t buy it because that’s not supporting the artist the way I should.
I completely get why an artist would make this sort of move… anyone who’s watched episodes of TV One’s “Unsung” series, or witnessed what Prince went through with Warner Bros. in the 80’s and 90’s can understand… record producers and labels were notorious for ripping off the artists- they made bundles of money, while the artists themselves didn’t see much of it… so I understand: get a distro deal from a service, who gives you a cut of the subscription cost from everyone who downloads your music for streaming purposes… seems to me to be a Millennial version of the same thing as before- with an important difference: the artist maintains ownership and control of their music (a good thing)… but YOU don’t get to own it… a vinyl album or CD can be forever… but streaming downloads can be gone in a hard drive crash or mobile device implosion… AND Apple Music was guilty, after it first launched, of rendering music bought through iTunes unplayable when a consumer’s Purchased libraries co-mingled with their streaming library and the subscription ended… I can’t get with it.
I’ve had arguments with 20-somethings about the merits of downloaded music versus the physicality of a record or disc or tape… the experience of visiting a bricks & mortar store, and discovering new music just by what’s playing in there… walking down the street with a bag full of records… cannot be duplicated… sure, it’s nice to be able to browse millions of songs from the comfort of your computer, and it’s great to be able to carry literally hundreds of albums and thousands of songs in my pocket via my 160 GB iPod… but I just want to OWN a copy of the music… to listen to again and again… pass it on to generations of others… admire the artwork…. read liner notes and lyric sheets… I just don’t believe in the longevity of the music being there if there isn’t a physical copy of it.
Guess I may have to buy that bootleg next time I see it…
Thievery Corporation “The Temple of I and I”
This Washington, DC-based duo has been doing it now for 20 years, coming in during the back end of the trip-hop era of the late 90’s, mostly as a sampling turntable collective – they’ve since evolved into a full band carrying enough participants to make Parliament-Funkadelic jealous. Over the course of seven studio albums and several compilation and remix albums, they forged a style that has seen them be one of the best purveyors of genre-bending and genre-blending of disparate musical styles into a heady concoction, often within the same song. With 2011’s Culture of Fear, they started to move away from their chameleon-esque musical ways, and began more of a thematic approach- it offered a little of the familiar variety, but it was much darker, not too unlike Massive Attack’s classic 90’s albums Protection and Maxinquaye – actually, “Culture…” is the album they should’ve released now, as it’s perfect for today. Their 2014 release Saudade celebrated their love of Brazilian Samba and Bossa Nova. For their eighth studio album, the group traveled to Kingston, Jamaica for inspiration and recording – the result being an album thematically wedded to their love of Reggae and Dub. All of their usual collaborators are along for the journey: rapper Mr. Lif brings a conscious hip-hop flava to “Ghetto Matrix” and “Fight to Survive”; Notch, best known as one half of 90’s hip hop/reggae duo Born Jamericans, features on four tracks, most notably the epic “Weapons of Distraction”; French singer Lou Lou features on the splendid dubtronica of “Time & Space” and old school reggae crooner Puma guests on “Babylon Falling”…. there are newcomers as well, notably Racquel Jones on “Road Block” and the dancehall & funk-influenced first single “Letter to the Editor”. As some of the titles may indicate, there are social and political overtones throughout, continuing a theme from Culture of Fear. Thievery Corporation has produced the first great album of 2017. See the video for “Letter to the Editor” below…
Valerie June “The Order of Time”
Every now and then, you hear a voice that is just so distinctive, you just gotta listen to it. I’ve heard singers belt out a tune in a seemingly normal voice, only for them to talk with a thick British accent; in the case of Humboldt, TN native Valerie June, you can hear a little Southern flavor in her voice when she talks, but when she sings, she has an overt twang that you either loathe or love. Personally, I love it. The follow-up to her 2013 major label debut Pushin’ Against a Stone finds her and producer Matt Marinelli augmenting her sonic footprint with occasional ambient keyboard washes over the otherwise acoustic setting. She calls her style ‘organic moonshine roots music’, which, for the sake of categorization, is based in Country/Folk/Americana, and infused with elements of Blues, old time Gospel, Soul, and Rock ‘n Roll- her instruments of choice are acoustic and electric guitars, banjo, and ukulele. The lead single from her album, the gorgeous “Astral Plane” features lyrics intended to inspire one to find their inner greatness: “is there a light/that shines over you/can touch…”; the second single, the rockin’ “Shakedown” is a good ole time party song that features background vocals from her dad, who passed away last year (I’ve previously posted the videos for these singles to my Facebook page); other standout tracks include the light and airy “With You”, the soulful “Slip Slide On By”, the languid “The Front Door”, and a favorite of mine, “Man Done Wrong” with its’ almost tribal chant (hear the track below). I’m fully expecting this one to be included in many year-end ‘Best of’ lists, and possibly nominated for some major awards.
Depeche Mode “Spirit”
I’ve been a fan of this group since the very beginning, when I was in college – they were among artists like Gary Numan, Human League, Ultravox, Heaven 17, Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark, and others at the forefront of the early 80’s New Romantic movement of bands embracing synthesizers and creating danceable post-punk music. Over more than 35 years, they’ve amassed a solid catalogue of music, and have outlived most of their peers in relevancy. After the group settled into the quartet it would be for the first 15 years of its’ existence, main instrumentalist Alan Wilder departed the group; the remaining trio has continued on since ’95 to produce five albums to varying degrees of success. Their 2013 album Delta Machine was musically so dark (even by their standards) that I didn’t even purchase it at release- it became the first of their 13 albums that I didn’t own- I’ve just recently purchased it in the weeks before the release of this new album. Now… this new album finds the group making political statements, which, along with the reality that they can no longer seem to produce a good hook-laden song- it appears Alan Wilder took those hooks with him when he left- is turning off some of their longtime fans. So now their music is more dirge-like and devoid of much in the way of melody, and their songs contain lyrics that won’t fit everyone’s personal agenda – the album’s first track “Going Backwards” begins: “We are not there yet/we have not evolved/we have no respect/we have lost control/we’re going backwards…” The first single “Where’s the Revolution” begins : “You’ve been kept down/you’ve been pushed around/you’ve been lied to/you’ve been fed truths/who’s making your decisions/you or your religion/your government, your countries/you patriotic junkies…” and then there’s “Scum”: “Hey scum, hey scum/what have you done for anyone/hey scum, hey scum/what are you going to do when karma comes…” Now this coming from rich white Brits in their 50’s may seem a little bleeding heart-like or disingenuous, but I appreciate them making a statement- at least they’re aware of issues and aren’t afraid to speak on them. I just wish I could sing a melody or dance to one of their songs again. If you spring for the Deluxe version of the album, you get a bonus disc of remixes, which also aren’t really danceable, just a different kind of dirge. Given the subject matter, it’s not such a bad thing to lack melody – let’s think back to “Personal Jesus”… not real melodic, either. So there you go… here’s the video for “Where’s the Revolution”…
Rhiannon Giddens “Freedom Highway”
Later in this issue, I’ll go into more detail about the origins of this artist, but for the sake of the review, I’ll just start by saying I’ve slept on her for the past several years, and I came upon her quite by accident- a link about this album came up in my Facebook newsfeed, which when I clicked on it to go to her page, opened up a whole new area of musical discovery and growth for me- admittedly, Valerie June unlocked the door to so-called ‘Roots’ music, but discovering Rhiannon has completely kicked that door open. She’s a native of Greensboro, NC, operatically trained, plays guitar, banjo, and fiddle (which she can play while singing- my hero!). This is her second solo album, and she refers to it as a very personal musical statement for her. Many of the lyrics here are inspired by slave narratives- stories told by slaves about their life experiences. Musically, her style is, like June, based on Country/Folk/Americana, infused with Soul, Blues, and Gospel; I like to think of the style as Vintage Soul, what it may have sounded like 75-100 years ago. The album was recorded in Beaux Bridge, LA, mostly live, in a structure that predates the Civil War; the title track is a Staples Singers composition, and one of the few on the album not composed by Giddens. “At the Purchaser’s Option” begins the album with the narrative of a slave woman and her resolve to not let her circumstances beat her down: “you can take my body/you can take my bones/you can take my blood/but not my soul…” ; the bluesy “Come Love Come” is the narrative of a freed slave woman awaiting the return of her husband from war; “Hey Bebe” is a New Orleans style jazz tune depicting a woman’s coy attraction to a love interest; the somber yet hopeful “Baby Boy” may prove to be the song I dedicate to my upcoming child Miles. Rhiannon is a supreme talent, that I fear may be ultimately overlooked because she isn’t doing the music that others that look like her are doing. And that’s a shame, because she is creating music with a nod towards history, important music needed for today’s times. Here is the video for “Come Love Come”.
Charlie Wilson “In It to Win It”
For the man known affectionately as Uncle Charlie, the 64 year old Wilson continues to enjoy a renaissance of the latter part of his career. His new album finds him keeping up with current styles in R&B, without succumbing to the trends- in other words, he manages to stay relevant, while being himself. The album begins and ends with an inspirational number, and the motivational title track hits midway through the program. He gets help from some friends, as Snoop Dogg, T.I., Robin Thicke, and Lalah Hathaway, among others, all come through. Looks like Uncle Charlie is winning…
Tosca “Going Going Going”
Newest album from Austrian duo comprised of Richard Dorfmeister and Rupert Huber. They’re perhaps best known for the track “Chocolate Elvis’ which they released back in 1995 – they were part of the downtempo trip-hop movement of the mid-90’s; their sound hasn’t changed a great deal, although they’ve picked up the tempo in more recent releases. This album gives you a good cross section of uptempo and downtempo slices of chilled out jazzy instrumentals.
Ed Sheeran “ ”
Well, that “divide’ symbol didn’t make it… Third album from British guitarist is an international success – has hit #1 in several countries, catapulting him to superstar status. I listened to the Deluxe version of the album, which gave me four additional tracks over the standard issue. Overall, there were 3-4 tracks that I liked – “Shape of You” is musically catchy, but I hate the lyrics – I just don’t get why he’s so popular. Some critics say he’s gone mainstream – so that may explain why I don’t share everyone’s enthusiasm. I’ll have to check out his earlier stuff.
Jose James “Love In a Time of Madness”
So this guy likes to dabble in a little Hip-hop, Electronica, or Soul on his albums; he is a bit of a musical chameleon, and there’s nothing wrong with that. He’s best known, however, as part of the new school of Jazz vocalists. His last album, 2015’s “Yesterday I Had the Blues: the Music of Billie Holiday” celebrated the Centennial of the birth of the world’s second greatest jazz singer ever, and was a nice set of interpretations of tracks she made famous. He goes waaay left with this one, as it’s mostly Trap music. Time of madness, indeed.
T2P (Tardy to the Party)
As I said in my bio, I’m slipping when it comes to discovering the best new music; truth be told, I never was completely on top of it (never could’ve been- too much to cover). But there are some artists that have slipped past my musical radar… but it’s never too late…. I’ll post about these discoveries as they’re, um, discovered.
T2P #1: The James Hunter Six
This is a sextet out of the UK who perform a vintage R&B sound. They’ve actually been around for more than a decade, and are currently signed to the Daptone label out of NYC. I heard the track for which I’ve posted the video by walking through Burlington looking for clothes, used Shazam to find out who it is was, and am now sharing them with you. They released the album Hold On! last year… here is “If That Don’t Tell You”…
T2P #2: Lake Street Dive
Happened across this band while channel surfing, finding them on the Charlie Rose show on PBS… so they’re a quartet out of the Boston area, with a somewhat eclectic instrumentation of vocalist, string bass, drum and trumpeter/guitarist. Their latest album “Side Pony” was released last year (see the video for this song below), and it finds them kinda moving into territory that has some of their longtime fanbase concerned – this is a more polished and produced, rather than the stark, minimal production to which they’ve become accustomed. Although I like the album, I can understand the concern, because my first exposure to them was a video of them doing the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” on a street corner, with just a snare drum, string bass and a trumpet. Here is the video for “Side Pony”.
T2P #3: Carolina Chocolate Drops
Here is where Rhiannon Giddens came to notoriety, as part of this collective of musicians… by association of discovering her, I’ve since branched out and purchased both CCD albums… in researching Rhiannon, checked out Dom Flemons, who plays banjo, bones, and jug- he has several albums out there; and Leyla McCalla, who joined the group for their second album, a Haitian American cellist based in New Orleans -she has two albums of a combination of roots music and Haitian folk tunes, her first being a collection of tunes using the poetry of Langston Hughes. These artists represent a style of music not currently associated with Black folk, but is actually a part of our heritage. Before there was jazz, there was this; if you dismiss it as some “Beverly Hillbillies-sounding” stuff, you dismiss a part of your history. Here is their cover of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style” at the 2010 Americana Awards.