The Baker’s Dozen

45 rpm adapter

Issue #4  September 2017

 

It’s been a while since my last issue of reviews (five months to be exact), but a lot has happened during that period: first off, I landed myself in the hospital over the Easter weekend, suffering a pulmonary embolism, and scaring my family, especially my eight months pregnant wife, to death.  Of course, I recovered, and welcomed my baby boy Miles into the world a month later.  As might be expected from such a long layoff from the blog, a couple of the reviews date back to the Spring of the year, but even if you’ve read other reviews of some of these albums, you haven’t read my spin on them…

In previous issues, I’ve expressed my disdain for the streaming music phenomenon; however, I’ve learned how to get the most out of it for me.  Thanks to a couple of my brothers from other mothers, I‘ve managed to wade through much of the mierda to get to some good stuff: through my fellow maestro Myron H., I was introduced to Spotify; since they offer a FREE account – all I have to do is endure the occasional commercial interruption every few tracks – I can listen to everything they have on the site.   And from there, if I wish to own the music, I’ll visit a bricks and mortar store, or at the very least, download it from iTunes and rip it to a CD…. So finally, I was able to hear the Grammy-winning Chance the Rapper, and the Grammy-nominated Kanye West albums… I’ve been introduced to several of the albums being reviewed in this issue by my brotha, a couple of them being high recommendations.  He and I go back like old Cadillac seats, and we’ve been turning each other on to new music for more than 25 years; perhaps I can convince him to contribute to Now Hear This!…  also, my man Luiz Groove, who I can credit with my introduction to Rhiannon Giddens, and by association, much of the Roots music I now enjoy.  Now we go waaay back, like a Giancarlo Stanton home run, all the way to high school… it’s good to have other ears that discover the best music out there on my side… so, let’s get to this baker’s dozen of reviews…


REVIEWS

 

Arcade Fire “Everything Now

So there was a lot of buildup to the release of this album, all generated by the group; I happened to miss all of it, and I’m glad I did, for it may have negatively influenced my perception of the main event – the album itself.  I’ve read other reviews of this album, and frankly, they have been mixed; I think that is because, for some that have followed this Montreal, PQ group since its’ early days, this album finds them starting to lose their edge.  For me, I first encountered them four years ago, when they appeared on Saturday Night Live promoting the “Reflektor” album with an elaborate performance that took them out of the studio where SNL takes place, to another venue.  That double disc probably lasted too long (I don’t know that, even as of today, I have ever fully listened to disc 2), but the first disc was quite strong; this release is a single disc, clocking in around 48 minutes, which is probably just long enough.  It begins and ends with the interludes for the title track – so, if you play the CD from start to finish, you will end with the interlude, and circle back to the beginning interlude, which then leads you into the Abba-esque pop disco title track.  The album’s theme appears to be their cynical take on American consumerism and all of its’ excesses – for a musical parallel (I have a couple of these in this issue), I reach back to the one and only album by punk group X-Ray Spex, the 1977 “Germ Free Adolescents”, which was also based on consumerism.  And lead singer Win Butler sounds an awful lot like Simple Minds lead singer Jim Kerr on several of the tracks… Arguably the album’s strongest track, “Signs Of Life” reminds me of French disco group Martin Circus’ legendary “Disco Circus”, with its’ handclap pattern; elsewhere, you have two songs with the same name, the punky “Infinite Content”, which leads into the country-fied kitsch of “Infinite_Content”; there’s the crazy reggae of “Peter Pan”, the electro “Creature Comfort”, the alien funk of “Electric Blue”, and the somber closer “We Don’t Deserve Love”.  I’ll lean towards the positive in my overall assessment of the album- it’s not perfect, but I enjoy it quite a bit – guess I’m just weird that way… check out the video for “Everything Now”…

 

Chronixx “Chronology

This young man has been around for several years, releasing singles to critical acclaim in his native Jamaica; but “Chronology” marks the proper debut for the 24 year-old, whose birth name is Jamar McNoughton (gotta love those guys named Jamar… winkwink!).  And what a debut it is- from the opening track “Spanish Town”, a celebratory track about his hometown, Chronixx treats us to a tour de force of reggae, dancehall and other styles –  reggae purists may be put off by some of the pop and R&B-influenced sounds, but you cannot deny good music, regardless of what it is.  “Ghetto Paradise” fits in with the hip-hop flava of Stephen and Jr. Gong Marley; the wonderful “I Can” is a mid-tempo EDM stomper that could be a staple on gospel radio with its’ inspirational message; “Skankin’ Sweet” is the perfect summertime reggae party jam; “Majesty” is a lovers rock celebration of the black woman; “Smile Jamaica” is a breezy one-drop analogy of his homeland as his favorite girl; conscious messages fuel “Haile Selassie Children” and “Black is Beautiful”, while current single “Likes” delivers a message about using social media… “dweet fi di love, me nuh dweet fi di likes…” He uses wonderful phrasing, showing off both singing, sing-jay and classic deejay skills on his tracks, and the variety of styles make him crossover ready.  Remember how hot Shaggy’s 2000 album “Hotshot” was back then?  This one has a chance to duplicate that success, if given the airplay it deserves – it is THAT good.  Check out the gorgeous video for “Majesty”

 

Imagine Dragons “Evolve

The latest album from this Las Vegas-based quartet reminds me, in its’ bombast, of the first time I heard the second Tears for Fears album “Songs from the Big Chair” – anthemic songs and big production. The parallel with that album continues in its transition from a somewhat darker place that was resident on previous releases to one that’s lighter, and more positive- TFF had a similar transition, from the darker territory of their 1983 debut “The Hurting”- hence, the album’s title “Evolve” acknowledges that transition for Imagine Dragons.  This album finds them embracing electronics a little more, but still producing arena-ready pop with an edge.  Songs like “Believer”, “Whatever it Takes”, “Walking the Wire”, “Thunder”, and other tracks point towards the more positive vibe.  Seems to me, you could put this disc on during a corporate meeting and let the messages flow; in this world, positive motivation’s not a bad thing at all… Here’s the video for “Thunder”…

 

Mali Music “The Transition of Mali

Speaking of transition and evolution, here is the fourth album from 29 year old Savannah, GA-based singer/songwriter whose birth name is  Kortney Jamaal Pollard.  So Mali is considered to be a Gospel singer in the new school tradition, wrapping his sanctified musings in a secular blanket – he considers himself neither a Gospel, nor a Soul/Hip-hop artist, merely a singer/songwriter whose songs mostly happen to be about God.  With this album, he appears to be transitioning beyond just writing inspirational tunes, and adding some songs about love and relationships – in other words, moving more into a secular realm; this hasn’t sat well with some members of the Christian community, who are thinking Mali has lost his way, or selling out. Personal opinion (don’t crucify me!): one shouldn’t live just listening to Gospel music; the subject matter is always the same -branch out a little.  Not saying to go out and listen to the raunchiest Hip-hop you can find, but give yourself a little BALANCE! … anyway, so he invites sexy songstress Jhene Aiko to join him on “Contradiction”, a song about ex-lovers who leave room for a possible reconciliation; Jazmine Sullivan appears on the lush “Loved By You”; the classic ballad “Still” puts him in Tyrese territory.  He has, in no way however, forgotten his bread ‘n butter: the first single “Gonna Be Alright” tells us on keep on pushin’ when the going gets tough; “Sit Down for This” is simply a message from God; the closing track “What You Done” is his song of gratitude to the Creator.  Now, he also puts his spin on everyday matters, like on “Dolla”, where he basically says to make the money, but don’t let the money make you- the ‘money as the root of all evil’ message there.   This is a project that varies the experience, one that should reach a larger audience; there’s nothing wrong with transition, evolution, growth, and expansion… Check out the video for “Gonna Be Alright”…

 

Kendrick Lamar “DAMN.

When I reviewed his last full album “To Pimp a Butterfly”, I not only anointed it as the best hip-hop album of 2015, but also mentioned that it was probably his magnum opus, that he would never better it.  And with this release, the proper followup, he did not exceed that one- but he’s not too far off, either; he’s coming from a completely different angle this time around, though.  On the last album, he wrote from the spirit of empowerment, uplifting his people, and figuring out how to handle his newfound notoriety and fame; on this album, he’s done an about-face, and that earlier spirit has been replaced with one of disillusionment, betrayal, and acknowledgement of himself as being at the top of the Hip-hop heap. A running theme through several tracks is that he feels like he’s alone in his journey and that no one has his back or best interests at heart, declaring “nobody’s praying for me”; on “ELEMENT.” A song directed at haters and imitators, he first makes this declaration, adding “last LP I tried to lift the black artists / but it’s a difference between black artists and wack artists…”  On “FEEL.” He again mentions the “Nobody’s praying…” line, and he appears to sum up his entire mood on the album here:

I feel like a chip on my shoulders / I feel like I’m losin’ my focus / I feel like I’m losin’ my patience / I feel like my thoughts in the basement / Feel like, I feel like you’re miseducated / Feel like I don’t wanna be bothered / I feel like you may be the problem / I feel like it ain’t no tomorrow, fuck the world / The world is endin’, I’m done pretendin’ / And fuck you if you get offended / I feel like friends been overrated / I feel like the family been fakin’ / I feel like the feelings are changin’ / Feel like my daughter compromised and jaded / Feel like you wanna scrutinize how I made it / Feel like I ain’t feelin’ you all / Feel like removin’ myself, no feelings involved…

Elsewhere, on “LOYALTY.”, his duet with Rihanna, he questions the concept with friends and family; on “LOVE.”, similar scenario, directed at his boo.  Religious imagery abounds as well: “YAH.” is supposedly speaking of Yahweh, a Hebrew name for God; in “GOD.” he actually addresses those who wrongfully look upon themselves with a supreme-being complex.  On “XXX.”, he teams up with U2’s Bono for a track pairing both religious and sociopolitical imagery: “Hail Mary, Jesus and Joseph / The great American flag / Is wrapped and dragged with explosives / Compulsive disorder, sons and daughters / Barricaded blocks and borders / Look what you taught us…”  I suspect so as not to draw attention to this track, he named it cryptically, instead of something like “AMERICA.”  This is a deep album, Kung Fu Kenny has a lot to say, and he unabashedly expresses himself; I appreciate his talent, and will agree with him that there’s no one out there on his level (that I’m aware of, anyway)… Check out the video for ”LOYALTY.”…

 

Chris Stapleton “From A Room: Volume 1

The second solo album from the man some are crediting with bringing back real Country music; this is the first part of a duology, with the second half coming later this year.  Longtime Country music fans have said Chris walks in the outlaw footsteps of the likes of Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash; I haven’t been a big fan of Country throughout my life, so I’ll take the word of those who know about that.  What I DO know is I dig this album!   It is relatively brief, clocking in at 32 minutes and change, but it is time well-spent, for the Kentucky native shows off the songwriting skills that have translated into hits he’s penned for others, as well as fueled the success for his breakthrough 2015 solo debut “Traveller”.  For me, the standout track here is the pleading Country Blues of “I Was Wrong”; he displays some strong pipes with a lot of soul in ‘em, and packs enough emotion into it that you truly feel he’s sorry for trying to cast the woman away.  Other strong tracks include his story of a woman who doesn’t believe he’s mended his ways (“Up to No Good Livin”); his ode to the pleasures of getting high (“Them Stems”); the confessions of a man about to face his executioner (“Death Row”); and advice for a woman should she decide to leave him (“Second One to Know”).  I’m waiting for the second part of this… in the meantime, enjoy the audio for “I Was Wrong” – you’ll see what I’m talking about…

 

Patti LaBelle “Bel Hommage

When I heard Patti was recording a jazz album, I have to admit my curiosity was a little piqued.  For people that know me, that will seem a bit unusual,  as although I’m a fan of jazz, I’ve never been a big fan of Patti LaBelle’s music.  For me, she has always been over the top, from the extreme style of the group that bore her name in the 70’s, and throughout her solo career; I’m a guy who, though I appreciate the virtuosity which she can bring to a melody (I’m a musician, so I HAVE to appreciate it), sometimes though, I’d like her to just get up, sing the song, and drop the mike.  So, when I listened to this new album, I was initially pleasantly surprised to find a more restrained Patti – maybe too restrained, I wasn’t used to it.  I have to remember that she is in her early 70’s, so maybe she’s toning it down in her later years; I have no doubt she still has the chops, but what people are accustomed to getting from her takes a lot of energy, and at this stage of the game, maybe it’s just not there anymore.  As for the album itself, it’s not bad, just underwhelming… a rather mundane reading of Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain”… a song called “Peel Me A Grape”; “I Can Cook” sounds like an audio resume to apply for a show on the Food Network, and then there’s a preachy song called “Go to Hell”.  It started off good with “The Jazz in You” , followed shortly thereafter by a nice reading of “Moanin'”, and I was excited to hear the rest, but by the time she closed with the reflective “Here’s to Life”, I was ready for it to be over.  Still, it’s a pleasing enough diversion from the norm for her to warrant a listen… there are those fans for whom Patti is to them what Ella Fitzgerald is to me, so anything she does is gold to them.  And maybe I was wrong about wanting her to show restraint- she didn’t put enough ‘typical Patti’ into several of these tracks- it would’ve made a big difference.  Here’s a clip of her performing “The Jazz In You” on the View…

 

Zeshan B “Vetted

If you drive for a while down Devon Ave in Chicago, you will pass through several ethnic and religious enclaves, from Hassidic Jew to Eastern European, African to Indian, both Hindu and Muslim, as well as Christian – many of these cultures intersect and intermingle – peacefully, I might add.  From this environment comes Zeshan Bagewadi, a first generation Indian-American Muslim with a love for classic Soul music inherited from his father.  His debut album was recorded in Memphis, TN at Ardent Studios, which has seen some Soul greats pass through its’ doors; his backing band includes several veterans of the scene.  Over the album’s 11 tracks, he sings some original compositions, and covers some Soul gems of the past: “Cryin’ In the Streets” is a cover of a 1970 Civil Rights protest anthem by George Perkins; “Ain’t No Love (in the Heart of the City)” is a classic 1974 Bobby “Blue” Bland tune that he covers reverently; “Hard Road to Travel” is a Jimmy Cliff tune from 1969.  He also sings in three languages, English, Urdu and Punjabi, and plays the harmonium, a kind of portable organ with a pump mechanism similar to an accordion- it’s an instrument the Beatles used during the “Rubber Soul” and later sessions, and is popular in Indian music genres today.  Overall, the album succeeds not just in the novelty of the artist, but it’s a very credible and satisfying classic Soul album-  with some curry sauce; Zeshan B is a new voice to check out.  Here’s the video for “Cryin’ In the Streets”, shot all over the Chicago area.

 

Toro y Moi “Boo Boo

Latest album from Columbia, SC native Chaz Bundick is another adventure in lo-fi ambient funk, or so-called chillwave, a style he helped pioneer at the beginning of the decade.  A prolific songwriter and producer now residing in Berkeley, CA, this is his fifth album since 2010; he has even more stuff out there, as he records under various other pseudonyms, as well.  This joint is described by Chaz as a break-up album, and it has a heavy 1980’s aesthetic going for it – you can hear it with the analog synths, and especially in the percussion – took me back to the heyday of 4AD and dreampop- this from a guy who was born in ’86.  Funky moments like the opening track “Mirage” and “Inside My Head” are tempered with the ambient washes provided by “Pavement” or “Embarcadero“; there is straight-ahead pop like “Mona Lisa” or “Labyrinth“, while tracks like “Windows“, “No Show“, “A Girl Like You“, or the single “You and I” could fit in with the Alt-soul crowd.  Whatever you want to call his music (and it would be hard to pigeonhole this guy), call it good.  Some folks sampling his music may try to dismiss him as some left-field Weeknd knockoff, but he is so much more than that.  Check out the video for “You and I”…

 

SZA “Ctrl

The first time I listened to the debut album from 26 year old St. Louis native Solana Rowe aka SZA, I really couldn’t relate to it- it seemed to be slow and brooding musically, and she seemed to be singing about a lot of stupid stuff; strangely enough, I wanted to listen to it again.  Before I listened to it the next time, I happened across an interview with three women, who talked about how they so profoundly connected with this project; it was then that I realized a couple of things: 1.) I’m not part of the target demographic- mid-20’s women (particularly women of color); and 2.) I didn’t NEED to be part of that demographic, I needed to meet her where she is at this time in her life.  It’s a place where we’ve all been, a place in time in our lives where we’re trying to find our way, to figure it all out.  And so, with those revelations at hand, I sat down with the music, and listened again; the second time, I got it.  This album is essentially an audio journal of a young woman’s life, her forays into the arena of love and relationships; it is intensely personal, brutally honest (almost to a fault), and vulnerable yet empowering.  And now the music, which is still for the most part slow and brooding Alt-soul (what I like to call ‘millennial trip-hop’), fits the lyrics.  Pharrell Williams provides background vocals for “Supermodel”, she invites mumble-mouth rapper Travis Scott to join her on the single “Love Galore”, and Kendrick Lamar guests on “Doves In the Wind”.  She seems to have a nice voice, one that’s somewhat under-utilized given the style of music she’s doing- she lists jazz vocalists Ella and Billie, along with the likes of Bjork, as vocal influences- yet she effectively uses it in the Alt-soul milieu.  Now that I’ve got it, you should get it too…  Check out the video for “Love Galore”, a steamy video with a horror movie ending…

 

Jamiroquai “Automaton

I remember it like it was just yesterday when DJ Chuck Wren first played “When You Gonna Learn” on his ‘Moods & Grooves’ show on college radio station WNUR, and going absolutely crazy over the song; hard to believe that was 25 years ago, and that this song holds more relevance today than it did then.  So this, their eighth album, was released at the end of March in the UK, and was scheduled for a domestic release then as well, but appears to have been indefinitely shelved, in part, due to the death of longtime songwriter and original member Toby Smith; it is available via download sources like iTunes, and streaming sources like Spotify.  The album is typical Jamiroquai, although they sound a bit stripped down instrumentally on some tracks, and the sound is more electronically-oriented – like frontman Jay Kay has been studying the playbook of disco legend Giorgio Moroder, and by extension, the recent success of Daft Punk.  One thing I did notice is, perhaps for the first time on record, some of the tracks are constructed as if they are playing them live- if you’ve ever attended a Jamiroquai concert (I saw them the first two times they toured in the 90’s), they liked to go off on musical tangents right in the middle of a song (that’s how they were able to perform a 2 ½ hour concert off the strength of just one album), and several tracks employ that aesthetic here.  Jay still has the penchant for wearing goofy headgear, and even now, at 47 years of age, is still a very energetic stage presence.  It is overall a funky dance affair pretty much from start to finish, and although they’ve never topped their debut “Emergency on Planet Earth” (and never will), this is essential to your Jamiroquai collection.  Here’s the video for the single, “Cloud 9”…

 

Somi “Petite Afrique”

For her second major label release (and sixth album overall), the 36 year-old Champaign, IL native and daughter of Ugandan and Rwandan parents, follows up her critically-acclaimed 2013 album “The Lagos Music Salon” with a homage to her current home base, Harlem; in particular, the section along West 116th St, which is mainly settled by West African immigrants and known as Little Africa (hence the album title).  She is being hailed as the Nina Simone for this generation; her style owes as much to the singer-songwriter genre as it does to the African-influenced Jazz that is at its’ core.  The album is interspersed with conversational interludes she’s had with residents, friends and family, and is loosely focused on the effects of immigrating to an area that has people who look like them, but aren’t always accepting of them, and addresses the gentrification occurring in Harlem.  Aloe Blacc appears on “The Gentry”, with the lyric “The gentry came, I can’t play drums no more / Said that’s not what their good money’s for / The gentry came, oh the gentry came / the gentry came, now I might lose my home / and every soul that I’ve ever known…”  On “Alien”, Somi sings “I’m an alien / I’m a legal alien / I’m an African in New York…”;  and on “Black Enough”, she sings of the existing tensions between the immigrant and native communities : “Am I black enough for you / they could shoot my children too / it doesn’t matter how you see me / we’re still running like the old days / even if I’m not from here / green cards don’t save ya / I still look just like your mama / hands up don’t shoot…”  The album is lovingly crafted as a celebration of the immigrant experience, and it’s a journey we should all take, if only to view from the lens of those who live it… check out the audio for “Black Enough”…

 

Ozomatli “Non-Stop: Mexico to Jamaica

For their eighth studio album, L.A.-based Ozomatli decided to dig into the canon of Mexican musical classics, and give them a Caribbean feel.  So you hire a legendary duo in Sly & Robbie, who’s produced a varied set of artists, from the best days of Black Uhuru and Grace Jones to Dylan, the Stones, and No Doubt, and have them help put a reggae spin on the tracks; the result is this enjoyable set of Reggae, Ska and Rocksteady from the band.  They invite a number of friends to the party, including Herb Alpert on “Besame Mucho”; Slightly Stoopid pops in for the first single “La Bamba”; Juanes collaborates with them on “El Noa Noa”, G-Love contributes to “Land of 1000 Dances”, and the Mariachi Divas do their thing on “Volver Volver”.  Elsewhere, they also cover Santana (“Evil Ways”) and Redbone (“Come and Get Your Love”), among others.  I dare you not to dance while listening to this album… you won’t be able to resist…  Check out this live medley of a few tracks from the album…

Author: maestrotjd

I am a music lover. All kinds of music. My musical palette is informed by everything in my musical past, and my music collection is a reflection of all of it. I don't claim to know everything about every type of music, and frankly, I'm starting to slip as far as staying current - but like anyone else, I like what I like. Because my palette is so wide, I'll review and talk about a lot of different types of music; I still maintain an ear for new and interesting music, and I've always lived on the cutting edge. This is a renewal of a couple of passions - writing, and talking about music; I'm also embarking on a renewal of playing music and DJ'ing, so that the last few tracks of my personal album will be the greatest works of my career.

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