In this edition:
Reviews of new music from Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, Chris Stapleton, Mista Savona, Morrissey, Syleena Johnson, Maroon 5, Junior Natural, U2, Seal
No one wants to hear your opinion… unless they agree with it. Such is the world in which we live.
Increasingly, music artists are wearing their thoughts on their sleeves, trying to make a difference in an age where there is no privacy, everything is filmed or recorded, and everyone’s in their feelings. To be completely honest, people are hyper-sensitive these days; in this digital age, a wrong thought captured, an inappropriate text or tweet, a politically or socially incorrect statement made, could ruin your life!
There is a way to channel communication for the betterment of everyone within view or earshot, and I applaud and support those who are bold enough to make a statement that addresses and confronts injustices, inequalities, and indignities. If you’re the sort that would rather not hear it, then the statements are probably intended for you…
On another note, the 2018 Grammy Award nominations have been released; the awards show is scheduled to air on January 28th from Madison Square Garden in NYC. Last year, the show was branded #GrammysSoWhite … after looking at the nominees for this year, the upcoming show will probably get branded #GrammysSoBlack. Supposedly, there was a change in the voting system that led to this sudden shift in the demographics of the nominees; we all know this is about nothing more than damage control. It wasn’t fair last year, and it won’t be fair this year (even, but not fair). It is, like many other things in today’s America, political. All any of us want is fairness and balance… is that so hard to attain??? If you would like to see the complete list of nominees, click this link from Variety magazine…
Next month’s edition of Now Hear This! will present my Best of 2017 lists, and my picks and predictions for the Grammys in the most popular categories… This issue hits during the holiday season; interestingly, there is no holiday music being reviewed here. Since retailers started playing this music around Thanksgiving, I’m already sick of it!
Here’s wishing you and yours a Happy Holiday season… now let’s get to the tunes!
R E V I E W S
Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings
“Soul of a Woman”
Released to coincide with the one year anniversary of Sharon’s passing, comes their final studio album. This is the proper follow-up to 2014’s Grammy Award-winning “Give the People What They Want”, an album, at the time it was released, I thought was one of their weaker efforts- yet they took home an award for it, Sharon’s only Grammy, achieved at 57 years of age. To my ears, if that one took home an award, certainly this one should, as well – and not because it’s a posthumous release, but because it’s a really good album. She kicks things off with a prediction of unity among people (“Matter of Time”), followed by one of the gritty funk workouts for she which was renowned (“Sail On”); the first half of the album is more upbeat, while the second half is somewhat mellower, although it begins with arguably the album’s standout track, the upbeat “Searching for A New Day”, followed by the splendidly haunting early 70’s baroque Soul track “These Tears (No Longer for You)”. The two tracks that follow, “When I Saw Your Face” and “Girl! (You Got to Forgive Him)” are beautiful tracks marred by occasional harmonic dissonance by her background vocalists Saun & Starr, who are Daptone labelmates. The closing track “Call On God” is a Gospel-soaked piano ballad penned by Jones herself, and given that she did as the title suggested, and He has subsequently called her home, it’s enough to bring you to tears while listening to it. I have this album on repeat right now, I cannot get enough of it. Sharon was a performer with seemingly limitless energy, even during her performances after her Cancer diagnosis should have sapped her of much of her strength – she would say “I have Cancer, but Cancer don’t have me”. She is a person that inspires one to continue to pursue their dream, regardless of how much life you’ve already lived- you’re never too old to achieve your dreams and goals; she inspires this reviewer tremendously. The music world lost a good one, but her spirit and music will live on… please enjoy “Matter of Time“…
“From A Room, Vol. 2”
Second half of the duology from 39 year old Lexington, Kentucky-bred singer presents the final nine songs from the sessions that produced the tracks for both albums… the record company could’ve released all the tracks as a single disc, but to maximize profits, they decided to split it into two volumes. Just as with the first volume, this one is nine tracks covering a tidy 32 minutes, and again, that time is well spent, as Stapleton proves to be one of the rising stars, not just in Country, but in popular music in general. I will say that I give a slight edge in song quality to the first volume -nothing has hit me with the intensity of “I Was Wrong”, “Second One to Know”, or “Death Row”, but that’s not to say there aren’t some strong tracks here, too. The lead tracks from the album have been “Millionaire”, a song about the way his woman makes him feel, and “Scarecrow in the Garden”, a story of a farm, passed down from Northern Irish immigrants through several generations, that isn’t what it used to be; so far, I’ve gravitated towards the rockin’ “Hard Livin”, about a man who realizes his most rambunctious days are behind him (“never thought it would happen to me / but this hard livin’ ain’t as easy as it used to be…”), a tale about two losers in love getting together (“Nobody’s Lonely Tonight”), the bluesy rocker “Midnight Train to Memphis”, and “Friendship”, which I call Chris’ version of “Lean On Me”. At just over an hour combined, the two volumes make for great listening; Vol. 2 overall is maybe a half notch less successful than the first volume, so that means it’s still very good, and the tracks are still growing on me. Chris is a fine singer/songwriter and a great guitarist who seems to use minimal technique to great emotive effect… There isn’t a video yet for any of the tracks, but you can enjoy the audio for “Friendship”…
“Presents Havana Meets Kingston”
A couple of issues back, I reviewed the latest project from Ozomatli, who took Mexican classics and gave them a reggae treatment; I found that album to work well on those terms. This is a project from Australian producer Jake Savona that assembles a who’s who of musicians and singers, both past and present, from Cuba and Jamaica, in Havana to create this fusion of island styles. In theory, this sounds like an exciting idea; in practice, the indigenous styles do not fit very well together. What you end up getting on several tracks is kinda of a ‘one or the other’ scenario: a reggae track with both Jamaican and Cuban vocalists, or a Cuban track featuring Jamaican and Cuban vocalists; there are also straight reggae tracks with no Cuban influence. A true musical fusion doesn’t occur all that often, but when it does, it’s beautiful. The track “Chan Chan”, originally done by Compay Segundo, best known as part of the Buena Vista Social Club, blends a familiar Latin keyboard riff over a bubbling reggae beat supplied by the legendary Sly & Robbie; “Carnival” similarly provides a nice musical fusion, with Cuban vocalist Solis and up ‘n coming reggae artist Randy Valentine supplying vocals. “La Sitiera” features Beatriz Marquez and Rolando Luna, and is a good meshing of Cuban folk and reggae. A collection of this sort wouldn’t be complete without a Marley cover, so Randy Valentine and Cuban vocalist Anyilena join together on “Vibracion Positive”. This is the first of two installments of this project – the second installment in this series is coming in early 2018. I love the idea of this musical fusion, and eagerly await the next installment, as I quite enjoy this album; I do wish for more of a true fusion of the two styles from a purely musical perspective, though… check out the video for “Carnival”…
“Low In High School”
One of alt rock’s biggest mopes is back. Here is an artist that I followed throughout his years with The Smiths, and then the early part of his solo career. I kinda left him alone, as he became more and more of a mope than I always knew him to be, but he was pulling me down (and if you knew me back then, that was saying something). So for me to take a listen to this, his 11th solo album over the past 30 years, is like checking up on an old friend you hadn’t seen or talked to in a while- see what they’re up to these days kinda thing. Now Moz has always had the tendency to make the outrageous statement, offer an opinion that isn’t always popular, or bite the hand that feeds him (hence why he is always looking for a record company to call home after the latest one dumps him). He is both extremely literate and articulate, and like Elvis Costello, I’ll need to sit down with the lyric sheet to catch the meaning of his wordy compositions. My overall impression of his latest project is that he continues to maddeningly underachieve making a consistently strong album. He seems to have a couple of running themes on this project – he seems to have definite opinions on the Israeli/Arab conflict, and an obsession with crotches. He has issues with authority figures, the media… in short, he doesn’t seem to like anything or anybody. His youthful cynicism has jelled into resignation, condescension, and bitterness. The best track here is “Spent the Day in Bed”, a song about the joys of foregoing responsibility; this is a song that shows what Moz is capable of producing at his best. At his worst, there is most of the second half of the album – song titles like “The Girl from Tel-Aviv Who Wouldn’t Kneel”, “Who Will Protect Us from the Police?”, “In Your Lap” and “When You Open Your Legs” (two of the three “crotch” songs), and then “I Bury the Living”, a song with a lyric told from a soldier’s point of view that questions why he’s in a war, and then condescendingly appears to mock the mother after the soldier is killed; the closer “Israel” covertly poses an anti-Islam stance. The music is theatrical, melodramatic, bordering on campy. Personally, I think Morrissey has gone mad… here is the video for “Spent the Day In Bed”…
“Rebirth of Soul”
Latest project from the pride of Harvey, IL, and the daughter of legendary R&B singer Syl Johnson, is an album of Soul cover songs. There seems to be a proliferation of these types of albums recently – could it be a backlash against much of the music currently passing as Soul, but is often just moody Electronica sung by Black folks? Perhaps… anyways, dad produced this album of mostly well-known and well-worn Soul classics for his daughter to interpret, including his “Is It Because I’m Black?” and “We Did It”, Aretha’s “Chain of Fools”, Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops”, Curtis Mayfield’s “The Makings of You”, and Betty Swann’s “Make Me Yours”, among others. I had high hopes for this album, just based off of the title alone; alas, although it’s not a bad album, I’m just not totally feeling this project. Her voice makes up for some inherent shortcomings of the album, so the performances are mostly good. One thing is that, as I’ve said before, some originals just need to be left alone, and not redone; second thing is I hate when an artist changes the key of the original song to fit their voice- to coin another old Soul nugget: if it don’t fit, don’t force it – your ears will adjust to the key, but to my classically-trained musical ears, it makes the songs sound just a bit off. Finally, although I know the song is about a dance from the 60’s, NO ONE should EVER remake “Monkey Time” – has a whole other meaning in today’s world… here is an audio clip for “We Did It”…
“Red Pill Blues”
The Adam Levine show has rolled out a new album; it is their most commercial one to date. This band has changed so much since their 2002 debut “Songs About Jane”, and many of their early fans are not happy about those changes- you can count me among them. Firstly, they should change their name perhaps to Maroon 7, now that there are seven members in the band; they could also reduce the name to just Maroon, as a solo moniker for Levine. Secondly, it doesn’t take seven guys to produce this style of groove-driven radio pop; is this an evolution of sound, or have they simply sold out? Thirdly, there are too many collabos for me, and those who collaborated with the group sound not only out of place, but out of their element. Kendrick Lamar features on “Don’t Wanna Know”, but he just doesn’t sound like himself; similarly, LunchMoney Lewis (“Who I Am”), A$AP Rocky (“Whiskey”), and Future (“Cold”) seem like they were just kinda thrown into an uncomfortable mix (for them), for the benefit of a perceived added cool factor. Julia Michaels helps out on “Help Me Out”, and woozy R&B chanteuse SZA features on the single “What Lovers Do”. It’s not a total washout, however, there are some good hooks here, too- “Best 4 U” gives me a feeling similar to The Weeknd’s “I Feel It Coming”, there is the mildly reggae-ish “Visions”, and the funky house of “Plastic Rose”; for older fans, the 11-minute jam track “Closure” may whet your appetite. Depending on your personal musical tastes, this effort will either be a complete success or a total failure; I’m somewhere in the middle, a little closer to the latter opinion rather than to the former one… Here is the video for “What Lovers Do”…
Junior Natural with Sly and Robbie
After listening to just a couple of tracks from this album, they immediately took me back to early Black Uhuru and everything else released on the Taxi label, run by the legendary drum and bass duo Sly & Robbie, circa 1979-83; the tracks they laid down under the vocals are classic Taxi- One Drop and Rockers-style riddims with their unmistakable trademark electronic flourishes. This is the debut album from 22 year old Junior, who surprisingly hails from Sweden- he sounds like he’s off the island. He’s been floating around the scene for more than a decade, firstly as a drummer, and then grabbing the mike a few years later, releasing his first tracks in ’12, while still a teenager. He’s a conscious artist, a devout Rasta, singing songs of unity and empowerment, and offering social commentary on the state of the world, only breaking stride long enough to do one love song (“Close to You”). This is a very satisfying debut album, one that was recorded in just two nights, and one you must check out. In the meantime, check out the video for the leadoff track from the album, “Soldiers”…
“Songs of Experience”
Positioning is everything; I know this all too well from my place of employment. The 14th album from the aging post-punk legends is supposedly a companion piece to the album everybody on iTunes owns- whether they want to or not- 2014’s “Songs of Innocence”. It was scheduled to be released a year ago, but with the elected choice of the 45th president of the U.S., they decided to shelve it in order to make a more definitive statement. And they did that… sort of. Whereas Depeche Mode went straight for the throat on their “Spirit” album, U2 often decides to take a less confrontational approach- more of a glancing blow, rather than a direct hit to the gut. Case in point, the very first track, “Love Is All We Have Left”… “Nothing to stop this being the best day ever / Nothing to keep us from where we should be / I wanted the world but you knew better / And that all we have is immortality / Don’t close your eyes / Love and love is all we have left…” Sometimes, though, they’re more straight-forward… “Fight back / Don’t take it lyin’ down, you got to bite back / The face of liberty’s starting to crack / She had a plan up until she got smacked in the mouth / And it all went south / Like freedom…” Bono sings on “Get Out Your Own Way”. This track features an outro from Kendrick Lamar, which leads into his intro on “American Soul”, the track he interpolates into “XXX” from his “DAMN” album. Then there is inspiration to be agents of change on “Blackout”: “When the lights go out, throw yourself about / In the darkness where we learn to see / When the lights go out, don’t you ever doubt / The light that we can really be…” You can hear traces of every era of U2’s sound in the tracks, giving it a good deal of sonic variety; it shows the band is still passionate about social and political matters, and still relevant as a unit, something the band has wondered about themselves – after all, they’ve been in the game for close to four decades. The Deluxe edition of the album features a couple of bonus tracks and a couple of remixes, and are worth the extra dollars. Some have said this isn’t U2 at their best, but I personally think this is their best effort in years- on both sides, it probably has something to do with what I alluded to at the top of this issue… check out the video for “You’re the Best Thing About Me”…
This is the third album of covers done by the 54 year old Brit, following his pair of R&B covers albums, 2008’s “Soul”, and 2011’s “Soul 2”. On this project, he covers Jazz classics and the American Songbook, backed by some of the original musicians who helped make the songs famous way back when. It is a lushly orchestrated affair, and Seal does his best to come off as perhaps the black Tony Bennett on tracks made famous by him, Sinatra, Ella, Nat ‘King’ Cole, and others. The big question I have about this album is: who’s gonna buy it? Much of Seal’s fanbase is probably not interested in this style of music, especially not done as it was in the 1940’s and 50’s, and those who could be interested (like myself) will probably defer back to the original versions. Seal’s readings of these songs are satisfactory, though they won’t make you forget those originals; nice try, though….. As usual these days, there are regular and Deluxe versions of the album- the Deluxe version gets you three extra tracks, notably two holiday songs: “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow”, and Cole’s “The Christmas Song”. Here is the video for “Luck Be A Lady”…