Now Hear This! Issue #14
The first month of a new year is usually pretty slow for new music releases; however, this year, I’ve already found a number of new projects worth checking out.
Over the past year, I tried reviewing music that was considered more mainstream; my history with NHT! (which goes back to a company newsletter in the 90’s) has always been to explore and expose new music from the outer fringes of the mainstream, or outside of it altogether. By doing so, I was attempting to increase interest and readership (is that a word??) in the blog; as that hasn’t happened to my expectations, I’ve decided to step back out into left field somewhat, and back to unknowns, unappreciated, and under-appreciated artists, with just an occasional look inside that sphere of mainstream music.
Apparently, I’m already there, as my Best Of 2018 list produced only three GRAMMY nominations – two for the Arctic Monkeys (Best Rock Performance for “Four Out of Five”, and Best Rock/Alternative album for “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”), and one for Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite (Best Traditional Blues album for “No Mercy In This Land”). I had 28 last year; about a half-dozen albums I positively reviewed that didn’t make the ‘Best Of… ‘ list are up for nominations, though, so at least there is some redemption for me in that area. To see the complete list of nominations, click the following link:
The GRAMMY Awards will be broadcast this coming Sunday… so, read on to see what I thought about my first musical harvest of this year…
THE HEARD (Reviews)
Leyla McCalla “The Capitalist Blues”
This is the third album from first generation Haitian-American cellist/guitarist/banjoist singer/songwriter who was born in New York, raised in New Jersey and Ghana, and currently based in New Orleans. She was a member of the Black old-timey Folk group Carolina Chocolate Drops, which also featured Rhiannon Giddens, before embarking on her solo career. Her debut release, 2014’s Vari-Colored Songs were mainly tone poems based on the poetry of Langston Hughes, and 2016’s A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey explored the Folk music of her ancestral homeland.
The Capitalist Blues is very much informed by both the current social/political climate of the country (as she sees it) and her current surroundings, as she employed, in addition to her trio, a who’s who of New Orleans-based musicians, as well as a Haitian group. As with every release, there are also Haitian Folk tunes, as she is deeply involved in studying the traditional music from the island. The title track is a New Orleans-style jazz piece with a statement on what it takes to make it in this society… ”
“You keep telling me / To climb this ladder / I’ve got to pay my dues / But as I rise / The stakes get higher / I’ve got the capitalist blues / And if I give everything / I won’t have much more to lose“. It’s followed by a cover of Calypso legend The Growling Tiger’s “Money Is King“, where it’s determined that if you’re poor, a dog’s life is better than yours. “Heavy As Lead” is a slow, simmering bluesy Soul that touches on the water contamination issue with which many communities live; “Aleppo” is a noisy indie rock track that speaks on the Syrian war crisis. On the lighter side, “Me and My Baby” is playful old-timey Southern Soul, while “Oh My Love” is straight-up Zydeco. Three are three nice Haitian folk tunes included here, as well; they’re sung in the native Haitian Creole.
Leyla has created a conscious, musically varied project that excels in all areas, and makes her an artist to watch out for (and not to objectify her, but she purdy too). If I had one minor criticism here, it’s that she laid down her cello for this album. She is an accomplished cellist, having studied at NYU, and she used it to great effect on her first two albums, but it’s nowhere to be found here. Still, this is a wonderful project you should check out… also check her out later this month on a project she collaborated on with Giddens, Allison Russell (from Birds of Chicago), and rising talent Amethyst Kiah on a project called Our Native Daughters…. for now, enjoy the video to “Money Is King“…
The Specials “Encore“
It was the first wave of Ska revivalism that is most directly responsible for my head first dive into Jamaican music styles, and this group helped lead that charge, by way of their punky ska self-titled 1979 debut album, along with The Selecter, Madness, The English Beat, and Bad Manners, among others- they formed the Two Tone family of artists. The original group released just one more album after that auspicious debut, before splintering off – lead singer Terry Hall, Neville Staples and Lynval Golding went on to form Fun Boy Three, which also eventually begat Bananarama; Hall later went on to form The Colourfield . The Specials, in various member configurations, have carried on through the years, but this release is most notable for witnessing the return of Hall back into the fold to record with them for the first time in 38 years. The current lineup consists of just three original members: Hall, Golding, and bassist Horace Panter; most notably absent are Staples, who was mostly a dancer and hype man, and keyboardist Jerry Dammers, arguably the architect of the original group’s sound.
The sound of the album, for the most part, picks up where 1980’s More Specials left off- at the time, that album had largely eschewed the Ska sound in favor of a Rock Steady (the Jamaican style between Ska and Reggae) meets Lounge, which was coming into vogue at the time. It starts, however, with a pair of curveballs – “Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys” is like 80’s James Brown funk, a cover song of Eddy Grant’s group The Equals about the world becoming more genetically multi-cultural, and “B.L.M“., another straight-ahead funk track, a spoken word song in which Golding traces his history from Jamaica to England and then America, and the racism he’s encountered at every turn. Finally, we get to a Specials-sounding track, the single “Vote for Me“, a track about the people in power all over the world, who they proclaim all “bore them to tears – it will remind you of “Ghost Town“, their last hit single from 1981 with the original lineup. Elsewhere, they cover themselves (in a sense), doing a remake of Fun Boy Three’s “The Lunatics (Have Taken Over the Asylum)” and they cover for a second time “Blam Blam Fever“, a 1967 song from a group called The Valentines, which discusses gun culture. They adapted the track “10 Commandments” from the original Prince Buster track to a kind of dubby #metoo manifesto, using the riddim most often identified with Dawn Penn’s “No No No (You Don’t Love Me)“, with spoken word from Saffiyah Khan, a Birmingham , UK activist who was famously photographed in a standoff against the English Defence League, which is said to be an anti-Islamic far-right outfit. They close the album with “We Sell Hope“, which is in contrast to the bleak outlooks portrayed throughout the album – it basically infers “we can make it better if only we try”.
It is a welcome return for these guys, as the world is very much as they left it- if anything, it’s worse now, making their outlook and viewpoints to be as relevant now as they were back when they started, only now from a more world weary view, due to life experience. The deluxe version of this album includes a second disc of the group performing their old hits live. There is no official video for a track yet, but check out the audio for “Vote for Me“…
James Blake “Assume Form“
If I’m not mistaken, I would say that Blake sounds like someone in love… and after reading some press articles in advance of the release of this, his fourth album, I learned I wasn’t mistaken, he is in love. That is the driving force behind this album bringing him out of the deep emotional abyss his first three albums found him in. So he’s in a three-year relationship with British actress Jameela Jamil (can’t say I blame him, she purdy)… makes me wonder why he was seemingly so distraught on his 2016 album The Colour in Anything. I purchased Overgrown, his 2013 sophomore album, based off the track “Retrograde” being in heavy rotation on Sirius xm Chill, and at the time, I kinda compared him to early 80’s Gary Numan because of the icyness, the often disjointed, and occasionally even disorienting aspects of his music – frankly, I’ve been wondering how he’s garnered the attention of the likes of Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, and others; the industry has tried to pass him off as some sort of abstract R&B artist… but when I think of R&B, the term ‘warmth’ comes to mind – his music has not conveyed warmth… quite the opposite, actually.
But not this album… from the opening, title track, Blake expresses a desire to open himself up to receive love; “Mile High” features Travis Scott and production work from hot Trap producer Metro Boomin’, and while it talks of clubbin’, I think it’s a euphemism for his euphoria of being in a relationship. Tracks like “Tell Them“, “Power On“, and “Don’t Miss It” seem to have him in a reflective mode back to the way it was before this relationship brought him out, and how he had to change his modus operandi, while “Into the Red“, “Barefoot in the Park“, and especially “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow” are celebratory love songs about her. Musically, it’s his most accessible album to date, although he hasn’t necessarily strayed from his formula. But even with all that being the current situation, I’m not sure that Blake is completely comfortable with this thing called love… “Are You In Love?” talks of that nervous uncertainty when you’re not sure of the other person’s feeling towards you – especially when you have those feelings towards them; “Where’s the Catch?“, which features Andre 3000, seems to question his good fortune, as if his situation is too good to be true.
With this album, Blake has taken a step forward… I usually don’t advocate any artist to dull their edge, but in this case, it seems to have made a change for the better, as I believe he’ll also get to celebrate what is his best album to date. Jameela, we thank you… check out the video for “Mile High“…
Toro y Moi “Outer Peace“
For his sixth album, Columbia, SC native Chaz Bundick, or as he wants to be known these days, Chaz Bear, changes it up a little. Currently based in the Bay Area of California, his 2017 album Boo Boo was one of my Best of 2017 picks, so he kinda set a standard in my mind for the quality of each successive record. Now that album had a very 80’s vibe to it, and was described as a ‘break-up’ album, so it was sometimes funky, but also had moments of melancholy.
For Outer Peace, he described it to Apple Music as ‘a motivational record, a you can do it because all you do is work’ album. More than half of the albums 10 tracks are four-on-the-floor dance tracks, the remainder being more atmospheric tracks.
Overall, I like this tight collection of tunes; every track ends kind of abruptly and goes straight into the next, and you’re in and out of this one in a half-hour flat. I will admit I still like the last album better, though… check out the video for “Freelance“…
Julian Marley “As I Am“
This is the fourth album from Marley son, and his first since he dropped Awake some 10 years ago. He was born in London, and raised by his mother Lucy Pounder; he is part of the Marley offspring’s Ghetto Youths International production company.
For me, this album tries too hard to be something for everyone, and it doesn’t do a very good job. Over its’ 17 tracks, I found less than half of them to be keepers; it starts well, with the first three tracks, including the single “Hey Jack“, and it ends well, with perhaps the best three tracks on the album… my favorites “Can’t Cool the Fire“, “War Zone”, and the dub instrumental “I Am the Sound” featuring the son of another reggae legend, Addis Pablo, the offspring of the melodica master Augustus Pablo. In between, two, maybe three tracks would’ve made the cut with me, otherwise, tracks like “Baby Lotion” and “Biology” have nice grooves but insipid lyrics aimed at the P ‘n D crowd; he enlists Shaggy for the overly busy “Too Hot to Dance“, Beenie Man pops in for an awful cover of “What’s New Pussycat“, and Spragga Benz guests on “Panic Mind State“, which was only somewhat better.
I was hoping for so much more from this one, but it failed to deliver the goods. It’s almost blasphemous to pan a release by anyone named Marley, but this one earns the distinction of being my least favorite album I’ve heard from one of the kids… check out the video for “Hey Jack“…