A colleague once asked me about the methods I use in determining what to review for this blog; I told them it’s very much the same way I’ve amassed a huge collection of music- just by listening to a lot of different stuff. A better question may be how I’ve ended up listening to some of the artists I like.
Over the years, one of the methods I’ve used to check out a new artist would begin with something as benign as their name… if I thought the name of the artist or group was cool, I’d check ’em out. That method has produced some of the groups I’ve listened to constantly over the years; I found my favorite all-time band, The Stranglers, that way back during my Punk years. Most of the artists on the 4AD label, particularly Cocteau Twins and Wolfgang Press, had cool names. Of more recent vintage, Thievery Corporation and The Black Keys were a curiosity choice based solely on their name; today, they are among my favorite groups. Many artists today have really stupid names that generate no curiosity for me; I’ll probably never listen to YoungBoy Never Broke Again, or anyone else with a name that ridiculous. Another method is hype (that’s how I ended up listening to Cardi B. last year), and lastly, past experience with the artist. Now… once I have an artist queued up, I’m hoping the music justifies and satisfies my curiosity; regrettably, sometimes what I hear is NOT music to my ears, which is contrary to my tagline. But sometimes it happens; when it does, I’ll review it anyway, so you’ll know what’s up, too. Even if I don’t like something, I’ll always advise you to listen to it, so that you can decide for yourself- maybe you’ll like it.
Time for a disclaimer: The preceding comments do not necessarily apply to the music I’m about to review. There. In this post, I have reviews of the new Fantasia album, the latest from Sturgill Simpson, a new joint from Reggae legend Mad Professor, and a new album from The Avett Brothers.
The Heard (REVIEWS)
The first verse from “History“, the opening track of Fantasia’s sixth album begins: ” Thought it was over for me / Nah, don’t never believe that / So now I need you to come closer towards me / I’m about to state true facts / It ain’t ever over for me…” Who said that about you, ‘Tasia??? I didn’t hear that… Anyway, her first album (not counting her 2017 Christmas album) since 2016’s The Definition Of… makes a powerful opening statement, and sets the tone for a collection of tunes that paint a portrait of imperfections throughout her life, things that have happened to her that have made her stronger… hence, the album’s title.
One of the things I’m always prepared for when listening to Fantasia is for her to go all Patti Labelle on us and start screaming lyrics out; I was pleasantly surprised to see she kept her raspy, gritty, very expressively soulful voice relatively contained. After her opening statement, she goes into a Trap duet with T-Pain for the relatively wretched “PTSD“, which in this case stands for “Post Traumatic Sex Disorder”. Ugggh! But then she gets back on course with “Believer“, which celebrates the goodness of her man, and the early release track “Enough” and “The Way!“, both of which celebrate relationships in full bloom. After that, we get to two of the standout tracks for me: “Bad Girl“, which finds her telling us the type of woman a man needs (of course, she’s it)… “Then I’ll be the bad girl / The one that you really want / The one that won’t settle for nothing / And make you show just what you’re made of / Yeah, I’ll be the bad girl / The one that you’re scared to love / I’ll make you face all your fears, then wipe all your tears / So toughen up and fall for the bad girl…” and the call to arms track “Free“, which asks the question “We gon’ get it right, when we gon’ get it right?“… the highlight for me with these tracks is the string arrangements, which were done by my girl Nicole Neely, who’s a personal acquaintance of mine from church, who’s going on to do big things… BIG UPS to her, these arrangements are tight!… We move on to “Holy Ghost“, a kind of Gospel/Trap hybrid that’ll be performed by every young adult and youth choir in the Black church at some point, and “Take Off” which simulates a Burna Boy-type rhythm over which she expresses hope for a budding relationship. “Fighting” is a gorgeous track of two people setting out to conquer the world together, and “Warning” is a Rock-influenced track directed at the sistas about the ‘ladies in wait’ for their man. Finally, there’s the duet with her mother, a sweet Southern Soul track “Looking for You“, which is a homage to God.
This may be the first time I’ve ever given a track-by-track account of an entire album, but that’s what you have here; every track has something to give, so I thought it pertinent to at least mention them all. This is really a pretty nice album – at first, I was a little cool to it, especially after hearing “PTSD” – but now I’m cool with it. There’s a lil flava for everybody, so you’re bound to find something you like here… Here’s the video for “Bad Girl“…
SOUND & FURY
The fourth album from 41 year old Kentucky native Simpson takes a left turn from his previous efforts, which were a hybrid of outlaw Country and Prog Rock. After winning the GRAMMY for Best Country Album for his 2017 album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, which was loosely based on the birth of his son, Simpson creates a soundtrack for an anime film on Netflix.
SOUND & FURY is an appropriate name for the album, for it is an exercise in both; it’s sequenced as if he’s changing the station on a radio dial, so the tracks veer from one style to another, abruptly, and often in surprising fashion. If you’re looking for something that sounds like some of his earlier work, about the only place you’ll find it is on “All Said and Done“; otherwise, you get a Disco-flavored track in “A Good Look“, a track that reminds me of The Cars in “Mercury In Retroglade“, the punkish boogie of “Last Man Standing“, and the sleaziness of “The Fastest Horse in Town“. He’s got synthesizers on several tracks, prominently featuring on tracks like “Best Clockmaker on Mars” and “Make Art Not Friends“- this track’s title, I believe, is a summation of the tone of the album- a project done on the artist’s terms, without regard for what you may think of it. As far as what is most accessible in the set, “Remember to Breathe” and “Sing Along” are as close as this album gets to being radio-friendly.
In true outlaw fashion, Simpson has bucked trends and expectations with this release, making an album that really isn’t Country at all, but is a lot of other things. It’s everything he wants it to be, and perhaps nothing you had in mind…. and he’s perfectly fine with that. Personally, I think it’s freaking brilliant; I wish more artists would take this approach, instead of trying to please the masses… Here is the video for “Sing Along“…
Mad Professor Meets Gaudi
Two worlds collide, sort of, on the latest album from legendary British dubmeister Neil Fraser aka Mad Professor. As the ’20’s approach us, he will be entering his 5th decade in the industry, and at 64 years of age, shows no sign of letting up on his prolific proclivity and running his Ariwa label. I had the good fortune to catch him in concert on a double bill with another Dub legend, Lee “Scratch” Perry back in November 1997 at, of all places, the Cubby Bear Lounge, in the shadows of Wrigley Field in Chicago; that was a great show, despite Perry’s characteristic off-kilter demeanor. This time around, he joins forces with Italian World fusion artist Gaudi, who’s been around almost as long as he has, for his latest project.
It’s hard to say how much input Gaudi had in the making of this album, as this sounds very much like most of Mad Professor’s other albums – then again, since Gaudi dabbles in Dub quite heavily himself, this may be very much a collaborative effort. I was actually hoping for more influence on this project from Gaudi- less reggae, but more from other genres, to see what Professor would do with ’em; alas, everything here is reggae. He takes a track “Cry Cry Blood” from Steel Pulse’s Mass Manipulation album and gives it the dub treatment as “Cry Dub“, as well as tracks from ex-Black Uhuru frontman Mykal Rose (“Sharp In Dub“), and British reggae and Ariwa label artist Macka B. (“Dub On Camera“).
This is a typical Mad Professor album, lots of good tracks, a couple of dud dubs, but surprisingly little effect from the collaboration with Gaudi. The audio of the album’s opening track “Smoking High” is included here; it’s a reggae dub version of The Staple Singers “Let’s Do It Again“…
The Avett Brothers
Closer Than Together
For their latest project, Scott and Seth Avett declared they weren’t making a political record; the album would, however, speak on current events of the day. And then they went out and did an album with a lot of political and social commentary on it. Now, if you’ve read this blog any length of time, you know that sort of content will usually perk up my antennae and prompt me to listen to what they have to say. This is my first exposure to this Concord, NC – based Americana group, so I have no history of what they have sounded like, written about, or anything like that over their previous nine studio albums; I have an open mind, though, so I wanted to hear their musings on this one.
As with any artist who sticks their neck out to give an opinion on social and political matters, they face a backlash from fans that don’t share their opinion; as expected, some have roiled against some of the tracks, giving the usual “stick to music” admonishments or other counter argument. Three tracks stick out here for their subject matter: “We Americans” is especially thorny, in that it recalls the mistakes made by the country they staunchly defend and represent… ” A misnamed people and a kidnapped race / Laws may change, but we can’t erase the scars of a nation / Of children devalued and disavowed / Displaced by greed and the arrogance of manifest destiny / Short-sighted to say it was a long time ago / Not even two life times have passed since the days of Lincoln / The sins of Andrew Jackson, the shame of Jim Crow / And time moves slow when the tragedies are beyond description…” Of course, they’re right about what they said, but some folks don’t wanna hear that. Then there’s “Bang Bang“, which addresses their disdain for gratuitously violent movies, and also comments on those gun-loving individuals… ” I live in the country because I love peace and quiet / But all of my neighbors have closets full of machine guns / And every Sunday they’re out there, pretending to be Rambo / And I’m in here pretending like Sunday is still sacred…” Ouch! Finally, there’s “New Woman’s World“, where they contradict the honorable James Brown… “It used to be a man’s world, but we didn’t treat it right / It used to be a man’s world, but all we did was fight / I’m glad it’s finally in the hands of the women and the girls / I can’t wait to see what they do with what’s left of the world…” This song has a decent melody, but this and “Bang Bang‘ both come off as somewhat wimpy and emasculating. As for some of the other tracks here, the back end has some ballads that I actually like- they remind me somewhat of early Elton John – the closer “It’s Raining Today” is especially nice. The single “High Steppin’” includes some electronic flourishes, and is the personal statement of a self-described outsider, while “Tell the Truth” advises the listener to take care of self first, and stop trying to please everyone, at your own expense.
I can certainly appreciate some of the sentiments presented here, although some will find this effort a bit preachy and sanctimonious. Overall, I’m lukewarm to this project – some good tracks, and some weak tracks. Here is the video for “High Steppin‘”…