Right about now, at just past the halfway point of the year, I would normally be talking about my best picks of 2020 so far; this year has been everything but a normal year. I honestly cannot yet formulate a list of the best of what I’ve heard so far in 2020, so Ima just let it be for now.
This is the third and final installment in the “Social Listening” trilogy of articles; I like the title so much, that I’m toying around with the idea of changing the name of the blog to that… what do you think? For this post, I’m taking a spin on the new album from John Legend, puttin’ down some thoughts on the latest from The 1975, opining on a new EP from Summer Walker, and discussing the new project from The Pretenders.
I remember my introduction to John Legend being an iTunes Single of the Week back around 2004; his debut album Get Lifted was then offered at a low price to get his name out there, and I took the offer and bought it. Since then, I’ve picked up pretty much every album he’s released, even his collabo with The Roots…. my favorite album of his remains his 2006 album Once Again. For his sixth studio album Bigger Love, Legend ties together all of the sounds of the previous albums and kind of packages them together; this follows up two very interesting and rewarding (from an artistic perspective) albums in 2013’s Love In the Future and 2016’s Darkness and Light.
Legend said of this album that he wanted to make some “feel good” music for the world, as it’s been a tough year for everyone. He opens up with an oddly effective Doo-wop / Trap combo in “Ooh La“, then draws from his early Hip-hop Soul stuff for “Actions”, before heading into dancefloor territory with “I Do” and “One Life“. Following that is the first of several collaborations, which help diversify his sound, when Gary Clark, Jr. joins him for the standout “Wild“. After the title track utilizes a Burna Boy-type riddim, he’s joined by Alt-Soul chanteuse Jhene Aiko for the smoldering “U Move I Move“. After the midtempo “Favorite Place” and the simmering Soul of “Slow Cooker“, we get another standout track in “Focused“, a track whose name is slightly ironic in this setting (more on that in a sec), but is kinda Folk-ish/Blues-ish in a Ben Harper kind of way. “Conversations In the Dark” attempts to be this album’s “All of Me“, but doesn’t quite make it, and then we get some muted Dancehall with his collabo with Koffee “Don’t Walk Away“, and a joint venture with Rapsody for “Remember Us”, which makes nice use of a vintage Al Green sample. Closing out the album are a slightly upbeat track featuring someone named Camper called “I’m Ready“, and two ballads probably dedicated to his wife, “Always” and “Never Break“.
Ultimately, this album succeeds in its’ goal to be uplifting at a time when the human spirit needs it. Now… I tend to enjoy Legend most when he’s sticking to a singular style or mood, rather than jumping around – he’s kinda conditioned us like that (and this is in COMPLETE contrast to my normal ethos, but…). And again, his focus was to make us feel good, so this is a Pop album in a pure sense. This isn’t to say the album isn’t enjoyable to me, because it’s very much so, but it’s kinda like eating empty calories – good, but not filling – after the last two albums, it just seems a little less focused from the all-important (to me) artistic perspective, that’s all… then again, that was probably the whole point of it – not to be too deep. I’m still buying... Here is the video for the title track…
While on the topic of focus, The 1975 seemed to have lost theirs a bit when finishing up their latest album Notes On A Conditional Form; this album was originally supposed to be the second part of a duology formed with their 2018 album A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships. The album was supposed to have been released a year ago, but was just issued in late May… heck, I figure if they can take their time releasing this album, I’ll take my time reviewing it.
And it’s a shame they made us wait for it, but I have to say it, at least, was worth it – this is a really strong album. They take quite the schizophrenic approach to writing songs, but then, this isn’t necessarily new for them. Styles careen from the spoken word , self-titled opener to the punky “People“, then the symphonic “The End (Music for Cars)“, and then the “Frail State of Mind‘, which is 2 Step Garage. That’s just the first four tracks – it continues to careen from one genre to another throughout the rest of the album, sometimes jarringly so, from song to song – such as the Country-tinged “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America“, the Gospel-influenced “Nothing Revealed / Everything Denied“, the R&B-ish “Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy)“, and the Techno-inspired “Having No Head“. On “Shiny Collarbone“, it starts off as Techno, then morphs into a kinda Trip-hop vamp, and then there are the Pop tracks, such as “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)“, a track which conjured up, of all people, Al Stewart’s “Time Passages” with an 80’s feel, and the other Rock tracks (like “What Should I Say” and the closer “Guys“) also take me back to that decade, as well.
After all is said and done, I have to put this one as a candidate for one of the best of the year so far. If you can keep my interest over the course of 22 tracks and 80 minutes, it’s gotta be good. There’s a reason why they’re one of the biggest groups in the UK, and popular on this side of the big pond, too… Here’s the video for “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)“…
Around the time of the release of her debut album last fall, 24 year old Atlanta native Summer Walker was all the buzz around the Alt R&B community; it was also around that time when I had started tiring of the slow, brooding, in-your-feelings so-called Soul music. I did listen to some of her album, and thought it was OK then, but also that it was yet another entry into an increasingly crowded field of artists mining the same territory. In advance of checking out her new 5-track EP Life On Earth, I listened to the album again in its’ entirety, and then checked out this EP.
My initial impressions of this project included thinking, once again, how glad I am not to be in the dating pool anymore; this new millennial dating thing is a mother(shut yo mouth)… So here we have five relationship tales, only mildly profane and P ‘n D-influenced, but actually cleverly presented; “Let It Go” addresses seeing someone for who they really are, while “SWV” name checks the 90’s group in a song about giving your best love to someone. “My Affection” seems to rebuke someone trying to distract her from other, more important things, while “White Tee” uses a metaphor for trying to keep a garment clean to describe actually sullying someone, and doing them dirty. Finally, “Deeper” addresses someone trying to get closer to her, against her wishes; she’s joined on most tracks by the relatively deadpan NO1-NOAH and PARTYNEXTDOOR. Musically, she leans a little more to a slow groove Soul more than a Trap Soul, which is a good thing, in my opinion.
I had to give this one a couple of listens before its’ nuances came to the forefront, and I still think her album is a little stronger overall, but this ain’t bad, either… Here is the lyric video for “My Affection“…
Here and again, I like to pop in on the career of an artist to whom I haven’t paid any attention over the years, but one of whom I was a big fan of their early stuff. The debut album from The Pretenders was released at literally the very beginning of the 1980’s, and was a near perfect fusion of Punk energy and classic Rock, and Chrissie Hynde had (and still has) the perfectly mildly understated, but completely effectual voice for it – at nearly 69 years of age, she sounds exactly the same to me as when I first heard “Brass In Pocket” from that first album, when I was still but a teenager. Hate for Sale is their 11th album, and the first in a long time with their original drummer Martin Chambers.
Right out the box, they comes out rockin’ hard, as the title track is said to be a tribute to Punk legends The Damned, and it brings the energy of that late 70’s period. So does “Didn’t Want to Be This Lonely“, which is near the end of this 10 song, 30 minute affair; in between, it’s somewhat mellower, but no less biting in spots – Chrissie seems to have an axe to grind with some past lovers and other folks. “Buzz” equates love with the euphoria gotten from taking drugs, while “You Can’t Hurt a Fool” could only be written by someone who’s experienced a lot of life. “I Didn’t Know When to Stop” and “Maybe Love Is In NYC” are rockers in a classic sense, while “Lightning Man” sounds like Chrissie fronting The Specials, with its’ Reggae vibe, and the album closes with the piano-driven ballad “Crying In Public“.
It’s good to still have Chrissie & company around, and this album shows that she’s still got it. She has always had a knack for a good melody, and she hasn’t lost that ability; that voice is still also in pleasingly fine form. Welcome back lady ‘n gents!… Here is the video for “Hate for Sale”...