Groove Is In the Heart

Several legends are in the house for this post; this time around, I’m reviewing the newest album from Mavis Staples, the latest from Gospel superstar Kirk Franklin, a new album from Santana, and a new set from Country/Pop star Thomas Rhett.


RANDOM NOTES

The news from Apple that they were killing iTunes didn’t initially sit well with me. As it is, they seemed to have killed both my iPod Classics, as both of them suddenly developed software and hardware issues, would no longer sync with iTunes, and would actually cause the program to freeze up. And prior to that, when they the upgraded the iTunes software to Version 11 several years ago, it eliminated the ability to burn vinyl to it, so I was (and still am) skeptical about what the upcoming changes will mean for my ability to own new music. What I’ve learned about the changes has tempered my mood somewhat… the existing Music app will take the majority of functionalities found in iTunes and integrate them into it… AND… they’ve released a new 7th generation iPod Touch, with a top end 256 GB version that costs just $399… I feel better now…… Happy Father’s Day to all the dads who are handling their business…


THE HEARD (Reviews)

Mavis Staples

We Get By

There aren’t many voices more recognizable than the iconic one of the legendary Staple Singers. Expressive and emotive on a level few have ever attained- only the late Billie Holiday, and Gospel’s Rance Allen immediately come to mind- the voice of Mavis Staples is a national treasure. As she approaches her 80th birthday on July 10th, she treats us to a new set of material, this time produced by Ben Harper, and her fifth studio album this decade, and not including a live album also released earlier this year, following up 2017’s If All I Was Was Black.

Her philosophy hasn’t changed much with age, so she’s still talking about things that are wrong with the world, just as she ‘n Pops ‘nem in the Staple Singers did from the late 50’s through the early 70’s. She is an equal opportunity social observer, too, as she takes her own people to task, just as she takes others; the opening salvo “Change” asks the question to her people “What good is freedom / if we haven’t learned to be free?”. On “Brothers and Sisters” she sings ” We belong to each other / Brothers and sisters (Brothers and sisters) / So be strong for each other / Brothers and sisters (Brothers and sisters) / Got to be brave in a scary world / Brothers and sisters (Brothers and sisters)…” a call of solidarity against evil. In other places, Mavis stares down tragedy, yet remains hopeful, with “Heavy On My Mind“, dedicated to her late father, as well as her sister Yvonne, who recently passed away, while “Never Needed Anyone” looks back at what could’ve been, and “Stronger” looks at the power of love. “Sometime” has a Gospel structure with a simple message in each verse that changes by one word… “Everybody gonna have to (give/change/need/cry/pray) sometimes” . Finally, the title track, which she duets with Harper, looks at a long relationship and all of the ups and downs it’s endured. Musically, the album is Roots… in her hands, a bluesy Americana infused with Folk and traditional Gospel, with Harper’s songwriting and production simple, yet poignant and effective. And Mavis remains adept at conveying emotion through her wonderful voice- she hasn’t lost much off of it over the years.

This album will seep into your soul and warm it until you’re full of its’ spirit; Mavis has crafted another album that runs the gamut of emotions, from agitated to satiated, embattled to empowering, helpless to hopeful. They say if you can run the gamut of emotions in one day, you’ve had a good day; well, have yourself a good day and buy this album… here’s the video for “We Get By“…


Kirk Franklin

Long Live Love

The latest album from the man whom I consider to be Gospel music’s answer to Quincy Jones is back with his latest project, the followup to 2016’s Losing My Religion. Kirk has perfected his formula, not veering very far from it since he hit the scene with “Stomp” back in 1997; I was eager to hear which songs would be the “Looking for You“, “Imagine Me“, “I Smile” or “Wanna Be Happy” for this album.

I got my answer right away when I started listening to the project, as the first two tracks, “F.A.V.O.R.“, “Love Theory“, along with “OK” seem poised for constant radio airplay. Kirk is a master of constructing a good message with a good hook; “Just for Me” is a gorgeous song centered around an acoustic guitar, “Forever/Beautiful Grace” is similarly beautiful with its’ melancholy piano and soaring strings, and “Spiritual” begins with the funky bassist bringing us in, and a Mardi Gras-style celebration taking us out.

There aren’t many weak moments in this collection, as Kirk again succeeds with creating a project with varied textures and styles, and the all-important anointed message; no need for me to do any analysis of that, it is what you’d expect it to be. And if you’d expect this project to be good, you’d be right, too…. here’s the video for “Love Theory“…


Thomas Rhett

Center Point Road

With the release of the fourth album from Thomas Rhett, the debate renews again about the authenticity of his music as Country. Just as they were with 2017’s Life Changes, many Country fans were dismayed to find his sound has taken on elements of Pop, transitioning away from the more traditional sounds found on his first couple of albums; a similar debate rages on in the R&B community, as well, over what passes as Soul. To his credit, Rhett has seemed to have attained his goal of reaching superstar status, as this album went straight to Number 1 on the charts upon its’ release.

Now if I didn’t know any better, I reckon Thomas dun got hisself hitched (excuse my Country grammar)… actually, I know he got married about seven years ago… they adopted a Ugandan girl, and recently, he and the wife welcomed their first biological child… that’s what seems to drive several tracks here – a celebration of his wife and family… “Blessed“, “Look What God Gave Her“, “Notice“, “Things You Do for Love“, and “Dream You Never Had” all pay tribute to her in particular, and family in general. Speaking on that last track, he has a ironic way of naming his songs – that’s a Country music trait I guess – the full lyrical context of that song is “just wanna say thank you for living this dream I know you never had” – song pertains to him being away from his family while on tour. “Beer Can’t Fix” should’ve been titled by it’s’ entire lyric “ain’t nothing a beer can’t fix“; “VHS” is not about video tapes- it stands for ‘very hot summer’, and “Remember You Young” talks of reminiscing with childhood friends… “ no matter how much time goes by / I hope we never have to grow up / We’ll say for worse or for better, from now ’til forever / I’ll always remember you young“. Little Big Town guests on the rousing “Don’t Threaten Me with a Good Time“, and he collabos with Kelsea Ballerini on the title track. Finally, Rhett waxes philosophical on the album opener “Up“… “you can never go up / if you never been down, down, down” and the album closer “Almost“… ” Thank God for the almost, thank God for the so close… Thank God for the highs, thank God for the lows / Thank God for the almost“.

Perhaps you can tell I like his lyrical aptitude, and overall, I like how he varies the styles throughout the album; this is precisely what some Country fans are railing against. I say let the man do his thing, the man IS what Country music is today, and let him be. If you gotta have country Country, listen to the nice track “This Old Truck“, along with the beer song and a couple others; otherwise, if you can’t take what he’s become (which is a star), it’s apparent that he’s won many fans to replace you- including me… Check out the video for “Look What God Gave Her“… you’ll see the entire family in the clip…


Santana

Africa Speaks

For the 25th album from this legendary band, Carlos & Co. pay homage to the music of Africa, acknowledging it as one of the roots of the music he’s produced over the years. This album follows up 2016’s Santana IV, which hit Number 5 on the charts, and reunited him with many of his bandmates from the early 70’s incarnation of the group. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of their self-titled debut, and also the 20th anniversary of the release of the Supernatural album, his most commercially successful album.

If you’re looking for the next “Smooth” or “Maria Maria“, you will NOT find it here; there are maybe two tracks that I think would translate well to commercial radio. The recording sessions for this album yielded close to 50 tracks, of which 11 were selected for the album, based on how the songs moved Carlos emotionally. When asked, in reference to the album’s title, what Africa is saying to him, he told an interviewer to “bring hope and courage to the listener and give them encouragement”. Carlos’ guitar is in an especially raw and wailing form on this album, as he thrashes through explosive solos on most tracks; vocals are provided by Grammy-nominated singer/composer/poet Buika, who sings in three languages: Spanish, English, and Yoruba. The lead track from the album “Los Invisibles” is as unlikely a choice for a single as are most of the other tracks, but that’s what was released; “Breaking Down the Door” would’ve been a better option, in my opinion. “Blue Skies” has a jazzy core, and it’s one of the better tracks, although it’s overlong, and “Bembele” is dancefloor ready. “Yo Me Lo Merezco” is the most ‘Rock’ track, while “Oye Este Mi Canto” features a tasty funky psychedelic bridge bookended by a nice polyrhythmic pattern.

This is a decent album that some will find polarizing- not enough Rock, not enough accessible tracks, and perhaps too much African influence and not enough English language lyrics. Spanish language markets should love it, however, and fans of Carlos Santana’s guitar stylings will overlook what’s happening under his solos… here’s the video for “Breaking Down the House“….

The (Mostly) Reggae Issue

The influence of a music genre originating from a small island in the Caribbean on today’s Pop music is the subject this time around. Along with that, I’m taking a look at new releases from three Reggae artists: the new album from Reggae legends Steel Pulse, a new joint from Shaggy, and the second solo endeavor from Jemere Morgan. In addition, I’ll review the debut album from Claude Fontaine, which is half Reggae and half Bossa Nova, the debut from Neo-Soul artist Ari Lennox, and the latest from experimental Electronica/Hip-hop/Soul artist Flying Lotus.


The Reggae Influence

When I was 12 years old, one of the biggest hits on the radio was Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman“; while I loved the song, I wasn’t sure what Stevie was talking about, so I asked my mother “Mama, what’s a reggae woman?” She said to me “I don’t know, a raggedy woman, I guess”. For all of these years, I’ve completely dismissed that answer; recently though, as I was researching how Reggae got its’ name, I read something from Toots Hibbert of Toots & the Maytals about a slang word that was being used in Jamaica in the late 60’s. He mentioned there was the word “streggae”, which was a street term that was meant to identify a “loose woman who was badly dressed”. Whoa… my mother was RIGHT all along, it was a raggedy woman! Now… another alleged meaning of the word is derived from the Latin “regi”, meaning “to the king”, to be used as a quasi-religious term… that can be completely contextualized given the Rastafari element in the music.

However the name was derived, it is undeniable that the music originating from the small island nation of Jamaica has had a tremendous effect on Pop music and the way it is produced. In my mind, it is one of the most influential genres around; here are three reasons why:

1.). Reggae reuses a lot of the same riddims for songs. Rather than sample, a Riddim will be reused over and over; there are countless “Riddim” albums there, which consist of the same track, with different artists creating lyrics over it. Some now classic riddims that date back to the Rocksteady era (roughly 1966-68) have been used literally thousands of times. This reuse of a melody or riff, has become increasingly popular in R&B and Hip-hop, both played and sampled.

2.) Back in the early 70’s, Reggae 45’s would feature the main song on the ‘A’ side, and on the ‘B’ side, they began to offer something called a ‘version’. This would often be the instrumental version of the song, or it may be an altered version of the ‘A’ side, where the producer would strip the song of its’ core elements, use effects like echo and reverb to enhance certain instruments, and amplify or de-amplify instruments, particularly the drum and the bass, drop the vocals in and out of the mix, and create, essentially, a whole new track; this process was called the ‘dub’- today, Dub is its’ own sub-genre. During the Disco age, with the advent of the 12-inch single, Reggae producers started attaching the B-side version to the end of the ‘A’ side, creating an extended, or ‘Disco’ mix. These processes have essentially created what we have come to know today as the REMIX.

3.) Sometimes also on the version, you would get another vocalist, known as a “toaster”, who would essentially talk or “chat”over the riddim track. This process took on a life of its’ own, creating another Reggae sub-genre known today as Dancehall, and by the late 70’s, that genre helped to spawn an American variant of it which we know today to be Rap & Hip-hop.

Reggae is a worldwide phenomenon, as you can find Reggae bands in all corners of the earth, from the Americas to Europe, Africa, and Asia. It has spread across most other music genres, as many Rock bands, from The Police to Sublime, 311, and others, have incorporated it into their styles. Its’ early precursor, Ska, has had at least two waves of revivalism, and particularly in the Electronica arena, it is at least partly responsible for Trip-hop, Jungle/Drum ‘n Bass, and Dubstep. I believe it is completely responsible for the remix and for Hip-hop; debate me on it if you wish…


THE HEARD (Reviews)

Steel Pulse

Mass Manipulation

Back in the mid-’70’s, friends David Hinds and Selwyn Brown, inspired by Bob Marley & the Wailers, decided to form a Reggae band. Coming out of the Handsworth section of Birmingham, UK, an area featuring a large immigrant population, Steel Pulse was borne of this union, and in 1978, they released their debut album Handsworth Revolution on Island Records. They initially found themselves ostracized by their own community and unable to play in the UK’s Caribbean clubs, because of their Rastafarian beliefs; however, they found favor with members of the burgeoning Punk community. This led to them being able to participate in the Rock Against Racism festival, headlined by the likes of The Clash and others, and securing opening gigs for groups like XTC and The Stranglers (it was through them I was made aware of Steel Pulse). Eventually, they found favor within the Reggae community, securing opening gigs for Marley and Burning Spear. They would go on to become the first non-Jamaican Reggae group to win a GRAMMY in the Reggae category for their 1985 album Babylon the Bandit, as well as being nominated several other times.

Fast forward 41 years since their debut, Hinds, Brown & company are back with Mass Manipulation, their first album in nearly 15 years, their last release being 2004’s African Holocaust. Always socially and politically aware, their militancy has lead them to consistently sing songs of protest against what they see as the oppressive treatment of Africans, always holding the policies of Babylon as responsible for the condition of society. This worldview is as razor sharp as ever here- several of the tracks wear their subject right in the title – from the opening track “Rize“, which is a call to arms to the people, to “Human Trafficking” and “Don’t Shoot“. Several others, like “Thank the Rebels“, which implores you to give thanks to those brave enough to stand up for social justice, the title track and “World Gone Mad“, are observations of society today. Such heavy topics normally require serious-sounding music, but these are generally mid-tempo to upbeat tunes with heavy lyrics- this is one thing about Steel Pulse that’s different from their early, hardcore Roots approach. To lighten things up, they cover Peter Gabriel’s “Higher Love” recast as “Rasta Love”.

The call for social and political justice is as strong now as it was in the Civil Rights era of the 60’s; Steel Pulse has always been ’bout that business, so their return is both timely and needed. The unmistakable tenor of David Hinds has been sorely missed over the past 15 years, but I’m glad to witness his return… here is the video for what I think is the album’s finest track, “Cry Cry Blood“…


Ari Lennox

Shea Butter Baby

Sometimes, I’ll take suggestions and recommendations from people on an album I should listen to… in this case, my co-worker Ebony declared in a recent Facebook post that this was a “fiyah ass album”. Now, tracks from this album had shown up in some of my Spotify playlists, and they really didn’t register with me individually, but based on Ebony’s recommendation, I decided to give the entire project a listen. So… here we are, talking about the debut album from 28 year old DC native born Courtney Salter. She’s been out there a couple of years, having signed to J. Cole’s Dreamville label, where she released her debut EP PHO in 2016, and a handful of singles in advance of this album (which, oddly, none appear here).

I’m not sure I should even be listening to this album; after all, the opening track “Chicago Boy” (which I’ve jokingly said is about me) has a spoken word outro where she tells “all the niggas in here, leave, please, on the count of three because I need to talk to my bitches“. Well, I decided to shower in my Old Spice Moisture formula (recall the commercial with Deon Cole fighting with his woman over his body wash), which contains shea butter, and sit down and listen. This album, if you’re a guy, is like being a fly on the wall of a twentysomething woman’s summit on life and love. There’s lots of P ‘n D talk here, kicked off by that first track, which details her exploits with a guy she met at a CVS in my hometown while on tour; several of the other tracks, like “BMO” (which nicely uses a plucked violin for its’ main musical accompaniment), “Up Late” (where she details everything down to the lingerie she bought at Target) and the title track follow this same blueprint. “Broke” talks of her previous financial state, while “New Apartment” talks of domestic freedom… “I just got a new apartment / I’m gon’ leave the floor wet / Walk around this bitch naked (Woo) / And nobody can tell me shit…” but then ends by her kicking out a guy she invites into her domestic messiness when he has something to say about it, before turning around again and coming to the conclusion that she needs people… woooo… this and the following track “Facetime“, where she teases with a lover over her iPhone, are actually two of my favorite tracks. Later on, she details some failures in love in “I Been“, where she uses weed to try and get over a guy, and “Whipped Cream” (my other favorite track), which she uses to try and forget a guy she can’t get out of her head. In closing, “Static” brings her to the realization about a guy she found to be too imperfect to actually be the one she needs- she learned the lesson I’ve expressed to several women (some I’ve dated) with the “never settle” mantra: if you don’t settle for someone, you’ll settle for no-one… and I don’t think being by yo damn self was your goal, so get over yourself.

Overall, this is a project I’m glad I decided to explore… her musical vibe is Neo-Soul, rather than the trendy Trap, and if anything, she comes off as a less poetic, raunchier Jill Scott, in my opinion. I got to see Jill live (for free) when she was promoting her debut Who is Jill Scott? back in 2000; Ari is on tour now, but according to Ebony, ticket prices to see her are too expensive … I’m happy to just enjoy her album. Here is the video for “Whipped Cream“…


Jemere Morgan

Self Confidence

This is the sophomore release from a young man at the forefront of the third generation of artists to come forth from what’s considered the second Royal Family of Reggae… after the Marleys, of course. Jemere (pronounced ‘Je-meer-ray”) is the son of Gramps Morgan, who is part of the group Morgan Heritage, which is named after the family patriarch and Jemere’s grandfather Denroy Morgan, who’s best known for his 1981 hit R&B single “I’ll Do Anything for You“.

Being raised in the Atlanta area, Jemere was exposed to other styles of music, which he consequently infuses into his own; you’ll hear elements of Hip-hop and R&B in his music, although it also remains true to Reggae roots. Lyrically, he comes off as a sort of ambassador to those in the coming-of-age years where he also finds himself- kinda like a Luciano for millennials. The lead track from the album, “Troddin’” basically details a young man trying to find his way in the world; other tracks also attempt to provide a roadmap of sorts through life, beginning with the title track, where he he declares “there’s nothing wrong with having self-confidence“, but maintaining humility is a must. Other tracks like “Mind Your Business” and “Follow Your Dreams” are pure directives, while “Cool & Bad” echoes back to the title track with its’ fierce one drop riddim- it was the first track to which I gravitated. “Victory Lap” is a dancehall stormer that closes out the album, a track that anticipates his success, again echoing the sentiments of the album’s title, while “Good Time” is that party song you’re liable to hear coming out of bars worldwide, with the sentiment “let’s smoke and have a good time“. Finally, there is the track “Favorite Song“, which has the slightest hint of Country, but also has a lot of crossover appeal.

Jemere appears poised to to take the second Royal Family into the second fifth of the 21st Century and keep them on the radar of Reggae fans; he’s all about the positive vibes and love, the hallmark of the entire genre. I’m taking the journey with him, and I think you should ride with him, too… here is the video for “Troddin’“….


Flying Lotus

Flamagra

The sixth studio album from 35 year old multi-faceted Steven Ellison, aka Flying Lotus or FlyLo, follows up his 2014 album You’re Dead. It is a 27 track star-studded offering that offers further proof of the endlessly fertile mind of its’ producer.

As you might expect with so many tracks, there are a lot of interludes, snippets, and unfinished ideas; in short, it’s a musical collage, which is something of a trend these days, for better or worse. About one-third of the album are tracks of longer than 3 minutes in duration, and they, to me, are the most interesting… I hate getting into a groove, and then it abruptly ends. Among his high profile collaborators are George Clinton on the Funkadelic sounding “Burning Down the House“, Anderson Paak on the single “More“, Solange and Robert Glasper on “Land of Honey“, rapper Tierra Whack on the wack “Yellow Belly“, and Swedish electronic band Little Dragon on “Spontaneous“. Among some of his other guests are fellow musical collagist Thundercat on “The Climb“, which to me, is the album’s best track; my guy Chaz Bear, aka Toro y Moi, guests on “9 Carrots“, and filmmaker David Lynch does narration on the first single released from the album, “Fire Is Coming“.

As with some other albums that collect numerous ideas and sequences them together (e.g. Solange’s latest album), it takes a few listens to fully digest and learn to appreciate the project; once you get it, though, you’ll feel well rewarded for making the effort… here’s the video for “More“…


Shaggy

Wha Gwaan?!

Fresh off of receiving a GRAMMY for best Reggae album for his collaboration with Sting, 44/876, Shaggy returns with his latest solo album, his 14th album overall, and first since 2013’s Out of Many, One Music. Mr. Boombastic, now 50 years of age, was hot back in the mid-90’s, where he earned that name, and absolutely sizzlin’ around 2000, when he released Hot Shot, his album that went 6x platinum. He hasn’t been able to duplicate that success over the years since, but, like Sean Paul, he’s still out there.

When listening to this album, you can almost pick out the songs that’ll be released as singles; the easiest and most obvious way, to me, is that on those songs, Shaggy turns down the amount of patois he uses – you can hear clear, plain English in “When She Loves Me” which features fellow dancehall artist Rayvon, “You” featuring Alexander Stewart (see the video below), and “Friends” featuring Gene Noble – it’s no coincidence these three songs are sequenced one behind the other. Geared more towards his native Jamaican audience are tracks like the opener “Caribbean Way“, Money Up” featuring Noah Powa, and the raunchy “Supernatural” featuring Stacy Barthe and Shenseea. On other tracks, he gets inspirational on the Gospel-influenced “Praise“, and on “Live“, gives us a little Reggaeton by featuring Nicky Jam on “Body Good“, and tries to appeal to the ratchet crowd with “Use Me” and “Makeup Sex” featuring Nyanda. Actually, my favorite track here is the short closing track “Frenemy“.

Shaggy has pretty much perfected the art of combining Dancehall and Pop together, as he’s been doing this for 25 years; I just wonder if anyone is listening to him these days. There’s some good stuff here-I actually prefer the harder stuff over the accessible stuff he’s trying to sell to the American market. There were a couple of tracks that I thought weren’t age appropriate for him to be doing at this stage of his career, but he’s still trying to appeal to everybody… nothing wrong with that, I suppose…. here’s the video for “You“…


Claude Fontaine

Claude Fontaine

This is the debut album from Los Angeles native Fontaine, a female singer/songwriter with a man’s name and a style that recalls Jane Birkin, Bridgette Bardot, and old Bond movies. As the story goes, she went to London to get over a failed relationship, and just happened to go into a record store near the apartment where she was staying, and was subsequently exposed to old Bossa nova and other Brasiliera styles, as well as classic Trojan, Studio One and Treasure Isle Reggae 45’s; being a songwriter and suddenly smitten by these tropical sounds, she decided to put her songs of lost love to these styles of music.

What we have here is an album of 10 tracks, split right down the middle, with the first half being classic early 70’s Reggae, and the second half devoted to Bossa nova. Along for the ride is a who’s who of session musicians, including (on the Reggae side) guitarist Tony Chin, who’s played with King Tubby, Dennis Brown, and many others, Ronald McQueen, who used to be the bassist for Steel Pulse, Ziggy Marley’s drummer Rock Deadrick, and (on the Bossa nova side) drummer Airto Moreira, Flora Purim’s bassist Andre de Santanna, and Sergio Mendes’ percussionist Gibi dos Santos. The music, especially on the Reggae side, was produced to replicate the production values of the early 70’s, so to our high-def trained ears, it can sound like it was recorded in a tunnel, with a lack of high end; the Bossa side is better EQ’d. Claude’s song delivery is that cool, unaffected, and relatively flat vocal that evokes early 60’s cool- it works well on the Bossa songs, because we’ve heard that style on tracks by Jobim and others; you haven’t really heard Reggae sung like that, though, so it takes a little getting used to. When you think about it in the context of the period of time the music and her style covers, though, it actually works well.

Overall, the album is OK… don’t know that I’ll buy it as a whole, but I do like the lead track from the album”Cry for Another” a lot, as it perfectly captures what she’s trying to do… here’s the video…

Spotify Thinks It Knows What I Like

This is the second half of that music bounty I discovered four weeks ago. In this post are reviews of the new album from singer/rapper Lizzo, the second album from EDM artist Satin Jackets, the latest from NuJazz artist Melodiesinfonie, and the new project from Rhiannon Giddens.


RANDOM NOTES

Those of you who were early readers of this blog may remember how I resisted using sites like SoundCloud, Apple Music, or Spotify; I wanted the experience of discovering music through brick and mortar stores, like I’ve always done. But as those stores are slowly diminishing, I’ve had to adopt a new method of discovery. So now I’m a subscriber to both Spotify and Apple Music- I only pay for Spotify, Apple Music comes free with my Verizon plan- but if I find something I like and wish to OWN, I will either download it from iTunes, or buy it at my local store, Papa Jazz. Old habits die hard, and some will never die… I explore (with amusement, at times) some of the playlists Spotify creates for me, based on what I’ve listened to, saved, or have in my iTunes playlists… it THINKS it knows me. Now sometimes, they get it right; other times, I’m going “what makes you think I’d like THAT???” I find that I still do a lot of exploration on my own, just like I did when I pounded the pavement on Clark St. in Chicago back in the day – only now I do it from my computer or smartphone in South Cakalakka. Ah well… My featured image for this post is another piece of vintage stereo equipment that was once for sale online: double 8-track with a cassette player and an equalizer; wish I had one of those way back when…


THE HEARD (Reviews)

Lizzo

Cuz I Love You

In the spirit of the Ohio Players, whose 70’s albums had gatefold covers of mostly nude women, whenever I see something approaching that style, it makes me stop and look. And when that model would literally break the mold of the sleek and slim, and what is presented is a plus-size model instead, it definitely gave me pause to stop and look. This was the first thing that caught my eye about the third album from 31 year old Detroit-born, Minneapolis-based singer/rapper Melissa Jefferson, aka Lizzo…… actually, it was the second thing; the first thing was that her track “Soulmate” popped up in the New Release Friday playlist on Spotify, as well as the Release Radar playlist they create specially for what they think I’d like. Then I saw the album cover…

The main point to Lizzo’s music is centered on body positivity, self-esteem and self love. As you’ll see in the video posted below, see has confidence in pallets… lots and lots of it; being plus-sized doesn’t in any way diminish her view of herself. She’s big, bold, and brash, and talented- in addition to singing, of which she has a powerful voice, and rapping (she’s no Queen Latifah, but…), she also plays a pretty good flute. The album opens with Lizzo showing off her singing prowess on the title track, fashioned as a classic Soul ballad. A couple of tracks further in, you get two of the singles: “Juice“, for which there’s a live performance from the Ellen show below, is one of several songs where she’s feelin’ herself… “If I’m shinin’, everybody gonna shine (Yeah, I’m goals) / I was born like this, don’t even gotta try (Now you know) / I’m like chardonnay (Okay), get better over time (So you know) / Heard you say I’m not the baddest, bitch, you lie (You lie) /It ain’t my fault that I’m out here gettin’ loose / Gotta blame it on the Goose / Gotta blame it on my juice, baby…” And that’s followed by the track I heard first, “Soulmate:… ”
‘Cause I’m my own soulmate (Yeah, yeah) / I know how to love me (Love me) / I know that I’m always gonna hold me down / Yeah, I’m my own soulmate (Yeah, yeah) / No, I’m never lonely (Lonely) / I know I’m a queen, but I don’t need no crown / Look up in the mirror like “Damn, she the one…” Later on, we get her collabo with Missy Elliot, “Tempo“… “Slow songs, they for skinny hoes / Can’t move all of this here to one of those / I’m a thick bitch, I need tempo (Tempo) / Fuck it up to the tempo…” As I said, confidence in spades. The album closes with the sexy burner “Lingerie“, which she describes as a fantasy she has for her lover to come her way and make her night.

This album may not be for me personally, but it contains messages for those at whom it’s directed that may be transformational, as it may instill the confidence in someone to be more comfortable with who (and what) they are. In that regard, the album is a rousing success; it got my wife hyped up quite a bit. For me, Lizzo is talented, and that means something to me, but it’s just not FOR me… but I understand…. it’s alright (the album, that is)… Here’s the aforementioned video for “Juice“…


Melodiesinfonie

A Journey to You

This is a project of Zurich, Switzerland-based producer Kevin Wettstein, and this is his third album under the name Melodiesinfonie. He calls himself a young jazz/soul/hiphop/electronica artist who uses a combination of live instrumentation, loops and samples; he is another new discovery of mine, finding him via the Global Funk playlist on Spotify – I was looking for some adventurous African grooves (which I also found), and he had a track there, and just happened to be releasing a new album.

Melodiesinfonie

I’ll just put this out there up front: if I had to appoint an Album of the Year based on what I’ve heard so far this year, this one would be in the mix to win. This album takes me back… to Chicago in the mid 90’s, during the Acid Jazz years, and at the infancy of the Trip-hop movement…. listening to Moods ‘n Grooves with Chuck Wren on Sunday nights on Northwestern University radio station WNUR, checking out the latest domestic and imported music. The latest single “AO Longo Do Rio” is a smooth jazzy hednodda with a hint of bossa, and some tasty flute – it would fit in perfectly on Kruder & Dorfmeister’s landmark EP G-Stoned… check it out…

Some of the other hednoddas here include “Feel Me“, which uses an odd 7/4 time signature, “A Fool’s Moon“, another track with an odd but hypnotic time sig, the seductively jazzy “Light“, and an earlier single “Words“, for which there is this video…

This album also recalls some of the best upbeat tropical-influenced jazz of the period. “Keep On Searching” sounds like some of Japanese artist Nobukazu Takemura’s best bossa-influenced stuff, while “There Is You” and “Tropicololo” echo Berlin, Germany-based Jazzanova with their uptempo and Latin-tinged jazz.

I’m known to say “there is nothing new under the sun, especially in the music industry”; my comparisons of Melodiesinfonie’s music to others is not a knock against him, or otherwise disparaging in any way. In my opinion, he’s created a great album of music that just literally struck a chord with me, taking it back to a period I consider to be a golden age in EDM, Jazz, Latin, and Hip-hop; the melding of these styles into concoctions both danceable and chilled out was a new creation. This album is available on double-LP import vinyl, as well as Download and Streaming platforms. Any way you can get this would be fine; just get it!


Satin Jackets

Solar Nights

The term “NuDisco”, much like NuJazz or Neo-Soul do with their respective genres, is supposed to connote an update to the 70’s style dance music; it has been convolutedly described as mellow House music with Disco influences. House is nothing more than an update on the original Disco, so that description makes no sense. Whatever it is, one of the better producers of the style happens to be this German-based artist, the brainchild of a masked man (a la Daft Punk) named Tim Bernhardt. This, their second album, is the follow-up to 2016’s critically acclaimed Panorama Pacifico.

Tim Bernhardt aka Satin Jackets

One of Bernhardt’s primary influences (according to him) has been Chic – a good starting reference point; another influence, from what my ears hear, is early Pet Shop Boys. One thing the songwriting team of Tennant & Lowe could (and still can) do is craft a hook-laden, danceable 4-5 minute tune; Satin Jackets seem to have the same knack for making a good song, even a good instrumental. As with many artists today, they use a rotating cast of vocalists to provide lyrics of yearning, love lost, or celebration, over a constantly pulsating beat- usually not quite at the speed of Disco, but mellower and slightly more languid, closer to PSB than Donna Summer – what they often refer to as Deep House. The current lead track from the album, “Automatic“, is a great example…. check it out…

My personal favorite tracks on the album are the instrumental “String It Again“, and then tracks featuring vocalist David Harks: “Northern Lights“, and “Shadow of You“- I could swear Neil Tennant was singing these two songs, but he isn’t… but you’ll see what I mean about that Pet Shop Boys influence… here’s “Shadow of You“…

Now, if these two tracks are to your liking, then you’ll enjoy the other 12 tracks on the album; no need for me to give you a track-by-track blow on this one. The beat never stops, lyrically, it’s not heavy, and the hooks are great throughout. That’s all you need to know… Me, I like it… a lot.


Rhiannon Giddens

there is no Other (with Francesco Turrisi)

It seems I’ve written about Rhiannon Giddens a couple of times already in the first half of this year- she appeared on a track on Leyla McCalla’s The Capitalist Blues album, and she was a member of the Black Folk Women supergroup Our Native Daughters, along with McCalla, Allison Russell, and Amethyst Kiah. She follows up 2017’s splendid Freedom Highway, one of my top albums for that year, and an album that received three Grammy nominations, with this collaboration with Italian multi-instrumentalist (and current boyfriend) Francesco Turrisi.

For the most part, the tunes are performed solely by the duo, with the entire album recorded in just five days, and with limited overdubs; they are joined on a few tracks by a cellist, but that’s all. Giddens primarily plays her minstrel banjo, but also plays violin and viola, while Turrisi plays various traditional percussion instruments, along with accordion and piano. Together, they create new interpretations of the Gospel standard “Wayfaring Stranger“, singer/songwriter/civil rights activist Oscar Brown Jr’s “Brown Baby“, and Appalachian Folk singer Ola Belle Reed’s “I’m Gonna Write Me a Letter“, as well as traditional Italian tunes like “Pizzica di San Vito” and the aria “Black Swan“, a track which, in Gidden’s hands, takes on a whole new meaning. Throw in some original material from Giddens, and you have an eclectic mix of songs whose aim is tie the connections between the music and experiences of African, Arabic, and European cultures.

Giddens continues to be an excavationist for long forgotten, overlooked, or whitewashed American history, especially where it pertains to the Black experience in this country; she has mentioned a project she wants to do about the Wilmington Insurrection (look it up when you have a minute), which I’m hoping she does soon. Her music can be heavy, and some folks, particularly those she’d most like to reach, may find her to be too heavy. Personally, I think she’s just what we need… check out the video for “I’m On My Way“…

Must Be the Music That’s Turnin’ Me On

Now Hear This #19


The past two week period started off really slow, and I was struggling to find enough interesting new music to be able to review. Then, as it got closer to the end of the two week window, I came across enough new music to complete this and the next post. In this one, I check out the latest Angelique Kidjo project, the new album from Cage the Elephant, a compilation of sorts from Norah Jones, and the latest from The Budos Band.


RANDOM NOTES

This post features an image of an item that was once for sale on Ebay – a boombox with an AM/FM radio, cassette deck AND an 8-track player! Never seen one of those before…… I am completely stoked and ready for some new music from my FAVORITE band from the 90’s, The Brand New Heavies, and they have just delivered a new track called “Getaway“; the best part is that it reunites them once again with their most well-known lead singer, N’dea Davenport. The official group is now just the duo of guitarist Simon Bartholomew and bassist Andrew Levy; founding member and drummer Jan Kincaid, along with their last full time lead vocalist Dawn Joseph, left after their 2014 Sweet Freaks album. A new album is also on the way, and it will be great to have them back – just in time for summer… here’s the track…


THE HEARD (Reviews)

Angelique Kidjo

Celia

This album is simply one national treasure covering the music of another- Kidjo, herself a legend in Juju and Afrobeat, covering songs of the Salsa queen Celia Cruz. This release follows her last project, released last year, where she covered the Talking Heads seminal 1980 album Remain In Light.

Kidjo has fancied herself as a teacher- as the story goes, her parents wanted her to be a teacher, but she wanted to study music; now, she teaches through her music. On this album, she connects and traces the music of Celia Cruz back to its’ African roots. The album is not done in Salsa, but she has reinterpreted it into an Afrobeat style; the results are not radically different from the originals, which just illustrates the similarities in the styles (which is the point of it all), but they aren’t quite the same, either. Kidjo covers a wide swath of Cruz’ career output, from tunes she recorded with La Sonora Metancera before she left Cuba (because of the Castro regime) in 1960, to tunes she collaborated with Tito Puente, the Fania All Stars and others, to the 1998 track “La Vida Es Un Carnaval“, her last big hit. Several of her best known hits are here, including “Cucala“, “Toro Mata” and “Quimbara“, along with nods to Santeria on “Yemaya” and “Elegua“. Along for the ride as her backing musicians include Fela Kuti’s longtime drummer and musical director Tony Allen, and Meshell N’degeocello on bass, among others.

Cruz passed away in 2003, but her prodigious body of music lives on; in the capable hands of Kidjo, her songs are again revived, with a little different spin. This is a wonderful collection… I wonder where Kidjo will turn next for inspiration…. Here is a video of her performing “Cucala“…


Cage the Elephant

Social Cues

The fifth album from this band, originally formed over a decade ago in Bowling Green, KY, but based in the UK, continues to diversify their sound, to the chagrin of some of their fans; it follows up their 2015 Grammy winning album Tell Me I’m Pretty.

The subject matter throughout the album appears to focus on the effects of a divorce from his wife experienced by frontman Matt Shultz, a well as dealing with the anxieties of being rockstars. The first single from the album, “Ready to Let Go” appears to be an acknowledgment on his part of the end of his marriage to his wife; the track is built on a mid-tempo beat with buzzing guitars, and also has a bit of a strange video to accompany it, as you’ll see below. Beck features on the reggae-influenced “Night Running“, while the classic Punk feel of the set opener “Broken Boy” discusses someone uncomfortable as they were created, both physically and socially. Much of the rest centers on the aforementioned subject of divorce- “What I’m Becoming” talks about the couple growing apart, “The War Is Over” brings the heart-wrangling to a conclusion, and he finally makes peace with the fact their marriage is history, and “Goodbye” is simply that, an ode to his wife. The quirky New Wave-ish title track, the rockin’ doom of “House of Glass“, and the mildly bluesy “Dance Dance” all address the anxieties of stardom and living the fast life. “Love’s the Only Way” seems to somewhat bridge these two subjects, and uses an acoustic guitar foundation with orchestral backdrop.

With this latest album, Cage the Elephant puts its’ emotions on full display – when you go through the life turmoil Shultz has gone through, you get all kinds of musical textures relating to the changing emotions. Fans concerned they’re changing for the worse needn’t worry much, they’re just adding more to the arsenal of an already interesting band. Having listened to Tell Me I’m Pretty, I hear Classic Rock and some Blues (thanks to producer Dan Auerbach); if that’s all you want, you’re stunting their growth. They show with Social Cues they can do more, and do it well… Here’s the video for “Ready to Let Go“…


Norah Jones

Begin Again

The seventh album from 40 year old Jones is not an album, per se- it is a collection of seven one-off singles she recorded with different musicians over the past couple of years. Clocking in at just 29 minutes, the tracks show the stylistic diversity she’s displayed throughout her near two decade solo career.

Begin Again kicks off with the hauntingly sparse “My Heart is Full“, a song that addresses divisions in our relationships with each other from a societal viewpoint, and the will to rise above its’ ills; “Begin Again” appears to address a relationship coming apart, until she lets us in on its’ primary focus in the last verse…”Can a nation built on blood / Find its way out of the mud? / Will the people at the top / Lose their way enough to stop?”… The tracks “It Was You” and “Wintertime” are those front porch country-tinged jazzy ballads for which I so love Norah, while “A Song with No Name” is a folky ballad that blithely expresses a longing for someone. “Uh Oh” is a playful pop number, while the closing track is a defiant little jazzy number “Just A Little Bit“.

After the first couple of listens to this album, I was a little miffed, thought Norah had mis-stepped with this one; however, after reading about how this project came to be, the lack of cohesion made much more sense. You see the different angles Norah presents, and now it reinforces what I’ve always felt about her – she’s a creative force that refuses to confine herself to a single box. And if you know me, then you know I like that kind of thinking… Check out the lyric video for “Begin Again“…


The Budos Band

V

The newest album from this Brooklyn-based nonet (that’s nine members) strays a little farther from their original roots as an instrumental groove band whose sound was rooted in Afrobeat, Soul, and Jazz; their sound is evolving into a kind of a psychedelic Jazz/Rock hybrid, a trend started with their last album, 2014’s Burnt Offering. Recording for the NYC label Daptone Records (home to the late Sharon Jones), this is their first album in five years, and is their fifth album, hence the title “V”.

There is an inherent danger with making an all instrumental album, and that is, quite simply, you have to make the music arrangements interesting; some people need some singing somewhere in the mix, others don’t. The evolution of their sound, to my ears, recalls late 60’s Jazz/Rock typified by the Ides of March or very early Chicago (when they were known as the Chicago Transit Authority) – I love early Chicago, but they also had vocalists that added to the overall sound. The Budos Band tries very hard, often too hard, to compensate for the lack of any vocals in their tunes by mixing up the motifs and riffs during the tracks. Since much of this is driven by the horns, and increasingly by guitars, it sometimes sounds like a mixed bag of stuff, to mixed effectiveness. “Spider Web, Pt.1” gives you a Zeppelin-esque guitar riff, and is probably the best example, along with “Old Engine Oil” and “Arcane Rambler” of what they’re trying to do these days. Much of the rest could be soundtracks for old cop shows.

For me, I was expecting more from this album; maybe I do need some vocals, here… Most of the time, when I’ve listened to them, it was in a mix or playlist with other artist’s tracks- they’re really pretty cool taken a song or two at a time; as a whole project, though, this just didn’t hold my interest- I like the old Budos sound better…. no videos are available for this album, here is an audio clip of “Spider Web, Pt. 1“…


Just Listen – You Might Like What You Hear…

Now Hear This #18


This time around, I’m reviewing a bunch of young’uns (using my Country grammar)… got the debut album from Billie Eilish, the second album from Khalid, as well as new music from this post’s left-field picks, Durand Jones & the Indications and Jai Wolf.

I’m on a roll now, this will be the fourth consecutive bi-weekly post, and as long as the new interesting music continues to flow, I’ll take the time to write ’em up and spit ’em out every other week.

RANDOM NOTES

Record Store Day was this past weekend, and I was able to get down to my local music emporium, Papa Jazz Records, to take part. From what I heard, they had people waiting outside the store at 8am to check out all the new vinyl being supplied specifically for the event. I didn’t buy any new vinyl, but I did make note that vinyl is more expensive than CD’s now… it is also heavier grade vinyl, so maybe that offsets the cost…. We recently lost two more personalities: Ranking Roger, from The English Beat and General Public, passed away late last month at the age of 56; the more high profile death was, of course, rapper Nipsey Hussle, who was shot and killed outside a store he owned in Los Angeles. His death spurred discussion of his legacy – he was quite the humanitarian and community activist, not to mention father and husband. I’d never listened to his music until I learned his lone album Victory Lap was nominated for a GRAMMY. While I didn’t really care for his album, I do wish he had lived to continue making a difference in his community, and his world. He was just 33…


THE HEARD (Reviews)

Billie Eilish

When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?

There is a part of me that feels a little out of place reviewing this album; after all, this young lady is less than one-third my age – what could she possibly say that would appeal to me? Well, I’m not your everyday music critic, so here goes… Three years or so ago, this young lady, an L.A. native, hit the scene with a song called “Ocean Eyes” that she released on SoundCloud; that song went viral, she released some more material that was well received, and now, as the world braced for her debut album, she finds herself already an unlikely international phenomenon. Her debut album has arrived, and Billie, now all of 17 years of age, is prepared to conquer the world.

For an old school Punk and classic Alternative guy such as myself, when I got a whiff of Eilish, there were two female artists that came to mind: Lene Lovich and Lydia Lunch. For all of her so-called Goth pretensions, I think she is as much performance artist as music artist, so I think she falls somewhere between the quirky New Wave of Lovich and the confrontational No Wave of Lunch. Eilish herself cites Lana del Ray and Lorde as influences (notice the prominence of the letter “L” with the artists’ names?). So she opens her album with a short interlude about removing her Invisalign braces, which seques into the quirky “bad guy” and then the sleepy “xanny“, with its’ distorted bass, a track about the merits of drug use – “xanny” being a reference to Xanax – Billie claims to not smoke, drink or take any drugs. Then there is “you should see me in a crown” which is based on the British TV show Sherlock– the song itself is a nice dubby number, but the video is either completely creepy or mildly entertaining, based on your viewpoint. She has a thing for arachnids… and… well… see the video for yourself…

Moving on from that, “wish you were gay” is a ballad about being rejected by a guy she liked – as it turned out, the guy really WAS gay, which is why he rejected her; “my strange addiction” is another song detailing a dysfunctional relationship – it incorporates snippets from the TV show The Office, which she is fond of, while “bury a friend” is about the ‘monster under her bed’. She ends the album with a trio of quiet ballads, one which is centered around a suicide attempt (“listen before i go“) and one that she calls a proper final track to an album (“goodbye“), which contains lyrical snippets or references of other songs on the album – a summary, if you will.

Overall, I kinda like this album… she shows her age in spots, but she also shows off elements of a nice voice and curiously affecting songwriting skills. I think part of her ammo is shock appeal as entertainment- underneath is just a girl who likes Hip-hop, baggy clothes, and doing things that raise eyebrows… Check the video of her performing “bury a friend” on Late Night with Jimmy Kimmel; you’ll see why I think she’s a performance artist rather than a Goth girl – a Goth girl wouldn’t play up to the audience…


Durand Jones & the Indications

American Love Call

Good music comes from some unlikely places – in this case, we’re talking America’s heartland, Bloomington, IN. There, students at Indiana University, including grad student and Louisiana native Durand Jones got together and started making music. This is the second album from this quintet, following their self-titled 2016 debut, which featured a raw Soul sound with a good bit of grit. They were part of a New Music Friday playlist on Spotify a few weeks ago- that’s how I discovered them; they’ve also made an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Kimmel, so they’re getting some well-deserved exposure.

Aside from Jones, the group features a second lead singer, in drummer Adam Frazer, who sings in a falsetto voice; he nicely complements Jones’ raspy tenor. The sound on their first album ranges from the gritty style of a Jackie Wilson or a Wilson Pickett classic Soul to a Booker T & the MG’s funky – it’s raw and athletic, as are many debut albums. This album fills in the sound with strings and horn charts, giving the music a fuller, more lush sound in the style of late 60’s/early 70s Baroque Soul, typified by the music of The Impressions, Dramatics, Delfonics, and others. The album begins with a bit of social observation of the struggles of the many on “Morning In America“; from there, it goes into the new single, and my favorite track here, “Don’t You Know“, which is a beautiful slice of late 60’s Philly soul a la the Delfonics, in which the two lead singers trade portions of the verse. Frazer takes the lead on “Too Many Tears“, in which he shows off his Smokey Robinson-esque falsetto over a track that would make Smokey proud. “What I Know About You” gives a nod to the production values of late 60’s Curtis Mayfield, while “Walk Away” and “Listen to Your Heart” echo early Dramatics. The album closer “True Love” completely lifts the music chart of The Impressions track “I’ve Been Trying” and makes it their own.

I’m a sucker for a Soul revivalist-type band, especially one that does it as well as these guys; this album has been on repeat since I discovered it- in fact, I purchased the album on Record Store Day. This is much needed music, piercing the current landscape of what passes as Soul/R&B these days with their defining classic sound. Get this!… check out the video for “Don’t You Know“…


Khalid

Free Spirit

The sophomore album from 21 year old Khalid Robinson finds him much along the same path he mined with his debut album, 2017’s American Teen, and his 2018 EP Sun City, named for his hometown El Paso, TX. Khalid has been successful, both with his own material, and as a feature on other artist’s music as well; he seems to be everywhere, and for him, that’s a good thing. His eyes are squarely focused on achieving Pop superstardom, and he seems to be well on his way- Free Spirit recently debuted at number 1 on the Billboard album charts.

This album finds Khalid coming into his manhood, as well as his stardom; on the surface, it seems that he’s getting along OK. Musically, the album benefits from solid production – a lot of current music by so – called bedroom producers sound like it was literally recorded in someone’s bedroom- there’s a lack of high or low end, instrumentation seems generic, and overall production is amateurish. Here, production values are high, and the instrumental tracks are engaging on their own. He enlisted a variety of producers, including Murda Beatz, D’Mile, and Disclosure, among others. When you dig into his lyrics, however, you find anxiety (“Self“), talking about his mortality (“Heaven“, a song given to him by Father John Misty) and “Alive” where he makes the ironic statement “I shouldn’t have to die to feel alive“; the expectations and opinions of others (“Hundred“), and communication breakdowns in relationships (“My Bad“). There is a perception by some that Khalid is a bit soft, that he has no edge; that perception is perhaps justified by his persona in an industry where P ‘n D lyrics and gratuitous foul language is the norm, because he doesn’t really give it to you like that. Sometimes, he seems downright polite … the first single “Talk” is, IMHO, the best track on the entire album, and is about a relationship moving too fast “Can we just talk? (Oh) Can we just talk? / Talk about where we’re goin’ / Before we get lost, lend me your thoughts / Can’t get what we want without knowin’ / I’ve never felt like this before / I apologize if I’m movin’ too far / Can we just talk? Can we just talk? / Figure out where we’re goin’…” Other than a proclivity to smoke weed, he seems like a genuinely great guy. There is a collabo with John Mayer (“Outta My Head“) about a girl he can’t stop thinking about, and then there are two ‘coming of age’ songs, the title track and “Twenty One“.

There is something to be said about playing it safe in today’s R&B scene, in that the benefits will lend themselves well to the longevity of this artist’s and album’s success. As some people have said when talking about his music, he’s one of the few artists you can comfortably play in mixed company – and I suppose that’s a good thing. He has a smooth edge and (for the most part) keeps it clean… for the sake of comparison, you may point to Ella Mai’s album as another one clearly geared towards Pop success via R&B, a bit edgy, but accessible. Good job, Khalid; stand apart from the crowd, not in it – you’ll better distinguish yourself that way, and you’ll thank yourself later… There is a short film that was released in tandem with this album; check it out if you can… Here is the video for “Talk“…


Jai Wolf

The Cure to Loneliness

A couple of years in the making, this is the debut album from 27 year-old Sajeeb Saha aka Jai Wolf, born in Bangladesh, but raised and based in NYC. I first became familiar with this guy through one of his singles, a remixed version of “Like It’s Over” that was in rotation on Sirius xm Chill for a while; its’ late night, mellow groove is kinda what I was expecting from him for the album, but it was actually the mood and tone of the remixer for that song – the album is a liiitle different.

Jai is more of a facilitator, a producer who creates from behind the scenes; he isn’t out front. He uses a variety of vocalists for his tracks, and jumps around a bit stylisticly – the single “Lose My Mind“, which is very pop-oriented, “Your Way“, and “Still Sleeping” are steeped in 80’s synth-pop, while the majority of the remaining tracks are closer to the current wave of Indie electronic acts like ODESZA, with a prominent U2-ish guitar often leading the melody, while the electronics form the sometimes bombastic backdrop, along with the alien-sounding voices – “Telepathy” is the current song on rotation over at Sirius- along with “This Song Reminds Me Of You“, they have that anthemic feel to them. “Manic Pixie Dream” and “It All Started with a Feeling” cut the perfect balance of mellow and bombast, and are two of the strongest tracks here, and for those looking for a chilled out moment, the closing track “Around the World” fits that bill.

This is a nice debut for Jai Wolf; he diversified the sound enough throughout the album’s 12 tracks to keep it interesting. I was expecting more chilled out grooves, based on the one song I’d heard of his, but I have no complaints with this package at all… here is the video for “Lose My Mind“…

Lost Gems Rediscovered : Back In the Groove

Now Hear This #17


This is a post I’ve been waiting to write, as there are two new reissues now out that I’ve been itchin’ to review- the long “lost” Marvin Gaye album, and a reissue of a rare and much sought-after album from Roy Ayers; also, I’ll tackle new music from The Cinematic Orchestra, S.P.Y., and Ibibio Sound Machine. Let’s get it on… but FIRST, I’ve got a couple of..

SLEEPER ALERTS

You know how you go looking for one thing, but you discover something else along the way? One thing I love is discovering new music, even if I’m tardy to the party! While looking for a video to go with my review of the Solange album in my last post, I ran across a couple of new discoveries:

Seinabo Sey is a 28 year old singer/songwriter and a native of Stockholm, Sweden; she has been around for about five years now. She is of Swedish and Gambian ancestry, and cites Alicia Keys and Beyonce among her influences, and among accolades, has won a Swedish Grammy. To date, she has released several singles and two full-length albums, including 2018’s I’m a Dream; her songs are mostly positive and uplifting tunes in a Pop/Soul vein. Her writing seems seasoned for her age… check out the song I think is her best track, from her latest album, which was released last September, “I Owe You Nothing“… video filmed in Ghana…

Sudan Archives is the artist name for 24 year old singer/songwriter and violinist Brittany Parks, who despite her apparent immersion into African culture, is a young lady actually born in Cincinnati, OH, and currently based in Los Angeles. She is inspired by both R&B/Hip-hop and North & West African Folk music, especially Sudanese fiddlers; her style is fairly minimalist, often using just tape loops, hand claps, and of course, her violin. So far, she has released a couple of EP’s – her 2017 self-titled debut, and 2018’s Sink… check out a video for “Come Meh Way“, from her first EP Sudan Archives… video also filmed in Ghana…


These are two young ladies to be on the lookout for… a little off the beaten path, talented, and worthy of greater exposure… and they purdy too!…


THE HEARD (Reviews)

Marvin Gaye

You’re the Man

To commemorate the 80th birthday of Marvin Gaye on April 2nd, Motown Records has decided to finally release this 1972 album, long considered the “lost” Marvin Gaye album. These sessions were intended to form the followup to his landmark 1971 album What’s Going On?, rightfully considered to be one of the greatest ever R&B albums, an iconic, cultural landmark of a release.

As the story goes, Marvin wanted to further his social activism through his music, much to the chagrin of Berry Gordy, who told him he would be risking his career by alienating portions of his fanbase with his politics (where have we heard this before???); the fact is, Gordy initially resisted the What’s Going On? project for the same reason, until Gaye protested and threatened to refuse to record any more music for Motown. Well, Gordy backed down and let him do his thing, and the rest is musical history. The first single from this album was the title track, which was a scathing indictment of the Nixon administration; Gordy wasn’t pleased with the lyrical content, and resulting promotion of the single by the label was poor. While the single actually did well on the R&B charts, getting into the Top 10, it failed to cross over to the Pop charts; after all the success with his last album, which charted three Top 10 Pop hits, Gaye was spooked by the performance of the single, and decided to scrap the whole project, instead going on to work on the soundtrack for the blaxploitation film Trouble Man – the soundtrack performed better on the charts than the movie did in theaters. And getting back to the Gaye/Gordy rift about the politics, here’s an interesting historical perspective that wasn’t lost on me: Stevie Wonder shortly thereafter released the song “You Haven’t Done Nothing” (which included the Jackson 5 on backing vocals), which was very similar in its’ subject matter – Wonder’s song, with proper promotion, was a Pop hit.

The tracks that compose this album use a variety of hot producers and writers of the time, including Willie Hutch, Bohannon, and the Mizell Brothers, among others; the result is a nice variety of song textures. The first few tracks deal directly with social issues, starting with the title track, followed by “The World is Rated X“, speaking on how some events of the world are obscene; “Pieces of Clay” discusses how people want to mold others to their image, and that’s followed by “Where Are We Going?“- I IMMEDIATELY gravitated to this track, which has a traditional Motown sound circa early 70’s about the direction of the world and where’s it headed – for me, this song is on repeat… just listen…

Then there are the tracks that speak to the women in his life, culminating with a trio of tracks that have been remixed by Salaam Remi – “My Last Chance“, the first track released from the album, and “Symphony“- these two tracks my wife has on repeat – lush, slow drag, sensual tracks that would’ve fit nicely on his next studio masterpiece, 1973’s Let’s Get It On – check out “Symphony“…

… and finally, “I’d Give My Life for You“. Before the album closes, we get the bluesy instrumental “Christmas in the City“, an alternate take on “You’re the Man“, a poignant song “I Want to Come Home for Christmas“, spoken from the perspective of a POW in Vietnam; and the two bluesy funky jazzy closing tracks “I’m Going Home” and the spoken word “Checking Out (Double Clutch)“.

I’m ecstatic this album is finally seeing a proper release, but my first reaction after listening to it all the way through was one of rage against Berry Gordy, for withholding this album from us for 47 years; it shows Gaye was at his creative peak, and a faulty opposing view of some of the lyrical content helped to suppress him until 35 years after he was killed by his father (which happened on April 1st, 1984, the day before his 45th birthday)… and especially in light of the fact that Stevie’s song spoke directly to Nixon, and that song was promoted and was a smash hit – remember, he recorded for Tamla, a Motown label itself. But…. better late than never… Buy this album, if you don’t otherwise buy a physical medium like vinyl or CD’s, buy this and own an official copy; it will be available on double vinyl LP and CD formats.


Roy Ayers

Silver Vibrations

Seeing the light of day for the first time in the U.S. is this 1983 UK only release from the vibes master. Three of its’ seven tracks were released on an American album the same year called Lots of Love, but its’ remaining four tracks are unique to this album; similarly, the remaining five of the eight tracks on Lots of Love are unique to it.

The set opener “Chicago” has a bit of a dark, almost sinister groove to it, not too unlike the vibe you get from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller“, while “Lots of Love” and “Keep On Movin‘” are closer to typical upbeat Ayers fare. The title track “Silver Vibrations” has a very nice early 80’s vibe to it – throughout most of this set, Roy didn’t stray too far from his roots, which made some of the other tracks sound a little dated for ’83, like he was stuck in the Disco era – the set closer “Good Good Music” is the most vivid example of that… You have the lone ballad “Smilin’ With Our Eyes“, and then a homage to our nation’s capitol “D.C. City“, a track made for the steppers crowd, and to me, the standout track on the album.

At the time of its’ release, Roy was between record labels – he and longtime label Polydor had parted ways, and he hadn’t yet signed with his next label, Columbia; he released this on his own label, Uno Melodic. I wouldn’t say this is a most essential release of his – it’s OK, but not up there with “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” or “Running Away” – it has, however, been a collector’s item fetching well over $100 for an original vinyl pressing. It is being reissued on double album vinyl, and also available in Digital and streaming formats… Here is the audio for “D.C. City“…


The Cinematic Orchestra

To Believe

It’s been a while since the Cinematic Orchestra has released any new music; in fact, between the remix albums, live releases and soundtracks, this is only their fourth official studio album, and first since 2007’s Ma Fleur. That album contained the track “To Build a Home“, which has been featured in countless TV shows and commercials. This album was approximately three years in the making, with the title track having been released back in ’16, and we’ve been waiting for the rest of it ever since then. For anyone unfamiliar with this artist, it is the brainchild of Jason Swinscoe, who originally fashioned the “band” as a Jazz improv unit playing over samples and turntable techniques. They signed with the Ninja Tune label, which was known in the 90’s as a label devoted to Acid Jazz and Trip hop, and released their first album Motion 20 years ago.

There is only one word to adequately describe the music on this album: beautiful. Now some will think this would serve merely as background music, but to truly appreciate it, you’ve got to sit down and LISTEN to it and take in all of its’ nuances – from the swirling strings to the ambient keyboard washes, it sets a contemplative mood where hope lives, where a desire to believe in something or someone, be it a higher power, or an earthly vessel, leads to a search for the answers. The title track features vocals from R&B artist Moses Sumney and starts us on our journey… “Are you able? Find your ground / Other people fallin’ down / Tell the world that saw you head for Hell / I can be your somethin’ you believe in…” The following track “A Caged Bird/Imitations of Life” is one of three “dual song” tracks, this one featuring frequent TCO collaborator Roots Manuva, and asks the question “Why would you hide from yourself? / Belief is here to find you...” On “Wait for Now/Leave the World“, featured vocalist Tawiah sings… “Our walls come down / Reveal to me / No need to wait, no / For me to see / Now is the time / Reveal to me / If not now, when? / For me to see… “

It’s almost a spiritual experience to listen to these tracks. For this album, TCO largely eschew their normal jazzy tendencies for more of a Neo-Classical sound; the resulting sound perfectly captures the ambience this album sets out to create. It won’t be for everyone, but for those looking for a soothing escape from the minutiae of today’s Pop music, this is it… check out the audio of “To Believe“…


S.P.Y.

Dubplate Style

S.P.Y is the artist name for Brazilian born, London based DJ/Producer/Remixer Carlos Barbosa de Lima, one of the leading artists in the current Jungle/Drum ‘n Bass scene. Dubplate Style is his third full length album, his first since his 2014 duology Back to Basics, which had to be released in two volumes, due to the sheer amount of music contained within it. He’s signed to the preeminent label for Jungle/D ‘n B, Hospital Records, which is run by Tony Colman, who is also a labelmate, as part of the fantastic London Elektricity.

For this album, he takes a look back at the roots of the Jungle style, using a mixture of old school beat patterns, and his current production techniques. The first single from the album, “Runaway Dub” features a Jamaican vocalist intoning “can’t run away from yourself, ay /can’t run away from yourself, no no /no matter how hard you try / you can’t run away…” over a rolling tech-step rhythm – paying homage to one of the main roots of drum & bass, the Reggae influence, especially dub – it’s evident through several of the song titles here, such as “Ruffneck“, “Safari Dub“, “Rudeboy Step“, and the title track. Second single “See Your Face Again” is THE hot track of the album, utilizing an old school “funky drummer”-type drum pattern, and employing another of the roots of the style, Techno and rave culture, with the rave style piano and female vocals. S.P.Y is mainly a creator of the tech-step and dark-step styles, creating tunes that sound fit for science-fiction soundtracks and fast-paced gaming programs, with breakbeats topping out around a frantic 170 bpm. He throws a curve to end the album, giving us a Garage track in “Don’t You Leave Me“.

With this release, S.P.Y show why he is, in my opinion, at the top of the Drum & Bass heap, with this collection of techy rollers, dark stompers, and funky breakbeats… check out the video for “See Your Face Again“…


Ibibio Sound Machine

Doko Mein

This is the third album from multi-ethnic London-based collective fronted by Nigerian singer Eno Williams. Another recent discovery of mine, they describe their sound on their website as “a clash of African and electronic elements inspired in equal measure by the golden era of West-African funk & disco and modern post-punk & electro”. The group’s name references Eno’s ancestry as part of the Ibibio people of Southern Nigeria, and also the language in which the songs are partly sung.

Without knowing how they describe themselves, the sound is fairly spot on to what they said- I hear late 70’s Afrobeat a la Fela, I hear latter period Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club, a little 80’s New Wave, some Minneapolis-style Funk, and some Electro. The opening track “I Need You to Be Like Sugar (Nnge Nte Suka)” has Eno channeling her inner Rufus & Chaka Khan; the super funky second single “Wanna Come Down” is arguably the best track here, while the third, title track released from it, “Tell Me (Doko Mien)” is very Electro influenced. “Basquiat“, the first single, is New Wave funky, while “Nyak Mien” is the closest track to pure Afrobeat. Throughout, Eno sings mostly in Ibibio, but will break into English for the chorus, or for a whole verse.

For the most part, their formula works well, only mis-stepping when they slow the tempo down. The fact that you can’t understand much of what Eno is singing lends an air of exoticness to the music; it’ll have you dancing, though, and you’ll enjoy this album… check out the video for “Wanna Come Down“…. and if you have an hour to kill, check out their concert from 2017’s Reggae On the River festival on YouTube – Eno has a very energetic stage presence that’ll keep you on your feet…

Let the Beat Hit ‘Cha… Let the Music Take Control

Now Hear This Issue #16

Yep, back again already… gonna start producing shorter but more frequent posts, mainly to support reviews of new music as soon as it drops. So this time, I’ve got the latest from Solange, the new album from Gesaffelstein, the debut album from Mansionair, and the second album from Juice WRLD.


RANDOM NOTES

Upcoming issues will include a tribute to the producer some have called the “Black Bacharach”, the unsung legend Charles Stepney…. I’m eagerly awaiting the release later this month of the “lost” Marvin Gaye album – should have a full review of You’re the Man in my next post… was saddened to hear of the recent passing of Mark Hollis from one of my favorite 80’s groups, Talk Talk. He was the mastermind behind the group, most famous for the song “It’s My Life“, which was also covered by No Doubt about 15 years ago; their sound evolved from synth-pop to an organic so-called “post rock” which was more free-form, improvisational, and sprawling, but nonetheless engaging. He was 64 years old…


THE HEARD (Reviews)

Solange

When I Get Home

The concept album has taken on a new method of being in the hands of today’s artists; we get a collage of ideas, both common and disparate, sometimes thrown together haphazardly, and other times thoughtfully. On her fourth album, Solange takes influences ranging from Stevie Wonder’s long misunderstood The Secret Life of Plants, the free form spiritual Jazz of Sun Ra, and the repetition of Steve Reich or Phillip Glass, and forms it into a celebration of her feelings, and a homage to her hometown of Houston. Her last album, 2016’s A Seat At the Table, was all about what she thought – she had a lot to say about the condition of today’s Black American woman.

I pulled up this album, and decided to listen to it on my half-hour drive in to work. Since the album has 19 tracks, i thought I’d only get through a small portion of it before I arrived at my destination; by the time I arrived, I was already on track 16…. as I mentioned, she has presented a collage of ideas, some just seconds longs… there are five interludes under a minute, five tracks between 1 and 2 minutes, four between 2 and 3 minutes, and five between 3 and 4 minutes, and that’s how you get 19 tracks in under 40 minutes. My initial thinking was that she has some really good ideas, but just as you really start grooving to a track, it abruptly ends, and a new idea is upon you- it sounds unfinished. This is something used to better effect by Devonte Hynes (Blood Orange), who is one of her collaborators, on his nice Negro Swan album. The track “Dreams” is a perfect example of what I’m talking about; just as you get ready to float away blissfully on the Robert Glasper-ish groove, it ends… even one of the longer tracks like “Sound of Rain“, another seductive groove, leaves you wanting more, as it abruptly flows into a 22 second interlude. Of the other songs, “Down With the Clique” and “Way to the Show” are odes to Houston’s Black culture; similarly, “Almeda“, which also features The Dream and Playboi Carti, suggests maintaining Black ownership of Black culture… it’s named after a Houston neighborhood… see the video, which is actually a portion of an entire film made surrounding this album…

Other tracks of note here include Gucci Mane and Tyler the Creator joining her on “My Skin My Logo“, and the gorgeously jazzy “Time (is)” and “Jarrod“. I’ll say this about the album; once you adjust and adapt to its’ flow, you’ll better appreciate the way it insinuates its’ groove into your psyche. Repeated listening may be required, but it’ll be worth it in the end.


Mansionair

Shadowboxer

The debut album from this Sydney, Australia trio comes after a series of seven singles releases (several of which appear here) over the past three years; they were nominated for a GRAMMY on the strength of a remix of an ODESZA track. My initial exposure to the group came via the track “Astronaut“, which has been in rotation on Sirius xm Chill for over a year now, and still continues to garner airplay.

You can describe their sound as a mellow indie electronic rock, displaying different textures almost from song to song, keeping you engaged throughout the 16 tracks. They like to employ occasional electronic fragments a la James Blake – I imagine him heading in their sonic direction if he stays in love with his girlfriend – and the lead singer often likes to sing in a falsetto voice. The temperament of the album can best be described as moody, from plaintive, quiet tracks, to the mellow Deep House of my favorite track “Astronaut” which was released in the fall of ’17… got some elements similar to Daft Punk… check out the video…

Of the newer tracks, the current single “Alibi” is also probably the most hard hitting song on the album, with its’ buzzing electronics… no video for it yet, but check out the audio clip…

As I mentioned earlier, most of their initial singles are here, including the Drum ‘n bass influenced “Technicolor“, the gorgeous Pop of “Violet City” and “We Could Leave“, and the moody “Easier“. Overall, I like this album quite a bit… hopefully, they won’t tinker with their formula too much; this one is working for them.


Gesaffelstein

Hyperion

The second album from French DJ/producer Mike Levy, who uses a made-up German name for his moniker, is a relatively brief exercise in dark EDM. He’s been around for a while, having done production work for, among others, Kanye West, for whom he produced a couple of tracks on Yeezus. Of recent note, he’s been hanging out with The Weeknd, for whom he produced a couple of tracks for his My Dear Melancholy EP last year.

Among his musical influences are artists with whom I’m very familiar – the likes of acts like Belgian industrial electronic pioneers Front 242, Nitzer Ebb, and other EBM (Electronic Body Music) and Industrial acts from the 80’s – that was my bread ‘n butter from about ’83 to ’87. The tracks here display that influence… at least the ones that aren’t collaborations. Pharrell Williams joins him for the second single “Blast Off“; the first single, “Lost In the Fire” featuring The Weeknd, is a nice musical track otherwise marred by his gratuitously explicit P ‘n D lyrics… and he comes right out the box wit it… “I wanna f*ck you slow with the lights on / You’re the only one I’ve got my sights on / Type of sex you could never put a price on / I’ll take it off, you’re the one I’ll roll the dice on …” Then, as a part of the second verse, he expresses this desire… “You said you might be into girls / You said you’re going through a phase / Keepin’ your heart safe / Well, baby, you can bring a friend / She can ride on top your face / While I f*ck you straight …” I mean, what’s UP with this dude??? I like some of his music, but he’s got some issues… and what’s this got to do with being lost in a fire? Just watch the video… sheesh…

More to my liking is the instrumental track “Reset“, which is a slice of moody Industrial Hip-hop about which there is some debate as to the underlying meaning of the video… whatever it’s about, I think it’s a hot track … see for yourself…

Among the remaining tracks, female trio Haim guests on”So Bad“, The Hacker & Electric Youth provide vocals on “Forever“, a track that begins poppy, and turns into breakbeat at the end; “Vortex” is another nice Industrial banger; the title track and “Memora” are beatless electronic instrumentals, and finally, the funereal 10 1/2 minute dirge “Humanity Gone” closes the album. Gesaffelstein comes off at times as a darker Daft Punk… that’s twice in this post they’ve been referenced… and other times spooky dark, as did his primary influences in their quieter moments. Dance and Pop music fans will wanna stick to the singles and collabos only; meanwhile, this may drive me to pull out some old Front 242…


Juice WRLD

Death Race for Love

So there is this thing called “Emo-rap”… that completely sounds like an oxymoron to me… but here would be the poster child for the movement, 20 year old Jarad Higgins aka Juice WRLD, born and raised in Chicago and its’ south suburbs. I had to hear what a rapper in his feelings would sound like, and I like to support my hometown artists, as I count Common and early Kanye, and Chance among my faves, so I gave this a spin. This is his followup to his debut Goodbye & Good Riddance, released just last year, and it’s already one of the top albums of the moment.

Reading some background on him, Juice has led a rough life already, using drugs, drinking and smoking from an early age. This informs every track on the album, as it veers between the effects of the drugs as it relieves the pain, eases the paranoia and insecurities, his struggle to find love, and the effects of dealing with newfound fame and stardom. The opening track “Empty” gives you a good idea of what you’re getting to… “Ain’t no right way, just the wrong way I know / I problem solve with styrofoam / My world revolves around a black hole / The same black hole that’s in place of my soul /uh Empty, I feel so goddamn empty “… the second to last track “Rider” pretty much sums up his thoughts on finding love… “Let’s see if you a rider for real / I really wanna see if you a rider for real / Don’t think just ’cause you grip the wheel / Makes you a straight up rider for real / I don’t know, I don’t know / If I should give you the key to my soul / I don’t know, no, I don’t know / My paranoia and insecurities hold me close…” In between, we get the two lead singles: “Robbery“, a track about a relationship where he felt he was robbed of a chance to love; and “Hear Me Calling” which actually feels hopeful about his chances with a new lover. There are more variations on the same themes, and even a song called “The Bees Knees” – now how can you not like a rapper with a song with that title (smirking)? – that track is actually him discussing himself in comparison to his haters.

I suppose there is something to be said for Juice WRLD’s style, as I actually find his confessional, in his feelings style kind of refreshing, if initially a little startling. And then again, when you think about it, all rappers are in their feelings, just there is a different sort of sentiment expressed – rage is often the associated with them. There are some nice tracks here, but overall I think 22 tracks is too much “Juice” to take at one time; paring the tracklist down to maybe 12-15 tracks would’ve been plenty, and a little more consistency from one track to another would given it a better flow. It feels almost like two albums in one- the hard-edged, bitter Juice, and sensitive Juice, with the drugs trying to tie the two together. Not bad, though… check out the video for “Hear Me Calling“…